“It’s the only known surviving example of Empirion work, so of course the client wants it.” As always Lupien Calwilder was careful not to say the client’s name. Mr Calwilder was, officially, an attorney at law and this meeting in his office looked like any other office meeting. Lance Wing was their IT specialist, Julie Luna dealt with all their internal HR issues, while Giles Warden dealt with external HR issues, Claire Heath was the researcher and James Strath was the office driver. Fairly normal, even if most offices didn’t have a dedicated driver. Less normal were Henri Brun and Victor Ivanych Rostov who were the heights specialists, Precious Rambana the safe cracker and alarm specialist, and Mishi Keller the tunnel rat.
Calwilder and Associates was, in fact, an elaborate front. Lupien Calwilder took enough genuine legal work to fly under the radar and sufficient of that was pro bono to get him spoken of well in the circles whose good opinion mattered in the legal world. In reality he ran an acquisitions agency for the wealthy and discerning. Claire didn’t just think, she knew that she was lucky to have been taken on by the firm, even if Julie Luna had originally assumed that she’d been complicit in the plagiarism scandal that had gotten her thrown out of university. She’d only done the research that Nathan and the others had subsequently abused, but it was thanks to Mr Calwilder that she didn’t have a criminal record.
“Although the Infant Dragon piece is our primary target,” Mr Calwilder was passing around copies of one of the documents Claire had compiled, “we will collect a number of other interesting objects on our way out of the museum in order to both muddy the trail and increase our profits. None of them,” he added in a cautionary tone, “are worth either losing the Infant Dragon or getting caught for. On the other hand, there are several pieces you are not to even consider touching.” He handed out another document.
“The Evishara Chalice?” Giles was clearly surprised. “I’d have thought we’d have buyers queued for that.”
“We do,” replied their employer repressively, “but, as its last sole owner remarked on gifting it to the museum, it can take care of itself. Frankly, we don’t want to draw its attention. Also, the Jar of Sighs. Six feet tall with diameter of three feet and made of eggshell thin porcelain.”
“No time to do anything but botch the job on that one,” agreed Henri Brun in his French accent du jour. “A pity, but no point in trying for it.” The noises from around the circle agreed with him.
“Claire,” she looked up from her papers as Mr Calwilder addressed her, “you’ll be going along as an extra set of eyes with Mr Strath at the van. If anyone comes along, the two of you are parking after a date.”
“Anyone would think you were setting us up, boss.” James Strath had a deep voice that went with his tough guy exterior.
“Not at all,” Mr Calwilder replied coolly. “The Russo affair,” he referred to a pro bono domestic violence and stalking case, “showed that the two of you make a credible couple. Neither police nor security guards are going to think it out of place if you spend up to an hour in an unfrequented, legal parking zone at that time of night, making out.”
“Okay, so we dress for the movies and pizza then,” commented Claire.
“Could be worse,” agreed Strath.
They did not, of course, spend the entire time the break-in team was in the museum making out. They were there to keep a lookout and to make sure the van was ready to load and leave as soon as the others were back. A police car, a cruising band of teenagers and two security rounds after they’d left, the team were back and loading up the van, securing the valuables and people, and then they were leaving. Strath insisted on a last, long kiss for the benefit of the traffic cameras at the intersection and Claire could have done without the accompanying snirks, sniggers and Precious’ outright giggles from the back of the van.
There was a little more hand kissing and such while stopped at lights on the way to the drop-off point, which was a newly rented factory space between Chandler Street and Little Riley Lane. The neighbours had been led to believe that it was being renovated into a set of warehouse-style apartments but, aside from the smell of paint, on the inside it was still a large industrial space – with a nice new storey and a half opening into the darkened insides of the building next door.
“Why’s that there?” Claire asked the question as she helped open up the back of the van.
Strath shrugged. “Client’s access to the meet with the boss? Best not to ask. If we do our jobs right, we’ll be gone before then.” They got on with the unloading and repackaging of the items that weren’t part of the client’s commission.
The Infant Dragon, all twelve feet of it, was as beautiful as Claire remembered from her museum visits. Metallic enamels, iridescent patinas and cabochons together with an animated pose gave the fantastical creature the appearance of life. “I hope,” said Precious to Claire as they watched it eased out of the back of the van, “that our client is going to take good care of this, and that his or her heirs won’t do something stupid like cut it up to dispose of the evidence.”
“So do I,” agreed Claire. “I-”
“Your sentiments warm my heart, ladies,” the voice rolled out of the darkness of the second building, “and I assure you, I will take great care of the only other survivor of my kind.” The entire team turned to see a giant head protruding into the room from the adjoining space. The first impression they had was that it was reptilian, even a dinosaur, but then they realised that it was draconic. Mr Calwilder came into view too, walking with jerky movements under that great head. “You have all been most excellent minions, and for that I will allow you to live. I will even allow you to remember all of this and retain control of your own bodies.” Mr Calwilder dropped suddenly to his knees with a look of sheer relief upon his face.
“You promised-,” he got out.
“That no harm would come to any of you if you kept faith with me?” The voice went deep enough to stir the listeners' bowels disturbingly. “But you have kept faith and thus no harm will come to you.” It chuckled. “Who would believe you even if you told them about me and what would you have to admit to in the telling? Besides, I have plans for you.”
“What plans?” Mr Calwilder was still on his knees, looking upwards with an expression that Claire interpreted as waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“There’s a chthonic vault I need opened, when the time is right.” It exhaled into the factory space and everyone’s hair and clothes moved in the resulting breeze. “The Empirion’s victims may have been turned to metal or stone, but they are only held in stasis and they can be revived.”
Claire, whose research had covered the fate of the other known Empirion objects, felt sick to her stomach.
“You’re going to help me revive them.”