Authors: Jack Heath
ABOUT THIS BOOK
What would you do for $200 million?
Would you break into a billionaire businessman's top-security skyscraper?
Would you drive a priceless sports car off the roof?
Would you fly a helicopter with only a handbook to guide you?
And would you take on an unstoppable hitman intent on your destruction?
For teen thieves Ash and Benjamin, it's a no-brainerâ¦
is a high-octane thriller, starring two unlikely heroes with a dangerous appetite for adventureâ¦and big stacks of cash.
For Paul, my accomplice.
Also advisor, confidant and loyal friend
Don't get caught.
The girl's instinct was to move now. Screw the preparation. Screw the plan. Come up with something new, quickly. She was running out of time.
The fluorescent lights on the walls and ceiling of the cabin had been switched off â the gloom inside the plane was only occasionally pierced by the reading lamps of individual passengers. The roaring of the engines outside was dulled to a muted hum. The flight attendants had given out drinks and snacks, come back to take the wrappers away, and now sat in their seats up the front.
By the girl's watch, the plane was due to land in nineteen minutes. Which meant the descent would start in thirteen minutes. Which meant the captain would switch on the seat-belt sign in nine or ten minutes. Lights up, tray tables up, seats upright. Everything up as the plane goes down. All the other passengers would awaken, and buckle themselves in.
She had slipped a diuretic into passenger 8C's sparkling wine thirty-eight minutes ago, when she asked him if he had finished with his business magazine. The guy had given it to her, and sipped his drink without a hint of suspicion. But he still hadn't gotten up to go to the toilet.
She wanted to move now. Find another way to get the passenger out of seat 8C. Do what she needed to do, and get back to her row before the captain switched on the seat-belt sign. But she knew that changing the plan slashed her chances of success to almost nothing. Backing out was better than getting caught.
“We have to abort,” the boy said. He seemed anxious. Like always, she thought.
She resisted the temptation to touch the tiny flesh-coloured speaker in her ear. “Not yet,” she said.
The boy was sitting five rows behind her. He wasn't speaking aloud â he was typing on his laptop. The computer was reading his words aloud and transmitting them directly to the girl's ear. But thanks to a program the boy had written that synthesized his vowel sounds and inflection patterns, it sounded almost exactly like his normal voice. Just as on-edge. Jumpy.
The girl hoped he was right about the transmitter. That it wouldn't interfere with the plane's navigation equipment, possibly causing a crash. And that it wouldn't be intercepted by any of the countless stations which monitored chatter from the skies. If that happened, they might be mistaken for terrorist hijackers. The plane could be shot down. They could die.
But he's never been wrong before, she thought.
“You've got six minutes max before the seat-belt sign is switched on,” he said.
“And it'll take me less than four to do the job,” the girl whispered. She didn't have to talk loudly for the boy to hear her. The speaker in her ear was connected to a needle so fine she'd barely felt it slip into the flesh behind her earlobe. The needle's point rested against her jawbone, detecting the minute vibrations created by her speech, and sending the sounds back to the boy's laptop.
“If he hasn't gone to the toilet yet, he's probably waiting for the landing,” the boy said.
“Two more minutes. If he still hasn't moved in two minutes, we abort.”
“Don't get caught.”
“I never do,” the girl replied.
The old woman in the window seat next to her snuffled in her sleep. The girl watched her for a moment. Not waking up, just dreaming. Bulbous eyes rolled under veiny lids. The girl turned her gaze back to the passenger in 8C, who was on the other side of the aisle a few rows in front of her. He was reading a newspaper, and showed no sign of getting up.
The girl glanced back down at her watch. One minute thirty before she would have to abort. She squeezed the arm of her seat, frustrated. There's a nineteen-carat alexandrite stone on this plane, she thought, worth at least $150,000. I know where it is, I know how to get to it, but I'm going to have to let it go because passenger 8C has a superhuman bladder.
He was folding his newspaper. Raising the tray table. Unbuckling his seat belt.
“Okay,” she whispered. “Operation High Heist is a go.”
The girl pulled a magnet out of the seat pocket. It was an innocuous-looking thing â dull black, about the size of a matchbox. Ceramic, so it hadn't set off the metal detectors when she'd boarded the plane. She held it between her fingers, concealing it from anyone who might be watching.
