Authors: Jamie Quaid
“Will Paddy stay sane enough to help us?” I asked before tearing into my bread, hoping to stifle my fear by feeding my hunger.
Schwartz frowned. “I’ve been wondering about that, too. Did he suddenly get sane or has he been sane all along?”
“Huh, so it’s not just me he’s been fooling? Doesn’t exactly make him trustworthy.” Max hadn’t been worried about the family eccentric—did he believe Paddy was crazy, too?
“He’s all we’ve got,” the good lieutenant said with a shrug. “Just don’t do anything that will cost me my job.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, you’ve got orphans in Haiti to support.” I hated being reminded that Schwartz didn’t think me capable of behaving responsibly. He was probably right. I don’t know what gets into me sometimes. I can’t save the world. I
that. I was having a hard time saving myself. But here I was anyway.
We drove straight through the lingering remnants of the gas cloud, down Edgewater, past the swiveling streetlights and sleeping gargoyles. Schwartz pulled the car up to the police barricade blocking the plant driveway at the end of the street, waved his badge, and cruised on through to Acme’s security gate while I tried to appear innocuous.
The guard handed us clip-on passes and waved us past after checking his log to verify the senator had called in about a guest pass. I cringed at knowing that respect came from having friends in high places.
Losing a boyfriend had been a hard way to gain a senator. Even after it turned out that Max had been using me as a spy, he had still rated as one of the good guys, and the sex had been incredible. I was sooo not getting it on with Max in his cousin’s body, though. That was just too freaky.
As a consequence of my vowing to lay off both Max and Andre, even the respectable lieutenant was starting to look good. And I hated cops.
Acme’s reception area was unassuming, at best. Old linoleum-tile floors, a spindly banana-type plant near
the front window, a wooden desk guarding the hallways leading off left and right—straight out of the fifties or an old people’s home.
Obviously, the Vanderventers didn’t spend their money on décor. Schwartz again flashed his badge, and the nondescript receptionist gave us directions to command central, or whatever cops called it.
“Best if I don’t show my face to anyone who knows me,” Schwartz murmured, steering me down a dark corridor of closed office doors and veering from the directions given.
“Watch it, or your Dudley Do-Rightness will wash off,” I warned. My smart mouth hid a variety of fears.
Schwartz was a hunk and a half, but his shining armor was seriously out of place in the world I lived in. Maybe I could grow into his world—after I swallowed my terror and rescued Sarah and Bill. I checked directional signs and decided labs would be a good starting point.
“Someone has to uphold the laws,” he muttered, shoving his muscled arm in front of me and checking around a corner before letting me proceed. The entry-level floor seemed to be mostly gray walls leading to manufacturing facilities. “Place is weirdly empty, isn’t it?”
“Saturday,” I reminded him. “Who in here would be working weekends besides security?”
“Paddy should know. It would help if he’d carry a phone. The crazy old coot gives me the creeps.”
For closemouthed Schwartz, that was an I-wanta-be-friends
moment. And it worked. I studied him with interest. After all, he had great abs and I’d been without sex way too long. He was looking back. But this wasn’t the time for overtures of that sort. I hid my gap-toothed smile, and we both glanced away at the same time.
Following signs, we took the stairs down. We’d been directed to an office on the top floor, so we were safely heading in the opposite direction of authority. I just hoped we weren’t aiming for a nest of vipers. I’d had some pretty hazardous encounters with Vanderventer security in the past.
The ozone stink seemed stronger in the stairwell, but I didn’t notice any green gas. I kept checking myself to be certain I didn’t somehow start disappearing like Tim or shifting like Sarah. The ozone and rattling metal steps gave me cold shivers.
At the bottom of the stairs, we found another corridor, this one of concrete blocks painted two shades of beige. Signs indicated Lab A was on the right, Lab B on the left. Voices carried down the corridor from the left.
Confronted by the peril of what we were doing, knowing Bill was strong enough to take care of himself, I had a WTF-am-I-doing-here moment until I recalled Sarah’s condition. To avoid nuclear damnation, we had to find her.
