Books · Journalism · Information
|The Prey Series|
The Singular Menace: Uncaged
In The End...
The naked girl stared at herself in the motel mirror, a little sick with what she was about to do. She was slender, with muscles in her arms and shoulders, and red hair that fell to her waist. A scratch trailed from her hairline down to one eyebrow; her lower lip was swollen, raw on the inside where her teeth had cut into it. She had the salty taste of blood in her mouth.
She'd just gotten out of the shower, where she'd scrubbed someone else's blood off her clothes and body.
Now for the hair. Has to be done, she thought.
She shook out the Walgreens bag. A pair of shears, a comb, and a box of Clairol Nice 'n Easy clattered down onto the Formica counter beside the sink. Behind her, the gray, wolflike dog was on its feet, watching her, picking up on the stress; the dog made a rumbling sound in its throat.
She turned and said, "You're gonna get it too."
The motel was a dump, built a half century earlier, twenty rooms stretched along a broken-blacktop parking lot. The room smelled of cigarette smoke, sweat, urine, whiskey, and disinfectant. The windows were glazed with dirt, and the venetian blinds were yellow with age. The bed was short and lumpy, covered with a shiny maroon bedspread that she didn't want to touch.
Instead of throwing her clothes on the bed, she'd hung them on a hook by the shower. The wooden handle of a wicked knife stuck out of a sheath tucked inside the back pocket of the jeans.
An ancient television sat on a corner table. It didn't work. The room had one solid appliance: the big chain on the door, which, she thought, it probably needed.
The motel office was down at the far end of the building. When she'd walked in a half hour earlier, the clerk, a too-thin, windburnt man in his forties with a hard, bobbing Adam's apple, had said, "We don't usually take dogs."
She ignored the comment. "How much for the room?"
He looked her over. She wore a hoodie pulled down over her forehead, and sunglasses. The bottom part of her face looked pretty, except for a bruised lip. Her only luggage was a man's leather briefcase.
"Could be free, depending," he said, trying to be cool about it.
He failed. The office looked like it hadn't been cleaned since the place was built, with paper trash everywhere. A dusty box of Snickers candy bars was propped next to the cash register, the same cash register that had a trucker's bumper sticker stuck to it that read ASS, GRASS, OR CASH, NOBODY RIDES FREE. Somebody had crossed out the RIDES with a Magic Marker and written above it SLEEPS.
"I don't want free," the girl said. She dug a twenty-dollar bill out of her jeans, held it up with two fingers. "For me and the dog. I only want the room for a couple of hours, for a shower and a nap. I don't need a receipt."
He looked her over again, then reached under the counter and produced a key on a tag. "You're in room eighteen. Be out by one o'clock. You bring in any guys, I get a cut."
"Won't be any guys," she said. She snapped the bill down onto the counter, took the key, and was out of there.
Standing naked in front of the mirror, she picked up the shears and ran her fingers through her hair. No more sentimental moments; she started cutting. When she was done, long curls of red hair lay in the sink, like streaks of blood.
In the mirror, she'd changed: she looked lighter, thinner, almost elfin; the short hair emphasized her high cheekbones. She'd cut it just short of punk.
Now for the color. She took two bottles, a tube of conditioner, and some gloves out of the Clairol box, read the instructions, poured the color into the activator, and began working the black dye through her hair. Because her hair was so short, she'd need less than half of it. Behind her, the dog whimpered.
"Smells like cat pee, huh?"
When she was finished, she picked up the comb, got the bottle, and said, "C'mere boy."
The dog whimpered again.
An hour later, they were done. She pulled on her damp shirt, put the comb and shears in the briefcase, and used the last of the motel towels to dry her hair and the dog's. He was contributing a whole new stink to the smelly room.
"Let's get your collar back on," she said. "You look undressed."
The dog had been a silver gray. She'd used the comb to drag the color through the hair on his forehead, back, and sides, but hadn't tried to get all of it. He looked pretty good in black and gray: like an off-brand German shepherd.
She looked off-brand herself. Different. So different that after she buckled the collar on the dog, she turned and examined herself in the mirror for a long minute, getting used to it.
Shay Remby was gone. Who was this new girl?
She moved the sheath and knife to the small of her back, pulled on her hoodie, and picked up the briefcase. The dog was already at the door. She clipped on his leash, tossed the room key on the table next to the TV, and then they were out of the motel and walking down the street, moving fast.
There had to be good parts of Stockton, California, she thought, but this wasn't one of them. The streets were rough, the buildings decrepit. Broken windows were everywhere; the ones that weren't broken were covered with bars or heavy mesh screens. A gang was busy tagging the bare concrete walls and every other flat place they could find.
She turned the corner and saw Spartan Assembly straight ahead. She had no idea what was done there. A factory of some kind, she thought, with fifty cars parked outside. The best place to hide a car, she'd learned in the last few days, is a crowded parking lot.
"You're gonna smell up the Jeep," she said to the dog. "I love you anyway."
The dog rumbled at her.
The black Jeep Rubicon, almost new, sat in the middle row of the parking lot. She popped the door, let the dog jump into the driver's seat, then pushed him over to the passenger side. A moment later, they were moving, the girl and the dog turning their heads to look out the windshield, the side and back windows.
