“Here we are.”
A uniformed police officer steps into the elevator foyer outside Alex’s apartment. CB steps out after him, looking around once, noting two tape outlines on the floor and the broken remains of a door hanging in the door frame.
“Forensics has been over this place three or four times,” the officer says. “There’s not a lot left to see. We didn’t move anything, but they did take a few things. Some kitchen knives and the computer are the ones I remember.”
“Sure,” CB says, “makes sense. Shame about the computer, though. I would have liked to see it.”
“Not much left to see, from what I hear,” the officer says. “I got a buddy in the lab, and he says somebody wiped it.”
CB frowns. “Wiped it?”
“Yeah, some kind of magnet or EMP or something. Hard drive is toast; can’t read anything off it, and my buddy tells me the tricks they use to get around that aren’t working. You figure Liberty did that?”
CB shakes his head. “Can’t think why he would.”
“Well, look around as much as you want, but if you find anything please let us know.” There’s a sullen tint to the officer’s voice—CB is here because he’s a “hero” connected to Liberty, and in his experience, “heroes” don’t share information.
“I’m not trying to steal a collar,” CB says. “I just want to help catch the son of a bitch who killed my friend.”
The officer nods, satisfied. “Well, I won’t get in your way. The elevator doesn’t lock from up here so you can let yourself down when you’re finished.”
CB nods. The detective steps back into the elevator and the doors close with a soft ping. CB walks into the apartment.
He stands in the living room, trying to focus. He doesn’t know what he’s looking for, and he doesn’t know where to start. He stares down at the white tape that outlines where the police found Alex’s body. There’s a red stain on the carpet—Alex’s blood. CB frowns.
Alex was found face down on the floor. According to the tape outline, he fell toward the balcony door. He walks over to the French doors and opens them, stepping out onto the balcony. He glances at the outlines where the other bodies were found, but doesn’t pay much attention to them.
The attack came from two directions. That would have made more sense if Alex hadn’t lived at the very top of a very tall building.
CB leaps up on the balcony rail, then somersaults up over the lip of the balcony on to the roof of the apartment. It’s been a long time since he had to do something like that, but immediately the body takes over: long-forgotten instincts remember when to stretch, when to jump, pull, flip, and almost effortlessly he’s over the top.
It was raining the night they murdered Alex. They probably counted on that to cover most of their tracks, but CB notices a few things. Cigarette butts litter the roof near the side overlooking the balcony. Along the opposite side of the building he finds indentations in the concrete about three feet from the edge. He kneels, sticks a finger into one, notes the angle, then lays on his side and looks up in the direction of the angle.
There’s a rooftop. It’s a little farther than he’d like if he were using a zip line, but it’s doable. He doesn’t know what building it is, so he makes a mental note of its location and decides to follow up later.
CB slips over the edge back on to the balcony, then returns to the living room. He glances at the couch, turned on its back, then settles on the now empty desk sitting against the wall. Computer, keyboard, mouse, and monitor all taken. There’s a shattered coffee cup on the floor.
He walks over to the table and looks under it. There’s the “panic switch.” He remembers Alex talking about it when he first set up the security. He remembers a few of the other things he said as well.
He looks up and scans the walls. From time to time he stops when he thinks he sees a piece of wall that is, perhaps, a little too smooth compared to the rest. Five cameras so far, evenly spaced around the living room. A bird’s eye view, in fact. CB smiles grimly and walks down the hall, past the bathroom, past the guest room, into Alex’s bedroom.
Alex’s room is spare, almost austere. A double bed, neatly made—CB is convinced that, if he tried, he could probably bounce a quarter off it—and a lone dresser set across from it are the only pieces of furniture. CB goes straight to the closet, opens the door, and pulls the chain to the light. Alex’s shirts and pants are folded neatly on their hangers, the cuffs of the pants all hanging at exactly the same distance from the floor. He shoves the hangers to one side and examines the back wall. A few moments later he sees it—a slight hump on one part of the wall, the faintest of irregularities over the surface.
CB reaches into his trench coat pocket and fishes out a pocket knife. He pries open the blade, then pushes it into the sheet rock around the hump. The blade sinks in easily—it’s not sheet rock at all. He carefully works the bade around the hump, prying bits of covering away, until finally the entire thing pops out into his hand.
It’s a hard drive. It’s a solid state drive, pretty expensive but easier to hide. CB blows the dust away from the device as best he can before he places it in his other trench coat pocket. He pats it once, satisfied. It’s time to leave.
He reaches up to pull the closet light chain and freezes. He hears a soft squeak from the hall just outside the bedroom. He glances back. He’s relieved to see he shut the bedroom door behind him.
The doorknob starts to turn. Very, very slowly.
CB looks for something, anything, and sees a clothes basket—a white sack draped over a thin wire frame—and decides it will have to do. He pulls the light chain and waits in the closet.
The doorknob continues turning. Seconds later the door opens slightly—just a crack—and then stops. It opens a little more, then a little more, until finally CB sees a gloved hand grip the side of the door.
CB kicks; the wire-framed basket flies through the air and strikes the hand on the knuckles. CB hears a loud, muffled curse. He doesn’t hesitate: he runs out of the closet and kicks the door, hard. The door slams on the hand, and he hears a crunch as a knuckle is caught between door and door frame. The voice on the other side shouts in pain for a moment, but then the door is kicked open, forcefully. The edge of it catches CB on the side of the head, and he reels.
