Death Prefers Blondes – Caleb Roehrig

As it turned out, a pissed-off drag queen with a grappling hook was a force to be reckoned with. Crouched low between an SUV and a hybrid sedan on the fourth floor of a downtown Los Angeles parking garage, her blond hair tucked away beneath a platinum wig, Margo Manning stared up at her best friend with a growing sense of concern. Axel Moreau (also known as Liesl Von Tramp) towered above her, his knuckles white around the stock of a crossbow onto which the dangerously sharp tool was mounted, his extravagantly beautiful face drawn into a furious scowl. “Well, where the fuck is he?” Axel snapped, voice barely in check. His heavily made-up eyes were focused out over the structure’s railing, aimed across the alleyway at the upper windows of the facing building; but his tone was accusatory—and Margo knew that both his question, and the venom with which it was posed, were directed at her. Fact was, he’d made no effort to hide his anger that night. Fact was, he’d told her to her face not twelve hours earlier that if anything went wrong with this job—and he was sure it would—he’d never forgive her. But in the past, no matter what personal issues he had, with Margo or anyone else, Axel had always been able to pull it together when the time came. When he wanted to, he could focus like a laser, even under the worst of pressure; it was why Margo had always known she could count on him. Now, watching his cool facade come apart at the seams, his fingers flexing anxiously on the expensive piece of gear clutched in his hands, she began to wonder if she’d made a huge mistake. “Can you handle this, Liesl?” Margo asked with a military crispness. Their team had a rule: From the moment they suited up, it was drag names only until the end of the night—even Margo, the only one who wasn’t technically a drag queen. Along with the makeup that dramatically altered their appearance, the contrasting and brightly colored wigs that concealed their hair and drew eyes away from physical characteristics that were harder to disguise, and the nylon bodysuits that hugged artificially padded curves, it was one more way to reduce the risk that one of them might be identified. “Because if you’re having trouble keeping your shit together, then you can trade places with Dior and take some time to calm down.” “Don’t tell me to calm down!” Axel spun on the chunky rubber heel of one boot, dark eyes flashing below the fringe of his neon-red wig.

Even through the layers of foundation, powder, and rouge on his face, she could see his color starting to rise. “We’ve got no idea what’s happening in there! He’s late. We should have heard from him by now—he should be in place!” Axel shook his head, the crystals glued to his cheekbones glittering in the slanted light cast through the cold, concrete garage from the electrified city outside. “I told you, Margo. I told you something bad would happen. Joaquin’s never done anything like this before! If he’s been caught, he won’t have any idea—” “Anita will be fine,” Margo stated, pointedly correcting Axel’s careless use of a real name. “We’re only five minutes off schedule, and there are a million possible reasons for that kind of delay.” “And one of them is that he’s been caught.” Axel pursed his lips, staring daggers into her. When he spoke again, his voice was unsteady.

“One of them is that you sent my little brother into the lions’ den, alone, on his very first job, and he’s already been caught because he has no fucking clue how to do this.” Tossing a hand up, he let it slap down against his side, eyes glistening. “How could you, Margo? How could you talk him into this behind my back? He’s only fifteen!” Margo wanted to point out that she and Axel had been “only fifteen” when they first started down this particular road together two years earlier—two bored kids breaking into Malibu mansions when they knew the owners were vacationing in Saint-Tropez or Saint Thomas, making off with cash and useless trinkets to hock at pawn shops in deteriorating neighborhoods; but now was not the time to indulge in argument. Rising to her feet, she looked her best friend in the eye and spoke as calmly as possible. “I didn’t talk Quino into anything; he asked to be a part of the team—he practically begged.” The boy opened his mouth, but she silenced him with a warning gesture. “Listen to me: I made him prove himself just like everybody else. He knows how to fight. He ran the obstacle course and didn’t falter once, and even beat my time at it. He beat your time, Axel.

