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 off 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 twenty-four-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.
Copyright © 2019 by Caleb Roehrig