Element

All Rights Reserved ©

TWENTY-TWO

He was suspended in an envelope of warmth, breathing slowly. As he exhaled, he felt his breath sheath his head in a warm cloud. He’d slept well. He had also dreamed, though he couldn’t remember what now. Lying on his back, hands together at his waist, he opened his eyes and saw a faint sliver of light playing off the synthetic threads of his cocoon. Separating his hands, he drew open the top of the sleeping bag and looked out. Blue sky. And at a forty-five degree angle in the sky, beaming down on him, the sun. Its light was bright but for all its intensity, it was winter here. Blinking in its radiance, John couldn’t help but smile. Hot damn, he thought, closing up his mummy bag again.

BOOM! The mountain shook. And somebody was yelling. The few seconds the sound lasted stretched to a mind-jarring eternity and it was followed by the sound of snow hissing grittily over his sleeping bag. Josh was yelling. Meanwhile, deep thunder rolled into the distance, echoing into the valley below.

“WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?” John’s fingers fled for the opening of his mummy bag, pulling his head from under it. It was so snug. He couldn’t get his body out…

BOOM! Dear God. The noise was deafening. Made his eyes water. The entire slope shook. A fog of snow blew over him and went down the back of his neck. He wanted to spasm in panic. To his left, Josh clamped his hands to the side of his bag and hauled himself out, uttering a bellow, wool socks suspended in midair as he rolled over to get his boots, crampons still attached. John reached over for one of his own boots and pushed his foot in, having the presence of mind to empty it of snow but still horrified by the iciness of its inside. There was another thunderclap, more distant. The mountain shook but less so this time.

“What is that?” Erika yelled.

“They’re avalanche blasting!” John yelled. He got his other boot on and laced it up quickly, then turned his attention to his sleeping bag, which he packed at a breakneck speed, stuffing it into its compression sack and shoving it into his pack. His hands were suddenly terribly cold. He’d needed to take his gloves off to pack it. Glancing at his fingers, he saw that their tips were getting red and he stuffed them into his gloves, which he’d put into his pants pockets to collect some warmth. He looked in his bag. The deep blue water reservoir tube was frozen. He swore. Brushing the back of his bag off, he hauled it onto his back.

The others were doing the same. Erika stomped past him and gave him a salute, which he returned. She looked cute in her colorful cold weather clothes. Katie looked up at him from a crouched position and read off the numbers on her watch. John checked his own. Seven a.m. The cable car was going to start to run in fifteen minutes. He extended his hiking poles and jabbed them into the ice. A wind blew over them. A short time later, they were all ready to leave: waist straps snapped, poles extended, noses cold.

“Everybody ready?” Erika asked.

“Yes.”

“Yes.”

They started upwards, towards the v-shaped space in the rock they had come through. The incline was steep. With the poles, it wasn’t that difficult, all in all. But it wasn’t painless. Below them, moonprints pointed in the other direction. Their energy expenditure worked hard to ground their thoughts in the immediate reality. But their minds couldn’t help but be coaxed into an almost trance-like, meditative state by the sheer scale and otherworldliness of this frigid, exotic place. They marched on. Six crazy kids. Six secret agents. State of the badass art.

Coming down on the westward side of the mountain, they stomped towards the cable car, separated by about twenty seconds. A group of skiers were fixing skis and snowboards to their feet. Walking past them, John ventured a smile and clambered into the relatively warm cabin of the waiting car. Erika and Katie came a little while later, followed by André and Josh. The car lurched and started the careful descent back down to the resort. They watched it as it got gradually bigger, until it became the towering monstrosity they’d remembered it to be. The car completed the descent and they stepped out, walking to the double doors that led into the rear of the building.

Stopping in the bathroom, they changed into normal-looking clothes and emerged, leaving their bags on a luggage trolley that they pulled to a discrete location beside a potted tree. They put on headphones, clipping them into walkie-talkies in their pockets and then walked a short distance away from each other.

“Comm check.”

“One.”

“Two.”

John, Katie, and Erika got on an elevator and rode to the level of the restaurant and TV lounge. Stepping out onto the ninth floor, they proceeded to the bridge leading to the front of the building. The view down was something else. Little people in fancy clothes. They couldn’t use big cameras. So they had cell phones. The tricky part would be audio. Directional microphones were out. André had one but it was simply too bulky. Their goal was to eavesdrop on Stover and Rodenko while they had dinner. The trouble was, without a directional microphone, that left two options, hope that they chose a seat close enough to read lips, or bug a table in the vicinity of the two men. The latter would be dangerous, and given the number of tables, was likely to fail anyway. Then there was timing.

