Life is all about plans changing. Still, going from “get down the stairs, smash stuff and get gone before you get shot” to “run around and get shot at as a distraction” is a pretty extreme change.
“There’s four stairwells open,” the mysterious Agent Stillwater told us. “Closest is around the second left.”
“Got it.” I leapt down the hall, leaving Clark to catch up, and did a quick glance around the corner. The way was clear so I signaled Clark to come forward and headed to the stairs. We’d been doing this for the last ten minutes, trying to buy time for whatever Stillwater’s team was doing, baiting Circuit’s guard forces from floor to floor to keep them from paying too much attention to the lower floors. I wasn’t quite sure what he was up to but he’d known an access code that Clark recognized – field analysts have this huge list of codes they’re expected to memorize and apparently the old man knew one really high up the list.
And so, a mad dash through the tower was the order of the day. We’d been looping back and fourth through the building, going down floor by floor and attracting as much attention as we could without getting shot. Agent Stillwater hadn’t told us what his game was although, to be fair, he was kind of busy just directing us through the building and keeping a listening ear on our pursuers. At some point he’d done the math and figured out there were probably only fifteen or twenty guards on our tails, not enough to watch all twelve stairwells in the building effectively, so we were doing our best to stay a step ahead. But they were herding us into one corner of the building and it was getting harder.
Worse, we’d come down at least ten floors and were somewhere around the fortieth floor now. At some point Circuit’s people could start coming up at us.
I gave the stairwell a quick check, although so far Stillwater hadn’t been wrong about a stairwell being empty, and waited for Clark to catch up. He was starting to get really winded, he probably did some PT but we’d covered a lot of ground. I don’t have a good grip on this kind of thing but I’d guess anyone would be tired after all that. As he skidded to a stop I knelt down and picked him up in a piggyback carry. Odd, perhaps, but it’s the safest way to jump while carrying someone and we weren’t actually using the stairs just sort of falling past them from one landing to the next.
Clark started to slip off my back as I reached for the door but Stillwater chose that moment to break in and say, “Agent Rodriguez?”
“Call me Izzy,” I said by reflex.
He ignored me and went straight on. “We’re ready for you now. You and Agent Movsessian can come down to us now. We’re in the third subbasement.”
Clark groaned and climbed back on. I took a deep breath, did my best to ignore my stinging feet, which had decided to start getting their feeling back two floors ago, and got ready for the next jump.
We wound our way down the stairs for a good fifty to sixty seconds, the way lit only by the dim light of emergency exit signs. I’d briefly considered asking if we could just knock out the building’s generator and hamstring Circuit that way but Stillwater, whoever he was, didn’t seem to be in the mood to consider other ideas and there wasn’t that much time to talk. Besides, given what I’d heard about him, odds were Circuit wasn’t actually running off of the building’s power grid. Finally we arrived at the subbasement in question, and for those of you wondering a subbasement is what they call anything below the first basement in a building. So we were basically three floors underground and isn’t that just something to make you feel great about yourself?
Stillwater’s voice led us through the basement hallways and over to one of the two elevator banks that led down to the subbasement. Finally we wound up in a small utility room beside the elevator shaft with two men in wheelchairs, a nondescript white man who could have put on a jumpsuit and passed for a janitor anywhere and a black guy who would pass for a basketball or football coach most places if not for the tank he wore on his back that made him look more like an exterminator.
In wheelchair number one there was an old man, hunched to the point his head was almost resting on his chest, who I guessed was Stillwater. The other man had a head like a pool ball, shaved clean and smooth, and looked vaguely familiar.
Clark placed him before I did. “Matthew Sykes?”
He looked up from a laptop he’d been engrossed in. Lit by the screen, Sykes was easier to make out than most of the people in the room and the first thing I wanted to ask was why he was strapped in to his chair with something that looked like a cross between the restraint bar on a roller coaster and a rappelling rig. Thick, padded straps covered his shoulders and fastened to a bar that was tightened down over his waist. It looked like the laptop was connected to a pannel in the wall, at a guess I’d say it was a router of some sort. A wan, distracted smile changed his rather unremarkable face to something almost inviting and I suspected he’d be a fun guy to hang out with under other circumstances. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your names?”
“Clark Movsessian.” He twitched a thumb at me. “Isabel Rodriguez. We work with Project Sumter and can I ask what you’re doing down here?”
“Expert consulting,” Stillwater said.
“But what’s he consulting on?” I asked.
