The Devil’s Share: New Excerpt

The Devil's Share by Wallace Stroby is the 4th thriller in the Crissa Stone series about a professional thief who finds herself on the run after a botched gig  (available July 7, 2015).

It's been a year since professional thief Crissa Stone last pulled a job, and she's spent that time under the radar, very carefully not drawing attention to herself. That kind of life is safe, but it's boring, and it's lonely, and it's not very lucrative. So when Crissa starts to get antsy—and low on funds—she agrees to act as a thief-for-hire, partnering with a wealthy art collector to steal a truckload of plundered Iraqi artifacts before they're repatriated to their native country. But what's supposed to be a “give-up” robbery with few complications quickly turns deadly. Soon Crissa is on the run again, with both an ex-military hit squad and her own partners-in-crime in pursuit. And what should be the easiest job of her career—robbing a man who wants to be robbed—might just turn out to be the most dangerous.

One

With dusk, the setting sun turned the ocean to fire. Crissa stood on the balcony and looked out across the hills, the houses there almost hidden by the trees. Through the haze, she could see all the way out to the beach and the amusement pier, the darkening water beyond. Up here, the traffic noise from Santa Monica Boulevard was just a hum.

A breeze stirred the trees below, the scent of night-blooming jasmine rising up. She looked down over the ornate marble railing. A thirty-foot drop and a flagstone patio there, surrounded by a lush garden, willow trees. A stone fountain in the middle, water tinkling gently.

“Million-dollar view,” Hicks said behind her.

She turned as he came out on the balcony. The French doors were open, the curtains moving in the breeze.

“More than that, I’d guess,” she said.

He was in his early thirties, lean and fit, dark hair cropped short, a two-days’ growth of beard. He’d been waiting for her when she’d walked out of the terminal at LAX and into the afternoon heat. She hadn’t been happy when she saw the car, a gleaming black four-door Jaguar. A vehicle like that would stick out, turn heads. But she’d kept her mouth shut as he put her overnight bag in the trunk, held the passenger door for her.

He’d worn a shirt and tie at the airport but now was in stone-washed jeans, a tight black T-shirt. There was a tattoo on the inside of his left forearm, a green-and-red snake curled around a dagger.

“He’s ready to see you now,” he said. “I mean, if you’re ready.”

She looked west again. The sun was all but gone, the gardens below and the trees downslope lost in shadow. The boulevard was a long line of red taillights.

She followed him through the doors and into a big room with an oak worktable in its center, paintings on the walls, the domed ceiling lost in shadow.

She stopped in front of a lithograph of a wolf, its head back, howling into darkness.

“You know art?” he said.

She shook her head.

“But you know what you like?”

“Sometimes.”

They went down a flight of stairs to a marble-floored room, a stone fireplace on one side, a grand piano on the other. Art on all the walls, sculptures on pedestals. There was another set of open French doors, the breeze coming through, bringing the smell of the garden.

The man who came in from the balcony was in his late sixties, longish white hair combed straight back, beard neatly trimmed. He wore a white suit, a pale pink silk shirt open at the neck. His cane tapped the floor as he approached. It was gnarled and thick, would be a weapon in the right hands.

“I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” he said. “Some last-minute business to attend to before I was free to talk.” He gave a small smile, extended his hand. “I’m Emile Cota. Thank you for coming.”

She took his hand, saw the liver spots, felt the thin skin, the bones beneath. He waved the cane at a trio of wide, cushioned club chairs around the fireplace. “Shall we sit? Talk? Randall, can you find Katya, have her pour some drinks for us? She’s back there in the pantry somewhere. Macallan for me and…” He looked at her.

“Nothing, thanks,” she said.

“As you will. But please, sit.” He swept a hand toward the chairs, the stone-and-wood coffee table there. Hicks left the room.

She looked around, not liking what she saw. A house like this, with so much art, would have hidden cameras, alarms. Maybe a room somewhere with CCTV screens, someone watching.

