Eat or Be Eaten

This is the second short story that I wrote for my creative writing class this semester. I had a lot of fun writing a heist story featuring an ambitious chemistry student, a crazy cat lady, and a Chad, and I hope you enjoy reading it!

My car breaks down twenty minutes before I’m supposed to be at the meeting. Piece of shit.

I pull off the road as billowing black smoke starts coming off the hood, like someone started a mini wildfire in my engine. I quickly get out—I feel like I read somewhere that if the smoke is black, you’re in danger of the whole car exploding? Or something? I don’t know, it was on the internet, so it probably wasn’t even true. Regardless, I don’t feel like being within blasting range.

I call for a tow-truck, and they tell me it’s going to take up to two hours. Two hours for a freaking tow. What is wrong with this world?

I’m only a couple miles from the building I’ve been summoned to, though. Might as well just walk it. In the middle of February. In five-degree weather. Yay…

I zip my black jacket up to my chin and shove my hands into my pockets, dipping my head down and bringing my shoulders up a bit to try to hide as much of my exposed face in the jacket’s collar as I can. I probably look like a turtle, but at least my nose is slightly warmer. Then I walk as fast as I can down the street toward the address I was given.

532 Pine Street is an enormous office building in the middle of downtown. It’s sterile and plain, with at least thirty stories covered in reflective black windows. Blocky silver lettering above the main door spells out the address, and the automatic doors smoothly slide open as I approach. I plunge myself into the wonders of a functioning heating system, pulling my hands from my pockets and shaking them until they thaw.

I quickly check the directory and make a mental note of which floor I should go to, then head down the hall, following the signs for the elevator. The click of my boot heels echoes on the pristine tile, bouncing off the plain white walls. As I turn right, I can hear the soft sound of people talking; I follow the noise to a small reception area. There’s an elevator door to the left of a small desk where a tired looking woman types on a large computer, not acknowledging my presence. Opposite the desk are a couch and a couple of plush chairs situated in a half circle around a table so small it can barely hold the magazines resting on it. Three people sit around the table: a buff guy with greasy blond hair in his twenties who looks like your typical college frat boy, a middle-aged woman wearing clothes that are covered in cat fur and a few sizes too big, and an older man with dark skin in a suit that looks like it cost more than my apartment.

I clear my throat a little awkwardly and address the receptionist. “I assume you’re the keeper of the elevator keys?”

The woman behind the desk nods at my words. “When is your appointment?”


She gives another stiff nod and points me toward the others. “Please wait.”

I awkwardly go over and sit on the couch beside Cat Lady. She squeezes her hands in her lap and wrinkles her nose slightly, like I dragged over a bad smell. Actually, I might have—I don’t know how much of that toxic smoke clung to my clothes.

A minute or so passes before the receptionist addresses us again. “You can all go up now. Floor 35.” She presses a button and the elevator doors open with a pleasant ding. Frat Boy jumps to his feet and strides inside, and I follow him as the other two trickle in behind me.

The doors close, and I press the button for floor 35, standing close to the door. Even though it’s only four people, the box is a bit claustrophobic. The four of us more or less ignore each other for a few seconds as the elevator starts to make its way up the shaft, the only sound the grinding of the machine under soft Muzak and the slight ding as we pass each floor. 13, 14, 15, 16…

We’ve just passed floor 20 of 45 when the man in the suit speaks up.

“I bet you’re wondering why I’ve gathered you all here,” he says. And then he hits the emergency stop button.

The elevator jerks to an abrupt stop, knocking all of us slightly off balance. I tightly grab hold of the metal handrail.

“Dude, what the hell?” Frat Boy says, his face screwing up.

The woman wraps her arms around herself, hands shaking. “I— You can’t do that—”

I just meet the man’s eyes in silence. He notices, and his lip twitches into a slight smile beneath his greying mustache.

“You all received summons to this building, at this time exactly,” the man says. He states it as a fact, yet his pause seems to invite responses.

I slip my hand into my pocket to feel the crumpled up note again.

Ms. Mackenzie Lauren Rivera,

Your presence is required at 532 Pine St. on February 13th at 11 AM precisely in order to discuss the legal implications of Ms. Leah Elizabeth Rivera’s recent passing. Please arrive promptly and bring appropriate identification.