Which meant going where the people were. Grimacing, I turned left. Schwartz grabbed my elbow. We had a brief, silent wrestling match that I was going to lose unless I used dirty fighting. Not wanting to actually
hurt one of the good guys was a deterrent to violence.
Paddy resolved our nonverbal argument. He peered out of an unmarked door, held a finger to his lips, and gestured us in.
I swear, the room we entered was straight out of
Bride of Frankenstein
. I expected Boris Karloff to pop out of a closet. Wooden lab tables! Beakers, test tubes, burners, clamps . . . I hadn’t done well in high school chemistry, but I could recognize the ancient apparatuses.
A battered desk covered in papers and notebooks was nearly hidden in one corner by a metal cabinet. Dust covered everything. Nary a computer in sight. And no Sarah, not that I’d expected our hunt to be that easy.
“Where to now?” I asked, trying to keep the doubt from my voice. If this was Paddy’s lab, it didn’t appear as if he’d worked in it for years.
Paddy had donned a long, dirty white lab coat since we’d seen him at Andre’s. His beard was as scraggly as his hair, but his eyes were clear and perceptive as he rummaged through a drawer and produced blueprints.
“I confiscated the building plans. Here’s us,” he rumbled, pressing his finger to a little square in the sprawling complex. “They’ve put the EPA up here.” On a top management floor, away from the action.
“The technicians they’ve called in are meeting down here.” He pointed to a slightly larger rectangle roughly in the direction from which we’d heard voices. “The stairs to the hidden sublevels are here.”
I gulped. He was pointing at a door accessible only from the room where all the technicians were meeting. “What’s in the sublevels?” I asked, just because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“The Magic labs,” Paddy replied.
Okay, so maybe he wasn’t totally sane after all.
chwartz didn’t bother hiding his skepticism. “Magic lab? Is that some kind of acronym?”
“Code word,” Paddy acknowledged. “About twelve years ago, Acme acquired a new element from a top secret source. If anyone asks what we’re working on, we just say magic.”
“Swell, a new element to blow up the world, like uranium, right?” I asked. “And they’ve got Sarah down there with your crazy exploding experiments? What about the other zombies?”
“Zombies?” Schwartz and Paddy both asked, glancing up from their study of the blueprints.
“Like Sleeping Beauty back at Andre’s—dead, but not dead,” I explained impatiently. “What’s up with that?”
Paddy wiped his big hand over his face, but I thought I caught a glimpse of sadness before he turned back to the table. “That’s not our concern. We have to remove Sarah first.”
Okay, I got that. Sarah was one of those “special” people that the Zone residents hid from the outside world. They’d been hiding Sleeping Beauty, too. And I aimed to find out why, eventually.
“Will Bill be there, too?” I demanded.
“I think they’d gather all their victims in one place,” Paddy acknowledged. “There’s not a lot of places to hide them.”
“Can we call the authorities once we find them?” I asked bluntly.
Paddy shook his head. “Acme will stonewall. That’s why they have the victims hidden. I think Gloria bribes the police chief or someone to play down incidents here. Schwartz, if Tina called you on an official basis and told you there were homeless bums in Acme’s secret basement, what would you do?”
“I’d go for a search warrant.” Schwartz glanced at me and shrugged apologetically. “And even if my boss gave me permission to try, which would be a hurdle, the judge would deny it unless I had proof that Acme was harming innocent people. No one believes Acme’s dangerous but us.”
Which was where me and my “magic” powers came in. Justice for those the law ignored. Got it. Didn’t like it.
“Does Acme have security cameras?” I asked,
changing the subject. “Can they see what we’re doing right now?”
“Not in here. They have cameras in the corridors, but there won’t be anyone monitoring them today. They can check the footage later, though,” Paddy warned. “They’ll know we’ve been here.”
