Alice Malone used the supernatural boost of her devil’s blood to climb through the ranks of Belle City’s thieves’ guild. She boasts the highest bounty in the guild, an honor among thieves. Wanted posters grimace back at her from every bulletin board and newsstand. Every wannabe thief, crook, and lawless ne’er-do-well knows her name, and so does every PAB officer hunting her down. She wants more. She wants out. With one final heist, she could use the fence to get out of the guild, out of the gloomy city, and away from the ever-watching PAB.
Malone loved Belle City, but she hated the cold. Especially at night. Especially during her most productive hours: two to three, the thieving hour. Winter grabbed the steel, stone, and the sky and held on with both hands until spring, spitting snow, sleet, and ice over every sidewalk, roadway, and window. It turned everything a dreary shade of gray.
But, she wouldn’t let the weather get in her way.
Alice Malone had spent the last ten of her twenty-two years clawing her way through Belle City’s thieves’ guild, and this last job could be her ticket out. According to the fence – who had given them a fake name and refused to lower his hood or scarf during the meeting – a ruby the size of a grown man’s fist slept inside the Henry Mansion. And he would pay dearly for it.
She saw the scribbled amount that dearly would get them. For dearly, Malone would brace the cold and the occasional snowflake.
With just her third – her share – of dearly, she could get the hell out of this city.
Her mentor, Seamus Sylvester, paced on the darkened rooftop on which their three-person team stood. A lithe man in his late thirties, he paced, arms crossed, focusing on the deserted street before them and their potential target. His near-black clothes turned him into a fluid shadow, one that moved with controlled grace that she had seen change in a heartbeat into someone’s quick death. Nothing surprised Sylvester; he was always a step ahead.
Malone turned her eyes across the street to the Henry Mansion, eager to see what Sylvester saw. The Henry Mansion sat dark. Most of the estates on the upper east side of Belle City had gone dark for the night, including the one on which they stood. Windows dark and curtained pulled. Like a curtain could stop a thief like Malone.
When would these rich fools learn? Nothing could stop Malone. She’d spent ten years proving it.
Ten years stacking the highest bounty the guild had ever seen, the highest the PAB had ever issued.
Nothing could stop her.
Movement to the southwest caught her eye. The orange streetlights of downtown shone bright against the low-hanging clouds. One of those lights blinked on again – it had gone out. The streetlights lined most streets in Belle City, save for the old streets to the northeast and the slum streets to the south. The rich hated the lights because they thought them ugly; the slums hated the lights for what they showed.
The street they overlooked, State Street, was an old street. No streetlights marred the thief-friendly shadows. Driveway lights, most a lesser shade of orange or a variation of yellow-white, pricked the darkness instead and left plenty of room in that darkness for a thief to move through.
Above them, she didn’t need the streetlight’s ambient glow to see the thick winter-gray clouds, bulging with swirling snow and ice, threatening to spit and sputter at any moment. As good of a thief as she was, she didn’t want ice to give any hindrance.
A frigid breeze whisked past in response. The winter god, if there was such a thing, was laughing at her. The bitter midnight air nipped at the exposed skin of her neck, and Malone tugged the collar of her black jacket up and the dark scarf down.
She would love to be back in her apartment, as tiny and shitty as it was, underneath her horde of blankets, but she made herself visualize the fence, all that gold – a one-way ticket to anywhere.
Sylvester watched the Henry Mansion, his face impassive, lips in a straight line. His mind worked in ways Malone didn’t always understand or follow, but she’d long since stopped asking him to explain. It wasted time.
He stopped pacing. The lack of his footsteps made the silence more pronounced, and her own breathing became louder.
Sylvester glanced over his shoulder at Malone, and asked, “What do you think?”
Sylvester looked at her with that unreadable expression in his black eyes, neither explaining nor withholding what he knew. She used to think of that expression as a form of laziness, but she’d learned to think of it as calm intelligence. He knew the answer he wanted to hear, but he gave no indication of what it was, or that he expected her to get it right.
He had always been that way. He guided her, but he let her learn on her own. Make her mistakes. Learn from them. If she got it wrong, she got it wrong. Move on.
Tonight, she would not get it wrong. Her future hinged on this stupid ruby.
A sharp winter breeze sliced through her clothes, pricking her skin as freely as if she stood naked.
She shuddered. She broke Sylvester’s gaze and looked to the Henry Mansion. She swallowed, pushing spit down her chilled throat. What she wouldn’t give for a burning cup of coffee.
“I don’t see any guards,” Malone answered him, eyeing the dark grounds and windows just in case one had appeared to prove her wrong. “However, from my nightly watch of the property, I know there are people inside. They move around, even at night.”
Sylvester’s brows rose slightly. The third member of their team, Bert Chamberlain, scoffed. Sylvester’s gaze lingered on Malone only a moment – she thought she detected pride in that gaze, but before she could see it clearly, Sylvester turned his gaze onto Bert.
Bert, nineteen, built more like a brute bodyguard than a nimble thief, hadn’t been a member of the guild more than three months. He was just another street bastard looking for easy money. He hadn’t brought in more than a handful of pickpocket trash or easy steals, watches and coin purses mostly, but Sylvester had lost a bet to Jack of whether Bert would make it that far. Since he had, Bert got to join their team for the Henry Mansion heist.
Much to Malone’s disgust, rage, arguing – and when those didn’t work, she had lowered herself to whining. Not even that had swayed Sylvester’s mind. He was a man of his word, and he would allow Bert to join. Think of it as a challenge. Go prepare. We’re going to need it.
