[Retrieval] The Vault

You might want to read this story first.

Standing in the white corridor, Hatchet let his eyes roam around the corners, looking anywhere but at the keypad on the door at the end of the hallway.  One of the scientists bent over the keypad, typing in a complex sequence, while his companion stood by and looked back nervously at Hatchet.

The keypad wasn’t the answer.  The thing was utterly secure; no one could hack through it without leaving evidence behind.  There had to be another way in.

Not much met Hatchet’s wandering eyes, however.  The corridor was empty, the walls and ceiling covered in sheets of aluminum and painted white.  Not even security cameras broke the blank stretch of ceiling.

He’d asked about that, of course.  “We can’t use security cameras,” one of the scientists had explained quickly.  “They could be hacked, leaked.  It’s a security risk.”

The other scientist hadn’t said anything, but Hatchet saw him slide one finger into the collar of his suit’s neck, adjusting its fit slightly.  His face stayed blank, but Hatchet knew the man was sweating.

They didn’t want anyone to ever see what they were doing inside this facility.

With a beep, the keypad lit up in green, and mechanical sounds began to rumble from inside the walls.  Hatchet knew that steel bars were sliding out of the door’s frame, back into their sheaths in the walls.  The process only took a few seconds.

One of the scientists immediately ducked in through the newly opened door; the other lagged behind, waiting for Hatchet.  He didn’t look at the white-coated man as he stepped past, through the heavy door.

On the other side, the room looked like a typical research lab at first glance.  Lab benches were set up in rows, with shelves stacked with equipment along the walls.  Several large apparatuses sat around, centrifuges, incubators, and other devices too complex for Hatchet to identify.  Just like the corridor outside, almost everything was painted a clean, sterile white.

Making sure to keep his hands in his pockets, Hatchet strolled slowly into the room, never letting his eyes settle in one place.  He noted the bars over the vents, the lack of windows, the steel-plated door set into the opposite wall.

“And through there?” he asked, nodding towards it.

“Storage,” the scientist behind him answered shortly.

Hatchet stepped over to the door.  The steel door was also secured by a keypad, but on this door the steel rods were visible, standing up from the floor and emerging down from the ceiling to block the door from opening.  Reaching up, Hatchet tapped one of them.

They felt very secure.

“As you can see, completely secure,” the scientist in front of him said.

The consultant shrugged.  “Maybe.  Open it.”

The scientist in front of him glanced over his shoulder, back at his partner.  “Why do you need to open it?” the man behind him asked.

“The crystals were stored in there, yes?  So that’s where the theft happened.  I need to see the inside.”

Neither man moved.  “You can’t go in there,” the scientist behind Hatchet said.

The consultant silently counted to five in his head, and then shrugged.  “Okay then.  Thank you for your time, and I’ll have my bill sent to you within three business days.”  He turned, heading for the exit.

Inside his head, he only made it to three.  “Wait!” the rear scientist called out, his voice filled with stress.  “Okay, we’ll open it – but you have to promise not to mention it to anyone!”

Hatchet didn’t let a single hint of a smile appear on his lips as he stopped, turning back around.  He waited, and the scientists once again busied themselves keying in numbers on the access panel.

With another hiss, the inner vault door opened.  Once again, Hatchet stepped inside, sandwiched between his escorts.

The room was small, and reminded the consultant of a bank vault.  The walls were lined with locked metal doors, presumably with a space behind each for storing various items.

“Perfectly contained,” the scientist in front of Hatchet said.

Running his fingers over the steel doors, Hatchet slowly walked around the small inner room.  Three quarters of the way around, he stopped, tapping on one of the doors.

“The crystals were in here,” he said.

Both men started, jerking as their eyes went wide.  “How did you know?” asked the first scientist.

Hatchet didn’t reply.  Instead, he pulled out a small metal tool from inside his jacket and slipped it into the lock.  Both men raised their voices in a cacophony of objections, but those died away when the little metal door popped open.