Sykes tapped the side of his laptop. “The network those guys are running on was built by my company and I did a lot of the basic setup work on it in my younger days.” He hit a few keys. “And now it’s gone.”
“Gone?” Clark hurried over and looked at whatever Sykes had just done. “Are you sure? They can’t get access back?”
“Not without coming down here and asking us to share,” Sykes said.
“Oh.” I looked back out into the dark hallways we’d just come through. “I guess that’s what we’re here for?”
“We could always use more hands.”
Stillwater spoke at the same moment Sykes said, “What do you mean?”
The two men shared a confused glance. Stillwater quickly said, “Mr. Sykes, perhaps my tactical man and I should take it from here? I may be old but this isn’t-” Stillwater paused and tilted his head in a way much like Amp did when she heard something odd. “Someone’s coming down the elevator shaft. I can hear them talking.”
“How?” Clark asked. “Elevators shouldn’t be on the backup circuit.”
“They’re not in the elevator, just the shaft,” Sykes replied, setting his laptop on the ground nearby. With the quiet whir of an electric motor his chair rolled out the door and towards the elevator entrance. The rest of us hurried to keep up.
Jack met Teresa and I as we headed towards the interview rooms. “She just got here with Mr. Sykes’ secretary,” he said without preamble. “No trouble on their way over from the airport.”
“Have you seen her yet?” I asked.
“Nope. Guards said she seemed collected but nervous.” He shrugged. “Sounds like a tough lady but no idea if that means she was involved or not. That’s her.”
Jack pointed to a average sized brunette, seated with her back to us, in one of the nicer interview rooms. A snappily dressed man in his mid to late forties sat to her left, a hand resting lightly on one shoulder in a caring but somewhat distant way. He had salt-and-pepper hair and beard and an intelligent set to his features. I was guessing that was the secretary.
“We know anything about that guy?” I asked.
Jack shook his head. “Didn’t even get his name. Apparently he was waiting for Mrs. Sykes at the airport and she wanted him to come along. No idea if there’s anything beyond casual acquaintance between the two.”
I took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and popped my knuckles. “Okay. Let’s go see what we can see.”
Secretary guy stood up as soon as the three of us stepped into the room, automatically taking a half step to put himself between us and his employer’s wife. Mrs. Sykes turned at the same moment and for a brief moment she seemed familiar to me before the secretary distracted me by talking. “Good morning gentlemen, ma’am,” he said, nodding to each of us in turn. “I’m the office manager for the Sykes Telecom home office. Simeon-”
“My God.” Teresa brushed past both of us and grabbed Mrs. Sykes by the shoulders. “Elizabeth?”
Simeon cleared his throat, looking a little uncomfortable, and continued on. “I am Simeon Delacroix and this is Elizabeth Dawson Sykes.”
Which was why she looked familiar. We’d never met but I’d seen her picture many times. I looked up at Jack. “I think we have a problem here.”
The elevator door slid open without that usual ding. And I guess that makes sense, the thing that dings is probably in the elevator cab not the door, right? Putting one on every floor would be a lot more expensive than just putting one in the elevator cab. Dumb thing to be thinking about at the time, but it’s what went through my mind.
Sykes came to a stop in front of the elevator as the doors started to slide open. With the exit sign above the stairwell nearby providing the only bright source of illumination in the hall I couldn’t make out much. Just the blocky shape of Sykes’ wheelchair, which now that I thought about it looked way overbuilt. The frame seemed to go all the way down to the floor and extended over the wheels several inches. And it was solid, like someone had put a golf cart engine under the seat. Or a couple of car batteries, since that made more sense.
But the really wild thing? When the elevator doors opened there were three guys in the shaft and they were flying. Clark whistled softly when he saw that. “Maglev elevator shafts. This place really did have a lot of nonstandard work done when it was renovated.”
The first man in line stepped out of the shaft, squaring off against Sykes as the other two came out behind him and three more dropped into view. The leader wore a dark suit, fedora and a black cloth around the lower half of his face hiding his features and expression. But his tone of voice was pure contempt. “Who are you people?”
For just a second the tableau held and I felt the hair on the back of my neck standing on end. Then Sykes slammed his fist down on the armrest of his wheelchair and the men still in the elevator shaft dropped like puppets with their strings cut. I got a brief glimpse of another batch of three going past the open door while Sykes snapped, “I’m Open Circuit, that’s who I am. You are in my tower, stealing my plans and even ripping off the way I dressed. So tell me something, young man. Who are you?”