On guard against the world.
The leader of the group had the Taser, a snub-nosed stun gun that looked like a miniature Super Soaker. There were six baseball bats and two commercial bolt cutters scattered among them, hung on loops beneath casual jackets. A seventeen-year-old boy, muscled up by white-water kayaking, had the ten-pound sledgehammer. They all carried ski masks and heavy work gloves.
Twelve young people altogether, male and female in equal numbers, most still in their teens. If they were stopped by the police, there would be no defense for the gear, so they were on edge, jumpy, looking around as they walked.
Ready to run.
But the distance from the cars was short, and the exposure was brief. A risk that had to be taken.
They had one big fence to get through.
The fence was twelve feet high, with razor wire on the top: they couldn't climb it. The bottom of the fence was set in a band of concrete: they couldn't dig under it. They couldn't cut through it, or even touch it, because of a spiderweb of motion alarms.
There was one possible entry, at a back gate. The gate, which was almost never used, was secured with an electronic lock that opened only with the right magnetic card.
They didn't have one of those. They did have a deck of obsolete cards, kept by the son of a former researcher. The boy was a computer hacker who'd studied the cards for years and claimed to have found the algorithm by which the codes were updated.
Eventually, one of the women in the group had paid attention to what he was saying. She'd led him through cyber attacks on several animal lab facilities, and the damage had been impressive. The woman took the high school senior as a lover to tie him more tightly to the group.
Two weeks earlier, he'd stuck a recorder card into the electronic lock to get a reading on the current lock code. A few hours later, he'd produced a new card that he swore would open the gate and silence the alarms around it.
Some of the members of the group had their doubts, but the boy didn't. He was ultimately convincing.
All twelve of the raiders were committed, some more committed than others. At least two would give great sighs of relief if the card failed and they couldn't get in.
The target was a research laboratory near the university in Eugene, Oregon, a heavy user of live animals: the usual mice and rats, but also rabbits, cats, and rhesus monkeys. The lab's website was glossy and vague a lot of PR double-talk about searching for a cure for Parkinson's disease. But they had an insider who told them that something else was going on, something a lot stranger and meaner. The animals, he said, were being used and abused in ways that had no relevance to Parkinson's or any other disease.
"They're trying to make robots out of living beings" is the way he put it. "I don't know why, but I think they're planning to make robots out of people. They've killed hundreds of those monkeys, and they're killing more all the time."
The raiders were ready to believe. They'd all been involved in tree sitting, and tree spiking, and then more extreme environmental sabotage actions. They all knew each other and their various levels of commitment. Five of the twelve had been to jail at least once. The others had been luckier.
They crossed the parking lot in three groups, through the dense, fishy odor of the Willamette River, and converged on an alley between two anonymous warehouse buildings. The alley was the riskiest part, the part where it'd be almost impossible to run, where they could be trapped.
They saw no one.
Emerging from the alley, they moved sideways down the back of one of the buildings to three large Dumpsters that smelled of rotting vegetables and spoiled milk. The Dumpsters were fifty feet from the gate and provided temporary concealment.
The leader checked the power level on the Taser, then said, "Masks, everyone."
The black knit ski masks came out of their jacket pockets. Sixteen-year-old Aubrey Calder giggled nervously as she fitted the breathing hole around her lip-glossed mouth and whispered, "I'm seriously wetting my pants."
"You say that every time, but we're six for six," said Christopher, the sledge guy. "This is gonna work. This is gonna be awesome."
The leader, the old man of the group at twenty-three, peeked around the Dumpster, scanned the orange sodium-vapor security lights, and said quietly, "I'm going for the gate." Ethan led from the front, and it gave confidence to the others. He'd already done two years at Washington's Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, where he'd learned to make pillows and mattresses. "My time in the joint," he called it. It gave him a certain cred.
The target building seemed like a newer brick warehouse, an unfriendly one: small windows too high to see into and covered with wire-mesh screens. There were larger windows at the front of the building, but those looked into the lobby, and the lobby was secured from the rest of the building by locked reinforced steel doors. There were no signs identifying the building as a laboratory.
They would go in through a steel service door on the side of the building, for which they had a key provided by the insider. He couldn't get them an electronic key card for the gate because he had no reason to have one, or to ask for one. He couldn't ask for a service-door key, either, but he could be alone with a janitor's key ring for long enough to press both sides of the key into layers of clay inside an Altoids tin.
Given perfect impressions, the raiders could make their own key. And they had.
The leader walked quickly, but didn't run running caught the eye to the gate and slid the card through the reader slot. Nothing. He cursed, ran it through again. Nothing.
In the alley, a girl named Megan whispered, "What the heck is he doing?"
"Quiet!" An order whispered like a fist in the face from the second-in-command, a woman named Rachel.
At the gate, the leader looked at the card, realized that he'd run the wrong side through, cursed again, turned the card, and pulled it down the slot.
The gate popped open and he said into his cell phone, "Yes." He was a little surprised, and impressed, by the computer kid's work. Definitely a major asset.
