Chapter Fourteen

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Matthew—Mikhail, apparently—barrels inside, powering over the bumper, instantly dominating my field of vision. It's like the passport photo conjured him through some Eastern Bloc sorcery. The van interior illuminates but his face is so high, up near the generator, that I feel him as a swarm of knees, thumbs, elbows.

A pair of walkie-talkie sits on a shelf. I throw one. The other falls and I kick it, then wince at the pain in my toe. Both glance off him.

He keeps coming.

The file cabinet. I bend and hook my fingers underneath, and heave. It topples to an inverted V-shape. Together with its spilled contents and metal rails, it partitions the cabin.

"I know— I know what you are!" I backpedal, thinking. "You're Russian muscle."

As Mikhail clears a path toward me, I keep shouting, hoping to distract him or possibly be heard from the alley. The words aren't registering—his gaze remains thick—but my physical volatility seems to give him pause. He strides delicately over the file cabinet, his stance broad and balanced. Are there explosives in here? Is he worried I'll set something off?

I am retreating, crab-walking in reverse, when my palm knocks something solid.

The crate.

With exploding hope, I snake my arm over its edge and feel around. My fingertips roam over cold steel, across dimpled surfaces. I grab the first thing that feels like a barrel.

Mikhail clears the file cabinet. I thrust forward the thing in my hand.

A crowbar. I'm staring at him through its pointy claw.

He smirks and keeps advancing. In one spastic motion, I hurl the crowbar at his face and myself at his midsection. The crown of my head strikes his pelvic bone—hard, I feel the crack in my molars. He crumples to one knee as the crowbar rattles away.

Momentarily we both reel. I recover first and, scrambling away, use my left foot to sweep Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt into his path.

Mikhail rises. Reacquiring his target like a bear roused from hibernation, he rushes me. His second step catches Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt's quills. The stumble is just enough; I reach into the weapons crate and come up cash this time.

A gun: black, trigger, hole in front for bullets to exit and kill stuff.

"Dude, freeze!" Is it loaded? I have no idea. "Stay where you are— right where you are— and maybe I won't blast you to the East Bay."

He is looking at the weapon with an expression either solemn or dubious.

I press on. "What're you guys here for? I just found the files and all the weapons— this ain't corporate training. No way."

He points to his mouth lamely.

"Oh cut the crap— you can talk. WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? TELL ME!"

Again with the mouth-pointing. He gestures for me to lower the gun.

"Not a chance." I thrust it forward, shuffling in place. "Talk now or I put you down."

Again my words don't seem to register, but the barrel in his face is clear enough. He tries, Do no English, in a pea-soup accent.

I gesticulate at the ceiling-mounted hardware. "This monster server!" I turn my free palm up. "What purpose? Que propósito?"

Why Spanish? Why not? Mikhail continues to feign ignorance. I am getting very irritated—holding a firearm must stimulate some anger-center of the brain. Russians. I cannot believe it. They couldn't stop at thwarting our first ever woman president. Had to come to San Francisco and screw with my day. I liked the ones I worked with at Google, but I'm not getting that same brusque/brilliant/only-10%-crazy vibe the Google-Russians gave off.

Maybe it's only Mikhail. Graham was American. Maybe Jim Davis is too—maybe he needed a goon and this Cold War scratch 'n' dent was the cheapest available.

While I puzzle over all this, I begin to sense Mikhail's angular face growing in size. I look down. His feet are inching forward.

"Nope. Cut it out now, or I blast you!"

His feet keep encroaching. Sneaky little nudges. With every millimeter, he is growing more confident I won't fire. I can see it, those noodle arms loosening, his gaze darker.

The pressure puts me back on the streets, with Mom and Cecil. My knees pinch together and a core of rage builds—hot, barbed.

I pull the trigger.

Nothing happens.

For a moment I think I'll be able play it off, poise my finger again and pretend that harmless click came from the generator.

But Mikhail is smiling. "Bullets no."

"You're a big talker now, huh?"

I brace myself to fight, gripping the gun like makeshift brass knuckles. If I can buy five seconds, maybe I can scale the side of the van and reach the ceiling spring-gate, drop that server onto him like the anvil flattening Wile E. Coyote. The percentages are not good, but it's what I got. And I am giving it to him like cancer.

His hand starts forward. I swing my gun-fist and scream through bared teeth, and connect, and now my throat is closing—being closed, by force of human fingers—but still I feel great.

I am rearing back for another punch when the van's engine roars alive.   

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