The passenger walked past. The girl undid her seat belt and moved quickly and carefully up the aisle towards the empty seat. Most of the passengers were sleeping â the rest were absorbed in books and sudoku puzzles. No one looked up at her.
Each of her five senses was on high alert. She saw every flicker of movement, heard every tiny shuffle, felt every stray air current graze her skin. It was too much information to process consciously, so she let instinct take control. Her subconscious absorbed everything and pieced it together. Now, without looking, she knew the posture of each passenger, the shape and position of every bag, and the angle of vision from every sleepy eye.
She sat down in seat 8C â her movements unhurried but deliberate. There was a drawstring bag under the seat in front of her, some wrappers stuffed in the seat pocket, and the newspaper folded on the seat next to her. The paper was in French, which seemed unusual on a domestic flight.
But the girl wasn't interested in passenger 8C. He was incidental. She wanted the occupant of 9C, the seat behind her; a skinny middle-aged man with a magazine, a handlebar moustache and thick glasses that magnified his eyes. More specifically, she wanted the briefcase he had stowed under the seat at the beginning of the flight.
The seats between her and the window were empty. The occupants of the seats across the aisle appeared to be sleeping. Lucky.
She reached under her seat, and gently pulled the briefcase. As slowly and carefully as she could, she lifted it over the steel bar designed to stop luggage from sliding around during turbulence. Then she pulled it all the way out and put it on her lap.
“I've got the case,” she breathed.
“Copy that,” the boy said. “But hurry.”
Until the turn of the century, briefcases containing valuables were handcuffed to the wrists of couriers. But there had been problems with this system. It was apparent to everyone who saw a case like this that it held expensive items, which is never good for security. Some thieves were good enough to pick the lock on the case while another held the attention of the courier. Others were brutal enough to hack off the courier's hand to release the cuffs.
Times had changed. These days, most briefcases used for transporting valuables had a proximity sensor in the lining. This sensor transmitted a signal once every tenth of a second to a watch the courier was wearing, and the watch bounced the signal back. If the briefcase and the watch were separated by two metres or more, the signal wouldn't make it. If half a second passed without the signal being received, alarms would sound at 110 decibels from both the briefcase and the watch.
The girl knew the watch couldn't be removed without a five-digit numerical code. The briefcase couldn't be opened without the same code. The alarms couldn't be deactivated without opening the briefcase and removing the watch. Five digits â one hundred thousand possible combinations. And they were manual locks, not electronic. Impervious to electrical interference, and just as tough to crack by brute force.
The girl didn't have the code. The Source hadn't given it to her. So turning off the alarms was out. She had to crack open the briefcase and remove its contents without taking it more than two metres away from the courier's wrist. Then she had to put it back where she found it, and get back to her seat before passenger 8C came back from the toilet, or the courier noticed his briefcase was missing, or the captain switched on the seat-belt sign.
The lock had five scrolling wheels, currently set at 00000. The girl held the magnet above the first one and started turning it.
There was a thin iron block concealed under one digit in each of the wheels. If the blocks were face down in all five wheels, they created a bar, which slid aside so the case could be opened.
The iron block in the first wheel snagged the magnetic field and stopped it at 6. The girl moved on to the second wheel, which stopped at 5. The third wheel caught at 5 as well, and the fourth one rotated all the way to 9. The fifth one wouldn't turn at all, so the girl reasoned the block must be behind the zero.
Okay, she thought. 65590. Those are the digits that have to be face down.
She quickly worked out which digits would be on the opposite side of the wheels â those were the ones that had to be face up to make the correct combination. She just subtracted five from each one, with zero standing in for ten.
Easy â 10045 was the combination.
She took one last look around. The other passengers were still sleeping. The toilet light still said OCCUPIED. There was no indication that the courier had noticed that his briefcase was missing. Why should he, when the alarm on his wrist wasn't screaming?
The girl scrolled the dials around, lifted the latches on the sides of the case, and tried to raise the lid.
. The lock slid across, the hinges swivelled, and the case opened up.
Her throat tightened with anticipation. Almost done, she thought.
The inside was padded with glittering grey foam. There was a bundle of tissue paper nestled in the centre.
The girl unfolded it as quickly as she dared. Then she put a hand to her mouth.
