Authors: Jamie Quaid
“I want Sarah back,” Ernesto said, surprisingly. “She’s creepy, but she works for peanuts.”
under my breath and bit back a comment about working for bananas. Sarah couldn’t help her chimp affliction.
At least now I had some clue as to his motive for being helpful. “Did those guys help you load up the wheelbarrow?” I nodded at the scrubs.
“Yeah. They’re med students who live up the hill and sometimes cruise the camp to patch people up,” Frank explained. “They’re the ones who warned us the vans weren’t going to the hospital, and they’ve been helping us hijack the victims from Acme. But we didn’t see Bill go down.”
Impressed, I watched the med students with more respect. They might be using the denizens of the homeless encampment as lab rats for their studies for all I knew, but they risked life and limb out there. I wouldn’t have done it. The EPA had labeled the
fenced-off area around the harbor a dead zone for a reason.
They were wandering around without suits. I wanted out of mine.
“So the assumption is that if you don’t keel over after exposure, it’s safe to breathe the gas?” I asked.
“If you don’t beat the crap out of anyone,
keel over,” Andre corrected, giving me an evil look. “Feel the need to off anyone, Clancy?”
“I feel like that all the time,” I countered. “Maybe if I stop feeling murderous, I’ll figure I’ve been gassed and check myself in at Club Acme. Maybe I’ll do that anyway. I want Sarah and Bill out of there.”
“Not easy,” said a weary voice from behind us.
Paddy staggered in, covered in pink particles, like he’d been confettied.
Paddy hadn’t collapsed. Given his odd behavior and weird mutterings, I’d figured he was
, if not physically, ill. Except right now, he sounded more rational than I’d ever heard him. He’d actually replied to a direct statement instead of talking about plastic and wandering off.
I watched skeptically as he shuffled over to the food, helped himself to an apple, and settled on a bar stool as if he were a hundred years old. I did a few mental calculations. His son Dane had been in his mid-thirties when I sent his soul to hell. Chances were good Dane’s father was over sixty. Good lord, that calculation had Gloria Vanderventer closing in on ninety. I mentally voted to bring her to the Zone to see how she reacted to green gas.
“Why won’t it be easy?” I demanded when no one else spoke. “I’ll say Sarah is my sister, she has a dangerously infectious disease, and they’ll all turn into monkeys if they don’t let me have her.”
Andre snorted. Paddy almost smiled. I’d never ever seen the man smile. He’d muttered imprecations, deconstructed appetizers, and ignored me. Just getting him to talk had been a chore. Smiling might be fatal.
“Acme’s on full lockdown,” he explained, sounding perfectly normal. “They have security at every entrance. The EPA thinks they’re in charge, but they haven’t been allowed into the underground labs, don’t even know they exist. They’re just removing the mixing tanks.”
I stared in amazement. Whole, coherent, unpalatable sentences. I glanced at Andre, who shrugged.
“Problem is,” Paddy continued, “the machine they want is underground and could blow again if they don’t stop the experiment. Bergdorff, the guy in charge, is obsessed and not particularly rational.”
Silence rippled outward as we absorbed that news. I debated the validity of one madman judging another, but I could practically feel the ground shiver beneath my feet.
“Do we need to go in and take Acme down?” Andre asked ominously.
Paddy shrugged and threw back a slug of juice. “They’ll halt for a while. But if the plant closes, this area really dies.” His voice still sounded rusty.
That had been the problem all along. People needed jobs. The Zone needed customers. Acme provided
both. This part of Baltimore was not particularly thriving, so any business closure was a blow. I’d once threatened Max after he became a senator and vowed to shut down his family’s business.
My cell phone rang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Speak of the devil . . . I very decidedly had not programmed in that tune, but my messenger bag was practically rattling with urgency. Taking off my gloves, I dug out my new pay-as-you-go phone.
“Justy!” Max shouted as soon as I opened it. “What the devil is happening down there?”