“What’s wrong?” he said.

“I’m not sure this is a good idea.”

“You haven’t heard what I have to say yet.”

“I meant coming here.”

“But you have, haven’t you? So, let’s build from there.”

She took the chair closest to the door. He waited for her to sit, took the center one himself, facing her at an angle. He laid the cane across his lap. “I appreciate your agreeing to meet like this.”

There was nothing to say to that. And nothing she could do to speed him up. He’d tell it in his own time.

“You come highly recommended,” he said. “At least as far as our friend in Kansas City is concerned.”

That was Sladden, the contact man she sometimes used as a go-between. It was Sladden’s call that had gotten her out here. The details he’d given had been minimal, but enough to whet her interest. More than a year since she’d last worked, and she was bored, restless.

“So, Ms. Wynn, is it? How do you prefer to be addressed?”

Christine Wynn was the name she was using here, the one Sladden had given him. It was on the driver’s license and credit cards she carried.

“Christine’s fine,” she said.

Hicks came back into the room, holding a short, square glass with brown liquid, a single ice cube inside. He swirled the drink, took the chair to Cota’s left. In his wake came a blond woman in a white smock, carrying a silver tray. She was in her forties, attractive in a hard way, hair tied back. On the tray was a drink identical to the one Hicks had, a bottle of scotch with a blue label, an ice bowl with tongs, and a green bottle of Perrier.

She set the tray on the table without a word, unscrewed the Perrier cap.

“I had her bring that anyway,” Hicks said. “Thought you might want to hydrate after your trip.”

“Thanks,” Crissa said. She didn’t touch it. Her hands were bare, and she wouldn’t chance fingerprints.

Cota said, “Thank you, Katya. I think we’ll be fine for the rest of the evening.”

She cut a glance at Crissa, then left the room. Crissa watched her go.

“Ms. Wynn was just telling me she wasn’t altogether comfortable coming here,” Cota said. “I’m hoping to reassure her.”

Hicks nodded, sipped his drink.

“Feel free to talk,” Cota said to her. “Randall here is my facto factotum, so to speak. He’s an employee in the strictest sense. But I trust him like a son. He knows all my business.”

“Who lives here?” she said.

“Just myself. I have visitors from time to time, but no one stays very long.”

“What about Katya?”

“This monstrosity has more than its share of guest rooms. She stays here three or four days a week. I get along on my own the rest of the time.”

“Should have given her the night off,” Crissa said.

“Ah,” Cota said. “It crossed my mind. But Katya has worked for me for many years. I’m sure she’s learned to forget what she sees here. Not that there’s ever much to see.” He lifted his glass, tilted it at her and drank.

“All this art,” she said. “You must have a security system. I’m guessing the house is wired for sound. Video, too.”

“Alarmed, yes. Wired, no. I certainly wouldn’t want a permanent record of everything that goes on in this house, would I?” He smiled.

“I know I wouldn’t,” Hicks said.

“There’s no need to worry on that front, believe me,” Cota said. “And we’re just getting acquainted here anyway.”

He had a faint accent she couldn’t place. European, but sanded down by years in the States.

“How was your flight?” Hicks said, and grinned.

“It was fine.” Returning the undercurrent of sarcasm in his question. They hadn’t known where she was coming from, only when she would arrive.

“I’d offer you dinner,” Cota said. “But I gather you’re the type that would rather talk business, and not fuss around with social amenities, am I right?”

“Reason I’m here.”

He set the glass down, used the tongs to drop another ice cube into it.

“This is thirty years old,” he said. “If you’re someone who appreciates a fine single malt, I’d recommend you try it.”

“Thanks anyway.” She drank little, almost always wine, and never when working. For her, the work had started the moment she’d left the terminal and seen Hicks waiting there.

