As the car approached, my breakfast broke formation and made a run for the exits. It returned to its position under protest. The open envelope dropped from my hand, forgotten. “Oh hell,” I whispered. “What now?”
Michael turned his head and spoke in my ear without taking his eyes off the approaching sedan. “The van,” he said hoarsely, and grabbed my hand and started to run. “Get to the van!”
We sprinted, our sneakers slapping in counterpoint on the cracked pavement, the cold spring air burning inside my nose. Thirty yards might as well have been a hundred; their vehicle approached faster than we could cover the distance to ours. Michael dug the key out of his front pocket, swearing breathlessly when he fumbled and almost dropped it. I skidded around the back end, bounced off the rear quarter panel and crouched by the bumper while he wrangled with the lock. It stuck; the cylinder wouldn’t turn. “Come on,” he pleaded, and slammed his palm against the door. “Come on!”
The rear tire on the passenger’s side abruptly developed a hole and deflated.
We froze, giving our brains time to identify the short, loud, distinctive sound that had accompanied this sudden change of situation. I saw Michael turn pale.
Another shot cracked and echoed across the parking lot, and this time it was the front tire that blew out. Peeking around the bumper, I saw a standing figure silhouetted on the shared roof of the abandoned shops. Average height; broad shoulders; short, vaguely military haircut. When he saw us looking, he lowered the rifle, walked to the back edge of the roof and dropped out of sight.
I didn’t know why I was surprised. Ben had been Parker’s man from the beginning; why would it be different now?
The sedan pulled neatly into a parking space two rows away from ours. The engine cut off and White stepped out, followed by Parker. They conferred for a moment, then approached, reaching us at the same time Ben appeared around the end of the strip mall. He had left his rifle behind. I stood up behind Michael’s shoulder and tried to look like I wasn’t hiding.
Michael said, “Parker.”
“Michael.” Parker had the slightly annoyed look of one whose plans have been pushed forward without permission, and who was now required to act when he had been planning to rest for a few hours. “Shall we go inside?”
At the storefront, Parker paused and used his foot to pin down one of the blank sheets now blowing away from the discarded manila envelope. “I wish you had followed the given instructions, Houston,” he observed, and lifted his shoe, letting the breeze take the paper to the end of the sidewalk. “We have had to make adjustments to account for this less... remote location. Still,” he continued while Ben worked at the lock on the papered-over door, “I suppose this site is as good as any other. Michael, after you.”
Ben held the door while the four of us filed inside, then stepped in and pulled it shut behind him. The rasp of the turning deadbolt sounded loud in the rests between our footsteps.
In the light that filtered through the gaps in the brown paper, I could just see bare steel supports and sagging cables above a concrete floor. I found myself herded toward the dark back half of the gutted space, until all I could make out were fuzzy shapes and fuzzier shadows. “Stop,” White muttered, wrapping his cold hand around my arm to arrest my progress and turn me to face the windows. He took two glowsticks from inside his jacket, cracked them, and dropped them at my feet. “Stay here.”
“What is this?” Michael demanded as White rejoined the others. The distance between them and me was less than twenty yards; I could hear them clearly. “Why are you following us?” He wheeled on Ben, standing in front of the door with his feet apart and his arms crossed. “And you! Where the hell did you come from all of a sudden?” When he got no answer, he went back to Parker and White. “Somebody tell me what is going on right now, or I swear I’m calling -- ”
“-- your father?” Parker checked his fingernails and smiled primly at Michael. “Young man, who do you think gave the order for this little meeting?”
Michael’s mouth dropped open half an inch, then snapped shut.
“Now.” Parker clasped his hands behind his back, like a school official addressing a truculent student. “Eleven months ago, a field team under your leadership received an assignment which, in a deliberate act of defiance, it did not complete. This caused immense damage to the company’s reputation and general esprit de corps.” He paused in case Michael wished to deny this, then continued. “Complicating your case is the fact that I was forced to dispatch another team in order to complete the assignment to the client’s specifications, which resulted in the death of one of your subordinates. And furthermore -- ”
“None of this is news to me,” Michael said, hot and quiet and angry. He put his hand in his jacket pocket. “Get to the point.”
Parker was not amused, but neither was he perturbed by the interruption. “Furthermore,” he rocked forward slightly on his toes when he said this, “your behavior since then has fallen short of the high standards set by your employer; namely, in the area of openness and the sharing of information. You knowingly withheld vital intelligence, specifically as pertains to one of your colleagues and their knowledge of certain details about the incident.”
Oh dear God. Outlined as high as my knees in sick, chemical yellow, the bones and tattered flesh of the building’s carcass crowded around me, a claustrophobic jumble of scrap and plastic and steel. To move anywhere would be a blind, noisy process. It would be slow. It would be undignified. It would be futile. I couldn’t even be sure there was a back door to get to.
At a nod from Parker, White produced a red envelope. He held it out to Michael. “We sometimes create duplicates of particularly sensitive files, in case the original is destroyed or lost due to mistake or misadventure,” Parker explained. “Or deliberately left behind somewhere, such as in the assignee’s vehicle. Since we are face-to-face, there is no need to follow the usual protocols.” He tilted his head down just enough to transform his stoic, superior gaze into a menacing glower. “Open it.”