Susan's Book Club

It was a lazy Saturday afternoon. The warm, spring air floated through the open kitchen window, bringing the aroma of the rose bushes underneath. Susan had asked Derek to prune those bushes for weeks, but he was either out chasing those stupid nanites, or exhausted from a night of “serving and protecting” with them.

She brought the ham sandwiches to the table where Derek was reading the paper. She smiled at the headline on the front page. CRIME SPREE CONTINUES! NANITES ASLEEP?

“Lunch is ready, Derek.” She sat down and took a handful of chips from the bag to go with her sandwich. Derek reached around the paper, feeling around on the table for the food. He knocked over a salt shaker and shook the grains of salt off his hand. “Derek, would you mind putting the paper down and having lunch with me? Honestly, you’re making a mess.”

Derek folded the paper, and looked surprised by the pile of salt on the table. “Did I do that? I’m sorry, Susan. I was just distracted by the article on the crime spree. They keep evading us.” He helped her clean up the salt.

“The way you obsess over those things, I worry sometimes that I’ll need bionic implants of some kind to keep your attention!

He smiled and kissed her on the cheek. “That’s ridiculous. You’re my beautiful, loving wife. Nothing means more to me than you do.”

She didn’t know if he knew it or not, but she knew he was lying. If he ever had to choose between her and those stupid nanites, between her and “serving the city,” she’d be divorced at best, if not buried or widowed.

“It’s just frustrating that wherever I am, or the nanites are looking, these thieves hit someplace else.”

There he went again. It was always about those ridiculous nanite police things. She sighed and took another bite of her sandwich. This was an old division between them, though she doubted he had any idea how old or how deep it ran.

“Do you still have your book club meeting this afternoon?”

His question caught her by surprise for a brief moment, but she recovered quickly, after long practice.

“My bo- oh, yes. We’re meeting at Gladys’s house today. Should take most of the afternoon. What will you do with your afternoon?” As if she didn’t already know.

“I think I’ll go out and see what trouble can be found. Saturday afternoon isn’t usually busy; there are too many people around as witnesses, and plenty of options for nanite-assisted citizen police. So the chances of actually being in the right place at the right time are slim. But I don’t really have anything else to do, so I’ll walk around and see if I can figure out how they are escaping us.”

Nothing else to do, she thought. She bit her tongue and breathed in the fragrance of the sweet, un-pruned roses.

“What book are you girls reading now?”

“Uhm, we’re trying Crime and Punishment.” She answered almost without thinking. “It isn’t easy,” she added as an afterthought.

He nodded, his eyes back on the headline. “Sounds interesting.” He hadn’t listened. She could have said they were reading How to Kill Your Husband in Ten Days or Less and he wouldn’t even have noticed. Not that it mattered anyway, really, it wasn’t as if they were reading anything. Still, she told herself, it was the principle of it.

Susan finished her sandwich and kissed Derek on the top of the head. He’d found another article to read. She left the kitchen and went to the bedroom to change clothes. As she buttoned up the white blouse he’d bought her on their vacation last year, she heard footsteps behind her. Suddenly her eyes were covered and her body tensed.

“Are you sure you don’t want to skip your book club?” Derek whispered. “Crime and Punishment isn’t really more interesting than staying at home, is it?”

Susan smiled. There was her husband at last. Sadly, his timing was horrible. Her cell phone rang.

“Hold that thought, Honey.” She flipped open her phone.

“Susan Daniels.”

“Susan, we’re meeting at 2:00, right? At the usual place?” The man’s voice was rough and gritty, like sand in the locks of a heavy safe.

“Yes, Margaret. Two o’ clock. I’ll see you there. Don’t forget your book.”

“Got it.” The phone went silent.

Susan snapped the phone closed and tossed it onto the bed. She turned and stepped back into Derek’s arms.

“They’re waiting on me. Maybe tonight?” She kissed him and batted her eyelashes. “Or maybe, if I get done early, I can come find you. What side of town will you be on?”

“The east side, I think.”

“Then be looking for me on the east side, Mr. Daniels.”

