The autumn night air outside was considerably cooler than when they left the city. Wylie lingered at the open back of the van as he got used to the new smells and sounds of the area and peered through the dark at the surrounding houses on the other side of the gate. They parked close to the side door nestled between the garage and main house. It was the entry point into the downstairs lounge and bar and was sheltered from view. The outside lights were shining, along with a few internal ones, and none of the crew were wearing masks. Wylie wasn’t sweating it. Adam had taken all the cameras down before cracking the gate, and there was little fear of being spotted with the house pushed so far from the street.
The neighborhood was silent, but that was the rich for you. They went to bed on time, didn’t look out windows, didn’t think anything could touch them. They were the kind of people who kept all the lights on and thought that was enough to make thieves think you were home. Wylie scoffed under his breath. When you had enough money to keep the monsters out, anyone could sleep at night.
Wylie braced himself as he started walking toward the front of the van where the others were milling. This was money, real money. A future. He was an eighteen year old freak who was never going to have a shot at a job with his fucked up arms. He needed to get this initiation right and prove to Roth he was useful, even if it meant stealing and thugging for a living.
Shit, he had to be good for something.
“How’s it look?” Beck asked as he came up next to him.
“It’s all quiet.” His gaze drifted to Beck and the flush to his cheeks. Wylie gripped his shoulder and leaned down to whisper, “Don’t forget what I said. If things go wrong, you run.”
Beck’s smile was guarded when he pulled away. Wylie could tell from the sparkle in his eyes he was loving every moment of the heist so far. Beck wasn’t fearless but he got off on adrenaline, and it made him reckless. Wylie had his own ass to worry about, and he took a slow breath as he eyed the door he was there to break through. Diego was done ordering Adam around and was waiting impatiently for things to start.
“You can do this, yeah?” Beck took his black sweatshirt when Wylie shrugged out of it. “I mean, it’s just metal. You can cut that.”
Wylie smiled grimly. “Yeah. Easy.” Out of all the uncertainties the night presented, his abilities didn’t factor in.
Wylie raised his muscular arms and focused on his hands. As he watched, his pale pigment began to darken. His skin hardened and black scales erupted from his flesh in a bloodless rush that started from fingers and flowed up his forearms. Wylie hissed sharply and took a step from Beck who was edging over to watch. His scales grew longer and pointed out from his arms at jagged angles. They might have been beautiful, like a dark ruffled bird, but each oil slick blade had a razor sharp edge that ruthlessly sliced fabric to flesh when touched.
Wylie had no clue what the hell he was. A shifter, probably, but his demon arms didn’t look like any animal out there. Most days he felt like a monster. Tonight, he might actually be useful.
He held his arms up over his head and let Beck tie his sweatshirt around his waist so it wouldn’t be shredded. “For good luck,” Beck whispered and leaned close to peck a kiss to his lips. Wylie kept still, too aware how easy it would be for his scales to slice Beck up to be able to relax.
Adam threw himself backward when he approached the door. His eyes were wide as he stared at Wylie’s scaled arms like he was some bloodthirsty demon there to murder everyone. Wylie kept his gaze focused on Diego, whose expression was full of undisguised hate. Diego growled and pointed to the door just in case he was too retarded to figure out the reason he was there.
Wylie glared as he watched Diego chew his gum. The no smoking policy was totally bullshit. If they could grab DNA off a cigarette, the cops could do the same for a piece of gum. “Alarm dead?”
“Of course it’s fucking dead. Open the shit up and shut your freak mouth,” Diego snapped.
Wylie ran his tongue along the edges of his teeth. His fangs itched to bite the aggressive fucker on the face. Wylie forced himself to turn from Diego and focus on the door. It was misleading, made to look like every other pretty door on the rich houses in the area. Just on this house, the wooden mahogany finish varnished to perfection was hiding a solid steel security door beneath. Wylie reached across and drew a long, black talon down between the seam of the door and the reinforced metal molding. He found the bolts, four in all, and scratched the paint to mark their placement.