Someone leaps toward him. CB steps to one side, vision still clearing, and manages to get his guard up as a thick-soled boot smashes into the dresser, splintering the wood. He latches on to the leg and pulls up, intending to force his attacker to the ground, but the other leg whips around, hooks behind CB’s neck, and the next thing he knows he’s flat on his back, breath rushing out of him.
He can see his attacker now. Male, he thinks, dressed in a body suit with kevlar armor over most of the tender parts. The man is wearing a solid face mask—no eye holes. CB has seen masks like that before. It’s an optical illusion: the weave of the mask is wide enough that whoever wears it can see fine. The man leaps to his feet in a single, fluid motion—not a move just anyone can do, even with extensive training.
The man takes a step back. CB hates it when they step back. He rolls to one side as a bullet thwips into the floor where he lay just moments before.
The wire basket sits on its side, still rolling back and forth from its landing. CB sees his attacker’s shadow in the doorway and does a quick calculation as to his location. If he were being honest with himself, he’d call it a “guess” instead of a “calculation.”
He kicks the basket again. It bounces off the door and hurtles down the hall. He sees the thready shadow of the basket disappear into the shadow of his attacker, and hears a muffled curse. It’s in a foreign language—German, he thinks—but he can’t quite make it out. CB rolls to his feet and launches himself through the door. His attacker reacts, trying to bring his gun up in time, but CB grabs the wrist and buries his shoulder into the man’s chest. They go hurtling into the wall, sheet rock cracks, and the attacker’s hand smashes against the molding around the bathroom door. The hand opens involuntarily and the gun falls to the floor. CB sees the gun clearly for the first time, and his blood runs cold.
He recognizes that gun. It’s a very distinctive gun. He’s not going to win this fight.
Richter throws CB off him with one arm, pushing him into the opposite wall. CB tries to ignore the pain as the entire wall cracks from the impact, and kicks, sriking right below the man’s armpit. He hits kevlar—of course he does—but that doesn’t negate the full force of a steel toed boot. Richter jerks back, giving CB just enough time to get to his feet and kick that damned gun as far down the hall as he can.
Just enough time, but no more. He hears Richter move, and turns to see glint of a knife. He twists, lashes out with his hand, and hits Richter’s wrist, knocking the blade aside. He grabs the arm and turns further, forcing Richter’s arm to twist with him. Richter drops the knife, and utters a genuine cry of pain. CB tries to follow up with a throw. Instead, Richter’s other hand grabs him by the back of his neck, lifts him off the ground, then throws him down the hall, into the living room.
CB skids across the carpet and rolls out of the way, barely avoiding Richter’s kick. He doesn’t do so well with the second, and pain explodes as Richter’s boot lands on his chest.
Richter sees his gun. He dives; CB rolls, and by the time Richter can raise his weapon and fire, CB has run out through the French doors, on to the balcony, and leapt over the rail.
This is the part of daring escapes from the tops of buildings that CB hates the most. It’s a long way down, and he doesn’t fly.
He reaches into a trench coat pocket and pulls out a coil of high-tension wire, quickly looping one end around his trenchcoat sleeve, then throwing the other end toward a passing balcony. The other end bonds instantly with the stone—CB makes a note to thank Robert for that gadget, assuming he lives long enough to do so—and then the coil is unspooling at an alarming rate.
He has just enough time to figure out what that means when suddenly it goes taut, and he screams as the loop closes on his sleeve, almost jerking his arm completely out of its socket. Almost. Thankfully his sleeve keeps the loop from tearing away his flesh.
He’s about halfway down the building at this point, dangling about a foot from a balcony rail. There’s a nagging little voice in the back of his head lecturing him about physics, and velocity, and how there’s no way in hell he should be alive. He tells that nagging little voice to shut it’s goddamn mouth and give him time to think.
CB looks down. A middle-aged man in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, and a middle-aged woman in a t-shirt and jeans, are staring up at him in amazement.
“Sorry?” CB smiles at them in what he hopes is a reassuring fashion.
“Did you just tell me to shut my goddamn mouth?” The man sounds a bit bewildered.
“Er…” CB looks up. He doesn’t see anyone falling off the side of the building after him. “Uh… hi. No, sorry about that. I was… talking to myself…”
The man just stares at him. The woman leans over the balcony to stare up at the line CB is dangling from.
“Are you all right?” she asks.
“Well now that you mention it…” CB kicks his feet, starting to swing. He grabs the line with his free hand and lifts, just a little, relieving some of the tension in his right arm. “Uh, look, I’m going to swing over a bit and land on your balcony, OK? I mean, if it’s all right with you.”
The man says nothing. The woman blinks rapidly a few times, then says in a faint voice “I guess so.”
“Great.” CB lifts himself up with his left arm and starts to flex his right. It hurts, but it works. He loosens the loop enough so that his right arm slips free. Immediately pain shoots up and down the arm, but he forces himself to ignore it. He pulls on the line, swinging to and fro, until finally he gains enough momentum to swing past the balcony rail. He lets go, tumbling semi-gracefully through the air until he lands on the balcony in only a slightly over-dramatic fashion.
CB grunts as his feet hit the stone balcony floor, then grins. “Good evening!”
The couple stares back.
“So…” CB looks at the two of them as he fishes out a pack of cigarettes. “Either of you mind if I smoke?”