I’d done this a million times, but my heart was still pounding like a drum in my chest. I leaned forward, peeking in through the window to make sure no one was waiting for me inside with a gun ready to blow my brains out. I mean, it wasn’t like I wasn’t prepared. I’d only staked out the joint for the past three days, waiting and watching every single person that went in and came out the front door, back door, you name it. Right now, I was reasonably certain that there was no one there other than the permanent housing staff, but they’d gone to bed hours ago or at least they’d turned off all the lights and were putting on a good show of it.
Thunder cracked overhead and I jumped involuntarily, looking up when lightning lit up the sky. For the briefest of seconds, the entire world was as bright as if it were the middle of the day.
I shook my head. I didn’t know why I was so jumpy tonight. I hadn’t seen anyone here in hours. The sun had gone down what felt like forever ago and the long driveway hadn’t had any activity since about six o’clock. I didn’t expect there to be any, not at three in the morning.
Quit stalling, Mila. Get going already.
With a deep breath, I reached for the window and pushed it open. The hinges squeaked just the slightest bit and I stilled. I waited several moments, but no one came running. Thunder rumbled on the horizon and a harsh breeze cut through the night, causing a shiver to race down my spine. Not wanting to waste any more time than I already had, I climbed through the open window into the house.
I didn’t know why I always got nervous before a job. It wasn’t like I didn’t spend every waking hour prepping for it before even stepping onto a property.
I’d spent a long time studying the blueprints of this house, memorizing the sizes and layout of all the rooms. I knew where the electrical lines ran, the AC ducts, the plumbing, everything. I’d memorized the square dimensions of the closets, blind corners where I could hide in case someone was making rounds while I happened to be inside. I knew that the house had at least ten guest rooms, but none of them were being used. The onsite wait staff was housed on the lower level and not in the main part of the house.
I was good at what I did. I didn’t like to toot my own horn, but some people called me the best in the business, so who was I to argue with them.
I knelt down, pressing my fingertips into the plush gray carpet beneath my fingers. I’d entered the big house through one of the guest rooms just like I’d planned. The bed was hadn’t been slept in, but that was expected. I needed to get upstairs to the office. That was where I would find what I’d been sent here for.
I slinked along through the room and down the hall. Once I entered the foyer, I crouched down and listened. It never paid to be hasty in situations like this. I glanced up, searching the place for cameras, and finding none. I started when a soft meow echoed in the hall, and I kept low and backed up a few steps. A small black cat came down the stairs toward me.
I reached my hand out, facing my palm up and the creature mewled again. She brushed up against my fingers, purring softly before she ran off. I glanced up the stairs. When I was convinced that no one was around, I decided to chance it and make my way up to the second floor. I turned right and snuck down the hall to the office. The door was locked, but I made quick work of it with a lock pick.
It took me less than thirty seconds to break in.
It was a joke, really. With the kind of things that I knew were stored in this place, the owner really should have considered getting a better security system. I mean, it probably wouldn’t keep someone like me out in the end, but it would have at least made it a tiny bit harder for me.
I didn’t waste any time closing the door behind me. I took a deep breath, listening to the overwhelming silence for a few moments to calm myself. When I was ready, I started looking around the room. Based on the blueprints, I mostly knew what to expect, but actually standing inside the room was something that couldn’t be replicated no matter how much preparation I did beforehand.
There was a massive cherry wood desk at the center, the kind of desk that a big time CEO would sit at as he decided the fate of his company or whether or not to fire an employee for some narrow-minded indiscretion. I sat down in the chair for a moment, imagining myself in such a position. With a sigh, I shook my head. That wasn’t an option for a girl like me. I had a very particular set of skills and those didn’t necessarily pertain to the life of a career woman.
