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Viennese Waltz – chapter 1

You always wanted to see Vienna.

Kate paused a moment, checking her footing, only half aware of the little islands of silence forming and spreading in the crowd below her. She had a moment to reflect that he was right, though she had needed the reminder no more than she had needed his final advice.

Make it look good.

It was a light, fine evening fading into dusk. She was an eye-catching presence, straight and slim and silhouetted starkly against the pastel sky. And she was ready. She took two light steps, and she launched herself, with all the confidence of meticulous planning, across the busy street.

This was maybe not the view I had in mind.

She landed neatly, absorbing the shock in a carefully calculated roll, and she was on her feet and running before the silence of the crowd broke into a satisfying murmur of surprise and alarm. She was not waiting for applause, and she was already a block away and two storeys higher, discreetly crossing a quieter and narrower alley, before they began to look for her.

She had forgotten them; for now there was only the fierce joy of the night. She had crossed perhaps half a mile before she came down into the street, and she had crossed the ground fast, supremely unconcerned by the height, making full use of every architectural extravagance in her path. She moved with all the familiarity of a girl who had made the run before, but if her speed and grace were real things, and an inseparable part of her, the familiarity was an illusion. All she had were plans and photographs, supplemented by a few crowded hours making what checks she could from ground level without spoiling her impression of an idle tourist. They had been enough.

She came down a little reluctantly into a sheltered alley. Her leap had been a shade longer than good sense and the light allowed, and it had brought her to life in a way nothing else could. She had to fight to rein in her wild delight, but there was nothing to show it. She strolled out into the open street as casually as if she used the short cut every day, just another girl out on some late night errand. If she walked with a spring in her stride and an air of decision, it was no more than the necessary armour of urban life. She had no time to deal with any of the usual run of trouble that a girl might get herself into walking alone, but she was confident that she would not need to. She could not be mistaken for an easy mark by even the least experienced mugger, and there was no illusion in that. Slight as she was she was primed for trouble, hyperaware of her surroundings, and a parcel of grief for anyone stupid enough to chance their arm.

She came to another alley, and turned into it without breaking stride. There was a gate, but it detained her no longer than it might have had it really been the key she had in her hand, and she came to a fire escape just where she had expected to find it, and began to climb.

The first run had been for her, but this was business, and this time there was no extraneous thought at all as she climbed.

Eight and a quarter minutes later, and she hardly needed the heavy watch to tell her that she had hit her mark exactly on time, she stepped aside from her direct route, flattened herself into the lee of a more than convenient cluster of chimney stacks, and looked out again across the city.

She had needed the light, but now she must wait for the dark, or at least for the tricky half-light that her . . father had always told her was the best friend of the hunted. It was a necessary pause, but it gave her space for unnecessary reflection, and this was no time to dwell on the odd hitch in her thoughts whenever she gave Blake his rightful title. She had business in hand and a strict timetable ahead of her, and she choked off the half-formed thought. To consider her leap, or the run that followed it, was no improvement. Better to chew that over at leisure, when she was more likely to absorb the lesson. The leap should have warned her, but she had flown across the unfamiliar route, the wild night singing in her blood. At least the fierce joy was ebbing away, but she found herself as surprised as she was relieved; it was not repentance that displaced the joy, but disappointment at the city as she had seen it.

What, she asked herself tartly, had I expected?

It was just a city, one more industrial city in Europe, making its way in the big bad twenty-first century. Of course there were towers, and neon; the harsh lights of industry along the river, and the mundane sounds of the population gearing up for another Friday night. Had she expected her mother’s baroque fantasy?

Perhaps. Just a little.

As Hal had known she would, when she had protested at the extra risk inherent in the pause, and he had evaded any answer with a soft word and a slow smile. It was no time to think of Hal, either; not about the errand she was running for him or the favour he had allowed her in return; certainly not about the reason that her distantly avuncular uncle could read her well enough to pull her strings with such certainty.

