The next few weeks were as tense as they were exhausting. We spent hours doubled over the ebony table, poring over maps, crunching numbers, and sifting through computer records. Hundreds of phone calls. Stakeouts, interviews, dumpster diving. Endless hours of practice. And the whole time, we never saw the Raven, just heard his silken voice suggesting strategies and supervising the planning process from the black bubble perched on the table like a glossy insect eye.
I had to admit, the Raven had put together a crack team. If any group of people could pull off this crazy heist, it was this one. But I didn't trust any of them. Chase, the silver-haired man who we had first met that night in Colosseum Plaza, was slippery. It was easy to see he'd been in the business for a long time and it was impossible to tell just how much he was and wasn't saying. Scilla, the dark, snake-braided woman, was clever and quick as a panther, as well as being scarily accurate with a crossbow, her weapon of choice. The pale, tattooed Wex seemed nervous and harmless at first until I saw him hack into the police department's computer databases with ease. I wondered how much information he had already dredged up on me and Kris. And then there was Murphy, a tank of a man who never said much, but if it came to it, would likely be no easier to take down than Vengeance.
Each planning session became a tiring battle of wits as each of us carefully tried to avoid being outmaneuvered by the others. There were several places in our scheme where we had to trust our lives to one another, and it was a constant balancing act to determine whether we were still worth more alive or dead at that point, because if we were the latter, you can bet we wouldn't be making it back out alive.
It was almost a relief when Lucatz showed up, not because I trusted him any more, but because at least I knew him and was more likely to be able to predict any foul play. Not that things had turned out overly well for me during our last encounter.
After showing him around the apartment and introducing him to our team, I suggested a walk. The entire apartment was bugged, and there were things I knew Lucatz wanted to discuss with me that I did not care to let the Raven overhear.
"You've got a pretty damn good team," said Lucatz as we strolled by the enormous pillars of water spouted up by the fountain in Colosseum Plaza. "Looks like the Raven knows what 'e's doing."
"He usually does," I said.
"Not fer the Kamarov job 'e didn't."
"He's not infallible, Lu. He's not immortal."
Lucatz lit up a cigstick and sat down on the lip of the fountain. I sat down beside him, plucking the cigstick from his mouth and tossing it into the fountain. People on the surface didn't smoke and the last thing we needed was more suspicion.
"So why won't I 'ave to worry about 'im?" Lucatz asked.
I took a deep breath, rubbing the bridge of my nose and feeling the silicon disguise Chase had made for me. Then I told him my theory.
As it came out of my mouth, I was sure Lucatz would dismiss it entirely. It sounded ludicrous and even I could only just barely believe it. But when I was finished, Lucatz just sat there, chewing it over as his yellow eyes flicked around the square.
"An' Wex is in on board wit' this 'ole thing?" Lucatz said at last.
"Not yet, but that's what the File is for," I said.
"If you're right. . ."
"Then you'll have won the world."
"An' if you're wrong. . ."
I didn't have to respond to that.
"It's a gamble," said Lucatz thoughtfully.
"But what's the point in living if you're not all in?" I said, and I could tell by the sudden brightness in Lucatz's eyes that he agreed.
After that day, preparations began in earnest. The plans had been laid and now the fabric of our scheme had to be stitched together. Lucatz called on contacts, Wex busied himself hacking into the Arena's computer network, Chase disappeared as he fabricated an identity for himself as a wealthy gambler, and Murphy secured a job as an Arena guard. Scilla and I were often paired together for stakeouts and shadowing, which always made me nervous, more because of Scilla than the possibility of being discovered.
Kris, for her part, was tasked with assembling all of the materials we would need for the job. Or at least, that's officially what she was supposed to be doing. But everyone knew her real job was to steel herself for what lay ahead. She had the most dangerous role of any of us. There were so many things that could go wrong. If things didn't go according to plan, everyone else still had a chance to back out. Kris didn't. Even if everything did go according to plan, nobody envied being thrown into the Arena with Vengeance.
I was worried. I knew I had done the same thing once, with far fewer resources, and far less hope of success. But I couldn't help but think it would be worse this time. We had entangled ourselves in a web of risks and lies so thick it practically guaranteed that something would go wrong.
But the preparations were coming together seamlessly, our plan seemed sound, and as we approached the day we would put it into action, I dared to feel a little more hopeful. And perhaps everything would have gone according to plan had it not been for Jeremy Wayne.