Prague, Old Town, Czech Republic
Four stories above the street, Prague’s ocean of rooftops raced by in a blur as Jules Sibeko sprinted over one snow-dusted eave and rode the momentum to its neighbor. While his tracking beacon followed the roads at a predictable speed-limit-minus-two miles per hour—the rate at which Jules had rehearsed every likely route—he kept one eye on his phone and one on the next obstacle. The real-world exercise proved more difficult than any dry run, though.
He hadn’t expected snow either, a rare sight in April.
So he adapted. Planting his rubber-soled feet more firmly, he sought out nooks and crannies protected from the weather, and although the added caution shaved between 5 and 7 percent off his speed, he was still able to traverse the skyscape in pursuit of the thieves. In these moments, whatever the conditions, all that mattered was putting one foot after the other, timing his jumps so his fingers gripped the lip of the next vent, wall, or recess just so, and progressing smoothly and silently.
It was the closest he ever came to flying.
He barely felt the cold rushing by except through his ski mask’s eyeholes. His midnight-blue bodysuit, a smooth cotton-Lycra blend he’d had custom made in China, clung to him over thermals, and with his backpack coated in the same light-absorbing material, it offered better camouflage in the city’s shadows than the matte-black outfits he’d worn in the past.
Sure, he resembled a cosplay enthusiast who’d fallen on hard times, but the getup worked for him.
He glided over a ridge of terra-cotta like a tightrope walker, thankful for the clouds overhead; there was little danger of his silhouette betraying his position. Toward the edge, he sped up, preparing for the twelve-foot jump to a balcony on the next building. As fast as he dared, he gripped the peak’s edge with his foot, bent his knee, and threw his body weight forward.
The calculations used to appear to him in written form, as if he etched the formulas and trigonometric diagrams with neon ink in thin air. After years of practice, the process of working out distance, power required, the effect of gravity along with wind resistance, and all other factors effecting a physical feat, came to him in a split-second of probability.
This time, in addition to propelling himself over the expanse, he dropped four feet before landing on the wooden balustrade, only six inches wide, where he slipped in the snow. Momentum pushed him onward faster than predicted. But he spun in midair, kicked his legs over his head, and planted both feet firmly on the balcony.
Fluidly resuming his forward motion, he scaled the penthouse skylight at half speed.
Back clear of tweaks.
Knees bending, straightening. No pain.
Neck retains full motion.
Conclusion: no injuries from the mishap.
At full speed, executing an even riskier shortcut over a series of plush apartment buildings, Jules might’ve been mistaken by a casual witness for a thrill-seeking free runner. But this was no pastime. His years of training with parkour masters, of honing his body and learning every trick of every trade he might need, could all be about to pay off tonight. The thought that he could, in a couple of days, be kicking back and consuming pizza for the first time since his fourteenth birthday, trying beer for the first time period, and perhaps even indulging in a melted-in-the-middle chocolate pudding with cream caused his mouth to moisten, and he lost another three seconds in time.
The tracking beacon halted at a street that Jules scouted two days ago, an alleyway housing a fried chicken takeout place and a bookmaker plus a low-end knockoff designer boutique. From his rooftop perch, he couldn’t quite see beyond the shadows at the back end of the narrow passage, so he sidestepped to the foot-wide slab running along the bookmaker’s angled roof. Lying flat, his weight crunched down the snow and melted it into a freezing slush. He peeked over using a riflescope.
A two-year-old Range Rover, black of course—Do these guys ever drive anything else?—idled in the chill night. Most tourists were now indoors. Even the drunks. And those snug within the 4x4 seemed as if they were in no hurry to leave.
As if assessing their position.
As if scanning for a tail.
People such as these rarely looked up, though. If they did, they might spot Jules, contrasted heavily against the snow, but he was just another vague shape atop a roof in a world of CCTV cameras, covert surveillance teams, and drones. No way would they be looking for him four stories above their heads.
The passenger door opened, and out stepped a buff Caucasian dude with blond hair and a neat, trimmed beard, wearing a dark suit with no tie. His breath misted as he scouted the scene, pretending to check his watch. The gun under his armpit flashed for less than a second, but Jules recognized the butt of a Sig Sauer P229. When the guy walked, he favored his right foot by a ratio of less than an inch, indicating a backup piece on the ankle. Barely noticeable, but it was there.
This was no amateur.
The man nodded to the Range Rover, and a slender woman with copper hair shining brightly under the fluorescent lights climbed out carrying a metallic briefcase, an emerald-green trench coat keeping out the cold. Head down, age indeterminable, Jules assumed she was Lori, whose name he’d picked up during his recent low-tech surveillance of potential antiquities middlemen.
That’s a bold look.
It was a shame Jules was about to ruin her day.