“I admire the care you take,” Cota said. “It speaks well of you. I’m sure you were concerned when I suggested we meet here, at my house. But I’m a public person. I’m occasionally recognized on the street, when I have the rare occasion to be out there. And we couldn’t very well meet at a bar or a hotel or wherever these types of discussions are traditionally conducted. Also, I wanted to meet you face-to-face. I didn’t want to send just Randall here, for example. I wanted you to see me, know exactly who you were dealing with. I owed you that much.”

“I appreciate it.”

“So it made more sense to have him meet you at the airport, bring you directly here. And anyway, I expect you did quite a bit of research about me before you boarded that plane in the first place.”

“A little.”

“Then you know who I am, and what I am. Some of what you’ve undoubtedly read is true, and a lot of it—I assure you—isn’t, but…” He shrugged. “What can you do?”

“I’m here,” she said. “That tells you something.”

“It does. It does. Say we take a stroll, out into the garden perhaps? Would that make you feel better? I think it would, wouldn’t it?”

“Up to you.”

He sipped scotch, put the tip of his cane against the floor, and got slowly to his feet, his face showing the effort. Hicks watched him but made no move to help.

“Randall,” Cota said, “we’ll be taking the air. Amuse yourself.” Still carrying the glass, he tipped the cane toward another doorway. “After you.”

They went downstairs into an even larger room, more art on the walls, through French doors and into the garden. There were key lights out there now, lining a path, and she could see small statues every few feet, the greenery cut back around them. Flute-playing Pans, satyrs, cherubs, mourning women. There were lights in the fountain, too, giving the water a soft blue glow. In its center was a statue of a muscular naked man, one arm extended, a leg raised behind him as if he were in flight.

The jasmine smell was strong here. A breeze moved the willows, the tips of their branches sweeping the ground.

“I’m guessing our mutual friend didn’t tell you much,” Cota said. “As I told him very little in turn. It took me quite a bit of effort to find him. A name here, a name there. People who knew people. I considered it quite an accomplishment when I finally established contact with him. But money will open a lot of doors, especially if you’re not afraid to spend it. Sit?” He pointed the cane at a marble bench. She shook her head.

“Mind if I do?”

“Go ahead.”

He sank down on the bench, grimaced, set the glass beside him. He rested one elbow on the head of his cane, looked up at her. There were trickles of sweat on his face.

“I’m a collector,” he said. “As I’m sure you know. You’ve seen some of what I have here. There’s more in my other houses as well. In New York, in Grenada and Brussels. And two warehouses, in Nevada and Arizona. It’s a sin how much I’ve acquired. But it’s what motivates me. Wanting things. Our passions keep us young, don’t you think?”

“Maybe.”

He drank scotch again, the cubes melted and gone.

“About four years ago, I bought some items that were, let’s say, highly collectible. Antiquities. They’d been appropriated from a place that was in a state of chaos at the time. No rule of law there, no one to decide what belonged to whom. But I guess one might say, in the strictest sense of the term, these items were stolen.”

“Go on.”

“Regardless, I saw them as an investment opportunity. If I didn’t acquire them, someone else would. Plus, there was a limited window of time on their availability. So I secured the items where they were and eventually, at great personal expense, had them brought here to the States.”

She heard a keening moan from the hills behind the house, turned toward it.

“Coyote,” he said. “They come around here sometimes, when there’s a drought, or a brush fire. Or they’re hungry. On occasion a neighborhood dog will get loose, hear that fellow and follow him up into the hills. He thinks it’s his long-lost brother, or possibly a mate. Instead he gets killed, and eaten. There’s a lesson there, I’m sure.”

She said nothing, waited for him to go on.

“As I was saying, I warehoused these antiquities over here, and started searching for a buyer. Sotto voce, of course, because you can hardly trust anyone in this business. But there was so much fuss about these particular items, and their provenance, that I searched in vain for months.

“Unfortunately, along the way there were people I’d dealt with who weren’t as circumspect as I. Perhaps they had an ax to grind, felt I’d bested them in some business deal. They took money, I’m sure, for providing the information to authorities. Either way, the end result was that my ownership of these items—questionable as it was—came to the attention of some organizations that would rather they be repatriated to where they’d come from, where, then at least, things were relatively calmer and more secure.”