“What does that tell you?” Sylvester asked Bert.
Bert inhaled and blew a steaming breath out through his pursed lips. Malone bit her tongue to keep from answering for him. Stupid brute. He hadn’t earned his place on this rooftop. She had. He hadn’t fought and clawed his way through a guild of glowering men who thought a spindly ten-year-old girl couldn’t do anything.
For a lousy, two-bit pickpocket to be allowed to join the top thief and the guild master on a heist… utterly ridiculous.
She had – she had earned this heist. If Bert messed it up, she’d make sure it was the last thing he ever did. Belle City had plenty of sewers. With the winter slush, the sluice had grown thick. Thick enough to carry a body away and out of sight.
Bert finally shrugged his broad shoulders, and said, “They know where they’re going in the dark. Maybe the old man has himself some midnight company.”
Sylvester’s face revealed nothing. He turned that indifferent stare back to Malone. Expectantly.
She promptly answered, “Or, someone doesn’t want to be seen. The ‘old man,’ Corman Henry, is away for the month. His mail is being held for that duration.” Malone shot a glare at Bert. She knew how it worked. “So he isn’t home, but someone is watching his place. No one has left or entered. The curtains are always closed. Someone is inside and doesn’t want anyone to know about it.”
Sylvester’s dark brows went up ever so slightly. And?
“Given what we know about this ruby,” Malone added, “someone is obviously guarding it or something else.”
“Exactly.” Sylvester nodded at Malone. This time, she knew she detected pride. That pride vanished when Sylvester looked back at Bert, who shrugged and rolled his eyes.
One wrong move. That’s all it would take to turn a quiet heist into chaos.
Malone tightened her gloved fingers into fists; the cold, well-worn leather squeaked. Her gut – which had never proven her wrong – told her Bert would ruin this heist for her. Ruin her future. Ruin this one chance to get out.
Sylvester exhaled; the white puff of his breath appeared and vanished. “Okay.” His black eyes glanced to Malone. He understood better than she did what Bert would likely do. Was he regretting his bet? He shifted his gaze to the Henry Mansion. “Where’s our entry?”
“The grounds are open with plenty of pockets to hide in,” Malone said before Bert could open his stupid mouth. “There are plenty of windows. We could look for an open one or an old one to jimmy open, but it might take too long to check them all. We go in three separate windows.”
“Bert, what do you think?” Sylvester asked.
“Cause a distraction,” Bert said. “Draw attention to one spot. Go in right under their nose.”
Sylvester didn’t hesitate to say, “Malone, what’s wrong with that plan?”
Where should she start? “First, it would put whoever is inside on edge. They’ll be looking for intruders. Second, those-”
Bert grumbled his annoyance to himself in a guttural roar. He spat, “Fine. I agree.”
“Of course, you do,” Sylvester said coolly.
Malone bit her tongue and held back the things she wanted to say, most of which centered on Bert’s impatience and ignorance of thievery. Cause a distraction. Laughable! A man like him wouldn’t last three more months, not that she would bet on it. However, her feelings aside, she respected Sylvester enough to not push Bert off the rooftop. They were high enough that one good plop – problem solved.
That cursed winter wind blew again, away from the Henry Mansion. Sylvester stepped up to the edge of the rooftop. Intelligent, charismatic, and handsome despite the few early wrinkles, Sylvester calculated the heist with a master’s eye. He looked like the cover of a book, a brooding hero painted with care and precision.
The winter darkness framed Sylvester in an otherworldly haze, and in that moment Malone saw what the guild underlings saw in him worthy of their unending praise.
She admired him, too, but she had never been one to shower him in praise and worship like the fools in the guild. She didn’t have to. She was like him, and if she stayed in the guild, stayed in the city, one day she would inherit the guild from him.
She just didn’t know if she wanted it or not.
Sylvester lifted his black leather boot to the roof’s edge. He didn’t seem at all bothered by the cold.
Malone shuffled her weight between her feet, determined not to shiver or let her teeth chatter. Especially with Sylvester watching.
Damn this cold. Why did it have to be so cold tonight? She could barely feel her fingers. The leather felt like ice.
Malone waited, and waited, and waited for Sylvester to say something, to ignite the heist into motion. They were running out of time.
Tired of waiting, she threw her voice into the frigid air. “Okay, how are we going in? We wait out here any longer and I’m going to freeze to this roof.”
Sylvester glanced at her, and without a hint of humor, he asked, “Aren’t afraid of heights, are you?”
He looked back to the mansion, and she followed his line of sight. To the roof. There, along the darkness, a skylight arched upward in a glass dome. Unguarded. Unwatched. Vulnerable.
She silently cursed. How had she missed that?
Malone scoffed. “I’m not afraid of anything.”
“I ain’t either,” Bert said on the heels of her words.
Malone fought hard not to roll her eyes – she knew how much Sylvester hated it.
Sylvester took a deep breath. “The roof it is.” He cracked his neck to the side. “Ready?”
Malone checked her scarf and hood and tight black cap to make sure none of her blonde hair stuck out along the edges. She pulled the scarf up over her mouth and nose, leaving only her blue eyes visible. Sylvester mirrored her actions, only he didn’t wear a cap underneath his hood. His black hair didn’t glow like hers did. Bert, who hated wearing a hood, tugged on his scarf and hat so that his too-large ears stuck out either side. Like beacons.
Sylvester’s gaze lingered on Bert, but he said nothing. He walked to the edge of the roof and jumped effortlessly onto the roof of a two-story work shed. Malone followed in his steps and jumped.