“After a lock’s been picked, it’s more worn down and easier to open again,” Hatchet commented, only glancing briefly inside the open, empty container before pushing the door shut again.

“But that still doesn’t explain how the thief got in here,” the second scientist said, as his companion continued to gape at the open door.  “He couldn’t have gotten past the keypads-“

“He didn’t,” Hatchet interrupted.  Reaching down, the consultant slid his picks into another door, this one closer to the floor.  He opened it, and then stepped up on top of the door, using it as a step to allow him to reach the ceiling.

One of the aluminum panels there had a loose edge.  When he pulled down, the whole thing opened up with a clatter.  Up above, in the newly opened space, all three men could see darkness stretching away; the opening led into the crawl space above the metal ceiling of the lab.

The second scientist was the first to regain his voice.  “I don’t see how this helps you get the crystals back,” he spoke up.  He probably knew how petulant he sounded, but he didn’t let that stop him.

“It does,” Hatchet replied, crossing his arms as he looked up into the dark hole.  “Now, I know what sort of thief I’m looking for.”

“And what sort of thief is that?”

“I’ll tell you when I find him.”

[Retrieval] "Perfectly secure."

“Perfectly contained.  It’s completely secure.”

The man that some called Hatchet waited, drumming his fingers on the table.  His suit was crisp and freshly ironed, and his bland features wore a look of barely contained boredom.  His fit body aside, the man looked totally unremarkable.  No one would ever pick him out of a crowd.

“We’ve set up dozens of redundant protocols,” the scientist across the table tried again.  “Forget Fort Knox.  This is definitely the most secure installation in the country.”

“It’s true,” his colleague chimed in, looking as anxious as his fellow.  “The entry procedures include a half dozen different checkpoints.  Nothing comes in without our knowledge.”

Hatchet waited another beat for the silence to build before he asked his question.  “And things going out?”

The two scientists exchanged a look.  “Out?” one of them repeated blankly.  “Nothing goes out.”
The man in the suit could have asked more questions, here.  He could have inquired about the details of their security checkpoints, about how they screened incoming cargo, physical connections to the installation site.

He didn’t, however.  Instead, he just let the silence stretch out in front of him.

The men across the table from him waited, and fidgeted.  They reminded Hatchet of young teenagers who’d managed to get their hands on a negotiation manual, he thought to himself.  They knew that silence was a tool to be used, but they weren’t yet comfortable with it.

Hatchet, on the other hand, had all day.

Finally, caving to the pressure, one of the men across the table from him opened his mouth.  “We’ve been instructed to give you all the help that we can offer,” he began, before his mouth ran out of steam.  He lapsed into silence, clearly wishing furiously that this expensive consultant across the table would start doing something.

Finally, Hatchet gave a little nod, more to himself than to his clients.  “Something got out,” he said.

Both of the men nodded.

“And I’m here,” the consultant continued, “to retrieve it for you.”

Another set of nods.

This time, Hatchet nodded back.  “Okay,” he said, settling back in his chair and reaching for the bottle of Fiji water on the table in front of him.  “Tell me about it.”

Both of the men, either from relief of concern, started babbling at the same time.  Hatchet said nothing, merely listening attentively until they both eventually ran out of comments and slipped back into uncomfortable silence.

“Four crystals,” he repeated, watching for the expected nods.  “Enclosed in glass tubes.”

The nods came, just as he’d anticipated.  “Still contained,” one of the scientists insisted.  “Totally secure.”


“But still secure.”

Hatchet let this minor matter pass.  “And what happens if someone opens one of these glass tubes?” he asked.

“Um, they shouldn’t.  It’s secure-“

The consultant’s glare was enough to make the scientist’s words wither and dry up mid-sentence.  “If they open it, you probably won’t have to worry about retrieval,” he admitted, looking down at his lap.

Waiting.  It stirred tongues to looseness.

“If they somehow opened the tube,” the poor man began, looking miserable.

“-and they removed the crystal-” threw in his companion.