” Placing her hands on his shoulders, she met his eyes. “He’s good—better than good. I know he can do this. And I hope you know me well enough to trust that I’d never put someone in play if they weren’t ready.” “You should have told me,” Axel insisted stonily, his false eyelashes casting spidery shadows across his cheeks. Margo hated those things; they were cumbersome and hampered peripheral vision, creating variables she couldn’t control—but the boys had been appalled at her attempt to ban them. Davon had been ready to go on strike over the matter, rising up to his full six foot five in stiletto pumps, declaring, “If you want to take my lashes, honey, you’re gonna have to cut of my fucking head to get them.” “You and I can fight about this later.” Margo stepped back, her words cold steel. “But right now, we’ve got work to do.

This job called for five people. We needed to add someone anyway, and I gave Anita the same shot I’d give anyone. She has the skills, the guts, and—most important—I trust the bitch.” Reaching down, she yanked the crossbow out of Axel’s hands and hoisted it up, angry streetlight gilding the metal grappling hook a sulfurous gold. “You want to protect your brother? Then pull on your big-girl pants, do the job I know you’re capable of, and we’ll all be safe in bed two hours from now.” With that, she shoved the contraption against Axel’s padded chest. They continued to glare at each other for a long moment; but, finally, the boy put his hands back on the stock and foregrip, adjusted his hold, and turned to look out over the railing of the parking garage once more. Four stories below stretched the fragmented pavement of a wide alley, strewn with trash and reeking of urine, while directly across from them stood the three-tiered Beaux-Arts building that housed the Los Angeles Museum of Fine Art. It was just after four in the morning, the quietest hour that downtown LA had to offer, but light spilled over every inch of stone, brick, and concrete in sight nonetheless; even the sky overhead was scummed with an orange glow, a lingering haze drifting in the night sky and reflecting back the city’s endless wakefulness. Somewhere inside the museum, provided he hadn’t already been discovered by LAMFA’s twentyfour-hour private security team, was Joaquin Moreau—also known as Anita Stiffwon—Axel’s little brother.

And five minutes ago, he was supposed to have given them a signal that he was in position, that the coast was clear, and that the break-in Margo had spent weeks planning could finally commence. At the time, recruiting Joaquin had seemed like a brilliant idea. Already Margo had been forced to turn down two different well-paid jobs, because no matter how many different scenarios she ran in her head, she couldn’t come up with a strategy that wouldn’t expose their four-person team to unnecessary risk. She, Axel, Davon, and Leif had earned a reputation—one she greatly enjoyed having, even if she couldn’t brag about it—and she refused to get cocky, take bad risks just because the prestige would be all the greater if she managed to pull it off. They needed to add someone new to their ranks … but an elite group of anonymous teenage thieves can’t exactly put out an ad online. Enter Joaquin Moreau. Like his brother, he was a trained acrobat; like his brother, he was someone Margo had already known for years; and, like his brother, he was never going to take no for an answer. Axel had limped home too many times with ruined makeup, inexplicable injuries, and even less explainable cash, for his nocturnal activities to remain a mystery forever. Quino wasn’t stupid—another point in his favor—and from the minute he realized what was going on under his very nose, he had demanded to join the team. Margo knew Axel would be angry about it, which was why she did it behind his back—and she at least had the decency to feel sort of guilty about it.

But she’d assumed the guy would get over himself when he took some time to breathe, when he saw what his brother could do and how much sense the new lineup made. But now, with each second that passed, each moment with no sign from Joaquin, the silence stretched tighter and tighter between Margo and her best friend, like a cord looped around both their necks. If anything had gone wrong … The comm crackled to life in Margo’s ear so suddenly she almost gasped, a hushed and intent voice—Joaquin’s voice—reporting over the airwaves, “Set.” “That’s it,” Margo said, making a show of double-checking the straps on her harness as an excuse to hide the relief on her face. “It’s go time.” Axel set his lips into a thin line, but dropped to one knee, grappling hook up, and turned to watch over the railing for his own signal. At the same time, thirty feet behind them up the parking ramp, the side door of an unmarked panel van slid open, and another black-clad figure emerged. Tall and lithe, with vibrant purple locks skimming his shoulders, Leif Dalby sprang toward them through the shadows as graceful as a cat. “Electra Shoxx, reporting for duty.” Leif gave a mock salute when he reached them, flashing an easy grin, the only one of them who never seemed ruffled.

