“Sir? Sir, if you could please stay with the group.”
Liam turned to the tour guide and gave his best impression of a smile. He tapped the rope that barricaded the stairway from the tour and then folded his hands behind him. “I'm sorry. I was just curious. Where do these stairs go?”
“They lead to the Special Projects Division. That division isn't open for public interaction.” The perturbed tour guide huffed and flattened her lips. She tightened her folded hands before her, and her knuckles slowly faded to white.
“Why?” Liam tried to focus on the guide, not the stairs behind him. He tried not to look, but he couldn't help but look back.
“They sometimes deal with highly unstable subjects, and we wouldn't want any member of the public to be accidentally harmed.” She motioned to the group of interested tourists, who now all stared at Liam. Her smile was more plastic than genuine. “Would you mind rejoining us?”
Liam glanced one more time to the tall columns adorning the lobby. To the glass doors that divided the offices from the public places. He stared down the stairs that gave way to darkness, broken only by faint blue lights set at intermittent intervals. The silence penetrated farther than the night. Deep, dark, unending. He made a mental note of the lack of all movement.
Then he returned to the guided tour.
Whereas the building had been well-lit during the day, now it remained dark. Quiet. Still. Every shadow seemed to lay silent, waiting for some grievous disaster to penetrate its black boundaries. The glass doors shimmered in the faint light of the street lamps outside, dodging in and out of the night surrounding them. The moon and an occasional red light on a fire alarm provided the only visible spots of light in the lobby.
The same blue lights still illuminated the long stairway. The same rope still hung before it, warning visitors that it was an unsafe domain. Commanding any wise passers-by to avoid it at all costs. Nothing had moved in the hours between daylight and nighttime. Everything remained untouched.
A low rumble echoed from the deep as Liam's fingers curled around the scarlet cord. Undeterred, he crouched to slide under the barrier. The heel of his shoes nearly slipped down to the first step, but Liam was quick to steady himself.
The rumble came again, this time louder, and Liam took the time to reach into the bag at his side. He listened as he held the jar steady and unscrewed the lid. He waved the jar's mouth back and forth until he was sure the scent had traveled down the stairs. He didn't move until the rumble paused.
Click. Click. Click.
It was impossible to mask the sound of his shoes on the stone surface. Every piece of creaky leather, every swish of a loose shoelace resounded through the silent hall like a symphony.
His foot landed on the flat surface at the bottom.
The rumble now sounded more like a growl, and only confirmed what Liam had already deduced. What he had expected to await him in this black precipice. An angry German Shepherd prowled into the luminescence of one final blue light. His eyes appeared red in the darkness, and his teeth shone brightly.
With movements as small and as slow as he could possibly manage, Liam lowered the jar to the floor and flattened himself against the wall, outside of the circle of light.
The dog continued to growl as it rounded the container, sniffing its contents intently. His red bulbs landed on Liam's phantom-like shape and drilled into him for a full minute before he lowered his nose into the jar and began to lick the peanut butter.
Liam finally exhaled and moved sideways to the solid steel sliding door. The keypad beside it glowed a dim grey, illuminating the dark, bold letters and numbers that somewhere created a multiple-digit code.
Another reach into the bag at his side, and a glance to ensure the German Shepherd's secrecy. Liam pressed the cool edge of the aluminum alloy key card to his forehead and sent up a silent prayer that it would work. He ran it through the slot provided and lifted a hand to press in the sixteen-digit code he had previously memorized.
A rotating blue loading sign appeared on the screen, circling around the renowned Whedon Defense Options logo. Around and around and around it went, processing the information he had fed it. Once more around, and then a single sentence appeared on the screen.
Welcome to Special Projects Division.
A slight hiss and whoosh of air forced the dog to look up from his midnight snack. The metal door slid silently open, and Liam stepped in seconds before the German Shepherd decided he was an intruder, not a friend. The door muffled even the very first loud bark.
He turned to reevaluate his situation.
This hallway was similar to the first. Blue lights at intermittent intervals. Dark walls made entirely of steel and metal alloys. A slab floor that extended farther than most dared to go.
Liam pressed himself against the closed door and craned his neck to study the room on his left. The single guard had his feet on the desk and coffee in his hands. His eyes never strayed from the computer screens before him. Locked on what he expected to see.