“Iraq,” she said.

“The where doesn’t matter. My hand was forced. These authorities and I came to an agreement that involved my returning the items—at my own expense. I agreed to assure their transit to a place where they could be handed over to an agent for the government that now claims to be the original owners—though that claim is as questionable as any other. In my view, I had as much right to those artifacts as anyone, considering what I’d spent on them, the risks I’d taken.”

“What do you mean?”

“Look at any great museum in the world. What are they filled with? Plunder. It’s how we learn about the past, how we keep it alive. These items belong in the hands of people who understand them, value them, who have the resources and the will to protect them. Not leave them at the mercy of whatever temporary, bloody-minded regime happens to come to power.

“Do you know what the Taliban did in Afghanistan, to some of the oldest statuary in the world, priceless treasures that date back more than two thousand years? You’ve heard of the Buddhas of Bamiyan?”

She shook her head.

“The tallest Buddha figures in the world, one of them a hundred and eighty feet high, carved out of a sandstone cliff. They were destroyed, dynamited, because those who’d come to power decided they were examples of anti-Muslim idolatry. And there were more barbarous acts of the same nature, throughout the entire region. Now, if someone had spirited some of those items away, saved them, protected them, what would be wrong with that?”

“But the ones you spirited away, you now have to give back.”

He nodded, took a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wiped sweat from his forehead.

“And as I said, at my expense, with the one allowance being that there would be no questions asked, and no ridiculous international investigation or specious charges to waste everyone’s time. But my name was known, and the presence of these items in my warehouse was known, so I had no choice.”

“They were going to let you just return them and walk away? That doesn’t sound right.”

“There were some extenuating circumstances. If the full story of how I acquired them were to come out, it would cast a certain ambitious government official over there in a very bad light. No doubt, he’d lose the lofty status he’s since obtained. This way, it’s much quieter. They get their items back and I take the loss—quietly.”

“I still don’t understand why I’m here.”

“Well, the final joke fate played on me in this matter? To fully prove me fortune’s fool? During the middle of all these egregious—and expensive—negotiations, the unforeseen happened.”

“You got a buyer.”

He nodded, leaned on the cane. “Someone I’d dealt with before. Someone I had in mind when I first acquired these objects, but who, at the time, wouldn’t go near them, because of the controversy attached.”

“And now he thinks you’re a motivated seller, so you’ll take his price, which is less than you wanted.”

“You see it exactly. As you can imagine, it presents a dilemma.”

“Because now you have to give them back, and you can’t make the deal.”

“I’ve arranged for their transportation, at my own expense, from my warehouse outside Las Vegas to a port in Southern California. That’s where they’ll be handed over to begin the first leg of their journey back to their supposed homeland.”

“And you’d rather they not get there,” she said. “Because you’d rather sell them than give them back.”

He folded the handkerchief, put it away. “Until that handover, until they’re unloaded from my truck at that port, they’re still under my control. You’re familiar with the term, I’m sure, that some crimes—some robberies, most particularly—are called ‘give-ups’?”

She nodded, knowing where this was going, what he wanted, why she was here.

“I would very much like,” he said, “during that long, perilous journey across the desert, for someone to rob me.”

 

Two

In the Jaguar, headed back down the winding streets, she said, “Not very inconspicuous, is it?”

“What?” Hicks said. “The car? Out here, trust me, nobody notices.”

“What else do you do for him when you’re not driving?”

“A little of everything. But if you’re thinking it’s one of those sugar-daddy situations, well, I wish. I have to work for a living. I keep a room there I use sometimes, but that’s it.”

“You have a title?”

“I guess you could call me his head of security.”

“He needs one?”

“Doesn’t everybody?”

The road grew steep, and he downshifted, took the next turn easily. The road was lined with trees, high fences.

She nodded at the tattoo on his forearm. “Nice work. Where’d you get it?”

