“The target is approaching the Vatican.”
It was something Agent Kate O’Hare never thought she’d hear, at least not outside a movie theater.
As she stared at the video monitor, Nick Fox leaned down next to her, so close she could feel his breath on her neck. Cologne, hair product, pheromones. Whatever the combination, it tried to have its usual effect on her, but she kept her focus.
“Do you really think this guy is as good as I am?” Nick asked.
“Maybe better,” Kate said. “You’re the one who got caught.”
Nick laughed that off. Even if he was “retired” from the business, he was still loving every minute of this trip to Italy, especially this chance to watch a master thief at work. He had once been a world-class thief himself, and had barely avoided a lifetime stay in the federal ADX Supermax prison. He bartered for his freedom by agreeing to help the FBI run semilegal cons and takedowns on the worst-of-the-worst, technically out-of-reach criminals. Kate tracked him for years and finally brought him down, only to be told by the deputy director himself that her next assignment was to be Nick’s full-time handler, minder, wrangler, manager, babysitter, whatever you wanted to call it. Nick didn’t go to prison in leg irons. He accepted the full-time shadow employment offer from the United States Department of Justice.
Nick was six feet tall, with soft brown hair, intelligent brown eyes, and a boyish grin that brought out the laugh lines around his eyes. He had the agile body of a tennis pro, lean and firm. He was smart, sexy, and playful, and if Nick had once been a world-class thief, he was still and always would be a galaxy-class kisser. From the beginning, it was all Kate could do to keep a professional distance. It was a goal she had thrown out the window on more than one occasion, and even now she wasn’t sure what to call their official “status.” In Facebook terms, it would have to be “It’s complicated.”
Tonight, Kate was six thousand miles from her Los Angeles cubicle, officially on loan to Interpol. She was part of a small international task force assisting the Vatican Gendarmerie’s Gruppo Intervento Rapido, the Rapid Intervention Group, who were acting on dark web intel that the museum complex was being targeted for a nighttime break-in. Her job was to provide Nick Fox’s expertise to the RIG, and make sure he acted like an angel. As exciting as that assignment might sound, she actually felt more like the trainer who brings the gorilla onto the movie set for the big action scene. No one even notices the trainer until the gorilla starts tearing everything up and stealing all of the food from the catering table.
Nick had been on his best behavior so far. He generously led the team through every phase of a high-level professional infiltration, taking them step by step through everything he would do if he were in the mood to break into the Vatican City Museum and steal something incredibly rare and incredibly valuable. The inspector general of the Vatican Gendarmerie was a serious, no nonsense man named Lorenzo Vitali, a former commander from the Italian Carabinieri. He was essentially half policeman and half soldier, who had answered a higher calling to take over security at the Vatican. He’d been skeptical of everything Nick Fox said, until Nick walked him around the city’s perimeter, pointing out every possible point of “surreptitious entry.”
“You have just over six hundred full-time residents living in this city,” Nick had said. “Yet every day, you open the gates and admit how many people?”
“On a busy day,” Vitali had said, “over twenty thousand.”
“Signore Inspector, you are tempting me back into a life of sin.”
“We have one of the most advanced security systems in the world, Mr. Fox.”
Nick had smiled. “That’s an interesting first response, Signore Inspector. You didn’t say you have a hundred highly trained and heavily armed guards. You didn’t say you have a sniper positioned on every roof. You said you have a system.” Nick leaned in closer to the inspector and said, “I spent my entire professional career absolutely in love with systems.”
