Written for Continue Play, recreated with permission.
It comes together like a well-oiled machine, gear teeth threading seamlessly into the next.
The building around me has gathered ghastly red ghosts who tread among boxes and around corners, walking with unseen feet on unseen floors. Around me, insistent but quiet voices hiss out observations and commands. “Guard!” says one, across the impassable chasm of cheap carpet. “Camera!” says another. I see my gloved finger point to the ceiling, my own voice uttering “Keep your heads down” as another outline forms around the box-shaped camera overhead.
There’s a quiet tension that seeps around every nervous movement. I shuffle my feet apprehensively, too aware that even little slip-ups can bring about a police-fueled Ragnarok in under a minute. I nervously check behind me again. It’s the third time I do so in under a minute, but the voice in the back of my head tells me that it takes less time for someone to sneak up behind you, and even less time for one of the guards to reach for their radio. The empty alleyway remains empty, save for maybe a flickering piece of newspaper or the swaying of overgrown weeds jutting defiantly from the building’s edge. I smile at the idea, mostly to myself, that in the end, the weed and my motivations aren’t dissimilar: we both defy convention and authority alike. I check around the corner of the door, raise my silenced Beretta, and put a round into the lens of the camera. The brief, hollow pft of a silenced 9mm round coalesces into a shower of sparks, which rain down from the housing.
All remains quiet as I watch the sporadic flickering of electricity bleed uselessly into the open air, wondering when a guard is going to wander by to check on the broken camera; or even if one will. I know that, across the warehouse, my teammates are pursuing their own goals. I can see a white circle slowly filling over the head of my partner in crime, at the same time as a door swings open. An insistent exclamation point flares to life over the head of an unseen guard, who springs to life himself in a much more muted pink. The enraged punctuation mark continues to glow furiously, before three or four bullets ring out and the pink outline seems to melt into the floor for the barest of seconds before disappearing entirely. Shortly, a yellow mound takes its place on the floor. I think to myself, “Everything alright over there?”
The white circle returns, and I can hear a jovial voice crack a joke about tacos among the sound of radio static and electronic beeps of a two-way radio. A cold, disinterested voice mutters a vague agreement, and the yellow outline likewise disappears entirely. Even though it’s easily hundreds of feet away from me, I can imagine what’s there clearly. The vague outline has been replaced with the wet, almost-boneless body of a guard. My companion bags the corpse, and begins a pained-looking waddle-stepped shuffle toward the exit van.
The job is coming together about as well as can be expected, especially given how much chaos can come from being spotted by surprise like that. I check the alley behind me again, shake my head mostly at myself, and slink carefully into the building. The interplay of guards, lines of sight, and scattered cover make sneaking through banks, businesses, and warehouses possible, but challenging. It all has to come together; however, ghosting into a location, pocketing its valuables, and disappearing without more than the faintest of traces is always a preferred outcome. It’s doable with some effort and a bit of luck, and the promise of a sense of accomplishment. I peer carefully around the corner, in case a guard has come to check on the downed camera. No one. I swing inside, and begin looking for things to pilfer.
Across the obstacle course of shadows, flashlights, and guards, one of my criminal amigos is ransacking a back room. I find myself carefully hunting for the telltale cones of light bouncing toward or around corners. The way these thefts work is something of a stroke of genius. Not at the criminals’ hands necessarily, but in how the grand machination fits together. Guards are serviceably aware, and paranoid. They don’t shake the ghostly images they think they see in the lurching shadows, hunting them down and then double-checking, just to be safe. They check corners, they radio for back-up, they get concerned over details being out-of-place. Mindful, alert, but not omniscient. They can’t see behind people or objects. They have the patterns of routine informing their actions, so they rarely look around rooms or corners that aren’t part of their circuit. They have no reason to be so paranoid that they feel a need to check every empty office on a normal Tuesday night; so they don’t. Criminals have their array of tools to bring, and each of these tools serves a helpful but imperfect purpose in the grand scheme of the average, garden-variety theft. They’ll open doors or widen approaches, but they aren’t cure-alls. I ponder how all of these interlocking pieces fit so well together as the guard turns a corner.