Susan left his arms and walked out of the room. She gave her hips some extra swagger, since she knew he was watching. She picked her keys from the hook by the door and left the house. She had almost forgotten to pull the book from the bookshelf.

The engine of her light green car purred to life when she turned the key. She opened the sunroof and pulled out onto the street. She kept her eyes on her rearview mirror just in case he decided to be cute and follow her. The street was empty.

Fifteen minutes later, she pulled into a small alleyway in the warehouse district, near the waterfront. At the touch of her defrost button, a section of the warehouse wall beside her slid open and she pulled into the garage. She parked the light green car between the black Corvette and the red Dodge Viper, both hers. At the back of the room was a single wooden door. She tapped the wall beside it and to her left, a hidden door swung open. The wooden one was a trap for snoopers.

The hidden door swung shut behind her and a light came on. The room was well decorated in dark colors. Three locked cases displayed keepsakes that she hadn’t wanted to fence. A safe set in one wall held more “liquid assets” and across the beautiful mahogany antique desk were laid floorplans, and safe schematics. She went to the wardrobe cabinet beside the small bed and changed into black canvas pants and a black, long-sleeved pullover. She buckled her favorite 9mm onto the webbed belt and strapped her boot knife to her calf. The black combat boots, a dramatic change from the low-heeled pumps she had walked in wearing, completed the outfit. She tied her dark hair into a ponytail and stepped through the door near the desk.

Over a dozen men were waiting for her. Two long tables stood along either wall, in front of large white boards, each covered in information. The men were scattered around, chatting, but stopped when she closed the door behind her.

“We’re hitting the west side job, people. Get organized.”

Instantly, the crew got to work. Three men went to one of the tables and whiteboards and began checking the information, grabbing checklists of equipment. Other men went to lockers and closets around the room for various sets of equipment. The three at the table were her lieutenants. Brad was short, stocky, and had more hair on his face than on his head. He was in charge of transportation and “street placement.” He turned and pointed to two men leaning against a wall. They picked up two walkie-talkies from the table and left the building. They were lookouts. Brad checked off two positions on the scaled map drawn on the white board. The bank was in the middle of the street. His two lookouts would be stationed on each end of the street, watching for what was codenamed Sweetheart.

Mark was skinny, with horn-rimmed glasses and mousey brown hair. He was the nerd. He was in charge of their secret weapon. He turned to a group of six men closing the doors on their equipment cabinet. Four of them were in street clothes, except for the gas masks and the odd backpacked equipment they were wearing. Each of them had twin tanks of a noxious-looking gas and various sprayer tools hooked to the side. They looked like pest control on steroids. The other two had the same tanks, but instead of street clothes, they were wearing latex bodysuits with hoods and full face masks.

Mark motioned them over and pointed out the positions on the map. “Wind is coming from the northeast today, so concentrate from this corner.” He glared at one in particular. “Don’t miss any a/c units this time. There are three manholes and four street vents, so divide them between the two of you. Get going.” They left and he turned to Susan. “The Sandmen are in the wind. Bedtime is 45 minutes.”

“Got it. Thanks, Mark,” Susan turned to the remaining members of the team. “We’ve got 45 minutes to go time. Let’s get in position.”

The last lieutenant, Samson, was a bear of a man, tall and broad-shouldered. His arms were almost as big around as Susan’s waist, in her younger days. His rough, gritty voice barked orders to the remaining members of the crew.

“John, you’re on the safe. This is the three-foot steel one; get the acetylene torch and small explosives. Jordan, we’ll need the black leather assorted bags for the exit through the subway. Freddy, make sure we’ve got the crowbars for those safe deposit boxes. Load up and get to the site. Freddy, take the subway. John, you’re in my truck. Jordan, go with Susan.”

Half an hour later, Jordan and Susan were parked on Pride Street, each holding a bag. Hers was a large shopping bag, and his was a large briefcase. Each of them were packed with more empty bags. A red backpack, a brown messenger bag, a paper grocery sack. Their target was only two stores ahead of them: the Second National Bank. They held clear miniature oxygen masks to their faces.

