Underwater Restorations - Part 1
by Jeffrey A Ballard
This is my favorite part, thirty feet above the ocean, falling at a hundred and ninety miles an
hour. Close enough to see our reflections hurtling to meet us. It's the second just before the
agitator lasers ahead to break the surface tension that's the sweetest. When all the adrenaline of
a ten-thousand-foot free-fall culminates in a terrifying second of, "Oh, shit."
A hundred things could go wrong. The agitator may not move enough water out of the way.
The air pocket could collapse before entry. The subroutine that mixes water and air for the
controlled deceleration may miscalculate and flatten me into a shark pancake. Almost a hundred
different ways to die in under a tenth of a second. I love it.
Then it passes and we're down fifty feet underwater and descending. Only when the static of the
comm comes online through my earpiece, trying to make a connection, do I remember to
breathe. The rush of the entry fades into focus on the job at hand.
Another fifty feet later, we stand on an exit ramp from I-95 and the rookie, Winn, brings up the
holo-map with incomplete sonar data overlaid. Hurricane Gretchen passed through last night
and did us the favor of muddying up the waters, an expected development -- the Feds are just as
"Lovers, you're all clear." I can hear the smirk in Puo's voice, ten thousand feet above in the
Seagull and driving north in the South Florida Memorial Airway.
"We descended four miles too far to the east." Winn points at the blinking dot on the holo-map.
"I think we'll need to jetflow. Listen, about last night --"
The flow jets will make too much noise; the squiddies are tuned to it. Its only purpose is to
outrun the damn things. "No, we'll have to jump, skip, and hop to the site. It's quieter and
doesn't disturb the water as much. Adjust your buoyancy in rhythm to your jumps and try to
keep up." I initiate my jump subroutine and leap.
Puo. That nosy punk's always got to stir the pot. I land forty feet away at an intersection and
wait. Let Winn struggle; I'll send over the subroutine after he falls several times. It's just a
fling. My father always said we Schmidts think with our cocks. Well, in my case, insert the
Winn is still just standing there. "Rookie, what's taking you so long? Let's move."
"I'm writing a subroutine to automatically manage the buoyancy adjustments. I can transmit it
to you when I'm done."
"That's very kind of you, Rookie," Puo breaks in. "Don't you think that's nice, Isa?"
"Puo --" He is so going to pay for this. "-- focus on our pickup. Rookie, nice thought, here
you go. I don't have time to wait for you to flounder through it." I transmit the subroutine.
Soon enough he's leaping as well. I keep one leap ahead of him as we make our way to the
destination. What's left of the urban sprawl of South Florida passes by in blue-green shadows.
Most of the buildings are intact, some are collapsed, but all of them are still. They seem to defy
the churning of the water from the hurricane that passed through.
With less than a mile to go, alarms start going off: squiddies -- the autonomous eyes and ears of
the Federal Government below the waves.
I cancel the subroutine and look for a place to hide. There's a Chick-fil-A thirty feet away. I
glide through a broken window and hug up against the ceiling in the play area. Hopefully,
Winn's done something similar.
What are the squiddies doing this far west and north? There's nothing out here they should care
about. The juiciest loot is in Miami and along the old coast. South Florida isn't even in the top
ten of the most federally protected underwater sites.
I move smoothly between the top of the slide and the roof, trying not to stir any silt. The more
obstacles between me and the squiddies, the better the chance their sonar can't find me,
particularly after a hurricane.
A tense half hour later Puo says over the comm, "It's gone. It's two miles south and continuing
to move in that direction."
"It was supposed to be clear," I say.
"They changed the modulation on the carrier frequency." His voice is agitated. "I got it now.
There's definitely a swarm of them farther north than normal, but they're hanging out by the old
coast. The President must be looking for some electoral year victories or somethun'."
Catching grave robbers of the sunken state is definitely a low-risk, high-profile political victory.
Too bad we don't have enough credibility to tell the masses the Feds do the same thing. The real
reason they police it outside of public opinion is to protect their claim.
"Rookie, check in."
"I'm here, one block over in a half-collapsed gas station. I wasn't sure whether to break comm
"Hurry up and meet me at the site."