If they waited until the two men got there to sit down, they would know where to position themselves. But if they were unlucky, someone else would sit at their optimum vantage point first. Another option was to sit at the bar below, in the more private section, where there seemed to be a decent possibility the representative would be seated. This might put them in audio range or it might not. But it would also put them close to any bodyguards the men might have. A portion of the lower level was visible from above, though. With a bit of luck, they could remain safely on the upper level and still get the footage they needed, sans the audio. Finally, after much vacillation they decided. They were going to sit on the upper level and hope for the best. No microphone, other than the ones in their phones.

John suddenly wished that he’d been able to find a camera pen. He had online, but there was simply no way it would’ve gotten to them in time. In addition to finding the right vantage point, they were also worried about lingering in the restaurant too long. Young people did that. Had long meals. But what if the representative was delayed? Or decided to bang his wife? Or decided to work up an appetite on the ski slopes? Obviously, they had to wait for an ideal time to sit down. And that was where Josh, Erika, Cory and André would come in. They were scattered around the hotel, and they would let them know where the representative was and where he was going. Meanwhile, the representative’s arrival itself would be radioed to them from the parking lot. Of course, this latter arrangement didn’t give them a lot of warning, but this couldn’t be helped. They had also discovered, to their dismay, that the walkie-talkies didn’t work well through the outer walls and had limited range. Much as Josh had warned, there was a lot of uncertainty to this undertaking, and the truth was, their plan might simply not succeed. But in the end they decided to try anyway.

They looked around the mostly empty restaurant. The dining room was full of lush plants and looked high-class. The people inside were dressed smartly. At the far end, a chef dressed in black was holding a conversation with a man in a suit. Through the windows, there was a nice view of the trees below. John looked from the window to an elaborately folded napkin and then turned his attention towards Katie.

There was no telling when Rudenko would get here. All they knew was that he was rumored to be coming. Stover, however, they knew was coming today and was staying for at least two days. John just hoped the info was good. He really didn’t want to spend another night out on the mountain.

For the moment, there was nothing to do but wait. Switching off two of their three walkie-talkies, they paced around the upper floors for a while, just looking at the numbers on the doors. It was very boring and after two hours, it got tedious. Even their conversations became stale. Minute after minute, they paced and paused. Sometimes they went down a floor. Then, once more, they paced. At last, unwilling to walk any farther, they migrated back upstairs and plopped down into the chairs on the pool deck, where at least no one could see them. It was warm up here, though occasionally windy.

They took their shoes off and reclined on the comfortable chairs. Katie took out a book. Erika stared into a nonexistent infinity, her eyes converging on never. John closed his eyes and tried to block out the world. He heard one of them yawn. La la la…

Crackle. “I think he’s here,” Viktor said in his ear. John’s eyes were immediately open. His stomach drained of blood. He balled his fingers into fists and opened his hands, then did it again. We’re on. “There are two black cars. One’s a limousine. The other’s a Mercedes. And there’s not a speck of dirt on them.” John looked over the front of the pool deck but Erika pulled him back, shaking her head. “They’re pulling up to the front door.”

“Team one, are you in position?”

“Affirmative, standing by.”

“The driver of the limo has gotten out. So has a man from the Mercedes. The Mercedes man has on a black suit. He has a crew cut and looks military. Designate contact one.” John’s spine bristled. “The driver is helping out an older man.” The line clicked off. It clicked back on. “It’s Stover, I think.”

They heard Brian say, “Yeah, it’s him.”

“It’s him. We’re almost certain about it. A woman’s getting out now. She looks like the lady in the picture.” Click. Click. “The two cars are driving off now. Contact one is staying with Stover.” They sat in their chairs, listening. “Okay, the cars are parking.” A pause. “The driver of the Mercedes is walking towards the entrance. He’s bald and wearing a blue sports jacket and khakis. He also looks military. Designate contact two.”

“Contact two, acknowledged,” another voice said. It was Josh. John leaned forward in his seat. He fiddled with the collar of his turtleneck and looked at his watch. It was all he could do.