Her quarter hour was slipping away, and the last of the dusk with it. She shook herself, annoyed at her distraction. So it was not her mother’s city. Too bad; but she was not her mother’s daughter, and she had not come for the dancing. She took two long, settling breaths, and let her hands wander of their own accord across her pockets. As for Hal, she might be his niece, he might once have been the one skulking amongst the chimneystacks, he might very well be pulling her strings, but it was not his city, either. That lay twenty-five years behind, a world away. It was her Vienna; and tonight, her hands itched for it.

Another five minutes of the climbing she excelled at, and she was settled over the doorway of the roof terrace of one of Vienna’s lesser-known galleries. Another wait, but this one was out of her hands. She made the most of it, exploring the structure as much as she was able to, finding it a surprisingly ramshackle affair, a later covering to what had once been an open stairway. She grinned in the darkness. She had not liked having to wait for the door to open; now there was some chance that she would not be taken by surprise. Three minutes later her straining ears caught the faint sound of footsteps below her, and her grin quirked back fleetingly. He too had hit his mark perfectly.

Her awareness coalesced around the soft footsteps, picturing the unselfconscious confidence of his gait. A young man, they had told her, but she could hear that he was old enough to move with a mature assurance. There was a pause, and the muted sounds of an electronic keypad.

She was already flattened into the shadows; she had only to wait, motionless and silent, as his regular beat carried him below her. He glanced up, but did not look back; she had given him no cause to. She followed his progress across the terrace with interest, absorbing the rhythm of his stride, studying him carefully, giving herself room for manoeuvre. Then his radio crackled into life, and she said a little word of thanks to whosoever watched over her and dropped down to the terrace. Not that she had needed the cover; she made no more noise than the breeze that played across the rooftops.

She paused, to be quite sure of herself. This was no crowded plaza, full of distractions to assist her, and she had only her own skill to rely on. She drifted after him, coming close enough to smell fresh starch in his shirt, and be pleasantly surprised by the fragrance, before she stepped back, retreating to her shadows with his radio in her hand.

Another wait, ages long but taken patiently. He finished his tour, came back to her station, and passed once more onto the covered stair. She caught the door, tense for his reaction, but he had not paused to see it close. For three beats she froze, unsure how best to attract his attention without startling him into rash action, but he must have been waiting for the snick of the catch engaging. He paused, listening. His hand drifted to his waist, and found nothing. And at last he turned.

She straightened a little to meet his gaze. His hand travelled on aimlessly as he groped for some sensible reaction to her presence. He seemed welded to the spot, but she had no illusion that it was fear that held him. She was only too well aware that hers was not an inherently threatening presence; a slight girl who might be sixteen or twenty-six, with only a touch of hardness about her eyes for warning. It was incredulity that held him, and she must move before it wore off and he tried something foolish. She stepped forward, speaking a well-rehearsed phrase of explanation, letting him see clearly what she had taken from her pocket. The power of speech returned to him in a rush. She caught perhaps three words of the flood, but it was not important that she understand him. She raised her free hand warningly.

Ruhig sprechen,” she urged softly, „langsam,” and seeing that at least he understood her, she went on with the prepared speech she had been so carefully taught, explaining why he was going to do just exactly what she asked.

He was fairly cooperative, in the end. He protested only mildly at being handcuffed to the balustrade, and since she knew too little German to understand the protest it was easy to ignore. He confirmed the code of the door above, and surrendered his keys, though she was unlikely to use either. She had been reminded, after all, not to play the percentages, and she had more faith in her own skill than in any information that could be bought or coerced.

By the time she moved out into the wide hall of the main gallery she made a better imitation of the man whose patrol she had usurped than he had thought possible when he first heard her explanation. She had taken some comfort from his grudging admission of the fact as she transformed herself in front of him, moving smoothly and without haste, knowing that the short time she had available was ample. His jacket and cap she appropriated, her tools and her neatly coiled hair disappearing beneath them. Her climbing gloves she replaced with surgical ones from the bag at her waist, and the removal of ties at her knees and ankles loosened her dark trousers to complete the illusion of his bulk.

