Saturday, May 7, 2016

Red Watch, Part Three

So there I was again, outside the gate. Adrian sat next to me in the Honda, tense and angry. He’d found a fresh white shirt, and looked ready to go. But he wasn’t happy. “This needs to work,” he muttered.
            “Tell me about it.” I pulled the car forward. It all felt like very Mission: Impossible. With me as Martin Landau, not Tom Cruise. I like the classics.           
            Hailey was in a van down the road, along with Reg and Meddoes. And Rachel. She’d insisted on coming along, and I felt a lot better knowing she was close.
            The camera pen would transmit images to the van, and Reg had promised they’d go directly to Hailey’s laptop. I had my Taser in my windbreaker.
            I opened the window and leaned toward the speaker. “Tom Jurgen to see Sheerece Crowley. I’ve got Adrian Bennish with me.”
            The gate opened. I took a deep breath, tapped the accelerator, and entered the parking lot. This far from the city, I could see stars in the sky, and a half moon rising overhead.
            “Nice night.” Adrian hadn’t talked much on the drive out. His shoulders were tense, but he didn’t seem angry with me. Just nervous, worried about his brother. And Hailey. They’d only had a few minutes for a hurried talk and then a quick kiss.
            I parked and then squeezed the bottom of the pen to activate the camera. The battery inside would keep it transmitting for up to two hours. I’d have to take off my jacket once we were indoors, and I just hoped I could do it without any kind of body language that screamed Don’t look at the spy camera in my shirt!
            “You ready?” I opened the door.
            He shrugged. “I guess.”
            Crowley was waiting at the door, in her jeans and a blue blouse like a cop’s shirt. “Adrian.” She cocked an eyebrow. “We were getting worried.”
            “Flight delay.”
            She believed that as much as a story about waiting for the tooth fairy, but apparently decided that time was more important. “Let’s get you started.”
            “I’d like to see my brother first.”
            Crowley shot a glance at me. Was this all my fault? “We really need to get you started right away,” she told Adrian.
            He crossed his arms, more a nervous self-hug than a defiant stance, but he stood his ground. Just like we’d talked about. “I haven’t seen him in weeks. I really need to see him.”
            Crowley turned for a glance at the clock over the security/reception desk. 9:20. “Fine,” she muttered. “Jurgen, you can wait—”
            “No, he can tag along.” Adrian looked at me. “I wanted to ask him something.”
            Now Crowley was suspicious. I couldn’t let this turn into a confrontation. “It’s just about how Larry looks,” I assured her. “Just to make sure Larry’s in good shape when Adrian isn’t around. If you know he’s coming, you could—”
            “We didn’t know when you were coming.” She glared at us both. “Whatever. Let’s make it quick.”
            I slipped off my jacket as she marched us down the hall and hung it across my arm. She didn’t appear to notice. Adrian glanced at me, but I avoided direct eye contact. The hall was clear—no technicians or guards.
            Crowley inserted her security card, tapped the code, and opened the door. “Like I said—”
            The place still smelled like a dog kennel. Half the overhead lights were dark. Most of the computers had been shut down, and every chair was empty. Everyone had gone home.
            Except Whitmer. He intercepted us before the door closed behind me. “What is this?”
            “Adrian wants to see A3.” Crowley hadn’t liked the idea, but she wasn’t going to back down for Whitmer once she’d made her decision. “It’ll just take a minute.”
            “We need to begin the process.” Whitmer tapped a foot on the floor. “We’re already behind schedule.”
            “Right.” Adrian looked across the room. For a moment I thought he was going to give the whole charade away, but he turned toward Whitmer with determination in his eyes. “Come on, you always know when I’m coming. I want to see him when you haven’t had any chance to prepare for me. Otherwise there’s no point in keeping him here.”
            “That doesn’t make any sense, any logical—”
            “Just let him take a look.” I nodded toward A3’s cage. “If the clock is ticking, you know, maybe we shouldn’t waste any more time.”