Seated with a Wired magazine in his lap, Josh stole quick glances upward from the rectangle of sofas where he sat. Goddamn, they were comfortable. He looked up as something crossed the outskirts of his peripheral vision. A kid holding a snowboard. Josh shifted his eyes to the mouth of the corridor leading to the front desk, which was partially obscured by plants. He tilted his head a little bit and then dropped his eyes down. He waited a few seconds and then looked up again. Still no contact. Far away, a woman was walking with a small child, hand in hand. As she walked, her feet clattered. It echoed off the walls and distant ceiling and made the space seem more vast. It was making him nervous. Keep looking at the magazine. Josh read a paragraph and then looked up once again.

And there he was. The first contact. The man in the black suit with a crew cut. He was facing the other direction. There might have been other people to his right but Josh couldn’t see because of the plants. Another man came into view. He didn’t remain with the group but rather walked past them. The black suited man turned in Josh’s direction, revealing a white necktie. The blunt juxtaposition of the two colors made him seem more severe. He didn’t look like someone you wanted to fuck with. Josh felt his mouth open involuntarily to accommodate his accelerated heart rate.

The man’s eyes seemed to linger in his general direction for a while. Josh turned the page of his magazine and tried to look more casual. When he glanced up again, the man in the black suit was looking away again. Just then, another person, who was nearly entirely blocked by the man in the black suit, stepped into view and just as quickly walked off, another individual at his side, arm wrapped around his, her hair nestled beneath a maroon hat. The man in the black suit went to follow, trailing by about ten feet, not seeming particularly uneasy, while the second contact, the one donning a blazer, appeared behind a luggage cart. He said something to the young man pushing the cart and the young man smiled with an inaudible reply.

Words could not describe what relief it brought André to discover the blazered man had a sense of humor. Easing the luggage into the elevator with some awkwardness, he found himself looking everywhere. Everywhere but the other man’s face. Finally, he wrestled his eyes under control and made himself look at him for a moment. He then darted his eyes back to the luggage cart. The skis wouldn’t fucking stay put. The doors closed with a chime. With a nearly inaudible whoosh, he saw the elevator rise out of its foundation and the marble floor tiles shrink into the distance. Across the empty gap, sunbeams sparkled off the opposite wall. Somewhere in the roof of the car, a fan blew. It was warm. BING BONG! The elevator slowed to a stop and the glowing green perimeter of button number nine went dark. He looked at the blazered man.

The doors opened and he waited so the other man could get out first. When he didn’t, André pushed the cart forward and rolled it down a corridor, only to realize it was the wrong one. The ski’s started a slow tumble to the floor but the blazered man caught them. André’s mind began to fog. He couldn’t remember where things were. Did the numbers ascend from right to left or left to right…?

“I’m so sorry,” he said in German, backing the cart up, the blazered man stepping aside. Flipping a coin in his mind, he went right. As luck would have it, the first corridor that appeared to his left was the correct one, and he turned the cart with relief, rolling it to door nine thirteen.

“May I have your card, sir?”

“Certainly.” The blazered man gave him a card and he coaxed it into a slot on the door and then rapidly withdrew it. An LED on the device lit up green and André turned the handle, pushing the door slightly ajar and then holding out his hand so the other man could take the card back. The other man took it. Going to the front end of the cart, André pulled it into the room, turning on a light switch.

“Shall I unpack the guests’ luggage, sir?” he asked.

“No, that won’t be necessary,” the blazered man said in French. André smiled as best he could and moved to leave, the cart between him and the other man. Once he was safely in the hallway, he grabbed the cart and withdrew it from the room.

“Hey,” the man said. André looked nervously into the hotel room.

“Yes, sir?”

“Is there an ice machine nearby?”

“Yes, sir. By the conference room.” To the right, he remembered. “To the right.”

“Would it be possible for you to bring me some ice?” He held out an ice bucket.

“Yes, sir.” André took the bucket and walked briskly up the hall. Rounding the corner, he stopped to catch his breath. Looking up, he caught sight of a young person peering out through the glass doors of the lounge. No one he knew. He straightened his back and went to the ice machine, figuring out how to work it in a few seconds and then filling the ice bucket rapidly, spilling a few cubes on the carpet, which he moved out of view with his foot. Turning smartly, he went back around the corner from whence he’d come and power walked up the long, open path, to the corridor where the cart was waiting. When he got to door nine thirteen, he saw that it was ajar. Knocking on it three times, he waited uncertainly for several seconds. The door opened all the way. The blazered man towered over him. Gulping, André held out the ice bucket. The blazered man took it and held out his other hand. A euro bill was pinched between his thumb and index finger.

