Never Look Back

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Chapter 61

Halfway to the hotel lobby, I remembered that modems were bi-directional. They sent and received data. The CRC program was designed to scramble tracing attempts by injecting parity errors that put the other party’s modem into a feedback loop. It failed to do so because someone at Hidden Oak’s had introduced a mathematical cure. Surveillance warrants gave police access to phone companies, rendering the necessity of having to be onsite archaic. Police had not traced the line. Only an experienced hacker who had used a similar program previously could have identified it and introduced a mathematical cure that quickly. A very bright hacker to whom I announced the presence of the optical drive. He would assume it was on company property. It would be no great effort for him to ping data lines and measure the reply time of the return ping. When a ping hit the device on the other end, it returned to the point of origin. Reply time was converted into distance. Software programs that performed that function were commonplace. I had to double-time it to Hidden Oaks before the hacker found the drive in the administration building.

What would someone want with an architectural company’s backup drive?

Strapped above the electrical room’s T-bar ceiling, it would not be found without a ladder. Since the blue CAT 6 data line connected to the drive originated in the ATCO trailer, a person had to first identify the blue wire where it entered the administration building, and then follow it to the device. When I had run the data line into the building, I had grouped it with other lines from the other two company buildings rather than drill a fresh hole in the exterior wall. No point in creating extra work and making unnecessary holes I would later have to seal. There were perhaps seven blue data lines that entered the common junction box. Maybe as many as eight. I was not certain. It had been over one year since I had opened that particular box. Call it seven blue cables to be safe.

One in seven odds the first time for the searcher to pick the correct blue cable. And then he had to follow it to the drive. One in six odds of choosing correctly on his second attempt, so on and so forth. One in seven was slightly over fourteen percent, but first, he had to walk from the ATCO trailer to the administration building and locate the junction box. Not a great hardship for a thinking person. It would be in the ceiling near the wall closest to the ATCO trailer. The shortest route was the preferred route for most installers. I had followed that principle during installation.

Using those facts, I estimated how long it would take him to find the junction box and to lift ceiling tiles to follow the data line encased in electrical magnetic tubing to the drive. Thirty minutes was my best guess if he chose the correct blue cable from the get-go. If his first choice failed, his odds of success on the second attempt rose to one in six chances, which equalled about seventeen percent. But there was now an additional factor for me to consider. He did not have to walk from the ATCO trailer or locate the junction box. All told, now it might take him ten minutes of searching instead of thirty minutes. One-third of the time required for searching, more if he was slow. I doubted that he brought a ladder, which meant they would have to drag a desk or chair around to stand on top of to lift ceiling tiles. The hacker came out ahead in one sense, but in another, he still faced horrible odds of picking the winning blue cable.

Fifteen percent success for him to pick the correct blue cable on attempt number one. Best case scenario for him. Worst case for me. Eighty-five percent probability that he would choose wrong. Fantastic odds any day of the week. I liked my chances that he would still be looking for the optical drive forty minutes from now. Given the distance I had to travel and my estimated time by train or taxi, I doubted that I could cross the city in less than thirty minutes. Travelling by subway would be the quickest mode to cross the city by far. They had strict schedules and did not include drivers who logged trip destination. Another strong incentive.

I exited the subway station nearest Hidden Oaks praying the drive’s location remained a secret. Thirty-seven minutes had elapsed. I broke into a trot using pockets of darkness to stay hidden from view as I scanned the street looking for undercover police cars. Most of the houses lining the street were dark. They all had driveways, so the number of cars parked on the street was minimal. The subdivision ceased. I passed through the field that separated commercial zoning from residential. The field let me approach from the east, from the opposite direction from which I had fled this morning. The area seemed deserted. True darkness was falling.

Hidden Oak’s chain-link gate remained closed.

Neither the compound nor the parking lot revealed anything noteworthy. Still, I waited a few minutes without moving a muscle. No cars were parked outside the fence. None were visible inside the fence. As far as I could tell, the cops had not set up surveillance. Was I too late? I ran crouched low to the ground until I knelt by the gate. The heavy-duty padlock was gone. No way would Peter have left the gate unsecured. I took the time to scan the area again. Lit by the nearest light standard, I sighted the crime scene tape X-ing off the ATCO trailer door. One half of it was broken. Someone had entered the trailer and not re-taped the doorway. They had begun their search inside the trailer, which would have led him to the administration building. So far, so good. My theoretical game plan seemed accurate to this point.