“Stand back.” Wylie shot Diego a glare when he found him peering over his shoulder. “Unless you’re looking to eat metal.”
Diego grunted defiantly, but moved a few steps away. Wylie really didn’t care if the guy ended up with his elbow in his face, but he needed the space to work. He ran his right palm along where the door met the molding over the alignment of bolts, and braced his other hand to help muffle what he was about to do.
His first slam was experimental to give him an idea of what force was really needed. The door yielded beneath his palm and the solid bolts were a soft bulge in the covering wood. Wylie abruptly clawed down the surface and scraped the glued on wood away to give him a better look.
He was definitely over-thinking it, Wylie realized when he saw how close together the bolts were and how they couldn’t be more than three inches into the reinforced molding. He sank his claws into the door with his braced hand, pulled his right back, and punched forward with an open palm. The metal buckled from the blow and there was a shearing sound under the loud slam. Wylie kept pushing forward, and the door bent and warped from the molding around his hand. With a final slam, the mechanism holding the bolts tore through the other side of the door and clattered to the floor.
“Fuck, yeah.” Wylie smiled smugly as he turned the now broken handle and the metal protested loudly when he wrenched the door. Wylie pushed it open wide with a flourish and waved the scowling Diego in. His gaze fell to Adam, whose chest was heaving and face pale as he stared at Wylie’s impossibly strong arms.
“Hurry the fuck up, you little bitch,” Diego snapped when he saw Adam frozen in shock.
Adam jolted and his eyes flew to Wylie’s face. Without a word, the kid scurried past and quickly darted inside the dark room after Diego.
Wylie shook his head. He had only met Adam once before, and he reeked of so much fear it was hard to understand what the hell he was doing running with Roth. Maybe Adam was one of those types who didn’t want to be afraid anymore. Wylie sure as fuck didn’t have that problem. He stopped being afraid years ago once he realized no matter how many foster families treated him like shit, he could still survive on his own. Even if he didn’t get into the gang tonight, Wylie knew he’d be fine.
“Baby, you got this,” Beck whispered excitedly as he carefully stepped up beside him while avoiding his scales. “Fuck college; you could be robbing banks. You’re made for this.”
Wylie pasted on a smile he didn’t feel. “Yeah, sure.” His boyfriend thought he was destined to be a career criminal. Great.
Wylie eyed the gaping door the other two disappeared through as lights flickered on inside. Adam’s fear scent made the hair stand up on the back of his neck, and Wylie suppressed an annoyed sigh. Adam was too waif-limbed to carry shit and too skittish to trust not to bolt if things got tough. Beck was at least a sweet talker. If some nosy biddy stuck her head over the fence, Beck could come up with a lie and a smile on his pretty face in a second flat. Still, neither of them had the judgment or nerves suited to rob the place, and Wylie was questioning again why they brought four people for this job.
He was in it now. Breaking and entering, trespassing, burglary, and damage to private property. Damn, Beck might have a point about this being a career.
Wylie squared his shoulders and stalked toward the door. “Watch your ass, B.”
“Yours and mine both, babe,” Beck said with a wink as he whirled back to the van.
Wylie paused as he stepped inside. He was expecting a great room, something relaxed with a television and couch. What he found was a space clinical and cold in both style and temperature, one with a purpose he couldn’t quite place. The floor was a hard tile, and the walls were stripped of any personal touches or embellishments. It was a flat, white empty room all around, and Wylie’s ice blue eyes narrowed as he took in the strange, bulky machinery made of shining chrome and sleek plastic that dotted the large space in an obvious grid pattern. It could have been storage, or maybe some weird, artistic installation. Whatever it was, Wylie immediately didn’t like it.
“Start grabbing anything that looks worthwhile,” Diego ordered the trembling Adam.
The air was stale and practically void of natural scents, which only made Adam’s fear scent all the more intense. Wylie eyed the short teen after taking in the wall of electronics and a dividing curtain of plastic to the right. He didn’t know shit about computers and tech, but there was a lot of big equipment. If he were to go by Adam’s expression, none of this was the run of the mill stuff you’d find in some normal rich fuck’s house.
