Chapter 1
Cat stumbled as she tiptoed down the hallway, and it was almost her undoing. She spotted the emitter for the laser at ankle height just as her toe caught a wrinkle in the carpet. She saved the stumble by dive-rolling forwards past and over the emitter, beam unbroken behind her as she stood again at the side of the hallway. She continued her slow creep along the edge of the hallway, to minimize squeaking from the ancient wood that made up the floor. The rough stone of the wall tugged at her black body-hugging jumpsuit, but she wouldn’t let herself be slowed down by the inconvenience. She would have to ditch the jumpsuit anyway at the end of this job – it was starting to wear thin, and the last thing she wanted was to fail because a loose thread got caught at the wrong time. Unfortunately, this job’s timeline had meant that she didn’t have as much prep time as she normally allotted herself to get ready.

“Damn Joel anyway for getting me in this mess,” she muttered to herself, but she knew it was as much her own fault as her broker. He only passed on things he knew she’d be interested in, and she usually took the jobs, but it was she that decided the timetables usually. This one was a bit short notice, because according to Joel’s contact, the item wasn’t going to be in place much longer.

All these thoughts tumbled around in Cat’s head as she scanned the hallway for more hidden traps. She successfully made it past two more laser installations, one at waist height, and a pair of emitters in an X formation that would have caught out anyone that was walking down the middle of the hallway. The stone walls looked old enough, but someone had obviously gone to a lot of trouble to upgrade at least some of the elements of the old pile.

She finally reached the door she was aiming for, and took a quick look around the hallway once more to see if there were any waiting surprises. Spotting nothing, she nevertheless was very cautious in stepping away from the wall. She took the roof of the hallway over the door in carefully, looking for concealed lenses that might mark the place where a camera was hidden. Though she’d timed her entry for the hour of the night where statistically people were the sleepiest, she didn’t want to see herself on the news after the fact if someone had managed to get a shot of her.

“Not that it would show them much,” she chuckled to herself. She’d been careful to conceal her face behind a mask, so only her clear green eyes showed out, but combined with her slight build and height, it might be enough to at least point someone in her general direction. Much better to avoid cameras at all. She wore gloves for the same reason – better not to leave any prints at all than to try and remember to wipe off everything she’d touched.

This place might have lasers, but at least out here in the hallway, it didn’t appear to have any cameras. She stepped out into the hall and looked the door over carefully. It was hard to see embedded sensors, but that’s why she brought her circuit tester. She reached into her backpack with utter familiarity and grabbed the tool. Bringing its probe toward the door, she flicked the switch to turn it on and then into silent mode. The tester vibrated twice in her hand to acknowledge that it was in the correct mode, then went still.

Cat put the end of the probe against the crack of the door and ran it up and down the inside of the frame. Nothing. She moved to the top of the door, stretching up on dancer’s legs until she was en pointe and the tip of the instrument was just shy of the top of the door. from left to right across the top, walking to tiptoe to keep the tester in contact with the inside of the frame. When she got close to the right edge of the door, she felt a slight vibration in the probe, which got stronger as she moved minutely to the right. Sweeping the probe in an arc back and forth, she found the strongest part of the circuit and with her other hand, reached up with a grease pencil and marked the spot. Moving along to the other side of the door, she ran into no other signals.

So, only one spot a couple of inches out from the opening of the door. No doubt a magnetic sensor that would set off an alarm if the magnet on the door got too far away from the electromagnetic sensor on the frame. She frowned. If this cache was as valuable as Joel promised, there was something fishy about the amount of security on this whole place. Lasers in the hallway that were easily bypassed and a magnetic sensor in the door? That was it? Cat shrugged her shoulders and placed her magnetic countermeasure on the spot she’d marked, then jimmied the door open and pushed it open a crack. She got a dental mirror out of her back and used it to look around the edge of the door to see if there were any more surprises waiting for her inside the doorway. Nothing, as far as she could see. No camera lenses in the ceiling, no lasers on the inside of the doorway that opening the door would cut off, not anything.