The legal offices of Peterson, Anders, and Lane

I didn’t really have a reason to question it. My mother did die a few weeks ago, and she did have a will through Peterson, Anders, and Lane. It all seemed to check out.

Clearly, though, I’m here for an ulterior reason.

“Who are you?” Frat Boy demands.

The man sets his briefcase down and clasps his hands behind his back. “My name is Percival Everett.”

“Is that your real name?” I ask.

He gives me another smile and doesn’t answer the question. “I’ve brought you here because each of you has a weakness. A weakness that I know about.” He turns to each of us in turn. “Janet Gray, Chad Gardner… Mackenzie Rivera. I know you all. And you should know that I am not the sort to play games without reason.”

I press myself against the wall, digging my fingers into the seams between the metal, trying to find whatever purchase I can to keep myself steady. I glance around the elevator, my eyes landing on the one security camera. Its lights are out—the power to it must have been cut so it won’t transmit. Clever. My companions seem to have come to similar conclusions as I have upon listening to Percival; Janet looks like a slight breeze would knock her to the ground in a full-blown panic attack, and Chad’s face has taken on the coloring of a blistered toe.

“Would anyone like to respond?” Percival asks us, raising an eyebrow slightly.

“Will it help our cases in any way?” I say, keeping my voice steady.

He lets out a slight chuckle. “Perhaps. Though I’m not sure what case you would be attempting to help.”

“Of course you don’t.”

Percival meets my eyes. “I am a businessman, Ms. Rivera. No more, no less. I am not an officer of the law, nor am I a citizen of any particular influence. I simply want to make a deal.”

I know he’s lying. You don’t get yourself a suit like that if you don’t have some kind of influence, if you don’t have someone to posture for. But I’ll play along—I don’t really have another choice.

“The only deal you’ll be making is the deal my fist makes with your fucking face!” Chad shouts. God, I hate frat guys. Like, seriously. If you’re going to insult people, at least get a more creative vocabulary.

I subtly step between him and Percival. “What, exactly, do you want from us?” I ask calmly.

He smiles at me, like my question just made his day. Then he opens his briefcase and pulls out three thin manila files. He hands one to each of us.

“I imagine you would like more concrete proof as to why you should help me,” he says. “Take your time.”

I flick open my file while the others do the same. The papers inside are records, mainly. The electronic log of my card swipes to get into the upper level labs at my university. A copy of the permission slip I forged in order to gain access. Security photos of me working in there alone after hours. Copies of the handwritten notes I’d made, the formulas I’d used… how the hell did he get those? There’s a surveillance picture of me selling my concoction to some low life junkie jock. That was supposed to have been a one-time thing, I just needed a bit more money to pay off the loan I’d taken for tuition… Oh, great, he also got the receipt for that less-than-legal loan. Fantastic. And at the bottom of the stack, my mother’s autopsy report. How she OD’d on the drug that she forced me to make for her.

It’s enough evidence to lock me up for a long time, even open up a homicide case if they thought I was the one who gave her the lethal dose. At the very least, it would probably be manslaughter. I carefully shut the file.

“All right,” I say quietly. “You’ve flexed on us now. Tell us why.”

“There’s something in this building that I need. You are going to retrieve it for me,” he says.

“R-Retrieve?” Janet whimpers.

“Steal,” I say flatly.

“Steal is an ugly word. But yes, if you’d like to think of it that way…”

“You really think we’re gonna fucking help you?” Chad says, the vein in his muscled neck about to pop.

“Well, that typically is how blackmail works,” Percival responds calmly. “You do something for me, I don’t hand over these files to the proper authorities.”

Janet shivers violently. “How— How did you get—”

“I have my methods. They aren’t for you to concern yourself with.”

I cross my arms and stare him down, keeping a brave face. “What exactly do you want us to… retrieve?”

