Prologue Ten Years Earlier
I wish it didn’t have to be this way. That’s what I kept saying to myself, throughout the entire ordeal, and long after it was over. But there was never any choice, not really. I did what I had to do. I knew someone would probably end up dead. I just assumed it would be me.
As we embarked on this misbegotten adventure, I checked to make sure my weapon was primed and loaded and simultaneously reminded myself that Schopenhauer postulated the existence of an indifferent universe. An Immanent Will shaping our destiny. Not that the cosmos is actively opposed to us, as some of the nihilists might have you believe, but simply disinterested. There is no such thing as luck, because the concept of luck presupposes a sentient being dealing out favors. So in Schopenhauer’s view, the ease with which the whole job went down, at least initially, was due not to providence but merely to the chance occurrence of inconceivable and uncontrollable forces.
As it turned out, Schopenhauer was wrong. I had a huge load of luck coming my way. I just forgot to duck before the inevitable reckoning.
I couldn’t believe how simple the break-in was. We bought the costumes at a party shop, for heaven’s sake, right next to the pointed hats and the noisemakers. I suppose the dubious authenticity didn’t matter—we looked, at least at first sight, like two members of the local police. Flipped the fake IDs Jack had bought and we were inside. I was stunned at the effortlessness of it all. Granted, we weren’t breaking into a bank. I didn’t expect security at that level. But I expected something, given the value of the merchandise. The lack of security was why Jerry accepted the gig when Renny came calling. This is the second most profitable criminal enterprise in the world, he told me, but the security is no better than what you’d expect at a comic-book convention. Jack didn’t care about the merchandise; he certainly had no appreciation for it. It was a job, one he couldn’t do alone, so he dragged me along. Into the fire. We are tested by fire; that’s what Nietzsche taught. What does not kill us makes us stronger. So I accepted. So I would be stronger. At least I told myself that was the reason. Maybe I just wanted to make enough money that I didn’t have to take every petty job that came my way. Maybe I wanted enough money so that the next time I had to make a decision—like the one that took Catherine away from me—I wouldn’t make the wrong one.
Must’ve been the way I carried myself, or the look in my eye, or perhaps the fact that I was way too underweight to be a police officer. Maybe it was my long blond hair, or excessive makeup, or the party-shop shoes that didn’t quite fit. I’ll never know for certain, but one of the museum guards began scrutinizing me intently almost immediately after we arrived. I knew he was suspicious. And I knew that the more time passed, the more opportunity he would have to do something about it. So I cold-cocked him in the face. Elbow to the nose, sudden flash of searing pain, blood everywhere. His partner reacted, but not fast enough. Jerry flattened him before he could unsnap his holster. A few more blows to the head and they were both laid out on the cold marble floor, their faces looking as if they’d been scraped with sandpaper. That was the problem with these security guys—they didn’t really expect trouble. They didn’t have the wariness of true beat cops, the subliminal awareness of possible death lurking behind every door. Maybe we were teaching them a lesson, I thought, just as Locke argued that all life, all experience, was instructional. In the future, they would be more careful.
“Have a reason for that,” Jerry asked, “or just didn’t like the way he looked at you?”
“He made me,” I answered.
“He didn’t have time. Suspicious, maybe.”
“We were going to have to do it eventually.”
“Yes, but you didn’t have to do it so quickly and with such gusto. Better hope that basement is where we think it is.” He grinned in a way that made me disgusted with myself just for being with him. “You really do hate men, don’t you?”
I didn’t bother trying to deny it. “I have my reasons,” I said quietly.
We made our way down to the basement, where the goods we wanted were stored—the ones that didn’t appear on the official inventory. It was a dark, dank, and dingy place, obviously not meant to be viewed by the public. But what was stored there! Beauty and banality, all commingled in one subterranean package.
We went to work. Jerry had a list. We were very selective. I used my X-Acto knife to cut a lovely oil of a wooden ship loaded with men being tossed about by a wicked storm. It looked old, but I wouldn’t know; philosophy was my gig, not art history. We were almost finished when I heard Jerry say the single simple sentence that changed everything:
“I’m keeping Isabella.”
“You can’t do that.”
“What—you come this far only to balk at a little kidnapping?”
“We have a list, Jerry. If we go off-plan we risk getting caught.”
“We took that risk the second we put on these cop suits.”
“They won’t pay a ransom. This is supposed to be a snatch and run, pure and simple.”
“Then I’ll keep her. She can be mine. All mine.” He hugged the statuary as if it were an actual naked woman. A wild, dangerously crazy look flickered in his eyes. “I’ll be good to her. I’ll be so good she’ll never want to leave me.”
I’ll just bet he would. I stopped cutting and drew myself up to my full height, which not incidentally was three inches taller than his. “I won’t let you screw this up, Jerry. It’s too important. I need this.” And I did need it. I felt that in my inner core, for reasons I couldn’t even begin to explain. It was like a Kantian imperative.
“So that’s it?” he growled. “End of discussion?”