A school of mackerel hover around an old land car, an Audi, and duck inside as I approach. Too
bad Audi couldn't use that in their marketing campaign. "Over a hundred air miles to the gallon
now, an artificial reef and home to thousands for Mother Earth later." It'd get the dry-earth-humpers off their backs.
The mansion looks like every other one on the block. Spanish-tile roof, arched entries,
horseshoe driveway and covered in algae and buds of coral.
After eighty-six years the wood backing the eight-foot wrought-iron door is rotted and feeble.
It's no match for my Kung Fu fist.
The entryway's actually kind of tasteful, notable only in the absence of the ostentatiousness of
the rich trying to live like the wealthy. No statue or fountain, no pointless two-curved stairway
or cheesy hand-carved table with an over-sized vase. The marble floors open to a main living
area that looks out on the back through a wall of broken windows.
Not long after, Winn shows up and I lead him wordlessly upstairs and down a hallway. I
carefully step over the skeleton of a canine and direct Winn to do the same. I don't know why
the pets bother me so much; I barely even notice human remains anymore.
The stupid owners either left him behind or didn't listen to the warnings when the mega-quake
hit in the middle of the Atlantic. It all happened sixty years before I was born, but the event has
been so dissected, practically everyone is an expert on it. Long story short: huge earthquake,
tsunami warnings, complete ignorance of the brand new volcanic mountain range birthed in a
matter of days and continuing to grow even now. The ocean doesn't mind; it makes room where
it can -- goodbye thousands of miles of coastland, goodbye hundreds of major cities, goodbye
I stop in front of the last door and initiate a scan. Nothing. Still, I send Winn in first -- it is a
tryout after all.
"The room's secure," he says. "The sculpture's here and looks to be in decent condition."
Jug Self-portrait by Paul Gauguin, a three-quarter foot stoneware mug from the late nineteenth
century. Gauguin's more known for his paintings, but there's a market for his sculptures as well.
"Puo, we're ready for pickup in ten minutes."
"Roger. There's a McDonald's Airstation a few miles ahead I'll stop at and turn around. Want
"Yeah, a large fry. Rookie, want anything?"
"Uh . . . no, thank you."
It's good to keep Puo on his toes. Now he'll wonder if he should get the fries and risk getting
yelled at for the waste of time, or risk getting yelled at for not getting them. Either way, I get to
yell at Puo.
"All right, Rookie, let's see what you got." The mug's encrusted and stuck to its resting place in
eighty plus years of ocean crud -- a result of the Atlantic homogenizing its new territory. When
we go through official channels, the sculpture gets graded and then it's all about how damaged it
is. It's critical to get it back to the shop with as little disturbance as possible. The less crud on it
when we get it back to the shop, the better the equipment can restore it. A deft hand is required.
A surgeon's hand preferably, hence the rookie, Winn. Sculptures don't sue for malpractice.
Winn lives up to the hype. His movements are smooth and deliberate. He gets the mug out in
about half the time it would've taken me, and carefully wraps it up for transport. Impressive.
"Not bad, Rookie. Follow me to the extraction point." We get there a few minutes later -- it's
only fifty feet from the mansion. "Puo, we're in position."
"I'm five minutes out. Transmitting sync for pickup now."
"I got your damn fries! I'll be there in four minutes and thirty-seven seconds."
Suddenly, I have to pass four minutes and thirty-six seconds alone with Winn. I'm not going to
tell him what a good job he's doing. I already got Puo; I don't need another inflated head on this
I pretend to fiddle with my equipment. That doesn't work for long, though. The silence is
stretched, turning into a large pointing arrow at the lack of conversation. I need to say
Winn beats me to it, "About last night--"
I don't want to have this conversation with Puo listening. "Are the goods secure?" Talk about
work, that's easy.
"You got the pickup routine activated?"
"Okay, check your power and gravity levels. It's like nothing you've ever experienced."
"How different is it from the descent?"
"It's not, except it's falling in the opposite direction. Kind of like going in an anechoic chamber:
it's only when normal is missing that you experience how weird it is."
