STRATAGEM Chapter 23
STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham
TWO DAYS EARLIER
HOW MUCH MORE OF THIS could she endure? It had been two days since she spoke with Blake, and one entire day of not speaking or texting with anyone at all. Sabine’s margin of sanity wore thinner with each passing moment.
Endless hours of Netflix binging, surfing the web and watching the news did absolutely nothing for the mounting tension and monotony. Mindlessly clicking to the next episode of “The Good Place”, she picked up her phone to send Blake a text.
Come on, it’s already been an entire day of radio silence.
But Blake had been clear. With all the suspicious things going on around them, she had to assume they were all being surveilled. They had to act “normal”, whatever that looked like under a post-return-from-the-dead quarantine.
And her one reasonable text to Mom and Derek would have to suffice for now. Orders from the ICOMM brass were not flexible. Breaching those protocols would only put her further under scrutiny.
She let out a frustrated growl, dropped the phone back on the sofa, and glowered at the TV show. If she had to listen to Tahani name-drop one more celebrity…
Her phone chimed.
A text from….
The message to the Athena Crew thread read: Emergency Zoom meeting in five minutes. Link in your email.
She sent a quick “OK” in reply.
Anticipation flickered. If nothing else, just being able to talk to someone—anyone excited her.
In five minutes, though.
She leaped out of the sofa, ran into the bedroom where she got out of her PJs, and put on some jeans and a t-shirt. In record time, she brushed her teeth, washed her face, put on some makeup, and brushed her hair…with a minute to spare!
Laptop perched on the kitchen table, she clicked the meeting link and signed in.
The host—Connor—had not yet started the call. If only she could direct message him, see if he was feeling better. If only she could ask him about the odd events and behavior of Jon and Lucy. At least this call came as a welcome break from the prison of boredom and solitude.
The call began.
Connor’s face appeared.
Her heart sank.
He looked even more haggard than the last time she’d seen him.
“Hello everyone,” he said, his voice flat, almost monotone. “I apologize for the delay in communications, but I need to update you on some important developments.”
A quick look at Blake, Lucy, and Jon sent a shudder through Sabine’s mind. Like Connor, they all seemed exhausted, as though they had aged ten years in the past two days. Blake was the only person looking directly into the camera.
“Hey Connor,” Jon said, holding his head in his hands. “What’s going on?”
“First, I’ve been transferred to a secure site—still quarantined—where I’m in talks with Richard Eicher and some government people.”
“You left?” Sabine said, struggling to hold back her dismay. “Where are you?”
“That’s classified, sorry.”
“Something to do with our medical reports?” Blake said.
Connor nodded and winced in pain. “Afraid so.”
“Seriously?” Jon dropped his face down onto the desk and groaned.
“It is very serious,” Connor said. “The reports are showing that you’ve all been infected with a pathogen unlike anything known to modern science.”
At that, Jon lifted his head slightly, eyes drooping and said, “Yeah, that might explain why I feel like sh—”
“So for now, we have to enforce even stricter quarantine protocols for everyone on the Athena team, myself included.”
“Wait,” Sabine said, glancing momentarily at Blake. “What do you mean stricter?”
“This comes from way above my clearance level, but after consulting with Leo Botha, Director General of the World Health Organization, the authorities have decided to treat this as they would biological warfare threat.”
“What does this mean for us?” Blake said.
Connor took a breath, made a false start, then finally blurted out, “You’ll all have armed security posted outside your doors to enforce the lockdown. You may not under any circumstances leave your apartments.”
Jon slammed his hand down and shook his head. “Perfect!”
“I know,” Connor said. “This applies to me as well. We will be confined until further notice.”
For some reason, Lucy hadn’t reacted much less spoken a word. She just stared blankly at the screen.
“Luce?” Sabine said. “You okay there?”
Eyes suddenly open wide, she bore her teeth in an awkward smile. “Yeah…I’m good. Just tired, you know?”
“Lucy,” Blake said, “Have you had your coffee today?”
That was it! He said the code-phrase.
It looked as though his and Sabine’s eyes had met over it, but it was a group call. Still, the hairs on the back of Sabine’s neck prickled. At midnight tonight, she would have to find a way to sneak past security and meet him in the laundry room downstairs.
“Coffee doesn’t help,” Lucy said. “Hey guys, unless there’s anything else I can’t read in an email, I’m going to sign off, or else I’ll probably pass out in front of the camera.”
“It’s all right,” Connor said. “I’ll send you all updates via text or email and keep future video chats to a minimum.”
The call ended but Sabine barely recalled the details of what had happened after Blake had invoked the secret phrase. The clock indicated that she had about three more hours until midnight. She’d have to think of a way to get out without being detected.
Grabbing a water bottle to look “natural”, she went to the window next to the front door and pushed the blinds aside ever so slightly.
Sure enough, a burly security guard with a sidearm holstered at his hip stood by the door. He turned and gave her a stern look.
“Hi,” she mouthed, then smiled and waved at him with her fingers.
Sabine let the blinds go, turned and pressed her back against the door and blew out a breath. How could she possibly get out to meet with Blake?
For the next couple of hours, she sat, stood, and paced around devising her prison break plan. Finally, at 11:55 PM, she was ready. Chances of getting caught were significant, she and Blake assumed that. But if he would risk it for this meeting, it must be important enough.
With everything needed in hand, Sabine stepped into the bathroom. She took one end of the three tied-together bedsheets and fixed it to the pedestal sink’s stem. Then she shut the lights, opened the windows, and lowered her makeshift ladder in which she tied knots in intervals to act as rungs.
First, to test the hold on the sink.
A couple of sharp and sustained pulls.
Then she put her right foot outside the window and made the mistake of looking down at the two flights below.
Okay…not that different from a spacewalk…
…except for the gravity.
Looping her left foot around the knot, she held tight considering the next knot. From what she could see, looking down into the pavement below, the sheets would end up about four feet from the ground. Not much of a jump, providing she made it down without the sheets slipping from the sink or tearing.
As she lowered herself to the next knot, she began to sway with the bedsheet ladder.
No, no, no…
Definitely worse with gravity.
Best case scenario, if she could fall properly, she might sprain an ankle.
Worst case, cracking her skull open on the concrete.
She took a slow and deep breath.
At that very moment, a security guard turned the corner below and slowly walked over to the area directly beneath her pacing back and forth. Holding the same breath she’d just drawn, Sabine tried to steady herself. But dangling on the sheet, she kept swaying and scraping against the crumbly stucco wall.
A piece of stucco broke off fell, landing right behind the guard.
The guard stopped and stood still.
Sabine’s heart froze.
Joshua Graham is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, winner of the International Book Award and Forward National Literature Award. His thrillers include DARKROOM, LATENT IMAGE and BEYOND JUSTICE, and TERMINUS. Graham's works have been characterized as thought-provoking page-turners.
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