Logic demanded that the possibilities of his gaze turning to the corridor were less than one percent. Caution, on the other hand, demanded otherwise.
Liam attempted to calculate how clear the reflection from the hallway would be on the computer monitors. The dark colors would surely soak in every movement and amplify it, alerting the guard to his presence even if he managed to avoid the security cameras. That wouldn't do.
One more time, Liam retrieved an item from his bag. A small, rectangular object, very similar to a thumb drive. Two inches in diameter, and easy to hold in one's palm. On the silvery top sat two buttons. Circles of the same silver tone with ridges running around their perimeter like a bulls-eye. He stroked the lower button and remembered to breathe. In, out. In, out. Over and over. Taking his time.
The circle depressed easily, and Liam watched as the monitors in the guardhouse blipped and remained steady. He slipped into the shadows and mentally began the countdown.
Liam ducked down and lifted himself to the balls of his feet, taking special care to ensure the heels of his shoes never touched down on the floor. He refused to allow them to make noise. Inch by agonizing inch, he crept down the endless hallway, pressed flat against the far wall where little light pierced the blackness. Under the radar. Stealthily, past the unsuspecting guard.
He reached the T in the corridors and slipped around the corner. Briefly, he checked the label on the door beside him. He skirted across the opening to start down the other side of the hall. Checked labels as he went. Door after door after door.
Liam found the room he sought and slid a high-tech lock pick into the knob. It whirred and clicked so loudly that Liam thought for sure that the watchman would hear and come running. It wasn't meant to work like that; it was meant to ensure silence. That was what he got for trusting questionable suppliers.
The door clicked one last time, and the knob turned.
Liam slid into the room and pressed the door silently closed. The cool metal felt good against his forehead as he listened for any footsteps in the passage outside.
“They don't want you here.”
Liam's heart beat so fast, he was positive it was a heart attack. This stress couldn't be good for his psychological state. He turned to see what he never wanted to believe.
A girl sat curled on the bed. Her bare feet rested on the edge of the wall-mounted cot, her arms wrapped around her spandex-clad legs. Her long black hair formed waves and strings that hid her face from the ominous blue lights in the ceiling. If she hadn't spoken, he wouldn't have known she was there at all.
Bile rose in his throat. Liam swallowed it again. He pressed his sweaty palms against the door behind him and sent a silent plea to his Savior. Only two words.
The girl remained silent as he approached her and knelt on the floor before her. “Brooke, I don't know how to say this.”
“It's time to leave.” Brooke nodded and slid her feet to the floor. Unlike Liam's worn shoes, her spandex unitard made no noise as she gracefully rose and extended a hand in his direction.
Liam stood, as well, and accepted the familiar gesture. It felt good to be so close to her again. To know that those were indeed her steady fingers interlocked with his own.
Brooke followed him, tread for tread, to the unlocked steel door.
His trembling hand found the knob again and he clutched as tightly as he could, given the moisture collecting on his palm. The latch emitted a faint click and gave way to allow the door to swing on its hinges.
The hall was the same, but infinitely longer. The stakes infinitely higher. The lights blinked twice. Buzzed. And blinked again.
There was no mask this time. No illusion to hide them from the prying eyes around every corner. The lights that had seemed dim moments earlier were suddenly too bright. The cool became burning heat, searing through his skin and to his bones.
Liam squeezed Brooke's hand reassuringly and set a brisk clip, the heels on his Italian shoes clunking on the floor. Brooke easily kept up with his strides.
They rounded the corner to face their only way of escape.
Liam's eyes involuntarily traveled to the small guardhouse at the far end of the hallway, and his respiration quickened. He clutched more tightly to Brooke's small hand. He wouldn't fail now, not after everything he'd gone through to get here.
The guard appeared somewhere in the middle of the hallway, with a large, presumably loaded rifle held steadily in his hands. “Freeze,” he commanded. He leveled the rifle at Liam's chest and narrowed his already small eyes.
Liam stopped in his tracks. In his peripheral vision, he saw Brooke glance up at him hopefully. His heart dropped. If only he were immortal. He closed his eyes to beg his Lord for one more chance to make this right.
