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Distant Thunder

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It is 1805, and countries are falling apart in the Napoleonic Wars. Katya and James are on opposite sides, but betrayal and murder will force them to work together for both their countries' sakes.

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Three people entered the Bank of England that day. Only one would leave an hour later.

Not that it fazed Katya. Walking the thin line between danger and victory was all in a day’s work, and today she intended to be on the winning side. All of her training, her pleading, her successful missions: as far as she was concerned, it all led to this. Walking into one of the most secure banks in the country as though she owned it, with her two partners at her side.

One of those partners shot her an amused glance as they mounted the stairs to where an ornately dressed footman was waiting for them. “Ready?” His English accent was flawless- as it should be. They’d been drilled for years- years- on every single nuance of it until any of them could pass for God-fearing citizens at ten paces.

She shot him a withering glance back- a glance that disguised the depth of her affection for her well-groomed, sparkling-eyed partner. Both he and Victor had grown up with her and even now the three of them were rarely separated. This was the first mission Hyperion had let them go on together, and she was fizzing with the excitement of it. “I’m always ready, Mathieu.”

“Concentrate!” Victor hissed from their other side. “English, now!” Then he turned his head and flashed an imperious smile at the footman. “Good day.”
The footman smiled ingratiatingly back at them. “And to you, sir.”

And then they were in, sweeping across the bone-white marble floor that stretched in one long, elegant swoop all the way to the counting desks at the end of the hall. Clerks scurried around like ants, fashionably attired aristocrats counted their debts in the corners, and the very air smelled of money- of printed paper and cold gold. Katya sniffed appreciably: it was the smell of power.

The three false creditors strolled their way to the front of the bank, where a harried-looking clerk glanced up from his ledger, subtly assessed the quality and style of their clothing, and gave them an ingratiating smile as a result. “Good day sirs; madam. How may I be of assistance?”

“Sir.” Victor stepped forwards, all haughty arrogance and English superiority. “I recently deposited some items of value in your- ahem- most secure boxes. I wish to view it.”

“Indeed?” The clerk suddenly looked a great deal more interested. “Your name, sir?”

“Sir George Ramsay.” Victor waved an airy hand. “I was under the impression that the Bank of England is the safest place in the world- especially from the advances of Napoleon.”

“Quite, quite.” Murmured the clerk. “Well, if you have the key?—Ah, excellent- then would sir please follow me?”

“Oh, but my brother and his wife must come too.” Katya, every nerve thrilling with the thrill of the mission, looped her wrist casually through Mathieu’s arm and smiled innocently at the clerk, who relented and ushered them past the desk into the cavernous depths of the bank. It was like being led into a dragon’s cave- at every turn the promise of riches breathed out through the walls. Oh, if they had the time, she, Victor and Mathieu could have stripped the entire place in less than two hours.

But no- they had to follow Hyperion’s orders to the letter. He’d been severe about that…and the last thing she wanted to do was incur his displeasure.

As though sensing her thoughts, Mathieu gave her hand a reassuring squeeze, and she smiled gratefully up at him. “Say, Robert.” She trilled, English flowing as naturally as breathing, “Don’t you think we should consider taking out an account ourselves here? Imagine: banking in the same place as the King himself!”
“Indeed, darling.” Mathieu replied. “Well, if dear George comes through, then perhaps we shall.” He flashed her a grin that Katya associated with their training sessions- just before he pulled out a completely new move and flipped her onto her back. It was a smile that spoke pure mischief.

“Oh, darling! How thrilling! Perhaps we shall meet Lord Byron…or Wordsworth!”

Victor, ahead of them, gave the clerk a look that very clearly said Women.

The clerk’s smile might have been a little smaller if he knew that this particular woman was capable of killing him in ten different ways using just her hands.

Two flights of stairs later, they were in the belly of the beast, facing the vaults. They had already passed through one secure door and were now standing in front of the vault itself. The door was something to take Katya’s breath away: a safecracker’s dream, or perhaps nightmare. She’d read from their research that the whole vault was made of iron and tempered steel more than two feet thick, and capable of withstanding most anything. Here, in this particular vault, was deposited the various security deposit boxes of the bank’s more illustrious clientele that, for the moment, included them. Hyperion had made Victor deposit a few thousand pounds and some expensive jewellery there a month ago: now, they were back to claim something new. Something far more important, that never should have been put there in the first place. Englishmen were stupidly predictable: they thought a bank was the safest place in the world.

They were wrong.