Nick and Kate were now stationed in a small room on the third floor of the museum complex, in front of a large bank of video surveillance screens. As a precaution, Pope Francis had been taken by helicopter to the summer residence at Castel Gandolfo, twenty miles away. Forty-two members of the combined Gendarmerie/Interpol force were closely watching every inch of the museum. Kate was the only woman on the team, and if she felt at all uncomfortable working in a city where women were required to cover their arms and knees, at least she was wearing her favorite outfit, a blue windbreaker with the letters “FBI” written across the back, with a black T-shirt under a black Kevlar vest. Her chestnut-brown hair was tied up in her usual all-business ponytail. She had her Glock 9mm handgun tucked into her belt, and her Ontario MK 3 Navy SEAL knife strapped to her leg. Both were technically forbidden here, but Inspector Vitali, who tonight was personally commanding the Rapid Intervention Group, had seen Kate sliding her Glock under her windbreaker. If he was going to object, that would have been the time, but he had done nothing other than raise one eyebrow in appreciation.
The radio on the table squawked again. “The target is climbing the north wall, near the Cortile del Belvedere.”
Nick and Kate watched the video screen directed at the north wall. The image flickered for a moment, then was restored. There was nobody to see.
“He looped the camera feed,” Nick said. “Very smooth. Couldn’t have done it better myself.”
“The target is moving through the Pigna Courtyard,” the radio voice said, “toward the north side of the museum.”
As they stared at another screen, they saw nothing but the brief movement of a single shadow.
“No security guard would ever catch that,” Nick said, nodding in appreciation. “I’m watching a master at work.”
“Don’t get too attached to him,” Kate said. “He’s going to be in handcuffs in about five minutes.”
“You don’t have him yet.”
“We’ve lost visual,” the radio voice said. “Last seen a hundred feet from the Command Center.”
They sat in silence as a full minute ticked by. They waited to pick him up again, but then every video screen went black.
“He took them all offline,” Nick said. “It’s a gutsy move. Makes us blind, but at the same time announces that he’s on the grounds. He’s going to have to move fast now.”
“We’ve got the backup cameras,” Kate said. “On a separate circuit. The team spent all day yesterday installing them.”
She opened a laptop and brought up a multiscreen view.
“There,” she said, pointing to a dark figure moving down a hallway.
The resolution wasn’t nearly as good as the regular security cameras, but Nick and Kate could make out the figure, maybe six feet tall, moving with speed and efficiency. Like UCLA’s beloved basketball coach John Wooden used to say, Be quick but don’t hurry.
“What is he wearing?” Kate asked. She leaned forward, squinting. The thief was dressed all in black, and he appeared to be wearing a thin backpack.
“I don’t get it,” Nick said. “If you’re going for the ring, you just slip it into your pocket. You don’t need a backpack.”
The ring was the diamond-encrusted ring that once belonged to Pope Paul VI, the featured piece in a special exhibit of papal jewelry displayed in glass cases throughout the Galleria dei Candelabri. Worth many millions of dollars, it was the kind of ring that the current pope in all his modesty would never wear, but Pope Paul VI hadn’t seemed to mind a little bling now and then.
Only this ring was fake. The Vatican officials had refused to leave the real thing vulnerable to theft, or even to being touched by an outsider. But this fake ring was so convincing, especially in the semidarkness of the closed museum, the team was sure that the target would take the bait.
They watched as the intruder left one camera’s view, then appeared in another. He was in the Galleria dei Candelabri now, where a trap had been set.
Nick and Kate held their breath as the figure approached the display case. All he had to do was lift the glass and the charges would go from simple trespassing and breaking and entering to grand theft and desecration of a holy artifact and a dozen other charges that would put him away for the rest of his life. If the good Catholics around here had their way, for the rest of his afterlife, too.
The figure came closer and closer to the display case. He paused for one moment, the time it took to let out one breath, then kept moving. Nick and Kate both stared at the screen.
“What just happened?” Kate asked.
Nick didn’t answer.
“Did he know it was a fake?” Kate asked. “Is that possible? He didn’t look at it for more than one second.”
“I saw them put that ring in the case today,” Nick said. “It would have fooled me.” He kept staring at the screen. “Maybe we’re asking the wrong question. Maybe this was never about stealing the ring.”
“What else could he be after?” Kate asked. “What else is as valuable? And as easy to take out of the museum?”