The reverse-gravity suits aren't supposed to exist. There are only a handful, and as far as I
know, they're still a top-secret project for the special forces. When the opportunity presented
itself to look at the plans for one from a desperate engineer with a gambling problem, I didn't
hesitate. I had to go to Paranoid Pete and put out a second loan on the Seagull and empty the
bank account to boot, but it was worth it. The engineer left out some key components to try to
convince himself he wasn't doing anything wrong -- smart people always think criminals are
idiots. But they weren't that hard for Puo to fill in.
"Okay, let's get to the surface for the pickup. When Puo's in position, the subroutine will
automatically kick in, and whoosh, we'll free-fall toward the sky and onto the Seagull."
Winn doesn't say anything. His face is probably green. I'd tell him not to vomit, but there's no
better teacher than experience and having to clean it up afterward.
It's still overcast when we reach the surface. The subroutine lights up a counter in the lower left
of my helmet. Ten seconds to go. I take several deep breaths to prepare myself for the sudden
reverse. Three seconds. "Remember to flip, so your feet are pointed toward the sky." One
You feel it first in the stomach, a feeling that something has gone terribly wrong. You're already
two hundred feet in the air and climbing before the brain catches up and brings order to your
system, reminds the body, this is what's supposed to happen.
I've done this enough times that my brain kicks in around a hundred feet. But something's
different this time and it takes me another hundred feet to recognize it. It's Winn.
"Rookie's gonna fit right in, huh?" Puo asks.
We sit in the driver's cabin of the Seagull, a ubiquitous air delivery vehicle we've modified for
our purposes. We had tossed the back seats out to extend and close off the staging area and put
in a trap door for the free-fall entries and exits. The door between the two areas is enough to
stop the wind from buffeting whoever is driving when the trap door opens, but not enough to
stop the smell of salt from pervading the cabin.
Winn's in the back changing out of the gravity suit. Getting out of those things is tricky, like
trying to take off a wet t-shirt three times too small. "Yeah, he did all right."
"All right? The kid nailed it, wrote a jump routine on the spot, got the goods out in record --"
"What's your point, Puo?"
"Nuthin', just sayin' kid did a good job. We've needed someone else for ages. I was impressed
that he handled himself so well, even the pickup, I mean --"
"Aww . . . how sweet, Puo and his man crush. But I got to say, I don't think Winn plays that
way. Too bad, though, you two would make a sweet couple."
"After a night with you, you never know, he might play for the other team now. You never did
say how he was." Puo looks at me for details he isn't going to get. "What's with you? Usually
you're telling me how big the guy's --"
"Puo, pay attention to not being followed and your upcoming visit with Charlie." The
satisfaction of Puo's face going lax is immeasurable -- he knows he shouldn't have stirred the
pot. I'd bet a small fortune his testicles just defied gravity all on their own.
Winn and I are in a hidden room we call the Island in the center of a six-thousand-square-foot
loft in the middle of Atlanta. We're cleaning out and soaking the gravity suits, while Puo is off
meeting with Charlie, our longtime fence and surrogate crew member. She gives us fair rates,
mostly I think because we're both women. Puo's scared of her. He made the mistake of hitting
on her once in jest and didn't know what to do when she returned interest. She's bigger than he
The loft is owned by our topside venture, Underwater Restorations. To the law-loving public,
we restore and sell damaged art. It barely turns a profit, but the other side of our business does
rather well. We even employ Ashley, a young, over-eager, master of fine arts to run the gallery
in Charlotte. She's perfect for it, way too happy to have her own gallery to ask questions.
The loft is on the top floor of an old manufacturing building on West Mariette Street. There are
no windows and no advertising that we're here. All the restoration equipment and legitimate
machinery is laid out around the center, with a small specialty elevator in the corner used for the
delivery of pallets of restoration chemicals. Everything is designed to conceal the Island in the
center. It even has a secret entrance. There's a six-foot replica of the sculpture David outside --
guess what you have to pull to get in. I make Puo do it whenever we're together.
Winn is cleaning all the connectors with a toothbrush. It's laborious like digging a hole is: it's
never exactly clear when you're done. Winn is growing restless. I can hear him shifting in his
seat behind me. "Listen, Isa, about last night."