The object was made of alexandrite. But it wasn't just an uncut block, or even a geometrically sliced gem. It was a sculpture, chiselled to resemble the head of the ancient Greek god Hermes. The patron of thieves, if the girl recalled her ancient history class correctly. The stone sparkled with silent fireworks of green and red.
A block of uncut alexandrite would have been easy to sell. It could be passed off as a family heirloom or a mining acquisition, and sold to a jewellery workshop anywhere in the world. But this was so distinctive that it would be branded as stolen goods for ever. She and the boy didn't have the connections they would need to dispose of it cleanly.
The toilet light switched to VACANT, and the door shuddered as passenger 8C fumbled with it from the other side.
Hermes' curly hair sparkled as the girl folded the tissue paper around it and placed it in the foam. She closed the briefcase and scrolled all the dials back to zero.
“Operation aborted,” she said.
Ashley Arthur stood in front of the gleaming glass doors and gazed up at the HBS tower. It hadn't been difficult to find. Even if she hadn't spent an hour studying a map of the nearby roads, she would have seen it rising above the peaks of the surrounding buildings when she got off the bus. Although only twenty-five storeys high, the building was on a hilltop, with streets trickling down from all around it. And the Buckland logo, blooming from the roof of the tower, was a familiar part of the city's skyline; a giant yellow cubic sculpture with tapered edges and the company monogram in the top right corner. On sunny days it glittered in the sky; this afternoon it reflected the clouds in dull sepia. But still the building glowed, outshining the apartment building opposite and the KFC next door.
Today was a big day. Ash was pleased. Not exactly happy, or excited â but pleased. She'd worked long and hard to get here, and she was as close to achieving her goal as possible without actually having finished. She knew that was the most satisfying time of any project. Success wasn't hers just yet â but she could see it on the horizon. She could almost taste it.
Her phone rang â two short beeps. The noise sank into the ambience of the street without so much as a ripple, which was why she had picked that ringtone. Other people barely heard it.
Ash glanced at her watch: 4.12 p.m. She was ahead of schedule. She had time to take the call.
She read the caller ID. “Hi, Benjamin,” she said.
“Hi, Double A,” Benjamin said. “Nervous?”
“Have I ever been nervous before?”
“You've never met a billionaire before.”
“I'll be fine,” Ash said. She checked her reflection in the glass doors. Her oak-coloured hair was straight and tucked neatly behind her ears. Her jeans were clean, her blouse was crisp and white. She straightened the collar of her jacket. Her black wedges shone in the pasty daylight. She looked exactly how she should â like a fifteen-year-old with an important interview.
“Well, I'm here if you need me,” Benjamin replied. He sounded a little jealous of her â up until now they'd been equal partners in the project. But today he'd feigned illness and taken the afternoon off school to be her remote support, so while she was meeting the richest man in the city, he would be sitting at home in front of his laptop, with his phone on the charger in case she needed him. He couldn't have come with her. He was observant, quick-thinking and skilled with technology, but he was nervous and awkward around strangers. Confidence was Ash's strength.
“You know me,” Ash said. “I can handle this.”
“I know. I'm not worried.”
“You're always worried,” Ash said. She'd never once seen Benjamin look relaxed. They'd first met the day after her sixth birthday â she had been sneaking into the school canteen after recess, hoping to plunder the leftover birthday cake before the teachers ate it with their lunch. During her search she'd found Benjamin hiding in the cupboard. Even as a five-year-old, he'd looked anxious. His fingers were twitching by his sides, and he was staring at Ash with suspicion. He had apparently formulated the same plan, only better â he had scoped out the location beforehand, located the cake on the bench by the sink, and stolen the
Oxford Dictionary of Quotations
from a classroom, intending to stand on it so he could reach.
The dictionary turned out not to be thick enough, so they stood it on its end and Benjamin held it steady while Ash tried to reach the cake. The plate was too heavy, and she dropped it. Fearing the noise would alert teachers, they both bolted, leaving behind a broken plate, a splattered cake and a ruined dictionary.
“What if he asks you questions about the essay?” Benjamin was saying.
“I've read it,” Ash said. “No big deal.”
A month ago, Narahm School for Girls, Ash's school, had announced a competition for the best economics essay. It would be judged by one of the richest businessmen in the country, and he would present a large cash prize to the winner in person. Ash told Benjamin about it, and he started writing.
