"Still sure about this one?" Wynn asked along the way.
"Naturally," I answered without glancing his way. I instead gazed through the tinted windows and fancied the lovely blossom trees which lined the road we cruised.
"You're pushing it with this one."
"You worry too much."
"One of us has to."
I rolled my eyes. "I've assessed everything and, if worse come to worse, we have the contingency scheme. Everything is in order."
"Last time you said 'everything is in order', I ended up fighting a bear."
"How much longer are you going to reference that? I cannot be held accountable for acts of god."
"You don't believe in gods."
"It's a turn of phrase and you know it," I said. "Besides, did I not resolve that in the end?"
"Wouldn't have to resolve it if we weren't there in the first place."
That comment earned Wynn a second eye roll. Everything will proceed accordingly, I mused as I crossed my legs and reclined back into my headrest cushion's warm embrace.
To my credit, a great deal did proceed as foreseen. I did, for instance, predict that Narcissa's stunt would transform the mall which housed the station into a whirlwind of activity. We arrived at a parking lot crammed with people, cars, and camping tents. The trouble we had navigating our way through was, if anything, a testament to Narcissa's gift for drawing an audience. It did not appear many were there for her, though. The people who brought signs with them flaunted requests such as to steal items for them or phrases such as how "I'd stolen their heart". I found it amusing. I suspect our adversaries, however, felt different.
I imagined Narcissa was apathetic to the display. Given how she built her career, she'd be content so long as they saw her. The police, on the other hand, I'm certain were far from pleased. It should go without saying that the vast majority of them frown upon my actions – which, for the record, I do not fault them for. I am a criminal. To expect them to not oppose me is no less foolish than it is to expect a cat to not play with a cornered mouse. It's possible, certainly, but not something I'd wager on.
Police swarmed the mall area. I found men and women in forest-green uniforms in every section we stepped. When we entered through the glass door, they were there. When we rode down the escalator, they were there. Whenever we turned a corner, they were there, somewhere or another. I'm certain they concealed some of the officers in the public as well. It's what I'd do, were I in their place. At any rate, it – much like the rest of their scheming – was of no consequence. We strolled past them all no worse for wear. It's not as if they had any grounds to suspect us.
We settled in at a small café close to the stairway Narcissa would have to descend to reach the boarding area. It easily ranked high on my list of positive experiences that day. The divine scent of chocolate filled my lungs the second we entered. The barista recognized me and, after a pleasant meet and greet, I sampled a soothingly warm cup of chocolate espresso which cascaded down my throat. I loved it! That, together with the table near the window and relatively lack of disturbances, comforted us during the hours which passed. Or at least it comforted me. While I sat there reading and savoring snacks, Wynn remained vigilant for threats. Several persons did pass by, but none of them bothered us. At most they noticed me, then Wynn's glare, and went about their business.
When Narcissa finally did arrive, I bounced out of my chair then paced over to the circle which formed in the plaza.
I slipped, squeezed, and otherwise forced my way through the irritating barricade of persons who blocked me. Along the way, I caught a glimpse of a white suit jacket whisking by. The person wearing it was a tall woman with a brawny build more accustomed for a male bodybuilder. Her face, in contrast to her admittedly impressive physique, was arrestingly feminine outside of her left eye, which she had covered with a white eyepatch.
A chill stabbed my very core. She shouldn't have been there. I expected Sharpe Security – they're our nation's highest rating security firm, after all, not to mention Narcissa's primary source of protection – but the person with her was of a different league. She was Hilda Aldis. A Valkyrie.
I swiftly canvassed the cadre of white clad bodyguards for a similarly dressed blonde dandy. I recognized Leonor Dixon – a lovely chocolate-skinned lady with a pronounced black afro – on the right and Elle – a lady with red hair and green eyes similar to my own, though she wore her hair in a short ponytail – on the left of the six who blocked the circling sea of people from closing in, but that was it. The other three towards the back were unfamiliar, brutish men and none of them the man I feared.
I breathed a sigh of relief. I had lucked out. Vincent, Sharpe Security's inheritor, wasn't present.
Although that reaction might seem a tad extreme, I assure you it was not. Anytime I take part in something related to Sharpe Security, that git surfaces and forces me to endure his unending advances. He invades my personal space, badgers me to spend time with him, tries to force gifts onto me which I've no desire to accept – he's a nuisance! He's an idiotic nuisance! I'd target him as The Grandmaster if not for his personal protection force which he so elegantly named "Vincent's Valkyries". The fact he considered that name decent tells you all you need to know about him.