He pushed the gate open seldom used, it was partly blocked by matted grass. He squeezed through, put his shoulder to it, and pushed it farther open, then walked across twenty feet of spongy, chemically enhanced lawn to the side of the building, to the gray steel door set into it.
The key worked perfectly, and he peeked inside: nothing but an empty stairwell. Their insider had said there were no motion alarms or surveillance cameras in this back hallway, though the lab was hardly naive about security. There were two dozen cameras spread throughout the complex, including two inside the animal containment areas. An armed security guard monitored the cameras overnight.
They'd asked the insider to recommend the lamest of the three night watchmen, and he'd fingered the pudgy older guy who was working on this night. Once the alarms went off and they would they'd have three or four minutes before the guard could get from his perch at the front desk, through several locked doors, to the second-floor containment area.
Time enough to do a lot of damage.
The leader put the cell phone to his face again, stepped over the threshold, and said, "Go!"
The raiders streamed across the tarmac, through the gate, across the grass, into the building. They knew exactly where they were going. They went down the hall, running, up the back stairs, through a fire door, and down another hall.
The steel door between the hall and the first animal containment unit was kept locked, but there were so many people coming and going that the lab workers kept the key on a chain hanging on a coat peg inside the lunchroom. A security violation, but who'd ever know about it?
Their insider did. He'd also told them that the office doors, and the lunchroom door, were locked, but made of wood.
"This is it," the leader said to Christopher, the sledge guy, as they stood outside the lunchroom door. "Hit it right, because when you do, they'll be coming."
"I'll hit it," Christopher said. He'd done it before, and was already buzzed from the adrenaline. He looked back at the others. "Everybody ready?" And without waiting for a response, he raised the sledge and said, "Here we go."
He swung, and the door smashed open, the small inset windows shattering into the hallway like diamonds on the concrete floor. An alarm fired, shrieking down the halls, adding an air of panic and energy.
Ignoring the alarm, the leader stepped past the broken door, looked to his right. A half-dozen coat pegs were set into the wall, with white lab coats hanging off them. He started pulling the coats off, found the key under the fourth one, dashed back to the containment area door, fitted the key in the lock, turned it, and pushed the door open.
Another raider, eighteen-year-old Danny, who had a stopwatch on a loop of parachute cord around his neck, bellowed over the siren: "Time's running: three minutes fifty seconds."
The idea was not to liberate the animals, but to wreck the experiments. To do that, the animals didn't have to be freed, but simply set loose to contaminate each other and themselves. Lab animals were carefully separated to prevent infection by stray viruses or bacteria, which would uncontrollably alter any experimental results.
Nor did the raiders have any illusions about permanently stopping the experimentation the forces pushing it were simply too powerful. But they could demonstrate, with YouTube videos, what was done to the animals in the name of science. Or just in the name of better cosmetics. Danny, the stopwatch monitor, was also operating a high-res Sony video camera, catching the chaos as it spread through the lab.
And people shouted over the noise of the destruction: "Gimme a crowbar, I need a crowbar...."
"Cutters, cutters, where the hell are the cutters?" "Sledge, where's the sledge?"
One girl smashed a plastic-front cage, and a piece of the plastic, sharp as glass, cut her hand, not badly, but the sight of the blood running down her arm pushed the others even harder.
The raiders went through the first containment unit like a hurricane. The experimental animals all rodents in this first room were held in plastic cages stacked one atop another in three lines of steel racks. Some raiders smashed the plastic doors with their baseball bats while others scooped the panicked animals out of their cages. In thirty seconds, hundreds and then thousands of rats and mice were scurrying between the raiders' feet and sometimes up their legs.
Christopher, the sledge carrier, had been smashing every piece of expensive-looking lab gear that he could find, then began battering open the screened windows, knocking out the wire grids between the glass and the outside. Some of the raiders began scooping up binfuls of mice and shoveling them out the windows.
The alarm sirens screamed on.
Then they entered the primate unit, and the pandemonium momentarily stopped as they reacted in stunned horror to what they found: A hundred or more pink-faced, humanlike rhesus monkeys were isolated in separate Plexiglas cages. The tops of their skulls had been cut away and replaced with glass or plastic caps, and computer modules were strapped to the animals' backs. A dozen of the monkeys lay in quivering heaps, as though near death, or simply paralyzed with fear or pain; the others screamed and scampered to the backs of their cages. A baby monkey with a missing skullcap clung to its mother, who'd been similarly altered.
The raiders used bolt cutters to slice the locks off the cage doors, and then, protected by thick leather work gloves, they began pulling the mutilated animals from their cages. One girl Laura started screaming, and never did stop, as she reached inside again and again, the monkeys' eyes blank or wild, some shaking uncontrollably and without pause, defecating and urinating in fear and pain and what might have been anger.
Christopher was smashing out the exterior windows, and one of the experimental monkeys, which had been scampering down the hallway between the legs of the raiders, jumped onto the window ledge and then dropped out of sight. Another one saw it go, and followed.
The noise was terrific the sirens, the screaming girls, the screaming animals, and the smashing of the cages, which sounded like an army of men beating on garbage cans with steel pipes. People continued to call for help: "Gimme a bat, we need a bat over here. Watch that monkey, he's a biter.. .."
