Element

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TWENTY-SEVEN

That afternoon, they moved to a hostel in the charming village of Marly le Roi, and spent the rest of the day sitting around, eating junk food, playing Xbox, updating journals if they had one, and otherwise just being bums. Later on, when there was a little less light, Viktor got on his bike and rode off to pick up their new tip, reverberating down the bullion colored streets. He was gone for some time.

When he returned, they had dinner ready. It stretched on for a long time tonight. They’d put some extra effort into preparing it. John had gone to play video games with André, but he’d come back to lend a hand, getting an annoyed look from Katie that ensured he would never do anything like that again. After they ate, Katie made the rare decision to let Viktor do the briefing. Perhaps it was her intention to deflect apprehensions. If so, such a decision was well reasoned, because it wasn’t long before John had something to interject.

Before, he had generally kept his thoughts to himself, releasing them subtly and gradually. Now he was frank.

“You’re joking. Right? Aren’t they a defense contractor?”

“Yes, sir,” Viktor replied.

“And... they want us to break into Dassault why?”

“They don’t,” Viktor said. “The company uses a variety of exotic resins to construct composite structures for aircraft. A source inside the company has agreed to give us some internal documents declaring that the company knows one of the resins is a chronic carcinogen and a danger to employees.” John took a seat on one of the beds, next to André, who was wearing a mesh safari hat. The overhead bulb was off and the sole source of light was the LCD screen of the Toughbook.

“This sounds… I dunno, guys. These documents could be classified. Have you worked with this contact before?”

“Our contact says these files are indeed classified. And no, this is our first time working together.”

“Have we confirmed his identity? Our contact, I mean.”

“We’re in the process of confirming the ID,” Katie answered.

“How?” John asked.

“Normally, in situations like this, we have the news contact post an article with three code words in it. The trouble is our source needs to move in the next twenty-four hours or not at all, which means we need to start prepping now, before we get that confirmation.”

“Why the urgency?”

“He’s afraid that investigators might be watching him.” All eyes turned to Katie. “That’s also why he wants our help. He doesn’t want to make a dead drop.”

“I see… But it’s not like people aren’t going to see us if he just gives them to us.” The eyes in the room shifted to John. “Isn’t that even more conspicuous?”

“Not necessarily.” The eyes flitted back to Katie. “I have a plan.”

“Why doesn’t he just use the Darknet to transfer the files to the press? Yeah, it’s risky for him but it still seems safer than face to face contact.”

“Our contact wants the hard copies.”

John sighed. “This is a defense contractor,” he said again.

“Yes, we heard you the first time,” Viktor said. John shot him a hurt look. Remarkable. His social capital with him had already fallen to previous levels. He glanced at Josh but he wasn’t looking at anything but the floor.

John didn’t back down. “Here’s the thing. If this guy is being watched, they might know he’s talked to our contact already. They might just be waiting for the chance to catch him in the act. That brings us dangerously close to law enforcement. And if this stuff is classified… we’re risking real jail time.”

“I can’t speak for you guys, but that’s a risk I’m prepared to take to legitimately help people,” Katie said.

John shook his head in disbelief. He had never seen her be so reckless before. That’s what this was.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” John said, “I don’t think we should do this. I feel like if we’re caught, which is a high risk here, the penalty will be too damn high.”

Viktor sighed audibly.

“Well somebody needs to say it, dammit!” As his voice rose, he directed it mostly at Viktor who didn’t say anything. “It’s one thing to steal the files. I’m halfway okay with that. But if they know we’re coming…”

“This is a serious chemical, John,” Katie said. Like… it can kill people. And dozens of technicians are put in contact with it every day.” John rubbed his face. Exhaled loudly.

“We can’t fight every battle, Katie.”

“We’ve done things like this before.”

“That doesn’t make it any better an idea.” This he said to her directly. Katie looked at him. She made an expression. It looked like… death. It stopped his heart cold.