“Thanks. This one”—he turned his arm out, the muscles flexing beneath the skin—“was right here in the States. Down in San Pedro, out on the pier. I like yours, too.”

He gestured to her left hand, the Chinese character etched on the inside of her wrist, a faint white burn scar across it.

“It’s Chinese,” she said. “It means—”

“Perseverance. I know. It suits you.”

“You don’t even know me.”

“Just a guess. Where’d you get it?”

“Texas.”

“I bet there’s a story goes with it.”

“There is,” she said.

When she didn’t go on, he smiled, shook his head. She looked out through the windshield, headlights cutting through the darkness.

“So just what is it you’re in charge of securing?” she said.

“You’d be surprised. The house, of course, especially when he has events, exhibitions of his collection, whatever. I do the same at his other places, as needed. Occasionally I have to fly out, handle a situation at one of the warehouses or offices. It keeps me busy.”

“You do all that yourself?”

“I have people I use when I need them. A team. Guys I served with.”

“I guessed. What branch?”

He looked at her. “Corps all the way. First Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment. First over the berm, March 20, ’03.”

“The what?”

“The berm. That’s what we called the southern border of Iraq and Kuwait. We’d been waiting for days, going crazy in the heat, so it was a relief to get moving.”

“How long were you over there?”

“Two deployments. Rotated out in 2006, then eventually got a job stateside with a private security firm. Next thing I knew I was back over there as an independent contractor. Made a hell of a lot more money that time, though.”

The road straightened. Through the trees she could see the lights of the boulevard down there, traffic moving along at a crawl.

“It must have been dangerous,” she said.

“The more you learn, the less dangerous it is. And bits of wisdom get passed on, stuff you don’t learn in your training, or from a manual.”

“Like what?”

They came to a red light. He eased the car to a stop, rested his wrists on the steering wheel.

“Lots of things,” he said. “For example, we used to have a saying, ‘When the pin is out, Mr. Grenade is not your friend.’”

“Good advice.”

“Reason is, guys go to toss a grenade out of a moving vehicle, to break up an ambush, whatever, sometimes they pull the pin, pop the spoon right there in their lap. You need to have both hands out the window when you do that. Otherwise, you hit a bump, drop that baby inside your vehicle, and it’s good night, Irene.”

The light changed. They made a left, and then they were on a side road that fed onto Sunset. She’d given him the name of a hotel there. At the intersection, he made another left, and they merged into traffic.

“Listen,” he said. “I know you just got here, and you’re probably tired, jet lag and all. But since we’re going to be working together…”

“Who said that?”

“Well, since there’s a chance we’ll be working together, can I buy you a drink before you turn in? Someplace quiet?”

“Thanks anyway. Maybe another time.”

“You got it. No worries. This it up here on the right?”

“Yes,” she said.

He signaled, pulled into the breezeway of the hotel. The glass doors slid open, and a valet came out, a kid in his twenties with the blond good looks of a surfer.

Hicks parked, left the engine running. When they got out, she shook her head at the valet. Hicks got her bag from the trunk, shut the lid.

“I guess we’ll be talking,” he said. “If you need anything, call.”

She’d bought a disposable cell phone before she left New Jersey, had exchanged numbers with him. The one he’d given her would be a burner as well, she knew. Another precaution.

“I will,” she said, and took the bag.

“Do I call you Chris, Christine, what?”

“Doesn’t matter. Either’s fine.”

“Well, it was good meeting you.” He held out his hand.

She looked at it for an awkward moment, but he didn’t draw it back. She took it. His grip was warm and dry.

“You’ve got a good handshake,” he said. “Strong. I like that.”

She looked at him, but there was no sarcasm there.

“Get some rest,” he said, and got back behind the wheel.

She watched him drive off, the valet hovering a few feet away. When the car was out of sight, she turned to him.

“Can I have that taken to your room?” he said.

“No,” she said. “Just get me a cab.”