"What about it?" I continue to face away from him.
"I'm -- I'm not looking for anything serious right now. With the malpractice suit and the
insurance company screwing me over --"
"And you think I'm looking for something serious?"
"No, I mean, I don't know. I wasn't sure."
"'Cause I'm not." I turn around. "I thought that would've been clear when I said I had a date
tonight." A pretentious gallery owner hit on me a few days ago when I was researching the
competition. His chin almost faded into his neck, but the more people you know and can keep
your finger on in the art community, the better.
Art snobs and criminals: those are the two types of people I'm surrounded by. Then there's
Winn. I found him leaving Paranoid Pete's, the second most dangerous person I know. A loan
shark named for his paranoia of not getting paid back and taking premature, often violent, steps
to make sure people pay. Only the Boss -- the guy that runs and polices all the crime in Atlanta
-- is more brutal.
Pete has terrible rates, unreasonable time-lines, and preys on the desperate. And he was the only
one willing to agree to a second loan on the Seagull.
At first, I was just interested in Winn's shoulder-width-to-waist ratio and why such a Laci -- a
law-abiding-citizen -- was even at Pete's. After I learned his story and he checked out, I
worked out a deal with Pete to have him join my crew.
"Look," I say, "this is an easy gig. We don't hurt anyone, actually save art that would be lost to
the world, and get to free-fall -- in both directions." He smiles at that. The crazy man really
does like the reverse-gravity free-fall.
He nods in response. A man with a moral dilemma -- strange.
Puo and I are legacies, born directly into a crew and without a citizen chip, off the official grid
-- ready made for crime. We accepted our lot as criminals before puberty. The only choice we
had was deciding what type of criminals to be.
The monitor on the side of the room lights up and shows Puo coming back through the elevator
from his meeting with Charlie. Puo's impending arrival is enough to shut down the
He comes through the door into the Island and only has eyes for Winn.
"How was --" I start to ask.
"The meeting went swimmingly."
"Really?" Uh-oh, double-talk. Whenever the ocean or water is referenced out of context, it's
"You couldn't have asked for better day at the beach. Sun shinin', fresh worms --"
"Excellent." We've been in business long enough to have been through this before. But it's
never pleasant. "Now that that's taken care of, this place is a sty. Clean it up, please. The
rookie and I are going out for a drink."
"Is that a fat joke?"
"Yup, sweep it up, fattie." Whoops, Puo can be rather sensitive. I'll have to apologize later.
The possibility that Winn's a mole has me rattled. "Rookie, escort me to the nearest bar."
"Uh . . . I could stay here and help."
Twenty-four hours later, Winn and I arrive back at the storage loft to find Puo waiting. He
quirks an eyebrow at me when he notices Winn wearing the same clothes as yesterday, but says
nothing. He doesn't even mention my missed date either. I don't know whether to be grateful or
"It looks better in here," I say.
"It's clean, no bugs," he responds.
"So what happened?"
"The sculpture's hot, Charlie wouldn't take it. She gave me this." He slides over a federal
stolen art sheet. "Look at the time stamp."
A chill runs through me. It's hours after we took it -- hours.
Puo continues, "I went back and reprocessed the standard imagery the Seagull collects and look,
the squiddies weren't just to the east along the old coast. They were waiting for someone to take
An aerial map of the underwater site shows up on the wall monitor. It's zoomed out enough to
display thirty nautical miles around the mansion. Squiddies are everywhere, forming a ring
around the mansion. I start laughing. "This is fantastic."
"What?" Puo asks, sharing a confused look with Winn.
"Oh, you're still in trouble for missing this Puo, but they set up a perimeter to catch the thieves.
They have no idea about our free-fall entry and exit. They probably think we enter the water
outside of the monitoring zone and sneak in some other way."
Puo flushes red. I'd get on him more about the squiddies, but it's better to let him stew. Sure
enough, little beads of sweat start to form on his temples. Puo's a softie, wrapped in a large
package. He'd never forgive himself if we got nabbed.
