This story takes place just before Rich.
Julia Barone, Benson Security’s office manager, was busy going through the company’s invoices when Harvard, one of their security operatives, wandered into her office. As Julia’s office was the hub of the building, she was used to people popping in throughout the day to see her about a multitude of random things. Usually, they were fully dressed.
“Couldn’t this have waited until I woke up?” Harvard scratched his belly through the black T-shirt he wore over matching pajama bottoms. His feet were bare, and if his head wasn’t shaved, she was sure his hair would have been standing on end.
Although no longer as shy around the team as she used to be, Julia still found it hard to look any of them in the eye. Well, except for Joe, but she was married to him.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.
“Your intercom message, telling me to get down here.” He didn’t frown; the American was far too laid back for that.
“I didn’t make an intercom call, especially to you. I know you were on night duty last night.” Julia was particularly sensitive about interrupting Harvard, as she knew living in one of the staff apartments on the top floor of the building couldn’t be easy. It must feel like he was never off duty.
“Must have been dreaming.” He ran a hand down his face. “I’m going back to bed.” He shot her a quick smile before heading for the stairs.
He hadn’t been gone five minutes before the buzzing started. “Isobel?” Julia called to the reception desk, where Callum’s wife was working. “Someone’s at the door.”
“I know,” came the terse reply. “It’s Ryan. His keycard isn’t working, so I’m trying to let him in remotely. Which isn’t bloody working either.”
“I’ll get it,” Julia said, saving their receptionist from getting out of her seat. Isobel was hugely pregnant, making her ankles swollen and sore.
“You’re a star,” Isobel said as Julia walked past the front desk.
As soon as Ryan stepped through the door, she held out her hand for his card. “What did you do to it this time? Put it through the dryer with your laundry again?”
“No.” He placed it in her palm. “I didn’t do anything. I swear. The damn thing just won’t work.”
Julia stepped outside, shut the door, swiped the card, opened the door, and stepped back inside. She handed it to Ryan. “It’s working now.”
“It’s personal.” He glared at the card. “It hates me.”
“It isn’t the card,” Isobel said. “I couldn’t open the door from here either.”
“Must be a short in the circuit somewhere.” Julia headed back to her office. “I’ll get Joe to check the wiring as soon as he’s done sparring with Callum.”
She’d just finished speaking when phones started ringing. It sounded like every phone in the building rang twice and then fell silent.
“We’ve got Gremlins,” Isobel said ominously.
“That isn’t Gremlins,” Julia said. “It’s one of the intruder alerts Elle programmed into the system.”
“Intruder?” Isobel grabbed a stun gun from under the desk and looked around, as though someone might appear at any second.
“Who gave you a stun gun?” Ryan demanded as he strode over to her. He took it from her hands. “No dangerous weapons allowed when you’re pregnant and irrational. It’s company policy.”
“The hell it is. Gimme back my stun gun so I can zap your arse.” Isobel glared up at Ryan, who was at least a full foot taller and a whole lot bigger.
“Yeah, that will make me do it.” He folded his arms and smirked at her.
“Um,” Julia said. “There’s smoke coming out of the walls.”
“Something triggered the fog?” Ryan focused his attention on the vents low on the wall, the vents that were spewing out fog. “Reception’s going to be full of this stuff in a minute. Everybody out. Especially you”—he pointed at Isobel—“they say this stuff’s harmless, but let’s not chance it with a pregnant woman. Callum will kill me if anything happens to you.”
He helped Isobel off her stool and over to the front door.
“I need to grab my iPad first,” Julia said. “So I can access the security systems from outside and see if the fog’s just activated in reception.”
“Run,” Ryan said. “In a minute, you won’t be able to see your hand in front of your face.”
Julia started to run, which was damn hard in a pencil skirt. She made a mental note to wear more athletic clothes to work in the future.
“Julia?” Rachel’s voice snapped from the top of the stairway. “My computer’s telling me that I don’t have access to the network anymore, and I can’t get through to Elle. Where is she anyway? If she’s off hunting down that man again, I will hang her over the stairwell by her thumbs… Why on earth is there smoke billowing across the floor? Are we on fire?” She sniffed. “It doesn’t smell like smoke.”
“Fog,” Ryan said. “Intruder deterrent. Get out of the building before you’re crawling on the floor, begging to find the exit.”