The parking lot was empty. My motorcycle had probably been impounded. When I cracked the gate, galvanized hinges creaked loud enough to wake the dead. I half-ran, half-crawled to the corner of the administration building some two-hundred feet distant. One minute passed, then two and still no one ventured forth from any building to investigate the noise. Above me, a flashlight, with its white beam shielded yellow, moved across the administration building’s curtained window.

One in seven odds equalled an eighty-five percent risk of failure. Thirty minutes of searching. Eighty-three percent failure on the second try. Add ten minutes of searching to equal forty. Eighty percent failure rate third attempt, now one in five, added another ten, now fifty minutes total time required. Forty-six minutes had now lapsed.

I’m here, and so are you.

You lose, asshole.

Pay the line.

Low groans, followed by a grunt, sounded from around the corner. I edged myself to the side of the building and peeked around the corner. An outdoor wall pack dressed the building in a yellow halo. Caught in the light, a taillight reflected red. The taillight belonged to an undercover police car. Sitting on the ground beside the open passenger door, a plainclothes cop stretched his arm across his body upwards into the car. Pale ruby foam frothed out of the round hole in his chest. Blood bubbles formed and popped. He coughed weakly. His hand dropped to the ground between splayed legs too weak to lift him into the vehicle. A chin covered in stubble slumped toward his chest. What were the odds of me stumbling across a cop suffering a gunshot wound? My instincts urged me to run and to run far and fast before I was labelled a cop killer.

Instead, I scuttled forward until I viewed his chest wound close up and personal. Flecks of dark red blood coated his lips and chin, staining his shirt. Each laboured breath came in a rattling, gurgling gasp. Night air sucked through the hole in his chest, rendered each of his breaths weaker than the previous. He acknowledged my presence with apprehension, powerless to do more than raise a shaky, blood-smeared hand. It dropped back to his side.

“I’m not here to hurt you.”

When he realized that I was not part of the crew who had shot him, he struggled to say, “Call…Alert…Radio.”

After his attempt to speak his mouth cat-fished opened and closed, gulping shallow breaths that were insufficient to sustain his life indefinitely. His lips had turned blue; his hands felt cold to the touch. His cuticles showed a blue tint. Diagnosis, lungs were failing to oxygenate his blood. Prognosis, dead within the hour if I refused to administer first aid. Administering first aid prolonged his life by hours, longer, perhaps.

What were the odds that his partner would lay that an ex-con would deny their colleague first aid? Ten to one. Fifteen?

Easy money for me.

“Quiet,” I whispered while opening shirt buttons. “Hold still.”

The hole was a little right of dead centre, inches below his collarbone. Shot at a tight angle, the slug must have deflected off his sternum. No ruptured arteries or he would have bled out by now, I reasoned. Instead, pink flecks emerged from the hole with each exhalation. By the looks of the bloody handprints smeared on the asphalt beside him and his blood-muddy clothes, he had squirmed around for a bit, for at least forty-six minutes, I said to myself, the time it required for me to arrive. Dark blood mingled with bright pink blood. Lung-shot, I diagnosed with more certainty. In his pocket was one of those fat-barrelled pens with a soft rubber grip. I removed the guts from the pen, snapped off the narrow tip so the aperture was wider, put it back together, and clamped my hand over his mouth.

“This will smart, but it will help you to breathe. Exhale and hold it out. Ready?”

He managed an exhausted nod, too hurt, too sore and too weak to resist. Whether he comprehended my intent, I will never be certain. But when I inserted the fat rubber grip into the small bloody hole, I became the sole person in his pain-ridden universe. His eyes bulged wide. His teeth clenched with grating sounds. Legs went rigid and then kicked. Air surged through his nose, partially inflating his lungs. When he had control over his pain, when I felt sure he would not cry out, I took my hand from his mouth.

“Listen up, you’ve been lung-shot. When you have trouble taking a deep breath, and your chest feels full and tight, unscrew the top of the pen to release pressure. Replace the top immediately. Got it?”

“Call officer down,” he gasped, able to breathe easier, but still too weak to stand. Colour slowly returned to his cuticles and his lips were now less blue. “Call in shots fired. Tell them to send a bus for me and my partner,” he managed to say before slumping into semi-unconsciousness.

