Lou watched Taylor leave and her hands wanted to shake, forcing her to take a moment to relax her breathing and calm herself. Izzy appeared to be having a similar problem, though Winston did not. This is probably exciting to him. Idiot. The van lurched into motion as Helen drove them to the other side of the building, where Lou and Winston would try to enter through a clandestine rear delivery door. This part of the plan was laughably simple. That was what they were counting to make it work.
Lou and Winston were dressed as cleaning staff, their plastic badges indistinguishable from those carried by actual building staff. The template had been among the files found on the data when Taylor hacked the building's network. But they weren't relying on that little easily pierced deception. As long as they could pass enough to get close, that was all they needed. She patted herself down one last time, made sure she had everything she needed: the wiper, a tiny Taser Myth had given her, her cell, and wire-ties. Before the van stopped Lou was ready.
“We're here.“ Winston said solemnly through a vague smile. He didn't bother waiting or saying anything else, he opened the van's sliding bay door and strode towards the target door on the side of the building, for all the world as if he had always been a janitor and belonged exactly where he was. Nothing struck Lou as out of the ordinary during her quick visual sweep of the area. Inside she sighed at Winston's wantonness. It seemed nothing short of miraculous that the kid had never been caught before as lacking in caution as he appeared. Yet he blends so damned well, he's definitely a natural. He should have been an actor. Lou had no choice but to follow.
“Good luck...“ Izzy said, “And be careful.“ She reached out and took Lou's hand, squeezed it firmly. It was almost a violation, but the moment was extraordinary. Lou allowed herself to feel nothing but comfort in the gesture, the touch. From up front, “Be careful!“ Myth said. Winston was already flanking the door, brandishing his access card. Lou had no more time to spare. She ran.
Just inside the door was a lolling security guard. No sooner did she lay eyes on him Lou backpedaled, unconsciously stepping away from him before she lost control of herself. Breathing hard, she assured herself it couldn't be the same man, the man who had attacked her in the subway. Winston coughed into his hand, very lightly, and Lou gritted her teeth, stepped forward. The guard had already gotten to his feet from behind a grubby little desk and approached them.
“Not supposed to have any of yous here, tonight.“ the guard said his accent thick with eastern Long Island. “You was supposed to have been told.“ His voice was low and deep and he glared menacingly as he spoke. “Leave.“ He waved them towards the door.
Winston held up his badge and pulled a sheepish face. His shoulders in a half-shrug. But to Lou it seemed a mocking gesture, like the kid was laughing at the guard. Lou supposed that was because she knew him. She knew that cavalier expression. “Hey man,“ Winston began, surprising Lou with the difference in his voice, he sounded like a Brooklyn Guido. “We gots a work order here!“ He started fumbling in his large pockets. The guard's eyes narrowed angrily, focused on Winston's pockets, his hand reaching under the armpit of his blazer.
“Take yous hand out now!“ the guard barked. He was almost totally focused now on Winston, who slowly removed his hand and raised both in the air, looking vaguely frightened. This is it. They hadn't been able to choreograph the moment exactly, there to many unknowns, but Winston had said she would know it when it came.
Lou moved slowly, not wanting to draw any of the guard's attention. She reached into the back pocket of her cleaning staff jumpsuit. Her fingers closed around the wiper in her pocket and she withdrew it. The guard reached Winston and began to pat him down with one hand, the other still concealed beneath his blazer. Lou tried to hold the steps in her mind she and Myth run through. It wasn't hard, but it was specific, required precision. They had not tested the device on a person, Izzy had forbade it. So, the entire action was based on Myth's research and assumptions. Lou was anxious not to deviate.
She held up the device, her thumb hovering over the button on the side, the two nodules along the bottom edge aimed towards the guard. His hand had just brushed against the Taser under Winston's slacks, tied against his calf. Lou wanted to swear. She was supposed to have him by now.