“Stink bomb then,” I said. “After the gas leak, your people will be as jumpy as Gary Cooper’s neighbors at high noon. One whiff of a stink bomb, and they’ll be out of there so fast, they’ll burn rubber.”
Schwartz made a snorting nose that sounded suspiciously like a laugh. Paddy glanced at me approvingly.
“Perceptive. Simple. It might even work.”
“Fair is fair,” I said with a shrug. “They gas us, we gas them.”
The truth was, I was the one who was jumpy. Being in the basement of this mausoleum with no telling how many mad scientists and their machinery—not to mention security goons with guns—had my skin crawling. I wanted out as fast as we could get there.
Or maybe it was knowing I didn’t like Sarah well enough to go to hell for her that made me edgy. Yeah, I didn’t want her frying innocent people, but how innocent were these people, after all? Did the government know Acme’s scientists were experimenting with a new element? Was the green cloud a new nerve gas?
One thing I know from my environmental scientist mother—corporations earn more money off weapons than health care. If Acme had a magical new element, they were intent on building bombs with it, not saving the world from disease.
So maybe I should be taking out the lab and not just my friends.
Man, I hate indecision! This is what courtrooms and legal processes are about. They might take awhile, but decisions were made. There was a proper guideline.
Had he been here, Andre would have worried about my unusual silence while the boys mixed their stink bomb, but Schwartz and Paddy were clueless. I studied the blueprints and kind of wished I could talk to Max. I even took out my mirror and pretended to remove an eyelash while wishing I could see just a flicker of his reflection. But he was gone, from hell and from my life—mostly.
Besides, he’d just scream,
Justy, get out of there!
Not very useful. I missed him.
At least Schwartz and Paddy didn’t order me to stay behind when they made their bomb run. To disguise ourselves from the cameras, we all donned gas masks so we’d give the appearance of having been outside, without the burden of wearing the heavy suits. And then we marched down the long corridor.
The door to Lab B was shut but not locked. The voices rising from behind it did not sound happy. No whistling while one worked at Acme.
Wearing my pretend-scientist attire and a face mask, I leaned against the beige concrete and watched as Paddy entered the lab as if he belonged there, which, I suppose, he did. He left the door open for our benefit.
The angry voices rose higher at his entrance.
Paddy put on a good mime performance, gesturing to his mask and waving his hands, urging everyone to run. Nice that he was actually trying to warn the assholes—not that they cared. They cursed, grabbed his arm, and tried to force him out.
Schwartz and I glanced at each other and, in concert, rolled our little bombs across the tiles.
Everyone was too focused on poor Paddy to notice. He slumped. He shook his shaggy head. And when the rotten-egg stench exploded, he staggered out with the rest of them.
By that time, Schwartz and I had concealed ourselves in a cleaning closet. It’s hard to get intimate while wearing a gas mask, but I had my back practically pressed into his front, and my libido was not minding one bit. Maybe because I was trying hard not to laugh my head off at all those brilliant scientists blown away by a juvenile joke.
“What the devil is Bergdorff doing now?” one of the lab coats shouted as he coughed and raced ahead of the stench.
“We sent Bergdorff and Ferguson and their crew home!” another of the coats shouted back as they ran down the corridor. “Must be the freaking EPA morons.”
“Why would the EPA have hydrogen sulfide?” another asked, slowing down and sniffing the air.
“If that’s just sulfide and not Bergdorff stirring his brew, what are we running for?” someone smarter than the average suit asked—from the far end of the corridor. “Just find the damned leak.”
. I dived out of the closet and across the hall to Lab B before they all decided to turn around and brave the stink. Schwartz stayed hot on my heels.
Once inside the forbidden lab, we hastily worked our way through far more modern paraphernalia than that in Paddy’s pitiful closet. I watched for potentially explosive machinery, but the place was all computers, stainless steel, and glass. The back wall had no discernible door, just a suspiciously uncluttered lab table stretched across the width of it. We hunted for switches or hinges, me diving under the table and Schwartz leaning above it.