They had won. Hammond Buckland had selected Benjamin's essay â “Taxes in a Globalized Nation”, by Ashley Arthur â and now Ash was standing outside the headquarters of Hammond Buckland Solutions, while Benjamin sat in his bedroom in his empty house, wearing his pyjamas, coughing every time he answered the phone just in case it was his mother.
“If they try to take your phone away from you,” Benjamin was saying, “let them. You can tell me what Buckland said later. But just in case they don't, I'll SMS you the new modem number in ten minutes. Call it when you can, then leave the call connected and I'll record the conversation onto my hard drive, okay?”
“We've been through this,” Ash said. But she wasn't annoyed. Benjamin's obsessive reanalysis and repetition of their plans was what made him a good partner. He detected every flaw in any plan. “And by the way, you're a total geek.”
“I know,” Benjamin said. “Good luck, Double A.”
“Don't need it,” Ash said.
“In that case,” Benjamin sounded hopeful now, “maybe I could take you out for a hot chocolate afterwards. To celebrate a job well done.”
Ash watched a couple of women in charcoal suits stride out through the glass doors, talking animatedly. “You wish, Benjamin.”
“You know, I really thought you'd say yes that time.”
Ash smiled. Benjamin had been asking her out on dates regularly since they were twelve. She always turned him down, but he never seemed to mind.
“You didn't just hear me call you a geek?” she said. “Talk to you soon.”
The doors slid aside as Ash stepped forward. Marble and glass loomed within. She took one last look up at the tip of the tower, at the gleaming cube high above. Then she walked inside.
There was an antechamber separating her from the main lobby, with a metal detector and an X-ray machine for bags. Cameras hummed from the corners of the ceiling. Three security guards, two men and a woman, looked at her incuriously.
Ash dumped her handbag on the conveyor belt and walked through the metal detector. It didn't beep. Her bag trundled out of the X-ray machine, and one of the guards started poking at it with what looked like a small vacuum cleaner. Sniffing for explosive residue, Ash knew. Checking that she wasn't going to bomb the place. She held her arms out sideways as the female security guard swept an identical device across her clothes.
“Thank you,” one of the others said as he handed over her bag.
“No problem,” Ash replied.
The main lobby was cleaner than most hospitals. Granite sparkled underfoot, wood panelling glowed under the reception counter, and mirrored glass walls reflected Ash's surprise back at her. She'd expected it to look classy, but for most office buildings classy just meant clean and sparse. This was more like walking into the reception area of a five-star hotel. It smelled of money.
The lifts were depositing a steady trickle of people into the lobby. They drifted past her towards the exit. Ash glanced at her watch â 4.20 p.m. Pretty soon everyone would be gone.
A receptionist with long, silver-painted nails looked up at her as she approached. “Hi,” she said. “Can I help you?”
“My name's Ashley Arthur,” Ash said. “I'm here to see Mr. Buckland.”
The receptionist was already typing in her name by the time Ash had finished speaking. “The top floor, the twenty-fifth,” she said, pointing into the alcove with the lifts. “You're a little early, so you might have to wait a while.” She caught a name tag as a printer spat it out. “Wear this at all times. Security will hassle you otherwise.”
“Sure,” Ashley said, putting it around her neck. “Thanks.”
The receptionist had already turned back to her computer.
Ash's wedges clacked against the granite. The many lift doors gleamed invitingly. She felt like everyone in the foyer was staring at her, like they could tell she didn't belong. She risked a glance. They weren't. Just nerves, she supposed. It was the most important day of her life, so she was entitled to be a little on edge. She pushed the button beside the lift, and watched the numbers scroll down on one of the indicators.
A woman with blood-red curls appeared beside her and pushed the down button. On her way to the basement car park, maybe. There was a ping, and the doors to a lift going up opened. Ash walked in and pushed the button for the twenty-fifth floor. It wasn't the top button; there was one for the roof as well. Ash wondered if someone went up to polish the yellow cube each day.
The doors slid shut. The interior of the lift looked like a miniature version of the lobby â granite floor, mirrored walls and wood panelling around the ceiling. It was so roomy Ash could have done a cartwheel.
