What no one tells you about a life of crime is that it’s often very, very dull.
Stakeouts. Stalking. Following targets to the pharmacy and watching them buy toiletries. Martin always pulls out all the stops— inside-out jackets, careful hiding spots, the works— but most of the time, people aren’t even wary enough to warrant his hard work, much less appreciate it.
“I always told you to become an anesthesiologist,” his mother said the last time he complained. “The money is just as good, but you don’t have to put yourself at risk. And sometimes it even turns deadly! Just how you like it.”
But if he was doing that, how else would he experience the never-ending joy of watching his target—a Middle Eastern-looking man in a sweater who seems like he repairs teddy bears for a living— deliberate over just the right piece of chicken? And then add it to his basket. And then go to the check-out, making polite small talk with the cashier.
Think of the money, Martin tells himself. Think of the money. No matter how nice he looks, the target—identified only as ‘Joe’— is close with a man who had stolen some very important weapons plans, and when Martin retrieves them, he’s going to be rich enough to take a few months off and finally hike the Camino.
The target takes his bag and walks out through the sliding glass doors. Martin clicks a button on his radio that will send a beep to the guys waiting out front, and then he pats his pocket like he forgot his credit card, puts down the loaf of bread he’d been holding, and follows him out.
Rod and the two Matts already have him cornered in the side alleyway by the time he gets there, and Martin makes a mental note to give them good performance reviews.
“Woah, woah,” the target is saying. His hands are not up. “I don’t have much cash, but you can have what I’ve got.”
“We don’t want your cash,” Taller Matt says, brandishing his gun. “Get in the car.”
“No, give us your phone first,” says Shorter Matt. “Then get in the car.”
“No, don’t move.” Rod steps forward. “I’m going to check your pockets.”
The target raises his eyebrows, but doesn’t object. Or look particularly concerned. Something about that expression makes Martin lift his gun higher and hope he doesn’t have to shoot. There aren’t cameras here, and Rod and Martin are blocking the view from the street, but the sound of a gunshot is not going to make their getaway clean, and Martin wants it clean. Untraceable.
Rod gives the target a brief pat-down, coming back with a money clip, a cell phone, a folding knife, and a small handgun that had been hidden under the sweater. Martin reassesses his first impressions.
“Get in the car,” he says, trying to sound intimidating.
“Alright, alright.” The target peers over Martin’s head. “Is it the green car, or the black car?”
“The black one.” Shorter Matt lowers his gun, checks his front pocket and then his back pocket, pulls out the car keys, and hits the unlock button. Martin decides that only Rod is going to get the good review.
But they get the man handcuffed, put him in the car, throw his phone in the nearest garbage can, and they’re on the road without any brouhahas, so he’ll count it as a win. Their captive still seems far too calm, but maybe he’s in shock. Or maybe he’s been trained for this. And if he’s trained for this, then the client really stuck Martin in the shit, and he’s going to demand a larger cut.
“Can I ask where you’re taking me?” the captive asks, with the tone of someone who suspects he's going to a surprise party.
“You can ask,” Rod says. Rod thinks he is very funny.
“Where are you taking me?”
“Somewhere your friends will be able to collect you, once they hand over the hard drive they stole. Or, if they choose not to do that, a place where we can convince you to tell us where to find said friends.”
“Oh.” The captive settles back in the seat. “Okay then.”
They get him to the abandoned warehouse (“A cliché,” Martin had complained. “Practical,” Rod had countered,) and set him down in a metal chair, where they can connect his handcuffs via chain to a bolt in the floor.
“Hey, man,” the captive says, looking at Taller Matt. “There is a sandwich in my grocery bag, can you get that for me? I never got to eat lunch.”
“Sure,” Taller Matt says, because he is an idiot. Before Martin can object, Taller Matt is holding the sandwich at mouth level so that Joe can eat it like a giraffe chewing on a tree.
“What the fuck?” Martin asks.
“Well, we did keep him from his lunch. And it’s not like you can kill someone with a chicken sandwich.”
“To be fair, I could have cut a tiny hole in the shrink wrap and poisoned it,” the captive says around his mouthful of bread and lettuce. “But if I had, I wouldn’t be eating it. I don't like being poisoned.” He takes another bite. Chews. “These are really good. Have you ever had one?”