Rapid but strong when I felt his pulse. His eyes opened for a moment and then closed again. Quietly and quickly as was possible, I opened the backdoor and dragged him inside. Once or twice he attempted to assist me before unconsciousness again claimed him. I propped him up in a sitting position against the door on the backseat floor making sure his hands weren’t pinned between his body and car seat. Best I could offer at the moment. Soft splatter noise, like dripping water, drew my attention. It did not take long to discover his partner sprawled over the steering wheel, arms hanging down at his sides. Most of his forehead was missing. Blood intermixed with grey brain matter dripped on the floormat. Blood and other fluids stained the back of his collar.

I neither lifted a hand toward the radio nor felt guilty for prioritizing Odera’s well-being. Cops chose to put their lives at risk. Part of the job description. Odera had not asked to be kidnapped. My obligation was toward Odera, and since police viewed me as an ex-convict only worthy of distrust, they were searching for her in all the wrong places and for all the wrong reasons. Finding her had fallen to me. No one inside the building would answer questions if sirens sounded.

Regret free, I moved to the front door and listened. All was quiet. I eased the door open and slipped inside. Staying up on the balls of my feet, I crossed the foyer. The sound of footsteps scuffing the carpet sent me ducking for cover beside a filing cabinet. From the opposite end of the building, hushed voices raised in what sounded like a heated debate drowned out the footfalls I had noted earlier. At least three people shared the building with me. I lamented not taking the officer’s weapon, of letting eagerness and concern for the wounded cop rush me into the building.

Darkness eclipsed my huddled form as a man passed by my position. He was an immense hulk of a brute garbed head to toe in black. This guy nearly ducked his head to pass beneath the doorway. He must have tipped two-hundred and sixty pounds of solid muscle. The way he moved, as though he was the king of the jungle, told me what I needed to know. The laced-up black boots with a decent tractor tread said the rest. He swaggered like ex-military. No doubt about it. I’d seen thousands of guys just like him. Once upon a time, I had been a guy just like him. Training endowed a person with physical confidence that was easily recognizable.

Held as lightly as a Toys R’ Us plastic gun, he cradled a Mac Eleven machine pistol pointed comfortably and naturally toward the floor in ham-sized hands. Safe position. Ready for engagement. The trigger guard seemed a little small to fit his sausage fingers. Given the restricted barrel length, Mac Elevens were useless from more than twenty or thirty feet where accuracy was required, but in close quarters, they had devastating power, which was probably why he wasn’t concerned about trigger finger comfort. Point and squeeze. No careful aiming required. The weapon was equipped with a flash- and sound suppressor, which further reduced its ability to be accurate. Mac Elevens were crowd favourites with terrorists and drug lords. Readily available in the Middle East and of course, the United States. Mac Elevens could churn out thirty rounds in about four seconds. Given the size and probable strength of this man, I was betting that he could discharge half of the thirty-cartridge clip and not suffer problematic muzzle deflection. His shots would not kick high.

The man paused at the side of each window to minimize his silhouette and peered out before moving on to the next window. Despite his apparent caution when he performed a perimeter check out the window, he was sloppy. He should have locked the front door. He should have made certain of the cop’s death rather than leaving him alive and maybe capable of radioing for help. Either him, or his commanding officer, or whoever issued orders, should have placed a second man to watch the front gate and another sentry outside the administration door. Each sentry should have been instructed to remain in sight and stay in regular contact with the other.

Amateur mistakes.

The odds of my success rose higher. No danger of discovery so long as big man kept moving away from me, but I was a corpse on his return. The room I occupied lacked another hiding alcove. The front door I had entered was too far away to reach unseen. The handguns on the wounded cop and his deceased partner were denied to me. I would die if I stayed put and did nothing. Act or perish. The choice was simple.

Big man was going down.

Easy odds to calculate.

When the linebacker-sized beefcake entered the reception office of the adjoining room, I crept over to the common wall shared by both rooms. The hallway ran the length of the building, ending at the electrical room door behind which the voices originated. If the owners of the other voices exited the electrical room, I would be in plain view, but I had little choice. I focussed on the big man carrying the Mac Eleven and willed the others to stay put.

Fifty-fifty odds at best, I figured.

Footsteps stopped, and then grew louder. Pressing my back against the wall, I waited. When the man came parallel to my position, as he entered the doorway beside me, I shaped my hand into a blade and lashed out at his Adam’s apple. Hyoid cartilage crumpled like tinfoil. He doubled over, grasping his damaged larynx with one hand, his ability to breathe impaired, but not halted, saved by his thick neck muscles. That strike should have felled him and fractured the hyoid bone, the thyroid cartilage and crushed his esophagus, denying him air. The heel of my right foot slammed into the outside of his knee. The trick was to kick through the joint to achieve maximum damage. And that’s what I did.