As the lift began to ascend, the floor numbers blinked on a screen above her. At floor 6, the lift stopped. A guy with a silk suit and blue-framed glasses entered. He glanced at Ash's name tag but didn't speak to her. At floor 12, a man and two women joined them, muttering among themselves. Floor 13 brought a woman with a handbag designed to look like a slice of watermelon, and on floor 19 a man walked in who smelled faintly bitter, like old sweat, or a coin held in the hand for too long.
At floor 23 they all got out, and Ash travelled the last two floors alone. The lift was smooth and silent.
The doors slid open, and she stepped out of the lift. A redwood-panelled corridor stretched away to either side. There were small paintings hanging on the walls, one every few metres along. Prints, not originals â there for the sake of atmosphere rather than art. Green mountains, vivid fruit bowls, faded lilies.
Ashley had studied a plan of the building, and knew that there were only conference rooms and bathrooms to her left. She turned right, and started walking.
She stared at her hands to check if they were shaking. They weren't. She was about to meet one of the world's wealthiest, smartest businesspeople. But she was still in absolute control.
A curly-haired man was sitting behind a marble counter up ahead. He looked up from his computer, and stood as she approached. “Hi,” he said, sticking out his hand. “I'm Adam. Lovely to meet you, Miss Arthur.”
He was in his mid-twenties, but was only a few centimetres taller than her. She thought she detected a trace of Welsh in his accent. His dark curls bobbed around a noble face. His sleeve slid up his outstretched arm, revealing that his watch-tan was slightly larger than his watch, like he'd bought a new one recently. His name tag read ADAM KEIGHLEY.
“Call me Ash,” she said, shaking Keighley's hand. “Sorry I'm early.”
“No problem. We have some very comfy chairs, and I want to give you some background on Mr. Buckland and HBS before you go in anyway. Come with me.”
Ash followed him down a corridor behind the counter. Looking back at the screen of the computer he'd been working on, she saw an open game of Minesweeper. Apparently it was there for the appearance of professionalism rather than for actual work. His work started now â talking to her.
“First time here?” Keighley asked.
“Lots of people have been before and don't realize it,” Keighley said. “This building used to be a hotel. Mr. Buckland bought it, put the HBS cube on the roof, and now people forget it wasn't always our headquarters.”
“Wouldn't it have been cheaper to buy an actual office building?” Ash asked.
“Offices usually rent out individual floors instead of selling the whole building. And Mr. Buckland wanted a certain image for the company: classy and unusual. Prestigious. This way, although employees are paid the same as they would be anywhere else, everyone wants a job here. We always hook the best applicants and, because our employees know their jobs are in high demand, they're more satisfied and they work harder.”
“How many others are there?”
“HBS buildings like this one.”
Keighley smiled. “None. It's a global organization, but this is the only infrastructure.”
“How long have you been working here?” Ash asked.
Keighley chuckled. “Is it that obvious?”
“That you're new?” Ash said. “Yeah. You still sound like a tour guide rather than an employee.”
“Sorry. I've only been here a few weeks, and I studied hard for the job. Maybe too hard.”
“No, it's fine.” Ash stuck her hands in her pockets. “Give me the whole speech.”
“Okay.” Keighley clapped his hands together. “Hammond Buckland's first invention was the disposable wall. He knew that restaurants and schools were spending lots of money to fix the vandalism of their toilets, so he started selling thin sheets of clear plastic to stick to the exposed surfaces that could be removed at the end of the day or week.”
Ash nodded. The toilet cubicles at her school were always shielded by them.
“The success of the disposable wall allowed Mr. Buckland to explore some other ideas. The collapsible subwoofer, the flash drive implant, the vacuum welcome mat. He hit the big time when he discovered a use for brewery protein â congealed protein that forms at the bottom of the vats during fermentation of beer. Every brewery in the world was just throwing it away, but Mr. Buckland reasoned that it must be either good for rats, or bad for rats, so if it was good he'd make food pellets, if it was bad he'd make rat poison.”
“So which is it?”
Keighley grinned, showing small teeth. “Good, as it turns out. Rats can eat almost anything. Pet food is a good industry to be in, because the customer isn't the consumer, so the taste doesn't matter.”
“Was that when he started AU?”
Keighley raised his eyebrows. “You've been studying too, I see.”
Ash nodded. “I'm a customer, so I already know that bit of the speech.” AU was a digital banking service which connected to an existing bank account, and added interest in exchange for use of the money while it was in the account. “Although I have one question.”