            “Let me see.” Without waiting for permission, Adrian pushed past Whitmer and headed toward his brother.
            I followed behind him, off to one side. Getting a panoramic view of the facility without twisting my torso in awkward directions was tricky. And the video wouldn’t capture the full impact of the place—the cesspool stench mixed with the whiff of antiseptic, the grunts of the creatures and the hum on the fluorescent lights overhead, and the overall sensation of isolation and despair. But I wasn’t a cinematographer, just a P.I. with lousy luck in attracting clients. This would have to do.
            Adrian stepped in front of A3’s cage. I stood next to him. His brother looked the same as this afternoon: The gray skin of his face was peeling like strips of cracked wallpaper as he breathed in harsh gasps, his eyes twisted in pain and rage. His muscles were clenched taut, like wires ready to snap under pressure. He paced and turned in the small space he had, his world reduced to a cell only a few feet around. Its left hand only had three fingers.
            Adrian leaned forward. “Larry?” 
            For a moment the creature stood motionless, its long thin arms hanging down like an ape’s. Its left hand only had three fingers. Its right arm shook like someone was shooting an electric current through it. Its left arm twitched—
            —and then the arm shot through the bars at Adrian’s face. He jumped back, bumping into me. I reached for my shirt pocket, making sure the camera was still clipped securely.
            “There, do you see?” Whitmer clamped a hand on Adrian’s shoulder. “He needs the treatment. Let’s just—”
            “Wait.” He held up one hand. “Larry?”
            “Ade?” It was a groan from A3’s mouth. Larry’s mouth. “Ade . . .”
            Adrian stared at his brother, his face pale.
            “AAADE!” Larry’s arm stretched through the bars.
            Adrian pushed Whitmer’s chest, shoving him backward. “Goddamn it, they were right! He’s getting better! You’re keeping my brother locked in here—”
            “What—who are you talking about?” Whitmer stumbled, caught his balance, and gave me a sharp glare. “Who would tell him—”
            “Damn it.” Crowley’s upper lip curled in disgust. “Red Watch got to them.”
            So much for Mission: Impossible. I snatched up my cell phone and started tapping at the keypad.
            “Put that away!” Whitmer jabbed a finger at my face. “Get out of here. Crowley!”
            I pointed the phone at the cage as if I was just now taking a video. “Code red! Code red! All units move in! All units—”
            The door opened, and two confused technicians burst in—Rodrigues and Smith, from earlier today.
            Crowley pointed at me. “Take him away to my office! Adrian . . .” She held up both hands, trying to calm him. “Come on, Adrian, we’ve got to talk.”
            Whitmer stalked toward me, reaching for my phone. I still the pen in my shirt pocket. I held my phone forward. “Hold on, Dr. Whitmer. You don’t want to get caught assaulting me on video. You guys, too!” I swung the phone toward the two technicians. “Smile for your close-up.”
            “What’s going on?” Smith, the Asian woman, backed away.
            “Get rid of him!” Whitmer shouted.
            Rodrigues shook his head. “I’m a biochemist. I’m no security guard.”
            “Adrian, for Christ’s sake—” Crowley grabbed at his elbow. “We’re trying to help him!”
            “Let go of me, bitch! That’s my brother in there!” Adrian punched at her arm. She didn’t look like she felt it.
            “Maybe we should all just, you know, stay calm?” I slid the phone back into my pocket. But the pen camera was still transmitting. I hoped.  “Let’s all settle down and talk this over.”
            Too late.
            “You asshole.” Crowley lunged forward, caught Adrian’s arm, and twisted it behind his back. “You’re coming with me now. You . . .” She shot me a glare like a laser. “My office—now!”
            Yeah—she had the right tone for a head of security. Like a high school principal with a license to kill. I glanced at Whitmer. Even he seemed intimidated.
            Not Larry, though.