Naturally, the fact he wasn't present and half of his Valkyries were rose questions. Had Narcissa and him made some sort of deal? And if they had, to what end? My capture? It seemed the most logical bet, though their involvement wouldn't alter my plan. I simply had to steer clear of them and focus on Narcissa.
She made focusing on her a simple task.
"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN," she boomed as she marched along, "THIS IS THE MOMENT YOU'VE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR! FOR TO-DAY WILL BE A MONUMENTAL DAY WHICH WILL GO DOWN IN HIS-TORY! LO AND BEHOLD IT IS I – the MARVELOUS MADAME RRRRRICHMOND! We all know that true glory comes from doing that which none else can do. And that is why I – the MAGNIFICENT MADAME RRRRICHMOND – am going to do the unthinkable, the unheard-of, and inconceivable by CONQUERING the Grandmaster of Theft! In my EXPERT calculations, her chances of succeeding today against my brilliant plan are ZILCH! NADA! NOTHING! My plan is FOOLPROOF! I – the EXCEPTIONAL MADAME RRRRICHMOND – repeat: FOOLPROOF!"
If ever there was a time to cover one's ear, it was then. I'm amazed that mine didn't bleed; her voice was as sharp as a rapier. The sooner I interrupted her, the better.
"I doubt that!" I projected over everyone else.
"WHO SAID THAT?! WHO DARES SAY THAT TO ME?!"
As unbelievable as it may seem, Narcissa said who dares. I nearly burst into laughter. As much as I rather not underestimate someone based on their outward visage, she proved difficult to view as anything but a farce. She wasn't even dressed for the occasion! In place of something suitable, she showcased a gaudy metallic-gold mini-dress and high heels that placed her somewhere close to six feet. Her lanky build and lengthy, wavy ponytail – which she had dyed a ridiculous cornflower blue with purple tips for this occasion – did her no favors either. She left an untold number of openings for me to exploit, were I inclined to fight. Nevertheless, I remained vigilant. It wasn't out of the question that her ineptitude cloaked something treacherous.
"That would be I!" I trumpeted.
Heads swung around to me. Those before me parted as I sauntered through. Some drew their phones out to record.
All according to plan, I thought. I needed footage of what was about to occur between Narcissa and I.
Elle and Leonor stepped into my way and barred my path.
"Ciki nika zranao skasce rok," Elle whispered. "Ea'g aspynila a navtta, kafivel vu pringa miang."
To roughly translate, she told me that I shouldn't take another step or that she'd stop me. I've no inkling as to why she chose to say it in that Zabonji, but I replied in kind.
"Ea mie akklics vu theki nenbuz maytani," I whispered back, which translates to I won't cause her any issues. Then I halted within viewing and hearing distance of Narcissa. "Though to be fair," I went on, louder, "it's less that I dare and more that I don't care. That's one of the fruits of being the heiress to the Cain fortune."
Narcissa shot a glare at me. "You… Wait, I've heard of you before! I don't know what you're up to, but you better stay out of my way. This is MY contest! MY mission! MY glory! I – THE BRILLIANT MADAME RRRRICHMOND – AM A ONE WOMAN BAND! I don't need your type around here!"
"Oh, I wouldn't hazard the thought," I said, shrugging. "I abhor debacles such as this shall become."
"I. Abhor. Debacles. Such as this shall become."
"WHO THE HELL ARE YOU TO TALK TO ME LIKE THAT?!" She burst forward, shoved past Elle and Leonor, and clinched my suit jacket with her claw-like nails. "HUH?! WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!"
Spittle slapped against my face and the overpowering stench of a plum perfume breached my nose. I all but gagged; it was as if I was at Saint Delacroix's, the ladies' academy I attended for high school, all over again. And that's one place I'd rather not return.
I cannot control others if I cannot control myself, I reminded myself, but my eyes sharpened into a glare and my hands tightened into fists regardless.
My mind wandered to how I could escape her grasp. It wouldn't have been difficult. One strike – an open palm clap to the ears or a jab to the eyes – was all it would take to break free while sending the message that if you try to push me around, I push back.
