All the King’s Queens – Chapter 8: Party Crashers

Stephen Callahan estimates his crew should arrive at Dylan Tanaka’s property at a quarter to 11 o’clock. That should give him plenty of time to coordinate the shutting off of Dylan’s security systems. Bill Marks, a man Stephen has known for several years from their days working together at a Silicon Valley startup that eventually folded, is currently the Regional Manager of the West Coast office of McDonald & Pierce Security Systems, a private home security company that specifically caters to the rich and famous. MPSS’s clients span professional athletes to Hollywood celebrities, corporate CEOs, government officials, lobbyists, media personalities, investors, and anyone with enough money (and a healthy dose of paranoia) to pay for such expensive services. Bill, who did some contract work for Perseus Analytics back in the day, is also not a fan of Dylan Tanaka. He feels strongly that Stephen was the convenient scapegoat who served the role as the sacrificial lamb so PA’s higher-ups could avoid prison time.

Bill, knowing his actions could cost him both his job and prison time for himself, enthusiastically agreed to join in on the scheme when Stephen first approached him about it. His role is fairly simple but no less crucial: His job is to temporarily create a systems error between midnight and 3:00 a.m. on Sunday, June 30. MPSS regularly goes through a region-wide system reboot/update on the final day of every month for a few hours, usually beginning at midnight. This is completely routine and happens as scheduled every single month. Occasionally, this system reboot will cause a small handful of homes to lose the connection between their security system and the main servers at the MPSS regional headquarters. It’s typical for anywhere between 5-10 homes on the West Coast (Washington, Idaho, Oregon, California, and Utah) to temporarily experience this technical glitch for no more than an hour or two. MPSS tries to minimize this bug, but technology isn’t always a perfect ally. Since they have more than 170,000 clients in these five U.S. states, that number isn’t trivial but is small enough that if it were to happen, it wouldn’t be considered unusual.

Stephen proposed to Bill the simple scheme of intentionally cutting off the connection between Dylan Tanaka’s house during those critical three hours. As far as he’s concerned, his motion detectors, security cameras, door locks, and direct lines to emergency services will still operate – but any data captured from those systems will not feed back to HQ (located in Redwood City, CA, where Bill lives and works). Which basically means Dylan’s security systems will be useless during that window of time. He won’t receive any error messages on his end, but that won’t matter because for three hours the Internet connection between his home and Redwood City HQ will be cut off. All of this, while “tragic,” is perfectly normal. Thankfully for MPSS (whose main corporate headquarters is in Austin, TX) this secret technical glitch hasn’t come back to haunt them – yet. It’s only a matter of time, Stephen and Bill have decided, when a regularly scheduled systems reboot would result in a catastrophic event where a rich man whose house is being broken into isn’t reported to the local police. And, no footage of the crime is ever recorded onto MPSS’s cloud servers.

During their initial planning discussion, Bill estimates this would cost the company dearly in a lawsuit brought upon by Mr. Tanaka, as well as bad publicity. But since Mr. Tanaka has become a social pariah after being dubbed a “war profiteer” by a Congressional defense committee, he will most likely receive very little public support. MPSS’s stockholders and board members will temporarily freak out, but the market has a funny way of returning back to normal after the news cycle moves on to something new. You’re only one controversial Donald Trump tweet away from your sins being forgotten by the media. They are easily distracted. And the current U.S. president has a knack for distracting people from what’s really going on around the country.

Still, such a plan comes with immense risk. After lengthy brainstorming, Stephen Callahan and Bill Marks decided that every client in the greater Seattle area should experience the same “technical glitch” as Dylan in order to minimize any suspicion that this was an inside job. That would victimize only 378 homes – including a few business buildings – a fairly small number compared to MPSS’s total number of clients, but large enough to make it look like Dylan Tanaka’s home wasn’t specifically targeted. This “outage” could also be shorter or longer for some people. Some people may only experience a glitch lasting 20 seconds. Or 10 minutes. Or 30 minutes. Or three hours. Dylan’s home should experience some of the longer outages, of course, which would give Stephen’s team plenty of time to break in, steal whatever they need to steal, and get out without giving Dylan or any of his nosy neighbors a chance to call the cops.

In return for this invaluable service, Stephen promised he’d pay Bill and two unnamed mid-level employees at MPSS (it would be nearly impossible for Bill to singlehandedly execute a plot of his magnitude and technical difficulty) $175,000 each upfront and at least $1.5 million afterward. They could get more if the information Stephen steals ends up being as valuable on the black market as he suspects it is. All in all, Stephen will have to pay at least $5,025,000 to ascertain Dylan’s hidden documents. However, he knows that’s small potatoes compared to their estimated worth: At least $40 billion when you consider the fortune you’d make producing state-of-the-art artificial intelligence programs for foreign governments, militaries, corporations, NGOs, and any party who desires to weaponize data to their advantage.

None of the people involved in this plot seem morally concerned about the potential blowback this operation could create. Oh well. Life goes on.

Until it doesn’t.

“Dude, this drive is long and boring as hell. There’s nothing to see. It’s just darkness.” Thomas resists the urge to yawn, which could communicate tiredness (which he is at the moment) and the possibility that his mind wouldn’t be sufficiently sharp enough to complete the mission. Despite the late hour, Stephen doubts anyone on his team will actually fall asleep on the job. The stakes are way too high.

“You should try driving this road during the day. It’s no better. But we’re not here to be tourists.” Stephen looks at his trusty safecracker for any sign that he’s considering backing out. Unlike most gigs he’s worked on, the loot they’re stealing is potentially worth billions of dollars. This is a scale Thomas has never experienced before. He’s accustomed to stealing boring shit like passports, birth certificates, legally-binding contracts, wills, jewelry, expensive watches, or the occasional key to a safety deposit box. He has never been asked to actually go to the bank and retrieve whatever is in that box, just to steal the key to get in. So not even the jobs where really valuable stuff is involved is directly stolen by him. However, this evening is a whole new ballgame, a whole different can of worms.

“Relax, we’re going to be okay. We’ll be there before you know it. Just pretend like you just chugged seven Red Bulls. That’ll do the trick.”

“Hm,” Thomas reacts with less enthusiasm than a little kid eating a plate full of brussels sprouts. Usually, Thomas does jobs where his only stake in the game is the payment for doing it successfully. It’s never personal, just business. This, however, is a slightly different matter. He doesn’t necessarily consider Stephen a friend, so failure tonight wouldn’t devastate him too much emotionally (unless they get caught by the police, which goes without saying). That doesn’t mean he isn’t rooting for Stephen to win. Thomas has no qualms about stealing money or assets from a super-rich billionaire. It’s not like Dylan Tanaka will miss it. After all, he’s the one who’s chosen to sit on these documents for all these years. He could have easily chosen to sell them to a third-party bidder at a ridiculously high price. That isn’t something he’s done – yet. So if a man like Stephen Callahan, who deserves his fair shake after the clown show that was the congressional investigation and hearings, can’t be faulted too much for taking something that Mr. Tanaka refuses to give away. Morality is a funny thing, Thomas often thinks. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Meanwhile, inside the SUV Xander carefully removes a small flask out of his coat pocket and takes a small swig. He knows he’s supposed to remain “clean and sober” until the job is done, but feelings of nervousness cannot easily be shaken off. He’s only human. The small amount of bourbon he drinks will calm his nerves, loosen him up, and make him more at ease once they get to the rich guy’s mansion. What’s the harm in that?