*   *   *

She gave the driver the name of the motel in Culver City where she had a reservation. It was in a residential area, bungalows and small houses, the motel set back from the road.

She checked in, carried her bag to the room. From the front desk operator, she got the number of a local rental agency, called and arranged to have a car delivered in the morning.

She opened her bag atop the bureau but didn’t unpack. If she didn’t like what she heard tomorrow, she’d leave immediately, catch the next flight east.

She showered and changed, feeling the fatigue now, the displacement of long-distance travel. She was too tired to leave the room, scout around for a place to eat. There was a folder on the desk with menus from local takeout places. She’d order in, rest, sleep. Tomorrow, she’d listen to the rest of what they had to say. And then she’d decide.

*   *   *

Hicks laid out the photos in front of her. They were 8-by-10 color prints of a large statue, a winged bull with a man’s head and a square beard. It seemed to be emerging from a wall, half-freed from the stone. A piece was broken cleanly off the top, and other spots were cracked and chipped.

“Assyrian,” Cota said from across the table. “Seven twenty-one BC.”

They were in the big room on the third floor, the French doors closed, a pair of ceiling fans turning slowly in the shadows above. Hicks sat to her left.

“How much does it weigh?” she said.

“Five hundred pounds,” Cota said. “Give or take. It’s called a lamassu. A mythical creature, sort of the Assyrian version of a sphinx. It was built to guard the throne room of Sargon II, in Dar-Sharrukin.”

“Where’s that?” she said.

“Northern Iraq,” Hicks said. “Near Mosul. At least that’s what it is now.”

“This one will give you a sense of scale,” Cota said.

In the next photo, the statue rested on a large wooden pallet, half covered by a canvas tarp. A dark-skinned man in green fatigues stood beside it. The top of the statue was even with his shoulder.

“There’s another one like it, much larger, at the University of Chicago,” Cota said. “In their Oriental Institute. And a third at the British Museum in London. This one is the smallest of the lot, and has sustained more damage than the others, as you can see. Who knows what might have happened to it eventually, if I hadn’t brought it here?”

Hicks took more photos from a tan folder, set them out. There were pictures of the statue from different angles, all taken in the same high-ceilinged warehouse space.

“You take these for potential buyers?” she said.

“For the serious ones,” Cota said. “If it got to that stage, yes.”

The seventh photo was of a different piece, half the size of the first. A section of wall depicting two robed figures with elaborate headdresses and the same square beards.

“From the same excavation,” Cota said.

The last three photos were of the bust of a man’s head. Wide staring eyes, curved beard, the neck ending in a jagged edge where it had been broken from a larger statue. There was a wooden ruler on the canvas next to it for scale. The height was a little over seven inches.

“Don’t let the size deceive you,” Cota said. “That’s one of the most valuable pieces that’s ever crossed my hands. It’s from the Third Dynasty of Ur. 2000 BC.”

She looked through the photos again. “I don’t know anything about this type of stuff.”

“You don’t need to. I just wanted you to get a sense of what we’re talking about.”

“Just these three?”

“That’s it,” Hicks said.

“These other two could be moved easily enough, but that one…” She touched the photo of the winged bull.

“It’s actually in three segments,” Cota said. “That’s how we had it transported over here, by ship. We reassembled it once it arrived, for photographic purposes. It has to be crated and moved as three separate units, though.”

“Who’s the man in the photo?”

“His name is Hashemi Rafsan. He was my expert in those matters.”

“Military?”

“He was,” Hicks said. “Iraqi Army, Republican Guard, until he saw us come tear-assing across the desert.”

“A pragmatist above all else,” Cota said. “He was very useful to me.”

“He was my point man over there,” Hicks said. “To help decide what was worth the risk, what wasn’t. He’d worked at the National Museum in Baghdad before the war.”

“He know about all these? What you were bringing over?”

He did,” Hicks said.

“Where is he now?”

“Regrettably, he’s no longer with us,” Cota said.

“How’s that?”