The guard nodded to their intertwined hands. “Release her.”
Liam returned Brooke's gaze with a slight shake of his head. There was nothing he could do. Brooke lowered her head to stare at the floor and released Liam's hand. One slender finger at a time. He somehow knew it wasn't only his hand she released, but also something inside her.
“Amber,” the guard continued, “please return to your shell while I deal with this immediate difficulty.”
Brooke stood still, her eyes still focused on the floor beneath her.
Liam wished he could cry. She had always been opinionated, stubborn, and they had broken her. She was subdued now, submissive. This wasn't how she would react to such a situation. She had always been a fighter. So why did she stand so still?
The guard kept the rifle locked on Liam's chest and repeated his command. “Amber, return to your shell.”
Once more, Brooke didn't move. She didn't even tremble. The only motion was the slight heft of her chest as she breathed in and out. In and out. She might have closed her eyes, but with the curtain of hair hiding her from the world, Liam couldn't be sure.
The guard cocked his rifle. It might have been nice to know that it hadn't been armed before, but it was too late for that now. “Amber, shell. Now.”
Brooke's eyes lifted. Her head jerked upright an inch or two to allow her to stare the guard down. A strand of hair fell forward across her eye.
In one smooth movement, Brooke ran forward, catapulted off a wall, and wrapped her legs around the guard's neck. She twisted as they fell toward the ground, nearly in slow motion. Brooke rolled to rest upright on one knee, the guard motionless on the hard, cold floor. The hallway quiet once more. As though nothing had happened.
The whole ordeal lasted less than ten seconds.
Liam didn't move. He had no idea what had just happened, but Brooke was dangerous now. She had just proven that. “Brooke?” He breathed more heavily than she did.
“It's okay, Liam. We're okay.” Her hollow eyes drilled through him, begging him to tell her that her words were true. Asking for promises that Liam wasn't sure he could give.
Nothing could have been further from the truth, but now wasn't the time to point that out. “Yeah. Yeah, we're okay. Or we will be. We need to get out of here.”
“I don't think the front door will work.” Brooke managed a small smile and shrugged. For one shining moment, she returned to the girl he had known and loved. In that moment, nothing bad had happened and no one was hurt. Things were as they should be.
It didn't last long enough.
Liam skirted around the body on the ground and reached for Brooke's hand again. She clung tightly to him, overlooking the nervous moisture that now threatened to drip from his fingertips.
Back down the corridor, around the corner. They raced past doors and more doors – all steel – and came to another T in the structure. To their right: another hall. To their left: a clear door leading to a large set of laboratories. Night technicians busied themselves with samples and data, computers and microscopes.
The aluminum alloy entry card worked on this door, too, and Liam released Brooke's hand to allow her to hide herself as they entered. She disappeared behind a cabinet, hidden in the all-encompassing shadows.
He cleared his throat and shoved his hands into his pockets.
Act like you belong here, he reminded himself, act like you belong here.
Liam snatched a lab coat from a nearby coat stand and slung it onto his arms. Not one of the technicians had turned to see who had entered their domain. Not a single eye had wandered from the various experiments scattered across tables also made of steel. A single steel barrier held the tops of those tables to the legs, obstructing the view from the technicians' ankles to their torsos.
Things went well until about twenty steps into the room.
A man looked up from his microscope and pulled at the headphones in his ears. They tumbled out and hit the countertop with a click.
Liam took another few paces.
The man rose and stepped between the short ends of two tables, obstructing Liam's path to the back of the laboratory.
A drop of sweat ran down Liam's temple.
“Excuse me, can I help you?” the technician asked.
Liam wiped a hand on the inside of the coat and pulled it out to offer a shake. “Doctor Nelson, psychologist.”
The man shook his hand, but turned his head questioningly. “I've never seen you around before.”
“Well, I...” Liam trailed off when he caught sight of the table to his right, where Brooke had flattened herself against the barrier. Her legs, in the splits, held her above the small sliver of visibility at the bottom. Her hands pressed flat against the metal, keeping her still. She smiled quickly, then let it drop back down to a frown.
The scientist raised an eyebrow. “Something the matter?”