“What's this?“ the guard barked. Lou pushed the button, leaned towards the guard, the device less than two feet from the side of the guard's head. The two nodules flashed LED blue and the guard froze, eyes glazed and fluttering like he was flirting with sleep. This was the critical moment, according to Myth's assumptions.
“You've already searched us!“ Lou said with a commanding air. “We're wanted on the 32nd Floor. Go back to your desk. Don't let anyone know we've come.“ The guard's head turned towards her voice and he blinked rapidly, slack-jawed, a tiny bead of drool building up in the corner of his mouth. Winston held his breath, judging by the look on his face, as he edged away from the guard's hand, now loosely gripping his calf. Winston's eyes were wide with something, but Lou couldn't place it.
I can't believe it actually worked! Myth you're a genius! Is it shock on Winston's face? Lou knew she was shocked. Any second now she expected the guard to charge her, take the device away and put a bullet in her. She barely controlled a shiver.
The guard just stared at her, eyelids fluttering like leaves in the wind. Lou pressed the button on the device again, unable to stop herself, repeated her commands, almost yelling them this time. The guard's head was much closer this time, the device almost pressing against his temple. His eyes jerked open, showing whites only. His mouth closed, hard enough he bit his lip. A trickle of blood, a very small trickle, trailed down his chin. Seconds ticked by and Lou was about to suggest they bind him with wire-ties while he was struck dumb and tuck him under his own desk. But he stood up rigidly straight and waved them through, saying:
“I already searched yous two and yous wanted on 32 pronto! And don't think I'mma tell anyone yous was here so late!“ He sat down and pointedly ignored them.
Winston's beamed. Lou stared at the guard stupidly before she shook herself and said, in a clipped whisper to Winston, “C'mon, we've got to get to the control room! Quick!“
Winston had memorized the plans of the building for the floors they expected to be on. He knew the way to the control room where security was headquartered. Lou had looked over those blueprints herself and she had a vague idea of the layout, though probably nowhere near the photographic copy in Winston's head. They walked down a long hallway lit by wavering fluorescent bulbs, the walls a bare mauve plaster. They only passed two doors between the first and the one at the opposite end of the long hallway. As they walked Winston exclaimed, “I can't believe it actually worked! Do you have any idea the shit we could do with that thing?“ Hearing the excitement in his voice Lou was suddenly very glad she was holding “that thing” and not Winston. Remembering how fully and magnificently the boy had changed his voice in front of that guard, Lou feared what the wiper could do for someone like Winston. Lou stopped in front of the door, stared down at the device. It was slick in her hands, eerily similar to her iPhone. Her palms were sweaty and the wiper was beginning to feel a bit slimy. Or is it just in my head? She wanted to be rid of it, to destroy it. It was too dangerous to exist.
But as much as she wanted it out of her hands she knew giving it to Winston, even for a little while, was not an option. “I know what we won't be doing with it. “ Lou said, but the words sounded hollow. “We're here to make sure people don't use something like this on each other, not use it ourselves.“ Winston's grin slipped a bit, but he nodded.
At the door Winston used his access card and after a green light flashed at them it opened. Inside it was far darker than the hallway, the only light came from banks of monitors showing various camera views. From hundreds of places around the building, each screen subdivided into four or eight windows. Surprisingly, shockingly, there was no one in the room.
“Where are they?“ Lou asked the empty room, holding the device out in front of her like a ray gun.
Winston shrugged as he pushed past her into the room, clearly as clueless as she was. There should be at least two guards in the room, according to entry logs from the data Taylor hacked. Always two. But there were none. Just monitors, keyboards, and two abandoned cups of coffee. One cup flanked by a half- eaten doughnut.
“Looks like they just left...“ Winston started the obvious.
“Shut the door! Lock it!“ Lou ordered, “We've got to set the alarms off now!“ How did Winston manage the capers he's pulled off? Everything distracts him. She chided herself: You're not doing much better. Lou went to the largest monitor, stared down at the keyboard.