I slip up and creep too close to the guard, who turns, alerted to my presence. He reaches for his radio, and I hurriedly put three, five, seven rounds into him. The first two go wild, the next three hammer into center mass, the fourth into his head, and the fifth flies haphazardly into a window. The shattering pane of glass is a death knell for the silence of the evening, and an entire building’s worth of alerts sprint into view all at once. Everything goes bad quickly. One of my teammates opens fire with an assault rifle – something from the AK family based on the firing pattern – more glass shatters, and guards begin to open fire. The voice in our ears, our criminal organizer, lets everyone know that the police wire is lighting up like Madison Square Garden on New Years. For as pinpoint-perfect the gearwork can be, all it takes is a little slip in the gears for everything to go entirely off the rails.
Hell is raining down in the form of a highly-trained, armed FBI agents. My assault rifle is quiet, small, and nearly invisible when slung across my back, but it doesn’t really accomplish the “assault” aspect of its purpose as well because of it. The FBI was already beginning to swarm, and a chorus of loud-muzzled rifles were going off in other parts of the building while I worked on opening the security room. Even when a stealth job goes sour, the end of the world as told by FBI’s finest has its flaws. They establish perimeters, but only weakly. They press forward, let themselves get bottle-necked, and only occasionally manage subtler flanking maneuvers and multi-pronged approaches. Their techniques rely on brute force, numbers, and the odd uniquely equipped specialist. The rest of the time is a fight of numbers, which can be overcome with clever positioning, good planning, or battlefield explosives. The drill continues its erratic, stuttering work on the locked gate.
Jobs haven’t always been so natural. The stammering hesitation that my feet had repeated minutes ago was a remnant of the nervous flicker of my hands or neurotic darting of my eyes from a younger time around my first few robberies; the fear that every errant movement – or even a thought too straying – would blow our cover. I ponder these times and think about the endless repetitions of countless petty robberies that had tailored my senses to know which behaviors to watch, to learn which patterns to be wary of, and which guards would have pagers that need answering.
However, those repetitions were like gears themselves. Some missions teach criminals how to destroy property, some how to rob, others how to place shots and conserve ammo. Some explain how to mix drugs, some avoid guards, others how to subdue civilians and cow guards with a voice of pure authority. Each of these a vital skill for understanding the craft as a whole. Each job is an allegory of the act of robbing as a whole, a beautiful machination of gears turning gears, eternally perfect in their cooperation, right up until something goes catastrophically wrong.
The gate pops up as the drill tears finally through the lock, rousing me from my ruminations. The springs that raise the mesh grating make little work of clearing the space, and I rip the server out of its housing on the rack. I lob my third and final grenade through the door before forging my way outside the room. The office is packed wall-to-wall with FBI agents, who quickly raise their weapons and fire. The massive server on my back slows my steps, but the violent crack of the grenade manages to stagger the numerous agents long enough to forestall their fire. I manage to drag myself through the alleyway, amidst a shower of bullets, and ponder the entirety of the system as a whole. Stealing grants money to make future thefts more entertaining, or better equipped, and each successive job is another lesson to apply for each successive job.
Perhaps my moment of clarity isn’t a single moment as defined by the goings-on, but rather one that occurs within me. Without thinking, many of these motions had become well-oiled through practice, more fun through a better understanding of the nuances, and more exciting for when a personally selected skill or piece of equipment is crucially timed to turn the tide for better or worse in a job. Everything working together exactly as intended, yielding the result chain that leads to a successful mission, or an entertaining failure. Maybe I’m my own defining moment. Each of these thoughts comes with the sound of a bullet whistling by, dangerously close, or the sound of them hammering into my flesh with a sickening thunk.
I just barely manage to crawl into the back of the escape van, server in tow, before the driver crunches the machine in gear and tears out into the street. I’m free again just long enough to buy new equipment, plan the next job, and earn the next payday. The idea of stopping doesn’t really occur to me, as I long for the fun of the next job. It just fits. I can’t help but want it. So I queue up another contract.
It comes together like a well-oiled machine, gear teeth fitting threading seamlessly into the next.