“What do you guys think?” She looked around the room. There wasn’t any dissent. Not even from Cory this time. John had a feeling he knew why. She was probably trying to pick her battles. As bad ideas went, this was one of the better ones. André was different too. He wasn’t making the others wait so he could come to a conclusion the way he usually did in high stakes situations like this. Erika? He glanced at her. Her face looked serene. It hit him like a locomotive. It didn’t seem like it had even occurred to her that maybe she should give him some cover. Admit that he had a point. You know, just on principle. At last, John looked at Josh.

“Josh? What do you think” Katie asked. Josh seemed to waver. John looked in his eyes. Josh shrugged. John’s shoulders sank. “All right then, we’ll do it,” Katie said. So it was decided. Just like that. Overruled. As usual, John’s subconscious said. A couple of heads turned to see his reaction but he steeled his face so they couldn’t see his thoughts. Unfortunately, he knew he wasn’t doing a good job.

The following afternoon, twenty-four year old Roland Hoffman was ready to go home. He’d been at Domino’s for seven hours today. Now he was on his way out before the evening rush. If he got caught when that started, he’d be sucked into staying even longer. No way, he thought as he went out onto the sidewalk, still wearing his apron, back erect but shoulders sagging. He wasn’t exhausted, but he was tired. And hungry. Sitting in the car at the other end of the parking lot was Julie, his girlfriend, one of the managers, who was leaning back with her eyes closed. Coughing up a bit of nicotine-laced phlegm, he walked across the asphalt lot, for the first time in the afternoon, acutely aware of the pretty blue sky and the many cars passing on the turnpike slightly below them, their motors humming, their plastic and aluminum bodies swishing through the humid suburban air.

As he kicked a pebble, Julie’s eyes opened and she shifted in her seat, head straight now. Roland coughed again and stopping just a moment to pull off his apron, opened the driver’s side door and tumbled into the driver’s seat, its comfort itself tiring.

As his girlfriend looked on, he closed his eyes and caught his breath. Then, starting the car, he heard the engine purr and he began to feel refreshed. He was excited; he didn’t often get evenings off. Business was up. They were short on drivers. They were always short on drivers.

Julie worked the controls of the air conditioner and a gush of hot air blew onto Roland’s arms. It felt bad, but he knew that any second, it would begin to cool. Roland leaned over and kissed Julie on the lips and worked the gear selector, shifting into reverse and backing out of the parking space slowly, one brake light out, though he didn’t realize it. Easing into the street, he didn’t notice the car in the parking lot behind him pull out as well.

Tapping the overdrive button that had somehow gotten disengaged, Josh slowed to a stop and glanced at Cory. Cory pressed the send button on her mobile phone and heard it ring. Katie answered. Cory spoke into her hands-free microphone, “Target is en route.”

“Copy,” she heard through her earbud. The light turned green. They advanced with traffic.

Julie was pissed they weren’t going out to dinner before they went to a party tonight. It was so stupid. Well, he didn’t care. He was tired. She could deal with leftovers tonight. He shifted lanes and passed a Citroën, his Renault growling as the tachometer shot up to three thousand and the little yellow car dropped behind him. He had open road in his lane now and pressed on the accelerator, sucking up some hard earned gasoline. They went up a ramp and Roland put even more force on the gas pedal.

The girl walked through the front door and didn’t waste so much as a second idling, walking past the tired-looking delivery driver who was going the other way and going behind the counter into the employee area. Didier, the weary assistant manager on duty tonight, wouldn’t have any of this tomfoolery. Roland needed to stop inviting his female friends behind the counter. It gave a bad impression.

“Hey!” he said in a no-nonsense tone. “You can’t be back here!” The girl looked at him.

“Oh hey, Roland said you guys were understaffed and he asked me to come in to work with you tonight. Pro bono.”

“Oh… Really. Have you worked for Domino’s before?”

“Yeah, I used to work at another one in Paris.”

“Rue Charenton?”

“Yeah, that’s the one.”

“I see. I’m going to call Roland. This is weird.”

“Sure,” Erika said, reaching into her pocket. “I totally understand.”

The phone beeped loudly, telling Cory a text message had been received. Cory looked down at it. “They’re about to call him.”

