“Antwerp Bound” by Tony Southcotte

Short Story Tony Southcotte

In her final will and testament, Jamie Norris stated that her remains were to be cremated and pressed into a diamond. It only made sense with her line of work. The clear mineral had been the focus of her labor for the better part of a decade. It didn’t matter if it was contract work or her own capers, she was hooked on the glinting stones. She never wore them, just liked the feel in her hand before she turned them into cash.

Jamie thought she might know what being pressed into a diamond was like. She was contorted into a box in the back of a secure van and barely had enough room to draw breath into her lungs. She’d been in the box for four hours and was reaching the limits of her discomfort. Saran wrapped bills had been piled on top of her to give the illusion of a cash crate  Soon she would be able to break out of the cash sarcophagus. Until then she would listen to an MP3 player she couldn’t reach and listen to radio traffic.

The stop and go of the city driving turned into smooth highway. With a touch on her wrist, the sidewall of the box yielded and she spilled into the storage bay. She rolled out, quickly pulling her pistol out in case the driver noticed the noise. He didn’t and even if he had there were three inches of bulletproof glass stopping him from doing anything.

Jamie ran through the bags of money in the back of the van until she found a black lockbox bolted to the shelf. She connected her phone to the digital lock box and ran a brute force program. After a long two minutes, the box clicked open and she looked inside. Black velvet with crystalline stones of all shapes and sizes. A shudder ran through her body as she stared at the gems. Even in the low light they cast dazzling refractions.

She slid the diamonds into the many pockets of her utility belt, a final jewel about the size of the end of her pinky was placed into the locking center of her belt buckle.

A message scrawled across her phone. It was a simple countdown timer. She double tapped the screen to send an affirmative message to her driver and rigged the explosives on the back door lock.

10 seconds.

Jamie held her breath and pulled the trigger. The door blasted open and the white hot air of the Nevada desert met her lungs. The smell of spent explosive gave her another chill. An old Dodge truck sped up to the armored vehicle, which weaved in and out of its lane. Her partner, Briggs, wore a ski mask and leather driving gloves. He gave a quick salute and focused on the road.

With a gentle nudge, the truck touched the back of the armored truck and Jamie jumped onto the hood. She climbed over the top, resisting the swirling winds, and dove into the flatbed. The giant red truck then veered off the road into the desert, churning over the sage and scrub plants.

Jamie lay in the back breathing heavily and willing the adrenaline down. Her black suit gripped her tightly and she felt each of the pouches, making sure her cargo was still on board. When she finally sat up, she saw the armored truck pulled over to the side of the road, the all-khaki security guard with his phone in hand staring at the broken door.

—–

The poker table in the old shack was faded and torn, but held around two-million dollars worth of stones. Briggs, still wearing his driving gloves, looked at each stone under a handheld scope.

Jamie had stopped worrying about the authenticity of the gems on these runs. Operationally her source was a dream to work for. The information had been 100% accurate and in the last few months they had made more than an entire career of theft.

“They’re all real. You can save the carat counting. They haven’t led us astray yet,” Jamie said as she wiped the sweat from her brow.

“That’s the problem. This life isn’t supposed to be easy. Jobs take time and effort. It takes discipline. This is like a handout,” the old man said.

“That’s why the cut is smaller. The intel is perfect so it saves us months of planning.”

“And you don’t find that suspicious at all? That we can knock over a truck and not even so much as hear one siren before getting away?”

“It’s probably some disgruntled employee at a security firm or one of the diamond wholesalers. It’s a corrupt business to begin with. Full on monopoly and price fixing.”

“Well obviously. How else could they get you to waste two months salary on a useless rock?”

“I don’t know if they have a rock we could buy for two months of our current salary. All I’m saying is our recent success is raising some flags.”

“Then who is in charge of it? If it was an FBI sting they would have ended it months ago. We’ve hit stores, safety deposit boxes, warehouses, and trucks. They wouldn’t put the con on for this long.”

“Nah, you’re right there. They wouldn’t risk us killing someone with the car, or some random overzealous guard. So who then?” Briggs said, and pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. He laid it out on the table and used one of the larger diamonds as a paper weight.

“Look at the diamonds commodities market. We started doing this 18 months ago. Diamond prices were bottomed out for a few years. All the sudden you have mines dry up in Africa, and those European ‘Pink Panthers’ start pulling off world record setting heists. Then that shady suit comes up to you with an envelope and an offer to contract out to us. We aren’t exactly Halliburton level contractors here.”

