Ashley stepped through the door and shut it behind her as quietly as she could, then started going down the steps one at a time, treading as lightly as she was able and counting as she went along. Eighteen steps later she reached the bottom and paused for a moment, listening, for anyone nearby, anyone who might not have been nearby—someone near the fire escape door on the floor below her, or even on the staircase itself, who might have heard the sound she made and wondered at the source.
All she heard was the sound of her own breathing, a waterfall in her ears in the silence of the building at that late hour.
She continued through the half-turn that took her onto the next flight of stairs. Eighteen more steps later she reached a landing with a half-turn leading to yet another flight (and another half-turn leading to another flight, and another and another and another for more than a thousand feet down), and a fire door leading into the main corridor running the length of the top, ninetieth floor.
Ashley approached that door and paused yet again to listen. Again she heard nothing, no guard making the rounds, no member of the cleaning staff going about their duties, no employee working late on a weekend night. Satisfied, she pressed the crash bar and opened the door slowly, acutely conscious of the noise its hinges made as it let into an empty, unlit hallway, and of how much louder her tread was on the tile than it had been on the stairwell’s concrete.
Out in the hall she gently closed the door behind her, shutting out the well’s illumination, then slid the goggles down in front of her eyes and flipped them on. They produced in front of her a slightly snowy, pale green picture of a long, wide, high-ceilinged corridor with a lush carpet running down its middle from end to end, and name-plated doors on each side. Offices belonging to management, she knew; the more senior company vice-presidents, the Chief Operations Officer, the Chief Financial Officer. And the board room where these eminences conferred as a group.
Ashley looked left, and saw the corridor terminate at a bank of elevators, then looked right and saw at its opposite end the door to the particular office she needed to reach. And there didn’t seem to be anything to stop her from doing that. But now Ashley sensed that somehow she wasn’t seeing everything.
Ashley had learned to trust such feelings, which had saved her life more than once. Unfortunately, she didn’t have any idea as to what she could do about that feeling except retreat, which was not an option. There was no backing out of this job, which had come to her with an inflexible deadline attached. Coming back tomorrow night, or the night after that, or the night after that one, all weeknights when there would be more activity in the building, was certain to involve greater risk. And that was even without her intrusion putting Thorn’s security people on their guard, throwing off all her planning.
Besides, after doing everything it took to come this far, and getting so close to the prize . . . she didn’t think she could make herself turn around and go back up to the roof now and fly away from it all.
So she continued to press down the corridor, her pace barely diminished. A little more alertness, that was all that the situation required she told herself as she studiedly kept on the carpet to muffle her steps, and watched and listened for the faintest hint that she wasn’t alone on her way to that door at the far end of the hall.
As she closed with that door she confirmed that the nameplate on it read HAROLD NORTHROP, CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER. To the right of the door was an electronic keypad. Ashley typed in the code the Client’s people gave her from memory (Mercer#621) and then saw the door open, admitting her to the secretary’s antechamber.
The room Northrop’s secretary sat in was, as befit Northrop’s sense of himself, spacious and lavishly furnished enough in itself to make most executives envious. (There was room not just for comfortable armchairs for those awaiting an audience with Northrop, but a big coffee table and a large plasma screen on the wall.) But its principal point of interest for everyone who came to it was the door leading backward from it into Northrop’s own office.
That door had just a pin-tumbler lock, one of higher quality than the one she saw on the roof, but Ashley had seen the type before and beat it before. She got out the lock pick gun and repeated the performance, then stepped through it into the last room.
The chamber before her was the size of a one-bedroom apartment. Containing just enough in the way of furnishings and decoration to keep the office from looking eccentrically bare, it was mostly empty floor space, which along with the high ceiling made it seem even larger than it already was.
At the far end of the office, behind a massive, hand-carved oak desk, was a floor-to-ceiling window of tinted glass running from one corner to the other. The other three walls were all paneled with raised wood, and they contained three exits besides the door she’d just come through, all designed so that they appeared to blend into the wall.
Two of those exits were on the left side of the room. The one nearer to the desk let into Northrop’s private bathroom. The one closer to her as she advanced into the room let into an office space next door that Northrop had appropriated for conversion into a small personal apartment for the CEO. (The rationale Northrop gave was that he sometimes needed to stay on the job for days at a time, but the gossip also ran that he was an old man who wanted to look like he was working when he took his naps.)
The third exit, on the right side of the room, was into the private elevator that ran all the way down to the reserved parking space in the garage to and from which Northrop was driven in his bulletproof Mercedes limousine.
Ashley checked all three doors and satisfied herself there was no light and no noise behind them, no running water in the bathroom, no sound indicating a car coming up through the elevator shaft.
She then turned her attention to the paintings on the walls, a Vaupen, a de Borchgrave, an Almeida, a Braun, all originals bought at auction the year before, each worth several million dollars. By all accounts Northrop was not a man who cared much for art, but the current hot market for Post-Impressionist art work made them an object of investment for companies like Thorn. And Northrop, of course, regarded his office as a suitable place to display his corporation’s prizes, which he tended to treat as his own.
Paintings also had their practical uses—like concealing the door of a safe.
Ashley had been told that it was the Vaupen, hanging a little way past the bathroom, closest to the desk, which performed that function. The picture she got through her goggles was hardly suited for an aesthetic appreciation of the painting, least of all Vaupen’s famous use of color. It was enough that it let her see the lines, which portrayed a party of Belle Époque holidaymakers at the French seaside.