“How are we all feeling?” Roddy asks his passengers. His gaze is focused on the road.

“Meh. Let’s just get it over with. It’s been a while since I’ve been on a job,” Cortez says. “I feel out of shape, know what I mean? This shit better not take all night, that’s all I’m asking.” Xander, sitting in the back seat, takes a second swig of bourbon before sharing his answer with the group. Before speaking, he puts the flask back inside his coat pocket, thankful that nobody seemed to have noticed it.

“I’m good. Kind of excited. I’m like you, Cortez. Haven’t been on a job in a long time. Damn. Probably my second one this year. Shit.” Xander shifts around in his seat, genuinely surprised at his lack of activity this year.

“That’s it? You worked with Tony Morocco and his boys, right? They snuck all those trucks full of cocaine across the Mexican border right around Valentine’s Day. The DEA had no fucking idea it happened. They probably still don’t. As far as the Border Patrol is concerned, those trucks had corn maize in it,” Roddy says. Tony Morocco is an infamous drug smuggler who is intimately connected with many of the big Mexican and Central American cartels. He’s born and raised in the United States, has lots of personal (and family) connections south of the border, and knows the right federal officials and law enforcement personnel to pay off in order to keep the flow of narcotics onto American streets going smoothly. Almost every hired goon on the West Coast has worked for him before, either directly or indirectly. Roddy, to his credit, knows almost every major player in the game. His knowledge of everyone’s sordid history should come as no surprise. He didn’t assemble this team himself – it was Thomas who gathered all the players on Stephen’s behalf – but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know who he’s riding with.

“To be fair, they did have some corn maize in them,” Cortez chuckles. “But not all those boxes, that’s for damn sure.”

“Tony’s a big bad cat. Never met the dude, but I’ve worked with his boys before. But that was a while ago.” Xander hopes this will end the conversation. He won’t ever admit it, but Xander once ratted out one of Tony’s homeboys to the FBI because he tried to sleep with his then-girlfriend. The feds know who Xander is, even though they won’t officially bring him in on criminal charges. He’s too low-level for that, plus he can be helpful in conducting internal “house cleaning” of gangsters who stray too far from the “code.” Therefore, Xander isn’t technically speaking an FBI informant, though he has been an informant before. This isn’t a rare occurrence. Lots of dudes low on the totem pole have talked to the police, FBI, Border Patrol, DEA – even the CIA – at some point. They just don’t rat out the “big fish” swimming in the pond. They only talk to either save their own hides or eliminate idiots on their own side who are about to get caught or killed anyway. Tony’s friend, in addition to trying to fuck Xander’s girl, had a tendency to get sloppy with his hit jobs. One unfortunate mistake led to a pregnant woman getting killed by a car bomb when the intended target was a female judge who happened to share the same name as her. The judge, who at the time was presiding over a case involving submachine guns smuggled across the border by one of the cartels, doesn’t get a scratch on her head (she was in another part of Ciudad Juárez at the time) while the pregnant woman gets killed along with three other innocent bystanders. This mistake was forgiven at the time, but it certainly put him on the “expendable” list by the powers-that-be inside the cartels. His death was inevitable. Xander ratting him out made sure that instead of him getting killed by a cartel assassin, he’d hang himself inside his holding cell with bedsheets. Which he did.

“I see. Yeah, he’s a bad motherfucker. Never met him either,” Roddy adds.

“I have,” Cortez chimes in. Both passengers express their pleasant surprise. “Once. About a year ago. I was at his daughter’s birthday party. Can’t tell you where, but it was by the beach. Nice ass place. Goddamn, he’s a rich motherfucker, just like this asshole we’re about to meet right now. I’m telling you, he has about eight different wives, or girlfriends, or whatever. I don’t know who those bitches were. But hot damn! He gets more pussy in a day than we do all year. Fuck man.”

“Wow. I’ve heard stories about him, bro. But you actually met him?” Roddy asks. He genuinely wants to know.

“Yeah, but we’re not friends or nothing. I just met him once, know what I mean?” Cortez squirms in his seat a bit, knowing he probably just said too much. Tony Morocco is infamous for having a lot of mistresses at any given time. However, that doesn’t mean he likes his employees talking about it openly. He’s a man with typical male desires, but he’s also (technically speaking) a family man with a wife and four kids. He’s also a violent gangster who’s responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people over the years, a fact that doesn’t obscure the truth that he’s also a philanderer. Nobody’s perfect. “So I don’t know a whole lot about him other than the rumors I’ve heard. We’ve all heard rumors about him, right?”

“Right.” Xander quietly coughs to himself, wanting to hide the one final swig of bourbon he just swallowed. This is it for now, he thinks to himself. “Lots of rumors of a lot of people, man. Fuck, it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s not, you dig? Hell, motherfuckers out there are probably saying shit about us, you know?”

“For real. Our boss on this job, Callahan, is new to the game. Nobody knows shit about him, except he spent years in the Big House with Tommy,” Roddy says. “I don’t know him, but he seems like he knows what he’s doing. It makes me feel better about our chances.”

“Oh yeah, for sure.” Xander adds.

Cortez checks his firearm to make sure the safety is still on. It is. “This shit should be easy. I’ve had to break into far worse situations. Remember that boathouse, bro?”

“Oh yeah, that shit was wild,” Roddy remembers. Five years ago, Roddy and Cortez first met doing a hit job on some hotshot lawyer who represented the Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC was investigating a Ponzi scheme set up by a former Wall Street executive. They and two other guys had to locate this man’s boathouse in the middle of a well-guarded Florida Keys dock, put two bullets into the back of his skull, and get away before his private security guards showed up. The hit was successful and the SEC eventually eased off on the investigation. But Roddy and Cortez had to learn how to scuba dive (!) in order to sneak onto the dude’s boat unnoticed. It was cold, windy, rainy, and dark outside. Thankfully, all four hitmen were paid handsomely for their work. “We don’t have to go swimming this time around, thank God. If our insider at the security company works, we don’t even have to worry about how long it takes. Just get in, steal whatever the fuck we’re stealing, and get out of there in time for breakfast. Shouldn’t be too bad.”

It was at this exact moment that all three men realize that they had broken the one unbreakable rule of the business: they said it would be “easy.” You never do that. Ever. It’s considered bad luck, a sure-fire jinx that would (nearly) guarantee things won’t be as easy as they think it will be. With that, the three men nod their heads quietly, refocus their minds on the mission at hand, and sit silently in the SUV as they approach their ultimate destination.

***

“He’s so different in real life, you know? He’s not what you think he is. For real. That’s true of a lot of guys in the business.”

