I'm not sure whose face is more pale. I feel blood leaving mine, but Graham looks like he just put down the family dog. He's squeezing the gun so hard I think his knuckles might switch places, and his right eye—typically a pool of easy, ironic blue—won't stop twitching.
In what capacity did he just shoot Yellow Shirt? There's a gushy, hopping-up-and-down part of me saying he did it to protect me, but that old street part of me thinks it was on Oleg's behalf—the prevention of a murder detrimental to the Elite cause.
Graham thumbs his walkie-talkie and speaks into the bottom. "The Bollinger woman shot Misha. I'm in pursuit."
The walkie-talkie clicks off, and our eyes drift together. The hopping-up-and-downers inside me are thumping their chests, but there's only so much celebrating you can do beside a dripping corpse and with a team of mercenaries on your trail.
After a moment's confusion, Graham steps inside and picks Yellow Shirt's gun off the ground, replacing it with his own. He offers me a hand up, and I take it.
"You were in the ducts before—the ducts are good," he says as we beat it away from the Cray supercomputer.
He leads us ahead to the first HVAC vent in the ceiling. From a pocket he produces a screwdriver and begins loosening screws, which he can just reach on tiptoes.
"Wait, if they know I was in the ducts," I say, "won't they look there first?"
He grunts, struggling to dislodge the panel. "You aren't trafficking in good options. Our men are too large to maneuver through the vents, though, so you'll have the advantage."
The walkie-talkie clipped to his waist blips intermittently, followed by garbled questions from Oleg or Fedor about Graham's position and sightings of me.
Graham ignores them.
He keeps loading the removed screws into one hand. When one drops, I pick it off the carpet and offer to hold the others so he can focus on getting the vent off. As he hands the screws over, our eyes meet again.
"Just to confirm," I say, "you're helping me because you've come to the realization your side is evil. Yes?"
Graham spares a half second to chuckle. "I'm helping because I'm a captive worker, same as you." His gaze moves down my body, every inch of which is bruised or scratched. "Well, maybe not quite the same."
As he finishes taking down the vent and hoists me up to the HVAC duct—no time for gallantry, his palm right in my business—he explains how he came to work for Elite.
He was at a stag party, in some back room of a gentleman's club. Vegas. The girl made him close his eyes—ah, what an idiot he was. When he opened them back up, her throat was slit and the knife in his hands. The first ski-masked man bagged the bloody weapon. The second, Oleg, told Graham that in two weeks he would receive a job offer from a company called Elite Development. He should accept this offer.
"He threatened to frame you? But how could they swing that? Strip joints have cameras—"
"Oh, they can swing quite a lot."
I have my knees underneath me in the duct now, looking down. Graham gestures for the screws back, and I pass them through the missing ceiling panel.
"So...you built that non-deterministic security scheme in Ukraine," I say. "To keep the Russians out."
He starts an answer, then stops, then re-poising his lips, says, "It was the best work of my career."
Resignation wilts his handsome face. I've known this feeling myself, when Paul told me that Boeing didn't care about real-time thrust balancing, a feature I'd spent hundreds of hours perfecting, or that Vancouver thought my trash-sniffing fly prototypes had no use cases. You throw yourself with reckless abandon at a thing, you achieve what you set out to, and it doesn't matter. Factors outside your control defeat you.
Graham's walkie-talkie crackles, preempting any discussion of lost ideals.
A voice says, "I am sending men to help on Twelve. Is she there?"
Now Graham does answer. "Don't. I've been all over Twelve, she must have slipped out. Send them to Eleven instead."
He clicks off the device. I shift to relieve my knees from the hard duct floor and make sure I have Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt.
I ask, "Is Vegas a common spot for Ukrainian stag parties?"
His blue eyes flatten. "If they flush you out, you should build the software."
"They won't. Like you said, I'm small, I can shimmy around—"
"Oleg is relentless." Graham is preparing to replace the vent, inserting the first screw through its hole. "He has a way of bending people to his requirements. You won't win."
This grates on me—even if Graham is only trying to help and did just save my life. I make a nasty face he doesn't see, the vent in place now, two screws in.
I'm still thinking about Vegas. About that San Francisco driver's license I glimpsed yesterday in the Elite van.
"You aren't telling me everything," I say as the duct's darkness becomes complete. "Why? What else is there?"
Graham doesn't answer. He finishes the last screw and begins explaining that he has left them finger-tight; if I bop it real good, I can spring myself—
"I found the charges!" Immediately I regret this, but there's no un-saying it. "They're going to blow this place sky-high the second you guys leave, aren't they?"
My voice echoes up and down the ducts. Graham says nothing at first. In the distance, there are sounds of rapid speech and clattering. Oleg's men. On Twelve.
I wonder if my information about explosives is news to Graham, as it seemed to be for Yellow Shirt. I sense sadness in his non-answer, which is ludicrous, I know—I can't even see him. Does he wish I hadn't found out? Is he feeling shame—about Vegas, about capitulating?
"Your best chance," he finally says, "is to build the cursed thing. For your coworkers. For yourself. Just build it—and maybe we all come out the other end alive."
With that, he sprints off down the hall to re-join my pursuers.
YOU ARE READING
Blackquest 40Mystery / Thriller
** WATTYS 2018 WINNER ** Deb Bollinger has no time for corporate training. Her company's top engineer at just twenty-seven, Deb has blocked off her day for the one project she truly cares about: the launch of Carebnb, an app that finds spare beds fo...