“Yes, and if they removed the crystal, there would be a… a significant explosion.”

Hatchet waited.  “Significant,” he prodded after a moment.

Both men nodded.  “Perhaps sixty megatons,” one of them offered.

For once, Hatchet had to struggle to keep his face blank.  A man in his line of work had to know conversions, especially regarding dangerous weapons.  “Sixty,” he repeated, before he could hold back the words.

Two more nods.  “But no one should open the glass tubes, so it should be okay,” one of the scientists interrupted quickly.

“Yes, the tubes fully prevent any unfortunate reaction.  Perfectly harmless, in the tubes.”

“Completely secure.”

[Retrieval] Meeting the Fence

Normally, the man they called Broiler preferred to take his time.  He liked to listen to his victim’s screams, savoring how they slowly realized that they wouldn’t escape, that they’d die with him.  He’d only been a bruiser when they threw him behind bars, but he soon found his place on the inside – and he commanded far more respect here than he ever did out on the street.

Broiler liked to savor his jobs.  But today, he moved with uncharacteristic swiftness.

Freddy lay quietly in his bunk, but Broiler didn’t doubt that the little ferret of a man had his ears peeled.  He was fresh meat, after all.  He surely expected to be roughed over.  For all Broiler knew, the man might be concealing a blade or shiv under that thin blanket.

Broiler, however, had the advantage of weight – and surprise.  Before Freddy could even speak out, the electrical cord in the big man’s hands looped around his throat and drew tight.

Broiler leaned down on the body as it jerked and thrashed, sawing back and forth with his hands.  It didn’t take long before the smaller man’s movements ceased.

Still, the bigger bruiser flipped the corpse over, waiting for several minutes to ensure that no life remained.  He’d been given triple his usual rate for this job, and he wasn’t going to let anything foul it up.  Only once he was completely certain that Freddy was dead did he stand up and leave the cell.


Koseynko watched the car cruise slowly down the street.  His street.  The tinted windows concealed the identity of the driver, but the car itself provided plenty of information to the observing man.

Mercedes, current year, with all the luxury options.  The car’s black sheen didn’t show a single scratch.  Koseynko doubted that the vehicle had ever even touched a dealership’s parking lot.

Furthermore, the thing was armored.  Most dealers wouldn’t spot something like that, but Koseynko remembered enough from the panicked weeks before he fled his homeland, just one more refugee from the Russian unrest.  The tires looked thinner but bulkier, and the car rode a little more heavily on its shocks under the weight of the ceramic panels.  That armor, more than anything else, fed the little spark of nervousness in Koseynko’s gut.

A high-level dealer would drive a Mercedes. But only the most powerful drug lords would pay for armor – and they’d never come to his neighborhood.  Not personally.  They’d send a lieutenant.

Something about this felt very wrong.

After circling the block, the car finally pulled up outside his building.  The engine turned off, but the driver didn’t emerge immediately.  Koseynko knew that there had to be at least a hundred eyes on that car.  He hoped that none of them would be foolish enough to try anything.

Finally, the door opened.  Koseynko’s eyes immediately flashed to the driver as he emerged.  The man wore a charcoal gray suit, perfectly tailored and probably worth more than what Koseynko made in a year.  The cut of the suit helped disguise the bulge, but Koseynko knew how to spot the piece hanging in a shoulder holster.  The driver was armed.

The driver closed the door and, moving as though he wasn’t standing in the heart of the projects, he strolled around to the car’s trunk.  The latch smoothly disengaged, and he lifted a slim aluminum briefcase out from inside.

Case in hand, the driver turned towards Koseynko’s building.  He strode inside, moving with utter confidence.

Koseynko hurried back to his seat, settling his bulk into the chair as the driver entered the room.  The chair’s springs creaked slightly beneath him, and his hand dipped down briefly on the side to check that the butt of his sawed-off was still there.  Reassured by the presence of his weapon, he looked up at the newcomer.