On the street, people were beginning to drop. The Sandmen had done their job. The sleeping gas wasn’t visible and didn’t have a smell, but it was certainly effective. When they saw no one left standing on the street, they got out of the car and headed for the bank. The doors were unlocked, the guard asleep against the potted plant. Around the corner came more of the team and they went inside together. Scattered around the floor of the bank were customers and bank employees, all sound asleep. John shouldered past the other guys and headed for the big safe around behind the teller counter.

They handed out the various bags and started clearing out the teller drawers. Naturally, the really good stuff was in the vault, but why waste time and free money? Susan headed upstairs to check through the offices while the boys handled the main floor.

“Sandman to Alpha Wolf, come in. Over.”

Mark was reporting in. Susan pressed the watch button that opened her voice channel on the earbud com system. One thing her group could afford was some very fancy little toys.

“Alpha Wolf. Go ahead.”

“The hourglass is empty. Time at two hours. Heading back to Dreamland.” Susan nodded. The cryptic message made perfect sense to her: They were out of sleeping gas and heading back to base. The rest of the team had about two hours before people started waking up. They just needed to be done in that time.

“Roger that. Alpha Wolf out.”

Susan returned her attention to the papers she had been going through upstairs. She pushed the bank executive’s arm out of the way to reach a money transfer schedule. Those trucks were easiest to hit if you knew where they were going to be. She rolled her eyes as the fat, balding bank manager began to snore. She ran the document through her handheld paper scanner and replaced it on the desk. Now the money truck schedule was on her flash drive. She moved on to the other offices.

“RingMaster to Alpha Wolf.” That was Samson downstairs with the safe and main heist crew.

“Alpha Wolf.”

“The snake is in the nest.” John had cracked the safe. “Eggs are good.” It was loaded, just as they had expected. “Are there more eggs in the tree?” He wanted to know if she had found anything good.

“A robin egg. Still sear-“ She stopped in mid-sentence as she peeked into the next office. Standing on an easel between two sleeping men and a guard was a painting. She was no art expert, but she could recognize something valuable. She would get it appraised later. “Scratch that. I found a Goose. I’ll let you know if I need help with the eggs.”

“Roger that. Ringmaster standing by.”

Susan whistled gently at the painting as she entered the office. There were two more in protective cases leaning against the wall. The stickers on the case identified them. A Monet and two Picasos. Talk about a Golden goose! She carefully put the one from the easel back into its protective case. How nice of them to provide convenient, safe transport for the paintings. It made her job much easier.

“Blackbird to Alpha Wolf. Come in. Over.”

“Alpha Wolf,” she responded without letting go of the painting. It did her no good. The channel wasn’t open. She rolled her eyes at the simple mistake. The paintings had her excited.

“Blackbird to Alpha Wolf. Come in. We have an owl.”

That wasn’t good. She got the painting into the case and opened communication.

“Alpha Wolf here. Which owl?” An owl meant one of their own was asleep. Such an event would have been a real nuisance on Mark or Samson’s crew, but Blackbird was leader for the lookouts!

“North Market Street.”

“Hole in the wing?” That meant that something had gone wrong with his gas mask.

“Negative. Wings were clipped.” Susan’s eyes widened. That was not what she had wanted to hear. Someone had taken the gas mask off of their North Market lookout.

“Scatter, Blackbird.”

“Roger. Over and out.”

Susan locked the three painting cases. She would need a bigger bag to carry all three.

“Ringmaster, this is Alpha Wolf. Come in.”

“Ringmaster.”

“We have a potential robot dog. Lock the main doors and get someone up here for some heavier carrying. How’s the nest?”

“Half-empty. We need more time. Sending up two guys.”

“We’re out of time. Get those doors locked.” Locked doors wouldn’t stop a nanocop, but it might slow them down, especially if they didn’t have exact information.

She stepped out onto the balcony hallway to watch the main floor. If they moved fast, they could get away with half the vault’s holdings and these paintings, plus the truck schedule she’d scanned. Better to get away than get it all.