I slid my fingers along the molded edge of the desk and glanced to the right. There was an enormous bookcase built into the full length of the wall. To anyone else, it would just look like a wall of books, encyclopedias, and all manner of reference books, but I knew that it was much more. I walked over to it, placing my hand against the wood. I slid my fingers beneath the shelf, searching for the mechanism I knew would be there.
Some rich people liked to be nostalgic, using a special book to trigger the door, but from the look of things, I didn’t take these owners to be the type. The mansion was nice, sure, but it had the feel of a place that was decorated by an interior designer and not the homeowners themselves. It was lacking a personal touch and the same could be said for the office.
Some people had buttons. Others a key code for the computer. I hadn’t been able to find any indication of what sort of trigger mechanism would open the saferoom, other than what my gut told me.
This place seemed like it was owned by people that would want an easy way in.
And I was right.
When my fingers brushed against the small hidden switch, I grinned with victory. I flipped it, holding my breath as the entire shelving unit swung forward.
I’d found the vault.
It had been easy, really. Maybe one day I’d write a memoir, telling all my secrets so that people could protect themselves from highly skilled thieves like me. But then again, maybe not.
Upon first glance, I knew I’d hit the jackpot. It was so much better than I’d imagined it would be.
There had been whispers of a giant cache on the dark web for ages. I’d kept a file of notes that I saved whenever I saw it mentioned, and over the years I’d gathered enough intel to pinpoint the location. My client was particularly interested in some of the supposed contents, so I’d taken the contract on a premium. My earnings from this job alone would set me up for a long time to come, enough to take a substantial vacation until I felt ready to sign on for another.
My skills had long been sought after by the rich and famous and I’d spent all my life honing them so that I was the best. I was small, flexible enough to get into really tight spaces, and smart. My overwhelmingly high success rate spoke for itself.
The silence felt overbearing, but it always did.
I stepped inside and I ran my fingers over the metal shelving, looking on in awe at the jewelry, old coins, antiques, priceless paintings, and stacks of money. The whole place was organized impeccably. Everything was identified and labeled as if it was a museum or something.
I unshouldered my duffle bag and unzipped it.
My client wanted one particular item in the vault, but there was so much more for the taking. I decided to focus on what I was hired for first. I opened several drawers, finding more money, old watches, gold, and silver bars, but when I found the drawer of raw uncut gemstones, I knew I was close. I opened the one above it and sucked in a breath.
There were so many diamonds.
I reached out and touched one of them, marveling as the flawless stone reflected the soft light shining above it. I took a small blue velvet purse out of my duffle and started to fill it with one handful of diamonds after another.
My client wanted these. All of them. They would be untraceable and highly valuable. Anything else in the vault was mine to keep and I meant to take whatever I could.
Within reason, of course. I wasn’t going to get greedy.
I perused the rest of the jewelry, scanning and studying each piece until I settled on a diamond necklace, a tennis bracelet, a pink diamond ring, and several pieces of tanzanite that caught my eye. I secured everything in my duffle, padding it with more money until it was full. I could only take what I could carry and a piece of me was disappointed that I would miss out on the rest of the incredible items stored here.
I’d never come back though. As a rule, I never hit the same place twice no matter how tempting. It was too much of a risk.
I was in and out of that vault in less than an hour. I closed the door behind me and lifted the duffle up, slinging it over both shoulders like a backpack. I snuck down the hall but paused when I heard a footstep brush against the floor. In silence, I dove into a coat closet, hiding all the way in the back behind several thick wool jackets. I held my breath, listening and trying to figure out what was going on. No one had ever come here in the middle of the night, as far as I knew anyway.
Maybe the owners were back from vacation; at least that was what I assumed. From what I could tell, the property was maintained, but not actually lived in on much of a regular basis. I hadn’t thought about it until now.
Hushed whispers echoed in the foyer, and I crept forward just enough to peek through the gap between the closed door and the wall. There were two men standing there. They were both tall and strong, but I found myself drawn to the one on the left. His eyes caught the light and I studied them, losing myself in the deep mahogany color. His nose was bent a little at an angle, almost like it had been broken before. His chin was covered in the shadow of a beard, thick and dark, giving him a dangerous aura that made me shiver just the tiniest bit.