“Ready?” The clerk- whose name, it had transpired, was Henry Lewis- gave the two guards on both sides of the door a jerky nod, and stood back to let them open the vault. Open Sesame: Katya held her breath: slowly, slowly, the door swung open- two feet of iron gliding open on oiled hinges to reveal treasure beyond the imagination of most European countries.

Victor, with all the false arrogance of an English knight, strolled into the vault before anyone could say otherwise, and made a beeline for his own deposit box. “I will only take five minutes.” He assured the clerk, overriding his stuttering objections, and motioned to Mathieu. “Robert. Come here and help me, will you? Gentlemen, we require some privacy for this.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but we cannot do that: bank policy. We have a selection of rooms in which you can peruse your box in private?”

“No, that will not do.” Victor said decisively. “I wish to make a quick perusal of my box. Robert, I need you!”

Mathieu relinquished Katya’s arm and strolled into the vault. He was slimmer and lankier that Victor’s large, bulky frame, and when standing together, Mathieu was almost entirely obscured. As the plan dictated he should be. For Victor had deposited the jewels carefully: next to their deposit box was their target: a sheaf of government documents that had been stored there for safekeeping. What they were, Katya had only the faintest idea- what she needed to know was only that Hyperion wanted them.

Thus obscured by Victor, Mathieu’s quick fingers could set onto opening the box. They’d seen safety deposit boxes like this countless times before, and it always amazed Katya how easy they were to open. On these types, their safety relied on them being placed inside an impregnable vault. However, one set of lockpicks and a pocketknife would soon have them spilling their guts at Mathieu’s lightest touch.

It was Katya’s job to distract the men, typically. She tugged her bodice lower- and, thanks to the newest fashion, it was already rather low- and let out a husky laugh that had the men’s heads snapping back to her.

“It must be awfully boring, doing this all day.” She said conversationally. “What do you do for entertainment?”
“Count sheep.” Said one man without thinking. She pegged the other as the brains of the outfit.

“And you, sir?”

He shrugged. “Polish my pistol.” He tapped the holster at his side, and then, for special effect, drew it partly out, revealing six inches of gleaming steel. Katya gave the weapon a cursory once-over- it was a French flintlock pistol, perhaps ten years old, and only good for one bullet per shot- and then widened her eyes as a modern lady might.

“Sir, please!”
Looking pleased, he holstered the gun again and resumed guard.

“All the same, I would wager you don’t get a lot of business down here.” Katya said idly, pulling a lock of hair out of her carefully coiffured hairstyle and winding it around and around her finger. She saw the men’s eyes follow the motion of her hand and smiled to herself. Hyperion had often told her that seduction was a useful technique to learn- “Men think most often with a very small portion of their brain, Katya”- and that had been part of her training as well as everything else. She had learnt to ignore the slight flutter of discomfort that accompanied it. When one was on a mission, one had to ruthlessly quash doubts and act like a maestro.“Must be awfully…dull.”
“We get important visitors.” The less intelligent guard piped up. “The Duke of Wellington himself came here before the Spanish campaign!”

“Did he really?” Katya widened her eyes. “Tell me, is he really as great as they say?”

“All that and more, madam. He is easily a foot taller than you, and with eyes like an eagle. They say he takes part in all his battles himself, charging in the fray, dealing blows left and right with his sabre.”
“How thrilling!”

“Done.” Mathieu announced suddenly from the depths of the vault. “Come, George. We mustn’t tarry.”

“Indeed.” Victor appeared on his other side, slender fingers easy at his sides. He snapped the deposit box shut and smiled an easy, untroubled smile. Only Katya and Mathieu knew him well enough to spot the triumphant, relieved expression hiding beneath those layers of bravado, and both were tactful- and wise- enough not to say anything about it. “Come, let us fly. Sir, I thank you.” He shook the clerk’s hand. “Now, if you would be so kind as to shut up the vault...”

He did so, and the three of them clambered back up from the belly of the Bank together, laughing and chatting as though they had not just robbed one of the most secure locations in Britain. And in truth, despite her constant underlying wariness, Katya did allow herself to relax the smallest fraction as they ascended. The hardest part of their job was done. They were almost free and clear- the fabulous three on another undetectable heist. They wouldn’t even know the documents were gone until the box was opened- how long? Three months or so? They’d be untraceable, and Sir George Ramsay would have melted into thin air.

Mathieu, climbing the stairs next to her, squeezed her hand, and she flashed a smile back up at him, heart jumping a little in her chest. It always did when she looked into those eyes.