Alarm bells began to go off in the back of Cat’s head, and she considered leaving well enough alone. She could make it back out no problem, but if there was something going on here she couldn’t figure out, she might not get the chance if she decided to keep going. But the promised payout was huge and she could really use the money. She quieted the alarms in her mind, and slid through the narrowest gap in the door she could make.

She took another look around the room, but could find nothing specific that set off any warnings. It looked like some rich guy’s study. A large carpet covered most of the floor, embroidery along the edges suggesting a rich, thick walking experience. She would avoid the carpet at all costs, of course, since any number of things could be hiding beneath it. The hardwood floor around the outside of the carpet could also be hiding things, but it should be more obvious. Three of the walls of the room were covered in shelves, full of thick books with richly coloured spines. The wall to her right’s bookcases were broken up by a window that looked down over the front courtyard to the place, and the bookcases opposite her framed a large portrait of a man looking very dignified in a three piece suit. She assumed that was either the owner of the place or one of his ancestors. She tried not to find out too much about the people she was taking from, lest she be slowed by pangs of conscience. She trusted that Joel wasn’t sending her off to take some family’s last remaining reminder of their dearly departed sainted grandmother, but honestly, most of the places she broke into, it was easy to assume that the thing she was taking was the least of their collection. She’d sometimes been tempted by other things that she’d passed on her way to her target, but without someone lined up to buy it, she told herself it wasn’t worth the trouble.

She continued to look around the room to see if she could spot any other countermeasures. She was disappointed. This was going to be ludicrously easy. She stepped carefully to her right, then closed the door almost completely behind her, so if anyone came down the hall, it would look shut, but could be pulled open easily. She glanced over at the left hand wall to see if the bookcases over there offered any explanation for the ease with which she’d penetrated this home’s defenses. There was a painting in the middle of this wall, too, but it was like nothing she’d ever seen before. The colours were vivid even without the lights on, and it almost looked like the painting was glowing from within. It was an abstract, or at least, she didn’t recognize any of the objects being represented. She stared at it, mesmerized. It almost seemed alive, as if the painting were watching her back as she kept looking at it. She pulled her gaze away, but kept glancing back at it, every time convinced she’d seen something move from within its frame.

“So weird,” she muttered to herself, now a little unsettled. She crept along the wall with the window, ducking below the sill instead of passing in front of it. As she crouched to pass below it, she thought she caught a glimpse of the same kind of soft glow from the painting emanating from beneath the carpet, but as soon as she looked harder, the glow disappeared. The sound in the room seemed to disappear, like someone had dropped thick cotton into her ears. She shook her head ruefully and continued on. “Mind must be playing tricks on me,” she said in as quiet a voice as she thought prudent, just to prove to herself that she could still hear. She continued on, finally passing by the window and standing back up. The muffling ceased, and she slid toward the wall with the portrait. As she approached the portrait, she slowed, determined to not make any mistakes. She got the dental mirror out again and used it to look for any traps behind the portrait’s gilded frame. She couldn’t spot anything, so she ran her fingers around the edges of the frame, feeling for switches or other mechanical tripwires. Finally, she got out the circuit tester and ran it around the frame. Nothing at the edge of the frame, though as she got to the center of the painting, there seemed to be a faint tingle. She guessed it was from whatever was behind the painting.

The portrait appeared to be hinged along the left side, a piano-type hinge running down the entire side of the frame. She tugged on the right side until it came away from the wall and swung out into the room. As it opened and revealed what lay behind it, Cat gasped involuntarily – no wonder there was so little security in the rest of the house. This would be enough to foil all but the most determined thief. A Döttlinger Chronos safe with a biometric fingerprint lock. Almost the best money could buy. The print scanner was no doubt what her circuit tester had been picking up behind the painting. It’s sickly green glow lit up the room weakly, her shadow blocking out the larger part of the room. Her eyes widened, but she’d been expecting something like this. Not quite this level, but Joel had said there was some pretty hefty security in place.

