(This is part 2 of the same story that started with “The Sniper.”)
Just a few more seconds and Ned would have it.
You wouldn’t likely have noticed him, sitting in a chair with his ticket curled out from between two fingers of his right hand. The people at the desk were taking numbers to process requests. Someone farther down was taking money in various forms and handing over fat wads of cheap paper. Most of the supplicants were attorneys in various versions of business attire, a few were reporters; everyone else seemed to represent a wide range of personal and academic interests. So this man appeared to be among that latter diverse group — an older guy, scruffy with grey hair beard, and a jacket that stank.
He held a magazine in his hands, but if you looked closely you could see a tablet computer was inside the open journal near the bottom. Out of the corner of one eye Ned had been watching the rotund security guard, who normally sat near the last station where money changed hands. The guard rose and approached the corner of the counter at the far end from where he sat, drawn by a minor commotion among the workers at the ancient computer terminals along the back wall. They were talking and pointing at their screens. Eventually someone came around the corner from a back office. A little more chatter and this woman left, returning shortly with a device in her hands.
Ned recognized the device: Essentially a “bug” finder. It could pickup low powered transmissions across a very wide range of frequencies. A device like that would be run periodically so it would learn to ignore the ambient signals already coming from the office equipment. She watched the thing as she turned around and faced out over the counter. She looked up and said something to one of the people near her, who then came over to the counter and spoke to the guard.
He looked a little concerned, then turned and began scanning the supplicants sitting in chairs and on benches lining the walls of what amounted to a wide hallway. Ned slid his right foot up under his chair. The nearest exit was the stairwell door on his left. The display on his tablet indicate it was just seconds from completion of its task. He secured the grip of his left hand on the tablet as the magazine started to sag in his right. Just as the countdown hit zero, the guard yelled from just a few feet away.
“Hey, you!” His fat finger pointed directly at Ned.
Ned never looked up. It was all one fluid motion, and people who were actually looking at him didn’t even catch everything. Lurching upright on the right leg already under him, the other foot was planted off to his left at an angle. His right hand flung the magazine straight into the guard’s face. Despite the blinding distraction, the burly fellow lunged forward and grabbed Ned’s jacket. The rotten fabric ripped in his hand and Ned was already yanking open the stairwell door. Passing through the narrow minimum opening to admit his body, Ned jerked hard on the other side. The valve in the ancient door closer surrendered the door slammed shut behind him. By the time his foot hit the first step on the right side, he had flung off the remains of the jacket down the stairs on the left.
In steps entirely too quiet for someone sprinting, Ned flew up the stairs and was out of sight before the guard could wrestle open the door again. His radio squawked as he entered the stairwell and he spotted the jacket on the down side. Without really paying much attention, he loudly trod down the stairs and lifted the rag to compare with the fragment in his hand. “Hah! Gotcha. There ain’t no exit from this stairwell.”
He stood and listened a moment, then turned and clambered slowly back up to the landing, turning his face upward to the faint sound of patter from Ned’s flying feet. He snatched up his radio, pressed the key and barked into it, “Stairwell 3, sounds like he’s climbing.” A few seconds later a somewhat younger and fitter guard burst through the door and took off up the stairs. The older guard followed at a more leisurely pace.
Ned knew none of this, but thanked God for all the years he had invested in just this very form of exercise. It was his favorite and he had done it obsessively in his youth. Whether up or down, he had never met anyone who could catch him. His pace barely slowed as he reached the top floor after twelve flights of stairs. He had even managed to slip the tablet under his shirt into a pocked built into the thin mesh vest clinging to his skin. It was a long pouch with a zipper opening vertically along the front. Stowing the tablet inside this, he zipped it down as his hand came out. He could hear the pounding pursuit still far below.
From a pants pocket, he pulled out a small device with a long wire snout protruding from a fat rectangular box smaller than his palm. He inserted the wire into the lock on the door in the dark alcove at the there atop the last flight of stairs. His thumb pressed a button, then slid a toggle switch. The device was silent, but the lock was not, clicking loudly when the electronic pick had done the job. He twisted it quickly, then yanked it out. Thrusting it back into his pocket, Ned turned the stiff knob and slipped through the door, resetting the lock as he closed it behind him. It was designed to keep people in, not out.
The roof was covered in loose gravel. Without pausing, Ned changed to a stride that was more like cross country skiing, keeping his feet close to the surface. This allowed him to gain what little traction was possible and prevented him losing his footing on the forward plant. At the far corner of the ledge, he spun partway and dropped over the side. His hands caught the upturned edge of the roof, allowing him to reach around the overhang and grab a large pipe attached to the wall. Ned had noticed it when casing the building; it turned out to be PVC and pretty solidly clamped to the wall. Although the rubberized coating on his palms kept him from sliding down the pipe, he didn’t regret painting the stuff on. He took advantage of the firmness of the pipe, braced the soles of his feet on the surface and walked himself quickly down some three floors to another small section of roof atop an extended portion of the main building.
He was luckier this time, because there was a long section of the roof that had been raised due to repairs and it was bare of gravel. He stood just a moment, took three deep and calming breaths, then sprinted along the strip. Launching himself across the narrow alley far below, he landed just on the edge of the roof another story below. There was a parapet around this one. In a dive, his hands just caught the edge and he yanked his body toward it, rolling to his right side to protect the tablet snuggled against his ribcage on the left. It was ruggedized, but not impervious to impact. He rolled neatly to his feet again.
From here it was matter of vaulting across a series of connected shorter buildings, dropping a story or two with each transition using various fixtures. He ended up on a series of fire escapes, dropping smartly from one to the next using the outside railing of each. He enjoyed working out with the Parkour guys in the park, but wasn’t interested in the visually showy stuff, just the skills for moving quickly and confidently through obstacles. The last drop left him in a dead pocket alley. Around the corner was a foul-smelling dumpster used by a restaurant.
He crept up behind this huge bin. Reaching back to the base of his skull, he peeled off the grey wig and tossed it in with the stinking trash. Cheaply bought at a thrift store, he wouldn’t miss it. With his other hand he rubbed off the dabs of rubber cement that had held it in place. His other hand joined the rubbing routine on his face, removing the fake whiskers, heavy eyebrows and a few other bits and pieces. What was left was a fairly young Native American visage, incapable of growing whiskers. He jerked off his loose-fitting dark gray short-sleeved t-shirt, snapping it from the sleeves. This reversed the shirt and yanked out long sleeves at the same time. His sweating torso shivered in the cool autumn air and he hurried to put it back on, now bright red. In turn with each sleeve, he pinched and twisted the edge, then rolled it up, creating a cuff that held the billowing sleeves tight to his wrists.
Coming around the dumpster, he joined himself to the pedestrian traffic and disappeared.