Axel refused to acknowledge him, serving up the same cold shoulder he’d given all of them since first learning of Joaquin’s participation, but Margo offered the newcomer a welcoming nod. “Ready?” She tugged at the straps of her harness a third time, and Leif mimicked her motions, testing out his own. “I’m always ready,” he answered cockily, his delicate, almost elfin features shimmering with powder in the amber light. He’d drawn his cheekbones in a high arch, his mouth a cupid’s bow, and his eyes smoldered like a femme fatale’s from the silent era. He was insultingly pretty. Margo cast a glance back at the parked van, the side door slowly gliding shut again. All she could see of the driver was a single gloved hand resting against the dashboard, but she waved anyway, and two fingers forked her a peace sign in response. Davon Stokes (drag name: Dior Galore) was their resident gearhead and wheelwoman, and if their luck held, he’d remain in the van throughout, engine ready for their getaway. Out across the alley, the offices on LAMFA’s third floor were dark, a row of windows that gleamed like squares of black stone above a shallow ledge supported by decorative corbels. As Margo, Leif, and Axel watched, something flared suddenly in the shadowy room directly opposite and roughly ten feet below their position—a red-gold ember throbbing and expanding, gradually turning a bright, dazzling white; and then an angry, orange furrow began to crawl across the glass, a molten snail trail appearing inch by inch as Joaquin Moreau used a super-heated wand to cut through the pane.

Most of the museum’s exhibits were housed on the first and second floors, and the windows were barred, the glass wired to trigger an alarm if it were shattered; but one side of the third floor was exclusively administrative space, and high enough off the ground that bars had been deemed an unnecessary expense. These potential entry points, low-risk though they were, had still been armed with motion sensors; a burglar would have to first scale the building to the third floor without getting caught, and then somehow climb in through a window that couldn’t be opened. The solution, Margo had eventually determined, was to simply cut the glass clean from the frame —and preferably with as little noise as possible. “You did at least teach him how to use that thing safely, right?” Axel asked through his teeth, as the glowing track of molten glass crept unevenly forward. Margo and Leif cut each other a glance, and she huffed, “I’m not even going to dignify that with an answer.” The wand was not a tool to play around with. None of the tools they used were to be played around with. The grappling hook in Axel’s hands, for instance, could cause damage, death, or grievous bodily harm in limitless ways, and Margo had made every member of the team—herself included—practice with it for hours to ensure safe handling. Every job was hazardous, and ugly surprises were everywhere; and as the team’s leader, Margo’s chief responsibility was to eliminate or minimize as many dangers as she could. Eventually, the wand completed its sluggish journey, and the wide square of shining glass melted into the shadows of the empty office.

A few seconds later, Margo’s comm activated again, Joaquin’s hushed voice coming through with the next signal. “Clear.” Her skin prickled, adrenaline brightening her blood in a sudden rush, and anticipation flooded the air. This was the moment she lived for: this addictive, heart-pounding instant when the night rested on a fulcrum, success or ruination waiting at the slightest tip of the scales. The feeling ran through her like a current—ran through all three of them, all five. She could sense it sizzling around them like a force field. This was it. All business now, Axel aimed the crossbow out over the railing of the garage, staring down the telescopic sight at the exposed window. They all knew how to operate the device, how to use it without maiming themselves—but Axel had an uncanny sense for the weight of the hook, the path along which it would fall when he fired at the target. Margo had meant it when she said she’d swap him with Davon, but she’d been hoping she wouldn’t have to.

No one could drive like Dior Galore, and no one could aim like Liesl Von Tramp; she needed both queens right where they were. Axel took his time lining up the shot, his hands steady as a surgeon’s, and then he released a breath and squeezed the trigger. With a snap, the grappling hook was cast into space, its sharpened teeth flashing hungrily, pulling fifty feet of lightweight cable behind it. The shot was off, though, Margo could already see—the eager metal claws flying too high, too far to the right—and her stomach dipped. Then she watched in awe as the device arced and pulled, obeying the wind and its own weight, curving back toward the target and then plunging straight through the center of the missing window. Axel had been right again. The comm crackled. “I’ve got it.” “Good work,” Margo breathed out, but her best friend ignored the praise. All business, he rested the crossbow against the wall, gathered their end of the cable in his hands, and began taking up the slack.