My gaze turned downward, studying the expensive suit that covered his muscled form. The fabric shone in the soft light, but the platinum cufflinks on his wrists practically sparkled. Each of them was diamond encrusted. The thick platinum ring on his finger had a single ruby, enormous enough to be five or six carats at least. It appeared to be engraved with something, but I couldn’t make it out from this far away. I’d have to get much closer to see it and I definitely wanted to avoid that.
He didn’t look like just a rich man. He looked like something else.
“Listen, Ronaldo, if we’re going to use this place as a safehouse for the gun runners, we need to man it with better defenses,” the man muttered. His brow furrowed with frustration, and he turned those hardened brown eyes back on his partner.
The man beside him looked exasperated and a little bit high strung, like a man that had drank a whole pot of coffee an hour ago and all the caffeine was hitting him at this very second. The whites of his eyes were a bit bloodshot and there was a hint of annoyance behind them.
“No one knows this place is here, Jon,” Ronaldo answered.
I knew about it, but I wasn’t about to tell them that.
“What if we post guards around the perimeter? Would that be enough, boss?”
Boss? Boss of what?
“We should install security cameras on the inside too. We’ve got a lot of money stashed here and it should be adequately protected,” Jon continued resolutely.
“I’ve got a few guys that could do something like that,” Ronaldo replied.
“Good. See to it that it’s done. I’m going to arrange a few things myself in the meantime,” Jon said thoughtfully. I watched him closely. His brows drew together as he thought through various options before he moved to the stairway.
I’m not sure where these men had come from, but they most definitely hadn’t been here when I’d broken in. Safe in the closet for now, I hunkered down, shifting only slightly to balance the weight of my stolen goods on my back. I got comfortable and listened to them talk about a few different kinds of weapons and which Russian arms dealer would be best to work with for each one.
By the time they walked off, I’d been able to figure out that they were involved in some shady alliances that worked to sneak weapons in and out of the city of New York, as well as the surrounding area. Guns, knives, bullets, bombs, you name it, they were shipping it in and out of the state. I watched as they moved upstairs and disappeared toward the office.
I was certain that I didn’t want to get involved in any of that.
Even though I knew that I hadn’t left a trace of me for them to find, I was still a little nervous. I had left the place as I found it, shutting the drawers, and only taking what I could carry. At first glance, it wouldn’t have been obvious to anyone that I’d been there, or at least, it shouldn’t have been. Either way, it was time to go. I’d already been in this place longer than I wanted to be.
I took advantage of their absence, sneaking out of the closet and back down to the guest room I’m come through in the first place.
I slipped out the window and kept to the shadows all the way into the safety of the surrounding woods. After about a mile’s hike, I came upon my motorbike and mounted it. With a hard kick, I started up the engine and sailed off into the night. I smiled, knowing that another job was complete.
I didn’t look back.
Fucking hell. This wasn’t good.
I’d only been in the vault for a few minutes, but I knew enough to know that the contents had been trifled with. There were things missing and a lot of them.
I passed my hand over my face and sighed. It had only been six months since Cyrus Holt had placed me in charge of the Montagna family. He’d warned me that there would probably be quite a bit of heat and tension from the underboss Ronaldo and those loyal to him, and he’d been right. Sure, I’d been able to acquire several lucrative deals since then and things were calmer than they used to be, but they were nowhere near settled. If I could prove myself as a better head of the family than Mike or Anthony, that would ease the stormy waters for good.
And this… this would definitely throw things into a tailspin.
This was shit rotten luck.