His lip curls in a terrifying smile. “There is a laboratory that operates out of this building. Equinox Corp. They are involved with some of the most cutting-edge research of the decade. Their findings are highly confidential, and highly valuable. In particular…” He pulls the thinnest cellphone I’ve ever seen out of his pocket and shows us a picture of a small cylinder full of blue liquid. It could be Windex for all I can tell, though I think this guy could afford to just go down to the store and get some of that.

“What is it?” I ask.

“That’s not your concern. I simply need you to obtain it and bring it back to me. Understood?”

I hold his eyes. “And what assurance do we have that we’ll be safe if we do this for you?”

“You have my word.”

“That’s not nearly enough.”

He shrugs. “Do you have any other options? I will let you keep those files, but know that I have electronic backups. As soon as the compound is in my hands, I will permanently delete them—you can even watch. Good enough?”

I take a deep breath. It’s not ideal, but… I’m going to have to risk it. Blackmail’s effective, after all. We’re in no position to refuse.

“Why us?” I ask. “The three of us… we’re hardly a crack team of thieves.” I glance at Chad and Janet. They probably look better on paper, but in person… they aren’t really what I would hope for in this case.

“I believe you all have… hidden skills, you might say,” Percival says. “And even the stupidest people can perform well under pressure.” I don’t miss the look he shoots at Chad when he says this; I hold back a smirk.

“And I imagine we have a time table?” I ask.

“We’ll meet back in this elevator in exactly two hours. Do you all understand your task?”

“Do we get blueprints? Details about the lab, its security systems? Badges?” I ask.

He opens his briefcase again and pulls out another file, tossing it down at our feet. “Everything you need—that I can provide you with, at least—is in there.” Percival pushes the emergency button again, and the elevator shakily starts up again. It goes up a few more floors, then stops at 35. The doors slide open, and Percival steps out. “The lab is in the basement. Good luck.”

With that, he turns away and the doors close again. The elevator remains stationary as the three of us watch each other.

“All right, then,” I say quietly, picking up the folder on the floor.

Chad stares at me. “What the fuck just happened?” he shouts.

I roll my eyes. “Can you maybe not use that word so much? It’s getting on my nerves.”

“How— How are you so calm?” Janet whispers, her whole body trembling like a wet dog trapped in a corner.

I sigh. “I’m a chemistry major. I’m used to working under pressure. Seriously, try measuring out exactly .75 mils of twenty molar hydrochloric acid while your beaker threatens to boil over at the other end of the counter. See if your hand shakes.”

“That’s not really a good excuse,” Janet mumbles.

Chad’s nose wrinkles—I can see the slow, sad gears turning in his head.

I give him a sweet smile. “Bad ouchy juice goes bang.”

He scowls at me. “What’s wrong with you?” he says. “You just got threatened, too.”

“Yes, I did. And in order to get the blackmail back, we need to focus on this heist.” I open the folder and skim the pages. There are three keycards sitting on a blueprint of the lab layout with locations of security cameras marked and details about the alarm systems. Most will be disabled at this time of day, since the lab is currently open. Percival provided the lab’s schedule, and over the next two hours the employees all go on lunch break and change shifts. The last page in the folder is a diagram of the vault where they keep their experiments locked up. State of the art lock, alarms, two-foot thick steel door. Almost unbreakable unless you’re trained, which I am not.

I pass out the keycards and hold out the folder. Janet takes it, pushing her smudged glasses up her nose to read it. Chad throws the keycard back at me, though.

“No. Fuck this. I’m out.”

I raise an eyebrow at him. “Do you not understand the situation you’re in? If you leave, he’ll turn over whatever he has on you. You don’t have a choice, Chad. So instead of cussing and acting like a child, why don’t you help us out?”

“Because he’s bluffing!” Chad exclaims. “Dude won’t give that stuff to anyone, because he’ll have to explain how he got it.”

“Not if it’s an anonymous tip. And besides—do you really want to risk that?” I say.

“I’d rather risk that than get caught breaking into some weapons lab!”

Janet looks up at him. “Weapons?”

He blanches, taking a step back. “Well— I mean— he wants that blue shit for a reason. It’s probably some kind of… something.”

“Eloquent,” I mutter. “Say, Chad. What does our friend have on you?”

“Nothing,” he snaps. “He’s got nothing.”