Within seconds the line was stretched taut as a bowstring between the parking garage and the empty office on the museum’s third floor. Pulling hard on the cable to check its integrity, Axel secured their end of it around the SUV’s trailer hitch in an elaborate knot. Finding an SUV in a Los Angeles car park was like looking for hay in a haystack; finding one with a trailer hitch presented more of a challenge; finding an SUV with a trailer hitch, left overnight in a middle spot on the east-facing side of the fourth floor of the structure across from LAMFA, was an impossible order. This one they’d been lucky enough to find on the south ramp of the seventh floor, and it had been a matter of minutes for Davon to work past the locks, hack the ignition, and move it to the necessary location. With the cable anchored, Margo rose to her feet, buckling the straps of a heavy-duty nylon satchel across her back. Moving to the railing, she eased her hips onto the edge of the wall, casting a glance along the alley and out to the street. It was quiet; the drunks were indoors, the roadway free of cars, and the windows were dark in the buildings that surrounded the museum. Checking her harness one last time, Margo clipped it onto the cable, and turned to face the boys. “You guys know the drill.” “See you on the other side,” Leif responded, eyes bright as he readied his own clip.

Axel didn’t answer right away. His eyes were dark, his glossy lips pulled into a hard knot, like he’d trapped something he was afraid to let out. Finally, in a stiff voice, he declared, “If anything goes wrong, I’m not leaving without my brother.” Margo opened her mouth to speak, and then snapped it shut again. If something went wrong, their rule was to scatter—immediately—and to start lining up their alibis. But this was the other half of her mistake: ignoring what she knew of her best friend’s character and letting herself hope he would simply accept Joaquin’s presence. Every choice Axel made was to protect his family, and deep down she’d known this would be a problem. What scared her wasn’t that she’d misjudged the situation, or even that she’d failed to listen to her own intuition, but that she’d accepted this risk out of the hubristic certainty that the moment to enact their emergency protocol would never come; that they were just too good. A chill breeze gusted up the alley, tossing the white tresses of Margo’s wig, and she fought the urge to shiver. Her eyes on Axel’s, she stated, “We’ll make sure nothing goes wrong, then.

” Turning around, she swung her legs over the railing, four floors up, and dropped into thin air. 2 A sudden puff of wind rushed through the gutted window of the third-floor office, lifting a few errant papers scattered on the desk. Crouched in a corner of the room, ears tuned to the possibility of sounds from the hallway outside, Joaquin Moreau watched across the alley as Margo shared some final words with his older brother. He couldn’t see Axel’s face from his position, and he was pretty sure he didn’t want to. Given the way they’d left things earlier in the afternoon, “not seeing each other’s faces” felt like a pretty good long-term strategy. Maybe a permanent one. Expelling a breath, he consciously pushed the conflict from his mind, rolling his shoulders and working a few more kinks out of his neck. He’d been testing the limits of his flexibility since he was five years old, his mother walking him through splits and backflips and boneless contortions that defied human physiology, his joints bending like wire with the slightest discipline. All he’d needed for motivation were the jaw-dropping videos she would play for him of her glory days with the Cirque du Soleil; her face painted like a woodland goddess, her body an impossible coil wrapped in glittering scales or vivid feathers, Jacinta Flores was magnificent. Joaquin idolized her, wanted to be her, and the smile she gave him every time he mastered a new trick felt like sunshine.

