I wondered for a while as I was perusing through the different brands and kinds of pasta how long would mom be busy with Linda Meyer. Ironically I found that I was grateful for the run in with the other woman. It meant mom would not be near me if anything were to happen with the shady guy in the dark glasses following me.
I sighed in annoyance as I felt a vibration in my left pocket. I could not afford to have my focus split on the imminent threat at hand but I knew there was a distinct possibility that the message could be from mom and if that were the case, then I was to steer her as far away from me as possible. I skimmed my eyes over the message and read:
Hey u ;-),
Had a great time yesterday. Been meaning 2 talk. Call me?
I read the message again not really sure I knew what it meant. What I did know is that whenever someone said they needed to talk, it was never a good thing. Then a sudden thought hit me: what if he wasn't as into me as I was lead to believe or he finally came to his senses and realized I wasn't worth the trouble? Find someone more pliable, normal... not so damaged.
Admittedly the caution I had felt just this morning at the thought of Ryan, how I felt about him, and could anyone be interested in me for anything but sex? All of that angst was washed away by a swift wave of dread. I knew from the onset that it could never be a good idea for me to get romantically involved with anyone. The chances of it having a happy ending were null. The cons far outweighed any opposing argument, but some distant fragment of my being had still hoped. That very same part of me that had found solace in those pale blue eyes had me forgetting myself, even just for an afternoon, and it was freakin' liberating.
Now being faced with the idea of his potential disinterest-rejection, left me with a dry lump in my throat. This was the very reason why I should not have let myself believe I could have that sort of connection with another person and have it not be tainted by the poison that is me and what I do because it's always there-like a black fog, always lurking above the surface spoiling any light.
I shook myself off of that emotional muck, intrinsically aware that I was standing in the middle of a grocery aisle, and whatever it was Ryan wanted to discuss would remain unknown to me until I called him. But right now I had more immediate problems. I had absentmindedly tracked down the pasta in my reverie. I decided on spaghetti and made to grab it when an unfamiliar, coarse voice spoke out on the other side of the rack I was viewing.
"I was wondering when I would get you alone". The voice was very gruff and noticeably foreign but I couldn't place the accent, it was like it had been diluted maybe from years of travel or particularly to throw me off. There is a lot you can tell about a man through his accent and diction- down to his home town if you had an ear for it.
"Now you have," I said, being inconspicuous about the small observations I was making of him as we spoke. He was definitely not as old as he had looked before. He could have been in his late twenties or early thirties. The get up aged him a bit, which I guess was the point if you didn't want to be seen. He had made himself as bland as possible- faded into the background. The casual observer would not have spared two glances in his direction. He had dark tanned skin, Mediterranean or maybe middle-eastern?
"I was told I could reach you at the gym but the woman arrived 20 minutes before you were out," he said that with a hint of disdain in his tone. I felt a sudden surge of anger rise in my chest and had to reel myself in not to let it register on my face. I was highly annoyed with the fact that he had been tailing me since the gym, all through the highway and I had been completely oblivious to it all. He had seen mom, been within striking distance of her for 20 minutes. I balled my hands into furious fists, the skin on my hand tight over my knuckles, but this was not the time for any of that. I needed my wits about me; not let my anger blind me. I took a calming breath; I could chastise myself about my lack of foresight later.
Thinking back, I wasn't surprised she was parked outside the gym for that long before we had let out. Katherine Haynes was a punctual woman, never late, even more so when she was picking up any of her kids.
I was fairly certain that he wasn't here to make small talk; I wanted to get to the root of the matter as soon as possible, because the conversation was wearing out my patience.
"Who sent you?" I asked as I eyed him evenly. We had to stop talking for an instant as a woman passed his side. Then he gestured we keep moving so as not to rouse any suspicion. The entire time I fixed him with a steady gaze-calculating but aloof- at least that is what I have been told it was like on the other end of my stare. My piercing green eyes were always my first line of offense.
"Brother, you insult me," he said as he turned his head to show me a small scar behind his ear, shaped like a drawn bow-minus the arrow. From an unsuspecting eye, it looked like any other healed cut but to me, it meant the Malaika. They were ground soldiers, not directly affiliated with the KGB but of a lesser but fiercely loyal daughter agency. They were hired guns, plain and simple. Their value was at face value but were useful pawns in the grander scheme of things. They were like the team alternates, but instead of sitting idly by on the benches alongside the field during game time, they had several plays of their own.
