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EIGHTEEN

June 13th

Saturday the thirteenth. No symbolism there, fortunately, John thought. He still hadn’t called back his mom. Now, dark tarp draped over him, video camera in hand, camouflaged jacket covering his torso, body lying prone on a mat, feet dangling just inches above a brook, leaves scratching his neck, and mosquitoes buzzing in his ears, he wondered what the hell he was doing out here. The factory was a collection of cinderblock walls and obscured doorways.

Every once in a while, a forklift would dozer its way out of one building just to disappear into another. The whole structure was shaped like a letter F attached to an upside-down letter L. Decked around it were sodium lamps. He used the light from them to check his wristwatch. One a.m. This was crazy. He pressed a button on the camera for the tenth time to verify the battery was still strong. Yesiree.

There was a rumbling to the right. A car pulled into the parking lot, its headlights illuminating the buildings and coming around before shining directly on John and winking out.

His earpiece crackled. “Still alive?” Cory asked.

“Roger,” John answered. He snapped a digital picture of the man getting out of the car. The camera had an amazing low light capability. The only limitation of it was that it was passive. Had to be. Video cameras, like the ones on the roof, could easily be configured to see near infrared light and thus an illuminator.

Amid the sounds of crickets, he waited. All of a sudden, a big white truck drove in from the road on the right, angling down from the elevated street. A gate was opened, seemingly by remote control, and the truck pulled in. A short distance behind it was another truck. John switched on the video camera. He tilted the camera as the trucks pulled deeper into the parking lot and then backed up, one after the other, into the leftmost set of loading docks.

“The trucks are on my side. Looks like I win.”

He let the camera run. It could tape for an hour. He wished they weren’t so far away so he could hear.

“We should’ve brought a long distance mic.”

“I know, I was just thinking that,” Cory said.

“Next time.”

There was a loud, metallic clatter, telling John they were opening the backs of the trucks and the doors of the loading dock. He didn’t hear any voices, but he did hear the beeping of a reversing forklift. There was more metallic clattering. This went on for many minutes. He checked the camera. Memory at thirty minutes. Not good. He let Cory know.

“Acknowledged.”

Ten minutes passed. He started to go over contingencies if memory ran out. Why hadn’t they given him a spare card? It was so obvious. He’d carry three next time. He smiled. Next time. So it had begun.

Somebody walked from behind the trucks and climbed inside one. It started with a rumble. Seven minutes later, the other truck started. John watched as a driver got out of one to talk to someone. John zoomed in on the unknown person. The telephoto lens was amazing and he was able to get a shot of his face. He smiled.

“Pal, you are fucked,” he whispered. They spoke for a minute and then the driver got back into the truck and pulled away from the loading dock, turning towards John.

“They’re coming your way.” The truck stopped. The other one came up behind it. Then the first truck’s engine changed tone and it drove on. Mere seconds before the tape ran out, the trucks passed out of view. “I’ve lost visual contact.”

Leaning over Katie in the passenger seat of the Peugeot, Josh eyed the truck as it came rumbling by. Beneath him, Katie was recording. The truck drove right by, not even bothering to stop at a stop sign.

“Oh, you bastard,” Josh muttered. The truck rounded a corner and he started the car. The second truck went the same way as the first one. Time to follow. He pulled out of the parking space and slowly eased the car around the turn, giving the trucks a chance to put some distance between them. Following them through the rundown district, he kept a line of sight. There weren’t a lot of cars so he pulled into a parking spot at one point and turned off one of his headlights, only to immediately pull back out into the street and trail the trucks for a ways before pulling into another parking spot long enough to switch the light back on.

He sped up as the trucks maneuvered onto the highway. Now they needed to stay close. The luxury car growled and gave him the power he wanted. Josh took care to keep back about a hundred meters in the hind truck’s wake. The trucks meanwhile drove soberly and slowly, signaling before they changed lanes and took an exit onto an east-west expressway.

Gear slung over his back, John stooped under the roof of a high volume plastic pipe and came out the other end, eyeing a building nearby. He took a deep breath and ran across a small flat area, coming to rest at the side of the brick building. He looked around him quickly, his senses alert. His thoroughly dark adapted eyes probed the darkness between the buildings on the opposite side of the street. Then he moved. Quickly, quietly, enjoying the liberty of having a small, light frame. He jogged to the last building and peered past the edge. No police cars.

