“Archer! Go, no go?”
“Archer is a go.”
“Wrangler! Go, no go?”
“Ninja! Go, no go?”
Esme rolled her eyes. “Ninja. Go.”
Like any of them would wuss out now.
“Head Man is a go.”
Wrangler, otherwise known as Stu, stifled a laugh at their leader’s call sign. Though not a native English speaker, Rafa was skilled enough to disguise his accent. Unfortunately, he still missed some of the nuances of the language.
He knew when he was being mocked.
“Maintain your bearing, soldier! Radio silence begins now!”
Nevermind, they didn’t have radios.
Rafa was an asshole, but he was also the best strategist in the game. Esme put up with his theatrics because his team always won. Strategy was mission-critical this round. Professor Gerrity, anthropologist, primitive artifact collector, and all-around creepy dude, would not give up the prize willingly.
“Operation Irascible Owl is a go. Wrangler, you’re up.”
Stu produced wire cutters and cut a hole in the fence. He slipped through and exchanged the cutters for a ziplock bag. He whistled low and opened the bag.
A rustling in the bushes was followed by a chorus of growls that made Esme’s hair stand on end. A pair of German shepherds burst into the clearing, their dark coats invisible in the waning light, so they appeared all teeth and crazy eyes. Stu didn’t flinch. When the dogs were within 20 feet, he tossed the meat out of the bag and slipped back through the fence.
The dogs skidded to a halt in front of the hamburger and swallowed it in three bites, then trotted to the fence and sniffed with interest. The growls and gnashing teeth subsided, and Stu hand-fed them pieces of steak. He slowly pulled the fence apart and allowed the dogs through. Esme slid behind them and crawled to the other side, followed by Rafa. Frank lowered the rifle at his shoulder and came third. Stu stroked the dogs and continued feeding them until they both lay down and went to sleep.
“Good work, Wrangler!”
“Radio silence, Head King.” Esme murmured, just loud enough.
Stu snorted again, and Frank grinned. Esme shrugged and headed into the trees. Night had fallen, but Esme was at home in the woods. Even Rafa deferred to her skill.
Ten minutes later, Professor Gerrity’s house appeared. Esme stood in the treeline and scanned the back of the gothic structure. Few lights were on which was helpful. Their prize was kept on the third floor which was not.
“First floor. Far left,” she whispered to Rafa.
“Archer, eyes on Irascible Owl. Library, far left.”
Frank peered through his scope and nodded. “Got him.”
He dropped to the ground and low-crawled across the back yard until he was within 30 yards of the library. Professor Gerrity was reading in a large wingback chair facing the window.
“You’re up, Ninja.”
“Ay, ay, Head Job.”
“Head Man!” Rafa hissed. “This is not hard to remember!”
Esme nodded, poker-faced, as they low-crawled side by side, past Frank, to the back wall of the house. The motion-activated lights wouldn’t trigger on anything 36 inches or lower because of the dogs. Esme stopped just to the left of the library window.
Professor Gerrity’s collection of primitive artifacts was a source of controversy because he chose to display it in his spooky house in the middle of nowhere instead of the university gallery. The gallery’s collection was nothing to sneeze at, but it paled in comparison to the creepy old coot’s private collection.
The centerpiece of the collection was Gerrity’s Zulu walking stick. Four feet tall and carved from a twisted piece of wood, it was whispered to have supernatural power. The red dye splattered across the knob and streaking down the length of the stick fueled the legend, as did Gerrity bringing the stick to his classes and pointing it at students he deemed slackers. Reportedly, one such student had wrecked his car after class. Another had contracted chicken pox.
That stick was the grand prize this year.
Rafa gave Esme a boost, propelling her lithe body high enough for her to grab the second-floor window sill. She swung her legs up, used the arched window frame to climb to the point at the top, and stood on the façade to reach the third floor sill. Her cutting tools made short work of the window. No alarms sounded, confirming Rafa’s intelligence that the dogs comprised the bulk of Gerrity’s security system.
Esme ignored the garish masks and odd carvings, going straight to the display case in the center of the room. A silver plate contained two words.
A shiver passed over her like someone stepping on her grave. She shook it off and opened the unlocked case. She grasped the stick, expecting…something, but nothing happened. She lifted it out of the case and went rigid.
Distant barking, getting closer, and then silence.
She darted to the window. Rafa was still in position below, plastered against the wall, staring across the backyard to the woods beyond. She followed his gaze. Frank was hauling ass to the treeline. She couldn’t see Stu.
Rafa looked up and she dropped the stick. He caught it, hit the ground, and made like Frank to the trees. Esme threw her legs over the sill in time to see a muzzle flash directly below her. The shot sounded like cannon fire in the silence, and the yard lit up like the outfield at Yankee Stadium.
Gerrity stalked over to Rafa.
“My property, please.”
Rafa raised the stick. Gerrity reached, then clutched his neck and crumpled to the ground. Frank stepped out of the treeline.
“Irascible Owl is down.”
Rafa removed the dart as Esme jogged over.
“Nice work, Head Man.”
Rafa grinned slyly. “Would you like to hold my stick?”
Esme glanced from the grotesque prize to the understanding in Rafa’s eyes.
“Nope. I’m good.”