He’d terrified a new nanny once during a game of hide-and-seek, folding his body up so compactly that he’d disappeared into an empty drawer in the kitchen. The poor woman had searched the house for nearly an hour, growing increasingly frantic, until she’d finally called Joaquin’s mom in a state of abject fear at having lost her employer’s son. “Check the drawers,” Jacinta had suggested automatically, “and if you find Quino, tell him that the next time he tricks someone into playing hide-and-seek, he better hope he stays lost.” One hour stuffed in a drawer had been boring, but compared to how he’d spent the past twelve, he remembered it like a vacation. Reflexively, his shoulders rolled again. Across the way and one story up, he watched as Margo swung her legs over the railing and hurtled into space. Feet raised and head back, her body was sleek and straight, flying like a bullet along the tense cable. The grappling hook pulled hard against the metal pipe where Joaquin had anchored it, but it held, and within seconds, the girl’s boots were thumping against the stone ledge outside. Hoisting herself up, Margo unclipped her harness and climbed through the window, taking care not to jar the sash and set off the motion sensors. Leaping to the floor, she hurried into the shadows beside Joaquin, her eyes gleaming with excitement.

Squeezing his arm gently, she murmured, “Nice work, Anita.” Joaquin couldn’t keep the smug pride out of his voice. “Thanks, Miss Anthropy.” Margo’s honorary drag name was an awkward mouthful. Everyone hated it, but the more they tried to talk her out of it, the more stubbornly Margo insisted it was perfect. And, in the sense that she liked it so much because it annoyed everyone who had to deal with it, it was sort of perfect. “Any trouble?” Margo gave him a serious look, inquiring about the delay. “I met a rat with a grudge and had to take a detour.” Hastily, Joaquin added, “I don’t want to talk about it. Otherwise, everything went like clockwork.

” On the other side of the alley, Leif Dalby levered himself up onto the wall, his athletic body long and sinuous in the golden streetlight. Selfconsciously, Joaquin reached up and ran gloved fingers through the shiny, acid-green waves of his hairpiece. “Do I look okay? Is my wig straight?” Margo hesitated just long enough that Joaquin knew she was going to lie, and then offered him a chipper, “You look fine!” “Fine?” “I’m serious, you look amazing.” She waved a hand, trying for damage control, but it was far too late. “Obviously, I do not look amazing, or you’d have said, ‘You look amazing,’ and you wouldn’t have said it like you were trying to cheer up someone in an electric chair,” Joaquin sputtered. “‘You look fine’ means ‘even Bigfoot wouldn’t fuck you!’” “I hear Bigfoot has pretty low standards. You might be surprised.” “Not. Funny.” “Okay! You’ve got a little bit of lipstick on your teeth.

” She pointed at her own mouth in a helpful demonstration. “And your contouring is sorta … Kabuki-ish.” “Kabuki-ish?” The grappling hook pulled again as Leif jumped from the parking garage, flying their way along the makeshift zip line. Joaquin fumbled in the bag he had slung across his back, producing a soiled cosmetic sponge, which he thrust at Margo with an urgent, “Quick! Blend me!” “Relax, you drama queen,” Margo said kindly. “No one is going to judge you.” And then Leif was unhooking his harness and stealing quietly over the windowsill, crouching down and reporting his success over the comms. Joaquin swiped blindly at his face with the sponge a few times, hoping he wasn’t just making the problem worse, and straightened up. Outside, the cable drooped as it was uncoupled from the SUV’s trailer hitch, allowing Leif to free the hook from the metal pipe and throw it back out into the night. It glittered menacingly as it flew across the alley again and began a herky-jerky return to the fourth floor while Axel reeled it in. Joaquin tossed his wig nonchalantly and tried to look composed as Leif crept over to them.

Eyes bright, the violet-haired boy flashed them an exuberant grin that showed every one of his perfect teeth. “Everything’s all right? No trouble?” “Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Joaquin answered, trying to sound cool. “Your brother was convinced they had you in the basement, hooked up to a car battery.” Joaquin huffed out an exasperated sigh. Axel couldn’t give him credit for anything. When he was six, and kids were picking on him at school—for the way he walked, the way he talked, the way he always wanted to play a girl superhero during make-believe—it was a relief to have his older brother looking out for him, fearless and protective, ready to swing on anyone. But at some point Axel’s protectiveness went from being the thing that gave Joaquin his freedom to a burden the boy constantly had to fight his way out from under. Plucking irritably at his gloves, Joaquin asked, “How pissed is he?” Leif’s tone was diplomatic. “It’s hard to say, since he’s not speaking to any of us.” Joaquin was winding up an even more aggrieved sigh, when Margo interjected, “He’ll get over it.