She moved down the centre of the hall, not with her own silent grace but with a good approximation of the young man’s swagger. She would not have fooled a sophisticated gait recognition system, but she did not need to. She was a two inch figure on one screen in a bank of twenty, and she had done everything she could to satisfy the man being paid too little to watch those twenty screens. It would have to be enough – her counterfeit swagger, and an air of knowing where she was going. She had never been in this gallery in her life, but for some things a map was perfectly adequate, particularly to Kate, who could carry the map in her mind’s eye.

She turned into a side gallery, and continued with the same measured tread, sparing no more attention for the priceless art around her than for prints on the office wall. They could be no more than that to her, tonight. She was moving in a little pocket of elevated temperature and humidity, and if she moved close enough to examine any one of the paintings she passed so casually she would trigger its proximity alarm. Even to pause, and to study one from the centre of the hall, would be a risk she was unwilling to take. John was waiting for her, and she knew that waiting was the harder part; worse, it would seem uncharacteristic behaviour, even in a two inch figure on a screen, and a mantle of familiarity was all the shield she had. Her figure continued its regular, reassuring progress across the bank of screens.

She came to the main stairs, and ran lightly down them, the keys that jangled slightly at her waist compensating a little for the lack of noise from her soft soled climbing shoes. She did not hesitate at the ground floor, but went on to the basement. Her surroundings scarcely altered. The architect had made no distinction between public and private areas, and she still moved through passages of pleasing proportion, over marbled floors. It was longer, perhaps, since the walls had been repainted – the colour was mismatched, though not yet fading. There were scuffmarks on the doorframes from heavy equipment carelessly handled. The wall niches were vacant again, and the cameras less discreet. That was all.

It was one particular camera that she was searching for. She rounded a corner, and found it facing her from the next bend. She slowed a little, her head straight ahead but her eyes roving. It was possible – likely – that no one was watching her at all, but she took no chances. She must look as if she would pass beneath the camera as it turned the second time. With a soft whine it swivelled away from her, and she broke out of her silence to the extent of allowing her footsteps to sound out in the empty passage as she ran the dozen strides to the corner.

Her hands were at the relevant pocket almost before she had halted, and a moment later she was poised beneath the camera. After a long ten seconds the little motor whined once more, and her hands moved swiftly and surely to jam the exposed mechanism.

She paused only long enough to assure herself that the camera would not turn again, a second later she was running for the next door. She had six minutes before the guard she had surprised would be expected back at the central control station, and it would not be thought unusual if he were not seen again before he reached the central desk. No one was supposed to be able to get so far undetected, and surveillance was concentrated on the outer areas of the gallery. The handful of cameras in these central passages shared one of the twenty screens, rotating randomly. She approved in principle of the random rotation, but there was no doubt that it was working in her favour.

She reached the door, seeing in one sweepingly comprehensive glance that it was exactly what she had been led to expect. The hat thudded softly into a corner, and before it had come to rest her tools were in her hand and she was working on the door. Her movements were deft, almost delicate, belying the deceptive strength of her wrists. Preparing, she had allowed herself a hint of nostalgia for nights when she had worked with nothing more than a diamond wheel and a handful of probes and files. She had no time for sentiment now, and her mind was focussed absolutely on the door in front of her. She knew that she could do the job, even in the time that had been allowed for it, but she had made no pretence that she could do it easily.

She could open any door, given time and equipment. There was no arrogance in the thought. It was a question of how much time, and what equipment. She took a drill from the long pocket along her thigh, saying a little word of thanks for the improvement in batteries since she had begun to learn her trade, then brought the plans to mind, and began to drill, working with a care and precision that she would never sacrifice to speed, but working fast, all the same. The drill was replaced with probes. She closed her eyes as she worked the wards, the better to see what she knew was there. She became utterly absorbed, allowing herself to take her own security on trust. There was little enough she could do, at this stage, if anything went wrong. There was no use in fretting over it if she could concentrate instead upon her work.