Peggy Cole has garnered an attentive audience eager to learn about the dirty little secrets of the porn industry. Sitting on Henry’s lap on a comfortable eggshell white L-shaped couch, Peggy has spent the last twenty minutes sipping whiskey, passing a joint around the group, and recalling her favorite moments working as a pornographic actress. Dylan and Melanie are cuddling on the carpet while Monique is sitting by herself at Peggy’s feet. At the moment they are hearing Peggy dish about Kit Styles, a b-level porn actor who is considered a “rising star” among those who pay attention to this sort of thing. “He’s shy and legit an introvert. Seriously. He gets really awkward around girls like me, and, well, people in general, I guess. But he’s a real sweetheart,” Peggy says.

“He reads off a script when he’s making his videos, so that’s not surprising. I can’t imagine someone being that smooth with the ladies all the time,” Dylan says, inhaling a bit of marijuana smoke. Melanie playfully pinches his shoulder. It’s been at least six months since he last smoked weed. It was New Year’s Eve 2018. He was hanging out with a few friends who were visiting from Europe. Thankfully for Dylan, he’s not as much of a pariah overseas as he is domestically. It’s not that Europeans aren’t aware of Dylan’s legal troubles, it’s more that they can’t bring themselves to hate an American suspected of being a war criminal more than a European suspected of being a war criminal. Dylan considered moving to either France or the U.K. at one point. He doubts he’ll ever leave the United States. “Although porn scripts aren’t exactly that well written in the first place, if we’re just being honest for a moment.”

The group laughs. Peggy, not surprisingly, isn’t too offended by everyone poking fun at her chosen profession. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’re not known for our Oscar-worthy writing. Who gives a shit? All people want to see are boobs, pussy, dicks, and flesh banging against flesh. What conversation they have before isn’t on anybody’s mind when they’re trying to jack off in the privacy of their own homes,” Peggy argues. Melanie reaches over to caress Dylan’s limp penis, attempting to bring it back to life. Dylan, to his credit, would rather hang out with his friends, smoke pot, drink whiskey, and talk about whatever is on their minds instead of going at it with Melanie again. He loves sex, but he loves being in the company of friends even more. He gets enough sex throughout the year (normally) but not nearly enough quality time hanging out with friendly company.

“I’ve seen a few of his videos,” Monique confesses, a look of embarrassment forming across her face. “He’s not my type, but DAMN he’s big AS FUCK down there!”

“He sure is, baby.” Peggy tickles Henry’s scrotum, making him squirm with her on his lap. “But here’s the thing. He’s got a big dick, but he ain’t a big dick, if that makes any sense. Sort of like you, Henry baby. Big down there, but that don’t mean he’s a jerk or nothing. He’s sweet and humble. He treats everyone with respect.” Henry rolls his eyes, not wanting the sort of attention Peggy is giving him. Yes, he’s aware of what he has between his legs. But he’s not proud of it (or ashamed of it). To him, it’s ridiculous to be proud of something that you’re born with. It’s not like he climbed Mt. Everest or graduated from MIT or was elected President of the United States. He has a large penis. So what? Peggy seems to like it (quite vocally, in fact). That must count for something. But not much, Henry thinks.

“I’d imagine there are a lot of egos going on in your business, just like mine. Or rather, the business I used to be in,” Dylan adds. “I can’t say I’ve ever heard of Kit Styles before, but he sounds like quite the character. When will your podcast launch?”

“Oh, we don’t know yet. This fall? Maybe during the winter? Or we could launch it next year. Or never. We don’t really have a plan yet. He’s still down in L.A. trying to break into Hollywood. Legitimate filmmaking,” Peggy says. “He wants to be an actor. Like, a real actor. He says he wants to eventually stop doing porn. I hope for the best, but don’t hold your breath. He’s cute and all, but once you do porn a few times that reputation sticks with you. Plus, all he can do is memorize and say whatever shitty lines he’s given. That’s it. He ain’t cut out for Shakespeare, that’s for damn sure.”

Everyone laughs. Peggy, embarrassed that she just threw her good friend under the bus, attempts to steer the conversation away from Kit’s lack of acting abilities. “But you can go to classes for shit like that. L.A. has a shit ton of acting coaches. I’ve taken lessons, he tells me. We’ll see if it works. I hope it does for him, I truly do.”

“I’m sure he’ll figure out a path that works best for him,” Melanie says. “We all have to give ourselves permission to step outside of our comfort zone and leap into the great unknown. If we fail, then we fail. So be it. It happens. Failure happens. It’s inevitable. What really matters is how we bounce back, if we do at all.” Dylan, wondering if this pep talk is indirectly pointed at him, kisses Melanie’s shoulder. She leans her head back on his chest, closing her eyes as he plants more kisses on her body.

“I know what failure is like. I also know what it means to bounce back,” Monique chimes in. “You’re right, baby girl. Failure happens to all of us. What matters is what we do with it.”

“Goddamn, I feel like I’m attending a wellness seminar!” Henry jokes. Peggy giggles charitably, slowly rolling the back of her index fingernail up his shaft. She hopes to get him hard again so she’ll have an excuse to get that 7.5 inch dick stuffed again inside her pussy. However, she decides against it and shifts gears.

“Dylan, baby darling. Did you like my performance earlier? What did you think about it?” Dylan whistles, suddenly remembering Peggy’s remarkable demonstration of her unique anatomical talent. Melanie immediately catches on that Peggy is trying to seduce him, which is something she fully expected from the beginning would eventually happen.

“Oooohhh, I loved it. You were amazing. I’ve literally never seen a woman do that before. Thank you for sharing your special talent with us. It was a joy to watch,” Dylan beams. Even after making love to Melanie twice tonight, his desire for Peggy hasn’t waned one iota. He stares at her enormous breasts, imagining what it would be like to stuff his face between them. He intends to find out sooner rather than later.

“Thank you, darling.” Peggy’s eyes zoom in on Dylan. She slowly stands up, careful to avoid scraping her long fingernails against Henry’s skin. Monique smiles devilishly, knowing what’s about to come next. She looks at the bar, wondering if there are more fresh limes in the refrigerator. “Say, you know that special toy I brought with me? Would you like me to show it to you up close? Would you like a closer inspection?”

Melanie suddenly experiences a strong twinge of jealousy. She knows Dylan intends to have sex with Peggy at some point during this weekend’s festivities. It, like failure, is inevitable. Yet, she feels strange about it. She feels possessive about Dylan, like he’s her man and nobody else’s. This is ridiculous, Melanie thinks to herself, especially considering not even 30 minutes ago she was considering “breaking up” with him for good. Why does she feel this way? What’s going on?

“I would, yes.”

“Then come with me to my bedroom. Enjoy the rest of your evening, ladies and gentleman,” Peggy teases the group. She winks at Melanie, Monique, and Henry as she takes Dylan’s hand. “I need a few private moments with our host, if you don’t mind.”

“Nah, girl. Go get it. Go do whatever you got to do!” Monique cheers her on.

“Have fun, Boss Man!” Henry shouts.

Melanie Wright doesn’t say a word. Nobody except for Dylan notices this.