“I’m sorry.” Rachel arched a perfectly groomed brow. “Are we in some sort of alternate universe where you’re my boss? No. I don’t think so. I give the orders.”
“Well, order your backside out that door,” Ryan snapped.
“There seems to be some system problems,” Julia intervened, playing peacemaker as usual. Ryan and Rachel were like bad-tempered siblings.
“We need to get down to the basement and sort this out,” Ryan said. “I can reboot the system from the control room. The fog has to be stopped, or it could damage the electronics on this level. And I’m worried about the effect it might have on Isobel and the baby.”
As if somehow listening to him, the fog immediately stopped pumping into the room, and the extraction vents came on.
“I told you it was Gremlins,” Isobel called from just outside the doorway. “I’ve seen this movie. It didn’t end well. At least, I don’t think it did. I fell asleep about three-quarters of the way through. But those little buggers were scary.”
“So scary they put you to sleep?” Ryan asked.
“I was nursing Jack at the time, and I was knackered. I could have slept through World War Three if it’d happened in my living room.”
“As deeply uninteresting as that story is,” Rachel stalked down the stairs, dressed in her usual black stilettoes and designer suit, “we have more pressing problems than your ability to stay awake. Are you sure it’s just a glitch and not an intruder?”
Julia shared a worried look with Ryan and Isobel. “No,” she said.
“Then we should be prepared for the worst. Are you armed?”
“Are you?” Julia asked. Was she the only woman in the building without a weapon?
Rachel swept back her jacket to reveal a hip holster with a small handgun inside. “It’s Gucci. I had it especially designed.”
“Gucci makes guns?” Isobel asked.
“I swear, pregnancy isn’t doing your IQ any favors at all.” Rachel shook her head in disgust. “The holster is Gucci. I’m trying it out, but I’m not certain I like wearing it. It interferes with the cut of my clothes.”
“Do not take that weapon out of its fancy-arsed holster,” Ryan snapped. “You couldn’t hit Buckingham Palace if you were standing two feet from it. We’re all safer if you just keep the gun as decoration.”
Rachel’s cold eyes met Ryan’s. “Do you have a weapon?”
“I didn’t think I’d need one to come to the office.” He glared back at her.
“I don’t think you can shoot Gremlins,” Isobel said. “A gun probably isn’t any use anyway.” She tugged on Ryan’s leather bomber jacket. “Can you shoot Gremlins?”
“Gremlins aren’t real,” he told her.
“Are you sure?”
“Stop talking about fictional monkey-demons.” Rachel turned her attention to Julia, who had to fight the urge to run and hide. “Where’s Callum?”
“In the basement, sparring with Joe,” she managed to reply.
“Then, would it be too much of a strain on everyone’s logic for me to suggest that we go to the basement?”
“I just said that,” Ryan muttered before motioning Isobel back inside. “You’d better stick with us. We don’t know what’s going on, and I can’t protect all of you if we split up.”
“I am perfectly capable of protecting myself,” Rachel snapped.
“Yeah, right.” He pointed at Rachel. “We have the Queen of the Damned, who’s more likely to shoot one of us than an enemy. Although, you could probably kill someone with sarcasm, but that might take a while.” He pointed at Julia. “We have the office manager who’s scared of her own staff and hides behind plant pots.”
Julia took offense at that. “Not all the time, I don’t.”
Ryan had already turned to Isobel. “And we have the boss’s wife, who is four hundred years pregnant. Plus, last time I checked, none of you could shoot, had any hand-to-hand combat skills, or military training. Face it, I’m all that’s standing between you and certain doom.”
“And yet, I still want to staple your damn head for being so insulting,” Isobel said cheerily.
“You aren’t the only security specialist in the building, Harvard’s upstairs. He can help too,” Julia said. Because whether or not she liked it, Ryan had a point, they needed more than his skills to watch over all of them.
“Better call him,” Ryan said.
“I’ll buzz up on the intercom.” Julia hurried to the wall beside reception and punched in the code for Harvard’s apartment. Nothing happened. “Intercom’s down,” she said as she began to panic.
“It’s okay.” Isobel rushed to her side and put an arm around her. “We’ve got other ways of getting hold of him.”
Rachel, meanwhile, had her ever-present iPhone in her hand. “Harvard, we have an emergency in reception,” she said. “Please bring a gun.” With that, she hung up, obviously confident that she didn’t need a reply to know her orders would be followed.