” She said it firmly, but they all knew this was unlikely. Axel was the kind of guy who would only agree to forgive and forget if you died first. After a moment of silence, Joaquin realized that Leif was scrutinizing his face, and heat rushed to his cheeks. Holding up a hand, he said, “Listen. I had to put this face on while sealed up in a wall with nothing but a penlight and a hand mirror!” The other boy blinked in surprise. “Huh?” “My makeup.” Joaquin shut his eyes, cheeks burning even hotter. “I know it’s bad, but these were extreme circumstances. I’m usually better than this, I swear!” “Your face looks fine,” Leif replied, seeming genuinely bewildered by the outburst; and even though he’d used the same word Margo had—fine—it sounded like an actual compliment, rather than a genteel southern insult. Narrowing his eyes, Joaquin cut the girl a suspicious glance.

She was biting her lips and trying not to look him in the eye, and he decided then and there that he was going to kill her. Oblivious, Leif added, “I was just … I guess I never noticed how much you look like your mom.” “Oh. Uh, yeah.” Joaquin self-consciously fingered the strands of his wig again. “You can really see it when I’m in makeup. Axel takes more after Dad.” An awkward pause followed—the same one that seemed to come on the heels of any mention of his dad these days—and Joaquin deflated just a little, silently cursing his father for ruining yet another moment in his life. The outward ripple of Basil Moreau’s selfishness was as destructive as it was endless. Scrambling to fill the uncomfortable silence, Leif coughed.

“Wait. ‘Sealed up in a wall’? Miss Anthropy here told us you were hiding out in a wing that was under renovation.” Both boys turned their eyes on Margo, and she tossed her hands out defensively. “Technically he was hiding in a wing that’s under renovation!” Technically, Joaquin had been crouched in a wall cavity behind a maintenance access panel in said wing, where a new air filtration system was due to be installed the next week. At four o’clock that afternoon, dressed in nondescript street clothes, the boy had entered the museum through the main entrance, a hat pulled low over his forehead, a pair of costume glasses perched on his nose; a fortuitously convenient distraction in the form of two live rats appearing suddenly and mysteriously in the Grand Hall had provided him the cover he needed to slip past the guards and safety cordons, and into the bowels of LAMFA. The maintenance panel had been easy to open, thanks to a mechanized lockpick Margo had produced from her seemingly bottomless bag of tricks, but it was the next step that posed the real challenge. Twelve hours in a dark and nearly airless space, essentially the two-bedroom equivalent of a gym locker, had been the true test of Joaquin’s commitment to being part of the team—a trial by fire he’d endured without complaint. At the appointed hour, he’d emerged from the wall and, aided by rubberized pads strapped to his elbows and knees, slithered up an air vent to the third floor. With a pointed look at the display on her watch, Margo announced, “Okay, enough wasted time. Let’s lock this thing down.

” As a group, the three of them moved to the door of the office, pausing to listen at the jamb for noise in the corridor outside. Quietly, Margo said, “Remember: Once the main power goes out, there’s only thirty seconds to disable the backup, or we’re screwed.” Leif saluted. “We got it.” “And stay off the comms unless absolutely necessary,” she added. “Right.” “And remember to head for the extraction point the second your job’s done.” “And put on a sweater, and feed the dog, and call Grandma,” Leif continued for her, twirling his wrists. “Stop freaking out, girl. We know the drill.

” Margo nodded. “Then it’s go time.” Ordinarily, the Lo s Angeles Museum of Fi ne Art had three watchmen on duty overnight, one positioned behind a bank of monitors in a room on the ground floor, with the others making semiregular sweeps of the building’s many substantial galleries. Two weeks earlier, however, LAMFA had unveiled an important new exhibit of rococo paintings—rarely circulated canvases from eighteenth-century masters like Watteau, Boucher, and Fragonard—that were on loan from the French government. The collection was priceless, and a strengthening of security measures had been named as a prime condition in permitting the prestigious works to be presented. For that reason, two additional guards had been added to the graveyard shift, and new fail-safes had been introduced to the alarms. On top of new guards and scarier alarms, the army of wall-mounted cameras that watched over every corner of the museum’s exhibition spaces had also been updated. Enough prying eyes to make Big Brother jealous, these produced a regular feed, and left a miserably scant number of blind spots to exploit. One vulnerable area, however, was the third-floor administrative corridor, with its dusty potted plants and managerial offices, and another was LAMFA’s extensive ventilation system. With so much canvas, wood, and gesso on display, the museum required a continuously moving supply of clean, dry air.