His knee cranked inward, arrested from further damaging movement when it came to rest against the inside of his left leg. Tendons and ligaments stretched but did not snap and break. Not all of them. I felt the bone crunch with some little satisfaction. His kneecap now faced the inside of his left leg, but he was lucky. The proximity of one leg to the other and the fact that I was denied a better angle saved him from using a cane for the rest of his life.

Rather than go down, he stood bent over as though he searched for a dropped coin, all his considerable weight transferred to his good knee. I took his head into my hands and rugby-kicked his face. Lips split, pulverized against his front teeth that were knocked down his throat. He dropped lower until he knelt on his good knee with his hands split wide apart on the floor.

Showing unbelievable tenacity, the big man tried to shake the cobwebs clear.

As he wobbled side to side in an effort to rise, one beefy hand pushing against his good knee to achieve enough leverage to lunge upward, I punched his head an inch behind the ear and a little low. I aimed for the mastoid, the knockout button. Generally, a sure thing. Tough as nails, he fell to the ground, sandbagged, moaning, but not unconscious.

Muffled spits of a silenced pistol, which sounded loud and noisy in a closed space, accompanied by a series of bright flashes, illuminated the shooter. The shooter stood in the electrical room’s doorway, sixty feet away gripping the handgun cowboy style, one-handed and waist-high. Another individual stood behind the shooter. No weapon in sight. Splinters flew from the wall beside my moving head, arcing right to left. If the shooter had taken the time to shorten the distance between us while big man and I had tussled, I might be dead. But he hadn’t. Instead, he tried to empty the clip all at once. Rapidly pulling the trigger of a handgun from sixty feet away in near darkness, and with the added weight of a silencer that pulled the front sight off-target, seldom produced desired results.

His inexperience and poor training saved my life.

Tiny bits of plaster showered me as I dove out of the room, robbed of the opportunity to untangle the Mac Eleven. While airborne, I pulled my body into a tuck and somersaulted when I hit the floor. Like an off-balance pinball, I rose to my feet, careened into a desk and then bounced my shoulder off the door jam on the way out of the building.

Free of the restricted space, I dashed toward the undercover car. Two steps from the vehicle, I hurtled onto the hood and slid across to the far side. The building’s front door banged open. Lead pinged and tinged as it ripped into the car. Two car windows burst into glass popcorn. Bent low, I scrambled around to the driver’s door, yanked it open, tugged the dead cop’s Glock in the 40 calibre from the holster and racked the slide. Without looking I pointed the barrel in the direction of the door and squeezed off two rounds.

Someone poked a black silenced muzzle out the door in response. A long barrage of automatic, muffled lead whined into the car door, stabbing through it, tunnelling into the pavement beside me. The individual behind the shooter must have taken the MAC Eleven from big man. Light shining through the bullet holes in the driver-side door decided my next choice. Keeping the car’s engine block between the shooter and me, I reached across the seat and fumbled for the radio, throwing my free arm protectively over my head as another lead torrent stormed into the hood and windshield.

Who were these guys?

I expected to find a hacker, not the Hole-in-the-Wall gang. When my hand closed around the metal seams of the radio microphone, I poked the Glock through broken glass, sighted the door and squeezed the trigger twice more to keep the shooters inside the building for a few seconds longer.

“Officers down!” I said into the microphone. “One critical with GSW to the chest. Multiple shots fired; 642 Old Wood Road, Hidden Oaks Design. Send two busses.”

After I had repeated my distress call, police dispatch notified me that help was on the way. I threw the microphone onto the seat and flicked on every switch within reach. A siren shrieked beneath the engine hood. Blue, red and white lights flashed. I dipped into the dead cop’s gun belt for his spare clip. Above the sound of the siren, I heard shouting. Bobbing my head up and back, I was able to verify the position of the shooters on either side of the doorway. Pointing the Glock at the area directly beside the jamb, hoping the loads had sufficient grains to penetrate the wall, but knowing cop munitions were purposely light to prevent exactly that occurrence, I placed several chest height rounds beside each door jam. Someone inside shouted at his buddy to crouch down. Thanks for the intel, I thought to myself. I put two more rounds two feet lower on each side. As the percussion of sound faded from my last trigger pull, I was rewarded with a cry of pain. Not waiting to learn if I had hit a mortal blow, I ran for it.