“Pretty much, yeah.” I returned to my work. The sooner we were out of there, the better.
Naturally, he wouldn’t let it go. “Did you forget that this is my job? That you’re working for me?”
“Yeah, and you’re working for Renny, and this is not what he told you to do.”
“You’ve always been a pain in the butt, you know that? Too damn smart to have anything to do with the rest of us morons. Except the way I see it, for all your supposed brains, you’re here in the same cellar with me, doing the same grunt work, living hand-to-mouth, hoping today isn’t the day the feds finally show up at your doorstep. Hell, you couldn’t even keep your own kid—”
“Jerry! End this!” I didn’t mean to point the knife at him. I mean, how much damage could I really do with an X-Acto? It was just a gesture, an unintended one. But Jerry took it as a threat. He kicked the knife out of my hand, then threw himself on top of me. I might have been taller, but he was a lot heavier. He pinned me down, his hot, sweaty, disgusting body much too close to mine.
A moment later, his fingers wrapped around my neck.
“I don’t need you anymore,” he whispered. “You’ve already done everything I needed you to do. You’re expendable.” He clutched my throat even tighter. His fingernails pierced my flesh, drawing blood. I felt light-headed, unfocused, like my consciousness was slowly slipping away. “News flash, Vickie. You’re not the only one who knows how to hate.”
I wanted to fight. I tried. But trapped in that position, pinned beneath him, I was helpless. Struggling was useless; there was simply nothing I could do. He crushed my windpipe in his iron grip. As I felt blackness sweeping over me, knowing with sudden and fearful certainty that I would never wake up again, a million thoughts raced through my brain. Bertrand Russell thought that death was a doorway, simply the next part of the journey. But what the hell did that atheist know about it? One thing was certain—higher learning could not help me now. I was going to the one place where philosophy was of no avail.
No one could have been more surprised than I was to find myself awake and alive. Bound and gagged, bleeding from a dozen places, in tremendous pain, but alive. A blessing, or a curse? Coin toss.
Jerry had hogtied me and thrown me in the back of the van with the goodies. Including Isabella, the stupid fool. We’d brought a lot of rope, anticipating that we might run into trouble. I should’ve known the primary source of trouble would be Jerry. I was tied so tightly the ropes burned my flesh through my clothing whenever I wiggled. Blood mingled with hemp to create a nauseating, frightening smell that permeated the truck. I don’t know why he didn’t finish me off—probably just didn’t want to leave a telltale body at the scene of the crime. He’d get around to murdering me soon enough. He’d make me so much roadkill on the side of the Boston Turnpike.
I was lying on my side, unable to move my hands or legs. With extreme effort, and despite the protest of every muscle in my body, I managed to push myself upright. But how did that help? I couldn’t possibly get free. There was no slack in the ropes at all.
Unless . . . I created some.
It was a class I’d taken in American history—under protest. Required reading included a series of short biographies. One of them was about Erich Weiss, better known as Harry Houdini. An American icon. Scholars still didn’t know how he managed to accomplish many of his escapes. But they knew the secret to one of them: they knew how he managed to escape from all those straitjackets. Seemed he was able to dislocate his shoulder. Hurt like hell, but the suddenly limp and lowered limb created enough slack to allow him to wriggle out of the jacket.
Hell, I was a philosophy major, not a damned magician. No way I could do anything like that. Right?
Then I thought of Jerry, his hot fetid breath in my face, his hand clutched around my throat, using me and then disposing of me, like so many men before him. So many.
Catherine . . .
I clenched my eyes tightly closed. I could taste blood on my lips. I didn’t know where it had come from. Didn’t matter—there was likely a lot more forthcoming. I concentrated on my left shoulder—it was the more flexible. I remembered the diagrams of the ball-and-socket joint we had studied in Zoology 101. And then I strained, twisted, feeling as if I were pulling my muscles against themselves, forcing the shoulder bone out of its natural home . . .
It hurt—dear God in heaven it hurt so much—as lightning flashes of pain raced down my entire body. I’d never felt anything like that before. Before I started, I thought I couldn’t possibly hurt more than I already did, but I was wrong, so pathetically wrong. I was sure I would lose consciousness again, for the second time in an hour . . .
It took three attempts and I don’t know how long—too long—till I heard the snapping noise, followed by a momentary sensation of release, followed by a wave of agony so intense I threw up all over the floor of the truck. I hoped I didn’t damage any of the goods, but at the moment, that wasn’t my primary concern. I fell forward, my head hitting the floor, vomit followed by drool and blood, overwhelmed by the mind-numbing aching in my left shoulder. I babbled and spit and breathed in short, quick gulps, as if spastic respiration might somehow fix my shattered body. The pain was so intense— if I had been cut open with a knife, it couldn’t possibly hurt any more . . .
Know thyself, Socrates said. Well, I knew myself well enough now.
If I could do that, I could do anything.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Capitol Threat by William Bernhardt. Copyright © 2007 by William Bernhardt. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.