Danny, the timekeeper, looked at his stopwatch and yelled, "Two minutes," and the fury continued: smash, smash, smash, scream, smash, scream...
And the sirens wailed like banshees.
Rachel, wild brown hair curling out from under her ski mask, got Christopher to break a door marked DR. LAWRENCE JAMES.
Inside, she found a secretary's desk near the door and an enclosed space at the back. She went straight to a double-wide four-drawer file cabinet. The cabinet was locked, but she pulled a short crowbar out of her belt, wedged it into the lip of the drawer, and then stood back while Christopher gave the bar a whack.
The door popped loose, revealing a line of hanging folders. She pulled three of them out, carried them to the desk, and shook them. An envelope containing a thumb drive popped out of each.
They'd been told by their insider that the thumb drives contained backup files and reports on the research being done at the facility. She went back for more folders, shaking out the thumb drives.
"Rachel!" A thin, awkward teen stepped in, banging his hip on the desk but holding fast to a maimed rat. His voice was cool, but the anger clawed through. "Look at this! Look what they're doing. They cut off her legs! How could they do that?"
The woman barely looked up. "Not how why?" she said, and dumped four more drives onto the desk. "Put that thing down and stick these drives in your pockets."
The boy tipped the rat gently onto one hand and started picking up drives with the other. "It's pointless they're gonna be encrypted."
She paused in her search. "You couldn't decrypt them?"
"The CIA couldn't decrypt them if the encryption is strong." He unconsciously scratched the rat between the ears and glanced around the room. "The thing is... you don't want to jump through your butt when you need the files, either. The decryption software is probably on one of these machines."
She looked around, waved at the enclosed space at the back of the office. "That's gotta be Janes's working space. See what you can do in two minutes."
"All right." The boy walked away with the rat and came back fifteen seconds later with a compact tower computer under his arm. "If it's on here, we got it."
He was still holding the rat in his other hand.
"You can't take the rat," Rachel said. "Ethan loves your key card, but he doesn't love any of us enough to change the rules. The rat's called evidence."
She went back to rifling the last drawer. They'd gotten twelve thumb drives in all. Down the hall, the timekeeper screamed, "Ninety seconds."
The boy turned away.
"Hey," she called before he plunged back into the pandemonium. "Take this with you. Hide it." She handed him the crowbar.
Whatever Rachel meant to him, Odin was sorry, but he was taking the rat.
In the weeks since she'd become his first-ever girlfriend, he'd helped her crash the systems in a couple of animal labs, but tonight was his first raid involving actual live animals. The suffering made him physically ill. The only reason he was still functioning was because he'd zeroed in on one living thing, one tortured rat, that he could save.
When he left the containment units, he was headed for the stairs and then back to the van, to hide the rat. He pushed through two doors, to the stairs. There, just before he was about to start down, he saw a flickering reddish light coming from beneath a door farther down the hall.
Curiosity got the best of him; he still had a minute. He walked down the hall and peered through the door's hand-sized window. He could see racks of laboratory glass and high-tech electronic equipment, but nothing else. He tried the doorknob, but the door was locked. He'd turned away, back toward the stairs, when he heard a strangled howl.
"What?" He said it aloud, to nobody.
He put the computer and rat on the floor, jammed the blade of the crowbar against the door's strike plate, and threw his weight against it. The door splintered, and after a couple of more hacks, he had it open and stepped into the room. The flickering red light was an alarm of some kind; not a problem, since a dozen other alarms were screaming through the building.
Off to his right, a whimper. He turned the corner.
"Ohmigod," Odin whispered. "Ohmigod."
A wolfish gray dog stared at him, its tail twitching with an almost wag. The dog had a wire-basket muzzle over its mouth and a medical patch over one eye. It was sitting on the floor outside a large steel-barred kennel, a restraining safety chain around its neck. The kennel door was wide open, as though the animal had somehow let itself out.
"Hey, boy... I think... Are you okay?" Odin spoke softly and reached out to the dog: Odin had some social problems, but animals trusted him on sight.
An IV drip connected to a bag overhead was spitting clear fluid onto the kennel floor; a shaved section on the dog's foreleg suggested where it had been attached. The animal definitely looked groggy, and Odin thought it might not be long out of surgery.
"You're not okay, are you?" he said, and the dog, in cocking a yellow eye at the window, answered him as clearly as if it had spoken.
"Don't worry, I'll get you out of here." But trouble was on the way.
Darrell McClane had been half asleep, slumped in his chair at the front desk, his feet up on the seat of another chair, when the sirens began to shriek.
Nearly falling between the two chairs, he looked up at the empty screens of his monitors, reached out, and began clicking through all the screens. He almost clicked past the action at the animal containment room, but caught a flash, and turned the camera, and saw a nightmare.
McClane had been hired to sit in his chair and not sleep too much. In a year on the job, the only intruder he'd dealt with was a brown bat. He'd chased it out of the building with a broom.