“So you’re saying some investor group is messing with commodity markets.”

“They wouldn’t have this kind of info. I’m thinking it goes all the way up to the wholesalers themselves. Think about it, a flood of black market gems would have that price keep dropping. Instead we watch it tick upward at a flat percent per quarter, and it’s starting to move faster than that. Give it a year and it’ll be prices like the early 80s when prices maxed out.”

“So they stash the gems somewhere, claim the insurance, and sell their current product at a higher rate. Put the ice on ice for a bit, then bring it back with normal shipments from their mines?”

“Exactamundo, miss.”

“Sounds like we should add it to the old portfolio,” Jamie said.

Outside the sound of tires on a dirt road trickled into the shack. Briggs and Jamie grabbed their guns and stepped outside. Pebbles slammed into the undercarriage of a new Mercedes. The black car glided through the night like a black beetle in the dark, but the dust was starting to win the battle against its shine.

The man pulled up to the shack and got out. Without a word to Jamie and Briggs he walked past them and started taking inventory. The thin black suit wore him like a coat hanger. It clung to the jutted out bones. His bald head was as perfectly kept as the lines on his suit were. The suit was tight enough to betray a pistol on his ankle and under his armpit.

He collected the stones into a leather briefcase with layers of foam and plastic meant to carry small objects. It always reminded Jamie of a tackle box, though the case might be worth more than all the tackle boxes on the planet combined on the right day.

“Nice to see you again, Mr. Bald,” Jamie said.

The man didn’t react.

“Or is it Mr. Alopecia. I don’t even see roots on there. You just need a barcode and the look would be set.”

He still didn’t react.

“Let it alone, Jamie. So long as the man pays us he could be The Agent Formerly known as Alopecia if it fits. He ain’t talking,” Briggs said.

The bald man did his work, dropped a detailed receipt of transactions going to offshore front organizations, and left the shack.

Jamie walked into the night after him and shouted, “Send De Beers our regards.”

The man stopped in his tracks, turned and smiled at Jamie. His teeth were perfect. It was the first time she had seen him smile. First time he had even really looked at her directly. There was something almost dead in his eyes, a void hiding behind a face that wasn’t used to smiling. He turned back around and got into the car. Without haste the man drove off. On the flat desert his brake lights shown for about 15 minutes before vanishing over the horizon.

“I think you might have hit a little too close to home on that one,” Briggs said.

“Well it’s good to know who we are actually working for. Could be Alrosa or a few others, but I think he got the point.”

“Is it though? I’m not one to mess with a good thing, at least not openly. I’ll tell you all about commodity markets but I wouldn’t tell that snake a word more than necessary. There’s something wrong with that man. Met a few men like him on my stint in Sing Sing. Couple more in Desert Storm.”

“I’m all of 5’3” and feel like I’ve got mass on him. I’m not too worried.”

“Don’t sleep on the flyweights. Little men have a way of fighting until they are wads of ground beef, but a fist fight isn’t what worries me. He’s a colder and harder than a coffin nail.”

“Don’t get soft on me old man. Your resume isn’t exactly pretty.”

“Ain’t that the truth. My face isn’t as pretty either. Let’s look at the numbers.”

The high sixth digit reflected in the amounts made the numbers look rather favorable.

—–

In the four weeks since their last job, Jamie had managed to stay out of trouble. She trained, she practiced the tools of her craft with long sessions of lockpicking and time spent at the MMA gym. She spent justifiable amounts of money without being flashy. Her recent fortune had her coveting the things she could afford but didn’t need.

When she jogged down the path and saw Mr. Bald waiting on a bench, she knelt down to tie her shoes and grabbed the flash drive from near his feet. He never looked up from his paper.

When she reached some tree cover she stuffed the drive down her sports bra and ran home. The next assignment was waiting.

—–

Briggs paced around the room. They were in his basement, or sub basement, far removed from cell signals and the possibility of bugs. He even swept the room again for bugs before they had opened the laptop.

“It’s a huge job,” he said, “the kind people retire on.”

“I hear you on that. That final number in my head keeps getting bigger with these jobs, but if we get 10 percent of this, then I’m past that number.”

“I passed my number about three years ago. Restless hands and a hatred of golf keep me in it.”

“I have a very hard time seeing you in khakis and a polo. You’d instantly look like my uncle instead of your beautiful haggard self.”

“Funny, I could see you in those little skirts the girl golfers pass for normal these days.”

“I’m sure you could. I’m more of a lycra and gear harnesses kind of girl.”