"Oh, wonderful," Puo says. "What about the very hot, very expensive sculpture we gotta
unload? We need the funds to prepare for the Jacksonville job."
"I know, I know." Interesting, Puo doesn't trust Winn. The Jacksonville job is a pipe dream.
We're not even close to the kind of resources we need to pull that off. I need time to think, to
sort out our next move, and how to vet Winn further. He's been with us for over a month now
and passed all the screening tests.
Winn makes a suggestion only a newly defunct Laci could think of, "Well, what are the Feds
"Isa," Puo says, "this is a bad idea."
"We've been over this." And we have, extensively. The next payment to Paranoid Pete is
coming up and we have nothing. At best he'll repossess the Seagull, at worst he'll live up to his
name, become paranoid, and act accordingly. Our only chance is to get some sort of proof of
future funds from the Feds that we can turn into liquid cash on the secondary market.
Puo and I sit in the Island, monitoring Winn. Both of us are leaning over the table toward a
speaker in the center.
Winn was the natural choice to send into the viper's nest of the Federal building, claiming
information leading to the stolen art. Up until a few weeks ago he was a pure Laci, so he has all
the proper documentation of an upstanding citizen, and nothing on his record except the bad luck
of the malpractice suit.
Also, having him interact with the Feds will give us clues as to what side Winn's on. If Winn is
a mole they may give us the cash more easily. In which case, we pay Pete and go deep.
We put his citizen chip back in and outfitted him with a one-way audio that piggybacked off it.
Puo and I could listen in to everything and the Feds would just see a citizen chip acting
normally, emitting information like it should.
The speaker picks up a woman's voice. "Dr. Roonse, I'm Special Agent Lowry, the lead agent
assigned to the case. Let's find a quiet place to talk."
Winn exchanges pleasantries and footsteps come through on the speaker.
Puo and I immediately start searching for information on Special Agent Lowry.
"How long have you been in Atlanta?" she asks.
"I was born and raised here. I even went to medical school at Emory."
"You look like a native, you have that genteel air about you. Sorry about that malpractice
Winn stammers in surprise.
"It's in your file. Rotten luck, I must say. Usually, the jury's predisposed toward tall handsome
That cow. I know it's a ploy to soften Winn, but I start sorting through the search on Special
Agent Lowry for a photo anyway.
"You can understand then," Winn says, "why I'm interested in that reward."
"Right through here."
A door opens and closes, and chairs are pulled out.
"Is this an interrogation room?" Winn asks.
Puo and I both go still.
"Technically, yes. It's really just a quiet place to talk away from interruption. Do you object to
having this conversation recorded?" Winn doesn't object and she prattles off some identifying
information for the recording. "So, Dr. Roonse, you have information that will lead to the
recovery of the stolen sculpture Jug Self-portrait by Paul Gauguin?"
There's an awkward pause before she asks, "Can you please tell me what that information is?"
"Right, sorry." Winn clears his throat. "I rent a storage locker. I . . . often have to spend the
night. The malpractice suit left me with very little. Anyway, last night there was some activity
in the locker next to mine. They were talking about a sculpture that was hot and in need of
restoration before they could move it. I put two and two together and searched your page for
stolen art and called." The best lies are the ones that toe the line of truth. Winn does have a
storage locker but he's never spent the night there.
"Where's the storage locker?"
Winn taps his fingers on the table before speaking. "You'll have to forgive me, but I have
reason to distrust authorities." Winn's voice increases a notch in intensity. "The people that are
allegedly supposed to help you. The insurance company bailed on me on a technicality --" The
scraping of a chair being pushed back comes through the speaker. " -- and the chief of surgery
even said there was nothing I could've done. Instead --"
"Dr. Roonse, please, calm down. You came to us claiming information."
I'm not sure how much Winn is acting and how much is real frustration.
"That reward money can turn my life around. What guarantee do I have you won't find some
technicality not to pay?"
The reward isn't bad for a deteriorated Nineteenth-century piece of art. We could get a lot more
if we cleaned it up and sold it through Charlie, but that isn't possible. The reward should be
enough to cover our next payment.