She could just barely see the vault door from where she stood on the balcony. They were coming out with mostly full bags. At least the job wouldn’t be a complete loss. Samson was coming up the stairs to get the paintings, and a kid named Freddy was crossing the bank floor to lock the doors. He stopped to tie his shoe. Susan nearly screamed at him from the balcony. Idiot! She flipped open the general call button.

“Freddy forget your shoe! Get that door lo-“ The door swung open before she could finish. She’d been right. There was no mistaking that dark blue armor, the golden face shield on the helmet, the very unnatural, mechanized look to it. She knew there was a person inside. That the nanites had merely formed body armor around them, but they stank of something inhuman to her. She couldn’t shake the mental image of a science fiction cyborg, technically human, but unfeeling and insensitive. Worse, they were on the other side of the law here.

She stepped to the side, half hiding herself behind the column. If she had to, she would duck into an office and pretend to be asleep, but that had its own risks. She knew all the exits by heart. There was a service elevator down the hall and off to the left, but she daren’t attract attention to herself. The nanocop took in the circumstances quickly. There was Freddy right in front of him, still kneeling down with his shoelaces in his hands. Where had Samson gotten that fool? The open vault was in full view, with John and Jordan holding the bags, literally.

The nanocop picked Freddy up, turned him around, and snapped cuffs on his hands before tossing him back onto the floor like a ragdoll. Through Freddy’s open communicator, she heard the voice of the nanocop.

“One down.”

Susan gasped. That was Derek’s voice. He was supposed to be on the East Side today! Her options for exits were suddenly, drastically reduced. She had to get out. The other teams were already gone. They didn’t need to be warned, but then, she couldn’t risk warning them anyway, with Freddy’s open communicator channel. Derek might hear her.

Derek was headed for the vault. John and Jordan dropped the bags packed full of money and pulled their pistols. Susan gasped and bit the knuckles on the back of her hand. She knew that bullets were rarely effective against nanocops. You needed something stronger; you needed to be somewhere else. But there was always that chance. Three shots rang out and she just knew that each one of them went tearing through his body.

She forced herself to keep watching. The golden faceplate flashed and the midnight blue armor glowed red at the edges. The red outlining meant the kid gloves had just come off. It was up to Derek to decide how much force was necessary. The nanites weren’t holding him back anymore.

John and Jordan weren’t stupid. As the suit began to glow red, they threw down their pistols, picked up their loot bags, and took off in opposite directions. He would have to choose one to go after. If they were lucky, he would hesitate with indecision and buy them both enough time to get away. Susan blew out breath she hadn’t known she was holding. He wasn’t dead.

Derek charged forward, angling to the left hand side. One arm was changing, becoming misshapen, even for that nanite armor. He reached the end of the teller counter only seconds behind John. Derek leaped into the air and vaulted the high fencing that ran along the top of the counter. He landed on John. The weight of Derek and the suit landing on him threw him to the ground hard. She was sure he’d knocked the breath out of him.

Derek didn’t stay down. He jumped back up and hopped to the top of the counter. Standing tall, he had a clear view of the bank floor. He raised his right arm out straight. The armor was now a grotesque arrangement with bulbous attachments and what looked like a crossbow lathe jutting out on either side of his fist. Jordan was making a mad dash through the lobby for the front doors. If only he’d gone for the back hallway instead, he might have made it.

Susan tried to shut her eyes, unwilling to watch Jordan die, or Derek kill. There was a sharp metallic thwrap and the bulbous parts of his arm flew forward. The object spun through the air, crossing the distance between them. Jordan jumped onto a long deposit table, his last stretch before hitting the door. She knew he wasn’t going to make it. The spinning thing was rotating too fast to see any detail on it. It looked now like a sawblade on a direct path for Jordan. It caught him around the legs as he ran down the table. The heavy balls spun around his knees, wrapping the strong cable around his legs and entangling them. He fell hard from the table and hit the floor of the bank. He grabbed his legs and howled. Clearly it hurt, but he was alive.

The last and biggest member of her crew, Samson, hit the bottom of the stairs and faced the nanocop like a western showdown. Susan knew she should already be gone; knew she should be making her escape; knew that Samson had been known to snap people’s necks and tear arms out of sockets with his bare hands when the occasion had called for it. She clutched the column for support. She didn’t notice that she was breaking the skin of her knuckles with her teeth. Derek’s nanite-tinged voice echoed up to her.