“I don’t like pre-made sandwiches,” says Rod, from his lookout point by the window. “I like them fresh or not at all.”
“The Walking Bread makes a mean sandwich.” Taller Matt adjusts his fingers on the wrapper so that the captive can more easily get to the next bite. “You guys ever been there?”
“That’s the one on Claremont, right?” the captive asks. “I walked by it, but didn’t go in.”
“Oooh, I love that place. You have to try it sometime. Uh,” Shorter Matt looks around, apparently remembering who he’s talking to. “Once your friends give up the hard drive. Obviously. So that we don’t have to kill you before you can get the sandwich you deserve.”
The captive smiles. “You’re sweet,” he says, and both Matts practically beam.
For fuck’s sake. As refreshing it is to have a hostage who isn’t whimpering in fear, this is ridiculous. “I’m going to call your friends,” Martin says, “and you are not going to speak unless I tell you to, and you’re going to say what I tell you to, got it?”
“One second.” The captive looks at his last bite of sandwich, which is barely big enough for Taller Matt to hold onto. “If I tilt my head, you can just drop it into my mouth?”
“Sure,” Taller Matt says. “Just be careful not to choke.”
He’d make a good mother bird, if he were female, and a bird, instead of a Live Acquisitions Specialist. Jesus Christ. Martin waits for the captive to finish chewing (noisily) and swallow (with a burp, probably just for effect) before point his gun at the man’s head.
“We know your associate has the hard drive. Tell me how to contact him.”
“You could try email,” the captive says. “He isn’t very good at answering those, though. He is much better at WhatsApp. Likes the background color.”
Martin wants to bang his own head against a wall, but that would not be very professional, and he is a professional, even if the rest of his crew has forgotten that. “Do you know his phone number?”
“You should have gotten that before you threw away my mobile.”
Martin shoots the floor next to the captive’s foot, and everybody jumps. It echoes around the cement warehouse, and his ears ring—though not loud enough to cover up the sound of both Matts swearing.
“Alright.” The captive still doesn’t look very shaken, but if he’s cooperating, Martin will take what he can get. “It’s—”
“Wait a second, I have to…” Martin gets out his own phone—secure and untraceable, thank you very much—and opens the keypad. “Alright, I’m ready.”
The captive gives him an international number, and Martin just hopes that he’s been convincing about the trick us and we’ll torture you bit.
It rings once, twice—
“Pronto,” a voice says at the other end, and Martin clears his throat.
“Are you alone?” He tries to make his voice sound as deep and scary as possible. Maybe they should have done video call, to really set the mood—but he doesn’t want to give any hints as to their location.
A pause. “Who is this?” It's a man's voice, with an accent. Italian, presumably, but it's not quite like other Italian accents Martin has heard.
“My name is not important. The hard drive you stole is. Certain parties are very interested in getting it back. We have taken your associate, Joe, to help arrange that. Now. Are you alone?”
Another pause. “Is this a ransom note?”
“Yes, I’m alone. Let me speak to Joe.”
“You say you have him. Prove it. Let me speak to him.”
Martin turns to where the captive is sitting. He still looks very calm and patient, and Martin is about to lose his shit. “Putting you on speaker. Say hello, Joe.”
“Hello!” the captive calls, like he’s on TV.
“Are you okay, love?”
Martin raises his eyebrows, hoping the captive will remember his instructions. Otherwise, Martin will have to ask a Matt to punch his teeth in, and the Matts will probably not be too thrilled about that.
“I am fine, don’t worry. They let me eat my sandwich and everything. They are being very nice.”
“Which could change at any moment,” Martin says quickly. “If you do not give us the hard drive.”
“…Let me put you on hold.”
Fine. If he’s trying to trace the call, he’ll learn he can’t soon enough.
“Love?” Rod asks. “Are you two together?”
The captive smiles a dreamy smile not at all congruous with being chained to a chair in an abandoned warehouse. “He is the love of my life.”
“Good for you, man. It’s always great when people can make it work. Especially in our type of work.”
Martin is aware that Rod is recently divorced, but that doesn’t mean Rod should be supporting the relationships of dangerous criminals. Except for the crew’s. Obviously. If Martin ever dates anyone—which is hard, since he can’t explain his job, and dating someone in the business is a headache and a half—he wants Rod’s support.
"Okay, I’m back,” the man on the phone says, and Martin clears his throat.