“Let’s go!” Peggy aggressively pulls Dylan away from the group. Everyone remains sitting together huddled up and naked in the cabaret room. Monique is already walking up to the bar to fix herself (hopefully) a margarita. Henry stands up, stretches, and decides to pour himself some more champagne. Melanie is still on the floor, watching Peggy and Dylan leave the room, not budging an inch. Hoping nobody notices, she closes her eyes and bows her head, wiping away tears that have unexpectedly formed.

***

At 10:52 p.m., the Buick and SUV quietly arrive about 50 yards away from the cul-de-sac entrance that leads to Dylan Tanaka’s home. A large public park (where Lawrence picked up Dylan’s three guests earlier this afternoon) sits at the base of a busy residential street. The street – and park, for that matter – runs parallel to the north-south edge of Lake Washington. To the east are several private roads that lead to very expensive houses. Many of them are gated. Dylan’s cul-de-sac, however, is not gated since six other homes are located on this small street. Dylan and his neighbors have discussed installing a gate at the entrance over the years, but nothing has ever materialized. After tonight’s events, that will probably change.

The main road has a few open parking spots. Motorists have to pay to park between the hours of 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. (but not on Sundays or holidays) but at this hour you can basically park wherever you like for as long as you like. Parking fare enforcement officers rarely show up in wealthy neighborhoods like this one. They’re too busy patrolling the Downtown shopping areas and business districts to care about what happens in this (usually) quiet part of town. During their weekly scouting trips, Stephen’s team noticed several security cameras installed around the private properties. It wouldn’t be wise for two unusual vehicles to park anywhere around the cul-de-sac. The main road, however, contains very few security cameras outside of the major intersections. Fortunately for Stephen Callahan and his team, Dylan’s home is located in a cul-de-sac several hundred feet away from any intersection. They should be able to park on the side of the road and not attract any unwanted attention.

Stephen and Thomas park the Buick ahead of the SUV. Once they shut off the engine, Roddy does the same to his vehicle. Both drivers take out walkie-talkie two-way radios to communicate instead of getting out of the car to chat, not wanting any passerby to eavesdrop on their conversation. “Okay, so we’re pretty lucky right now. Almost no traffic around here. That’s not a surprise. This is a quiet rich neighborhood. No party houses or college kids in sight. The pedestrians who are around seem more interested in either going home or going to the nearest bar instead of strolling around the neighborhood,” Stephen assesses. “What do you think? Am I far off?”

“No, I don’t think you are. I noticed one cop car a couple miles back. Not sure what they were up to. Probably looking out for drunk drivers at this time of night,” Roddy says. “I see two pedestrians about 100 yards ahead of us. They’re walking straight toward us. Do you see them?”

“Yes, I do,” Stephen squints his eyes to see what looks to be a man and a woman holding hands, walking their German Shepherd. It’s way too late to be taking your pooch out to take a crap, Stephen thinks to himself, but people run on all sorts of different schedules. “Just lay low until they pass. They should be behind us in two to three minutes. Put your radio down, now.”

All five men try to remain inconspicuous as the couple strolls by, oblivious to the fact that the shiny Buick and mud-stained SUV are full of armed bandits. Roddy peers at them through the review mirror. The girl has a nice ass, he observes. Thirty seconds after they’ve passed by their vehicles, Roddy picks up his radio again to talk to his boss. “Alright, we’re good now. What’s next? Are you going to call your man at the security company?”

“Yes, that’s the next step.” Stephen hands the radio to Thomas. The veteran safecracker watches Stephen dig his Android out of his pocket to make a crucial phone call. After dialing the number, Stephen waits a few seconds for Bill Marks to pick up. “Hello? Bill?”

“It’s me. Good evening, sir,” Bill answers. Sitting alone in his home office in Redwood City, Bill Marks is drinking his fourth cup of coffee and shaking like a death row inmate nervously awaiting the electric chair. Bill’s two co-conspirators at McDonald & Pierce Security Systems are currently working the graveyard shift at the West Coast Regional Headquarters, located about two and a half miles away from Bill’s plush seaside home overlooking the San Francisco Bay. It would be considered highly unusual for the Regional Manager to be at the office this late – especially since his normal office hours are the typical 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. shift – so he decided to conduct his role in tonight’s heist from the comfort of his private home. His wife is aware of the plot to rob the “war profiteer guy,” as she dubbed him. However, she’s been sworn to secrecy – which should be easy to maintain considering the vast sum of money that’s been promised to come their way should this score succeed. Besides, her husband has assured her that if things were to go to hell in a handbasket, she and Bill would summon a private helicopter that would take them to a noncommercial airport where they’d board a chartered jet to an undisclosed location in the Caribbean. There, they’d either live out the rest of their days on a beachside resort home or relocate to a country that doesn’t care that they’re white-collar criminals.

“Good evening. We’ve just arrived at the target’s home. From what we can tell, nobody is tailing us. Nobody is watching us. No one suspects what we’re up to. We’re good to go,” Stephen reassures his partner in crime. Stephen understands that he has the most to lose if this job goes south, but that doesn’t change the fact that the others involved also have skin in the game. “Can I say the same with you and your boys?”

Bill resists the urge to tell Stephen that one of his co-conspirators is a woman, instead preferring to keep as many strategic secrets as possible. “Yeah, we’re ready as well. I just sent a text to one of them a few minutes ago. I received a response almost immediately. We’re ready to begin rebooting the system once the clock strikes midnight. We sometimes do it earlier, but let’s not do anything out of the ordinary. Not tonight.”

“Damn straight. Keep me posted. From my watch, it’s 11:03. Does your watch say the same thing?”

“It does.”

“Great. Fantastic. Very good. Let’s start as close to midnight as possible. In the meantime, me and my guys will review what’s about to happen once more. When you’re ready, text me. Then the show will get going.” Stephen looks at Thomas for approval of the plan. He nods. Taking this as a “yes,” Stephen signs off. “Over.”

“Over and out,” Bill responds with the glee of a child playing a spy game with his buddies. Stephen puts the radio back inside his jacket pocket. Bill puts his radio back on his desk. To calm his frazzled nerves, Bill gets up to get himself some scotch.

No ice, he decides. Now’s not the time for that.

After spending ten minutes reviewing the plan to his crew for the umpteenth time, all five men are now feeling confident in what they are about to do. There’s no going back. It’s now or never. Bill has repeatedly told Stephen that if any technical glitches were to unexpectedly come their way (such as a citywide power outage or large-scale systemic failure at the Austin HQ), he’d immediately tell him about it. Then, Stephen would have to decide whether or not to abort the whole mission. Bill doubts any such emergency would happen. Stephen, on the other hand, refuses to leave any stone unturned. He doesn’t believe in luck. He believes in preparation. Meticulous, intelligent, forthright preparation. Anything less than that would increase their odds of failure.

And as the cliché goes, failure is not an option. Not tonight. Not after all the countless hours and sleepless nights Stephan Callahan has had to endure because his former boss, Dylan Tanaka, betrayed him and threw him to the wolves.