“Thank you, sir.”

“You’re welcome.”

Cory leaned over a flat screen. Who went to the gift shop first? she asked herself. It just wasn’t normal. She was thirsty but she had gotten the radio signal right as she was about to go into the little downstairs café. Trying not to think about it, she looked down at the keyboard where her fingers rested. Her nails were all different colors. Brushing the hair from in front of her face, she looked up. Random people walked by. It was another ten minutes before the representative and his wife came out of the gift shop again and walked about fifteen feet to the door of the ski shop. She groaned.

“Anything new?” Katie asked.

“No. He’s just in the ski shop now.” The computer fan picked up for a second and then went quiet. She was reading BBC in Portuguese. More violence in Pakistan. Another deadly week in Afghanistan. A rumored impending change in the Italian government. Oil prices remaining low. Al Qaeda wannabe cell apprehended in England. She didn’t read any of the articles, just skimmed the opening paragraphs. She looked up again. Stover was gone.

“Checkmate.”

“That’s not checkmate.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” She gestured to a piece he’d overlooked. John tried not to react. Katie’s expression, as usual, was inscrutable. She was never going to take him seriously, he thought. They were sitting in oversized red chairs in the path between the lounge and the restaurant. She switched her mic to vox. “Is he still in the ski shop?”

“One sec,” Cory said.

Cory stepped out of the computer lab. It was hard to search for somebody inconspicuously out in the open and she knew instantly that she had made a mistake. But she was exposed now and if she went back in, that would really look suspicious. So she stood there, feeling truly foolish, amid a sea of faces. She looked towards the ski shop. Maybe he hadn’t left. There was a dense collection of apparel in the back that could’ve hidden a person. She thought about whether it was smart to go inside. No. Not now. Not after standing out in the open for so long. Dammit. She let her right brain take over for a bit, walking left without conscious decision-making, since that was obviously too slow. Towards the coffee shop. It was the only way to salvage the situation. She walked on the right side of the open area. To her left, there was a very stylish looking payphone booth. Somehow, she hadn’t noticed it before.

But now it caught her attention as quite beautiful. Its enclosure was glass, not plastic, and jazzy, multicolored lettering was written on an applied translucent banner. Another part of it was frosted, which she thought blended well with the other features. She looked forward and Stover walked right by her, the man in the black suit looking at her briefly.

She looked over her shoulder. They appeared to be holding coffee. The man in the black suit looked back at her. She swung her head around. God

“He’s heading back towards you, Josh,” Josh heard.

“Ok. I’m ready.”

He’d taken off his jacket and put on a hat and changed seats. He’d also put the magazine away and taken out a laptop. Strong Wi-Fi here. Sitting upright in his smart collared shirt and spectacles, he watched as the representative and his wife went around the far side of the elevator and got inside. The sound of the chime traveled the distance to him and he watched the elevator rise up in his peripheral vision.

“He’s going up to his hotel room.”

Katie got out of her seat and the other two knew what that meant. They walked quickly into the lounge and found some chairs that gave them a view of the suites. The safety railings on either side obstructed their view slightly but this was more of an annoyance than a real issue. They couldn’t see the leftmost elevator but they could see the right one. A glass car rose with three occupants to their level and stopped. The woman took her hat off and began taking off her scarf.

“Ok, they’re at the hotel room,” Katie said. “Let’s switch up. Josh, Cory, why don’t you come up. I’m sending John and Erika downstairs.” John and Erika looked at each other. Reluctantly, they leaned forward in their seats. They’d been comfortable. They walked through a set of glass doors and out to the bridge, taking the elevator downstairs. The resort rose around them.

“Exciting so far, huh?”

“Yeah,” John said. They saw Josh pass them in the other elevator. The door opened and Cory was there waiting for them. She stuck out her tongue and they switched places. John went to the computer lab, letting Erika sit on the couches. He brought up the New York Times. High expectations for the next Transformers movie. Tesla was marketing a new sedan. Remarkable. It was like nothing had changed at all. Two weeks, two months. What did it matter? Crazy.

He went to CNN. Wow. Insano forest fire. When this was all over, he needed to call his parents. He read the article. Thirteen firefighters had been killed. Holy shit. The picture at the top of the article was of a water plane dumping its cargo.