Still, security work was dangerous by definition, and Darrell McClane considered himself prepared. He got extra pay for being certified as "armed," and for the.45 he carried in a military-style midthigh holster. He'd never had the chance to shoot for real.
At the sight of the raiders, he scrolled through the contacts list on his cell phone until he got to the S's and the head security honcho he'd never personally met: Sync.
He called the number on the landline and heard two beeps just like the two beeps he'd heard during the company's simulated emergency drills. He blurted, "Eugene lab, Code White! We've got all kinds of people busting out the animals. I repeat, Code White!"
He hung up and dialed 911. An operator came on and asked, "Is this an emergency?"
"Yes!" he shouted. "I'm at the EDT Lab on Franklin and we've got people in the building smashing open the cages for the lab animals. They're wrecking the place. Lots of people, they've got weapons. I need backup right now."
"Could you give us your name?" The voice was calm, even remote.
Still shouting: "Darrell McClane, I'm the security guard. I need cops. I'm armed. I'm going in, but I need some cops."
"We have a car on the way."
"There are a lot of them, we need more than one car," he shouted. "I'm going in." He dropped the phone and pulled his pistol.
He was carrying his favorite piece, a Model 1911A1 Colt.45. He was so excited that he nearly forgot to jack a round into the chamber he did that only when he was out the door and halfway to the elevator.
McClane was overweight, an out-of-shape fifty-four, a resolute smoker and former drinker, but he'd studied all the Bruce Willis movies, some of which featured a cop who was also named McClane.
A movie star would have rushed the stairs, but under it all, the real McClane knew that if he rushed the stairs, he'd probably have a heart attack. So he stood at the elevator, and waited, and then, inside the car, waited some more, impatiently pushing the CLOSE DOOR button, until the elevator began slowly heading for the second floor.
At the top, when the doors opened, he did a quick peek and then slid down the hall to the first locked door. He unlocked it with his key card, and then went to the next door and unlocked it, back always to the wall, so that he was more or less walking sideways, the gun out front.
That all took time, and the longer it took, the more scared he got, until finally, with his heart pounding like a steam engine, his gun clenched in his right hand, he turned the last corner.
At the other end of the hall, he saw a tall man in a black mask and two others behind him, also masked, and the tall man saw him and shouted, "Security, security! Let's go!" and all three of them disappeared down the next hall, and he could hear more people screaming, "Security!"
McClane went after them, face red as a beet, and at the corner of the next hall, looked down and saw a half-dozen people crowding toward a stairwell door and more still coming out of the animal containment facility.
McClane screamed, "Halt!" and brought the gun up, jerked off a shot, which went through the ceiling fifteen feet in front of him.
The shot was like a thunderclap in the tile hallway, and McClane rocked back, astonished by what he'd done. He was disoriented, screamed, "Halt!" again, and fired another shot, which also went into the ceiling. At that moment, the leader stepped through an office door behind McClane, fifteen feet away, with the Taser.
McClane was already into his third shot and fired it, and saw a masked raider at the stairwell go down, and then his world blew up as the Taser element buried itself in his hip.
The sixteen-year-old nervous giggler, the honors student Aubrey Calder, took McClane's last shot. The bullet hit her in the back, blew through a shoulder blade, broke her collarbone on the way out, and then smashed through a window down the hall. She fell faceup, her eyes half closed, stunned. She was awake for ten seconds, then began to shake, her eyes rolling up, not understanding, feeling no pain or anything like regret, and then she passed out.
A boy her own age stood over her shouting, "Oh jeez, oh jeez! Aubrey!" and unconsciously smacking his head with his fists. The older raider, who'd fired the Taser into McClane's hip, hopped over the twitching body of the security guard, ran down the corridor, stooped over her.
"We've got to leave her," he said urgently to the boy. "We've got to leave! She's hurt bad, but she's not going to die if they get her to a hospital. Leaving her is the fastest way the cops will be here in two minutes."
He pushed the boy away from the downed girl, pushed him again, and again and then the boy pushed back and said, "Fuck you, I'm staying! I'm staying with her!"
He ripped off his jacket, ski mask, and T-shirt, then folded the T-shirt and packed it against the wound; the leader, the Taser shooter, looked back once as he fled toward the stairs and shouted, "Don't tell them who we are!"
The remaining raiders streamed out of the building. Sirens: they were close and coming fast, but they had known that would happen. They had time...
In the building's security lights, they could see monkeys scattered across the lawn, struggling to walk, to crawl, monkeys screaming at the darkness in pain and despair, metal wires glittering in their exposed brains. Two other monkeys stood silhouetted in the second-floor lab windows, apparently unwilling to jump.
The raiders threaded through the gate and disappeared down the alley.
By the time the cops got to the building, McClane had pushed himself into an upright seated position, leaning against a wall, his nerves still jangled by the high-voltage Taser pulse. Two deranged and bloodied monkeys were fighting a few feet away, paying no attention to him; the hall stank of fecal matter and urine and blood. A thousand white rats and mice scampered aimlessly down the tile hallway.
At the stairwell door, a half-naked boy seemed to be praying over the body of a fallen raider.
The cops came in with their pistols drawn, saw McClane, leveled their guns, and shouted, "Push the gun away."