And sure enough, they were. A few minutes later, Harvard appeared on the stairs. Although still dressed in his bed wear, this time, he wore shoes, and there was a gun in his hand. “Status?” he asked Ryan.
Rachel stepped in front of him, folded her arms over her black Prada jacket, and tapped her red fingernails. “I’m the owner here, which makes me the most senior staff member present.”
Harvard’s lips twitched as his eyes softened. “Okay then, status?”
She waved a dismissive hand. “Things aren’t working.”
He waited for a second or two. “That it?”
“No.” Ryan bumped Rachel out of the way. “Systems are malfunctioning. Comms aren’t working. The security fog came on, then went back off.”
Harvard’s dark eyes met Ryan’s. “System failure or attack?”
“We’re going to the basement,” Rachel said. “We need muscle.”
“Then this is your lucky day.” Harvard’s smile at Rachel made Julia blush. It was exactly the same sort of smile Joe gave her. “I’ll take point. Ryan, you bring up the rear. Isobel, you’re in the middle.”
Everyone nodded, got into line, and followed the pajama-clad ex-CIA agent into the stairwell that led to the basement. Walking down the stairs felt strangely spooky. As if they were descending into a dark pit, when really, the basement was a complex of rooms that was spacious, and brightly lit.
At least, it was usually brightly lit.
Because when they opened the door to the basement, all they found was darkness.
“Joe?” Julia’s voice quavered more than she’d have liked.
There was no reply.
“Callum, are you there?” Isobel called, her voice rising with each word.
“They’re probably in the control room, trying to get the system back online,” Ryan said, but he didn’t sound too sure.
The two men shared a look that made Julia’s stomach tighten.
That’s when the lights in the stairwell went out too.
A hand curled around Julia’s arm and held on tight. “Breathe,” Isobel said. “Just breathe.”
“I’m okay,” Julia reassured her, although that was straining the truth.
“I was talking to myself,” Isobel said, stepping so close she was plastered up against Julia’s side.
A flashlight flicked on, and Rachel waved it around. “Use the lights on your phones,” she said, as though they were all a little on the dull side.
“I don’t have mine.” Isobel looked up at Julia. “Do you?”
She shook her head.
“Here.” Ryan ferreted around in his jeans pockets. “Use mine.”
Isobel took it gratefully, and a few seconds later, there was more than enough light for them to see by. But it didn’t make Julia feel any better. They were still in a silent building, with no electricity, and strange things happening all around them.
Julia wanted her husband. Joe would know what to do. Joe always knew what to do. And if for some strange reason he didn’t, she could just hide behind him.
“Ryan, stay here and watch the women. I’ll check control.” Harvard’s voice was low, confident, calm, and Julia decided that, after Joe, she liked him best of all.
“No!” Isobel’s hold on Julia tightened, and she knew that was going to leave a bruise. “I’m not staying here with Rachel and Ryan. If they don’t kill each other, Rachel will probably shoot me by mistake, and Ryan will get hungry, because his stomach has a twenty-minute timer, and then I’ll be the only available snack. I’ve seen this movie too. Only it was a plane crash, not a building crash. I’m coming with you.”
“For the love of Gucci, someone needs to stop you from watching television,” Rachel snapped. “Nobody is going to turn cannibal when there’s a perfectly good kitchen upstairs and about three million restaurants just outside the front door.”
“Rachel,” Harvard said, “if you have a weapon, give it to Ryan. I’m with Isobel on this; I’d be a whole lot happier if you weren’t armed. You haven’t spent any time at the range, and no practice makes you dangerous.”
“But it’s my gun. I don’t want his sweaty paws all over it.”
“Rachel,” Harvard drawled. Just that. One word.
There was a moment’s silence, where Julia held her breath.
“Fine,” Rachel said with obvious bad grace. “Here’s the gun.” She thrust it at Ryan.
“Keep your finger away from the trigger,” Ryan said. “I don’t want you putting a hole in me while you hand it over… Got it. Well done. Nobody died.”
“Okay,” Harvard said. “We’re going in. Stay to the right. We’ll skirt the sparring area and head for the control room. Hold up your phones to light the way.”
No one said a word as they followed Harvard into the room. The space was eerily silent; the darkness impenetrable beyond the light from their phones.
“Why are you tiptoeing?” Isobel whispered to Julia.