“No. Nothing. Sorry, I'm tired.” Liam cleared his throat again. He couldn't afford to give their secret away. “I don't usually work nights.”
“Tell me about it,” the man laughed. “Took me weeks to adjust to the night schedule when I started here. Frankly, I'm surprised they brought you on so late in the experimental stage.”
“Diverse opinions, or something like that.” Liam rolled his eyes noncommittally. He really didn't want to be having a full-blown conversation. He had to get out of there as fast as he possibly could. They didn't have much time left.
The man stepped aside and leaned sideways against the table. “Have a good night's sleep, okay? We want you to be on the top of your game. For posterity.”
“Yeah.” Liam moved on, making a beeline for the door. He had come so far, and now Brooke was stuck there until the technician moved. Which, of course, he didn't.
The scientist yawned and waved in Liam's direction.
Liam lifted a hand in a half-hearted return wave and slid the card through the next slot. The light beside the door changed to green and the deadbolt thunked. He stepped into a square room with stairs on one side, leading up. The door clanged closed as he turned to see if the technician had stirred. It locked again. He had traveled so far to achieve nothing.
The whisper behind him nearly caused him to hyperventilate. He spun to face her and put a hand to his heart. He looked to the closed door, then back to Brooke. The door, then Brooke.
She lifted the corners of her mouth for a brief moment before her eyes turned serious again.
Never mind, he didn't need to know. She could tell him later.
Liam took the stairs two at a time, and Brooke wasn't far behind. Up, up, up the steps, past the blue lights and into the yellow illumination of the public places. The door at the top of the steps slid open easily to allow them access to the back offices of Whedon Defense Options.
Liam stopped and put his hands to his knees. He inhaled slowly in a failed attempt to regulate his overactive respiratory system.
Brooke waltzed past him, her eyes roving over the shimmering glass doors, which soaked in more light than the walls around them. Comfortable leather chairs that sat still as rocks. Tables that sported glossy magazines and mod coasters. She moved with the grace of a life-long dancer, though Liam knew she had only taken two years of ballet in junior high.
An alarm sounded through the building, whoop-whoop-whooping through every crevice of the architecture. Red lights whirred on overhead and flashed incessantly. Brooke covered her ears with her palms and let out a shriek higher than the sirens. It reverberated through the rafters, and for a second Liam thought it would shatter glass.
There wasn't time to take another deep breath, so Liam moved with what he had. He grabbed Brooke's hand from the side of her head and expertly maneuvered through the obstacle course of tables and chairs. Over and around. He jumped off the backs of the furniture and tread across tabletops he thought would break under their weight.
Brooke didn't flinch. She followed in every footstep, easily keeping up with his record-setting pace. Her hair flew in all directions, and her hand tightened around his the farther they went.
His hand hit the crash bar on the emergency exit with so much force that the door hit the outside wall with a loud bang.
Brooke jumped into the waiting truck first, sailing high above the back hatch. She crouched in a corner by the back window. Liam climbed in seconds later and slammed his fist on the top of the cab.
The truck roared as the driver hit the gas and careened down the dark alley.
A single security guard slid out the emergency door into the alley and raised a gun he didn't have the guts to shoot.
Liam ignored him and turned his gaze to Brooke's determined face, framed by billows of wind-blown hair. She stared back at the diminishing Whedon Defense Options building, stone-faced.
“Turn off those sirens.” Lucas McNamara straightened his jacket and waited for his command to be carried out. Ten seconds later, he was rewarded with exactly what he had demanded. Good. These people knew how to follow orders.
He strode to the nearby “off limits” stairwell and clip-clopped down the steps. The dog had been leashed and removed from the area, and the security door stood open pending his perusal of the crime scene. He noted the jar of generic peanut butter on the ground, scowled, and moved past.
The body was what really intrigued him. The deceased guard lay with a rifle still firmly in his grasp, his neck neatly broken. No ordinary mugger could have done anything of the sort. Most people froze when they were told, especially when the weapon in question was cocked and ready for use. Still, someone had had the guts to rush the guard, and the smarts to break his neck cleanly. The man hadn't even gotten off a shot.
That, of course, was only one of his many mistakes. Mistake number one had been letting someone by him in the first place. They accumulated from there.