He went to the politics section but only by accident. Again, nothing new. God. If he’d stayed home, he’d be exactly where he’d been before. He tried to think about something else but the thought stayed with him. He closed the window and pushed his chair back, leaning his elbows on his knees. He noticed there was lint on the rug. And suddenly he was back in the resort and he became aware of the sounds around him again. High-pitched, youthful voices, crinkling plastic bags, shoes on marble.

He checked his school e-mail account. There was a message from the Rensselaer Alumni Association. A reminder that the deadline for students to apply for August graduation was approaching. A message from a computer science professional listserv. He deleted these and twenty-one other messages that had piled up in his inbox. He closed the tab. He didn’t bother checking his other account. None of the jobs he had applied to had that e-mail address. No one of consequence did but family, and he didn’t feel an overwhelming need to check it.

He went to YouTube and found an episode of an old TV show. He watched that for the next twenty minutes. When it went off, he watched another one, from another season. He looked at his digital watch. This was getting tedious.

Viktor poured the last of his tea into the cap of the thermos and drank it. It was cold. He’d been sitting in this car all day. And he could honestly say, without hyperbole, that he was fucking tired of it. Brian was playing a video game. They’d passed it back and forth for a while but now Viktor just wanted to sit there in discomfort, until the constant sensation no longer registered. Like what happened when you waited too long to pee. Speaking of which…

Katie had won all three games of chess, though Josh had given her a run for her money. Cory wasn’t good at all. They started another game.

And so it went. For the next seven hours. They changed positions from time to time. But nothing ever changed. By early evening, John took a little break and found himself on the pool deck, orange light beaming down on and around him. The shimmering blue of the pool juxtaposed. He looked up at the sky. A plane passed overhead, eerily silent, body silver and brilliant, trailing a broad double tail of vapor. John’s earpiece clicked.

“Rodenko’s here.”

They all had to beat themselves out of a daze.

They heard André say, “in position.”

A short time later, Cory said, “in position.”

“Okay, it looks like he’s wearing a dark coat. Wait a sec. Someone else has gotten out of the car. He’s dressed in a brown coat. Short, cropped hair. They’re talking.”

Brian asked, “Is he a bodyguard?”

Viktor replied, “dunno. Another car. Two guys in front.”

“Looks like bodyguards.”

“Yeah,” his voice said, low. He spoke louder again, “Yeah, looks like three bodyguards are with him. A lot of muscle.”

That comment made John look to Katie who just looked back at him.

“Here comes the valet… And they’re going inside. It’s exactly like before.”

As Cory talked to Josh in the gift shop, through the window, they saw André leading the Russian and his various men to the elevator. They all packed themselves inside the lift and went up to the ninth floor. An uncomfortably long while later, he came back down in the same car, one of the bodyguards with him. The elevator halted at the second floor and André stepped out. They leaned against a counter and looked down at some G-Shock wrist-watches, their earpieces silent. Fifteen or so seconds later, they heard, “room nine o’ five.”

“Copy that,” Katie said.

“Copy,” Josh said.

“It’s getting to be dinnertime,” Erika said.

“You hungry?” Josh asked.

“No, just pointing it out.” Erika was returning from a sortie to the restaurant. When she saw Katie and John she said, “It’s filling up in there. You should get a table.”

“Still no Stover, though,” John said.

“Yeah but if you don’t go now, you might not get an opportunity.”

“You gonna stay here?” Katie asked.

“Yeah.”

“All right, let’s go.” Katie and John got up and walked over to the restaurant. Erika wasn’t kidding. The room was filling up near the staircase. They waited to be seated and when the hostess asked them if they had a preference, they said close to the stairs. And so they found themselves in position at the top of the spiral staircase, peering down at the bar. Katie told him to take his earphones off, which he did hesitantly. He suddenly felt out of the loop, which made him anxious. Compounding that anxiety was the fact that he had been with Katie all day. He liked her, but he didn’t have anything new to say to her. But he had to be upbeat. The hostess came up and offered them menus. They thanked her. John took this opportunity to gauge the view from his lap.

This was accomplished by dropping his pen on the floor and bending down to pick it up. Hmm. The lower vantage point did narrow his viewing angle. This really might not work... That would be tragic. Expensively tragic. A lump settled into his stomach. He looked down at the menu. Wow. Even the salads were fifteen euros. He wondered what a fifteen euro salad tasted like. He decided to find out. A waiter came and he ordered. Katie got pasta and soup. John handed the waiter his menu and the man went off. John fetched his iPhone from his pocket.