What now? Blinking at the keyboard she remembered that this is why Winston was there.
Seconds later he was at the keyboard, gently pushing her aside. He started typing, brought up some program, some mess of menus which he clicked through rapidly. How can he possibly take in what he's seeing? A loud bang came from the hallway beyond locked door. Lou and Winston jerked around to stare at the door.
“What the hell...“ Winston said. The door banged and shook, like someone throwing themselves against it. It banged again. And again. Winston's eyes flitted around the room. He pointed at a monitor and said, “Look!“ Lou's head turned to the monitor. There was a camera view of the hallway outside the door, the camera staring down. It was shaken again by yet another bang.
“It's Alexander!“ Winston said incredulously. And she wasn't alone. Her leg came up and slammed into the door, shaking it hard. It was hard to believe such a slender woman could pack such force in a kick. She sent a boom reverberating through the control room. “She has Izzy!“ Lou shouted.
Alexander did indeed have Izzy, one lithely-muscled arm wrapped around the teenager's throat, holding her to the side, casually, like it took, little if any effort as the NSA agent prepared for yet another kick. Alexander paused mid-kick. Her leg came down. Her head whipped up to stare directly into the camera. Realization passed over her face. Izzy, terrified, struggled, but Alexander shook her like a rag-doll. The agent brandished Izzy to the camera, then pointed at the door, like an offering. The agent reached into her jacket, pulled out a very large, very intimidating gun. She pressed the weapon against Izzy's right temple. Izzy squirmed as the gun pressed into her head, blanched and tried to pull away, but she was unsuccessful. Alexander only half seemed to be paying attention to Izzy, most of her attention riveted to the camera.
“She's going to shoot Izzy!“ Lou shouted, “We have to open the door!“ Lou rushed the door, but Winston inserted himself between her and the exit. Lou pulled up short, so they were face to face.
“She has a gun, Lou! If we let her in, we're done! Taylor's done! It's over. You see that don't you?“ Winston said, his grin wavering, his arms spread wide, hands pressed flat into the doorway.
Lou was stunned, unsure how to respond. She could easily dislodge Winston. He hadn't even bothered to protect any of his sensitive spots. Her need to protect Izzy warred with her requirement of fulfilling their mission. The door banged again, almost dislodging Winston. Alexander waved the gun at the camera, threatening, then pushed it so hard into Izzy's head Izzy's face split into a silent scream.
“Get your Taser.“ Lou said. “I'm gonna open the door, run into her. You nail her while I've got her down.“
“Why not use the wiper on her?“ Winston asked, frightened, but eager.
“No! She's moving around too much! Myth said it has to be precise! We can't risk it!“ Lou said, though she was mostly creeped out by the thought of Winston using the device on his crush. Winston wasn't having it.
“There's a setting for that!“ he said, “I know there is! Myth showed it to me, I can...“ Winston said. Lou cut him off. It figures Myth would show him whatever he wants to see, she trusts Winston almost as much as she's infatuated with him.
“I said no!“ Lou barked, “Get the Taser!“ She pressed the button to open the door, Winston still pressing himself up against it.
Winston moved like a ninja, had the Taser out and threw himself to the right side of the door, crouching down to hide as best he could next to the banks of monitors and desktop. Alexander rushed in, brandishing Izzy. The large gun was pressed into the back of Izzy's head. Izzy's hands were up in the air. She blinked at Lou, eyes adjusting to the darkness of the room. Lou knew Alexander would be having the same problem, but the agent wasn't blinking.
Lou lunged at Alexander, as she moved forward she simultaneously shoved Izzy aside and fell into Alexander. A gunshot boomed through the room, followed by the sound of a bullet shattering into glass, and metallic popping, sizzling explosion of noise. When they crashed to the floor together the gun flew out of Alexander's hand and slid across the room. Lou managed to shout, “Get the gun, Iz!“ before Alexander's hand crashed into her face. Another blow followed by another blow immediately after, this to Lou's back. Lou grunted in pain, her body's hard muscles absorbing most, but not all, of the shock. Her hands scrambled to find purchase on the agent, something, anything she could use to pin the woman down. Before Lou could find anything two more hard blows clapped Lou's head. She's too good to be easily pinned down, I'll have to fight her.