Cat had never taken on a real Chronos – they cost five figures in the first place and were only used to store the most valuable assets a person owned. Fireproof, bomb-proof, waterproof, supposedly unhackable, they were the creme de la creme of safes. This included ballistic armor plating, four way solid titanium locking bolts, tungsten carbide hard plate, locking bolt anti-drive, active and passive relocking, interlocking anti-pry door, hi-density amalgamate cladding, reinforced anchor bolts, alarm system integration, and a GPS alert and tracking system. The fingerprint pad mocked her. Her usual safecracking wouldn’t work on a biometric lock – there was nothing to listen for, no way of telling how long the key was to unlock the safe. If she tried disconnecting the power, it would seal up tight and use the internal battery to start broadcasting a GPS signal to the owner to say that someone was trying to tamper with it. You couldn’t crack it with a lance either, since the tungsten carbide casing was layered with another, proprietary, alloy that was virtually heatproof. She’d only heard of a couple of people who’d cracked a Chronos, and she was convinced the stories were mostly just tall tales anyway. But here one was, in front of her in the flesh, so to speak. She’d come prepared for a difficult job, but this was almost certainly beyond her capabilities. And yet, “almost certainly” wasn’t completely certain, and she had at least an hour and a half to try to get this thing open before she needed to hightail it out of here in time to make sure she wasn’t caught. Ninety minutes to crack the world’s toughest safe. Bring it on.

She knelt on the hardwood floor and pulled her backpack off, careful to make sure it didn’t touch the carpet as she swung it around in front of her. She reached a hand into the main pocket and grabbed her toolkit, which was in a soft-sided case on the right-hand side of the bag. Tugging it free, she undid the strap holding it closed, and unrolled it along the narrow strip of hardwood between the wall and the carpet. Silently, she contemplated the tools contained within it, reaching out for what she thought might be most useful after a minute of pondering. Her fingers brushed gently along a bottle of fingerprint dust. If she was lucky, this would yield a fingerprint on the reader itself. She pulled the jar of dust free from her kit, along with the brush that went with it. She stood up, and carefully unscrewed the lid of the jar, and twirled the brush lightly over the surface of the powder within. She withdrew the brush gently from the jar, making sure not to spill the powder anywhere other than where she intended it to be. She brought the brush up to the fingerprint pad and lightly brushed it across the scanner in an arcing stroke that left little powder behind, but soon covered the whole area. She put the lid back on the powder and returned both it and the brush to her kit, then stood once more with the last part of the tool – a flashlight. She shone it at the pad and saw nothing, then cursed softly as she realized she hadn’t put the right filter on the end. She attached the purple coloured piece of plastic to the end of the flashlight and tried again.

Nuts! There were a couple of smudges but nothing that could reliably be used as a duplicate of the owner. With a resigned sigh, she pulled her phone out of its pouch at her belt and got it started working on a program she’d downloaded just in case she ever was in a situation like this. Only a few years ago, a hacking group called Chaos Computer Club claimed that they had managed to recreated fingerprints from photos and commercially available software. They’d demonstrated by taking a still frames of a video of the German defense minister presenting at a conference. Every time she’d moved her hand away from the podium, the group had used the image to enhance the scan of her thumbprint until they were able to successfully recreate it, using only about a half dozen images to do so. In the years since, some enterprising mind had combined the group’s exploit with a visual search engine that would key into someone’s name to find images where their hand was visible. All you had to do was input your target’s name, and in a little while (depending on how public the person was), you could recreate their fingerprints exactly. The problem was, there were only a couple of fingerprints that would be registered to open the safe. She would only have a couple of attempts to scan the right print before the safe locked down and sounded alarms, so she needed to be right almost right off the bat. Obviously the property owner had ordered the best there was of something, and knew the possibilities of the device.

While her phone did its finger-searching thing, she took another look around the room, and once more, her eyes were drawn to the painting opposite the window. She glanced down at her phone to see how much longer it would be, but the progress bar didn’t appear to be making much progress, despite its name. She decided she had time to at least take a look at the painting before taking on the safe. She drifted slowly around the periphery of the room, still staying off the carpet.