“Why are you whispering?” she replied.
“Why did I come down here with all of you when I could have taken a taxi to Sloane Square and gone shopping instead?” Rachel said—definitely not whispering.
There was a series of loud clicks, making everyone freeze in place.
“Ryan,” Harvard said, “check the door to the stairwell.”
Ryan jogged back to the door. “Locked. The automatic system’s shut them down.”
“Or someone using it has,” Julia said.
“I don’t like Gremlins.” Isobel curled her hands into the back of Julia’s blouse and held on tight. “Nasty little buggers. I think we should get out of here. We should, shouldn’t we? Get out of here? There has to be an exit somewhere. Where’s the exit? Does anyone know? Oh, dear stars above, let there be an exit!”
“Stop it,” Rachel snapped. “Do you want to be a female cliché? Get a grip on yourself and calm down.”
“I’m pregnant; I’m allowed to get hysterical when we’re trapped in a basement during a blackout.” She took a deep breath, whether to carry on shouting or to scream, Julia wasn’t sure.
Rachel slapped a hand over Isobel’s mouth. “I will gag you, if I have to. Now, are you going to behave?”
When Isobel nodded, Rachel dropped her hand. “Has anyone ever told you that you’d make a great dominatrix?”
Rachel just rolled her eyes.
“Stick together,” Harvard ordered, calm as ever. “Let’s get to that control room.”
“What if it’s locked too?” Julia couldn’t help but ask.
“If it’s locked, we’ll break in.” Harvard sounded sure of himself.
“Okay.” Julia nodded. “Okay. Do you think Joe and Callum are in there already?”
“We’ll soon find out,” he said, which wasn’t massively reassuring.
Cautiously, they made their way around the perimeter of the room.
“I don’t like this,” Isobel muttered. “It’s too quiet.”
“Just stick together,” Harvard said. “We’ll be fine.”
As they crept past the door to the changing rooms, there was a noise: a click. And the door swung open.
Julia and Isobel screamed as Rachel shoved them behind her and aimed her flashlight straight at the door. “Shoot,” she ordered Ryan.
“Belay that order,” Callum snapped. “Have you lost your bloody mind? You can’t go around telling the team to shoot your partner.”
“Callum!” Isobel screeched his name before rushing past Rachel and throwing herself into her husband’s arms. “You aren’t dead. The Gremlins didn’t get you. You’re okay.” She patted his chest as if to reassure herself that he was real. “And you’re naked.”
“I’m wearing a towel,” the grumpy Scot replied. “I was in the damn shower when the lights went out.”
“I-is Joe in there too?” Julia’s voice quavered, and she hated it. But it couldn’t be helped; Callum was scary.
“No, Joe wasn’t in my bloody shower. He had one of his own. What the hell do you think we’re doing down here when we say we’re sparring?”
“Stop barking at my wife.” Joe pushed past Callum and headed straight for Julia.
Blinking back tears, Julia rushed into his arms. Unlike Callum, he’d taken the time to get dressed, but he smelled like fresh soap and…Joe. She clung on tight, aware that she was shaking, but unable to do anything about it.
“It’s okay,” he whispered against her ear. “It’s going to be fine.”
Well, now it would be. Because Joe was there.
“Does somebody want to tell me what’s going on?” Callum barked.
“There’s been a series of glitches in the security system,” Harvard said. “Lights going off, doors locking, computers shutting down, fog being triggered. We came down to check the control room.” He ran a hand over his shaved head. “And the stairwell door locked behind us.”
Callum’s frown turned deadly. “To hell with the control room. We’re heading to the armory.”
Julia glanced at the door to the armory on the other side of the room. It seemed very far away.
That’s when a male voice called out over the PA system, in a terrible excuse for an Australian accent, “Welcome to the basement-dome. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… Dying time’s here.” There was a feminine giggle before the speakers went dead.
For a second, nobody did anything.
And then the shouting started.
“Grandad!” Ryan yelled.
“Bill. Bob. Whoever the hell you are, get your arse out here!” That was Callum.
“The flowerpot men did this?” Rachel was not amused.
The speaker squeaked. “We do not know of whom you speak…cobber.”
Ryan put his hands on his hips. “I know it’s you. Your Australian accent is crap and you’re quoting Mad Max again.”