"You don't," Agent Lowry answers. "But there's no reason we wouldn't pay. It's in our best
interest to reward informants. Bad press otherwise. What do you do the other nights when
you're not in the storage locker?"
"Motel. I work odd jobs for cash. When I can, I get a room to feel like a human again." Winn
scoots his chair presumably closer to the table.
"Odd jobs? With your abilities? Why haven't you found something better?"
"One, I can't practice medicine anymore, and two, liquidating all my assets and selling all my
stuff barely covered enough to keep me out of debtor's prison." Winn is almost shouting. "The
IRS garnishes my wages so much to pay off the rest, that they're pointless."
"I see. What places have you worked?"
"Bars, restaurants, any place that needs an extra set of hands. I doubt they'd remember me."
"A pretty man like you? I find that hard to believe. But here is something I don't quite
understand, Dr. Roonse. According to our financial people, you couldn't have sold everything
off and covered the part of the debt you paid. Can you explain that discrepancy?" The sound of
shuffling papers and then of papers being slid across a table echo through the speaker.
Oh, shit. There's no way they worked that up that fast. They were ready.
"Here's the thing, Dr. Roonse, no loan officer would cover that amount for a doctor that could no
longer practice. Well, sorry. I meant no legitimate loan officer, a loan shark on the other hand
. . ."
Winn needs to get out of there right now. They were waiting for him, they knew all about him.
He needs to leave, now. Move, Winn, move!
"Isa!" Puo says. "Winn can't hear you, stop shouting."
I'm standing at the edge of the table with the speaker in my hands. I'm not sure when I grabbed
it or what I yelled.
"I don't like where this is going," Winn says. "Am I free to leave?"
"No, you're not."
"Am I under arrest?" Smart man, thank God we prepped him.
"No. We're holding you for questioning for suspicious activity."
"I want a lawyer."
"We'll get you one. In the meantime, tell me about Ruby."
There it is. Puo and I lock eyes. It doesn't need to be said. Paranoid Pete got paranoid much
sooner than we anticipated. Ruby is the cover name I use when dealing with him.
"Isa," Puo says, "we got to burn the Island and go deep."
I can't believe it. Pete broke the only rule we criminals have. We have to torch everything, cut
all ties, disappear. Lose everything we've built.
And burn Winn.
If they release him, they'll tag him. He won't even know where we went. I got him into this
mess. I agreed to send him in there. This will probably destroy the last of Winn's innocence,
turning him into another jaded criminal. And I'm responsible.
"Isa!" Puo's already shoving discs and hard drives into the arc furnace. "C'mon, we gotta go!"
My body responds mechanically and I start loading what I can onto the Seagull. All I can think
is, we'll have to change its name, but to what?
The next seventeen hours are a blur -- the frantic flush of the Island, the transformation of the
Seagull, disavowing Underwater Restorations, scrambling to determine the extent of the
betrayal. Seventeen hours in seventeen minutes, that's what it felt like.
I'm driving loops around the Airway 10 at two-thirty in the morning in the newly minted
Pelican, trying to figure a way out of this mess. Puo's in the next seat snoring. I'm not sure if
he realizes how screwed we are or if it's a skill he's acquired being able to sleep anywhere at any
time. I suspect it's a bit of both. I can't sleep, I know how screwed we are.
Almost in concert with Puo's are Winn's snores coming through the Pelican's speakers. The
Feds never found the audio bug. We've been able to monitor everything. Winn hasn't said a
word, not one to the Feds the entire time they've had him. Even to the lawyer he only said one
sentence. "I intend not to say anything." And I'm pretty sure that was meant for me.
The only silver lining to this colossal stupidity is that I'm ninety-five percent certain Winn isn't
a mole. He knew several of our contacts and none were being monitored by the Feds when Puo
and I visited them to call in last favors.
Even so, the knowledge that Winn likely isn't a mole isn't particularly comforting. The only two
outcomes I can see for Winn are either thirty years in prison or becoming a slave to Pete. If the
Feds don't arrest Winn, Pete will get his hands on him. Winn's medical skills are too valuable.
He'll go back to patching up thugs for Pete's conscripted army. Pete will never let him go.