“It’s still a dangerous place over there,” Hicks said. “Even now.”

She lined up the photos in two rows. Hicks sat back, crossed his arms, watching her.

“When is all this supposed to happen?” she said.

“One month,” Cota said. “That’s the timetable we agreed on. If it’s going to take more time, I have to let them know. They won’t be happy, though, and I’d like to avoid giving any impression of reluctance. Would four weeks be sufficient time?”

“It might be,” she said. “Let it ride for now. Don’t tell them any different.” She looked at the first picture again. “Five hundred pounds.”

“It had to be taken by boat down the Tigris,” Cota said. “Then by rail to the port of Umm Qasr. As I said, there was considerable expense involved.”

“And I’d guess considerably more if you have to pay the freight all the way back to where you got it.”

“One of their stipulations,” Cota said. He rested his cane in his lap. “As I said, a dilemma. And an expensive one.”

“Your new buyer, how do you get the pieces to him?”

Cota looked at Hicks. “Randall?”

“We haven’t worked out all the details yet,” Hicks said. “But I think a simple detour works best. The truck carrying the items is supposed to go to Long Beach, where a rep from the Iraqi government will meet it at the port, sign off on the contents, supervise the shipping. However, our real buyer will be waiting at another port with his own ship, a hundred miles away.”

“Where?”

“San Diego.”

“That’s a long haul.”

“But the hard part will be over. My thought is we intercept the truck after it leaves the warehouse, somewhere out in the desert. Then we tie up the personnel, drive off with the goods. Once we do the handover to the buyer, it’s his problem. Hopefully, by the time anyone figures out what’s happened, his ship will have sailed.”

“A truck hijacked while returning stolen goods under duress,” she says. “Hard coincidence to buy, isn’t it?”

“A chance we have to take,” Cota said. “My options are limited.”

“You could go through with it,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Give them back.”

“I think not.” He looked at Hicks, who nodded, got up and left the room.

“How many people traveling with this circus?” she said.

“Five men. But as I said, they’re all my employees, or ones I’ve subcontracted.”

“Any of them in on this?” If the answer was yes, she’d be on a plane home tonight.

“They don’t need to be,” he said. “They’re always under strict instructions not to resist if there’s an issue. And with the little I pay them, I doubt that interfering with armed bandits will enter into their thinking. It wouldn’t be worth it.”

“Let’s hope they remember that.”

“I wouldn’t be overly concerned. And having them there is to our advantage. They’ll tell their stories afterward, and quite truthfully. The convoy was stopped, the truck taken, and that was that.”

She looked at the photos again.

“Should I consider your interest piqued?” he said.

“Lots of logistics.”

“That I would leave up to you. Hicks will be at your service. Others, too, if you need them. His associates.”

“What’s the personnel breakdown on the convoy?”

“A single truck, two cars. One leading, one following. There will be a driver and a guard in both of the cars. But only a driver in the truck.”

“Armed?”

“The guards, yes.”

“Will they have radios?”

“To communicate between the vehicles? No.”

“But cell phones, I’m sure, all of them.”

“I would expect so.”

“That’s a problem.”

“Again, I bow to your expertise in those matters.”

Hicks came back in carrying a legal-sized manila envelope. He put it on the table, sat back down. On a lower floor a cuckoo clock began to chime. Nine P.M.

“At least five people to be dealt with,” she said. “So you’d need a three-person team going in. Four would be better. Easier to manage the variables.”

“If that’s what you suggest,” Cota said.

“How will the truck be packed?” she said. “Lots of padding, I would expect. Crates?”

“Big ones,” Hicks said. “With foam rubber padding, and sandbags to keep them from shifting in transit.”

“Locks?”

“Nothing special,” he said. “Oversized padlock on the rear door, crossbar, standard for that type of truck. A sledgehammer and a pry bar would do the trick.”

“Or we could procure an extra key,” Cota said. “Much less effort.”

“No,” she said. “It has to look like what it is. A robbery. A key says inside job.”