Thus, a vast network of ducts spread throughout the building like veins, metal tunnels connecting every room and every floor, with entrance and exit points as regular as subway stops. And, lucky enough, one of those stops happened to be at the end of the administrative corridor itself. Leif shivered a little—with adrenaline, rather than nerves—as he and Joaquin came to a stop beneath a wide, rectangular hole in the wall, some ten feet up off the ground. It was an air vent, but the grate had been removed and now lay discarded on the floor. The hallway was dimly lit, the bright red glow of an emergency exit sign beating down on them from the door to a back stairway, casting an illusion of warmth. Joaquin nodded at the hole, his lips shiny and his wig a strange grayish-brown in the ruddy light. “This is where I came in. It should be a straight shot down from here for both of us. More or less.” “I’ve got the grid memorized,” Leif murmured, unhooking his pack and fishing out the rubber knee and elbow pads he’d need for the descent.

His eyes skimmed furtively over Joaquin—taking in the boy’s elegant neck and long fingers, the slim waist and sinewy limbs—and he fumbled a little with the straps in his hands. They’d met each other a year ago, the first and only time Leif had been to the Moreaus’ home— shortly before everything went to hell—and hadn’t seen each other since. Axel still talked about Joaquin like a nosy, tagalong kid, a nuisance frozen in amber, and so Leif was a little startled by this. This guy, practically his own age, lithe and confident and apparently just as capable as Margo had promised. A little wave of guilt washed over him. Right after he’d hooked himself up to the zip line, just as he was about to throw himself ten feet down and thirty feet across into the bosom of an art heist already in progress, Axel had made Leif promise to protect Joaquin. “Swear you’ll make sure nothing happens to him,” Axel demanded. “And you should swear on your life, because I will untie this fucking cable when you’re halfway across and drop your skinny ass straight down into that alley if you don’t.” He already felt like kind of a shitty friend for not joining Axel’s protest when the news that Quino had been recruited to the squad was first made known; but as Leif looked up and down at the boy beside him, he felt disloyal and weird in a whole new way. Hormones were a son of a bitch.

Pads in place, Leif got to his feet, eager to lose himself in the mission and find his mental equilibrium again. “Okay. Once I get down to the basement, I’ll signal you on the comms. Until then, we’re radio silent.” “Sounds good to me.” Joaquin tossed a few ferociously ugly green tresses out of his face and took a step back, gesturing at Leif with his right hand. “Gimme a boost.” “What? No.” Leif shook his head. “I’m going in first.

You give me a boost.” The other boy folded his arms across his chest. “I’ve already climbed up those ducts once, and I know what we’re dealing with. I should be the one in front.” “We’ll get to your position first, which means I’ll have to wait behind you while you let yourself out. Plus, I have experience, and your brother will kill me if anything goes wrong.” Leif ticked the points off on his fingers. “Not to mention the fact that I’m taller than you are, and if you go first and I lose my grip or something I could fall on top of you.” “Maybe I’d like having you on top of me,” Joaquin rejoined immediately, and for just a moment, Leif was speechless. His eyes widened, his mouth dropped open, and the green-haired boy took full advantage of his surprise.

Leaping almost three feet into the air, Joaquin kicked off the wall opposite the vent, launching himself back across the narrow corridor and the rest of the way up to the shadowy opening. His boots gleamed with the red burn of the exit sign as he kicked a leg up, folding his body into the duct with impossible agility. Glancing back over his shoulder to where Leif continued to stare in amazement, the boy winked and then dropped out of sight.

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