“Surrender and you will not be harmed. I am charged to enforce the law and protect this city. Lie down and put your hands on the back of your head so I can place you under arrest.”

Samson was smart enough not to bother with a firearm. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t use a weapon. Instead of answering, he reached out to the brushed steel stair railing and pulled one decorative, three-foot rod free. He spun the impromptu club in one hand and stepped forward. Derek also stepped forward. The red piping that indicated lethal force was gone. Jordan had a red vein popping out on his forehead.

Derek reached toward his leg where, suddenly, there was a metallic nightstick, but he wasn’t fast enough. Samson swung his steel club in an arc that caught Derek’s forearm. Derek jerked back, grabbing the sudden dent in his armor. Samson swung again, this time, for Derek’s head. Derek ducked and stepped back. Samson stepped forward and jabbed the steel pole hard at Derek’s chest. Derek grabbed the pole with both hands and used his nanite-enhanced strength to stop the attack. Susan knew Samson was far stronger than Derek usually.

The burly Samson merely grinned and jerked the club toward himself. The unexpected change in direction caught Derek by surprise and pulled him off balance. He caught himself before falling into the clutches of his opponent, but Samson wasted no time in such small victories. He lunged forward and threw his bodyweight into Derek. It knocked Derek backwards into the air. He landed on his back several feet away, Samson charging toward him. Susan could see Derek shaking his head, trying to gain his composure and the upper hand. At the last moment, Derek brought his hands up and a pole grew between them. It caught Samson’s club in mid-swing, inches from the golden face shield. Samson leaned onto the club, bearing his weight down on Derek, forcing him to put all of his strength into keeping the big man from landing on him. The contest held steady for perhaps a full minute, as Susan watched, knowing that she shouldn’t wait. Suddenly, when she thought he couldn’t possibly hold out any longer, Derek’s left shoulder shot a little arrow into the wall nearby. The arrow was trailed by a cable, still connected to this shoulder. With Samson’s startled attention on the little arrow, Derek unexpectedly was jerked to his left, leaving nothing to support Samson’s considerable weight. The suit had reeled in the cord and pulled Derek toward the wall. Samson hit the floor with a crash and Derek scrambled to his feet. He jumped for Samson’s back and caught the tiger by the tail. Samson howled and scrambled, trying to get to his feet with the heavy nanocop on his back. He tried to kick and a rope whipped out from Derek’s boot, trapping the leg. Samson tried to beat him off from over one shoulder. That hand was instantly in handcuffs, followed soon by the other. Samson’s strength had been cut.

Derek’s back was to Susan as he struggled to finish restraining Samson. Now was the time. She threw one last longing look at the paintings in the office, but she couldn’t risk being slowed down by them. She dashed for the end of the balcony hallway. The simple, unmarked wooden door there should lead to the service hallways. Suddenly, two metal balls on a strong cord whipped around a column as she passed it. He’d seen her! She daren’t risk a look back, but kept moving. She hit the door and went through just as a net struck the doorframe. She slammed the door and twisted the lock. It wouldn’t stop him but it might buy her a couple of seconds. She definitely wouldn’t be stopping to tie her shoes! Idiot.

She hit the elevator button on her way past, just to get it moving. She couldn’t take the time for it now. Two doors further down were the stairs. She slid down the banister much faster than felt safe. She stumbled as she hit the floor at the bottom and dove for the outside door. It was an emergency exit, and the alarms went wild as she threw her weight against it and fell into the sunlight. Without looking, she took off running to the east. The short alley there would lead her to the next street over. At the corner of that street was the subway that Freddy had taken to get to the job.

She didn’t look back until she was safely on a subway train, heading back toward the warehouse district. She was out of breath, and her knuckles were bleeding where she’d left bite marks, but she’d made it. A quick shower and change of clothes back at headquarters, and she’d give Derek a call to meet him over on the East Side. She pulled a cliff’s notes copy of Crime and Punishment out of her back pocket and started reading.

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