Decision made, it was like a switch had been flipped. Lou's body tensed and her knees crashed into Alexander's middle section, prompting a squelched grunt from Alexander and another blow to Lou's head. The blow was timed wrong, it glanced off Lou's head and into the floor. Lou responded with two successive, quick jabs to Alexander's left side near her kidney. More grunts and another attempted blow which went wild, missing completely this time. Lou sensed a moment and clasped both her hands together. Elbows pointed down, she threw her entire body down, all her weight levered onto her arms. Her elbows fell towards Alexander's sternum and into rib cage.
As she fell a barrage of memories exploded into her mind; a scene from shortly after she joined the MMA gym in the East Village. A larger, older girl had underestimated Lou the first time they had fought and Lou had quickly beaten the girl, ruthlessly beaten her, giving her a black eye and busted lip for good measure. Lou had not yet worked Juvie and group homes from her system back then. She still had trouble controlling her anger, often holding it in so hard, so tightly wound inside, that when she sparred the anger came bursting out of her like a vomit of rage. Lou had not gloated about beating the girl, in fact, she had given the girl a rare compliment after the sparring match, once her rage had calmed. After they had banged fists, and congratulated each other. Despite that, there had been hate in the other girl's eyes. Lou had felt it heating up her skin where those eyes had touched her. Colleen. Her name was Colleen.
Colleen was a very large, beefy white girl. Her hair cut short and brutal, a mop of cropped curly brown locks. She had grey eyes and a thin, angry mouth. Though at first glance she looked fleshy, maybe even fat, she all muscle, and incredibly strong. She was at least four inches taller than Lou, easily forty pounds heavier. Of course, none of that had frightened Lou, she had beaten larger, fiercer girls in Juvie. Girls who had wanted to see her dead rather than beaten. Girls who tried to paralyze, girls who enjoyed causing pain in others, girls who had learned to thrive on it. For all her glum looks and tough-girl posturing, Colleen was a privileged, embarrassingly rich girl and she didn't seem the type to go so far into the dark side of the fight. Lou had been forced, as a survival mechanism, to become a good judge of such things. Thriving in Juvie depended on it.
The second time they had fought a sparring match, Colleen had come first deceptively weak; feinting, trying to bait Lou. Lou knew the technique, she had used it herself several times against larger opponents; lulling those girls to complacence, then she would throw a haymaker and level them. Colleen's pattern was much the same only she telegraphed too much, and when the haymaker came, Lou was more than ready. Outside the ring, their MMA coach and trainer, Zahi, occasionally barked an instruction or criticism, but never a compliment or any other form of encouragement. He saved the positive reinforcements for after the fight. Both girls were very familiar with Zahi's distaste for fighting, despite his obvious understanding of it, his willingness to see the need for it, to be proficient and powerful at it. The man never encouraged fighting, not overly, not even for sport. Especially not with words.
He valued his words above everything else, had told them such several times.
“Commit, Colleen. Focus, Lou.“ Zahi barked. Eventually Colleen had wizened to Lou's pattern the same way Lou had learned Colleen's own. Lou shook Zahi's comment off, focus glued to Colleen. Colleen jabbed weakly and with poor aim, opening herself up, inviting Lou to unleash a knockout punch. Lou saw the girl tense for the blow, ready. Instead of throwing herself into the haymaker and landing a knockout blow, the blow Colleen expected, wanted, Lou kicked out to trip the girl up, thinking it unexpected. Maybe it was, but Colleen truly had been baiting Lou. She had half-dodged the kick. Off-balance, Lou tottered. Colleen had jabbed again, this time with full strength behind it, well-timed and perfectly aimed, Lou fell to the mat stunned, the unwelcome thump of her body slamming into the canvas covered wood one of the most disappointing sounds she had ever known.