“This is military grade,” Adam whispered as he hovered next to a machine that looked heavy enough to crush him.
“Figure out what’s important, and we’ll be down to move what you can’t lift.” Diego jerked his head impatiently at Wylie. “Come on, freak. The safe is upstairs.”
Wylie followed, but his eyes were locked to where Adam was flicking on something that looked disturbingly like a laser. His scales puffed up as a chill zapped down his spine. The sooner they got out of there, the better.
Diego stalked through the long maze of hallways with absolute confidence. It made Wylie wonder if they had gotten the house plans in advance or if Diego had been there before. Had the coarse, crude gangster convinced some unassuming maid or arrogant executive to let him see the place? Diego moved like he knew exactly where he was going and didn’t turn a light on even in the dark hallways. Wylie admitted a mild appreciation the gangster wasn’t bumbling around like an idiot. He could put up with the asshole just so long as Diego didn’t get them thrown in jail.
Wylie slowed his steps when the corridor they were traveling down opened up into a large entryway connected to a sweeping flight of dazzling stairs that could have fit an orchestra and still have room to walk. It was such a different feel from the sterile environment they just left, and Wylie felt lost as he climbed the huge, wide expanse of steps. The front door was on the marble tile landing that split the two levels, and Wylie could see just with a glance how the security was even more beefed on this door. His echoing footsteps were muffled by the runner as he climbed the second flight and took in the art and luxury that was the top floor of the mansion. It felt like stepping into a completely different world, and Wylie couldn’t help but drink it all in like a starstruck tourist.
Diego snapped his fingers and Wylie blinked and stared impassive in the face of the scowl directed at him. If the fucker whistled at him like a dog, he wasn’t sure what he’d do, but he doubted anyone would blame him. Wylie continued walking and expanded his senses to take it all in. He could hear Diego’s breathing now, and the very distinct muttering of being ‘saddled with a bunch of snot nosed, piss for brain, fucktard kids.’ In the living room—one of many—a grandfather clock ticked, housed in a tall, cherry wood stained case. It all felt larger than life and completely surreal to think people lived in a place like this.
Something prickled through him, and Wylie stopped short. It took him a moment as he tried to figure out what was wrong. He breathed in deep and turned his head when he caught the scent of flowers sitting in a vase on a sleek, mahogany table down a connecting hall. Wylie’s scales ruffled again and without a word, he turned and walked to the scent to investigate.
They were daffodils mixed with small, white daisies in a classic, ornate vase. The flowers were fresh with no drooping or touch of brown on any petal and Wylie’s stomach churned.
Diego snarled when he discovered he wasn’t behind him. He stomped over to where Wylie was glaring at the flowers. “What the fuck are you doing?”
“Fresh flowers,” Wylie said tightly. He rolled his eyes when Diego looked ready to flip out for wasting time. “They’re not even wilted,” Wylie stressed and plucked one of the petals free. “Who puts flowers out in an empty house?”
Diego’s eyes narrowed and he stepped forward to briefly sniff the flowers. He straightened and with a shrug, waved at the elegant hallway. “Look at the fucking place. Do you really think someone this rich does normal shit? Maybe the fucking maid put them out just in case they got robbed and wanted to make things look nice for us. Stop thinking and hurry the fuck up.”
Wylie’s nostrils flared as Diego stalked back to the main hall. The downstairs was full of military tech, the gate had a code they barely got through; who the fuck knew what else they missed? It was midnight and whoever was there—maid, butler, guest—would likely be in bed in one of the many rooms in the giant place. Wylie had no issue with stealing shit from someone who had more than enough, but he drew the line at terrorizing people.
Diego turned and waved his hand in an exaggerated movement to get Wylie the fuck over there. Damn it. Fucking damn it. His scales were twitching so much, it felt like a bug was digging beneath his skin as Wylie followed after the gangster.