This time, he intends to be the wolf.

***

“Here it is. The star of this evening’s show. My new favorite toy.” Peggy hands the 10.5-inch long dildo to Dylan. He inspects it with admiration, wondering in awe at how she was able to fit the entire thing inside her vagina. “I call it “Mr. Jerry,” as you found out. What do you think of him?”

“He’s something else,” Dylan observes. “Can’t say I’ve ever seen one as large as this before. I can see why you like it. It’s right up your alley, no pun intended!” This gets a mild snicker out of Peggy. At the end of the day, she’s no different than any other woman who’s ever walked this planet. Just because she works in the porn industry doesn’t mean she’s constantly thinking about sex, desiring sex, or wanting to have sex with anything with a pulse. She does have a plurality of partners – eight, to be exact – but they’re spread out across the world. She doesn’t see them all the time. Her currently live-in boyfriend, Roger, is a bisexual porn producer who also has multiple lovers (of all genders) scattered around the country. They have sex maybe once or twice a week, tops. Most of the time Peggy is at the gym, lifting heavy weights and working out just like any typical professional bodybuilder would. She’s not technically a professional bodybuilder at the moment, but her chosen profession does require her to be in top physical shape. Her appeal as a “sexy, curvy muscular Latina” has earned her tens of thousands of loyal fans across the globe. In addition to Roger, she also regularly goes to Morgan, a fellow female bodybuilder based in Las Vegas, for conjugal visits. Peggy loves dick, but she also loves pussy. Especially muscular pussy like hers. They have sex quite often, sometimes multiple times a day. That’s the advantage of lesbian relationships: They can go at it for as long as they want to without stopping, unlike guys. Peggy takes full advantage of her female parts when she’s with Morgan.

“Yeah, it’s quite a piece of machinery,” she says, eyeing Dylan’s penis getting a little bigger and bigger as their conversation continues. “But nothing beats the feeling of a real man inside me. I mean that honestly.”

Dylan turns to face Peggy. He knows she’s been with hundreds of lovers before (this is probably not an exaggeration). That doesn’t mean he wants to “rise above” any of them. He has nothing to prove. Still, he cannot help but feel some anxiety being with a woman whose experience with sex can fill multiple lifetimes. “Is that true? I…I saw the way this made you, you know, squirt to the high heavens. That was impressive.”

Luckily, it seems as though Peggy cleaned off “Mr. Jerry” between her earlier performance and now. It’s not sticky or dripping wet. Peggy takes the dildo out of Dylan’s hand and places it on top of a nearby credenza. She kisses him passionately. Dylan rubs his hands across her firm butt. Her pointed nipples dig into Dylan’s chest like a stab wound. He doesn’t mind it.

“It’s true. I love dildos. I love sex toys of all kinds. I really do,” Peggy says, moving her hands across his back to bring his body close to hers. “But nothing, I mean nothing, beats the feeling of a man inside me. And you can believe that. Take it to the bank, good sir.” Peggy gets down on her knees to lick the underside of Dylan’s scrotum. He moans, looking up at the ceiling as he feels her experienced tongue lap his sensitive flesh. By now, Peggy has become a true expert at giving head, but that’s not what’s in store for her and her lover. Tonight, she plans to do something a bit more…special.

“Go down on me. NOW!” she commands. Dylan obeys.

Peggy plops herself down on the bed, the sheets still containing the smells from her earlier coupling with Henry. Dylan also notices it, but figures it’s a new brand of fragrance she’s wearing. She spreads her legs out wide, inviting Dylan to taste her musky feminine parts. He gladly accepts her invitation, getting down on his knees and leaning his chest against the edge of the mattress so he can inspect her bits. Her engorged clitoris is large…though not as large as Melanie’s. Nobody in the history of womankind has had a larger clit than Melanie Wright, Dylan believes wholeheartedly. Peggy wouldn’t disagree with this assessment. Still, it’s a sight to behold. Dylan pokes with his tongue the large pink head protruding out of her dark brown clitoral hood. Her folds are already dripping wet, almost as if she’s in a state of constant arousal. Peggy groans as Dylan’s hot tongue touches her ultrasensitive bud. When Dylan slowly laps his tongue across it, shivers creep down her spine. She grabs hold of the bedsheets to brace herself for what she hopes will be an earthshattering orgasm.

“Oh fuck yeah, fuck yesssss babyyyyyyyy,” Peggy moans.

Dylan’s mouth envelopes her entire sex. Peggy closes her eyes as Dylan dutifully strokes her clit with his entire tongue. When he closes his lips around her bud, she knows this will end well. Dylan’s oral skills are second to none, as Melanie would testify to if she were here as a witness. Peggy feels the heat radiating off her body. She’s surprised the windows haven’t steamed up yet. Dylan’s mouth is exhausted between orally pleasing Melanie first and now Peggy. He doesn’t mind one bit. Both women deserve all the pleasure they can get. And then some.

“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck………”

One final gentle tug at her clit with his lips is all it takes to send her over the edge. Waves of orgasm careen through her body. She’s enjoying it too much to say anything, not that there’s anything meaningful to say at the moment. Dylan’s lips come apart from her. He watches intently as she wiggles around the bed. Watching a woman orgasm might be just as fun as giving her an orgasm, Dylan decides.

After her heavy breathing subsides, Peggy reaches over to her purse to take out a condom. Unlike Melanie, Peggy’s prolific bedroom escapades require her to be as cautious as possible. Mostly for the sake of her lovers, not just her. She tears the foil, beckons Dylan to come closer to her, and kisses him once more. By now, his erection is standing at full attention. He knows he can’t compete with Kit, Henry, or “Mr. Jerry,” so they both agreed to a compromise, one that both of them find beneficial. After rolling the condom onto Dylan’s penis, Peggy also removes a bottle of lubrication from her purse. She opens it and hands it over to Dylan. He squeezes a small amount onto his index finger. Peggy turns around and gets on all fours, her butt facing out to him.

“Beautiful. Just beautiful,” Dylan remarks, admiring her muscular butt. Peggy slaps it hard, wanting to excite both him and her. It works.

“Come and get it!” she demands.

Slowly and methodically, Dylan inserts his lubed-up finger inside Peggy’s anus. Little by little, he pushes forth until his finger is completely inside her. Dylan made sure to clip his fingernails earlier this morning just for this reason. He circles it around, noticing this gives her a jolt of pleasure. The sound of her moans is music to his ears. He then removes his finger from her ass and applies additional lubrication to more of his fingers. Dylan strokes his hardened manhood, wanting to add more jelly to it despite the condom already being oiled. For this kind of penetration, it’s better to be safe than sorry. For the sake of everyone involved.