“There’s a whole slew of work for a girl like you outside of the heist industry. You might get further with leather though.”

Jamie punched Briggs in the arm.

“That’s part of the gig too, but we gotta focus.”

With the plans laid out in front of them, they started breaking down the details.

—–

In Antwerp, Belgium there is a place called the Gem District. If a major diamond deal is happening in the northern hemisphere, it is going to happen in Antwerp.

It’s also the site of the biggest diamond insurance fraud gambit that has ever been. A little over a decade before, The School of Turin ring of thieves walked out of a vault with more than 100 million in perfect stones. Somehow they had gotten through dozens of layers of security, more than 120 safe deposit boxes that required a key and combination, and a vault door that could never be brute forced. Five men somehow made it out of this and the diamonds were never recovered.

When authorities caught up with Leonardo Notarbartolo, the ringleader of the little op, he spent ten years in jail before he was out on parole. The only reason they caught him was because of a leftover sandwich. Or so the news would have people believe.

On the flight over and the weeks of casing the vault, Jamie had read through the documents hundreds of times. She knew her role, her identity, how tight the margins were, and how quick they would have to work. On top of all this she had keycards, codes, combinations, and a killswitch for the security system. The vault was being handed to them on a silver platter.

Even with all of this she felt uneasy. It wasn’t the jail time that scared her, they had planned too well for that and Europe was pretty lenient compared to the USA. It was the scale of the robbery. Going from six figure jobs to eight, possibly 9, wasn’t just something that happened overnight.

Still, that number. The idea of having the record. All of it was too alluring. She sat in the box truck alone while Briggs got some coffee.

It was getting late on a Saturday and the last of the businessmen were migrating from the gem district to other more lively parts of town. By midnight, the streets were nearly deserted. They pulled the truck up to the bay and backed it in.

The silence was unnerving. Jamie fidgeted with the zipper on her maintenance jumpsuit.

They walked into the silent loading bay. Boxes and pallets were stacked neatly around and the office lay ahead. Once again not a soul was around. This wasn’t part of the plan. They were supposed to lock out the security teams. The cameras on the walls did not track their movement and looked inert.

They reached the offices and took the elevator down five stories to the vault. The giant steel door was big enough for forklifts to pass easily through. Briggs took a deep breath, then nodded and they simultaneously swiped keys then hand entered passwords. The biometrics were overridden by their codes. A small light flashed above the door as mechanical noises unsealed the vault. In the silence the sliding mechanisms racked the sterile room with echoes.

When they walked in, Jamie started to salivate. Row on row on row of safety deposit boxes, pallets stacked in gold bars, and other treasures went from floor to ceiling.

The lights flickered and then went out. The elevator door behind them gave a chippy bing as it started to open.

Only a single exit sign above the elevator was illuminated. The door opened just a sliver and the whole world roared with a loud crack before going back to darkness.

The gunshot echoed and Jamie dove to the right, clearing a pallet of gold bars.

Briggs grunted heavily, falling to his knees.

The meager light only showed the red reflection of a shiny skull as it stalked from the elevator. A small device with green lights shone through the seams of the mask Mr. Bald was wearing.

Briggs spat and pulled his sidearm. He waved it in the dark, barely able to pick it up past his belly button. With a pained growl he pulled it up and let loose rounds into the darkness.

Mr. Bald just walked forward, confident strides. He put the gun to Briggs temple.

Jamie popped off three rounds, hoping they were going center mass. She heard a wheezing grunt and the man hit the floor. She heard the thud of rounds hitting a flack jacket, not the chunky sound of flesh being rended by hot copper.

She scrambled forward, getting her hands on the bald man before he could rise. She pulled a knife from her belt and sunk it deep into the flesh of his leg. He ripped it out, threw the blade aside and rolled her onto her back. He pulled the gun holstered on his ankle and swung it back but was stifled by a punch to the jaw. She grabbed his wrist, feeling the cold barrel of the gun against her cheek. He pressed harder, trying to get the barrel above her face. He shot a round, blasting her ear with unbearable sound. Immediately that side of her head went tinny and deaf.

Jamie arched her back and turned, quickly sliding from between his legs. She clasped on to his back and grabbed the suit jacket. With all her might she ripped at the collar, pulled it and his tie tight around the neck in a gi choke. She could hear him gurgle as his throat barely let air in. The fabric gave way and buttons went flying. He gasped and struggled against the small woman on his back but she sunk her legs around his body and brought her forearm under the chin in a rear naked choke. The gurgling came back, then fell silent. When she let go she could hear coarse breathing but his consciousness had not yet returned. She stood and stomped on the back of his skull, thinking that it would have only been legal in Japan rules MMA. The sound of skull on polished concrete echoed in the chamber.