I relaxed a bit, because he was in fact looking for me but I had little to fear from him- he was not a direct threat at the moment. It was a small relief granted, but he still could not be trusted. They didn't get their orders from the same people I did. They were freelancers. He was a deadly killer- that fact was undisputed, but he lacked the finer finesse and training that we had. He wouldn't try to take me on in a public place- that I knew.
I gave him a slight nod as I acknowledged his affiliation.
"What can I help you with?" I asked.
"It is I who can help you, brother. Word is you are needed." He slyly pushed a small iPod towards me. I gave a knowing look, took the proposed, and palmed it.
He gave a parting smile in my way before pushing his unused cart aside and walked towards the exit of the place. I looked after him to make sure that he actually did leave before studying the device in my hand. I was needed. It wasn't exactly a request.
I glanced around me to make sure no one was a witness to our brief exchange. Once that was clear I plugged in the earphones and switched on the device. There was only one track listed on the device in any case so no further confusion there.
I realized I'd been standing still for far too long since the encounter and began locating the last items on mom's list.
"Shadow, if you're hearing this it means the Malaika have followed through. Apologies for the courier service enlisted but recent events have forced us to redirect some of our transmissions and focus resources... that is why we need you to finish your last assignment. Claiming custody of Moore has proved to be fruitful. Cracks in US policies have opened up opportunities and granted us some leverage. We need you to retrieve a document from Omega International. They are an aviation company providing aircrafts for central and southern African countries. They have been illegally trading airplane parts and other such technologies with Iran, despite the stringent sanctions placed by the UN. The document was created as a safety precaution should either party breach their agreement. It gives certain liberties. Though the intent was not for it to ever come to use, or for anyone outside of the pact to know of its existence. World leaders would not take well to hypocrisy and it would prove challenging for the government to prove their ignorance once we are through. The CEO of Omega and the chief scientist in the Uranium sites have a history dating back to 1970 since they were both Oxford University graduates. How the deal was brokered without raising any suspicions is still unknown to us, but that's not the issue at hand-we have people working on it. Your mission itinerary and intel will be sent in an encrypted file on your mobile already. Oh yes. Dispose of this device within thirty seconds after hearing this message."
With the mission objective received loud and clear I extracted the headsets from my ears. I walked down the aisle since the novelty of grocery shopping had completely worn off at that point. I passed a small metal trash can on my search for my mom and deposited the now defunct device into it. I was a mere 2 feet away from the said trash can when as noted, an almost inaudible explosion went off. The only being besides myself who was aware of the small disturbance was a baby in a stroller who promptly started crying. It was slightly amusing seeing the confounded expression on the mother's face, her kid had been completely fine just a few moments before.
I finally found my mom and luckily for me she wasn't with the Meyer's anymore. She was actually searching for me too.
"You get everything?" she asked as I approached her.
"Have any trouble?" she said picking up on the distant expression on my face. "Honey, are you okay?" she asked now sounding a little worried.
"Uhm, you were right. Something is going on between Mason and I. I should probably go over there and work it out with him," I said making up the lie as I went along.
"Alright, as long as you're okay," she said regarding me skeptically.
"Yeah of course, just...don't wait up. I'll prolly stay the night. You know how sensitive Mason is, he just needs me to give him a belly rub," I said while flashing her a convincing smile.
She chuckled at that. "You two always resolve whatever the matter is. Should I call Shelly to let her know you're staying over?" she asked referring to Mason's mom.
"Oh no need for that, I want it to be a surprise," I said quickly.
First thing first, I had to cover my bases. I texted Mason that I'd be at his house later that evening to talk. Next I needed Dario to divert all calls going through to the Crawford's household to my com-link. Better yet, he should just filter out the ones coming from my house so I could maintain the rouse that I was at Mason's home for the remainder of the day.
Even in the midst of all this traffic going on in my head, I still had one out of place thought nagging me. I didn't know how these things worked. I felt like a fish out of water. I never thought I'd have to navigate the playing fields of high school dating. Quite frankly, it made me uneasy and this was the first time in my recollection that I felt insecure because I had no control over what he was feeling about me or what he wanted.
Calling him would prove to be harder to do with these additional thoughts and feelings I had no expertise in handling. This mission was a good thing. It would reaffirm my self-confidence, this is something I can do, bred to do and I'm damn good at it.
Disregarding the feeling of doubt looming in the pit of my stomach, I checkout the store with a new resolve. A more familiar one. To take on my assigned task, head on and finish what I started.