For a long time, I’d served the Montagna family as their consigliere. Typically, that meant that I wasn’t part of the family’s hierarchy, but I was their key advisor. I was impartial, assisting the boss and the family when they needed advice. The family had voted me into position back during Mike’s reign and I’d served him for years, at least until he was killed, and his son Anthony took over. Anthony’s time had been even shorter, mostly because he was young, foolish, and had been too focused on getting revenge on a girl who’d rejected him in high school. He’d pissed off the wrong people in the process and he’d paid for it with his life.
I’d always been known for being competent, trustworthy, and rational when it came to family matters. I did what needed to be done for the good of the Montagnas, even if it meant putting a bullet in between the eyes of our enemies. I’d done that several times in the past and since I’d taken over.
Things were just beginning to level out for me. In the time since I’d taken the position of kingpin of the Montagna mafia family, I’d acquired several lucrative weapons contracts with tenuous alliances that I’d been trying to secure for years, some of them in Russia, some in Ukraine, and others in Belarus. My foot soldiers had set up several business fronts in the city, including our own counterfeit printing press safely below the ground floor of one of the biggest banks in the state. I’d paid people off, blackmailed several political players, and strengthened the position of the family at least tenfold since Anthony’s demise.
It was all going perfectly fine until this very moment.
The Montagna family had set up a safehouse to the north of the city several years back. The home had fallen into foreclosure and Mike had purchased it on a whim, remodeling and building an enormous vault to keep the family’s assets safe and it had been robbed under my watch.
It was a subtle job and I had to admit, quite elegantly done. The metal shelves were wiped clean of prints. Whoever had done it had moved in and taken only a small piece of the stash, almost as if he wanted to get in and out without being noticed at all.
I had noticed though. I hadn’t gotten this far in this world without having impeccable attention to detail.
There were several very expensive pieces of jewelry missing, as well as a million or two in hundred-dollar bills that were no longer accounted for. I did a quick inventory, swearing out loud when I discovered that the burglar had swindled all of the uncut diamonds and raw gemstones in our stash, amounting to somewhere around fifty million dollars in value.
Once the news of such an incredible loss passed on to the rest of the family, they would begin to question my position as boss. I would lose their respect and with that, I would no longer hold the power I once did.
Fuck me sideways.
I grabbed a sheet of paper and made a detailed inventory of what was missing before I moved back into the office and sat down at my desk. With a heavy sigh, I started my reconnaissance all on my own. My underboss Ronaldo had gone to bed, exhausted from the events of the day. We’d been caught in a shoot-out in an abandoned factory building when an ill-organized gang decided to try to claim a piece of territory that wasn’t theirs to take. They’d been dealt with, but the aftermath had been especially bloody. He’d drunk a whole liter of grocery store coffee on the ride here. Honestly, I didn’t know how he was sleeping right now with that much caffeine in his system, but more power to him.
I preferred sipping on a finger of bourbon at almost four-thirty in the morning. The fire burning down my throat kept me awake. I looked forlornly at the soft couch on the opposite wall. Sleep would have to wait.
I had a thief to catch.
I clicked open my surveillance software, searching the past footage for a hint of any trespassers. For a while, it all was quiet. Much of the captured video was triggered by a bird flying in front of a camera or the fluttering wings of a butterfly, but then I zeroed in on an unfamiliar movement in the shadows. I toggled on the heat sensor, and a small human form came into view.
I narrowed my eyes, studying the capture. It was too small to be a man, so it had to be a woman or maybe a teenager. The longer I watched though, the more certain I became that the robber was female. She moved along with the expertise of someone who knew the area, which immediately made me suspicious because there weren’t any other houses for quite a distance. She stilled almost as though she knew she was being watched and I zoomed in on her.
She kept her head down as she crept toward the camera, and I shook my head with disbelief as she dug into the mud with her hands and smeared it all over the lens.
She was good, really good.
I traced her movements along the perimeter, noting her direction before I lost her. I logged the time of the footage, and I realized that she and I had probably been in the house at the same time. She’d probably been upstairs in the vault the moment that I’d walked through the front door, which was more than a little nauseating.