“From the beginning, we’ve been assuming that he’s a world class thief, looking for a big score. But you said it yourself, if he’s so good, how come we’ve never even heard of him? A thief this good just doesn’t appear out of nowhere.”
“What are you saying?”
‘Tm saying, if you’re thinking like a thief, you take the easy score that’s right in front of you. This guy didn’t do that.”
“He’s still moving south,” the radio voice said.
“Don’t lose him!” Another voice, the team commander.
“Let’s go,” Kate said, grabbing the radio and opening the door.
“We’re not supposed to leave this room,” Nick said.
“You heard the man. He said don’t lose him!”
Nick ran out the door after Kate and followed her down the marble stairs. They hit the ground floor in the Galleria degli Arazzi, a long hallway with elaborate tapestries hanging on both sides.
“This way,” Kate said, taking a right and running south down the hallway.
The radio squawked again. “Target is in the Map Gallery.”
Kate burst through the door, into another long hallway called the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche. It had brightly colored maps along the walls and a high arched ceiling with frescoes almost as amazing as the Sistine Chapel’s, but she didn’t pause for even a second to admire her surroundings. Halfway down the gallery, a side door was just closing.
“Side room in the gallery,” Kate said into the radio. “I’m on him.”
”Agent O’Hare!” the voice came back. “You are an observer and you are not to engage! Do you hear me? Do not engage!”
She ignored the voice and kept running, with Nick on her heels. When she got to the door, she turned the knob but it was locked tight. She tried putting a shoulder into it, bounced backward a few feet, and said some words that shouldn’t be said any where in the Holy City.
By this time, two members of the Rapid Intervention Group had entered the gallery. They were in Kevlar, helmets, and face shields, and carrying Beretta ARXl60 assault rifles. One of the officers put a passkey into the electronic lock and the door opened.
The room was dark. The officers gestured for Nick and Kate to stay back as they turned on the flashlights attached to their assault rifles. They stepped into the doorway, shouting “Sul pavimento, non muoverti!” just in case the thief spoke Italian and also felt like cooperating and lying down on the floor so they could cuff him. When there was no response, the officers moved into the room. Kate and Nick followed. There were several tables, high file cabinets, bookshelves, and display cases. The smell of strong chemicals hung in the air.
“This is a restoration room,” Kate said. “Why would he-“
She was interrupted by the officers shouting again. They had found the rear entrance to the room. The door was open. The thief was gone, moving toward another part of the museum.
“Let’s go,” Kate said.
Without saying a word, Nick put up one hand to stop her.
“What is it?” she asked.
He pointed upward. High on the wall, between the bookshelves, was a window. It was open, and one of the ladders used to access the top rows of the shelves had been moved just under it.
“He’s got them chasing their own tail right now,” Nick said, again with an undisguised note of appreciation.
Kate climbed up the ladder, saw the rope hanging on the outside wall. She worked her way through the window, painfully scraping her shin against the stone sill, finally grabbed the rope, and was able to slowly work her way down. When she was on the ground, she turned around to see Nick standing next to her. There wasn’t a single wrinkle in his jacket, not a hair out of place.
“I used the door,” he said.
Before she could hit him, she spotted movement in the distance.
“There,” she said, and started running again. She keyed her radio and reported that the target was outside the museum, heading toward the Sistine Chapel.
”Agent O’Hare!” It was the same voice who had told her not to engage the suspect. She was pumping her arms as she ran, making it hard to hear what the voice on the radio was trying to tell her. Not that she was in any mood to listen, anyway. Her heart was beating fast now, that familiar rush she always felt when she was chasing down a suspect on foot.
Kate saw movement again, near the door leading into the cathedral. She ran through the same door, this time with her Glock pulled out from her belt.