Pale skin, pale blue eyes.  A body in excellent shape, trained, but not a professional fighter.  The man appeared capable enough, but something in how he held himself betrayed him as a leader, not a fighter.  He moved with utter confidence, as if expecting the world to bend to his will.

“Vladimir Koseynko.”  It wasn’t a question.

Koseynko nodded, forcing himself to wait.  He could make no guess about the man, his masters or why he might be here.  The man knew Koseynko, and he had the advantage.  For the moment.

Behind Koseynko’s chair, he could sense the comforting presence of his two lieutenants.  They were armed, and certainly had their guns in hand by now.  Alexei leaned forward, cradling the heavy assault rifle he insisted on toting everywhere.

“Vhat do you vant-” the burly lieutenant began, but the newcomer cut him off with a single, imperious jerk of his hand.

“Freddy Larson,” he spoke.

Ah.  So that’s what this is about.  “A bad turn of luck, that,” Koseynko said carefully, taking his time with his words.  “I heard he was killed in jail, only a day after arrival.  Very unfortunate.”

The man in the suit didn’t even blink.  He might as well have thrown a signed confession down in front of the Russian.  “He came here to sell to you.”

Again, not a question.  For a moment, Koseynko considered hedging.  The man might be confident, but he was certainly both outnumbered and outgunned here.

Yet that confidence shook the Russian.  Somehow, the man in front of him projected deadly assurance, a wolf in human skin.  His outfit and car screamed money, connections, enough power to bring down a world of pain upon Koseynko’s balding head.

“Yes, he was here,” Koseynko admitted.  “Two days ago.  Looking to score enough for a high.”

“He brought items stolen from a nearby facility.”  Again, nothing but cold facts, emotionless statements.  “You purchased them from him.”

So, the man needed information.  Koseynko eyed him, wondering if he should test the waters.  “I might be more inclined to speak,” he offered carefully, “if you did not have that gun.”

For just a second, a flash of a smile danced across the man’s face.  It was gone in an instant, and didn’t reach his eyes.  “What’s the matter, Vlad?  Afraid of one man, here in your place, with your own goons around?”

This time, Koseynko was the one to keep his face blank.  “Freddy had the items you want, and he is now dead,” he pointed out.  “Forgive me for my caution.”

A minute longer, the man stared at the Russian.  But then, he broke eye contact and nodded, and Koseynko felt his heart beat again.

“Perhaps we were a bit too hasty with Freddy,” the man allowed.  He lifted up the aluminum case and set it on the table between him and Koseynko, turning it around as he popped the latches and lifted the lid.

Koseynko forced his face to remain expressionless as he noted the sheen of gold from inside.  “I know how you Russians prefer hard metal to soft currency,” the man commented.

The allure of the gold was too much.  Koseynko leaned forward slightly, but the man closed the case before his fingers could reach.  “The goods,” he reminded Koseynko.

Even with the case closed, the Russian couldn’t get the image of that gold out of his mind.  “Yes, he brought some stolen goods,” he volunteered.  “Mostly worthless, of course.  Addicts don’t know what to grab.  But he had four crystals, each in a glass tube.  That is what you are after, yes?”

“What did you do with them?” The man gave no confirmation, but that in itself told Koseynko his guess was correct.

The dealer held up four stubby fingers.  “One to a chemist at the University, to see what they were,” he counted off.  “One to the shef, the boss.  One to a goldsmith, again for value.  And one,” he finished, forming his hand into a fist and jerking his thumb over his shoulder, “is here.”

The man nodded, maintaining his poker face.  “I would like to buy all four of them,” he said carefully.  “As soon as possible.”

Koseynko hissed a comment in Russian to one of his lieutenants, and then eyed the man in the suit cannily as the lieutenant turned and ducked deeper into the building.  “What are they?” he asked.


“And yet,” Koseynko pressed, “you are willing, it seems, to pay very well for them to be back in your hands.”

The man shrugged.  “And you want the money.  What does it matter what the damn things are?”