She was skilled enough to avoid most of my cameras and even though I combed the footage for hours, I couldn’t find her point of entry or exit, which spoke to her adept ability. There was no way she’d decided to rob me on a whim. She’d been prepared for this.
Only once did I catch enough of the side of her face to make out her dark brown hair and light eyes. I paused the video and pushed it through several algorithms to improve the image as much as I could. I had enough to run it through facial recognition software, but only just barely. It would really be pushing the abilities of my system.
To be honest, I’d be surprised if it actually came back with a match.
I went back to the inventory list and sent out several alerts to pawn shops or secondhand stores that carried enough cash to cover the value of what she had stolen. I put out calls to several of my friends to be on the lookout for the pieces of jewelry that had been taken, knowing that many of them were one-of-a-kind pieces. That meant they’d be traceable if they happened to surface again.
I’d find her. Then I would make an example of her. She’d rue the day she decided to steal from the Montagna family. I’d make sure of it.
I swallowed down the rest of my bourbon, savoring the fierce burn as it cascaded down my throat. My entire body warmed, and I closed my eyes for a second before pushing up out of my chair and collapsing on the couch.
I’d pick up the search after I slept.
I sat back on the lounge chair, enjoying a margarita by the pool under the warm kiss of the sun. The umbrella over my head ruffled slightly in the breeze. There was a fluffy white cloud drifting in the sky, and I smiled, noticing it looked like a giant dragon with its wings outstretched.
This was the life, at least that’s what all the hotel commercials said. I’d booked a room at the Waldorf, one of the most expensive places in the city. The rooftop pool and bar were beautiful and not super busy like most of the cheaper hotels. The men and women that frequented this place were the crème de la crème, decked out to the nines in expensive swimsuits, sundresses, and sandals that were all designer, and I couldn’t even begin to guess what the label was on any of them.
One woman was even wearing a pair of red-bottomed high-heeled shoes. I knew those were some sort of a statement piece, but I’d never cared to know anything more.
Honestly, I felt like the biggest imposter here. I was wearing an equally expensive one-piece swimsuit, but only because I wanted to try to fit in and the front desk had offered to get me whatever I wanted. I’d had my own personal shopper for the day and all I’d had to do was provide a piece of plastic to pay for everything he picked out for me.
Even though I’d earned this, it still felt weird.
I looked down, studying the coral and rose pink and cream blocked sections of the swimsuit. It was styled with only one shoulder and ruched across the waist.
It didn’t feel like me.
It had been about two weeks since my last job and I’d been enjoying the fruits of my labor ever since. I’d moved all of the cash I’d stolen into an untraceable offshore account, and I’d sold off several pieces of the jewelry I stole to interested buyers that I found through several secure channels. I kept a few things for myself, including a really pretty solitaire tanzanite and diamond necklace that I currently had around my neck. I held it in my fingers absentmindedly, tracing my thumb along the edge as I watched the rich people in the pool drink an impressive amount of really expensive top-shelf champagne. They were going to feel that in the morning, unless rich people had somehow figured out a way to escape hangovers too.
I sipped on my margarita, feeling like the biggest fraud ever.
I didn’t know why I was staying here. I didn’t feel like I belonged even a little. Sure, I’d worked my ass off and had made a name for myself, but I still wasn’t comfortable doing anything to spend the money I’d earned.
I’d grown up on the street. I’d gone hungry often because I hadn’t been able to afford food. My clothes were often worn through in places, but I learned to sift through clothing donation boxes pretty early on in order to replace them. My mother was still alive as far as I knew, but she had a drug addiction and hadn’t been there for me for as long as I could remember. My father had disappeared the day I was born, not wanting to be held down by the bonds of a child or a wife. I didn’t even know his name.