“Good morning, Senator Vanderventer,” I purred, knowing every ear in the room had suddenly turned to me. Even Milo listened. I scratched behind his ears. “What can I do for you on this fine and glorious morning?”
“Get the hell out of there,” was his retort, not unexpected. “Did Acme have another spill?”
“Spill? Of course not. What would make you think that? And if there were, I’m sure your grandmother would be right on top of it. Why don’t you give her a call?”
Max hated Gloria, Dane’s grandmother. Living in someone else’s body was a complicated business.
He swore like the biker he was and not like the senator he was supposed to be. “I’m coming down there,” he threatened.
“I won’t be here,” I cooed. “Really. Talk to your grandmother. Better yet, bring her down here,” I added meanly. “And if you truly want to help, have one of my friends hired at the plant.”
That produced silence. Max had been trying to get the goods on Acme’s dirty R&D for years—until they killed him. Playing the part of a senator, he avoided the place to prevent any appearance of favoritism. If he wanted to get reelected, he’d have to stay out of the family’s dirty business, one way or another. So all my ribbing was a little in jest.
But totally unexpectedly he said, “I can get someone my security clearance. Check at the guard gate in half an hour. Use it wisely.” He hung up.
Every man in the place stared at me, waiting.
“So . . . I have one get-out-of-jail-free card. Do we draw straws to see who gets into Acme?” I asked into the silence.
’d spent years keeping my head down and my mouth shut after the college protest (read: riot) that had ended with me being arrested, shoved down some stairs, hospitalized for months with a mangled leg, and expelled from school. After Max’s fiery explosion, I’d been running on scared. In consequence, I’d developed some grandiose notion that once I passed the bar exam, I’d miraculously morph into a respectable citizen standing on firm moral ground, with rulebooks all around me.
Obviously not. I knew what I had to do. Even though I generously offered the opportunity for someone to develop a better plan for getting into Acme, I really wanted to be the one to save Bill and Sarah. But if
I tried, the likelihood of my damning someone to hell was pretty high. It wasn’t as if Acme would let a woman with chimp hands escape without putting up a fight.
Besides, I had a whole lot of enemies in the Vanderventer camp—like maybe all of management and anyone related to them. They probably had wanted posters bearing my face tacked to the walls. They couldn’t prove I’d done anything to Dane or sent their goons to Africa—one of my more brilliant visualizations—but after months of spying on me, they had reason to suspect it.
“None of that drawing straws nonsense,” Andre announced. “We only have this one chance, and we have to do it right. Paddy, can you get back in without clearance?”
Our scientist shrugged, slumped his shoulders, let his straggly hair fall over his face, and crumbled bread into his beard. “Yeah,” he muttered.
Wow, and I’d thought
was good at keeping my head down! Paddy had me beat by a mile. Or maybe he had just miraculously recovered and simply mocked his prior behavior. In the Zone, it was best to keep an open mind. Or an empty one, ignorance being bliss and all.
“Schwartz, if you put on your uniform and showed up at the gates, do you think you could get access as a policeman?” Andre continued his Lord of All He Surveyed act.
Schwartz squirmed uncomfortably at the notion of suiting up and faking authority he really didn’t have, but he nodded.
“Clancy and I are persona non grata up there, so we’re out,” Andre continued. “Paddy, do you think we can reach both Sarah and Bill and carry them out, or will we be limited to finding out where they are so we can go in later?”
We were up to the royal
now, were we? I bit my tongue and tried listening instead of reacting.
“Locate first,” Paddy decided. “They’ve been adding underground bunkers even I don’t know about.”
Andre rubbed his eyes tiredly at this information. He muttered a few epithets under his breath. I knew the feeling. I wanted to go in, guns blazing, like Clint Eastwood and John Wayne rolled into one. As previously noted, subterfuge is not my strong point. I wanted the good guys to wear white hats. Even Paddy appeared pretty shady right now.
“Frank it is,” Andre ordered.