It didn’t take long for the lieutenant to return, slightly out of breath as he placed the glass tube in Koseynko’s waiting hand.  The Russian held the glass tube up before his eyes.  The tube was about the size and shape of a large cigar, rounded and sealed at both ends.  Inside, a spiky crystal about the size of a marble floated, suspended in some sort of clear and viscous liquid.

“It is pretty, that much is true,” he murmured, tilting the glass back and forth, watching the crystal lazily rotate inside.  “And what would happen if this tube was to break?”

The question had been rhetorical, but Koseynko’s visitor answered.  The man across from him was leaning forward slightly, his eyes on that crystal and showing more interest than at any point earlier in the conversation.  “We would all be dead, for one thing,” he replied.  “It’s quite deadly when exposed to the air.”

The Russian’s eyes cut over sharply, leaving the shimmering crystal.  “It is poison?  A weapon?”

“It is dangerous,” the man repeated firmly.  His hands moved to the case, and once again Koseynko felt the magnetic pull of the gold ingots on his eyeballs.  “Now, pass it over.  Carefully.”

Obediently, the Russian made the trade.  But then, as the man in the suit started to rise from his chair, Koseynko coughed.

“I notice,” he commented carefully as his hand once again dropped down the side of his chair, “you did not make inquiries about purchasing the other three.”

“And that suggests to me,” he continued as he pulled the shotgun up, and Alexei lifted the barrel of his oversized assault rifle in his thick arms, “that you do not intend to purchase the other crystals from me.  I wonder, then, how you will obtain them?”

At the sound of the shotgun being drawn, the man had stopped, and he slowly turned to look back at the Russian.  He made no move for his own gun – a smart move.  Crystal or not, Koseynko wouldn’t have hesitated to blow apart the man’s chest.

“I assume that you would be smart enough to understand the terms of the deal.”  The man’s voice was flat, but there was perhaps a note of irritation hiding in its depths.  “I will return tomorrow.  Another case of gold, another crystal.  If you cannot obtain the others, I will retrieve them.”

A little voice inside Koseynko’s head cried out for him to shoot the man right then and there.  Such arrogance!  But the thought of another three cases of gold stayed his hand.  Even after the cut to his bosses, that would be such wealth!  He could expand, buy out his competition – or the assassins to accomplish the same purpose.  Such opportunity could change his entire life.

Slowly, Koseynko lowered his gun.  “Very well,” he replied, carefully watching the man.  “I shall send word immediately for the other crystals to be sent back.  Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow,” the man agreed, and strode out of the building.

Once he had left the room, Koseynko hurried to the window, watching.  Outside, several enterprising street rats had already moved towards the car, and one of them was even now bent over the driver’s side door, fiddling perhaps with a strip of spring steel.

As the man emerged, he calmly drew the pistol from beneath his coat.  The street urchin didn’t even have time to speak out before his head exploded in a shower of blood and brain matter.  The other teens immediately bolted, not even sparing a glance back for their dead companion.

The man in the suit didn’t bother firing after them.  He tucked the gun away, and then once again reached into his jacket.  Was he checking for the crystal?  Koseynko leaned a little closer to the window, trying to see.

No – he had withdrawn something else, something small.  A lighter, perhaps?

The man in the suit turned and glanced back up at the building, and for just an instant, Koseynko stared into his pale eyes.

The Russian fell back from the window, his arms flailing.  “The case!” he panted, spinning around and staring at the aluminum case of gold, still sitting on the table in the middle of the room.

There was no time.  Alexei’s mouth was still opening when the man outside pressed down on the button on the small remote in his hand.

Out on the street, the man didn’t even flinch as the building behind him exploded with a thunderous roar.  He climbed into his car, now covered in a layer of dust from the shattered edifice, and carefully withdrew the crystal from his inner pocket.

“Three more,” he whispered aloud, as he slid the thin glass tube into a cushioned slot in the glove compartment.

By the time the sound of sirens could be heard in the neighborhood, the armored Mercedes was long gone.