I’d been on my own for a long time. I learned how to steal because I needed to eat, and I’d perfected my skills ever since. I’d never been caught. I had no record. No one had my fingerprints on file and right now, I could be set for life simply because I wished it. Right now, I could jump on a plane, leave the country, buy a house on an island somewhere, and live out the rest of my days in luxury.
I knew myself better than that though. I’d be restless before too long. I’d want the rush of preparing for a job, breaking and entering, and figuring out how to take from the rich without them being any the wiser.
Plus, I had powerful friends now and as much as I wanted to relax and never have to break into another house again, I knew they would come calling sooner or later. I could try to hide or flee the country, but they would find me in the end.
This was my life and I simply had to live it.
With a sigh, I got up and slipped my feet into my fancy flip-flops. I’d already forgotten the designer’s name. I shrugged my dress back on and left the pool because this was probably more sun than I’d ever gotten in a single day in all my life. I took my unfinished drink with me.
I got into the elevator, watching the numbers rise after I pushed the button to the twelfth floor. When the doors slipped open, I returned to my room and changed for bed even though it was only four in the afternoon. I fingered the soft stretchy purple fabric of my nightshirt and pulled it over my head. I smiled when I found a matching pair of lacey cotton panties and slipped those on too. The outfit was simple, but it made me feel pretty.
Not that anyone would see it.
I hopped into the oversized king bed, grabbing the remote and turning on a romantic comedy. I settled in for the evening, enjoying my solitude and the rest of my margarita in the quiet of my own room. It felt nice to not be with rich people anymore, and I could simply be myself.
The sky grew dark, and I could see the city lights started blinking on all around me through the floor-to-ceiling windows of my room. I fell asleep sometime later.
I woke up to a knock at the door the next morning. Blearily, I blinked, and the knock sounded again. I pushed myself up to a seated position. Confused didn’t even begin to describe how I felt. With a soft groan, I rubbed my eyes and tried to wake up.
“Room service,” a voice called out.
Had I even ordered anything? I furrowed my brow, trying to remember.
That’s right. I had at check-in. The front desk had asked if I wanted anything special and I had requested morning coffee sometime after ten o’clock. With a disgruntled groan, I climbed out of bed and walked out of the bedroom into the front living room. I pulled my nightshirt into place before answering the door and smiled as a man in a suit pushed in a rolling tray complete with an enormous vat of coffee. Knowing this place, it probably cost a thousand dollars or something crazy because they only served the best.
My palate wasn’t trained enough to even begin to tell the difference.
“The Waldorf welcomes you,” the attendant said with an unassuming grin.
I held the door as he walked past me.
“You can leave it here,” I pointed to the dining room table. He nodded and I padded off to the bathroom, quickly brushing my teeth and pulling a hairbrush through my tangled locks. When I felt more presentable, I walked back into the living room and the tray was there waiting on the table. I squealed happily when I saw a small plate of pastries, fruits, and cheeses.
My stomach growled. I didn’t think I ate dinner yesterday.
The man was nowhere to be found. With a shrug, I turned around and poured myself a cup of coffee. There was a small cup of creamer that I topped it off with, stirring it with a silver spoon until it was the perfect shade. I sat down, sipping a little. I almost spilled it on my lap when I started, hearing a quiet scuffle behind me. I went to look, but I only caught a glimpse of the hotel staff member that had brought the coffee before he had his arm around my throat and a piece of cloth pressed firmly over my nose.
The sweet sugary scent of flowers suddenly overwhelmed me, and the edges of my vision started to go black. I struggled, but he was a lot bigger than me, and he easily overpowered me simply by squeezing his arm a little tighter, making it harder to breathe. I tried to kick and punch my way free, but the lack of air quickly made me feel lightheaded and I realized that I was no match for him.
My coffee had fallen onto the floor. The mug had broken into pieces and the liquid was pooling on the tile.
“Jon Moretti would like to have a word with you,” he threatened, and I blinked, whimpering softly.
Who the fuck was that?