"I'm security," McClane shouted back.
"Sir, push the gun away," a cop shouted again. "Push the gun away or we will shoot you."
McClane realized that the cops didn't like the idea of his having a gun, and he slid it down the hall toward them. One of the cops, his gun never wavering from a point on McClane's chest, eased down the hall, kicked the gun farther away. "You have any other weapons?"
"No. Listen, I'm the guy who called you." He pointed at the boy and unmoving body. "They were with them. They were wrecking the place "
"Sir, I want you to lie flat, put your hands behind you."
"But I'm security "
"Sir, I want you to lie flat...." One cop watched McClane while the other focused on the two figures on the floor down the hall.
When they had him cuffed, McClane strained his head around to look at them and said, "They pointed a gun at me. I had to shoot..."
Two more cops moved past him one crying out in fear when a rat ran up his pant leg until they got to the boy and the body. A bloody ski mask lay on the floor next to the fallen girl. The boy looked up, fear in his eyes, and said, "She's hurt bad. Please help me, that asshole shot her..."
The cops said, "Back away, lie flat, put your hands behind you now!"
He did, and one of the cops knelt by the fallen girl and said, "She's hurt; we gotta get her going, we need paramedics right now."
"On the way... ," the second cop said.
McClane called, "Is he dead?"
One of the cops had a daughter of his own, a girl who sometimes snuck a little dope and misbehaved. He stood up and snarled, "It's not a he, it's a she. And no, she's not dead yet. You shot a pretty little high school girl, you fuckin' moron."
By the time the cops got to Aubrey Calder, the leadership van was a mile away and moving out of the city.
"Nothing is worth that," said a girl in the back. "Aubrey was my friend."
"Nothing like that's ever happened before," said the leader. He was in the passenger seat upfront, stuffing a garbage bag with the gloves and masks they'd worn in the raid. From between his feet, he picked up a bottle of bleach and emptied it into the bag, closed the bag, and squeezed it until the contents were soaked; bleach destroys DNA. "Nothing even close to that. There was no reason for that rent-a-cop to go and shoot. We weren't threatening anybody."
The young woman with the wild brown hair, Rachel, was at the wheel and glanced back at her. "Ethan's right it wasn't our fault and it's awful. I'm sure she'll be okay." She held up a thumb drive. "When we find out what's on these, what was really going on in there, you'll see. This is the greatest thing we've ever done. Legendary."
The girl wasn't buying it. "She was studying for her SATs," she said bitterly, and she began crying, unable to control it. She choked out, "She was trying for Stanford, she was taking all the AP classes. Now what? She's going to prison if she lives?"
"Get a grip, would you?" the woman shot back. "We can't all go losing it."
Ethan glanced up from his work. "About that you're absolutely sure the new guy got out? 'Cause if he's still in there pocketing rats or whatever he was doing "
Rachel broke in, defensive. "I told you, he couldn't handle the scene and took off. He's in the other van. Might have one rat with him, but the thing was basically DOA."
"Just make sure he doesn't take his microchipped lab pet to a veterinarian. That's a one-way ticket to the state pen."
Rachel rolled her eyes and Ethan told her to pull over, next to the mouth of a storm sewer. He slid the panel door open, threw the garbage bag into the sewer, then looked back at her as he pulled the door shut. "We shouldn't have taken him. From now on, he only does the computer-nerd stuff. You've got to keep him under control."
"He's not all that easy to control," Rachel said. "He's a little nuts, remember?"
"Well, use your feminine wiles, for God's sake. You're good at that," Ethan said, sarcasm riding his voice.
Rachel bared her teeth at the implication. She and Ethan had once been together. "I got him," she said.
"Good," he said, "because we went through that gate like it wasn't there. That kid is a weapon. We've needed somebody like him for a long time. Now that we've got him "
"I got him," Rachel said.
Two miles away, Odin held the muzzled dog to his chest as the second van took a curve a little fast. He had the third-row seat all to himself, and the girl named Laura said, "We gotta figure out what to do. What if Aubrey's dead? We're gonna be in so much trouble."
"I gotta go home, this is my dad's van," the driver said, checking the rearview mirror for flashing lights. "What about you, Odin? Take you home?"
"Can't. Not with the dog," he said. "Besides, I don't really have a home. Drop me at the park, I'll hook up with Rachel later."
"I can't believe this," the driver said, and Laura started to sniffle.
Odin said, "This is what happens sometimes. We were never playing games here. These people are killers all you have to do is see the lab. But Aubrey: jeez, I hope she's all right. Jeez, I hope she's okay."
The wolfish gray dog with the single yellow eye took it all in, but the dog hadn't known Aubrey Calder.
All the dog felt was:
McClane, the security guard, was read his rights and taken in handcuffs to police headquarters, the cops talking about a possible charge of aggravated assault, or even murder, if the girl died. At the police station, he was uncuffed, said he didn't need a lawyer, and gave a straightforward statement, except for one small lie. He had, he said, fired his weapon deliberately into the ceiling, and the third shot had unintentionally gone straight down the hall as a result of his being shot with a Taser.