            Crowley had turned her back to the cage. Adrian was still struggling. He leaned back, pushing her toward Larry, until—
            He managed to get a hand on her throat.
            “NO!” she shouted. She kicked Adrian away. He tumbled to the floor as Larry got his other arm around her neck and yanked her backward, slamming her body against the bars on the cage.
            His jaws had only a few teeth left in them, but they’d be enough. Too many zombie movies warned me about what might happen if A3 managed to take a bite out of her.
            Jacket. Fumbling hand. Taser—no, Tic-Tacs. Damn it! They scattered across the floor as I managed to get my hand around the weapon. I dropped my jacket on Adrian’s face—“Sorry”—and scooted forward. I had to get close, close enough to shoot through the bars before—
            The twin darts hit his neck. His shriek sounded loud enough to shatter a computer monitor. But he released Crowley, staggered back, and sank to the straw-covered floor, trembling and moaning like a dog that had been kicked in the ribs.
            “Sorry,” I whispered.
            Crowley dropped to her knees, gasping. “Did it get me? Did it bite me?”
            “No.” Whitmer knelt next to her, running his hands over her neck. “No broken skin. You’re all right.”
            “He was protecting Adrian.” I yanked the twin strands back. “He recognized his brother.”
            Adrian slowly got to his feet. “Did you get it all?”
            I patted the pen in my shirt pocket. “Yeah.” I hoped so.
            “You don’t understand.” Whitmer shook his head, his voice trembling. “You don’t understand what we’re trying to do.”
            My heart pounded as I turned to the female zombie. She crouched in her cell, watching us, eyes glowing like candles. “You said it was your control?”
            “She’s the one we’re trying to cure.” This came from Smith. “That’s Whitmer’s sister.”
            Oh, damn it. “So Larry—and the others? They’re really your controls. That’s why you couldn’t let them get better.”
            “It’s my fault she went down there.” Whitmer closed his eyes. “I sent Christine down to Costa Rica with them. And now she’s—”
            The female—Christine?—suddenly rose to her feet, grabbed the bars of her cage, opened her jaw until it looked about to fall off, and roared. Her breath smelled like mustard gas even from a distance. Her arms shook.
            Then she collapsed into the straw with a low moan.
            “Adrian?” I wanted to run, but I managed to keep my voice low. “We ought to leave right now.”

So there we were, back in the cramped Red Watch van down the road from the Whitmer facility. The videos from the pen camera were ready to go. But Adrian was still arguing with Meddoes. And the squabbling was giving me a headache.
            “You want them to keep experimenting on those people in there?” Meddoes had the laptop balanced on her knees in the front passenger seat, and her finger poised above the “enter” button to send the files into the Internet. “That’s not why we came here. If we don’t do something—”
            “I came here to help my brother!” Adrian’s face was red. “What if Whitmer and Crowley and the rest of them just kill them all once this gets out?” He looked back over his seat at me for support. “Is that what you want?”
             I shrugged. “They seem like grad students working for credit. Crowley looks like a professional. She’s not going to be part of a massacre.”
            “And you can’t exactly take your brother home with you, right?” Reg sat behind the wheel, next to Meddoes. “You think your girlfriend here’s going to spend the night with a zombie in your apartment? Gina, are you going home with—”
            “Don’t you talk to her!” Adrian reared up in his seat. “You and you Red Watch people—”
            “We’re the ones taking action! Earth First is just a press release machine!”
            “Screw you, Reg!” Hailey jabbed a finger at his face. “You think we’re friends, but . . . “           
            Voices grew loud. Rachel poked my arm. “Maybe we should just leave. I don’t think they’d notice.”
            “Maybe.” My Honda was parked right behind the van. But I kept hearing Larry shouting for his brother. And seeing the eyes of Whitmer’s control case. His sister. Staring out at us. Damn it.