I cannot control others if I cannot control myself! I repeated as I sealed my eyes and took a deep breath. I reminded myself that Narcissa couldn't afford a fight either. If she attacked, the camera would capture her assaulting me, an heiress, her social equal, if not better. She couldn't afford those repercussions. I simply had to either remind her that or antagonize her into acting impulsively.
I unclenched my hands, met her sea-blue glare head-on, held my head up so I looked down at her, and I summoned as smug a grin as I could manage. "I repeat: I'm the heiress to the Cain fortune, Cassidy Cain. In case you're unfamiliar with what that means, I'm the daughter of the founders and principal owners of Cain International, Nickolas and Scarlett Cain, the granddaughter of Edan Cain – one of the world's leading experts in the field of criminology and the man who mentored figures like Sharpe Security's CEO Benjamin Hunter, and I'm in the good graces of innumerable influential figures, such as Alana Arkland – the Viceroy of this state and a member of the royal family. I can continue if need be."
She folded like a pair of twos against a royal flush. Her grip loosened with a light tremble.
"Lucky for you, I – the ASTUTE MADAME RRRRICHMOND – don't have the time for pathetic lots like you." She whirled about, turning her back to me, and made her bid to flee.
I grounded my teeth together. It was tempting to allow her to leave. At least then I wouldn't have to hear her latest iteration of that Madame Richmond gimmick she overplayed. But, of course, I had far more to accomplish. "Make some," I said as I tidied my suit jacket then readjusted my tie. "What I say is out of concern for your safety."
She continued to trot away. I had to hook her back in quick.
"Your scheme leaves much to be desired," I continued, "and will bring you tragedy should you persist. If you find that hard to accept, debate me here and now. Unless you're not as assured in your machinations as you claim, Narcissa."
She halted. She had to. It was the only way for her to guard her precious ego – or I suppose I should say lack thereof. "THAT'S MADAME RICHMOND, LITTLE GIRL!" she shrieked as she wheeled back around. "And me, NOT assured?! OH, THIS IS RICH! GO ON, BRING IT!"
"You've researched some of the capers she's executed up until now, have you not? At her most minor she's committed crimes so untraceable that the only reason the stolen items were returned were because she chose to return them. She's purloined and exposed the once proclaimed "King of the Con" Marius Wolfe. She's even broke into a bank vault, stole bearer bonds from mobsters, and somehow inserted an actual bear all during a flood! She is a thief who transcends conventional wisdom. I suspect that something monumental shall occur once more should you board that train."
"…That's it? Really? That's your 'brilliant' reveal'? OF COURSE SOMETHING MONUMENTAL IS GOING TO HAPPEN! IT'S CALLED ME CAPTURING THE GRANDMASTER!"
"Do tell, what separates you from the others?"
"How many times do I have to…? MY PLANS AND I AM FFFFOOOOLLLLPRRRROOOOOFFFFF! DO I HAVE TO SPEAK LOUDER?!OR DO YOU NOT KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS?! HUH?! DO YOU?! GUESS THOSE PRIVATE SCHOOLS DID YOU NOTHING IF YOU CAN'T FIGURE OUT THAT FOOLPROOF MEANS THAT EVEN A PAMPERED, OVERRATED, COCKY, RICH BITCH LIKE YOU COULDN'T MESS THIS UP!"
I winced and covered my ears. I'm fairly certain she neared the pitch required to shatter glass. It practically shattered my eardrums, at minimum.
"Your claims are hollow no matter how high the volume," I replied, pushing on as I removed my hands from my ears. "The Grandmaster's accomplishments up until now, however, lend credence far louder than you ever have or will. You'd be wise to heed my warning."
Narcissa cackled while dropping her head and holding sides. "Wait, wait, I get it, I get it! You're trying to help the Grandmaster, AREN'T YOU?! Or, OR, maybe you ARE THE GRANDMASTER!"
That sparked speculation.
"Why is she here?" one voice murmured.
"Maybe she's in on things?"
"Wouldn't be the first rich criminal."
I remained a fortress, my head held high. "Come now, Narci-"
"-ssa. Let's assess the state of affairs. Given the cluster present, why would I step forth if I, being the Grandmaster, can effortlessly slip in without drawing any unwarranted attention and just steal Adora's Tear? Or, if I was dead set on confronting you, why wouldn't I assume a guise beforehand?"
"Uh, w-well… I-I guess you got a point, but, uh… if…if you're really aren't the Grandmaster… YEAH! IF YOU AREN'T THE GRANDMASTER, WHY ARE YOU HERE ANYWAY?!"
