Chapter Eight

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I sprint for the alley. Sandals pounding, lungs searing. My arm feels like a wasp got trapped inside my shirt and is savoring an extended sting. I reach the ramp in five strides. I stumble at that first short step, knee banging chin, but keep moving.

"Help!" I yell the instant I'm to the alley. "Somebody help, call the cops!"

I glance around feverishly. Nobody is here. Not cops or Cecil or anyone. My fingers open and close and saliva floods my mouth.

The Elite guy catches me by the ankle. I stomp him off with fury I haven't known in a decade and run towards Second Ave.

"I'm being attacked!"

I spot a group of office workers crossing Howard, thumbing their phones.

"I'm being attacked! Call the cops, quit outta your profile and help!"

Before I can tell whether they've heard, an arm closes around my waist. I buck forward another step or two, breaking the hold, but the Elite thug manages to hang onto my sandal. My one leg flies out from underneath, flattening me to the street.

"Stop him!" I try. "Somebody help, dial 911, get this guy off me ..."

But I am being dragged through the alley, and soon we're back underground. The thug yanks the metal grate down over the exit. It locks with a clang.

My cheeks are scraped raw from the asphalt—I can smell blood—and tears stream from my eyes. I swing my elbow blindly backward.

"I need doctors! You assaulted me— I need a hospital doctor now ..."

The man throws me over his shoulder in a fireman's carry. As we enter the stairwell, I scream and pound my fists into his back. His grip shifts across my arm, the spot where he was squeezing before, and the pain is bright-hot. I howl into his yellow polo shirt, then once my breath returns, bite through the fabric.

He totes me up what feels like a dozen flights, but must not be because we exit the stairwell at 3. Carter Kotanchek and Jim Davis are waiting.

The guard releases me as though I'm feral, peeling my nails off him, leaving me in a heap on the ground and then quickly backpedaling.

"Police, now!" I scramble to my feet. "This maniac needs to be in handcuffs!"

Behind the two principals, people are drifting into the hall. Minosh's eyes are saucers. Prisha grips a notebook over the bottom half of her face. I heard a few grumbles this morning over Elite's unorthodox methods, but now people are full-on freaked: their coworker is screaming about police and looks like she just crashed her dirt-bike going 100 miles an hour.

On the other hand—I can read the doubt in their stances—that coworker is me. Who knows what I might've done to provoke this?

Carter makes a flattening gesture for calm, then turns to me. "We'll get you care, Deb. Blackquest contains a protocol for on-site medical. This is a terrible misunderstanding and I feel awfu—"

"Misunderstanding? No it's not a misunderstanding, it's assault— and this dude here is going to jail. And you"—I whirl about finding Jim Davis—"you, you neo-Nazi, you get to be his cellmate."

Jim Davis steeples his fingers, considering me. "You were informed that campus was closed. You willfully violated the rules."

"I tried to exit a building and walk up an alley. Like a regular, non-incarcerated citizen of the United States."

"You were warned. The consequences—"

"I was not warned!" I stab my finger at the guard. "He kept growling, 'Nn, nn, nn,' like some dumb frickin' beast in the woods. He never told me he was going to physically lay hands on me."

Davis lets my vigor dissipate. "Matthew cannot speak. He is mute."

I rear back like this is ludicrous, then consider the man in front of me. He crosses his arms.

"Well now I feel like A-hole of the Century, but that doesn't change what happened. He assaulted me. I'll let the cops sort out who said what."

"Your wounds are superficial," Davis says. "Far short of the standard for terminating participation. Our medic will have no problems."

The arrogance in this statement is staggering. "I wasn't going to participate in this lame training before— but now after your guy essentially mauls me, you think I'm good to go?"

He clenches his stressball. Knits his brow, making the scar at his temple twitch.

"I'm gone," I say. "I'm marching right out of here to a police station."

"Campus is sealed."

"You wanna make it two assaults? Hope you've got good lawyers."

I start for the stairs. My legs are quivering and I'm seeing double. The guard looks questioningly at Jim Davis. Want me to stop her?

Davis says, "Blackquest 40 has a separate protocol for insubordination. The kitchen of this floor can be retrofitted as a detention center."

"Ooh, your own personal Guantanamo Bay. I suppose you've got some attachment that turns the Keurig into a waterboarding machine?"

Now Carter rejoins the fray. "I am sorry for all'a this, Deb. But the campus closure was made crystal clear. You heard, you were at the kickoff."

"Yeah," I say even though I wasn't, "but why would anybody expect that to be an actual thing— a thing enforced with violence? This is Corporate America; none of this macho talk is real."

"Blackquest 40 is different. As I explained, these guys approach stuff from a more serious reference. Paramilitary." His cool-blue eyes gleam.

"You can't just sent around an email, people click, I agree and suddenly the place changes from an office into an internment camp."

As Carter counters with his FPP-1 nonsense, Blackquest 40 being vital to the continued health of Codewise Solutions as a market leader blah de blah blah. I start feeling sloshy. It's a thing that happens to me—I don't know if it's a precursor to Mom's schizophrenia or what. One ear seems to accelerate to the floor while the other flies off my head, then they flip, then flop, then flip again—like some sadistic kid is yanking kite strings. I don't breathe well. Arteries burn in my brain.

These shiny lips. Slithering, emitting noise. I need to stop the noise.

I walk close to Carter Kotanchek. Very close. His teeth are less white at this range, yellow-flecked near the gums.

My own molars lock and I suck from the base of my tongue. When it feels like enough, I squeeze off a ferocious grin and hock in his face.

Now an arm is around my waist. Paul Gribbe.

"Let's go." He gestures to a conference room. "Let's go talk."

Half delirious, I allow him to lead me. Carter Kotanchek wipes his chin, then looks for someplace to wipe his hand—it's quite the gob I expelled. After settling for a wall, he takes a step to follow.

"Alone!" Paul says, waving Carter off. "You stay here. You talk to these animals. My team is not working under these conditions."

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