            No one’s ever described me as brave. A stubborn asshole, yeah, enough times that I’ve thought about putting it on my résumé. But all I ever wanted to do, reporter or detective was get the story. And stories don’t mean anything without the human element.
            So I took a deep breath. “Hey!”
            My shout surprised Rachel. And everyone else. Even me.
            “What are you all trying to do here?” I pointed through the windshield, toward the wire fence. “Just get your names all over the Internet? Or did you see people in those videos, or just the lab animals you always get so excited about?”
            “What are you talking about?” Meddoes twisted around as if she’d forgotten I was sitting behind her.
            “He’s talking about my brother.” Adrian folded his arms. “And so far he’s the only one. Go on, Jurgen.”
            “We’ve got something in common with Whitmer. Wait!” I held up my hands as the others got ready to argue. “We’re supposedly trying to help Larry and the others. Whitmer’s trying to help his sister.”
            “That doesn’t make us the same,” Meddoes snapped.
            “But it gives us leverage.” Rachel smiled at me. “That’s what you mean, right?”
            “It’s like you know me, or something.” I pulled out my cell phone. “So instead of bickering all night, why don’t we see what kind of deal can we make?”
             “What the hell?” Reg leaned back in his seat. “You want to negotiate with that maniac? You’re an idiot if you think—”
            “Shut up!” Rachel doesn’t usually raise her voice unless her latté is late. “Tom’s the guy who got you in there, remember? And got you those videos! You maybe want to listen to him!”
            Reg blinked. “Who are you again?”
            “She’s my associate.” I squeezed her elbow. “And you might not be scared of me, but you really don’t want to make her mad. Anyway . . .” I pressed a number. “Let’s see what kind of leverage we’ve really got here, okay?”
            The phone buzzed loud on the speaker function. Then—
            “I told you go to away.” Crowley’s voice was a growl.
            “We’ve got a proposition,” I told her.
            Meddoes stared at me. This better be good, she silently mouthed.
            “What is it?” Crowley sounded hoarse and impatient.
            “We’ve got videos.” I glanced at the time on my phone. “They’ll go on the Internet in 30 minutes. That gives you and Whitmer half an hour to take his sister and clear out, along with any of the techs who are worried about getting caught up in this. Leave Larry and the others, and don’t trash any of the data. You’ll have a head start, Whitmer will have Christine, and we’ll have the zombies who can be cured. Everybody wins.”
            “Oh, you idiot . . .” Crowley groaned. “You release those videos, you’ll cause a panic that will make everyone forget about Ebola. You want that?”
            “Actually, I think most people will just take them for a hoax.” I glanced at Reg. “Especially coming from Red Watch. Have you met those people?”
            Meddoes shot a glare at me.
            I looked at Hailey. “But Earth First has some credibility. You said you’d talked with them, right? Maybe the CDC will take them seriously.”
            “They will.” Hailey nodded, her face more uncertain than her voice. “I’ll make sure.”
            “Shit.” Crowley took a long breath. “I’ve done my job here. And yeah, I know about Earth First.” Crowley hesitated. “Give us one hour.”
            Meddoes shook her head and pointed at the laptop.
            “Thirty minutes,” I repeated. “Otherwise there’s no reason for Red Watch to wait at all.”
            “Fine.” It sounded like a curse on us. “Thirty minutes. Oh, and by the way, Jurgen?”
            I smiled. “Yeah?”
            “Your goddamn check will be on my desk. Don’t expect any bonus for quick work.” She cut the call.
They beat the deadline by seven minutes, according to my cell phone. A van from the facility paused to flash its lights at us, then turned left and headed down the quiet road. Two more cars followed it.
            Meddoes watched the vehicles slowly disappear in the dark. Her finger was poised over the laptop, ready to hit the “send” command.
            But instead of pressing down, she hesitated. “Maybe we should wait.”
            “Wow.” Rachel sat up in her seat next to me. “You’re full of surprises.”
