STRATAGEM Chapter 24
STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham
HOLDING HER BREATH, Sabine struggled to keep completely still. With the guard below standing alert, the last thing she needed was for him to look up and find her sneaking out the bathroom window behind her apartment.
This is ridiculous!
But the guy wasn’t moving. Any moment now, he’d discern the direction of the noise.
A glance back to the open window revealed a Yankee candle sitting by the sill. She reached up and grabbed it with one hand. Then with all the stealth she could muster, Sabine threw it over to the courtyard’s far end.
It clattered onto the ground somewhere in the shadows.
The guard double-timed over.
Sabine slid down the sheet as quickly as she could, grabbing each knot on the way down to steady her descent. As soon as she got to the end, she leaped down, absorbed the impact by bending her knees before her feet hit, and sprung back up. As light-footed as she could, she ducked around the corner and rushed down to the laundry room.
The guard didn’t seem to notice.
Before she even opened the door, Blake showed up, a satchel slung over his shoulder. His eyes were sunken, his skin dry and pale. Before Sabine could say a word, he put a finger up against his lips and motioned for her to follow him away from the laundry room. He wanted to go elsewhere. But why? Was there a more secure location to meet?
Blake led her through the concrete hallway to a short flight of steps down to a basement storage room. He opened the door, reached in and flipped a light switch on, then went inside.
“Come on,” he whispered.
He shut the door and locked it. Then he sat at a dusty old dining room set that someone had put there in storage. From the satchel, he pulled out an iPad and set it down on the table.
“What happened to the laundry room?” Sabine said.
“Security walks by too often,” he said, powering up the tablet. “I saw one of them go inside.”
Sabine blew a strand of hair out of her face. There were no windows anywhere in the room, which along with the musty odor drove her to the edge of claustrophobia. “Good thing you got to me first.”
“I don’t know if we’re much better off here, but at least the door locks.” He swiped and tapped the iPad at a frenetic pace. Whatever he was looking for, it probably related to his deathly pallor and disheveled appearance.
“Blake, what was so important that you—?”
“There.” He stopped typing and hit the trackpad with finality. “This is significant, trust me. You’ll understand the urgency when you see it.”
“Tell me if you’ve experienced anything like this: You’re doing something, and suddenly, an hour or so has passed, and you’re either waking up somewhere that you can’t remember going or in the same place but nothing has changed except the time you can’t account for.”
“Not sure,” Sabine said. “Something like that might have happened, but I just attributed it to being exhausted and not remembering correctly.”
“Been happening to me way too often,” Blake said. “So I decided to set my laptop’s webcam to record me. Lots of footage stored on the cloud with a whole lot of nothing, but there were a couple of instances like this.” He rotated the iPad display to face Sabine. “You’re not going to believe your eyes.”
He unpaused the video which showed him sitting on the sofa in his Vanderberg apartment reading a book.
Sabine squinted. “What are you reading?”
“Watch what happens.”
The lights in his apartment flicker.
Like tiny white lightning bolts, tendrils of light stretch down from the reading lamp and envelope Blake’s body from the head down. A series of blue flashes of light fill the room in the short moments when the room lights flickered.
Blake sits completely motionless.
It felt like the same mini-electrical storm went through Sabine’s body. “What the hell?”
The lights go out, and the camera’s night vision takes over. Blake remains completely motionless. He’s still holding the book.
Over by the front door, sparks fly from the deadbolt and doorknob.
The door opens and two figures enter Blake’s apartment.
Sabine’s first thought was that a pair of security guards had entered. But that wouldn’t explain Blake’s frozen state. Then she got a glimpse of the intruders’ faces.
Jon and Lucy?
Lucy stands before Blake and waves a hand over his eyes. Blake doesn’t react. She looks to Jon, and he comes over. Jon reaches over and hold’s Blake’s eyelid open while Lucy shines a penlight at his eye.