She was breathing hard and paused one moment to orient herself. Leading with her weapon, she advanced into the Sistine Chapel. This time, she couldn’t help but sneak a glance up at the ceiling, at the five-hundred-year-old frescoes and especially at Adam and the Big Guy himself, who seemed to be looking down at her, wondering what this crazy woman was doing waving a Glock 9mm semiautomatic in God’s most holy of all holy houses. I’ll do a hundred Hail Marys later, she thought, as she waited to spot another movement, hear some small sound, anything to let her know where the suspect was.
Footsteps behind her. She swung around, pointing her barrel at Nick. He wasn’t breathing hard, and wasn’t sweating. In fact, he looked like he’d just stopped at the Vatican barbershop for a shave and a haircut.
“Do I even have to say how wrong this looks?” he asked. ”Although if you’re going to shoot somebody, I suppose this isn’t the worst place to spend your last moments.”
“Quiet,” she said. “He’s in here somewhere.”
She turned to scan the room again, as Nick looked up at the ceiling. There was a long silence, until it was broken by a door closing at the far end of the cathedral. Kate was off and running again, through the same door, until she picked up the intruder in the great expanse of St. Peter’s Square, a hundred yards ahead of her. She grabbed her radio and tried to speak. “He’s heading into the basilica.”
“Moving in,” the radio voice said. “Close off every exit.”
She ran up the steps to the front doors of St. Peter’s Basilica. One of the doors was ajar. She pushed it open. It was dark in the great lobby, the entire building closed down for the night.
Nick slipped in through the same door and stood beside her.
“My bat-sense is tingling,” Kate said.
“Spidey-sense,” Nick corrected. “But don’t worry about it. I’m not here to judge.”
They slowly made their way down the hallway, pausing every now and then to listen. The sound of footsteps came from above. Kate led with her Glock as she climbed the staircase. Every floor of the great basilica was dark and empty. Nick stayed close behind her.
They worked their way up each flight of stairs. A sign pointed them to the final staircase, leading to Michelangelo’s Dome. Kate heard the last echo of footsteps. There was nowhere else for him to go.
“He’s in the dome,” she said into the radio. She was determined to ignore anything that was said next, any order to stand down, because she had tracked this man all the way to the very top of the city and she wasn’t about to step back now.
Nick stayed behind Kate as she bounded up the staircase, which opened to the highest viewing platform in the city. In fact, it was the highest dome in the world. Under any other circumstances, it would have been a perfect night, with a million lights spread out below them, not just from the Vatican but from the city of Rome, which surrounded it.
“It’s over!” she announced to the night air. “If you’re armed, put your weapon down!”
She listened for a response.
Nothing. She picked one direction, went right, circling counterclockwise around the dome.
Nick appeared on the platform a moment later. He stood alone, looking down over the same view, until he heard a noise to his left. He edged around the dome, moving slowly, and saw nothing but the statues of the apostles that lined the platform’s stone rail.
One of the apostles moved.
“It’s time to give up,” Nick said.
“I don’t think so.”
Nick wondered where he had heard that voice before.
The intruder had climbed up onto the edge of the stone wall, and now he was facing out over the square.
“Don’t do it!” Nick said. He came forward, determined to grab the man by the waist.
The man turned to look at him. Both men were immediately frozen to the spot. They stared at each other, neither saying a word.
When Kate came around from the other direction, the spell was broken. The man spread out his arms and fell into the night.
Kate arrived at the wall just in time to see the man dropping to the square below.
There was a flash of white. A parachute! It unfurled within a fraction of a second. The air caught it and the man’s fall turned into flight.
He made one great sweep across St. Peter’s Square, then turned. The chute nearly brought him to a stop in midair before it regathered itself and took him toward the southern wall of the city. Kate watched, mesmerized, as the man disappeared over the wall, landing somewhere in the streets of Rome.
Kate stood motionless, trying to convince herself that she had really just seen the thief fly away.
“Why didn’t you stop him?” she asked.
Nick slowly shook his head, looking numb. “That was my father.”
The Bounty Copyright © 2021 by The Gus Group
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