“Clearly. And you, Janet?” I glance over at her. She’s fixated on the vault diagram.

“I— Is it important?” she whispers. “Why does it matter what we’ve done?”

I lean back against the wall, crossing my arms. “Because we all have ‘special skills.’ I know why I’m here—I’m comfortable in a lab and I know my way around this security system. It’s the same that the lab at my school has. So, what about you?”

Janet’s hands are trembling so much that it’s hard to believe she can even read the papers she’s holding. But then she takes a deep breath and slowly closes the folder. “I can break the safe.”

A thief, then. I would have preferred to work with one who’s less neurotic, but I’ll take it. “How confident are you about that?” I ask.

“Very,” she says quietly. “I’ve cracked this model before.”

“Great.” I turn to Chad. “And you, Frat Boy?”

“I told you, I’m out.” He turns his back on me. God, why does he have to be so stubborn? How does he still not realize he literally has no choice in the matter?

“If you don’t help us, we’re all screwed,” I say firmly. “One of us fails, all three of us go to jail. Got it?”

Chad is quiet for a long moment; I can see his shoulders rising and falling as he takes long, shaky breaths. He braces himself against the handrail and bows his head. “Equinox Corp is dangerous. They have outposts all over the country, they employ… bad people to keep their tech safe. For all we know, Percival’s one of them, and he’s setting us up for some reason.”

“Why would he want to steal from his own lab?” I ask.

“I don’t know.” He turns to look over at me. “But I don’t want to be on the wrong side of this.”

“Which is exactly why we’ll need to be careful. And why we’re going to need your skills.”

Chad shakes his head. “What I can offer won’t help.”

I look him over again, trying to look beyond “frat guy.” He’s well-muscled, likely plays some kind of sport. Or at least wants to maintain the appearance that he does. His clothes say money—name-brand polo shirt, expensive watch. Daddy’s money, probably. Whatever he did, it likely wasn’t out of financial desperation like me and—I assume—Janet. Still bad, though.

“How did they get you two to come?” I ask. “Legal issues?”

Janet nods. “Dispute over my ex-husband’s estate. I was supposed to be meeting with his sister here…”

“Lawsuit,” Chad says shortly.

I meet his eyes. “Suing or being sued?”

“Suing.” He doesn’t offer up any more information.

“And you?” Janet asks me.

“I was supposed to go over my mom’s will.” I spin my keycard between two fingers. “So. If Chad won’t tell us what he can do, I suppose we’ll just have to work around that. How long will you need to break into the vault, Janet?”

“Five minutes.”

“Can you make it three?”

She gives me a look. “Maybe four. Maybe.”

I nod. “All right. I don’t think we’ll have the time to get disguises or anything… but that’s all right. We’ll need a distraction—Chad, that will be you. Distract the guards long enough for me and Janet to get back into the lab proper. Then…” I take the folder back from Janet and take out the lab blueprints. “We leave through the vents. They’ll spit us out on the ground floor somewhere, so we can all meet back up there. Easy.”

They both just stare at me.

“That doesn’t sound easy,” Chad snaps. “First of all, how am I supposed to distract people?”

“With your irresistible charm?” I say dryly.

He glares at me, blue eyes flashing. “Second, what about all those cameras? Even if you aren’t caught, they’ll have tape of you.”

“Not if someone were to, say, hack in and loop the feed,” I say, tapping my fingers against the handrail behind me.

Chad looks spooked. His eyes widen slightly, and he takes a little half step away from me. “I’m not a hacker.”

“Never said you were.” I hold his eyes, and he turns away.

Janet tucks her mousey brown hair behind her ears with both hands. “You said you’re a chemist, Mackenzie? Can you use that, somehow?”

“What, like whip up some smoke bombs in thirty seconds flat to obscure our dramatic exit?” I give her a look to make sure she knows I’m joking. “I’m a chemist, not a magician.”

Chad grips the handrail, white-knuckled. “You know, for someone who wants to know our secrets so bad, you haven’t offered up your own.”

I hold his eyes, tilting my head slightly. “I created a potent synthetic narcotic in my school lab. I sold it to multiple people. Percival has evidence of those dealings.”