Once everything is properly prepared, Dylan grips Peggy’s hips with both hands. He positions his penis right in front of her tight entrance. She doesn’t speak a word. Neither does he. Carefully and cautiously, he pushes the head of his penis inside her anus, paying close attention to her body language. She doesn’t twitch or anything, a sure indication that he’s good to go. He now feels confident to go all in. Peggy’s moans get louder as Dylan fully enters her tight cavity. He also groans at the indescribable feeling of being in such a constricted space. It makes him feel like a “Man” with a capital M to be so tightly inside a woman like Peggy Cole, someone who’s had more lovers than most people have casual acquaintances. Full of confidence, he pushes in and out of her, his hands still gripping her hips. Peggy, to her credit, drops the fake “porn star orgasming shtick” and just enjoys the moment by rocking back and forth to Dylan’s rhythm. She’s been a porn actress for so long that she sometimes doesn’t know how to get out of character and be herself. This is one of those times when she wants to be who she really is.

Peggy’s reputation as a “size queen” is well deserved. Her sexual preferences require larger-than-normal vaginal penetration. However, for other types of sex she is as normal as one can imagine. For what they are engaging in at this very moment, Dylan is more than perfectly suited for the job.

“Oh, God damn it, Dylan. Fuck baby…”

“Fuck, I’m close, I’m so fucking close,” Dylan clenches his teeth, anticipating his third climax of the evening. He continues to rock back and forth, sliding himself as far in as he can go without losing balance. Making love to Melanie was a truly erotic experience rooted in genuine mutual affection. This, on the other hand, is a pure hard drive toward orgasm, an exercise in fucking a porn star in a way that thousands of people around the world could only dream of. He knows there are countless men who would commit murder to take his place at this moment. Dylan intends to cherish his privileged position for as long as possible.

Peggy’s throaty cries fill the room. Dylan, feeling as sexually empowered as he’s ever been in his life, drinks in her shrieks like a hypnotic drug. Peggy rejoices in the deep anal massage this man is joyfully giving her, thankful for the large amount of lube they used beforehand. She feels her pussy dripping wet as Dylan continues to pound relentlessly into her.

“Yesssssssssssssssss…” Peggy hisses.

One final forceful thrust sends Dylan to the point of no return. He collapses on top of her. Peggy falls to her belly, still spreading her legs so he can climax inside of her. This climax isn’t nearly as consequential as his previous ones, a testament to him being drained of energy and his relationship with Peggy. He loves her as a friend, but nothing more. She feels the exact same way about him. While he’s on her “list” of lovers, he’s not near the top. They both know it, so it’s not an awkward designation. It’s the way both of them want it.

“I haven’t done anal in a while. Whew! Fuck me, that was amazing. You’re good at this, Dylan baby darling.” Peggy scooches away from Dylan, forcing his softened manhood to slip out. Incredibly, the condom remains all the way on. After several moments of laying on his tummy, out of breath and still slightly drunk from the champagne (not to mention high from taking a few hits of Peggy’s joint), Dylan gets up and heads to the bathroom to clean up. Peggy checks herself in the mirror to make sure her makeup still looks presentable. It doesn’t. She digs through her purse to find some mascara, which desperately needs reapplication. A few moments later, Dylan emerges from the bathroom in mid-yawn. He watches Peggy reapply her face paint. Even though he knows nothing about makeup, there is something intriguing about watching an expert participate in their craft. Before becoming a bodybuilder and porn star, Peggy worked briefly as a makeup artist for one of Las Vegas’s local TV news stations. She was excellent at her job but didn’t find it satisfying enough. She wanted to do much more with her life. Thankfully for everyone who adores her, she eventually did.

“You look beautiful, Peggy,” Dylan kisses her on the neck. She closes her eyes, soaking in the feel of his warm lips on her skin. “You look like a queen.”

“How many queens look like a ‘roided up sex doll?” Peggy smirks. When she’s calm and collected (or high as a kite) she can exhibit a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. This is obviously one of those times. She flexes her left bicep, looking at both herself and Dylan in the mirror.

“Oh dear, you shouldn’t tease yourself like that.” Dylan kisses her bicep peak. It’s not as full as Melanie’s biceps (very few women have biceps as large and vascular as Melanie Wright), a fact that doesn’t take away from Peggy’s accomplishments. Her physique is still impressive compared to most women, despite the fact she’s not as perfectly symmetrical or jaw-droppingly massive as Melanie. She’s big enough to earn her title as a “muscle chick” and hot enough in all the right places – including her massive breasts – to endear her to the porn community. “Though you do look like a ‘roided up sex doll, if I may say so myself!”

“You rude little boy!” Peggy playfully scolds him. She gives him a light slap on the butt as punishment. “I don’t look like a traditional woman, but then again I wouldn’t be where I am if I had stuck to tradition, that’s for damn sure. It pays to be different.”

“And…to not be afraid to be different.”

“Damn straight!” Peggy stands up. A few inches shorter than Dylan, she tilts her head up slightly to look into his eyes. Peggy thinks he’s fairly handsome, maybe a good professional haircut away from being low-key sexy. She’s told him this many times before, but Dylan simply brushes it off as her being nice to him. She kisses him. Their lips take a long time to come apart. Neither of them wants to rush this. “This has been a lovely evening, baby. I’ve had a great time. I seriously can’t think of the last time I had this much fun.”

“Seriously? Isn’t your life one long continuous party?”

“That’s funny, but no,” Peggy laughs. “You’d think the life of a porn star is all fun, glitz, glamour, and orgasms, but it’s much more boring than you’d think. Arguing over pay, complaining about the shitty food on set, waiting forever for the male performers to get hard again, fighting with lawyers over bootleg copies of our DVDs, shit like that. Not to mention all the backstabbing, gossiping, and other shit that happens in every workplace. It’s funny to think of it that way, but it is a workplace. Not like the places you’ve worked, but similar. I guess.”

“That makes sense. Workplace politics is universal, whether we think it is or not.” Dylan fondles Peggy’s breasts, teasing her nipples with his fingers. They’re a handful, both literally and figuratively. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Please, baby. Ask away.”

“It’s fine if you did, and I’m not upset or anything, I’m just curious. Did you and Henry hook up earlier tonight?”

Peggy’s face becomes serious. She’s certain Dylan means what he says when he claims he’s not angry about it, though it is curious why he’d ask about it. “Yeah, we did. A few times. Right here, in fact. While you and Melanie were up in your bedroom. He’s a sweet man. You know that. And he’s great in bed, as I just found out.”

Dylan smiles, nodding his head with gleeful approval. “That’s great. For both of you. He’s a big fan of yours. He loves you. Over the years we’ve talked endlessly about you, your career, and your best videos. He was really excited to see you this weekend. I’m sure it never occurred to him that he’d be able to, uh, you know, bang you. Pardon my language.”

“No apology needed.” Peggy pinches Dylan’s soft penis, hoping to wake it up again. She knows guys can’t go at it as often as women can, but there’s always hope. Even if it’s faint. Dylan shakes his head, signaling he’s not in the mood – and probably done for the evening. As much as he’d love to, Dylan knows he’s spent. Anything more would probably cause him to fall asleep right then and there. As the host of the evening’s festivities, that would be supremely rude.

“Thanks, but I think I’ve had enough fun for one night,” Dylan declares. Peggy kisses him on the cheek, which tells him she understands where he stands. She takes his hand into her hand, swinging it back and forth. They head back to the cabaret room hand-in-hand, Peggy’s head lightly leaning against his shoulder. A triumphant grin can be seen on Dylan’s face.