“Bad form ,Lou! Poor follow-through, Colleen!“ Zahi grumbled.
Colleen had overextended herself, punching too hard and she came down to the mat as well. Lou was quicker to recover her equilibrium. Within a half second she had been on top of Colleen, her rage uncorked. She had thrown punch after punch, unchecked, unblocked into the sides of Colleen's head. Lou's primal fighting instinct had taken over, was in control. Lou kept punching until Colleen was limp, even then most basic blocking attempts gone. Lou had clasped her hands together then, started to pull herself up, her elbows pointed down. She was going to do the “carry-out.“ That's what the girls at Juvie had called it, because once you used it, if you did right, and sometimes even if you didn't, whomever you used it on would be carried out on a stretcher. And you would be carried out in shackles. Done right it was a killing blow.
Zahi's shout had rung in Lou's ears. “Lourdes! NO!“ But it was like a fly buzzing too close to the ear. Lou had paused for a quick second, then committed herself fully. But that quick second had been enough for Colleen to roll herself over. Lou had fallen hard against the mat, knocking the wind out of herself, and almost breaking her elbows. Zahi was screaming in some other language as he scrambled into the ring, throwing himself between the two girls. There was no need at that point, Lou's arms throbbed too much to be of use and she couldn't breathe. Colleen was a bloody mess. Neither girl had any fight left in her. Lou's rage was gone and she had a sick combination of despair and relief.
Zahi had shouted something in Arabic which sounded like “avadah!” “NEVER, Lou! That is never to be allowed! Not here, not ever! You will never use that again, or Zahi will teach you nothing! Not another thing!“
Zahi bristled with barely suppressed anger. He had rounded on Lou, grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her roughly. Ordinarily she wouldn't let anyone touch her like that, but she felt horrible, and the rage had left her emptied.
“Death is NOT victory!“ Zahi said as he tended Colleen, dabbing at the blood on her face. He was breathy, his strong gnarled hands tenderly touching the large girl. Zahi had poked Lou hard on the shoulder with a knobby finger as she leaned over him and Colleen. “To deal in death is to die. There is no victory in death, only loss.“ In retrospect Lou wasn't been sure she agreed with Zahi about that last. But he had left an impression on her and she had never even thought of using the “carry-out” on anyone again.
The images faded, memory replaced by the present, in the flash of a microsecond which had somehow lasted minutes. Because of the memory, Lou hesitated, pulled aside at the last possible moment, giving Alexander the chance to roll away. Lou came down hard on the concrete floor, though she made sure not let her elbows smash point down this time, instead rolled into the fall. Her vision swam, everything gone suddenly hazy.
“If you're going to use a killing blow, you little bitch, you had better use it.“ Alexander growled as she swung a leg forward. Her steel-toed boot crashed into Lou's ribs. Lou tried to clench a fist and swing but her breath exploded out of her. Spots drifted across her vision. A second kick, slightly lower this time, and Lou fell face-first half the foot into the ground. She tried desperately to take a breath through lungs which didn't seem to want to work. When she looked up, Alexander was already on her feet, backing up slowly, her hands up, ready. Alexander had something in her right hand, but Lou's vision was still hazy and she couldn't make out what it was.
Movement drew Lou's attention. She turned her head and saw a gun, held by a shaking hand, pointed not at her, but at Alexander. Izzy! Winston had his Taser out, but he looked poleaxed, confused, and judging by how he hung back, he was afraid to use it. Or just unwilling. Maybe he thought he just couldn't get close enough. Lou made eye contact with him, and he looked away, biting his lip. Lou saw the fear in his expression. Of all the things she thought Winston was feeling then, fear was the only she would forgive. She managed to crawl to her knees, clutching her side, hacked out a half-full breath. Tried to clear her vision by shaking her head slowly. As she stood up she almost fell back down again.
