“I don’t think you know what you’re asking,” Julian said.
“You don’t trust me,” Ashley said.
“I’ve told you a great many things I’ve never told another human being, living or dead. Don’t you see, I’m trying to protect you?”
“Maybe I don’t want to be protected,” Ashley said.
“And have you thought about why that is?” he asked her. “Maybe you don’t want it, but you might need it more than you think.”
But the issue didn’t go away. Ashley continued to insist, and soon enough he started to show her a side of life she’d barely known existed. He did it slowly, carefully—even haltingly, as if he hoped she’d get frightened off, or think better of what she was aspiring to do, and he could go on trying to protect her from that whole world.
But he did it all the same.
Julian started by teaching her the rudiments of surveillance and counter surveillance. She learned how to tell if she was being followed, how to spot a gun underneath someone’s clothes, how to spot a cop even when he wasn’t wearing a uniform.
“These things become second-nature to you over time. But that’s not such a good thing. It carries its price. Like all other knowledge.”
She nodded perfunctorily when he said that, eager to get on to the next lesson, and the next, and the next. Ashley learned how to sidestep a security camera, or a guard. How to pick a lock and bypass an alarm.
“It’s slow, it’s painstaking. But sloppiness is a killer. For you, and for the person on the other side.”
But learning was one thing, doing another, and Ashley was restless to apply his lessons. She got her chance when an acquaintance of Julian’s fell into some financial trouble, and decided that the way out of them was to raise some quick cash by selling the Reynaldo over the mantle of his East Hampton mansion’s living room on the black market while reporting it stolen to the insurer. Julian was to break into the place, get the painting and use his channels to make the sale.
“He may be in on it, but this is still a theft like any other,” Julian explained to Ashley. “He’s reporting it to the cops, to the insurance company, just as if he really did get robbed. They’ll investigate the same way, and I shouldn’t have to remind you at this point how much insurers hate paying up, and what they’ll do to avoid it. None of us can afford to be connected with this, so we have to do it right. And I’m the judge of what’s doing it right. All right?”
All right, she said, and just as she promised, she followed his lead as he slipped over the fence onto the grounds with the help of the branches of an inadequately trimmed tree, and sidestepped the cameras with the help of the shadows and the shrubbery. As he disarmed the alarm to let them enter that opulent, silent mansion, and make their way right to the great fireplace like a ghost, to stand before it as if they were masters of that great house. As he slid that painting worth more money than would pass through most people’s hands during their entire lives out from its gilded frame and into that little container that could have held absolutely anything. As he made his way back out of the room and the house and the grounds to the car in which they drove away, free, the whole implausible act completed without anyone stopping them, without anyone ever catching up to them—
It was the biggest thrill of Ashley’s life. She found herself eager to do it again right away, but this wasn’t a game. This was a business, the thefts a means to an end, not an end in themselves.
“The score has to be worth the risk. Emphasis on risk. You can’t ever count on getting lucky. Assume you’ll be unlucky, and think about how you can survive that. If you can’t, walk away. If you’re being rushed, let it go. And you always quit while you’re ahead.”
Ashley was in no position to argue. Julian was right, and even if he wasn’t, he was in charge. He was the one people came to, the one who had the skills she was only now learning, the contacts she scarcely even knew about because even on the rare occasions when she happened to be in the same room during the meeting, he interposed himself between her and them.
“Not getting caught in the middle of a job, or right afterward, doesn’t make you free and clear,” Julian said. “And it isn’t just the cops you have to be wary of. People will know things about you, and they’ll be able to use them against you forever. And when they don’t know things, the people closest to you . . . people romanticize secrets, but the truth is that they’re a burden. And once you’re into it all, you probably won’t ever get out.”
He watched her face very closely when he said that, maybe hoping to see that she was starting to look at it all the same way he did. She didn’t think he saw what he was looking for. What she felt instead of trepidation was a hunger for that kind of thrill, and anxiety at how long it might be before another job came along and gave her the chance to satisfy it.
Two months later, she got another chance. Again, she had that feeling of being really and truly alive. Afterward, sensations were more vivid. Food tasted better, colors were brighter, company more pleasurable. Even just sitting down and watching a TV show was inexpressibly better. Concerns that otherwise might have nagged at her were simply swept away in that sense of well-being, of brightness.
But it eventually passed, and a couple of weeks later things got bad. She found herself taking up new hobbies, hobbies she couldn’t afford before, and which she hadn’t felt much need of before, hang-gliding, skydiving, rock-climbing. None of them came close to the thrill she got during a break-in, however, which meant it was to these that she continued to look for her satisfaction.
And so from that point forward Ashley made a point of going with Julian on every one of his subsequent jobs. Or at least, every one of his jobs she knew about. She still sensed he was holding things back, keeping her out of much of what was going on. That when he went out, alone, he was going to do such a piece of work. She had that sense again before Julian left on a solo business trip to London.
The day just before he was scheduled to come back he was hit by a car a block from his hotel.
He died instantly.
The police wrote his death up as an accident, a run-of-the-mill hit-and-run, without ever identifying the driver. Because, the report claimed, no one in that thickly peopled part of the city, no camera in that heavily surveilled part of the metropolis, got a good look at the car or the people in it. This only increased her suspicions, as if the British authorities were sweeping something under the rug.
Inflaming those suspicions, too, was her discovery of the diamond ring Julian bought at Tiffany’s, but never presented to her. He’d been planning to propose, she realized—which meant he’d been very, very close to putting the whole life he’d come to find so burdensome behind him.
The cruelty of that . . .
What if, on learning his secret, she had told him that she, too, wanted to put it behind them? To quit while they were ahead, settle for what they already had, rather than continuing at the game, trying to raise his portfolio to some arbitrary level (while she got her kicks)?
Would he still be alive, still with her, if she’d done that?
She’d had so many, many chances to do that . . . and the fact left her with grave misgivings as she wondered what to do with herself in the wake of his death. About persisting in the activities she believed led to his death, about her sense of guilt, which was stronger than the fear she felt for herself.
But those misgivings were not as strong as the attraction of going out on a Job, reinforced by her financial straits as the art dealership Julian left her struggled. She had title to the business, the gallery and all the things that went with it. But she was left trying to run it singlehanded (she didn’t even know how to go about hiring an assistant), while she was still new to the trade, her training and experience and the range of her contacts limited next to his, her relationships with many of his artists and buyers still weak. Many of them simply looked elsewhere for their needs. The ones who still called were the ones who went to Julian for the kinds of jobs that had her sneaking about in the middle of the night.
Julian’s longtime associate Logan, the only one of his shadow-world friends she got to know well, tried to dissuade her from dealings with them, as Julian had before him. It didn’t work, and he ended up working with her on those jobs instead—because, she suspected, Julian had asked him to look after her if anything happened to him, and he did it, because his dead friend had loved her, because there was no one else to keep his reckless Ashley from getting herself into trouble she couldn’t get out of, because he was the kind of man who looked after people.
Logan wasn’t the only one she worked with. As the situation warranted, she sought out those people Julian had kept at a distance from her when he was alive, and built her own relationships with them. But Logan was the one she turned to when the Client came to her with an offer she couldn’t refuse, and the only one Ashley could imagine sticking with her through the aftermath of the Northrop job.