Night time outside the Omega International Building
It was just after sunset, the usually busy downtown streets were now winding down, practically deserted. This was the time that most petty crimes would be committed, on unsuspecting passersby and tourists. The concrete maze that is this part of town allowed for a lot of dark corners and ample terrain for the would-be street mugger.
"They just completed the last shift change, Shadow. You're on, "Dario said over to me.
I glanced down at my wrist watch right on schedule. Lucky for me these people are very punctual, I mused as I looked at the man sitting next to me in the van across the street from the tall building. Sitting is a misleading term; he was resting more than sitting. Actually, he was slumped over because he was unconscious and I'm his new substitute.
"Alright, just give me a second to include your credentials into the Omega system; you can't get in without it. They keep a very tight lid on who walks in and out. The system does not refresh very often so I have to push it in manually," Dario said.
I checked my appearance once more in the rearview mirror. The thick black mustache I had on looked more comical to me, like I was a Latin Mario. My usually bright hazel eyes were now replaced with very dull, murky brown contacts. My usually wild hair was hidden under the gray uniform baseball cap I was wearing.
"Done. You are through Mr. Lopez; make sure you have your ID card on you as you enter. All is valid." With that final statement from Dario my work began.
I trudged out of the non-descript vehicle and grabbed my supplies out of the back and onto my cart. I was going in under the alias of Alessandro Lopez, the cleaning guy. Omega only used one small cleaning company that was under a strict nondisclosure agreement with them.
The small cleaning firm only had 11 employees and they would rotate shifts on who would work at predetermined hours. The contract agreement stipulated that no two employees should be within the Omega building at the same time. Furthermore, no one worker should work the building more than twice. So because of the generous tender the cleaning firm received from Omega, they had no trouble hiring and firing employees every three months or so to keep the money flowing.
This tidbit clearly meant Omega had more to hide than just general practice and trade secrets. That was a lot of trouble just so no one learns the ins and outs of their operation.
I walked in confidently wearing my charcoal cover-alls and my cart carrying all my cleaning equipment up the front entrance into the company foyer. I was going for the direct approach this time round. The entrance of the engineering firm was extremely simplistic. Clearly an appointment only kind of deal. No seats available in the grey, steel and glass room-which pretty much describes the outer exterior of the Omega International head offices. In fact it was lacking any kind of furniture to even mask as hospitable. The sparse interior only had one feature and primary function. Granting access. If you had an appointment you're good to go, otherwise, get out.
There was a semi-circular metal desk in the center of the vacant foyer. That's where the two night watchmen were situated. Their sole purpose was to deal with meandering and mundane tasks of inconsequence to the operation of the firm.
"Hola I'm on duty for three floors tonight," I said in my deeply inflected Mexican accent to the burly looking Caucasian male on the other side of the desk.
He fixed me with an even stare. He was not in the friendly services-since he's a security guard. Anything and anyone that stands as a security risk should be called in. I gave him my least menacingly look possible. I tugged on the front of my cap lightly, partly due to anxiety but mostly to ensure that my dark locks don't slip out while I was in front of this man.
"Let me see some ID," he said flicking his fingers in an impatient manner.
I smiled at him and unclipped my ID card that was on my chest to present to him. He took it and analyzed the picture and me for a long while. Successfully making me feel uneasy, what if the fake ID wasn't passable?
"Hmm 21? You're younger than the usual," he said while giving back my card. I grinned up at him, little did he know I was actually younger than that date given on the ID.
"I started working at an early age," Is what I gave as my response.
"Okay, just put your things on the conveyer belt" he commanded in his gruff tone. The second guard was just sitting quietly watching our standard exchange in progress.
He was gesturing towards the metal detector and I had to go through the gateway they had set up adjacent to the conveyer belt. I always got a little anxious around these things, for the obvious reasons. I watched intently as my cleaning supplies made it through the scanner. My eyes were fixed-I held my breath hoping the material used really was as reliable as Dario made me believe.
As soon as my cases made it to the other side with no bells sounding, I released a breath I wasn't aware I was holding. With that short lived relief came a cold panic; I realized then that the security guard had been watching me closely. I hadn't any idea how long he had been eying my expression but that made me instantly nervous. I shifted uncomfortably and met his gaze. This was way too early in the plan to get busted.
"What are you trying to hide?" he barked out.
My heart dropped at that very second. Shit.
