13. April, Part Two
Ben’s code name was “Polar”, which fit him: He was cold, silent and usually loaded for bear, and about as expressive as his wardrobe (jeans, tee, untucked flannel shirt with rolled sleeves, every single day). He so rarely spoke outside of curt “yes/no” answers that I had started to think of him more as a highly advanced robot than a human being. So when he placidly suggested we contact Margaret and get her side of the story before proceeding, our jaws dropped. Only a fraction of an inch, mind you, but they still dropped.
They dropped a little further when we realized he was right.
We’d wasted most of a day just getting our bearings, and by the time we hammered out a plan it was six in the morning and we were already twenty-one hours in the hole. We agreed by mutual unspoken accord that sleep was for the weak, so we parked across the street from the girl’s school, played speed metal as loud as we dared and took turns fetching cups of truly heinous coffee from the convenience store at the end of the block. And as soon as Margaret appeared, walking from the student housing in the next building, Rosemarie and Steph got out and discreetly asked if they could have a moment of her time. I put the audio feed on speaker and the boys crowded close behind me, sipping their horrible coffee and trying not to spill on the console while we listened in.
Margaret guessed why we were there within a few sentences of Rosemarie’s introduction. Apparently she’d been expecting her mother to do something like this for the last several weeks, and our appearance just confirmed what she’d already guessed. She already had a bag packed and some emergency cash, ready to leave at a moment’s notice. But -- and she was very clear on this point -- she had her own destination in mind. If we wanted her to go with us, she wouldn’t fight us, but she wouldn’t cooperate either. She stood by while Rosemarie and Steph put their heads together and I patched the rest of us in. It wasn’t a long discussion.
We’d committed our share of crimes and misdemeanors in the course of our work, but kidnapping a minor was far outside our comfort zone. We agreed to meet Margaret behind the school at four o’clock that afternoon, half an hour after her last class, and then we’d take her wherever to the airport and see her safely on whatever flight she chose. In the meantime, she’d go to school as per usual, to avoid raising alarms. That settled, we split up. Ben went to set up a high-ground surveillance post in a nearby building, complete with a scoped rifle that he produced from somewhere. He claimed binoculars gave him a headache. I had aspirin in the van, and offered him some. He thanked me, and refused it.
Steph and Rosemarie stayed in the area, bouncing back and forth from a coffee shop to a bookstore to just walking around the block until it was time to get serious. Colin suggested they pretend to be a sightseeing couple, and that they should make out to help sell their cover. He offered to watch them practice and give them pointers. Rosemarie offered to have him fired. Stephanie smacked him in the nuts.
Michael told him he’d earned it, but he let him get some ice before I dropped the two of them off at the airport. Colin’s task for the day was to walk through the terminal and outlots with Michael and work out the choreography for the evening. It needed to look like we got confused and went to the wrong place; that when we stopped to ask for directions to the hangar, Margaret made a break for it and got away from us; and that she lost herself in the crowd and made it past security before we could catch up with her. Turns out a screw-up of that magnitude takes a lot of advance planning if you want to get it right.
With the boys gone, I found myself in the very rare position of having nothing to do for several hours. I drove around for a little while (one of only four times Michael actually allowed me behind the wheel), but when I saw how much gas the heavy engine used I decided that was a waste of time. Besides, I wanted to be fresh for the coming fun. I found a place to park where I wouldn’t be ticketed for aggravated loitering and general skeeviness, set an alarm for a quarter to three, made sure the doors were locked and went to sleep, the coffee in my system outvoted by the needs of my tired brain.
My stupid, tired, stupid, malfunctioning, stupid brain.
Because when I woke up, the alarm had long since spent itself. Michael was pounding on the window and yelling at me. Colin was trying to pick the lock on the back doors. It was half past four.
By the time we got to the rendezvous, the girls and Margaret were gone. We followed the shouting and found them backed up in a dead-end alley, facing a group of burly men with bulletproof vests on their backs, non-lethal weapons in their hands and pistols on their hips. They didn’t seem interested in a long stand-off. The only thing holding them back was Rosemarie’s taser and Stephanie’s colorful language.
The only thing to do was to pull up and pile out, denim and canvas sneakers facing off against Kevlar and leather boots. The men wore no insignia or markings, just neutral-toned t-shirts and olive drab cargo pants and a metric crap-ton of seriously aggro gear. They hesitated when we came screeching in, and the girls tried to take advantage of the distraction. Rosemarie made it past the line and joined us, but Stephanie and Margaret remained pinned, hemmed in against the concrete wall. Margaret looked more angry than scared. I remember how much that impressed me.
There was maybe twenty yards of open space between us and them. Michael walked out into the center of it and demanded the other team identify themselves and state their purpose. One of them, with the white band on his sleeve, just laughed, and said that obviously they’d been sent for the same job we were. Who they worked for didn’t make any difference as long as the job got done.
Michael thought that was bullshit, and said so. There were rules for this sort of thing, not to mention professional courtesy. Double-booked or not, we had the job first. They were clearly poaching. He didn’t know who he was dealing with. There would be repercussions. White Band laughed again, clearly amused, and approached so he could talk to Michael without shouting. Unfortunately, that meant nobody else could hear what they were saying. Our little earbug radios set themselves to random frequencies after twelve hours, so until you synced up again you couldn’t hear a thing.
Except that they still transmitted to the master console in the van (as a safety feature), which worked its digital voodoo and let the controller -- me -- stay tapped into everything. I fished my bug out of my pocket, feigned horror and distress to get my hands close to my face, and palmed it into my ear.
White Band spoke softly and I missed about every third or fourth word, but it was more than enough. They weren’t our competition, they were the back-up plan. They were going to take Margaret, and not even Ben (who had just arrived, his observation post now useless) could do anything about it. If we weren’t going to deliver the girl, they were. End of discussion. Michael began to object, but White Band cut him off with a single sentence that I desperately hoped I misheard. He couldn’t possibly have said what I thought he said. But Michael went pale and backed away, eyes averted. I’d heard right the first time. We were screwed.
White Band signaled to his men, and three of them drew their pistols and backed us up against the van, our hands behind our heads. Colin looked ready to fight, and Rosemarie was still clutching her taser. Michael motioned for them (all of us) to stand down. Still close to center stage, he told us over his shoulder that he didn’t want anybody getting hurt. White Band said (loud enough to include everyone) that Michael had made a very wise decision. Another signal, and the remaining two men began to advance on their target.
Margaret pressed herself to the wall, her backpack in her hands, ready to do anything but give up. Stephanie put herself in front of her, picked up a scrap of two-by-four from a nearby trash pile and took a batter’s stance. The men hesitated, and we held our collective breath.
Michael shouted for Stephanie to stand down.
Stephanie shouted back (with more compound expletives than I feel comfortable repeating) that they’d have to step over her dead body to get to Margaret.
The man with the white band on his sleeve said he didn’t have a problem with that.
So that’s exactly what they did.