Few people willingly charged toward weapons fire. Soldiers, mostly. We were trained when to take our shot and how to take it. Such training was not given to civilian hackers and their sketchy backup. Those who fought for money often hesitated. Dead men do not collect paychecks. I figured that I had a three-second head start before my adversaries poked their heads up. Probably many times that long if I added time for the big man to be helped out of the building unless he had regained his feet, which I did not rule out.

Three seconds would easily carry me fifteen yards.

Hitting a person on the dead run at fifteen yards with a MAC Eleven was just about an impossible task to accomplish, especially when a flash suppressor and baffler added pounds of extra weight the shooter had to compensate for; especially when I was running laterally on a diagonally line from left to right. Not easy at all. Combined with the stubby little two-inch barrel and the physics that pulled the muzzle upwards on a full auto setting just about guaranteed that I would make a clean get-away.

The handgun I had borrowed clicked empty.

My legs pumped out long strides.

“Never mind him,” shouted a loud voice twenty yards behind me growing more distant with each stride. “Help Dan to the car.”

Without looking over my shoulder, I crashed through the galvanized gates, legs churning for more speed, arms pistoning hard. It was not long before I entered a residential street. Porch lights on both sides of the street were snapping on, house occupants had been woken by weapons fire. I found the Glock’s clip release, flung the empty clip to the ground and rammed the last one home. After the slide snapped forward, I heard the grateful snick of a cartridge entering the firing chamber. Rather than use the sidewalk, I ran down the road’s centerline. It would force the shooters to lean out of their vehicle to draw a bead. The throaty sound of an accelerating engine warned of danger. Glaring high beams washed over me and lighted the road ahead. Bullets perforated the asphalt, a chorus line that kicked up tar and sharp stone shards.

Loud, fully automatic gun reports boomed. Someone with a few brains had removed the baffler and flash suppressant and was squeezing the trigger in short bursts to control barrel deflection, but he was still too far away.

Its rat-a-tat-tat forced me to make a hasty decision based on a simple fact. It was easier to hit a target running directly away from you than one running from left to right and the car was quickly closing the distance between us.

I stopped dead in my tracks and spun one-hundred and eighty degrees. Glaring high beams blinded me. I held the Glock in both hands, combat style. Elbows slightly bent. Shoulders loose and ready to absorb recoil. The car engine roared louder and high beams grew brighter as the shooter walked his automatic fire closer and closer. Two seconds longer and that barrage would zipper into me. Point-blank, I emptied the clip into the windshield, concentrating on squeezing the trigger steady and regular, aiming between the speeding headlights. After each discharge, I let the front sight come back down before squeezing the trigger again. I focussed on the driver’s side, squeezing three trigger pulls per second.

Steady and easy. Squeeze. Squeeze. Squeeze.

After my second trigger pull, the driver jerked the steering wheel right, out of the line of fire, weaving the vehicle to my left. I adjusted my aim and fired another set of three. The gun clicked empty.

The car was right on top of me. No time to move.

I bunched my legs, planning to execute a desperate leap over the bumper.

Before I could move, the car fishtailed wildly, missing me by inches. The driver over-steered in the opposite direction before regaining control. It drifted around the next corner in a cloud of greasy smoke and screaming rubber.

Back on the run, I dumped the empty gun in a red mailbox. My fingerprints were all over it. If the cops practised deductive reasoning, they should deduce that I had unknowingly walked into a mess not of my making. For selfish reasons I hoped that lung-shot cop lived, at least until he had picked my face out of photo lineup. None of my reasons for existing outside societal boundaries had changed. Odera was still out there somewhere and the police held me accountable. Maybe more so if some hard-ass cop ignored the breadcrumbs that I had left behind and accused me of instigating that gun battle.

A city transit bus slowed up ahead. Several people waited in the bus shelter. Four sets of surprised eyes witnessed me dispose of the gun. Turning as one, tennis match heads that had watched the car whip around the corner swung back to watch me run past them. A silly euphoric grin returned their gaze. I let them have a long look at my face. It was good to be alive. I headed for the safety of the subway before vengeful blue locusts infested Hidden Oaks. On the dark side, after they lifted my fingerprints from the gun, from the car radio and the injured cop and the bus stop witnesses had picked my face out of a police photo line-up, my disguise would be toast. I might even wear the jacket for the dead cop. And, I had failed to retrieve the backup drive or to identify the aggressors. More mistakes. I was making too many. I had to smarten up. Percentages would only carry me so far before I rolled craps and had to pay the line with either Odera’s life, or my own.

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