He knew that the tasing had come after the shot, but he'd picked up enough bad feelings from the cops that he thought it best to adjust the time line.
An attorney from the prosecutor's office sat in on the interview, and made the point with detectives that it would be difficult to make a case against McClane if he fired a gun in defense of the laboratory, which was precisely what he'd been hired to do. In fact, he had been certified by the city to do just that. They released him at six o'clock in the morning, but the police kept his gun.
Two days later, when detectives reviewed the security video of the raid, they saw clearly that McClane had shot Aubrey Calder before he was tased, but by then McClane was covered by an attorney and no longer talking.
On the morning of his release, confused, frightened, and depressed, McClane went back to the laboratory. The lawn and streets around the lab were crowded with dozens of people who looked like crazed golfers, running stooped across the grass and blacktop, trying to catch ricocheting golf balls the thousands of white mice that had been shoveled out the windows.
Inside, the entire staff was also attempting to corral loose mice and rats.
McClane was spotted by Mary Trane, the personnel director. She did a double take, then said, "Thank God. Sync has been asking for you."
"I was with the police," McClane mumbled. He'd always found Trane intimidating.
"Yes, yes, we know," she said. "Come this way."
"I didn't... I didn't mean to shoot that girl, it was an accident.... Ah, God..." McClane began to snuffle. Trane looked away.
Trane rattled down a first-floor hallway in four-inch heels McClane had never seen her without them not flinching when a couple of tiny black-eyed white mice dashed past her.
"This man is from San Francisco, company headquarters," she said, over her shoulder. "He flew here on the company jet. He's the one you called."
"It's not 'Mr. Sync,' it's Stephen N. Creighton," she said, still half turned as she walked. "His initials are SNC and everybody calls him Sync. That's what you should call him. Sync."
"Sync," McClane repeated after her.
"One more thing, Mr. McClane," she said. She stopped to peer at him. "Do not lie to Sync. Tell him the absolute truth, whatever that is."
"I will," McClane said.
She led him down to the conference room, where a tall, silver- haired man in army-style steel-rimmed glasses and a pin-striped suit was talking to the lab director and his assistant. She stepped inside and said, "Darrell McClane, the security guard."
Sync nodded and said to the other two men, "Give me a moment alone with Mr. McClane. I'll find you up in your offices."
They left, with Trane pulling the door shut behind her.
Sync was at least six foot six, McClane thought, and looked to be in extraordinarily good shape, like a pro basketball player. He had sharp cheekbones, a squared-off chin, and the hair at the sides of his head was neatly buzzed. He had a scar on his right temple, a patch about the diameter of a quarter, that might have come from a burn. He pulled up a chair and pointed at another for McClane.
"Bad business," he said as McClane sat. "Now: I want you to tell me everything that happened, from the moment the alarms went off until you walked through the door one minute ago."
McClane told him, in detail. The recital took five minutes and then Sync cross-examined him for another five.
When they were done, Sync said, "We know this has been a shock. We want you to take a week off but don't go anywhere. We will provide an attorney, a very good one, to handle any legal issues you may encounter, at no cost to yourself. We don't anticipate any criminal action against you, but you may be sued by this girl you shot. If you're sued, we will defend you. If you are penalized in any way, which we doubt, we will pay the penalty. In the meantime, we will increase your salary by two hundred dollars a week, ten thousand dollars a year. This disaster is not of your making. You did exactly as we expected you to do and we are pleased with your performance. So go home, and be available for that attorney."
"I really appreciate it," McClane said. Relief flooded through him: Sync was a guy who had your back. He tried to tell the story again, of how the girl had gotten shot, but Sync, showing a flash of impatience, waved him off. "Darrell, go home. Can you drive? Good. Try to get some sleep."
A man knocked at the door and stepped inside. McClane had never seen him before, but he had an air of cool efficiency. He was younger than Sync, but wore the same kind of expensive conservative suit and had the same close-cropped hair. Like Sync, he had ice-blue eyes.
Sync nodded and said, "Thorne."
Thorne was carrying a box. "I went down to one of the dorms and found some students and got them to wake up their friends. Five dollars for every mouse or rat Janes counted, we got all the monkeys back. We've got sixty people out there now and they're all calling their friends. We'll have five hundred people here in an hour. I'm sending Lictor out there with the cash to pay them off."
He pulled the top off the box, and McClane saw that it was filled with cash. "I got fifty thousand. That should be enough."
Sync nodded. "Good. I've got Pascal and Coombs coming in to handle the PR. They should be at the airport in an hour. Get somebody to meet them." Then he turned to McClane and said, "Darrell, good work. Stay close to your house." McClane, dismissed, went out the door.
When the door closed behind him, Sync turned back to Thorne and said, "If that idiot hadn't shot the girl, this would be a hell of a lot easier to manage. We need to get that blond woman up from United Parkinson's. The good-looking one with the cleavage, the one who cries on cue. They love her on cable news. We need to get her on the air everywhere, about what a tragedy this is, the setback to research. Maybe sweeten the pot for her. Her husband runs a management consulting company. Maybe you could talk to him about a consult."
"We need to talk to those kids," Thorne said.