I don’t mention my mother. What would be the point? Those memories are mine alone.

I close my eyes for a moment, thinking back to that day about six months ago. I got a voicemail from Mom in class, and I listened to it when I was alone in my dorm room. Listened to her beg me for money once again. Listened to her week and sob that she was going to just die if she couldn’t get her fix, that she knew it was her own fault (yeah right) but she just couldn’t stop, and the withdrawal was coming on hard and she couldn’t stop puking—listened to her pause and puke—and that I needed to help her, please.

I think she forgot that I ran away from her two years ago. That I had very purposefully avoided going back to her terrible apartment, avoided seeing her and talking to her. I wanted to call her back and curse her out before telling her a definitive no.

But something made me change my mind. Something… dark and vengeful, this tiny little voice in my head that said I could do more with my life, that she was holding me back. That I had potential.

So I called her back and quietly told her that I couldn’t send her money, but I could make her something. It wouldn’t be too hard with my chemistry skills, and the profs loved me, and I could easily forge a permission slip to get unrestricted access to the lab. I would just… try it out and see.

My roommate found out first, and then I suddenly found myself with a slowly growing group of clients. They wanted the stuff I made, and were prepared to pay me for it, so… I gave it to them. It was harmless, I thought. For me, at least. It was probably killing them, but… that was on them for doing it in the first place.

Then Mom OD’d.

And I was finally free.

I shake myself. “Percival needs me to identify the compound we’re supposed to be getting.” I pull the picture of the blue liquid out of the folder. “He’s going to want the formula itself. My main job will likely come after we’re out of here.”

“Then why involve you in the heist itself?” Chad asks.

I shrug. “Like I said, I know my way around a lab. I know what will trip the other security features beside the cameras.”

“What kind of security features?” Janet’s nerves seemed to have lessened greatly—she’s not even shaking anymore. I suppose that makes sense if she is a thief. The excitement of a job can overtake the fear of being blackmailed.

“Things like door logs. Alarms, especially around the more sensitive materials. Again, it will be ten times easier if we can get rid of the cameras, too…” I say, glancing at Chad.

He huffs, wiping at his brow. “I… I’d need to get a few things from my car,” he mutters.

I nod. “We have time for that. Janet, do you have what you need to break the safe?”

She hesitates, then sighs heavily. “I— I have a go bag in my car, yeah.”

I press the button for the first floor, and the elevator starts to slowly descend. “Great. Go get your things, and meet me back in the lobby in ten. All right?”

They nod. The elevator pulls to a stop and the doors ding open. Janet and Chad leave without another word to me, booking it to the front door. I sit down on one of the chairs in the reception area where I first met them, pulling my knees to my chest.

I’m starting to wonder if this is a good idea. What if we can’t pull this off? What if we get caught? Despite my associates’ apparent skills, I have no real idea of their competency level. This could go so poorly if they mess up… and like Chad said, Equinox is a dangerous company. They won’t hesitate to hurt us if they catch us.

But I have to get this compound… my future depends on it.

I have plans. I’m sick of living in fear, living under my mother’s thumb even beyond the grave. I’m so close to being done with her for good… I’ve been trying for so long…

My brain gets stuck on old memories. I don’t remember much from my childhood, but I remember my seventh birthday with perfect clarity for some reason. Dad had walked out on us earlier that year, taking his surgeon’s income with him. We lost the house. The majority of my belongings had to be sold—I managed to keep a couple books and my security blanket, but that was pretty much it. We were living in Mom’s clunker of a car, just driving from place to place while Mom tried to get some form of work. She never stayed at any job for long. She said none of them felt right, as if that somehow mattered when you were trying to give yourself and your daughter more food than just what you could shake loose from vending machines at rest stops. I was too young to really understand at the time, but looking back, I can’t believe how many opportunities she passed up because she was holding out for something better.

We went to the park for my seventh birthday because it was free. It was the middle of winter, and there was a layer of snow and ice coating the playground. No one else was there, of course, because other families had a semblance of sanity and self-preservation. But I didn’t really know better, so I spent hours on the swings and slides, my thrift store books soaking through in the snow and my fingers turning purple beneath threadbare gloves. I remember Mom spinning me on the merry-go-round, going faster and faster until my numb hands lost their grip and I fell off. I started crying as the snow got under my shirt and pants, stinging like acid.