The door swung open. She glanced at her watch as she passed through, and this time she was not so sure of what it would show. Four minutes eighteen – better than she had predicted, and she had thought as she worked that it was perhaps a little more. There had been a long, stretched moment when her hand had slipped, and she had been sure that she must have fouled her field of play. It had taken rigid discipline to continue with calm, controlled movements, backtracking, working once more though the process as if time had never been an issue.

The reflection wasted no time as she strode across the dim room, and nor did she use precious seconds to search for a light switch. The low lighting required by the security system was ample for her needs. She passed the racks with no apparent interest, making directly for the safe and the possibility of a bonus that she had been promised. In any case there was nothing small enough to have tempted her, even in Paris, in the outer vault. Gaudet had always told her she was too cautious, but Gaudet was only interested in his twenty per cent, and he had never taken any risk himself. She froze and closed her eyes, clearing her mind. That was long past. She moved on; it was only the safe that interested her; the safe and her bonus.

She paused to reassure herself that it was exactly as she expected, and it was. Not easy. Not impossible. Nothing was impossible. It came back, again, to time and equipment. The manufacturer boasted of the bulky power tools that would be required, but she had her doubts about that. She set out to prove them wrong, submerging herself, living through her hands, concentrating everything she was on the task in front of her.

She gave no thought to what might very well happen when her six minutes expired. She could drop everything when her time ran out, and have lost nothing. For now the challenge of the safe door was enough, and though ninety seconds was certainly not time for that, she had an idea that the guard at the central desk might well allow her longer.

The full six minutes came, and went. She worked on calmly. This part was not in her hands. Out there in the night her partner was listening to the radio traffic, and when it started to sound hot, he would let her know. She could do nothing until his signal reached her, and she had three locks to deal with. She was close to defeating the second when the radio at her side crackled into life, and anyone watching might have doubted that she heard it. There was not the slightest tremor to mark it. She maintained the steady pressure of her right hand, and the delicate manipulations of her left, until the lock gave.

She was already reaching for the radio when the central guard called once more, increasingly irritated, but not yet alarmed. She could make nothing of the heavy Viennese accent. She would have struggled, in fairness, with the clear north German diction they had attempted to teach her at school, but she did not have to understand him. She had John, and his scanner, for that. He would send her a strong enough signal when he felt that it was time for her to withdraw.

In the meantime, she reached for a tiny solid-state recorder, and played back the response she had required her captive guard to provide. As far as she could tell he had read the card that she had given to him accurately. She had already handcuffed him to the railings when he read it, and he had not needed to put on an act of impatience and annoyance. Which was exactly why she had restrained him before making the recording. John had told her that the terse phrases explained, in idiomatic Viennese, that the roving guard had stopped to attempt to repair a camera that he had noticed was jammed, and that he would be another five minutes, or so.

It appeared to have the desired effect. There was another volley of irritated German in response, but it seemed not to alarm John. She played the second, terser message. It suggested that the job might be done faster without further interruption. She set the radio aside, and allowed herself to give no more thought to it, though it chattered on. That was John’s department. Her job was in front of her, and she might have so much as five minutes to devote to it. Oceans of time, she told herself. All the time in the world.

The third lock gave her some little trouble, and she knew that she was working on borrowed time when it finally gave way before her persistence. She sat back on her heels with an explosive exhalation of relief, making no move to open the safe. She rose in one smooth movement, her tools already in their accustomed places, the bag at her waist coming free even as she stretched the kinks from her legs. Her borrowed jacket joined the hat in a corner, and she took a second to settle her dark, surprisingly well-cut sweater just so. John believed that she had time in hand, and that was his department.

It was only when she was certain that she was as prepared as may be for flight that she bent once more to the safe, opening it casually, pulling one frame from the rack that she knew she would find there. She settled to study it in rapt concentration, unbothered by the low light. She had stolen the privilege, but she would not be responsible for the damage that bright light might do to ink lines already ravaged by time.