He lowered his scope and returned it to his pack.
As the Range Rover departed, the woman marched into the alleyway, and the blond man closed in four feet behind while her free hand remained in her pocket.
From his backpack, Jules removed an extendible baton, currently retracted into a twelve-inch tube, and a three-pronged grappling hook attached to a bungee cord. He slipped the baton into the loop on his belt next to three throwing knives, opposite half a dozen dime-size smoke bombs, ninja-type equipment that made his fourteen-year-old self squeal with delight. His twenty-three-year-old current self concentrated on the serious business of now.
And there was no squealing. Of delight or otherwise.
After stashing his pack, Jules wedged the grappling hook between two steel rails atop the fire escape, fed out the correct amount of elasticated rope for the height, wound the slack around his hand, and noiselessly positioned himself above the alley, calculating his targets’ pace.
Again, in years past, he’d have spent seconds writing the sums and probability factors in the air, scrawling equations and vectors in two columns; one for the people he was observing, the other for his own approach. No longer necessary, his brain fine-tuned to the speed of any calculator. Faster, really, since there was no need for fingers to input the variables.
Could this be the final time?
Might he soon be able to disregard this level of learning? Allow some knowledge, some skill burned into his mind to slip, to be replaced with those insignificant skills he observed in everyday people. Like small talk. Like enjoying food solely for the taste not simply sustenance. Like understanding what joy a person might glean from the phenomenon he’d heard referred to as “binge watching” something for pleasure rather than research.
He was so close.
As soon as the red-haired woman passed under him, with the bodyguard maintaining his four-foot distance, Jules dropped.
Once more, his fourteen-year-old self called from the past to highlight how thrilling this should be, but all that entered modern Jules’s mind was how the cord should slow his descent to the ground from 1.25 seconds to a full three, depositing him approximately four feet behind the man with the Sig.
Within one second, he was plummeting at ten meters per second. Half a second later, the bungee cord pulled tight around his hand, slowing him to five, and as he neared the ground, it continued to drag his speed back in fractional increments until he halted smoothly, touching down with only the tiniest scuff; closer to three feet from the target than his intended four.
And that slight break in the silence, his disturbance of the air, was enough to alert the bodyguard.
The Sig appeared in the man’s hand as he spun, decocked in one expert action. Jules let go of the cord, flicking it forward. The end swung in the minder’s face, snapping like a whip.
The distraction was enough for Jules to fling the baton out of its loop and into the guy’s wrist, which released the gun. Before it hit the floor, Jules caught the firearm, rolled aside, and aimed at his opponent’s right ankle. Unsure which side the backup piece was on, he fired both outside and inside the limb, striking the gun on the second try—inside.
Math wasn’t the only skill that infused itself to him once he’d learned it. Perhaps gunplay was one of those burdens he could shed soon, in favor of inane chatter about the weather or the politics of the day.
Normal people stuff.
As the bodyguard fell, clutching his lower leg and checking for damage, Jules sprinted after the woman, who had already taken flight. He caught up with her beside the bookmaker’s, the raised Sig Sauer enough to halt her in her tracks.
“Hey,” Jules said. “Look at that. You lose.”
Lori glanced at the man on the ground before fixing Jules with widening green eyes. She was younger than Jules expected, between twenty-five and twenty-seven, a couple of years older than himself. Her skin looked pale, red cheeks accentuating the light shade. An English rose in appearance. But when she spoke, she was pure southern belle. Alabama, if Jules wasn’t mistaken.
She held up the case. “Take it. Please. Just don’t hurt me.”
Her bodyguard found his feet, pointing the backup firearm from his ankle holster—a small Walther. “Put it down and back off!” Another American, his accent blander, probably West Coast, practically the polar opposite of Jules’s Brooklyn tone.
Jules grinned beneath his mask. “That’s a risky move, friend.”
“Not your friend. And since you went for my leg instead of putting one in my head, I’m guessing you don’t wanna kill anyone here. But I have orders, and I’m not so picky.”
“Army guy, huh? Ex, I’m guessin’. But you can’t shoot me.”
“You won’t be the first to be wrong about that.”
The red-haired woman slowly retracted the case, eyes roving, lips stiff. This wasn’t her regular field of work.
“I don’t mean you’re afraid to kill me,” Jules said. “I mean... aw heck, I’ll demonstrate.”
He swung his gun toward the musclehead. The guy pulled his trigger once, twice, clicking dry both times.
“I wasn’t aiming for your leg,” Jules said. “I was taking out your backup piece.”
The bodyguard tossed the Walther hard at the wall and advanced, but Jules sidestepped behind the girl and firmed his grip on the Sig, stopping her would-be savior in his tracks.
Jules returned his attention to the redhead. “Okay. Lori, right? Let’s have it.”