She reached in her pockets searching for a flashlight. When she found it, she clicked it on and watched Briggs as he held his belly and stared back at her. She knelt down and pulled Briggs to her. Already he was getting pale. He took a bloodied hand and gripped hers.

“Sub basement. Under the footlocker,” he spurted between rattling coughs. “Follow the steps, leave this life. Disappear. Just disappear.”

“Okay. Okay I will. Just come with me, we need to get you out of here.”

Briggs didn’t respond. He just stared up at her, moving in and out of consciousness. He stared past her and tried to speak, but fell into darkness.

Behind her she heard the sound of metal scraping on concrete. In the beam of the flashlight, the disoriented man tried to push himself up but his brain wasn’t quite communicating with his body properly. She walked over and kicked him in the ribs, feeling a thousand thoughts of vengeance. Then she looked over at Briggs. She’d let the bald bastard rot, no doubt handicap and half broken. Let him rot in jail like that. She had to leave. She had to go right then and there. She ran for the elevator, swiping madly before having to clean the blood off of the card.

When the doors opened she saw people loading cargo into her truck. Mr. Bald had apparently already done their job and was planning to take their escape truck. She drew her pistol and shot the larger man in the leg, then shot another man in the shoulder and knee, then closed the back gate and got in the truck.

She drove to the safehouse, one that not even Mr. Bald had known about.

—–

Without a fence to sell the diamonds to, and knowing it would all be too hot she had no choice. She put the truck in neutral and watched it roll down the hill and over the bridge then careen into the water. She marked the GPS location, but part of her knew she was never coming back here. Tens of millions in useless gaudy rocks and gold. Fuck it.

She went to the same shipyard they had arrived at and snuck her way into the specialized cabin inside a container. She didn’t know if it was really safe to go home, but she would assess that when she got their. She wasn’t opposed to the quiet life like Briggs was. After all this, she thought it would suit her just fine.
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meTony Southcotte: Tony hails from the Rocky Mountains somewhere around the state of Colorado. Possibly raised by grizzly bears, this gritty denizen of the arena now spends most of his time grappling with Java updates and dysfunctional RAM. With not much fiction under his belt, it might seem tempting to bet against Mister Southcotte, but an impressive knowledge of everything from PVC pipe to psychedelic drugs makes Tony a storehouse of fiction waiting to hit the paper. Plus, you know, there’s the possibility of him ripping you apart like a grizzly bear.

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5 Comments

  1. This was well-written, but now that I’m done with it I’m not sure where it was supposed to be going. I thought the heist elements were strong at the beginning, but the final entry is SO easy you know something is going to go wrong. On top of that I never really felt invested in any of the character’s lives.

    As an aside I thought it was interesting that both entries this week had female protagonists, and yet Tony’s creation is still very clearly his own with all the crusty cynicism that goes along with that.

  2. I liked the story overall. The plot was very ambitious in scope for the amount of space Tony had to work with, and I found the characters to be interesting enough to want to know more about them – even though I agree with Al that I saw Mr. Bald’s turn coming a mile away.

    The only thing that took me out of the story was some of the technical-sounding MMA (right?) descriptions in the action. As someone who does not follow/know much about MMA the already strong fight scene at the climax could have been even better if some of the description was less “inside baseball.”

    Overall it was a fun read, and definitely very Tony in tone.

  3. I don’t think there’s any such thing as a “Tony” story, but there are themes he returns to and there are stories when he tells you a story you weren’t expecting. This one is fun.

    I like the heist elements, I like the cynical and wearily professional tone. I like pretty much all of the story, and was entertained by it.

    I think, though, that it didn’t quite stick the landing. Something is missing, even if I honestly can’t quite put my finger on what it is. Man, that’s frustrating.

  4. Pingback: TWA 87 – Heists – JUDGEMENT! - The Writer's Arena

  5. Jamie was a strong and plausible character, even though her situations were much less so, but interesting none the less. You seem to have done your research with the rock business and that keeps the reader going. After the first section, I felt like the story could have benefitted from a better dialogue/exposition ratio; but considering the time constraints you were under, this could be an easy fix for a future re-write. Good to see you out there being busy and creative. I like the way you sometimes choose to just leave the more violent details to the readers’ imagination–a la Hitchcock.

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