“His case is not hosting well,” The pitch and timbre of Lucy’s voice are her own, but she speaks in a disembodied manner and awkward meter.
Jon speaks in the same strange way. “How much does that inhibit access to his prefrontal cortex?”
“Enough to make his case unstable.” Lucy puts the penlight away and motions for Jon to back away from Blake. “We will try remote access again tomorrow. But if this case continues to resist, we will terminate it.”
“And what about the last one?”
“The one they call Sabine…Her case is particularly resistant.”
“We should terminate that one as well.”
“No. Her case requires examination.”
“Pointless. Her’s is impervious.”
“Consider your case,” Lucy says, then points to herself, “and mine as well. Even with limited access and usage, they are rapidly deteriorating, and will only last a few more days before expiring.”
“A truly primitive race, these humans.” Jon stands still, staring at Blake. “We will simply occupy another.”
“You cannot expect to complete our mission if we must all migrate to new cases every ten days. The resilience of Sabine’s case may hold the key to the solution.”
“I will apprehend her while she sleeps.”
Lucy touches Blake’s forehead for a couple of seconds, then walks toward the door and opens it. “Do it quickly. The infiltration stage has already begun.”
Jon and Lucy leave the apartment and shut the door behind them.
The lights flicker again. A shroud of blue light lifts from Blake’s suspended body, and within a fraction of a second, he starts breathing again. He rubs his eyes and seems to notice something. He checks his wristwatch and silently reacts. Then, with a great sense of urgency walks over to the laptop, and reaches over to the keyboard.
The footage stopped.
At an utter loss for words, Sabine just stared at the screen with her mouth ajar. “Tell me this is just some staged CGI prank.”
“You know me,” Blake said. “I don’t joke around or pull pranks.”
She turned slowly to meet his gaze. “If this is real…”
“We have to run.”
“How? Where?” All she had was her phone, no driver’s license, no belongings.
Blake put his iPad back in his satchel. “All I know is, we have to get away from those two—”
“Two whats? What are they anyway? They’re clearly not Jon and Lucy.”
“Whatever they are,” Blake said, as he stood and started for the door, “we have to get away from them and disappear.”
“This is crazy.” She stood, jumbled thoughts racing through her mind. If it hadn’t been Blake telling—showing all this to her, she would never have believed it. But he was right. She knew him too well to joke about matters like this.
He opened the door, stuck his head out slightly.
Immediately, he pulled back inside the storage room and shut the door. Carefully, he locked the deadbolt, plastered his back against the wall behind the door, and motioned for Sabine to come over. “Don’t make a sound,” he whispered.
As soon as she went over next to him, he shut the lights. “What is it?”
In the darkness, the only sounds she could discern was her pulse thumping in her ears and Blake’s barely perceptible breaths.
The doorknob clicked back and forth.
Again, with more force.
Behind the door outside, the keys jangled.
Sabine drew a long breath and held it.
The door opened, nearly hitting her and Blake in the face. It concealed them in the dark, and thankfully the light switch had been poorly placed and installed behind the door. The security guard clicked on his flashlight and walked along the opposite wall, upon which he ran his left hand searching for the light switch.
When the guard reached the far end of the storage room his back was now turned to Sabine and Blake. Under his breath, Blake whispered, “Now.”
They snuck around the door and rushed out.
But Sabine’s foot caught its edge and it scraped the ground as it swung.
“Hey!” The guard shouted from within the room.
“Run!” Blake said and ran ahead leading her to God only knew where.
Making no effort to conceal the sound of their flight, Sabine followed him through the darkened corridors. Behind them, the security guard’s footfalls pounded on the concrete.
“Stop!” he shouted and continued to chase after them.
Blake turned left at the end of the corridor which opened to the carports. He pointed his keys and pressed the remote, which caused a red Camry to chirp and its lights to blink. “That’s my car. Go!”
She kept running to the car without question.
Until a gunshot rang out.
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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