“You will leave the hard drive at a certain spot in one hour—”
“No, I don’t think so.”
That… what? “You don’t?”
“The information on that hard drive could hurt a lot of people. I’m afraid it’s going to have to stay with us.”
Was the captive lying about the relationship? “You are aware that we have your partner? There is a gun pointed at him right now.” Martin makes a pointed face at shorter Matt, who hastily raises his weapon.
“Yeah, you don’t have him,” Probably-Italian man says. “He has you. So… good luck.”
The line goes dead.
Being kidnapped is never how Joe wants to spend an afternoon, but it can certainly be interesting. Sometimes even entertaining, as long as he’s established that the kidnappers don’t actually know who he is.
And these ones certainly don’t. Which means that they’re going to be having a much worse day than he is, poor kids. Either whoever hired them is deliberately hanging them out to dry, or Copley is doing such a good job covering the team’s tracks that this is just a botched human retaliation for their latest job. He hopes it’s the second one, but one should always verify.
If he’d taken them out at the grocery, verification would be much more difficult. It would also mean the team would need to skip town, and Andy and Nile have been excited about seeing an exhibit at the local art museum.
So, being kidnapped it is.
“Good luck,” Nicky says, in that way he does when he’s trying not to laugh. Joe smiles, making sure to keep his hands still behind his back, where dislocated fingers have long since finished healing.
“What does that mean?” the leader demands. He’s a tall man with unfortunate patches of hair—reminds Joe a bit of a kid he knew during the first World War. “What does that mean?”
The man in the blue shirt is still by the window, gun out but pointed at the floor. The one who fed him the sandwich is within arm’s reach, weapon holstered. The man with the neck tattoo is the only one currently in a position to shoot him, but he seems rather blasé about the whole situation. Unlikely to have an itchy trigger finger.
So Joe drops the handcuffs, and by the time the kidnappers have finished blinking, he’s on his feet, with Sandwich Man’s gun in his hand and pointed at the leader. “It means you are going to tell me exactly what they told you when they sent you to kidnap me.”
“Seriously, dude?” Sandwich Man asks.
“I’m really sorry.” They’d been quite nice, as kidnappers go. “But I’d like to be home for dinner.” He’s going to have to go back to the store, because by the time they’ve sorted this, that chicken will have been sitting out way too long. Worst case scenario, he and Nicky can celebrate their anniversary tomorrow instead: it’s not as though they have an exact date. They first met when the flowers were blooming, and first kissed in the autumn.
“Matt, come over here,” the leader says, and both Sandwich Man and Neck Tattoo start to move. “No. Taller Matt.”
Sighing, Joe points the gun at Sandwich Man. If the leader decides that Taller Matt is an acceptable casualty, then they will shoot Joe anyway, and he will have to kill all of them. “Stay there.”
Taller Matt freezes.
“I don’t want to hurt any of you,” Joe says. “I would really like it if you would just tell me what I need to know so that we can all live to eat good sandwiches another day. But if you fire on me, then I will have to kill you, and then I will have to leave the country, and I will not get to try that bakery you recommended. You do not want that. I do not want that. So please, tell your men to lower their weapons.”
The leader looks at Taller Matt, then Shorter Matt, then the window. His men look back at him with expressions that clearly say they do not want to die.
“Four against one. Those are your kind of odds?”
“I’ve gone up against better groups than you and been the one left standing.” Joe doesn’t have any proof, but he has had a thousand years to practice looking scary.
And these men don’t look like they’ve been in too many fights.
Sure enough, the leader nods, and the other two relax, lowering their arms. “Client said you were low risk. We aren’t getting paid enough for this shit.”
That’s almost insulting. “Low risk?”
“Said you were associated with a group of corporate thieves.”
“My Nicky does make a good white-collar criminal.” Andy and Nile in bespoke suits had also been very convincing. I know it’s not your usual thing, Copley had said, but if things go south it would be very deadly for anyone else.
And there were worse ways to spend a week than playing dress-up.
“Tell me who the client is.”
“Not the company you stole from, though I imagine they’re looking for you as well. Just someone else who wanted in on the market. Thought they could start a bidding war for the hard drive, I think. That’s all I know about them, and that’s all they knew about you.”
He could be lying, but Joe has spent a long time learning what a man looks like when he’s lying at gunpoint. This man mostly just seems fed up.