“They’re in the panic room.” Harvard shook his head in disgust. “They’ve accessed the emergency controls.”
As one, they stalked across the sparring area to the panic room.
“You can’t get in,” the voice said, still trying to sound Australian. “This is a panic room. It’s designed to keep you out. If you all go into the changing room, we’ll leave—”
“And never darken your doorstep again,” said a second male voice with an even worse fake Australian accent.
“That’s Uncle Bob,” Ryan said on a sigh. “That’s the Crocodile Dundee impersonation he does every Christmas.”
“This is the Benson Security panic room,” Callum said. “It wasn’t designed to keep us out.” He opened the panel, typed in a code, and pressed his thumb to the bioscanner.
The door swung open.
Revealing two tiny retired men and their wives. It was like looking at four of the Cabbage Patch dolls that Julia had collected as a child. They were seated on deckchairs, which they’d obviously brought with them. There was a small table stacked with scones, cakes and sandwiches beside a pot of tea, and a bottle of gin. All four of them jumped to their feet.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing in here?” Callum stood, legs apart and arms folded over his bare chest. With the towel wrapped around his waist and his metallic prosthetic legs, he looked like a cross between a crazed Highlander and the Terminator.
“Would you mind shutting your legs, son?” Ryan’s grandad, Bill, said. “I don’t want to give the missus any ideas.”
As Callum growled low in his throat, Isobel stepped in front of him. Whether to stop the women from seeing too much of her husband or to stop Callum from staging a massacre, it was hard to tell.
“Granddad, Uncle Bob.” Ryan elbowed his way to the doorway. “Seriously? And you brought Gran and Aunt Matty too?”
“We’re just having a date night,” his grandad said.
“Date afternoon,” his wife corrected, smiling at all of them.
Julia suspected this was one occasion when looking like a traditional grandmother, complete with gray hair and lavender cardigan, wouldn’t help her get out of trouble.
“You were having a date in my panic room?” Callum’s whole head turned red.
“Our panic room,” Rachel corrected because, clearly, that was the most important part.
Bill shuffled his feet, making Julia realize he was still wearing the beige dungarees he wore to do carpentry jobs around the building. Not exactly date attire. But then, the panic room was a weird place to go on a date anyway.
“We were putting up some shelves.” Bill pointed to the shelves. “And we accidentally pressed some buttons.” He pointed at the other side of the room, under the wall of monitors.
“You accidentally pushed a button on the other side of the room?” Ryan shook his head at them.
“When you get to our age, son,” Bob said. “Strange things happen. It’s best just to accept them.”
“Anyway,” Bill said, shooting his brother a glare, “the cameras came on, and we could see all over the building.”
Ryan’s grandmother pushed in front of her husband. “That’s when he called me. We’ve always wanted to get tickets for Big Brother, but we’ve never managed to.” She looked at her sister-in-law. “It’s one of our favorite shows, after Coronation Street. This was a great second best.” She beamed at them.
No one beamed back.
She cast a nervous glance at her husband before stepping back behind him.
“We were only going to watch,” Bill said. “But then we accidentally pressed some more buttons, and before we knew what was happening, you were all reacting to the accidents. It felt like we were producers on our own show.”
“I pressed the fog button,” Matty said with some pride, making her husband hiss at her to be quiet. She glared at him but closed her mouth.
“We weren’t really going to let you fight it out,” Bob said. “That was just a joke.”
“Do you know what would be funny?” Callum said in a scary low voice. “Watching your head come off your shoulders.”
And that’s when all hell broke loose.
“You can’t kill my granddad,” Ryan shouted as Callum lunged for Bill, and Joe lunged for Callum to hold him back.
The old women screamed and ran for the console.
“Don’t touch any buttons,” Harvard snapped.
But it was too late. They triggered the alarm, and a siren wailed. That alarm went straight to the local police station, so it wouldn’t be long before they were overrun. They’d never live it down.
“Shut that off,” Julia called over the mayhem.
“I’m going to kill them,” Callum shouted.
The women screeched, and the men yelled. Somebody tripped, ripping Callum’s towel away.
The alarm cut off, leaving only shocked silence.
“Well,” Rachel said. “That explains what Isobel sees in you.” Then she turned on her heel and headed toward the door. “I’m going shopping. If you kill someone, please don’t bury the body on the property. It will be hell on the resale value.”
And Julia watched as the door closed behind Rachel.