The painting drew like a magnet and as she got near to it, she felt the strange sense of power she thought she’d sensed earlier. There was definitely something strange about this image. From where she’d stood at the door, the objects the painting represented had simply been abstract, but Cat now realized that it might have been the angle at which she’d been seeing it. There was some sort of three-dimensional trickery going on with perspective. As she got closer and closer to the edge of the frame, the objects within appeared to stretch backwards into the wall behind the picture, giving her a weird sense of vertigo as she contemplated the painting. The brush strokes appeared to float above the canvas, an optical illusion Cat didn’t think she’d ever seen before. There must be some sort of trickery with the frame or lighting, she supposed, but when she looked at where the frame wrapped around the edge of the canvas, she could spot nothing out of the ordinary.

She stepped directly in front of the painting and turned to face it full-on, as she supposed you were intended to view it. This didn’t appear to help the sense of vertigo at all. If anything, she felt even more nauseated now looking at the objects that appeared to be floating between the borders of the painting itself. She felt herself falling towards the images in the painting and was helpless to stop it. Her face drew nearer and nearer to the canvas, then with a start, she passed through where the canvas should have been. A sudden clarity made the objects behind the plane of the canvas snap into focus and Cat saw a tiny, delicate mushroom shape made of brilliant crystal deep within the painting. The facets of the crystal blazed with light, and each had been inscribed with one of the designs that appeared on the surface of the painting, through which Cat was now leaning. A dull throbbing noise pressed in on her ears, painfully, like the feeling she got when she dove too deep down to the bottom of the school’s swimming pool. The noise pressed in around her and threatened to make the nausea, which had retreated when her face had first penetrated the painting, return full force. She reached her right hand out toward the crystal fungus, and as she leaned into the frame of the painting, her open jacket trailed over the edge of the frame.

As soon as it did, the noise which had been pressing in on her intensified, but she also recognized what it was – the buzzing of her phone letting her know that it had finished the task she’d given it. It was amplified to unreal proportions by the space inside the painting, and was making her head pound. She reached once more for the crystal fungus, and felt her fingertips brush against its cold, hard surface. She lunged into the frame and wrapped her fingers around the cap of the mushroom and tugged it towards herself.

The crystal mushroom resisted at first, holding firm in whatever medium was holding it in place, but Cat was persistent. Though this was not what Joel had sent her here to retrieve, she thought she could either find a buyer for it, or find a place to store it until she could. She reset her grip on the crystal, and with strength she didn’t know she had, tore the crystal free of whatever had gripped it. She tumbled backward out of the painting and landed butt-first on the carpet, the crystal held tight in her hand.

Almost as soon as she’d landed, she bounced back up again and stepped gingerly on to the hardwood around the carpet. She held herself there silently for a minute, listening. There didn’t appear to be any extra activity in the house, but she would be quick nonetheless. No sense in taking extra chances if she didn’t need to. Her phone was still buzzing quietly in her coat pocket, but it was no longer the earsplitting cacophony it had been inside the painting.

Inside the painting. Had that really just happened? She glanced up at where the painting loomed above her. It looked ordinary, nothing particularly different about it. There were some odd shapes scattered across its surface, but nothing to suggest depth or any of what she’d just experienced. She stood carefully in front of it once more and considered it. Nothing out of the ordinary, just a plain old abstract painting. Broad brush strokes in bold colours combining to form shapes on the edge of being something recognizable. She turned away.

And yet… and yet, there was still something in her hand. She glanced down and saw the delicate underside of the crystal mushroom, ribs below the cap radiating from the center stem to the edge. She brought the crystal closer and saw that the ribs weren’t smooth as they appeared from far away. They looked rough, out of keeping with the delicate touch required to carve them in the first place. Bringing it right in front of her face, Cat’s eyes widened in surprise – what she had thought at first was rough craftsmanship was in fact the most delicate part of the whole sculpture. There appeared to be crystalline spores attached to each of the ribs.

