Chuck Wendig’s April 8, 2016 challenge involved using a randomizer to select a 2-word title. My title was “The Copper Warning,” and here is the story it inspired:
The snick of a cigarette lighter’s cover stopped Evelyn’s climb. Her fingers tightened on the building’s brick facade while her brain considered alternate paths to her target.
A flare from the lighter, almost parallel with her but to her right, lit the guard’s face. She closed her eyes to protect her night vision, opening them only after she heard the lighter’s cover snick again.
The guard sighed deeply as he exhaled the first drag from his cigarette. The glowing tip fell to his side as he checked his machine gun’s sling. It floated up so he could take another drag, and Evelyn moved to her left.
The muscles in her forearms, shoulders, and calves protested the position change, but she pushed on, easing her way up until the balcony overhanging the smoking guard’s position hid her from his view.
Three more floors to her target. She steadied her breathing and paused to shake the fatigue and tension from each limb. Work out the kinks now so you’re ready to open the safe later. She took another deep breath before shaking the fatigue from her left arm.
Keeping her balance with only three limbs wasn’t difficult; she had a lot of practice with that. Now that she knew guards were posted, she had to keep her gestures small so she didn’t catch a guard’s eye. Loosening up while staying unnoticed, that was the real skill needed for this climb.
After stretching, she needed only a few moments to pass another balcony. Two more to go. No guards were waiting, so she shook out her stiffness again and climbed past another floor.
With one floor remaining, she halted and studied the ledge she needed. None of her recon indicted that anyone ever used that balcony. But no guards had ever been on any of the lower ones either, not during any of her previous visits. The pattern changed tonight, and she couldn’t be sure that no one was waiting on the deck above her.
She closed her eyes, willing her ears and instincts to tell her if anyone waited above her. Her breathing and heart rate slowed.
Nothing stirred, and she inched her way up. Pausing often to listen and scent the air, Evelyn reached the edge of the deck. She raised her head just enough to see if anyone was standing or sitting on the deck.
It was empty except for a small chair and table, just as it had been on every recon.
She hoisted herself onto the ledge, choosing to come up where the shadows were deepest. Lying there, she steadied her breathing again and waited to see if anyone had noticed her arrival. Once she was certain she hadn’t been noticed, she rose to her feet and walked to the balcony door.
It was ajar, and she paused at the opening. Her gaze swept the shadows of a small office, noting the location of a desk and chair, a floor lamp, and bookshelves. Nothing moved inside the room, but angry voices from deeper in the building rose and fell.
Evelyn listened to the argument. The voices were muffled, so she couldn’t make out any specific words. More important to her task, neither speaker seemed to be approaching her. At least, their voices weren’t getting louder, nor did any of their words become clear.
Trusting that they weren’t coming her way, she eased her way past the door and into the office. Her nameless client told her the safe was hidden behind the bookshelf to the right of the desk. In her instructions, Evelyn’s client had been clear. The safe was to a person’s right when sitting at the desk, not when standing and looking at it.
Evelyn’s task was to retrieve a moonstone orb kept in a cedar box at the back of the safe. Nothing else in the safe should be touched or removed.
She had managed tougher jobs than this one, but none that paid this well. Usually, Evelyn had to spend a good portion of her time trying to crack the safe. This client provided the code for the safe, along with a hefty retainer, and a packet of recon photos and information.
She still did her own research and preparations, learning the brand of safe being used, facts about the man who owned it, and what kind of security the building had. All of her research confirmed the information from her client. That fact should have made her feel more confident in taking the job. Instead, the churning in her gut increased as each fact aligned. Something about this job wasn’t on the level, but she didn’t know what.
The client said a specific book would open the hidden compartment, and the bookshelf swung toward her after she slid it on its shelf. She pushed the bookshelf open, revealing the safe. Her research and the client’s information were accurate; this safe was nearly impossible to crack or drill. She didn’t need to do either, though.
Evelyn spun the dial a few times to clear any old entries. As she started rotating the dial to the first number of the combination, a scream from the hallway startled her. She turned toward the office door when something slammed against it.
“No, please, I’ll give you the orb. I swear. Just, please…”
“Silence, wizard. The time for pleas and deals and cooperation has passed. Now, I will take what I came for.” The guttural accent of a demon’s voice made hair on Evelyn’s arms and the back of her neck stand up.
Crouching down behind the desk, Evelyn placed a hand over her pounding heart. Why does a demon want this orb? She had wondered why this job paid so well and why the client had a specific timeframe for the orb’s removal. Now she knew.
“I…I swear, milord, I will cooperate…” The wizard’s voice broke off in a long moan, and a metallic scent caught Evelyn’s attention.
As the warm, coppery odor of fresh blood filled her nostrils, she fought to stay in the present moment. But memories of her childhood, of beatings received and witnessed, of seeing blood spilled and being forced to mop the sticky, smelly mess up, brought her gorge into her throat.
She swallowed hard and clutched the edge of the desk, willing her breathing to steady and the haze of memory to fade away.
In the hallway, the wizard continued to plead in a voice that grew weaker with each word. The scent of blood grew stronger, and the demon’s voice gained a purr of lust.
Evelyn noticed none of this on a conscious level, still fighting with her memories.
Somehow, a part of her brain recognized the events in the hallway as a greater threat than the memories resurrected by the smell of blood.
Before she was fully aware of her actions, she opened the safe and lifted the orb’s box from the far back corner of the safe. The weight of the box broke through her memories, and Evelyn noticed the other items in the safe.
Its three shelves were stuffed with rare magical objects, and she had to stop herself from calculating how much she could pawn them for. Her client had said the other items had spells or magical bindings on them, making them dangerous to handle. She had no skills with magic but knew enough to follow instructions.
The orb’s box slid into a mesh bag clipped to her utility belt. She eased the safe closed and spun its dial. The bookshelf needed a firm nudge to latch, and its click was lost in a muffled scream from the hallway.
She was almost on the balcony when the office door opened. A tall figure entered and drew in a deep breath.
“Who are you?” The figure’s voice was coaxing and commanding in equal parts.
Evelyn trembled when its gaze met hers. She tried to look away but couldn’t. Crap, it’s using its thrall.
“Come here, my dear. What do you have in your pouch, hmm?”
Her breath tightened in her chest, and Evelyn took a reluctant step toward the demon. Don’t listen to what it’s telling you! You have to fight its thrall.
“That’s right, come here and give me that orb. It calls to me, so bring it to me.”
Evelyn took another stumbling step toward the demon. No, you can’t do this. Fight it!
The orb burned her thigh through its box and her jumpsuit, and her hand clenched the bag, pulling it away from her body. She held it out to the demon. “Here, take it.”
The demon chuckled, and its thrall eased to a mere suggestion. “Gladly.” It strode forward, sure of its victory.
When she felt the demon’s thrall release her, Evelyn spun on her toes and took three lunging steps to the balcony’s railing. She grabbed it, hoisted herself onto the top, and pushed away in one fluid motion.
The exhilaration of free-falling battled with her terror. She had stolen an orb of power from beneath a demon lord’s nose. She hadn’t had time to check her BASE-jumping suit’s setup before jumping, and its features were all that stood between her and gravity. Without that pre-jump checkup, she couldn’t be sure the climb hadn’t affected the suit’s operation.
If she landed safely, she still had to meet her client and deliver the orb. And now a demon lord would be hunting her. Along with the wizard’s allies. The demon would be sure to arrange the scene to frame her for the wizard’s murder.
No, nothing about this job was on the level.