Fuck, for all he knew, the fucking rich put flowers out ever damn day even when no one was home. Rich people were fucking crazy. Money lifted them so far from reality the same way drugs did for a strung out crackwhore. Whoever lived there had rooms for their stuff, not for people. Who the hell was he to say what went on in the minds of the ultra-rich?
Diego led them surefooted down a branching corridor, and Wylie kept close this time. He wanted this over with so he could get the fuck out. Wylie’s stress grew with every tap of tattooed fingers to doors they passed by. Diego finally stopped in front of a dark wooden door where dim light greeted through a narrow gap.
“The office. There are jewels and bonds in here and some cash.” Diego pulled a black rectangle from inside his leather coat and unfolded a large canvas duffel bag. “The safe’s on the wall past the windows and desk. A bunch of books open up like a door.” He glared into Wylie’s eyes as he placed the strap of the bag into his clawed hand. “Just empty the shit and meet me down the hall. No fucking around, no touching anything that’s not in that safe, and no running off. Empty it and meet me five doors that way, left side.”
Wylie couldn’t help but wonder what Diego was going for alone. If he was stealing shit without Roth knowing, Wylie sure as hell didn’t want to be the guy to blab. He was there for one purpose; to do what needed to be done to get in with Roth. If Diego wanted to screw himself with the boss, that was his business.
Wylie kept his mouth shut and waited for Diego to start down the hall before he pushed the door open. He paused on the threshold and his gaze darted around the lush, sophisticated study. Unlike the clinical looking basement, this room was brimming with ancient sculptures and artwork collected from all over the world. A single table lamp shone a warm glow from the walnut desk on the far side of the large room, and illuminated the warm brown tones of leather furniture, deep red walls, and the dark oriental rugs. It was overwhelming compared to the the kinds of places Wylie usually spent time in, and he took a steadying breath before he slipped inside.
It still felt strange being in someone else’s house when he knew he didn’t belong. Wylie spent his teenage years living in houses where he wasn’t welcome, taking what was lent until he was sent somewhere else. This time, he was in a house to steal, not borrow. As much as Wylie tried to brush it off, his chest was tight as he walked the length of the room. He did his best to ignore the signs of recent life around him. He picked up the stale scent of human flesh. An older male… cigar smoker…
The butler, Wylie told himself briskly as he moved toward the bookcase on the far wall. Whoever left those flowers probably checked the rooms during the day to dust or some shit. He wasn’t sure exactly what it took to keep a mansion nice, but it probably meant staff came by daily.
The false wall of books was easy to find. The hinges hadn’t been hidden, and although the books were real, they were placed as if an afterthought over the swinging door. Wylie raised a pierced eyebrow at the ridiculousness of it all. The house screamed money, and anyone looking would know there would be cash to find inside. The owner must have thought no one would ever get through the front door.
Wylie clicked a claw into the wooden groove and nudged the false door open. It swung wide and he eyed the matte black safe critically. It was more a vault than what he was expecting. The safe was encased completely in cement and nearly as tall as he was. In the center was a dial waiting for a combination, and beneath that a handle meant to be turned. Wylie considered the metal contraption in silence.
The door downstairs had taught him a lot for his first break in, and Wylie didn’t bother trying to finesse this time. He punched his fist into the door and ground his knuckles in hard until he felt the metal rip. Wylie slammed his other hand in just as hard, and slipped his claws into the torn opening beneath jagged edges of metal. He gripped tight and grinned as he slowly curled and bent the heavy door down. Even though it was made of steel, it twisted like a thin tin of spam beneath his palms. Shit, he really was made for this.
The darkness within the safe hid nothing from Wylie’s piercing gaze. He couldn’t say what bonds were exactly, but he knew the large, colorful pieces of paper kept in neat piles up high were them. There were flat boxes he figured must hold the jewelry Diego mentioned, while all the other shelves held cash separated into bundles and kept in tidy piles. It was the most money he’d ever seen, and Wylie didn’t have to count it to know it was a fortune.