She was neither surprised nor disappointed when the radio finally came to life, more than a hint of alarm now evident beneath the terse words. When the lights went out a scant second later she was ready for them, running the frame back gently and surely along its rails. She swung the door to despite the irreparable damage that she had done to its mechanism, and perched a copy of the credentials she had shown to the guard prominently on top of the wrecked safe. She turned to the doorway, sure of herself even in the pitch darkness, and made towards it with a firm stride that did not falter even when the lights came back. She had expected it, and counted off John’s movements as she took up her own position beneath the damaged camera.

Three strides to the window that he had already opened and secured. A fast spring and wriggle; a controlled drop to the floor within. Five aching seconds to cover the window, because he could not work in darkness and his light must not be seen. The light at his waist snapping on, even as he turned. A fractional moment of appraisal, of reorientation. Two short paces to the far wall, and one raking blow with the well-insulated blade he carried. The pitch of the emergency generator shifting suddenly as it was deprived of all strain . . .

 . . . but she had no further interest in his actions. She was already running into the welcome darkness as he turned to the generator itself. She had taken two fast corners by the time he was satisfied with his efforts. As he worked his way back out of the one high window she was already reaching for the manual override of the goods lift, and neither gave the other a second thought.

The cage doors rattled open, and she threw herself into the confined space, pausing only to send the doors crashing closed behind her. The lift had been put in with large sculpture in mind, but she knew the model and she knew that her reach was sufficient. She stooped a little as she reached the rear right corner, just enough to add an extra impetus to her thrust. The emergency hatch exploded upwards, and she followed in a flash, flexing her knuckles a little ruefully as she stepped confidently to the ladder she could not see. Nothing left but to climb, counting rungs to keep herself from contemplating the things that might have gone awry around her in the silent dark.

Sixteen, and she paused, reaching out into the unknown to the hatch that she should find there. She met only empty wall. She wound herself more securely around the ladder and threw her weight trustingly to the side.

Confound all six-foot engineers with their confident assertions.

Still, she should have checked the figures herself, and she did not let the flare of temper interfere with her searching hand. She had never liked this smash and run approach, the best that they had been able to come up with a short notice, but at least John was clear of the mess; John who had never been more than ten yards from the bustle of the street, who would have been absorbed by now back into the happy crowds, and half way home. Her questing fingers caught the catch and worked at it, though she could not to apply her full strength to it at arm’s length.

She’d not be able to shift the thrice accursed, badly designed, ill-maintained . . . article.

She continued to work at it patiently as she cursed. There was nothing else to do, hanging there in the darkness, and if she was certain to be caught, there was still no need to give up until she must. The catch began to give, and she worked on, heartened. Whilst her plans would not be irredeemably spoilt by getting herself arrested, it would lack elegance. The catch gave way, and she swung herself through cleanly, landing lightly, running on without pause for recovery. Her mother had always set great store by elegance and, despite everything, it gave Kate an odd kind of reassurance to achieve at least one thing she would have approved of.

She built up enough speed in the last straight that she skidded to a halt beneath the window at the far end of the hall, but there was no panic or haste in her actions. Her breath came as easily as ever, her mind was as cool and focussed. She gave no thought to what might be behind her. There was one last set of defences ahead of her, and they occupied all of her attention. She worked steadily, aware that she must be very short of time, but not deflected by the thought. She traced the wires easily enough by the light of the streetlamps, for no one had planned for this system to delay a departing visitor. This was in her opinion extremely foolish, and she intended being extremely blunt about it in her report. She worked carefully, all the same. It would be a shame to spoil her record now.

Moments later she emerged into the hooded shadow of a first floor window, and lowered herself casually on to the wide sill. She waited patiently for her chance, taking the opportunity to unfasten her hair, and dropped lightly into the alley only when she could see a clear space to emerge into. Uncle or not, Hal would be most upset with her if she spoilt the show by impatience at this point. Far better to have been taken quietly, within the gallery, somewhere that she could explain herself.

It would not come to that. She merged seamlessly into the crowds, marked out only by her grace and purpose. She had another appointment to keep, and time to tidy herself in some convenient rest room before she made it.

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