Which made sense. Frank was our Finder. But just
didn’t save my friends from Acme’s depredations. I couldn’t justify leaving them in there. I wanted Bill out because he’d hate being a guinea pig, but I was the only one who knew what Sarah was capable of. She could damn us all to hell if she woke up suddenly and didn’t see a familiar face. I didn’t particularly want to spend eternity dancing in flames, but I couldn’t risk seeing my friends do the same, either. Rescuing Max’s soul from hell had been a one-time fluke.
“Nope. I’m going,” I decided, against all common sense. I didn’t even have the strength to lift Sarah should we find her. “Schwartz, meet me at Pearl’s in
half an hour. Can you get an official car?” I stood up and stalked toward the door before anyone could react. “Paddy, once you get inside, keep a lookout for us, please?”
“Clancy, don’t be an ass!” Andre warned, blocking my path.
“I can clock you in one,” I told him. “I don’t want to, but I will. You don’t know what Sarah is, but I do. Trust me on this—you don’t want to leave her in there and find out.”
He’d seen our tattoos. He’d seen Max in my mirror after Max died, and he’d been there when I’d whacked Dane with my flaming compact. There was a lot he didn’t know, like about Max being Dane now, but he knew I wasn’t normal. Still, he glared.
“How can you find Sarah if Paddy can’t?”
“I have no friggin’ idea,” I admitted. “But she’s less likely to fry me than Frank. So get over it and let me by.”
Got him smack in the old curiosity with the word
Andre had once explained his weird prescience as the ability to add two and two and find three. I could see the wheels in his head spinning now, but I didn’t intend to linger while he added up Sarah’s husband dying, her mother being neutralized behind jail cell bars, and similar incidents. I jerked on my hood and gloves as a futile security precaution and opened the door.
Lieutenant Schwartz didn’t generally approve of my pressure tactics, but he was an old-fashioned gentleman who looked out for me when others didn’t.
He accompanied me back up the hill to our respective apartments. Technically, we both worked on the same side of the law. Maybe he harbored some foolish hope that in return for keeping me safe, Senator Dane would coerce the police into giving him another promotion.
I didn’t disillusion the poor guy. We all had dreams.
I twitched uneasily at that thought. My dream of someday being a judge would be in serious jeopardy if Acme caught me trespassing. I reassured myself that Max’s clearance made my activities perfectly legal—unless I took up body snatching or got mad and nuked a chemist.
As we reached Pearl’s place, Schwartz removed a glove and glanced at his watch. “Be down here in twenty minutes. Pretend you’re a research scientist or something, will you?”
“You’re a good liar, Schwartz.” Leaving him with that ambiguous compliment, I trotted up to my apartment with all the agility of an overweight turtle. I should have shucked the suit downstairs.
I shut Milo in the kitchen with his food and litter box. He gave me the evil eye, but I could worry about only so many things at once. Bill and Sarah had to come first.
Scientist. Crap. What did a scientist wear? Nervously, I dragged my heavy, hair into a clip on top of my head. I’d bought suits at a consignment store for my law clerk gig, but I didn’t think scientists wore pinstripes. Blazers, maybe. Khakis. Button-down shirts. I had those from law school days. I added the dark-plastic-framed
reading glasses I used to wear before Saturn Daddy fixed my eyes. I donned a pair of sensible pumps. All I needed was a tablet computer, which I couldn’t afford. A backbone of steel would have been convenient as well.
After finding Max in my mirror, I was still wary around reflective surfaces, but I did a quick double check, added some pale lipstick, and toned down my natural Persian bronze with too-light face powder I’d bought out of a bargain basket. I wouldn’t fool my friends, but maybe I could trick a security guard or two who didn’t really know what I looked like.
I debated returning the hazmat to Andre’s bomb shelter but figured I didn’t have time for arguing with Cora. So I left it to be delivered later and made tomato-mozzarella-basil sandwiches for me and Schwartz.
He accepted his gratefully when I ran out to his unmarked vehicle right on time. Cop cars are never really unmarked. Security would recognize the official plates and extra antennas.