"Yeah, we do. But they're juveniles, and their folks have more money than Jesus Christ and all the apostles. They're all lawyered up."
"Will McClane be a risk?" Thorne asked.
"No. I don't see it," Sync said. "He knows almost nothing one of the least curious people I've ever met. We'll cover him with an attorney, weld his mouth shut with a raise, maybe have Trane talk to him about his pension rights and what a shame it would be to lose them at his age."
The other man nodded. "If he does become a problem, I can handle it."
"I don't think that'll be necessary," Sync said. "We do need to get copies of the security videos. Harmon and I have taken a look at them, but we need more analysis. The police know about them, but Olafson told them they're all digital and he didn't know exactly how to download them. He told them we'd get the camera company in here tomorrow to retrieve them."
"Yes," Sync said. "Now: we need to know exactly who these crazies are we probably have their names and faces in the database, so we need to match them up. We need that dog. We really need the dog."
"We're checking with Eugene animal control, in case he's loose and someone's picked him up."
"Tell your rat catchers: a thousand bucks for the dog," said Sync. "Get that money out to Lictor and send Harmon in."
Thorne nodded and left. A moment later, a man closer to Sync's age, casually dressed in jeans, a chambray shirt, and cowboy boots, stepped through the door. He said, "Boss?"
Harmon wore dark aviators, which he didn't remove.
"We've got a problem with Janes," Sync said. "The damn fool kept copies of the research files on thumb drives, and kept the thumb drives in a regular file cabinet from Staples."
"It was locked, but it probably didn't take ten seconds to jimmy. Those drives should have been in a thousand-pound safe bolted to the floor. I need you to go up there and scare the shit out of him. Do that nervous-crazy thing you do. Shout. I need a complete reconstruction of what went out of here, and I need it fast."
"The files were encrypted, though?"
"Yeah." Sync rubbed his hands over his face, as if trying to wake himself from a bad dream. "He was using those DARPA drives. Automatic military-grade encryption. Every thumb drive has a separate password, a long password, and if he'd used a password generator, they'd probably be unbreakable. But he didn't. Janes made up the passwords as he went along. Ex-wives, girlfriends, kids, cats... Jesus. So they're crackable. The encryption was separate, but the encryption software was on Janes's office computer, and they took that too. If they've got the computer mojo and crack those passwords, they'll get everything."
"If they're long, how did Janes remember them? Did he write them down somewhere?"
"He says he has a password safe on his phone, and a backup on a home computer. They won't get those. If they try to crack the passwords, they'll have to do it the hard way."
Harmon nodded. "At the least, that'll give us some time."
"Yes. Now: hostile assessment," Sync said. "Let's hear it." "These kids were pretty good," Harmon said. Not a compliment, but a professional judgment. "Gloves, masks, so no fingerprints, no faces. Had precise intel, which means they've got at least one inside source. Cracked the back gate's electronic lock, don't know how they did it. Came with the perfect equipment, they were on the clock right from the start. We found a baseball bat that somebody dropped, had a hole drilled in the handle with a leather loop tied through it so they could carry it under a jacket. They've done it before."
"We're doing a relational search on Calder and the other kid to see who they connect with. That might get us somewhere."
"We need it fast, Harmon. Find them."
Harmon stretched his arms over his head, cracked his knuckles, and said, "Man, I like this shit."
"Like it on your own time." Sync picked up a printout, a list of names of people who worked in the lab. One of them was a traitor. He crumpled the paper in one large fist and snarled at Harmon, "I want these people. I'm going to step on them like a bunch of cockroaches."
When Harmon was gone, Sync stepped over to the windows, which were covered with an electric blind. He pushed the up button, waited as the blind rolled up, and looked outside. There were people everywhere, including a kid who was carrying a see-through plastic tub, dozens of mice scrabbling unsuccessfully to get up the sides. The kid was getting rich this morning student rich, anyway, Sync thought.
A lot to do this day, and he needed a little silence to think about it.
The Eugene lab was critical to the interface research. They had other labs, in other countries, where they could do the kind of research that would put them in jail in the United States. But those countries didn't have the necessary intellectual or technical resources. They needed Eugene and the other secret facilities in America, but if the public learned about what they were doing there...
Sync and his security personnel could deal with the inevitable minor leaks. A quiet conversation with key people in the government, or the military, or the intelligence agencies, could handle the small stuff. The biggest threat to the program, to the company, and to the people running it, himself included, was the American public. If the public knew what was going on, if the wrong video should go viral...
The missing thumb drives, should somebody decrypt them, had enough distasteful video material to start just that kind of fire.
He became aware of the pain in his hands and looked down at his balled fists. He'd squeezed so hard that the bones stood out in pale white relief.
He relaxed them, opened them, felt the blood flow back. So much to do, and too big a prize to let slip.
Fools. If they only knew...
24 February 2019
The Prey series, the Virgil Flowers series, the Kidd series, The Singular Menace, The Night Crew, Dead Watch, The Eye and the Heart: The Watercolors of John Stuart Ingle, and Plastic Surgery: The Kindest Cut are copyrighted by John Sandford. All excerpts are used with permission.
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