***

“Make sure you keep your back as straight as you can,” Melanie instructs Henry. “Think of it like there’s a metal rod going straight down your spine from your head down to your butt. Meaning you can’t arch your back no matter how hard you try.”

Henry is currently standing on stage in the cabaret room, attempting a few bodybuilding poses while being coached up by Melanie and Monique. Melanie is the true expert here, although Monique has dabbled in amateur bodybuilding before. The chef-turned-faux-bodybuilder has already demonstrated side chest and front lat spread. He’s now attempting side triceps. Melanie gives him a candid smirk of approval. He feels a bit silly, especially because he’s “out of shape” by his own definition and is surrounded by three beautiful athletic ladies who are a cut above anything he could ever dream of being. A tad out of his league, Henry decides to be a good sport and do his best.

The ladies seem to be enjoying themselves, so that counts for something.

“Like this?” Henry holds his breath, hoping that sucking in his potbelly will help matters. He doubts it will. Monique stifles a laugh.

“Yeah, just like that. Just hold that pose for eight to ten seconds, if you can,” Melanie teases. “I’m just kidding. You can drop it whenever you feel like it. You may not look like a pro, but you are worth, ahem, looking at.” She shifts her eyes downward toward Henry’s impressive member. He blushes, which is probably not noticeable under the oppressively bright stage lights. It’s definitely not normal for him to be this naked for this long in front of more than one woman (let alone three!), so he’s not exactly accustomed to all this attention. His clothes are still sitting in Peggy’s bedroom.

“Ah, thanks Miss Melanie. I appreciate the compliment.”

“Melanie! I think you’re embarrassing him,” Monique chastises. “As a black woman, I can attest to the fact that the stereotypes you’ve heard about black men aren’t always true. Buuuuuuuuuuut…” Both ladies are now staring impolitely at Henry’s crotch, enjoying the opportunity to unapologetically objectify a man for a change. “You, my dear, do in fact fit every stereotype in the goddamn book. Wowee!”

Usually a polite man himself, Henry chooses to remain quiet once he realizes it’s only fair that these ladies should be able to ogle him in the same way he ogles cute girls he sees on the street. It may be uncomfortable, but it’s well worth it, Henry rationalizes. As fortune would have it, the tension breaks when Peggy and Dylan reenter the room. Holding hands like old lovers, Henry looks to see Melanie’s reaction. Her face is as unexpressive as a bald eagle. This does not surprise him. Melanie’s not the jealous type, or so he’s heard.

“We’re back! Did you miss us?” Peggy throws her hands up like a princess entering the throne room. Once she sees Henry standing on stage under the bright lights, she runs to him like a paparazzi chasing after a Grammy Award-winning singer. “Well, I’ll be damned! Henry my dear, you should seriously consider becoming a bodybuilder like the rest of us. You’ve got great body composition. You can tell when someone has the natural physique for being a competitor, even if they haven’t never lifted a weight in their life. You can tell, am I right girls?”

“Oh yeah, you can tell by the fullness of someone’s legs, the way their body fat is dispersed, and how much muscle they can develop without lifting,” Melanie posits. She rubs her chin like a scientist spelling out a groundbreaking hypothesis. “That’s what somebody told me all the way back in middle school. I looked like an athlete, even though I hated gym class and never did sports before. I think he was just hitting on me, though. I can’t remember.” Dylan winks at Henry, a nonverbal cue that he appreciates the fact he’s putting up with the ladies’ shenanigans like a complete gentleman. Henry sighs, acknowledging his boss’s show of appreciation. Dylan pours himself another glass of champagne – the bottles are now practically empty – and sips it as he walks to the front of the dais.

“Whatever he was doing, he was right. And prescient.” Dylan squeezes Melanie’s meaty forearms. She seems happy with this gesture, as if he’s proactively trying to make her forget that he and Peggy just made love. “Words of encouragement can go a long way, especially when we’re young. That’s something we should always remember and never forget. Our words have power. I suppose that’s still true when an adult speaks to an adult. I remember the first time I really had a conversation with Monique. Remember that, my darling?”

“The rooftop restaurant in Miami? Oh yeah, I remember that. How could I forget?” Monique reminisces about that fateful luncheon. It was then when Dylan revealed his intentions to financially sponsor her Olympic bid. “For whatever reason, I just really admire women who break the traditional mold by being strong, athletic, and driven to win,” was what he told her. Those words are forever burned into Monique’s memory. She’ll remember it word-for-word for the rest of her life. She always thought of herself as someone who strives to “break the mold,” but nobody had ever told her that before. Those were words she never heard anybody say to her, despite a bounty of evidence that that’s exactly what she wants to be.

Someone who defies expectations and does things people literally say are impossible.

Just retire.

You’ll never win a Gold medal.

You’ll never overcome your injury.

You had a good run. Quit while you’re ahead.

She’s heard all that bullshit before, oftentimes from the people closest to her. Her parents, her friends, her trainers, even her boyfriend from time to time. But not Dylan Tanaka. He’s always believed in her…and never ceases to remind her of his belief in her. That means something. Always has, always will.

“That’s why I try to act intentionally,” Dylan continues. “In everything I do. I try to treat everyone with respect and dignity, even when they haven’t done the same for me.” He bows his head and stares down at his lukewarm champagne. Melanie wraps her enormous arms around him, squeezing him tightly. He tries not to cry, a feat he (astonishingly enough) actually accomplishes. Peggy, Henry, and Monique can only awkwardly look around the room in silence, hoping someone will speak first.

Nobody does.

***

“It’s time.”

Stephen Callahan decides it’s now or never. Moments earlier Bill Marks sent him a simple text message that says:

Ready.

That’s all he needs to know.

He sends a quick message back instructing him to “get the show on the road.” Then, Stephen turns on his Bluetooth earpiece so he can communicate with Bill verbally. “Let’s start the fireworks, old boy. We’re heading out.” After raising his hand so the inhabitants of the SUV can see the signal, all five men exit their respective vehicles. Stephen is carrying an empty briefcase and wearing his backpack. Thomas trudges along with his rolling suitcase and duffle bag. Roddy is also carrying a duffle bag, but this one is empty. Xander and Cortez are not carrying anything, but they do have spare clips hiding underneath their coats.

“Everything is ready to go, hang on a moment,” Bill says over the phone. He opens an encrypted chat window with one of his MPSS co-conspirators. The time is now 11:57 p.m. In three minutes, his criminal act officially begins. From the engineering side of the scheme, all seems ready to go as well. “I can confirm that we’re ready to get going once the clock strikes midnight. Hopefully, Cinderella doesn’t have a pumpkin carriage waiting for her outside the ballroom.”

“If so, we’re all royally fucked, with or without the glass slipper,” Stephen replies back. The five men quietly stroll through the neighborhood toward Dylan’s property. For such a wealthy community, Stephen is surprised at how little lighting there is on this small street. Only one tall streetlight located right at the entrance of the cul-de-sac. Because of this, he and his men can go by without anyone seeing them. So far, they do not see any pedestrians enjoying a late-night walk through the neighborhood.

