308 26 19

I crawl several ceiling panels from the vent and turn off Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt's display. I lay still on my side along the center of the duct—which seems the quietest part, least likely to bend with my weight and pop when I shift away. With my ear against the metal, I hear quite a bit of what's happening.

The gang from Elite slams doors and rips drawers out of file cabinets. They're either pounding the walls directly or throwing furniture against them. They shout at each other. They curse in frustration.

The screws in this nearest vent begin scraping, twisting in their holes. I'm a goner, I think, and have a strong instinct to begin frantically knee-clomping in the opposite direction...then remember what Graham said, that their men can't maneuver up here.

I decide to keep quiet and hold my position. With a clang, the vent is pushed up into the duct, then nudged aside, then the top of a man's head appears. Again, it takes all my gumption not to scamper off.

There's no light here, he can't see. He can only hear.

The man glances left, glances right, and sinks back down. I hear him perform a similar check of the next vent in this hall, and the vent after that.

Faintly I hear, "Where exactly did you see her last?"

Though soft, the voice is lashing: Oleg's. They must be in the adjacent hallway. I miss the next words, presumably from Graham.

Oleg's voice returns, "And why do you think that?"

This time, I do hear Graham's answer. "Because I looked everywhere. Keep wasting time up here if you like—your prerogative. The manpower's better spent on Eleven."

"I had men there. No one saw her."

"Were they good men? I don't know what to tell you. She's a slippery one."

For a while, I hear nothing. I wonder if Oleg is all purple-faced and mashing that stressball, grilling Graham. Maybe he's threatening to resurrect that bloody knife from Vegas if Graham doesn't come up with a more convincing story. What was that Graham said—"he has a way of bending people?"

Maybe Graham has already caved. Maybe he's whispering right now, gesturing for Oleg to keep quiet, to send someone up ahead, I'm just around the corner.

I curl into a ball around Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt and hope.

In another minute, the door to Twelve clicks open. I hear noise from the stairwell. There are no floors above me, so Elite must be heading down to Eleven.

I roll onto my back, exhaling, sprawling out what little I can in this cramped duct. In the pitch black, it feels like the inside of a coffin.

I try focusing on my next move, most likely escape or some kind of telecommunications wizardry using Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt. My eyelids have different ideas. One moment, I'm muttering about ghosting packets through Elite's outgoing email headers; the next, I'm snoring softly. I dig my nails into my palms and bite my lip, but lying prone like this, I just can't do it. I can't stay awake.

I am thinking my way through the ductwork...must move lying on a cot needing a tampon...really needing one, badly...Oleg has a box of them, a big cardboard crate of the super-absorbent orange ones...but there's an electric fence and I'm wearing this bulky collar...must send Raven, she could swoop in and pluck...


Raven got blown up.

I jolt awake, my heel banging the duct spastically. I grab for Hedgehog Eleanor Roosevelt and check the time. Whew—I was only out fifteen minutes.

Blackquest 40Read this story for FREE!