“Sir,” a security guard poked his head from the guardhouse, “we have something.”
McNamara slid his hands in his pockets and took his time backtracking to the security monitor location, where the same security guard that had called him had the video feed cued up to two different times on two different screens.
“My name is George,” the security guard offered.
McNamara didn't flinch. “Don't care. Roll it.”
“Okay.” George's sarcasm wasn't lost on anyone. He clicked on an icon in the corner of the screen, and the first video played. “This was forty-five minutes ago.”
McNamara watched the footage of the guard's demise, brought on by their own subject. Yet another mistake. The man should have known better than to say what he did. No surprise there, given what the guard should have thought, and at least now they had a photograph of the man that had dared to interfere. They would find him soon enough. The reach of their resources was extensive.
George pressed play on the second screen. “This is just a couple of minutes before that. We think he used a looper.”
Footage of the empty hallway filled the screen. Unmoving. Unwavering. The only difference was the double-looped time stamp on the bottom of the video.
“Who sounded the alarm?” McNamara asked as he exited the station.
George followed with his evidence clipboard securely in his hands. “One of the scientists ran this guy's creds after he strolled through. Turns out we never hired him.”
“Where's the man now?” Witnesses were always helpful, and admissible in court. If the situation made it that far.
George consulted his clipboard. “Kevin Lerman is currently being detained in the Special Projects Division laboratories.”
McNamara held in a smile. It wouldn't do to ruin his image with an emotional response like that. Kevin was the key to a solid identification of the man who was now at the top of the list for retrieval and interrogation. He already knew too much.
McNamara turned toward the labs. “The others?”
“Safe,” George assured.
McNamara only offered a nod. That was all that mattered on the subject, so he let it go. He wasn't one to spend much time outside of his own head. That's where he uploaded all the problems, and that's where he figured them out.
As promised, Kevin Lerman leaned patiently against one of the countertops in the laboratories. McNamara had already read the background on Kevin, and he was squeaky clean. One of the best techs they had hired to date. Kevin would give him what he wanted.
“Mr. Lerman,” McNamara started, “you can call me Lucas. I know a boatload of idiots have probably already taken your statement, but if you would be so kind as to repeat it one last time for my benefit.”
Kevin nodded and folded his arms across his chest. “Sure thing. This guy comes in here like he owns the place, but sort of twitchy at the same time, if you get my drift. He was wearing an official coat, but something told me he was...off. It just felt like he was out of place. Anyway, I asked who he was and he said he was a psychologist. A new guy. I let him go, but checked his creds as soon as he was out of sight. Turns out, he wasn't legit at all.”
Whoever this guy was, he had thought this through. McNamara tried not to let his disgust filter onto his face. “Do you remember what name he gave?”
“Doc Nelson. We had a Nelson on record, but he resigned three months ago. Figured that's why he used that name.”
McNamara patted the tech on the shoulder and gave the best rendition of a smile he could manage. It came off as more of a half-smirk, he was sure. “Thanks, Kevin. You did good. Head on out and sleep this off, okay?”
Kevin nodded again and headed for the back door. The one that the intruder had used to escape.
McNamara turned to George and motioned with his head toward the same doorway. Hopefully, George would pick up on his nonverbal cue to have the tech followed. Just in case. He waited a minute to ensure that Kevin had really left before he asked his next question. “was the girl harmed in any way?”
“Absolutely not,” George assured. “We have strict protocols in place against it.”
McNamara tightened his jaw. This was already out of hand. She shouldn't be on the streets. She shouldn't be in public. Anyone with half a brain could eventually piece together her abnormalities. “I want her back. We need her.”
“I understand, sir. But, just in case, I do have another idea. A contingency plan, if you will.”
McNamara had to admit, he was intrigued by this nobody's quick thinking. “Talk to me.”
“His name is Janus.”
An actual smile made its way onto McNamara's face, despite his attempts to disguise it. He had heard the man's name before. He had a spotless reputation. “I like how you think, George. Alive, if possible.”
“Yes, sir.” George took that as his cue to dash off in pursuit of his contingency plan.
A plan that McNamara fully approved of. If this went well, he could see a promotion in George's near future.