He played with the video interface for a short time. It functioned well, at least as well as could be judged from the small screen. He shut it down and slid it back into his pocket. The food came. John looked up in surprise. So fast. Since he was already blowing sixteen dollars, he’d be sure to leave a good tip. He started eating. Across the table, Katie chomped happily, purple headphone wire bobbing as she turned her head to take a spoonful of soup.

The salad was a solid meal. Meat, blue cheese, guacamole, sprouts, and thankfully, not too many carrots. John hated carrots. He chewed on a crouton and looked at the wine left. Then he looked up and studied Katie. Her eyes were downturned. She looked up at him and he looked back at his food.

“Is there something on my face?”

“No, I was just lost in your eyes.” She laughed.

“That’s very nice.” He laughed, swallowing the crouton forcefully, searching the salad for another one. She turned her head slightly. “Oh shit, he’s coming our way.” John took out the iPhone, placing it on the chair between his legs. Fifty or so feet away, Erika was likely setting up to videotape or photograph.

“Stover?”

“Mmhmm.”

“Is he by himself?”

“Erika says he’s waiting.” John started to look at his watch again but caught the stress reaction and suppressed it. He looked up at Katie and wiped his mouth.

“Okay, now he’s coming this way. He, the Russian, and a bunch of other people.”

They waited. Someone occulted the sun. John looked up, and there was Stover and his wife. Chatting happily with Stover was Rudenko. Rudenko gestured to a third man who leaned over and whispered something with a smile. A few feet away from them, two severe-looking men in suits stood silently. Clearly, bodyguards. The group stood there as they waited to be seated. A short time later, the hostess led them down the spiral staircase. Son of a bitch. And out of sight. FUCK. John leaned over and muttered something. The one area of the room where they weren’t visible from anywhere at their level, and they’d gone there. He looked at Katie.

What do we do, he asked her with his eyes. He already knew the answer.

Easing the door open gingerly, Cory peered inside. “Housekeeping!” No one answered. She looked at André. They pulled the housekeeping cart inside.

“Still clear, Erika?”

“Affirmative.”

There was a laptop bag on the counter. Wearing latex gloves, André opened it while Cory looked out the door and then shut it. Joining André, she looked around the room, searching for papers. She went into the drawers. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. The laptop bag had some papers in it. Some financial stuff, cost breakdowns. Cory took out a slim camera.

“Erika?”

“Still clear.”

André was confronted with a login screen. Not surprised, he pressed a flash drive into a USB port and restarted the computer. This was the point of no return. To work, the program on the drive would reset the password. Once that was done, the original owner would know someone had hacked into the laptop. Here goes. He loaded the program.

The nifty thing about bars was that they always had mirrors. Now, as he eased down the spiral staircase, John locked his eyes on this one, regarding all the rows of alcohol with a faint measure of longing. The lower restaurant was smaller than the one above but much nicer. Absent from the bar were hip cues or UV lights. From the rug to the lights, the space screamed elite.

The representative, his wife, the gas tycoon, and the five bodyguards were seated a short distance away. So short that John had no doubt that with some processing, they’d be able to discern what Stover and the others were saying. He took a stool at the bar. Setting the iPhone down on the counter, he brought up a saved news article and left it there, ordering two waters, with little straws, which he hoped would look like vodka.

He took a sip of his vodka and read the news. He didn’t know how long he was there. But he was careful not to stare into the mirror. It was hard not to look up though. On a regular day, at a regular bar, he could’ve diverted his eyes from it, no problem. But right now, it was all he could think about. Plus, there were but so many points of interest at a bar, and they were all AT the mirror. He checked the clock on the phone. What time had he gotten there? He’d checked his watch at like six fifteen. So it had been… seven minutes. He finished one drink and started on the next.

He looked up at the mirror. One of the bodyguards was looking at him. When John looked at him, he looked away. The erector pili in his arms contracted. He drank the second drink much more quickly and looked up again. Two of them were looking at him now. He balled and unballed his fist. A signal to Katie that he was worried. He looked up again and they were looking away. He decided to raise the camera to get a better view. He lifted up the phone, as if to read it more closely. He kept it there for maybe forty seconds. And looked at the mirror again.