She presented the case with a shaking hand. “I’m not Lori.”
“I don’t want the decoy, hon.”
More calculations, more probability, all firing his synapses to one simple conclusion.
“Decoy?” Not-Lori took a single step back. A minuscule shake of her head. “I don’t know what you mean.”
With his free hand, Jules ruffled her sleeves, then yanked them up to her elbows, revealing two smooth, bare arms. He retreated from her and focused on the man instead.
“Clever,” Jules said. “Hand it over.”
“I thought they’d send more men,” the minder replied.
“Where is it?”
“Where is what? This?”
The man tugged up his left sleeve to expose—pinched tight on his forearm—the item Jules had pursued across the globe for nine long years: a bracelet made of stone, infused with metallic green flecks, its circumference broken only by a half-inch gap, forming a tight letter C. That gap and its fixed shape made it technically a bangle, not a bracelet, but Jules didn’t care about the distinction. He concerned himself with one solitary factor.
Jules released the Sig’s magazine and popped the chambered round, tossed the gun up onto a second-floor fire escape, and charged at the bodyguard. He pulled up short of a bull-like attack, calming himself in time to prevent what was obviously a well-trained individual from countering early.
The other man had no such qualms.
He jabbed at Jules’s throat. Jules twisted away and simultaneously shoved the bodyguard off balance, then kicked the guy’s standing foot, dropping him on his backside.
The ex-military man rolled aside and drew a knife from behind his gun holster.
“What is it with you people?” the man asked.
“Me people?” Jules said.
“These objects aren’t supposed to be collected like novelty ornaments.”
“I don’t know who you think I’m with, friend. I just want what belongs to me.”
The man harboring Jules’s property relaxed momentarily. “You’re not with Valerio Conchin?”
Jules palmed one of the mini flashbangs from his belt. “I don’t know who that is.”
With a flick of his thumb, he set the smoke bomb to its shortest fuse and threw it forward. The flash of light and eruption of potassium chlorate made the guy jerk back, drop his knife, and hold his eyes. To his credit, he didn’t scream.
And with the redhead frozen in his peripheral vision, Jules moved in hard. A flat hand to the man’s throat and a heel to his jaw sent the musclehead tumbling, allowing Jules time to grip the bracelet and straighten the man’s arm, locking it in place at the joint. A simple aikido maneuver. Like so many techniques, he’d learned and mastered the art and never forgotten.
He tugged and twisted, sliding the bangle as low as the wrist, but it was stuck there.
“You won’t get it off,” the woman said, taking a single trembling step forward.
Jules maneuvered the arm around and forced his foot into the man’s shoulder blade so its owner lay face down.
“We had to use a whole a lot of olive oil just to get it on there,” the woman insisted. “And it hurt like hell.”
Jules strained, pulling up skin, causing the man on the ground to gasp in pain. “I won’t lose it now. Not when I’m so close.”
“Please,” she said. “It belongs somewhere safe. You say you’re not with Valerio. Then trust us.”
Jules twisted the object. “I’m taking it with me.”
“No. Please try to understand. If Valerio wants the Aradia bangle, we have to secure it.”
Jules slackened his grip on the stone jewelry but held his subject firmly underfoot. “What did you call it?”
The woman frowned, took one step forward. “The Aradia bangle. You say you own it, but you don’t know what it’s called?”
A hundred questions flew through his mind. Yes, he wanted it back, but that was all he knew. And he would never let it go again. It had been his before, and it was now his again.
Or, more precisely, “It was my mom’s.”
As the woman’s frown deepened at his words, Jules rolled the cotton-Lycra ski mask up over his mouth and spat on the man’s wrist, mashing the stone bangle into the saliva. The man cried out more than before as Jules wrenched at the locked joint with all his strength. The movement drew a line of blood, but that aided in slickening the surface. Jules spat again, and for just a second, the ornament appeared to glow, its flecks of green catching the streetlight.
And then it popped free.
Jules released the man’s arm and skipped away, finally in possession of the chunk of rock that had consumed the whole of his adulthood.
The whole of his adulthood so far, he reminded himself. He had plenty of life ahead of him.
The woman checked on her minder, who sat upright against the wall beneath the door light of the fried chicken place, cradling his damaged wrist. Both glared at Jules.
“Sorry, but the bracelet’s mine,” Jules said, and turned to find himself face-to-face with a third person.
“My sentiments exactly,” the man replied in a deep-throated Australian accent.
The newcomer stood at least six feet eight, almost a foot taller than Jules and twice as wide, most of it muscle. Dark-haired, he possessed a jaw the shape of a shovel. Ten local cops moved into place behind him.
“Now hand over the Aradia bangle, and Mr. Conchin promises no one else’ll get hurt.”