“Ah,” Cota said.

“Still,” she said, “I’m a little surprised. Items like these, shouldn’t there be more security involved? Armored car, maybe? More vehicles, at least. This sounds bare bones.”

“Randall, would you care to explain?”

She turned to Hicks.

“It’s a little different in the antiquities world,” he said. “We do this kind of thing all the time. Transporting, I mean. The object is to keep it as low profile as you can. The more security you have, the more people know you’re moving something valuable. Instead, you do it simple and quick, attract as little attention as possible.”

“These things will be insured, I’m guessing?”

“Of course,” Cota said.

“Will the insurance company want to send someone along for the ride, keep an eye out?”

“They haven’t before,” Cota said. “No reason to think they’d insist upon it this time. If they did, they’d have notified me already.”

She nodded at the envelope. “What’s that?”

“I thought,” Cota said, “since you came all the way out here at your own expense, the least I could do was reimburse you. Whether we move forward, or you walk out of here tonight and we never meet again. Either way, I want you to keep that.”

He slid the envelope closer to her.

“How much is in there?” she said.

“Five thousand,” Cota said. “Cash, of course. Just a gesture.”

“No thanks,” she said. She slid it back toward him. “If I decide to help you out, then we’ll talk about money. And it’ll be a lot more than five thousand.”

“Of course,” Cota said. “But I insist you take that in the meantime, as a gesture of good faith.”

“She doesn’t want any obligations,” Hicks said. “She wants to be able to walk away without any strings attached, any debts.” He looked at her. “Am I right?”

“Something like that.”

Cota sat back. “As you wish.”

“As long as we’re talking money,” she said, “how much are these things worth?”

“On the open market,” Cota said, “who knows? On one level, they’re priceless. Let’s just say what I’m taking for them is quite a bit less than their actual value, which is considerable.”

“As is the risk.”

“Fair enough. When you say it might require a four-person team, you’re including yourself?”

“Yes.”

“Then here would be my proposition. Two hundred thousand cash to you, a hundred thousand to whoever you bring in. Half when they sign on, half when it’s done. Would you consider that equitable?”

“Four might not do it,” she said. “I wouldn’t know until I got into it. It might take five.”

“Then the fifth man—or woman—comes out of the same pie. Two hundred thousand to you, seventy-five to each of your people—or however you want to divide it up. Five hundred thousand total. And don’t forget, Hicks will be available to help as well, as needed. Equipment, logistics, tactics, whatever. In fact, the one thing I will insist upon is that he go along on this ‘mission,’ so to speak.”

“If it happens.”

“Indeed, if. And his end isn’t part of the five hundred. I pay him myself. The rest is yours, to divide as you see fit. And as I said, half now, half when it’s done.”

She slid the pictures back into the folder. “I’ll take these with me.”

“If you think that’s wise,” Cota said.

“I’ll also need to look at maps, specs on the truck, the warehouse, personnel. Everything you can give me.”

“I can get you all that,” Hicks said.

“Good.” She closed the folder, stood.

“I’ll walk you out,” Hicks said. “I’m headed back to my own place.”

“Where’s that?”

“Venice. I have a condo by the beach there.”

“All right,” she said. Then to Cota, “I’m going to look all this over, along with whatever else Hicks gives me. He can deal with me directly.”

“How will I know what you’ve decided?” Cota said.

“If I’m in,” she said, “you’ll get a phone call.”

“And if I don’t, you’re not,” he said. “Because you will have already left Los Angeles.”

“That’s right.”

“And I’ll be left to worry what you might do with the knowledge you already have.”

“I don’t work like that,” she said.

He looked at the envelope with the money, then back at her.

“No,” he said. “I believe you don’t.”

Copyright © 2015 Wallace Stroby.

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Wallace Stroby is an award-winning journalist and a former editor at The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey. The Devil's Share is his seventh novel, following the acclaimed Shoot the Woman First. He lives in New Jersey.

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