But Mom picked me up and wiped the coldness away from me and held me while I sobbed, and I just sort of sat there in her arms, never wanting to leave.

It took a few years for me to learn that I couldn’t rely on that comfort consistently. Insecure attachment is what psychologists would call it, I think. Sometimes Mom would be there. Sometimes she would help me read a hard book, or teach me how to tie my shoes, or shoplift treats for me from 7-11. And sometimes she’d be so strung out she’d almost drive the car off the road, or she’d forget to feed me for a week, or she’d yell at me for walking in on her with some random guy when I just wanted to ask for a cup of water.

As I got older, she started demanding things from me. Demanding I lie about my age to get a job at fourteen. Demanding I drive without a license because she was too stoned to see straight. Demanding I take care of her. Give my every free second to her. I had to sneak away to take free online classes at the library. I got my GED at sixteen and started lying about how much money they were paying me waiting tables so I could save enough for the local community college. Mom didn’t care about me enough to ask where I was disappearing to. I got my associates, then turned eighteen, took the car, and drove to Florida without looking back.

Well. Almost without looking back.

I got the call a few weeks ago that Mom died from an overdose. The last batch of my drug was a higher concentration than normal, and she didn’t take that into consideration when shooting up. It killed her quickly and painlessly, they said.

I’ve had to take stock of my life since then. I spent my break working on selling her apartment, her meager belongings. I opened a separate bank account to deposit the money in, finished paying off my student loans. I knew I wouldn’t get much from her will, if anything, but I still wanted to make sure I’d be here for it. And once I finish this job, I’ll be set for life. I’ll get my degree, refine my technique, marry a defense lawyer…

I allow myself a slight smile as Chad and Janet come back inside. Chad has a backpack slung over his shoulder, and Janet clutches a large purse. They both look nervous—hopefully that means they’re both ready to take this seriously.

“Ready?” I ask.

“Ready,” Janet says quietly, and Chad nods his agreement.

The receptionist from earlier is gone, leaving the elevator unattended. I push the button to open it, and the three of us pile in. The doors close behind us, but I don’t press the button for the basement yet.

“So, Chad, you need to loop the camera feed before we get in there. Once it’s done, you’ll distract whoever’s guarding the lab door and the two of us will sneak in. Then, just keep an eye on us until we meet you back in the elevator from the ground floor. All right?”

“Right.” Chad drops to the floor of the elevator and pulls out a hardcore gaming computer. He starts typing, the tip of his tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth as he focuses.

“Do you really think he’ll hand over the evidence if we do this?” Janet asks me softly.

I nod. “He seems like a man of his word.”

She closes her eyes, looking utterly exhausted. “I just… I’m not proud of the things I’ve done in my past. I thought I escaped it all.”

“We can’t outrun our demons,” I murmur. “No matter how much we want to. You either have to accept them, lean into them, feed them… or fall prey to them.”

Janet cracks an eyelid and glances at me. “So, what, your plan is to become some drug kingpin?”

I shrug. “I do what I have to in order to survive.”

Janet goes quiet and just watches Chad work until he looks up at us. “All right, the cameras are dealt with.”

“Perfect.” I swipe my keycard on the button panel to access the basement, and we slowly descend as Chad packs up his things.

After a moment, the doors open into an annoyingly bright hallway with buzzing fluorescent lights. I push Chad forward.

“You’re on,” I whisper.

Chad shoots me a glare, but adjusts his backpack and steps out into the hall. Janet and I follow, trailing a few paces back and waiting behind the corner as he approaches the front desk. I pull a hand mirror out of my bag and hold it up so I can see around the bend while staying hidden. Chad goes up to the desk with a swagger I didn’t necessarily expect from him, considering his prior attitude. He leans against the desk and starts chatting up the girl sitting there.

“All right,” I say to Janet. “Looks like the main lab door is unguarded. We just have to be quiet—the keycards should get us in. Hopefully Chad keeps her distracted enough that she won’t look too closely at us.”