“What was your cut supposed to be?”
The leader sighs. “Two million.”
“Damn, they really fucked you. That drive is worth thousands of times that.”
“Aw, again?” the man who is not either of the Matts says. “We’ve got to learn to negotiate better, Martin.”
“Shut up,” says Martin. “They’ll still make our lives miserable if we don’t have the drive, so we can’t just let you walk out of here. Sorry.”
“Will they kill you?” Joe should not be considering helping a crime ring disappear. They’re still very bad people who have undoubtedly hurt others.
“Worse,” says Neck Tat Matt. “They’ll ruin our reputation. Never get a job again. We’ll have to resort to kidnapping, like, rich schoolchildren.”
Never mind. “Have you considered going into a different field?” Joe suggests. “This one seems very dangerous.”
“My sister is a career counselor,” says Taller Matt. “I’ve been meaning to give her a call.”
Martin scowls. “Since when?”
“Since that Influencer broke my toes. That really hurt.”
“You do that.” Without lowering the gun, Joe picks up his grocery bag. The chicken might go bad, but everything else should be fine.
All of the men have been looking at Joe, not the window, which means none of them see the shadow. So they’re all taken aback when the door flies open to reveal Nicky, Andy and Nile, weapons out and looking very impressive.
“Don’t shoot!” Joe shouts. “Don’t shoot. I was just leaving.”
Now that it’s four against four, instead of four against one, the kidnappers seem much more happy to drop their guns entirely.
“You were taking a while,” Nile explains. “We’ve been waiting outside for like ten minutes already. Nicky was worried.”
“I was not worried!” Nicky clasps the back of Joe’s head when he reaches them, giving him a quick kiss on the lips. “Maybe a little worried,” he adds in Italian.
“I was just learning who hired them. Apparently someone wants to start a bidding war with the hard drive.”
Andy laughs. “That’ll be awkward, giving the effects of saltwater on electronics.”
“The what?” Martin asks. At Andy’s scowl, he puts his hands back in the air.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you. We broke it into pieces and threw it in the ocean. Good luck!” Joe tugs Nicky behind him out the door, and the other two follow a minute later. Their rental is parked next to the kidnapper’s car— the tires of which are looking suspiciously low.
“You’re sure you’re alright?” Nicky asks, and Joe stops to pull him into a much longer kiss. He’s pretty sure the man whose name he didn’t catch is still watching from the window, but Nile’s still got her gun, so he’s unlikely to shoot.
“I’m fine,” he says, switching to English. “I could have taken them out at the start, but I wanted to see what I could learn. How did you find me?”
“When in doubt, check the abandoned warehouse first,” Nile says. “And it helped that they parked their car out front.” She gets into the passenger seat without checking to see if Joe wants it, which would be rude if Joe didn’t want the back seat anyway so he could continue cuddling Nicky.
“Can we swing by the grocery store on the way home?” he asks as they drive away. “I need more chicken.”
They’re on their way out of the city when they pass a familiar sign.
“Ooh, we should stop there,” Joe says. “I’ve heard great things about this place.”
“Sure.” Andy yanks the car around a sharp turn into the parking lot, hard enough to throw the other three into each other. “I’ll stay with the car, get me whatever looks tastiest.”
“I’ll stay too,” Nile says quickly. She seems to have taken on Guarding Andy as a personal mission, and Andy has yet to tell her to stop. “I’ll take a ham and cheese?”
So it’s Nicky and Joe who walk into the bakery, not holding hands but close enough that they could be. Because Nile isn’t the only protective one in this group, no matter how many times Joe said that he’d had it under control.
It’s not as though he wouldn’t feel the same, in Nicky’s shoes.
The menu hangs over the counter, written in a colorful font with lots of zombie cartoons. Joe is so distracted reading it that it takes him a moment to recognize the employee in front of him.
The employee who has suddenly gone very pale.
“New job?” Joe asks.
“Yeah,” Taller Matt says. “Yeah my old one wasn’t… working out.”
“In the toilet. Fortunately that doesn’t matter here. Uh, can I take your order?”
Joe orders, and holds Nicky’s hand—partially to reassure him, partially to restrain him— while his partner glares daggers at the former kidnapper.
“On the house,” Taller Matt says when Joe tries to pay. “Thank you for choosing The Walking Bread! Please never come back.”