He looked again and jogged across the main street, turning ninety degrees nonchalantly and walking to the Baja. Seeing him approach, Cory unlocked the doors with an electronic ka-chunk. John pulled open the door to the backseat and tossed his gear inside. André had already returned from his perch by the train tracks and was in the front passenger seat. John climbed in. He checked his watch. Seven minutes had elapsed since he’d lost visual contact. He’d have to work on that.

Forty minutes went by. Josh reached down and picked up one of the Grundig walkie-talkies. “Specter One to Specter Two, coming up on exit thirteen. Handoff in estimated three minutes, acknowledge, over.” Pause.

“Copy, standing by at exit fourteen.”

“Trucks read Deutsch Mechatronix, acknowledge.”

“Deutsch Mechatronix, understood.” He cocked an eyebrow. A sign said that the exit was now one mile away. One half. He saw the exit.

“Handoff in ten seconds. Five seconds. Mark.” The sport-bike appeared from the left, quickly accelerating to catch up to the two trucks.

“Okay, Specter Two, I’m out’ve here. Happy trails.”

“Specter Two clear,” Viktor said. GoPro camera attached with a lot of duct tape to his bike, he closed in on the two trucks, their rectangular masses lumbering towards him, one behind the other, their cabs bobbing over imperfections in the highway, Deutsch Mechatronix in big official-looking letters that were illuminated in waves by the overhead lights. Shifting lanes to the right, he trailed behind them, letting them lead.

Fifty minutes later, it was again time for handoff. This procedure was the same as before. Viktor counted down, and then like magic, the Volkswagen appeared from the left, rally lights off. Viktor took the nearest exit off and put the camera into a saddlebag before riding to the next on-ramp and getting back on. By the time he did, the Peugeot had caught up and they rode one behind the other down the highway, staying within radio range. It was very scientific.

In the Jetta, Erika checked that the input from her headpiece into the plastic box in her lap was in all the way and that the other end was firmly in the jack of her prepaid phone. First attempting to verify her location with the GPS in her walkie-talkie, which didn’t seem to want to work inside the car, she went under contacts in her phone and dialed the number for the highway police.

“Hello?” the voice answered in German.

“Oh hello,” she replied. Her voice sounded like a woman’s thirty years her senior. “I’m driving on highway seventeen, a quarter mile from exit three, and I’m following a truck that is swerving badly. I think the driver is drunk. The truck says Deutsch Mechatronix on it, license plate KC PB983.”

“One moment please.”

“Certainly.”

“Okay, you’re approaching exit three, the license plate is KC PB983 and the truck says Deutsch Mechatronix?”

“That’s correct.”

“Okay, we’ll send a car to check it out. Thank you.”

“No problem.”

No more than four minutes later, two sleek Mercedes Benzes roared past, lights flashing. No more than forty seconds after that, the trailing truck ground to a halt at the side of the road, its counterpart, bewildered and inexplicably fortunate, continuing unscathed, the two police cars swarming around its twin like a pair of angry hornets. The bike, the Peugeot and the Baja passed by three minutes later, in different lanes, coming in close just long enough to see one of the police officers approaching the driver’s cab.

“Gotcha…” Cory said. John turned in his seat to see it. Now there was official proof the truck was here at this moment.

The Volkswagen continued on, waiting for the Peugeot to overtake it and then rendezvous from another highway, in about twenty miles. But first, they had to cross the border. Slowing at the border, they saw the truck go across. Slowing momentarily to keep the gap between them constant, they sped up as the truck disappeared around a turn. On the right, a happy sign lit from below read, WELCOME BIENVENUE WILLKOMMEN. They buzzed right by it.

It was still nighttime when the truck reached the ugly facility beside a hill and pulled into a driveway. There were trees all around it, and a road that led out of sight. The building was at least ten stories tall, and smelled like garbage. To its side stood a tall chimney. Big, broken windows hung dozens of feet above the concrete and grass below, and the whole place had a look of dilapidation about it.

Their cars parked in the trees, the eight young adults lay at the top of the hill, bodies obscured by bushes, and looked on with binoculars and video cameras as the truck backed into a loading zone. About fifteen minutes later, the second truck arrived. The group of eight waited there for an hour and a half, until the first light started to creep up over the horizon. It was about forty-five minutes after they had heard a loud buzzer. And as they climbed back into their cars, they only had to inhale to smell the most revolting scent they had ever breathed.

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