“Pull it!” Josh said. Cory turned in her seat and pulled a drawstring. There was a ping and the sound of pneumatics. An antenna began to rotate and rose to its maximum height, inside the back of the Peugeot. Cory held up her cell phone and looked to see how strong the signal was. No bars. She glanced up as Josh changed lanes to follow the Citroën down an off-ramp.

Erika rubbed her toe on the tile floor as Didier leaned over a table. “Figures. He turned his goddamned phone off.” He hung the phone up and looked at her. “All right, I can’t reach him. Can you make pizzas?”

“Absolutely.” The door beeped a couple times and a family came in.

“Okay, why don’t you get started on those slips, then. I’ll help these people.”

The Citroën pulled into a parking lot in back of an apartment building and they turned in to follow it. Antenna still twirling, Josh and Cory backed into a space not far from the Citroën and looked on as Roland and his girlfriend went inside the building. They let the antenna twirl for five more minutes and then shut it off. Immediately they received an all clear signal through Cory’s phone.

Twenty or so minutes after that and eleven miles away, at the headquarters for Dassault Aviation, in Paris, Charles Neal pushed back from the smooth wooden workstation, logged off his computer, and prepared to leave. His collared shirt was dark blue and he wore a dark blue tie. It wasn’t very reserved but he was moderately young and attractive enough to get away with it. Flipping open his eyeglass case, he took his glasses off, folded the arms down, and set them down inside. Then, pushing back from his computer, he stood to leave, regarding the man across the workstation from him.

“Night, Robert,” he said.

“Goodnight, Charles.”

The drafting room was aesthetically pleasant. The ceiling was supported by red pillars. The walls were decorated with posters and CADD drawings of numerous aircraft like the Rafale and the Falcon 7X. Walking out of the drafting room, Charles stopped to get a drink of water, then walked down to the lobby and paid the security guard farewell. Stepping into the glare of the setting sun, he started his gray Audi TT from a distance.

The driver’s side door popped open for him and he squeezed inside the curvy coupe’s leather-lined cockpit, pulling the door shut. Shifting into gear, he drove swiftly out of his parking space and across the parking lot, where he turned onto Rue Gounod. It was only then that he opened his brown messenger bag and glanced inside. There were myriad papers. Most of them were mundane documents. A new mission statement from management. An academic paper on nanotube infused composites. An industry brochure. Photocopied pages from a manual for a CADD program. And somewhere amongst all those papers, an internal memo stapled to a toxicological report along with a document detailing the special chemical recipe used to make a high strength epoxy resin.

He made his way onto the highway and peered at Paris, the buildings sparkling. He reached for his sunglasses and slid them on, shifting lanes impatiently to pass an express mail van. Tapping the radio, he waited for the CD he’d put in that morning to start playing. The music came on and he turned the volume up so the car vibrated, the woofer in the trunk thumping behind his seat. He sped up to pass yet another car.

Collecting his thoughts, he drove for several minutes, taking the time to appreciate the pleasantness of the evening. Then, he turned the volume knob on the radio down and flipped open his cell phone. He rifled in his pocket for a slip of paper. Finding it, he held it up between two fingers on his left hand, the remaining fingers clutching the steering wheel. Holding the cell phone in his other hand, he entered the numbers on the slip of paper. He pressed send and the display on the phone told him it was ringing.

“Thank you for calling Domino’s Pizza. How can I help you?”

“Hi, I’d like to order a cheese steak pizza with cheese bread and buffalo wings. For delivery please.”

“Okay, Sir. May I have your address please?”

“Yes, it’s three seventy-three, Rue Avril, Revell Condominiums. Apartment two fifteen. Do you know where that is?”

“Yes sir. Okay, that will cost twenty euros and forty-nine cents. It will be about forty minutes.”

“Okay, thank you.” He closed the phone and turned the music back up.