"What do you mean?" I asked gulping hard since my throat had gone dry instantly.
"You need to walk through there," he said rolling his eyes.
Right, I was so preoccupied watching the supplies I hadn't thought of the fact that I should go next. I let out a sigh and wiped the sweat that had formed on my brow before moving through the gateway.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP
No..no...no that was the last thing I needed to hear. The bells of the detector rung shrill in the sparse space. It was absolutely crucial that I make it through these guys clean or I wouldn't be able to navigate the rest of the building because the central control room had the power to lock down complete access from the foot up.
"Hey!" the second guard behind me called. I turned slowly busy mulling over my options in my head, but there weren't very many that didn't include completely rerouting my plan.
"The nametag, dumbass, you forgot to put it in the basket," he said with a sarcastic look on his face.
"Oh right, sorry," I said, placing the object in the basket. The clip that attached it to my attire was metal; I thought mentally chastising myself for that simple error. I gave myself a mini heart attack for no reason at all.
"Man, you should have seen your face. You looked like you'd seen a ghost," the burly one said between small chuckles. Well I'm glad my discomfort brought someone else some pleasure.
I did as he instructed then walked through painstakingly slowly out of paranoia with no incident this time round. I picked up my gear and lugged them back into my cart. He then picked up the landline and spoke to the people I was really curious about: the central security of this building. That room that was both the sword and most vulnerable spot in this building at the same time. It was on the eighteenth floor and controlled entry to the entire network working within these walls.
It's my lock and key to the executive floors I needed to reach but it's heavily protected. Besides being operated by a five man team, and surveillance equipment set up all through the most strategic areas of the building; it is surrounded by ballistic glass which is fire and bulletproof. It was imperative of me to gain entry before they were aware of my presence and sealed the dome off then my mission would prove to be useless. Game Over.
The guard spoke to those guys and they granted my credentials admission to clear level one sectors and call the elevator. Apparently after my shift is done that temporary level one clearance is debunked and I wouldn't be able to use it.
I grabbed my things and merrily carted away to the elevator deeper on the first floor behind the `reception `desk. I flashed my access card on the scanning device and then called the elevator. It was a rather elaborate process. I would find it a pain in the ass if I was an employee.
Once inside and the doors had closed, I coughed twice to alert Dario of my current position. Talking on my part wasn't an option because of the security camera on the top left corner of the enclosed space.
"Sixteenth floor, that's as far up as your permit will allow you to go before raising red flags. You should be able to take the stairs from then forward," said Dario.
With that last transmission in mind, I pushed the fourth floor button. I wasn't blatantly disregarding Dario's advice: I just knew I was still being watched. After all what's the rookie employee doing getting the higher floors for? That would stir up suspicion.
I fidgeted a bit as the mechanism ascended the different floors readying myself for the following maneuver. I nondescriptly grasped a small plastic cylinder from my cart as the elevator reached my designated floor, because timing was crucial.
The small beep rung for the fourth floor and I slowly pushed my cart out of the elevator. The second my left heel was the only part of my body left inside the space, I raised the small device and aimed it at the security camera and pushed down on its button. I knew from this angle most of my upper body was out of shot and it indeed looked like I had exited the space.
The device emitted a current of electro-magnetic pulses that would short circuit the video camera's feed for a brief period. It would show as static from any device waiting to receive its imagery. I deftly reversed my journey and knew I only had a few seconds to complete this task. I closed the lift doors and quickly assembled the 3 inch wide Polaroid camera.
Once that was done I mounted the waist-high steel railing that surrounded the elevator to reach the camera. This part of the plan had to be pretty close to perfection. I had to angle the Polaroid to face the exact same trajectory as the video camera beneath it. I took the picture with a sturdy hand and waited for the picture to form. The angle and the distance from lens to picture had to be exact, done right and it will appear exactly like image the camera usually portrayed of the confined space. Shaking it a little franticly wanting it to form sooner rather than later I used my other hand to get a gum strip and chewed on that in the mean while.
The picture developed as well as I needed it to. I produced two strips of cable ties and secured the first around the rim of the lens and the second perpendicular to that. The cable ties were the ideal length I desired to execute this task as I pulled out the gum from my mouth and stuck the developed film to the plastic strip jutting out and so the security camera was going to show a substitute version of the elevator- a dud. I completed this task in less than 15 seconds, a short enough time not to call for alarm. Minor system glitches like this happen all the time and go unreported as long as the system comes back online in a timely fashion. The red light on the security camera returned shortly after I had finished my manipulations. I dismounted the railings with a content smile and subsequently moved to push the button for the 16th floor without the pleasure of being watched.