At that moment- just before they emerged into the bank proper- they were happy and triumphant.

Happy, triumphant and careless.

The clerk opened the door into the main building.

For a moment, all Katya could do was stare. The bank was empty of customers- all those gilded popinjays who’d been twittering there when they left- and in their place was a row of blood-red coats that whispered army. That whispered capture, death, torture.

“Stand still!” One of the men barked. “Stand still and put your hands in the air!”
Mathieu moved like a whip through the air. A knife appeared in his hand and he snapped it to the throat of the clerk, who stiffened like a corpse. “Hold your fire!” He yelled. “One wrong move and I open his throat!”
Katya stared. How could this have gone so wrong? She scanned the lobby- there was no cover she could reach before the firing started. The nearest marble pillar was more than twenty metres away: even if Mathieu managed to bluff his way past the army, there would probably be snipers, reinforcements outside the bank itself. The only option was to enter the rabbit warren of corridors behind the bank itself and find a back window.

The other two reached the same conclusion as she did. Victor backed up to the doors and stared the guards down defiantly. The murderous gleam in his eyes combined with his wire-like build was an imposing sight, and she wasn’t surprised some of the guards shuffled nervously.

“We’re going to leave.” Mathieu said. “And if you try to stop us, then this man is dead. Do you understand?”

“Put the knife down before somebody gets hurt!” The sergeant yelled back. Obviously none of it was sinking in on the other end.

“Kat. Derriere-moi.” Katya snapped attention to the back of Mathieu’s jacket. The documents! Of course. He’d have tucked them into the back of his trousers- standard procedure. With shaking hands, she lifted his jacket and slipped out a thick wedge of cream paper. One line caught her eye- De 21 Place-de-Roussy, Paris- before she slid them underneath her fashionable jacket.

“Mathieu-” She started- and then Mathieu’s whole body jerked in front of her, jerked like a marionette’s. She stared uncomprehendingly as he staggered, exposing the entirety of his chest to the army.

Again. Again. Red flowers bloomed on his chest and he sagged against the wall. The clerk convulsed and red spurted through the air- a red mist hung in front of them, staining clothes, a bitter iron tang in the air.

Katya stared at Mathieu as he fell against the wall. For one second, their eyes met- his beautiful, sea-blue eyes. “Kat.” He coughed, and blood spattered his shirt. More blood. It was pooling around him. “Kat. Couri. Vite.”

Allons.” Victor said, and grabbed her arm. Without another second, she was yanked into the maze behind the bank, and Mathieu was lost to her forever.

She found she was running without really thinking, legs pumping, ears straining, every action performed out of habit, as though she were a marionette and someone else were pulling the strings. She was disconnected, floating. Mathieu, dead? No. It wasn’t possible. He was alive, she knew it. He had to be alive.

They were running down a spacious corridor- then down a servant’s passageway, dark and closed-off- and then down another spacious corridor. Doors flashed by and Victor threaded his way through the maze as though he knew it by the back of his hand.

Eventually, they staggered to a stop. “Katya.” Victor said shortly, slipping back into their native French. “Give me the papers. I can hide them better.”
Katya looked up and swallowed heavily.

“Stop crying.” He said brusquely. “We can’t afford to grieve yet. Give me the papers, Katya.”
She wiped the tears she hadn’t realised she was crying away with the heel of her hand and nodded, slipping the thick sheaf of documents out of her jacket as she did so. It was lightly spattered with scarlet drops- Mathieu’s blood, which hadn’t yet dried to a crusted brown.

Victor took them and slipped them into the back of his trousers, covering them with his jacket. Dimly, they heard the sound of shouting.

“Good.” He said, and pulled out a small flintlock pistol. “And so this is goodbye.”

“What?” Katya asked, still turning to look at him. “Why?”

“Because the Duke of Angiers pays better than Hyperion.” He said. “Desolé.”

Then he shot her.

Katya felt the kick of the bullet as it entered her body. She looked at Victor disbelievingly, but he was already turning away, long legs carrying him down the passageway, away from the guards, away from her.

Her dress was wet. She glanced down and saw it was stained crimson. It didn’t hurt. She felt numb.

Slowly, the corridor tilted until she was lying on the carpet, its rough fabric cushioning her cheek. All her strength had gone- she felt no urge to get up, though. Mathieu’s face danced in front of her eyes, vibrant and alive.

Silence washed over her, and with it, blackness.

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