The only outcome I can see that will turn out well for Winn, is if he is a mole. Of course if that's
true, then he deserves to be gutted like a fish.
And around and around I go on the Airway 10.
Puo snorts and shakes awake. He wipes away some drool and sits up, looking groggy. "So,
what's the plan?"
"Winn hasn't said anything to the Feds yet. They'll either arrest him or release him in seven
hours. I'm not sure how to play it."
"I meant about Pete." Puo stretches, cracking various appendages. He sinks back into the seat
and looks at me expectantly.
Oh, right. Why should I have to bail us out of this? Didn't I just prove my plans are epic
failures? "I don't know, Puo. What is the plan? You got a plan?"
"'Cause I don't have a plan, Puo. So maybe you should pull your weight around here and come
up with one for a change."
Puo doesn't say anything in return. I know I'm being a bitch, but I don't care. I abandoned
Winn, burned everything I've built, cut myself off from the only world I know and, unless we
take care of Pete first, he'll definitely have us killed so no one will know what he did. And Puo
just sits there, calmly expecting some grand plan to set it all straight.
Puo says, "Pete busted the only rule, we could call --"
"No, absolutely not. That's a stupid idea and you know it." Calling the Boss from a position of
weakness is a sure-fire way to end up working for him. Oh, he'll sort it all out, but remind you
of that every time he wants something. It took a year last time to get his claws out of us. I'd
rather take my chances with Pete, than end up working for him again. "Any other bright ideas?"
Puo mumbles something.
"What was that? Speak up, Puo."
"I said, you're the brains of the outfit. You always got a plan."
"Damn it, Puo. Not this time. And why the hell are you so calm?"
Puo smiles. "You always get like this before some really clever idea comes out. It's how you
work. So go ahead and yell, it frees up your mind."
I nearly punch him. Puo is nothing if not loyal. I'm not entirely sure how I got to deserve that
loyalty. Which gets me to thinking about loyalty and the situation with Pete. An idea starts to
Out of spite, I toy with the idea of not telling Puo, to discourage him from thinking he's got me
figured out. But we have a small window before Pete finds out what happened.
"Pete's men only serve him," I say, "because they're either indebted to him, or because he
provides steady pay."
"Right." Puo mulls this over. "So, we steal his stash and his men turn on him. I like it. Simple,
plays to our strengths, lets others do the dirty work. So, what's the game?"
"We don't have time for a game."
"All right, old-fashioned, straightforward thievery it is. Classic. Where's the stash?"
"I don't know, Puo. Up your ass?" I'm still frustrated with him.
"Is that what that is?" Puo leans over and farts repeatedly in rapid succession. He settles back
into his seat, smiling, his eyes half closed. "Mmmm . . . the stash is . . . lumpy."
Despite myself, I'm laughing. Ever since we were nine, Puo has been able to make me laugh. I
vent the cabin.
"Fine," I say. "Here's my plan. Pete keeps his records in a tan ledger that he loves to lord over
people. After several years in business, he's filled up quite a few of them. We need a recent one
that he isn't using anymore. That'll tell us where his stash is, and since he isn't using it, he
won't notice it missing."
"He keeps them in a waist-high safe in the corner of his office."
"What kind of safe?" Safe cracking is Puo's gig. I've never had the patience for it.
"Don't know. A green one? There were five audible clicks when he opened it during one of my
Puo rolls his eyes. "Isa, that's useless."
"Yeah, you're going to have come with me."
"How we gonna get in?"
Pete's office is on the top floor of a three-story building. Pete controls the area, which leaves
coming in from above the only option. I smile at Puo.
"No, no way!" Puo shifts away from me as far as he can get. "I'm not wearing one of those
stupid vomiting suits again."
I laugh, then mime puke exploding inside of a helmet and down my face.
"Isa, no." Puo's not above whining to get his way, but before he starts his face breaks into relief.
"Besides all my tools are here, and since we don't know what kind of safe it is, I don't know
what to bring."
"What? So, you want me to bring you the whole damn safe?"
Puo looks thoughtful for a second and says, "Yep, that's exactly what you should do."
End of Part 1
. . . to be continued in issue 38 . . .