When he got to his street, twenty minutes later, he pulled to a stop by the curb and clicked the car off. Grabbing his messenger bag, he got out and went to the glass door at the bottom of the apartment building. He pulled this open and stepped into a small space lined with mailboxes on the wall. There was another glass door directly ahead. Unlocking the door, he stepped inside and went left through a door that concealed a staircase. He went upstairs and walked the remaining twenty feet to his apartment.

The first thing he did when he got inside was use the bathroom. Then, he went to his kitchen, where he set up his laptop on the table. Laying the messenger bag beside it, he reached inside, pulling out all the papers and spreading them on the table, eventually finding the packet he was looking for. The toxicology report was four pages long. Leafing through it, his spine began to tingle. This was the first time he’d been able to read it in privacy. Setting the packet back down, he went to the fridge and got some orange juice, carrying it to the table. He checked his watch.

The delivery driver arrived ten or so minutes later, crawling to a stop in this unfamiliar neighborhood. Reaching behind him, he got his heater bag from the back seat and walked it to the outer door of the apartment complex. Stepping inside, he found the intercom and punched in star two-one-five. There was a pause. Then there was a buzzer. Balancing the pizza bag with his left hand, he pulled the front door open and walked up a hall, quickly finding an elevator, and taking it up to the second floor. Locating door two fifteen, he knocked loudly, the door opening immediately.

Regarding the driver warily for a fraction of a second, Charles rapidly glanced past him, and straightening up, forced a smile. “Twenty euros and forty-nine cents, please.” Charles laid some bills in the palm of the driver’s hand.

“No change.”

“Thank you,” the driver said. He put them away and then held open the pizza bag.

“Would you mind if I took this inside for a moment? It’s a lot of stuff.”

“No, go ahead.” Charles took the bag and went around a corner, setting it on the kitchen table. Taking out the greasy food, he located the slot where the heating element was. Point of no return. He stuffed the packet in there, pushing it all the way back. Taking a step back, he looked at it from a distance. Satisfied, he smiled faintly then closed the bag up and carried it back to the door, giving it to the driver. The driver thanked him and was off.

They all arrived back at the hostel by nine thirty and whooped. Unbefuckinglievable. Was it really possible? Was it really that easy? It certainly appeared that way. Grinning mischievously, Erika held up the packet of papers and explained how as soon as the driver had returned with it, she’d taken off her apron and walked out, right in the middle of rush. Fucking hilarious. Everybody was amused, even John who had to stop drinking from his Nalgene bottle because he was laughing so hard. Unbelievable.

But what John really couldn’t believe was that the jammer had actually worked. André was damn good at soddering. And who’d have thought the schematic would be right there on the Internet? They celebrated by going out into the country and having a bonfire. The night was fully dark by this point and beneath a sky rich with stars, they toasted another successful kill. Eight geurilla warriors.

John was a little less moody now. Katie remained a little distanced, which made him melancholy and undercut the satisfaction of the evening. But he was finding ways to cope. Mostly drinking beer. The brown bottle in his hand right now was three quarters gone and sparkled in the fire light. He looked around himself. The fire excavated a narrow column of visibility. Beyond that, the light rapidly began to surrender to the ubiquitous night. John looked up at the column of smoke.

John glanced over to his left where Josh was staring into the flames. He didn’t appear to be enjoying himself. More and more he found himself wondering how much longer the other kid would tolerate being constantly outvoted by the less risk-averse majority. Every day he half-expected him to announce he was leaving. And John wouldn’t have blamed him if he did. Part of him would have admired him.

Viktor passed behind Josh and looked at Cory who was obscured by the fire which had suddenly intensified. Slowly but surely, John found himself backing away from the fire. He didn’t have to pee. He just suddenly felt the need to wander. Stepping into the woods, he put his hands in his pockets. Gradually, his mind began to wander as well. He didn’t know how long he walked; likely no more than five minutes. But when he looked back, the flame was just a point in the darkness. The optical whisper of dying polysaccharides.

He felt a chilly breeze and strangely, a calm fell over him. The voices in the dark were silenced. Now all he heard was stillness. Beautiful beautiful stillness. Standing there, in the dark, he let the silence rain through him.

He made a promise to himself, then and there, to start spending more time alone.

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