Cat walked carefully back around to where her gear lay below the portrait pulled away from the wall. She grabbed a small bag from her pack and tucked the crystal mushroom into it and secreted it into one of the many hidden pockets she’d had sewn into most of her clothes.

Finally, she pulled out the phone in her pocket and looked at the screen. After dismissing the notification, she looked at the search results. Only two fingers on the right hand of the owner had been able to be digitally recreated. Either this guy was some kind of recluse, or he always wore gloves in public. Well, nothing to it – she would have to try the prints she had and hope one of them was keyed to open the safe, or this was going to be a whole wasted trip. Well, except for whatever she could get for the crystal mushroom, she supposed. She pulled the little 3D printer out of her backpack and turned it on to preheat. After feeding in some latex chips to get started, she connected it to her phone and downloaded the two prints she wanted. The printer burbled happily away as it printed the overlays for her fingers. Biometrics were getting better, but the one on the safe was still pretty dumb. As long as it could recognize the ridges and valleys in the print, and it matched whatever had been stored in it, the safe would unlock. Cat had read about some biometrics that used whole handprints, including the distribution of veins and arteries, to unlock some high tech doors. While that would have been a challenge, her printer might have been up to it. The real problem might have come with one of the new facial scanners that looked at heat distribution as well as placement of the facial features – that was nearly impossible to fake (which, she supposed, was the point).

When the 3D printer let out a soft chime to let her know that it was finished, Cat opened up the printing stage and withdrew the two small pieces within. Affixing them to the appropriate fingers of her own hand, she rose. The Döttlinger loomed over her. She breathed in and out a couple of times to steady her hand, then pressed the her forefinger – the one she thought was most likely of the two to be the one encoded into the safe – to the fingerprint reader. The border of the print scanner flashed red a couple of times, then fell dark.

“Well, here goes nothing,” Cat thought. Placing her pinkie on the scanner, she waited. A second dragged out into a minute, and just when she was about to nervously pull her hand away, the border flashed green, and she could hear a humming noise from within the door as the bolts withdrew from the casing. Cat peeled off the two prints and tossed them into her burn bag of everything that would need to be incinerated at the end of the job tonight. She turned back to the safe and pulled the door toward her. Ponderously, but silently, the door swung out into the room. While the hinges certainly were smooth, the door was exceptionally heavy, and she had to throw some weight into moving it around.

Inside the safe, the LED lights lining the frame sprang to life, illuminating the treasures within. Two rows of watches gleamed under the lights, and Cat was sorely tempted, but that was not why she had come. Still, she admired the timepieces – each was worth well into six figures. She spotted a Bulgari Magsonic Tourbillon and a Roger Dubuis Excalibur Quatuor in amongst other notable watches.

“Guy certainly has good taste,” Cat mumbled to herself as she started opening the drawers below the watches. More watches, some rings, and cufflinks gleamed out of the top one, all in their own little cases. The second drawer was what she was looking for – a file folder and some documents. She went through them until she found the one that Joel had tasked her with grabbing. Extracting it, she rolled it up and pushed it into a document tube she’d brought along for this purpose. She slid the drawer shut again, after trying to rearrange everything to look the same as when she’d opened it up. She swung the door to the safe closed again, taking a last longing look at the watches before they disappeared behind the heavy door. She then moved the portrait back into place to complete the illusion that nothing untoward had occurred.

Finally, she made sure all her tools were secured in her bag before putting it back in her backpack along with the document tube. Swinging her backpack back up on her back, she scanned the room once more to make sure she’d left nothing behind. Seeing nothing, she walked once more around the periphery of the room and made her way to the door. She cracked it open and peered out into the hallway to make sure there weren’t any surprises waiting for her outside the door.

She slipped through the door and closed it behind her. Making her way back up the hallway to her entry point as fast as she could without making too much noise, she didn’t notice the light blinking in alarm over the doorframe that she’d exited. She would have been hard pressed to see it at all, without some type of special glasses, as it was blinking in ultraviolet, as if it were warning something that could see in ranges beyond human sight.

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