Wylie wrenched the door down to his knees and reached to sweep the lowest shelf into the duffel. The scales on his wrist caught and tore right through the metal shelf and shredded half a bundle of money. “Fuck.” Wylie froze as ripped hundred dollar bills fluttered down to his sneakers. Any sudden motion could end with all the money shredded. On the best of days, his palms were the only safe part of Wylie’s hands when his scales were out. When he was shaking—not that he would admit to the adrenaline coursing through him—his demon arms became even more of a hazard.
Wylie took a steadying breath and glared down at his hands. His scales ruffled but refused to retract. “Come on, you fuckers,” he whispered harshly. Everything about his arms pissed him off, including how temperamental they were. He was pretty sure the demonic things hated him just as much, seeing as they made his life hell. “Just the claws, then,” Wylie pleaded while wiggling his fingers. “I just need a damn hand.” His scales refused to relent, and Wylie growled in frustration. He peered into the paper treasure pile waiting in the safe while his mind raced. He didn’t have time for this. There was no fucking time.
“Fuck it.” Giving up on his hands, Wylie’s eyes lit on a thick, hardcover novel on the wall shelves. It didn’t matter if his claws shredded the book just so long as they didn’t touch the money. He pulled it down and with a sweeping motion, used the book to clear the first shelf into the duffel bag, which he held gingerly by the strap with a knee raised to brace the bottom.
Things went faster after that, and it was difficult to truly understand the stacks of money sailing into the bag. Seriously, fucking rich people. If they put their money in a bank, no one would be walking into their house to steal their shit. But what the fuck did he know? Maybe the hundreds of thousands flipping past his view was the equivalent to spare change in the couch for normal people. It was a giant mansion with crazy tech and huge amounts of dough; the rich were just too fucking large to comprehend.
Wylie was glad Beck was stuck in the driveway playing lookout. He would have been swimming in this vault like it was a damn orgy. Beck had big dreams he was looking to buy if he could only get enough cash. Wylie didn’t really understand it, but then, he stopped dreaming a long time ago. Freaks didn’t get to reach their dreams. No, they got stuck doing the grunt work behind the scenes while ambitious crooks like Roth made a fortune.
The bag was nearly bursting at the seams by the time the safe was empty. Wylie tossed the now shredded hardcover book aside and flexed his shoulders as he tried to coax his damn scales to push up his arms. His demon arms were limited in ways he still didn’t quite get. His muscles and bones changed to something beyond human, but only up to where the scales reached. Wylie was built, but a bag full of hundreds and twenties wasn’t the lightest fucking thing. Wylie held still when he felt his biceps bulge and more scales erupted through his flesh. Sight, sound, and scent flooded him all at once as his senses responded as well.
A vibrant rush of information greeted him with his next breath. Yeah, there had been a man in there recently. Really recent. Wylie could smell the sweat now. He carried the bag one handed and wandered to a stand of glittering bottles where a discarded glass of brandy rested. He sniffed, picking up the sour hint of clinging saliva and bacteria off the rim. If it was the butler, he sure as fuck wasn’t afraid to leave his booze stealing ways out for all to see.
Wylie didn’t need his scales to twitch this time; his heart was racing in understanding. He could smell someone. He had slammed through the downstairs door, and the sound of shearing metal when he tore through that safe wasn’t quiet. Fuck. They could have already called the cops. Fucking whore, they could already be on their way. Maybe sneaking up the driveway even now…
Wylie didn’t bother counting doors as he booked it from the room. He followed Diego’s scent down the hallway while trying to keep his cool. There was no watch his scales wouldn’t destroy, but they couldn’t have been there more than ten minutes. He winced when he thought of how long it took to get through the downstairs. Fuck, maybe fifteen. Maybe twenty—the hallways were so damn long in the place. Shit, they needed to fucking fly.
“Diego.” Wylie palmed the door handle and used his knee to push into the room the gangster had disappeared into. He stopped short with a sharp inhale when scent and sight revealed an absolute shit storm of trouble.