That was funny. Now they all seemed to be looking at him. One of them pushed their chair back. It was time to leave. John ambled towards the spiral staircase, starting up as the bald man peered up at him. John smiled involuntarily. Went a little faster. He looked over his shoulder and saw one of the men in a suit walk up to the bar and sniff his drink. And that was when he started to run.

John was utterly shocked by how rapidly everything in the moments that followed devolved. Hearing feet on the spiral staircase as he reached the top, he looked around himself. To his dismay, Katie was nowhere to be seen. Adding tension to an already bad situation was the fact that a woman at a table near him was staring straight at him, no doubt recording features of his face. Trying to appear unremarkable, while nevertheless knowing that he was completely failing, he reached into his pocket and felt for the earpiece. Leaving the restaurant in a hurry as he did, he struggled with the added awkwardness of having his hand in his pocket. He couldn’t get the fucking thing out. Running inelegantly past a young couple, he pulled hard, exhuming a bunched up cord. He stared at it.

Fuck me. He looked up. There was a crowd of people at the entrance of the restaurant. One of them was Katie. Brushing past them, he pulled the whole walkie-talkie out. Clutching it and the tangled cord in one hand, he sprinted past a cluster of people in the chairs by the windows. Behind him, he heard a woman’s raised voice. Then he heard footsteps.

“Get out! Get out now!” André halted the copying process and pulled the flash drive out. Cory squeezed past the cart and pulled the door open.

He saw Erika in the lounge. She looked at him. He looked at her, and sprinted for the glass double doors, shoving one aside. He heard the distant sound of feet clicking below. He crossed the empty center of the building, the objects below shifting in perspective as he ran across the enormous divide.

Somebody burst through the glass doors behind him. Bloody hell! They were yelling in Russian. Bloody hell bloody hell bloody hell! John ran down a hallway, screaming past door after door. The wall lamps glinted off their silver number plates. He got to the door of the stairwell and kicked it open, sending it clattering against the wall. Taking the stairs three at a time, he just made it one floor down when someone came through the door above him. Barely hesitating, he jumped the full distance to the next floor, scarcely feeling the concrete wall as his palms struck it and pushing off it.

Formerly an infantryman in the Russian army, Sergey Nikitin was well built. Keeping his breathing even, he hopped down half a flight of stairs and paused to hear the footsteps below him. They weren’t that far. He’d catch this troublemaker, even if he did have the benefit of youth. Sergey passed another floor and heard a door open beneath him. He judged it was two floors down. The door closed. He descended faster. Like a locomotive, he rounded a turn and jumped the last quarter of a floor. Gathering speed, he rammed the door with his arm. Instead of opening, though, the door held firm, sending pain up his arm, into his shoulder. Wincing, he shoved the door. It didn’t budge. Kiel, one of the German bodyguards, skidded to a stop behind him.

“Help me with this!” Sergey said.

Kiel pressed his shoulder against the door. They both shoved.

Easing around the corner of the hallway on the fifth floor, John didn’t bother with the earpiece for the time being and scanned the walkway above. He didn’t see anyone. He tried to look through the glass of the lounge but light filtering down from the roof cast a glare on it. A loud bang came from the door at the end of the hall behind him, making him jump. He glanced back at the metal table jammed beneath its doorknob. A louder bang, then another. He saw the table shift. BANG! Inhaling hard, he made a run for the corridor that lead to the second stairwell, his footfalls loud and deep. He was halfway to that corridor when there was a deafening wailing. Someone had pulled a fire alarm.

Above him, a white strobe light shown through the doors of the lounge. The glass doors opened and a crowd of young people came surging toward the walkway. Returning his attention to his level, he jogged down the open path and dodged left down the second corridor. Sprinting down its length, he came to the second stairwell.

His cardiovascular system was getting its money’s worth now. He was fit. But it still felt insufficient as he breathed in noisily and wiped sweat from his eyes. Felt his heart beat in his chest. It was time to see how hard and how long it could really go.

John raced down the stairwell, taking several steps at a time, slowing only long enough to pass a man in a fleece jacket. As he did, he read the broad numbers on the walls as they descended. He approached the second floor as a door opened somewhere above him. The stairwell was filled with deafening noise. He squinted under its intensity until the sound began to slowly fade and then abruptly diminished. Expensive sounding shoes chattered on concrete steps above him. High heels.

He brushed past a woman in exercise clothes and reached into his pocket again, fiddling with the earpiece as he reached the first floor. Stopping to untangle the cable, he gulped in air. As soon as it was in his ear, he could hear Katie, though he couldn’t understand her. The signal was garbled. Damn walkie-talkies.