            “What are you talking about?” Reg reached around her shoulder for the button. “Let’s just do it and—”
            “Hold on, damn it!” She pushed his hand away. “They might be right about the panic. We should be careful.”
            “Oh, Christ.” Reg shook his head in disgust. “After all this, we’re just going to sit here and let them drive away?”
            “I want to see my brother.” Adrian lurched for the door. “I’m going there.”
            “They might have planted bombs or traps.” Meddoes was suddenly cautious.
            “Or let them all loose,” Reg said. “You guys go. I’m staying here.”
            This was a chance to look brave in front of Rachel again. And to get my check. So I took a deep breath and opened my door. “We can take my car. If the place blows up, get it on video and send it. And make up some brave last words for me.”
            Meddoes joined us, nervous but determined to finally breach Whitmer’s walls. I would have liked Rachel to stay in the van, and I got the feeling Adrian wanted Hailey to wait behind too, but apparently we were both less afraid of bombs and zombies than making our girlfriends mad at us. So we all crammed into my Honda and drove back down the road and through the gate.
            The thick glass doors slid open automatically as we walked up. I stopped, and Rachel bumped into me. “Don’t stop so fast like that!”
            “Sorry.” How did I end up in front? “Last chance to run away.”
            But I made myself walk through the door, and led them down the hall, my hand sweating once again on the Taser in my jacket.
             I glanced at Crowley’s office. Her door was open, but I thought stopping to grab my check—if it was really there—would tarnish the heroic image I was trying to maintain as my heart thudded under my shirt.
            The door to the lab was likewise wide open. This time I didn’t give Rachel a chance to run into me, but walked in without even thinking about the possibility that I’d be attacked by bloodthirsty zombies who wanted to devour my brains. Never thought about it once.
            But the creatures were still in their cages, quiet. And Smith and Rodrigues were waiting for us.
            “Damn it!” Smith looked ready to slap me. “I’ve been here six months! What makes you think you can walk in here and screw up everything in just one day?”
            Adrian ignored her, heading for his brother. Rodrigues walked with him, whispering.           
            “Is the data secure?” Hailey looked at the computers, still running, not smashed.
            Smith waved an arm at the nearest keyboard. “The password protection is gone. It’s all yours. Whatever.”
            “You were running experiments on human beings.” Meddoes was angry again. “This is going viral on the Internet. Maybe you should have run away with your boss.”
             Her shoulders sagged. “I couldn’t leave them behind.”
            The guy was unlocking A3’s cage. I tensed, ready to yank my Taser free, or run, but Larry stood calmly in the doorway as the technician knelt to remove the chain from his ankle.
            “Aaaddde,” the creature murmured. “Yooou . . .”
            “I’m sorry, Larry.” Adrian put a hand on his brother’s arm. “I didn’t know what they were doing. I didn’t—”
            Larry leaned against the door and closed his eyes. “Ade,” he said. “Ade.”
            Rodrigues walked up to us. “Maybe we can help sort this out.”
            “It’s going to get ugly no matter what,” I warned.
            “I know.” Smith groaned. “I thought we were helping his sister. But she’s gone.”
            Hailey joined Adrian with his brother. Rachel pulled out a chair, sat down, and started tapping keys. “Let’s see what we can find out.”
            “Leave it for the CDC,” I told her. To my surprise, she rolled away from the keyboard and stood up.
            “Are we getting dinner soon?” She yawned.
            “At this rate it’s going to be breakfast.” I looked at Meddoes. “So, satisfied?”
            “I guess.” Considering she’d won, Meddoes didn’t look as triumphantly happy as I expected. She tapped her cell phone. “Reg? Send it. Yes, the CDC too.”
            “Ade,” Larry kept muttering, patting Adrian’s body as if reassuring himself that his brother was real. “Ade.”
            I took Rachel’s hand. “Come on. Let’s see if Crowley was telling the truth about that check.”

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