Ashley reached out to the painting and grasped it by its gilt frame, then carefully lifted it from its place and laid it against the wall near her feet. Sure enough, behind it she could make out the subtle lines of a smaller, moveable panel inside this portion of the wall. She reached out and felt along those lines, looking for a lever, a catch—there. She heard the springs deploy, noticed the panel shift an inch out toward her. She touched her fingers to its bottom and experimentally slid it upwards, saw it move in response to the pressure she applied, then went on pushing it upward until she slid it up over her head.
Underneath the panel was the door of a wall safe, a rotary combination-type. A quick check of the brand (it was a Markovic 2100) revealed that the Client’s people were right about this too.
Unfortunately, they didn’t know the combination that would open the safe. That made the next task seeing if Northrop had written it down somewhere handy, the way people kept their computer passwords close to hand. So Ashley shut off the goggles and produced a pen light, then started shining it about the wall around the safe. She saw no sign of anything that might be the combination on the walls, or any place in them where they might have been hiding, even after searching thoroughly behind the moveable panel for a place where Northrop might have secreted a slip of paper with the information she wanted.
She then turned toward Northrop’s desk and set about searching it. Sure enough, Northrop had the password for his computer on the back of a business card tucked underneath the base of the flat computer screen mounted on top of his desk. She didn’t find anything that looked as if it might refer to the safe combination, however, even after going through all his drawers. There was so much paper in there that she knew she didn’t really exhaust the possibility, but the point was to have something easily accessible.
The thought then occurred to her that maybe Northrop kept the safe’s combination in the computer, the computer password providing access to still other codes he needed.
Ashley sat down at the desk and cold-booted the computer. When the operating system challenged her for the password, she typed in the string of letters and numbers on the back of the business card and received admission into the system. The file manager came up on screen then, after which she typed the words “safe” and “combination” into the Search Function.
Up popped a long list of results. Ashley organized them by file size, from smallest to largest. At the top of the reshuffled listing was a small text file named SAFE COMBINATION. She opened it, putting on the screen a sequence of double-digit numbers: 31, 09, 57, 22, 14.
Ashley repeated the numbers to herself several times to make sure she’d got them, then rose from the desk and walked to the safe. She turned the knob to zero, then turned it again very deliberately to 31, stopped, dialed back to begin on the next number, and repeated the process with each succeeding number until, the knob turned to 14, she pulled the door handle in at herself—and felt it swing open.
Inside was a high-density digital video disc in a clear, unmarked protective case lying atop a small stack of paper files.
Ashley picked it up, slipped it into her jumpsuit’s left breast pocket—and then caught a quick movement to her left. The door to Northrop’s little apartment flew open, as did the exit into the secretary’s antechamber, and each doorway was instantly filled by a large man in a blue and black Thorn C & C security uniforms, each just the first in a stream of them coming into the office. All of them carried clubs in their hands, which she recognized as the kind equipped to give electric shocks. (And guns in their holsters.)
Ashley’s hand was still in her pocket, her fingers still on the disc. Before she withdrew those fingers she used them to pick up something else in that pocket, something that looked a little like a toy that had been a fad a generation earlier. The one with adhesive legs that a kid could throw at a wall, and then watch walk up that wall. Except that this item’s body was bigger, sturdier, metallic.
Ashley used her thumb to peel back a panel on that body and flick the button revealed beneath it. Then she started backing toward the window as the men continued to come in, a dozen of them, with a thirteenth following from the door of the unfinished apartment, distinct from the others because he was shorter, and because he was wearing a suit instead of a uniform and carrying nothing in his hands. Standing behind two of the guards, but visible in the gap between them, his large, bespectacled, astroturfed head was perfectly recognizable in the light.
The guards shut the doors through which they’d entered. Each group spread out in a line after that, and then the two lines merged into a single formation, which advanced slowly toward her. They seemed like a squad of riot police facing down a crowd of demonstrators, determined to corral her into a smaller and smaller portion of the room.
“It’s over,” Northrop said. “Surrender quietly and you won’t be harmed—”
Ashley flung her arm out at the window and let go of the little device. The men with the clubs must have seen the motion, but maybe not the little object that went flying out of her hand, or if they had didn’t react to it, because it was directed away from them, because it wasn’t so threatening as her pulling out a gun.
But then there was a resounding boom in the room.
The device’s legs had made contact with the window and adhered to it, positioning the little metal body so that the shaped charge of plastic explosive inside blew outward through the glass when it exploded, making a big hole in Northrop’s big window.
An instant later Ashley broke into a run for that hole.
Some of the guards had recovered from the shock of the explosion by then, and as she dashed through the space between the wall and the desk she heard their feet pounding the floor, heard their yelling, felt them moving right behind her as the riot cops turned into football players intent on a tackle, trying to stop her from doing what they hadn’t even imagined her attempting just five seconds before. The burly man with the goatee was right on her heels, running through that same gap between the wall and the desk she’d gone through, the pale-eyed guy with the long, shaved skull threw himself over Northrop’s desk and knocked the computer screen clattering to the floor trying to get at her, but she was just a little too quick, a little too nimble for the hulks, goatee-man’s fingers just brushing her shoulder as she went headlong through the hole, out into the air a thousand feet over Midtown.