When he shoved open the door, it became a lot clearer. “They’re waiting by the elevators!” John looked right. Sure enough, there stood two men in suits, looking away from him. Moving into the center of a group of people, he checked them out. They turned in his direction. Perhaps it was the bleached hair that gave him away, but whatever it was, as soon as the two men turned around, they started towards him. Shit. He looked behind him but knew there was no way out that way. The doors behind him burst open and the bald man stepped out onto the marble, expensive jacket unbuttoned. His eyes leveled on John. John’s nostrils flared. Poised between two rocks and a hard place, he turned on his heals and dived for the door to the administrative offices. He twisted the handle as his body slammed into it, not wasting precious milliseconds to do something as trivial as slow down. He also didn’t look behind him. The bald man was no doubt mere feet away. The door opened. He was inside.

There was no time to think. Just to run. Run like your life depended on it. The administrative offices were walled by glass. Each one had a wooden desk with a telephone on it, and a computer monitor with an anti-glare filter. When the door opened behind him, he banked left. No plan really. Just simple logic. When you see an open path, follow it… Run. Run your ass off. Run… to the back of the front counter. He uttered an apology to the young man there and leapt onto the counter, bumping into a businessman as he landed on the other side.

Now more sprinting. He barreled into a rotating door, groaning as its mass turned reluctantly. COME ON! He was hit by a gush of warm air and then chilled by cold as he saw his breath condense in front of his face. He didn’t know what to do now. All he knew was he was out.

Without so much as a pause, a motorcycle pulled out of a parking space and whined to a stop in front of him. It was the sport bike. The helmeted driver waved at him with a gloved hand. John jumped onto the short seat behind him and wrapped his hands around the driver’s waist. The jacket was smooth, hard to grip, especially because he was so exhausted. Viktor didn’t seem to consider this though. He gunned the bike and popped a wheelie, nearly throwing John off. Ceasing to blink momentarily, John clutched tighter, holding his breath as his body was sucked off his seat by gee forces. The bike sped through the parking lot, white bulbs overhead competing with the fading sunlight, a darkly dressed form pursuing them at a full sprint. The form ducked out of sight, across a line of cars. Asphalt was replaced by trees, and they were abruptly out of the parking lot.

The whine of the motorcycle built into a crescendo as John felt them hit a bump in the road. It made his crotch hurt and caused his ass to slide down the smooth seat. He pressed his cheek to Viktor’s back and held on for dear life, somehow finding the strength to maintain his death grip. Viktor took a turn without slowing down. John leaned over, exposing his face to the full onslaught of the airstream. He spotted the speedometer and saw to his terror that they were doing nearly ninety. Trees whooshed past him audibly. The wind pushed back on his cheeks and on the broad surfaces of his glasses.

He tried to look back, but he was afraid the wind would blow his glasses off. The bike bounced and snapped his neck painfully. Closing his eyes at the pain, he turned his head forward and pressed his brow into Viktor’s back as a new burst of acceleration pulled him off his seat again. Viktor tapped the walkie-talkie velcroed to his gas tank and yelled.

“Angel One, we’re driving your way fast! We have incoming, twenty seconds behind us! Protocol one!”

“Copy that! Standing by!” They came around another turn, passing a blue Citroën. A three way intersection appeared up ahead and they blasted through it, horn honking, disappearing around a bend as their sound red shifted. On cue, Josh and Brian jogged out of the woods, carrying a roadblock on their shoulders. Setting it down in the road, they ran back to the trees. Coming back out again, Brian carried a round sign with an arrow on it. He set it down in front of the road block and turned on his heals, jumping over a fallen log and dropping into a ditch.

Twelve seconds later, an armored Mercedes-Benz screeched to a stop. It hovered there uncertainly for several seconds. Then, as if someone had put their full weight on the accelerator, its tires squealed, kicking up pebbles as it vectored right, sprinting into the distance, tearing deep grooves in the dirt and snow, and disappearing from view.

Shortly after, the Subaru climbed out of the ditch, sliding on its tires and sending up a shower of dirty snow as it shifted into a lower gear. In a quarter of a minute, it was gone from sight as well.

Continue Reading Next Chapter

About Us

Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered publisher, providing a platform to discover hidden talents and turn them into globally successful authors. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books our readers love most on our sister app, GALATEA and other formats.