“One minute until showtime,” Bill announces.

“Copy that.”

Roddy, Cortez, and Xander remain uncharacteristically quiet. This is, in their estimation, the riskiest part of the heist. Getting in. After that, they don’t expect Dylan to put up much of a fight. He’s all alone in his big fancy mansion. No bodyguards. No butler. No cook. No guests. No one except for this lousy, pathetic, and lonely parasite. Stephen wishes he could catch him while he’s jerking off to a b-level 90’s-era HBO sex movie just to embarrass him even more. That would be delicious. It would be fitting for what he aims to do.

“Ready. Stand by.” Bill wipes a drop of sweat from his brow. He can feel his heart racing a million beats per minute. If he were to drop dead from a heart attack right then and there, it would be pure poetic justice, he’s decided. He’d probably deserve it, too.

Bill watches his computer screen move through the normal routine of a monthly system reboot. A popup window says it’s about to begin. He waits for it to disappear under his “notifications” tab. A progress bar shows up, showing the reboot has begun. So far, it’s at 1%. It takes approximately 15 to 18 minutes for the process to finish. Right on schedule, he receives a text from Roger, one of his co-conspirators, telling him all the homes in the 98112, 98122, and 98144 zip codes are officially “disconnected” from the mother system. Bill breathes a sigh of relief.

“Systems are down in your zone, I repeat, systems are down in your zone. You and your men are clear to enter the property as undetected as a housefly,” Bill informs Stephen. While Bill may be struggling to maintain his composure, on the other end, Stephen Callahan is struggling to contain his excitement.

“Thank you, buddy. I appreciate the good news. Anything else you wish to inform me before we cut off communication for now?” The four men surrounding Stephen stop breathing momentarily so they can listen in on their conversation.

“No, boss. We’re good to go. Nothing else to discuss, unless you want to talk about the Dodgers and whether or not they’ll win the World Series this year.” Bill amuses himself with his own irreverence. He eyes an unopened bottle of scotch sitting on a shelf across the room, tempting him like a Greek Siren. He needs something to help him calm down.

“Good. I’ll be in touch soon. Over and out.” Stephen doesn’t wait for verbal confirmation to turn off his Bluetooth earpiece. By now, the five men are standing right outside Dylan Tanaka’s main gate. There’s a modest pedestrian entrance off to the left side and a keypad above the door handle. Thomas takes out a device that looks like a ballpoint pen, holds it against the keypad, and twists the clip outward. This activates the machine. Roddy, Cortez, and Xander watch with amazement as this gadget disguised as a writing utensil scrambles the keypad, essentially deactivating it. Thomas puts the “pen” back in his pocket and leisurely opens the door as if he owned the place.

“Excellent. Follow me.” Stephen leads the way. Thomas closes the door behind him once everyone has entered the property.

“Damn! I got to get me one of those!” Xander whispers to Cortez. Roddy hushes him up, not wanting to make any unnecessary noise, especially now that they’ve entered the hot zone.

The house’s spacious driveway is enclosed by tall grey and white brick walls, ensuring none of his nosey neighbors could spy on him (or see who enters and leaves the property). Stephen crouches low regardless just to be safe and is pleased to see his four comrades following suit. They gently walk in a straight line along the bricks to make sure anyone inside the house to the right – which is four stories high but situated about a hundred yards away – can’t possibly see them. The cover of darkness also makes this an irrelevant precaution. Still, Stephen refuses to allow even the possibility of failure to creep into tonight’s activities.

Stephen and his men have decided to first locate Dylan before breaking in so that he doesn’t have time to find his phone and call the cops. All five men have night vision binoculars and are looking at every visible window. Dylan’s three-story house (Stephen doesn’t consider the attic an actual floor) appears to be completely empty except for the man himself. Nobody is in the kitchen or dining room (both are visible through the left side of the first floor), as well as any of the bedrooms on the second floor. There is a light on in the foyer and the living room, but nobody appears to be in either of those spaces. As the thieves make their way into the backyard, all five men are startled by the beauty of Dylan’s spacious Japanese garden and try to block it from their thinking. Now is not the time to sightsee.

Damn. This place looks nicer up close than in satellite photos, Stephen thinks. So this is how he chooses to spend his blood money. It must be nice being a rich, petty fool with no conscience. You can spend it on extravagancies like this while old friends like me rot away in prison. Fuck that.

“Ah ha! Look up there,” Thomas points to the second and third floors. A faint light is seen coming out of the third-floor balcony. The flickering suggests it’s from a fireplace. A longer balcony going across the entire backside of the second story, on the other hand, clearly shows a much brighter light emanating from behind the scarlet red curtains. No flickering detected.

“He must be on the second floor. What do you think?” Roddy asks. Stephen shakes his head.

“It’s impossible to tell from this angle. Perhaps if we–” Before Stephen can finish his sentence, all five men see a shadow quickly fly across the scarlet curtains. Indistinct music can be heard, which further provides evidence that Mr. Tanaka is on the other side of those curtains.

“Can you hear some music?” Cortez asks. Everyone nods their heads silently.

“It’s confirmed. He’s up there,” Stephen decides. He cocks his pistol. “Let’s go inside and make ourselves comfortable.”

“With pleasure,” Thomas says. With that, the veteran safecracker calmly walks up to the screen door leading to the kitchen/dining area. Not worried about sounding any alarms, he takes out a tiny drill, points it right at the door handle, and cuts away a ten-inch-long half-circle of glass so he can access the lock from the other side. The four other men marvel at how silently the drill cuts away at the glass. Thomas fashioned an extremely sharp blade at the end of a low-power drill, which gives him the ability to pierce the thick glass without having to generate a lot of torque – and noise that comes with high torque. Within 90 seconds, he’s cut away all the glass he needs. Thomas gently places the glass on the ground and unlocks the door. The men enter Dylan’s home. Out of the corner of his eye, Xander sees a blinking red light coming from a wall right across from the screen door. He knows the signal won’t reach the security company or the local police station, but his heart cannot help but skip a beat just at the sight of it blinking like mad. It’s an involuntary reflex.

“Relax. We’re good. Trust my people to do what they’re supposed to do. We’re fine. We’re good,” Stephen reassures his men. This brings Xander’s heart rate back to normal, whatever that was before.

As the group weaves through all the rooms, they finally reach the front of the house and see the gothic-looking spiral staircase that leads to the second (and presumably third) floor. It’s in the foyer that the music becomes more pronounced. It’s definitely confirmed that Dylan Tanaka is there, probably drowning his sorrows all alone to cheap second-rate jazz music he probably got off Spotify.

“Let’s get it.” Stephen arrogantly says in a normal voice. The four other men are surprised by his cockiness.

One by one, the five armed bandits nonchalantly walk up the staircase as if they were welcomed guests themselves, awaiting what they expect to be a pathetic lonely man sitting all by himself drinking cheap wine and listening to knockoff Miles Davis.