"I'm in the blue zone," I stated.
"Good, you want to go North East of the elevator. Stay on the outer perimeter of the corridors, you get mixed up in the inner halls and it gets a bit maze-like, I don't have any visuals on you yet so tread carefully..."
Once I had reached the 16th floor I pushed my cart down the narrow grey hallway lined with white metal doors. Stay on the outside; don't deviate from the plan, sounds easy enough right? It was on the second corner I turned that I hit a dead end.
You have got to be kidding me! I huffed in exasperation. This was not part of the plan.
Well not a dead end as such but another door needing a key card- I didn't have anywhere near the clearance necessary to get me on the other side of that door. This latest development left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.
"The blueprints we have are outdated. There was no mention of a door sectioning off east and west wing, "I said to Dario.
"What? Let me have a look at that. Renovations were made a couple months ago but no record of a security door installed on that floor," Dario responded with the obvious. I listened intently as he was typing away furiously because one thing I knew about him was that he always had a plan. He must have a solution for this- a work around...something?
"Let me cross-reference the invoices and...shit! Indescrepency the amounts do not add up. A deficit sufficient to cover a..." he rambled off into the background.
At that point I had stopped listening to Dario speak. Not because of annoyance, although I was fairly annoyed since I had to devise a new plan on the spot, but because the hairs at the back of my neck were standing at full attention. Someone was coming.
The footsteps started growing louder in the already vacant halls. The sound bouncing off the walls created a deceptive echo so it was too chancy for me to discern the number of people approaching. Not good. The longer it took me to realize I couldn't read much off the sound the louder and closer the footsteps sounded.
I quickly looked around me. Going forward was scratched off as a possibility from the onset since well...it was a DEAD END. Backwards equally as ideal since the source of my panic was steadily making ground on me from that general direction. It became a game of pick the right door. There were two white steel doors on either side of me and one conveniently read Janitor's room.
I rushed for that one first and circled the knob, then pushed forward just for the door not to move an inch. I tried it a second time out of blind stupidity and obviously had the same result. Meanwhile the footsteps closing in on my location were definitely growing louder.
A cold sweat ran from the base of my neck down to my back. I had no business being where I was and I had no idea what or whom I would be dealing with.
Keys. I had a set of keys I had taken from the guy I was standing in for. I had no idea I was actually going to use them since nowhere in my plan was I gonna go scourging for detergents. Why hadn't I thought of that earlier? It was like there was a fog blinding my thinking tonight.
I patted my pockets franticly trying to locate the damned ring of horrors. I finally fished them out of my pockets with shaking hands, adrenalin had kicked in. unfortunately for me this was one of those rare moments when adrenalin would not help an ounce; on the contrary it was a hindrance. My uncontrollably fumbling of the dozens of keys was making it hard to keep track of which I had already tried. The clunking and ringing of the keys as they clashed into one another was causing an unnecessary raucous in the amply acoustic space. The soundtrack of my life was that of my heartbeat base within my ears pulsing through my eyes.
"Shit shit shit," I cursed under my breath. I wish I could just kick this door in. I bet I'd have better success with the aggressive route. This was tedious and I wasn't making any headway, each and every one I had tried thus far wouldn't turn completely and the only sound louder than my heartbeat at that instant was that of my doom.
I could swear the sound was coming from just around the bend, a mere 15 feet away. How was I going to get out of this one? This was one of the times I was made aware of a scary truth, I wasn't invincible. I could and mostly likely be caught out if this door wouldn't budge in the next second.
It worked! The key just unlocked the door. The disbelief in this moment was astounding and was only secondary to the next emotion. Fear.
"Stop right there!" a male voice boomed in the cold environment.
I froze right at the threshold of the door. The most painful position to be in since I had almost done it-gotten away.
"What are you doing up here? No one is supposed to be on the higher floors until another three hours," he said in a very condemning voice. I stood, still rooted in my position trying to figure out how to respond to that.
"Hey! I'm talking to you. You don't want to make me use this," he said reaching for his handgun.
I turned then very slowly and raised my palms up in a very innocent manner. The action almost painful because of how caught out I felt.
"I asked you a question. What. Are. You. Doing. Here?" he demanded punctuating every word in that question.