“Don't do anything stupid, Chatham.“ Alexander said. “You can still get out of this alive. But you have to trust me. You shoot me and it's done, over. All of you are done.“ The agent stressed the word done very hard. “I'm a Federal Agent! Remember that! Whatever you think is going on, I can promise you, you don't know everything. You need me. Listen to me!“ Alexander's voice grew more hurried as she spoke. Izzy's hand, holding the gun, shook but she kept it pointed at the woman.
Alexander moved towards Izzy and the girl looked unsure. Her hand shook more violently. Lou tried to get words out, to tell Izzy not to listen to Alexander, to shoot her!, but she had not yet been able to catch her breath. She couldn't get her tongue to speak. Her side and chest burned.
“Maybe we should listen to her?“ Winston said. He lowered his Taser bit, slowly.
“Yes, Fillmore!“ Alexander said decisively. She gestured, with her hands still in the air. “Listen to him.“ She held her hands outward, palms facing the teens. Lou could finally see what she held. A wiper! Lou wanted to scream, tried to, but nothing came. Izzy slowly lowered the gun. Alexander walked closer, sidestepping Lou, who had fallen back to her knees. Still slightly dizzy, still taking gulping breaths which somehow barely provided enough air to catch half a breath, Lou struggled to move.
Alexander made it past Lou, glancing down as she passed; a blank, empty look in her eyes.
“Izzy!“ Lou managed to push words out. “Don't trust...“ But another kick from Alexander cut off Lou's voice and she fell back to the floor. In one smooth motion Alexander brought her hand down and pressed a button on the wiper, aimed the device directly at Izzy. Lou looked up and saw Winston diving behind a row of computers. Izzy stiffened in place. Her eyelids flickered and her jaw went slack, a thin string of drool dripped down her chin. Alexander kept the wiper pointed for a few seconds longer, then lowered it. Izzy's shoulders slumped forward.
Breath gone again, Lou could barely move. It was struggle to return to her knees and not fall to the floor. She couldn't speak.
“Izzy! Help me! Throw me the gun! NOW!“ Alexander said, her voice strong with command, forceful. Lou watched helplessly as Izzy's shoulders came up. and with a blank, empty look in her eyes she tossed the gun to Alexander, who caught it with one hand, pointed the weapon at Lou.
“Get up!“ Alexander shouted, “Keep your hands up! Don't make any sudden moves, or I will shoot you! You too, Fillmore! Move!“
Winston rose from behind the row of machines, hands upraised, expression unbelieving. His Taser was gone and he looked utterly miserable. He mouthed the words, I'm sorry at Lou.
“No talking!“ Alexander shouted.
Lou sighed as best she could.
“Stand up, Rodriguez. Now!“ Alexander barked.
Lou forced her body to work. A spasm of pain shot through her side, like little bolt of electric anguish. She winced and grimaced, breath coming hard. Finally, she made it to her feet. The pain lessened somewhat and she began to think nothing was seriously injured, at least no broken ribs. Prayer wasn't her thing, but Lou mumbled a silent benison to everything in general: the universe itself, the sky, Tori Amos, Hillary Clinton, Harry Potter; in thanks nothing had been broken. Alexander waved them out of the room with the wiper, the gun still pointed and leveled in their direction.
Lou darted her eyes at Izzy. Izzy still looked dazed, but she ambled forward in a jerky motion behind Lou and Winston.
“Move!“ she ordered, but there was no heat, no emotion in her now, only command. The teens moved forward. Lou next to Winston, her head down, tried to seem defeated.
“Why didn't you Tase her?“ Lou whispered urgently.
“I... she was too close... I'm sorry, Lou, I couldn't do it.“ Winston said, not looking at Lou.
“No talking!“ Alexander ordered.
Lou clutched her side, held her sigh inside, walked forward into the hallway.