Janet nods, wrapping a strand of hair around her finger while her gaze goes distant. I grab her arm and pull her along down the hall. She’s good at being soft on her feet; the two of us get to the end of the hall without being noticed. Chad keeps flirting with the receptionist, and she doesn’t see us as I swipe my card to access the lab. I briefly meet Chad’s eyes as we slip through the door and give him a slight nod.

The lab proper is gorgeous. I almost start drooling, honestly… God, I wish I could have a lab like this to work in. The counters sparkle and are fully stocked with some of the nicest equipment I’ve ever seen. The see-through, locked cabinets show chemicals that even my university doesn’t keep. What I wouldn’t give to get my hands on those…

But of course, there’s an even more important prize in the vault. Focus on that.

I carefully direct Janet through the empty lab, making sure she doesn’t trip any sensors or alarms as we make our way back to the vault. We don’t run into any employees, a little surprisingly—at least half the staff should be back from lunch by now. But hey, I’ll take it.

The vault is easy to identify. It’s tucked back in a side hallway where we’re unlikely to be spotted, but the steel door is conspicuous and imposing. I take up post nearer the mouth of the hall while Janet goes over to the locking mechanism and starts pulling tools out of her purse.

“Four minutes,” I whisper to her. She just grunts in return and keeps working.

It takes her four minutes and seventeen seconds to crack the lock. She slides the door open when she’s done and motions for me to come over. I give her a pat on the shoulder.

“Good work. Keep watch while I get the compound,” I say.

Janet nods and watches the hall as I slip inside the vault.

So close. I’m so fucking close I can taste it.

I pull my phone out and send a quick text, then turn on my flashlight and shine it over the shelves in the vault. Weapons, like Chad said. Mostly bioweapons—poisons, serums, gases. It’s beautiful…

And there’s the compound. Bright blue, slightly iridescent. Nothing in the vault is trapped, of course; usually there would have been more security personnel in the lab itself, but Percival took care of most of them. This took planning to pull off, more than Chad and Janet can understand.

I grab the bottle and carefully put it in my bag, making sure it’s cushioned. Then I make my way back out into the hall, flashing an okay sign at Janet, who breathes a sigh of relief.

“The vents now?” she asks.

I nod and direct her to the closest one—a good lab stays well ventilated, so there are entries all over. “You go first,” I say. “I’ll be right behind you.”

Janet follows my instructions and disappears into the vent after unscrewing it. Once I can hear that she’s far enough down, I screw the vent plate back on and walk to the front lab door. I swipe my card to leave, give a nod to the receptionist, who barely acknowledges me, and go back to the elevator.

Percival is waiting inside, briefcase in hand.

“Is it done?” he asks.

I nod and pat my bag. “And on your end?”

“The police should be arresting Chad and Janet for the theft as we speak.”

“Perfect.” I press the button for the thirty-fifth floor.

Percival shifts on his feet. “I have to feel a little bad for them…”

I keep my eyes on the doors. “Someone needs to take the blame, Percival,” I murmur.

He nods. “And my money?”

“I’ll have it wired to you within the next week.” My fingers twitch over the imprint of the compound in my bag, and the corner of my mouth turns up in a smile.

Just before Mom died, I found an experimental, pretty illegal company masquerading as a pharmaceutical business. I gave them my concoction, and they liked it. They hired me on. But I had to… prove myself, they said. It wasn’t enough to be a one-trick pony. I needed to deliver something better. I did a bit of research and found Equinox.

Equinox, a weapons development company ready to release their newest discovery. If I could get my hands on it…

And I did. I did.

Percival is an actor I found who was willing to do some sketchy stuff for a job, as well as keep his mouth shut for the right price. I found out about Janet and Chad, and put together my little scheme. Use their skills, then let them take the fall. They don’t know my real name, after all—I’d never be that sloppy. They won’t be able to tell the authorities I was the one who set them up.

This is my ticket out. My ticket forward. With my position secured, with the resources to grow my business and eventually strike out on my own, money will never be an issue again. Equinox will take a hit. I’ll grow in renown. With this compound, I’m set for life.

Oh, if only my mother could see me now.

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