"I possess an inquisitive nature. Said nature compelled me to ask if you're certain about this undertaken. So are you?"
"Am I…!? Really? That's your question? REALLY?! NO, I'm not positive at all, THAT'S WHY I PUT ALL THIS DAMN TIME AND EFFORT INTO THIS WHOLE FREAKING THING!"
I bit back a smirk that threatened to creep on my face. "Since you're already gambling, why not ante up? I'm willing to wager a million crown on the outcome."
Her eyes popped. "O-one m-m-million crowns…?"
"One million crowns. If this is foolproof, then consider this free money. Are you willing to literally put your money where your mouth is? I am."
A bead of sweat formed on her forehead.
Child's play, I thought. She had fallen prey to cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is one of the many social engineering techniques I acquired during my studies. As the name implies, the technique starts with cognitions – our beliefs, attitudes, and values. People naturally act in a manner that is consistent with these. When they fail to, it creates a state of discomfort or dissonance. The single remedy to this discomfort is to adjust our behavior and attitudes. People typically do this through actions such as denial or rationalization. Narcissa, however, had neither option. By confronting her in public, I transformed her greatest asset into a liability.
"O-of course…" she said. "OF COURSE, I AM! NAME YOUR CONDITIONS!"
"If you manage to retain Adora's Tear as well as capture the Grandmaster, I'll deliver the sum to you in person and issue a public apology. If you fail to accomplish both tasks, you must donate a million crowns to Cain International's medical research branch. The payout must be delivered in person by you to me at my family's manor and it must be placed directly into my hands by you. The loser pays this coming Ferrdi at noon, no sooner or later. Do you agree?"
I held out a hand. She eyed it for a moment then snatched it and gave a lackluster squeeze.
"GET MY MONEY READY FOR I – THE REMARKABLE MADAME RICHMOND – SHALL MOP THE FLOOR WITH THE GRANDMASTER OF THEFT!"
"We'll see. I'll concede this scheme foolproof if even you can triumph."
She scowled then tore away in a huff. I meanwhile congratulated myself on a job well done. Although I had expected things to proceed a touch less melodramatic, the spectacle served me all the same.
Wynn rejoined me not long after that and said, "Can't go anywhere without making a scene, can you?"
"Where's the fun in that?" I joked before dropping my voice a fraction lower. "Besides, sometimes the most covert ruse is to act overtly."
"And most of the time the most covert ruse is to just be covert," he whispered back.
"Good thing this isn't one of those occasions then," I said, to which he groaned. "Anyway, let's make haste. We've a train to catch."
A security checkpoint was the last obstacle - and I use the word obstacle as figuratively as I can - to bar our way before we embarked. Guards patted us down, verified our IDs, inspected my attaché case, and allowed us to board with no hassle. After that, we entered the private carriage I rented.
The carriage suited my tastes. It granted us a lengthy container with a diamond-patterned teal carpet, a lush sofa with pillows scattered about and lavish velvet armchairs, a mahogany round table with a lamp atop it, two rectangular-shaped windows with teal drapes which blended well with the almond walls, and a private bathroom, in case such facilities were required during the hour-long trip to the mainland. Its luxuriousness paled when compared to my family's manor, but I've been worse backdrops. What's more, it served my agenda well. There was sufficient space to fight within and items which could soften slams.
Once Wynn sealed the door behind us, I inspected the room for any hiding places. If were I the police, I'd bug every room. I inspected the two armchairs, the lamps, drew open the drawers and peeked beneath them, the frames of and behind this abstract painting that hung in the room, explored the bathroom's cabinets, and even uprooted the carpet. We finished the inspection with a sweep with our cellphones for any RF leakage. Fortunately, the police failed to exploit the opportunity. The room was ours.
Wynn plopped onto the sofa. "What now, O' Great Leader?"
"More of the same." I seated myself in an armchair and placed my laptop atop the table. "We bide our time."
"No complaints here."
"For once," I teased.
Wynn pulled his sunglasses down then stretched out across the sofa. I meanwhile launched the malware. The program flickered onto the screen, I entered a password, and the screen vanished for a second. Then a confirmation screen manifested.
Many thanks, Mister Perkins, I mused whilst stretching out my arms above my head. The Valkyries presence aside, everything had proceeded swimmingly. I felt at absolute ease with everything.
This was the last time during this campaign I truly felt that.