Drive: A Short Story
He landed on the pavement on all fours.
Glancing quickly about him, Ervin grabbed his backpack which had fallen a few feet away, sprung onto his feet, turned around and began racing toward the iron gate. Within seconds he had passed the massive neon sign of Metrone Group Inc., exited its perimeter and was heading toward the first line of trees beyond the guarded facility.
He could not stop. He dared not stop.
He had to make it out alive no matter what. As he sprinted on, his mind processed what had just transpired moments earlier. How could Clifton have foiled things up like that? They had such limited options and he'd almost dashed their entire plan by triggering the alarm and calling undue attention to their whereabouts. Had the fellow even made it to the southern exit?
Ervin hoped so. At least for his companion’s sake. But there had been no time to stick around and find out! He had had to make up his own mind quickly. At least the hard drive had been secured and was presently in his possession. His main focus now was the remaining part of the operation. Escape... swiftly.
Scarcely was he within six yards of the shelter of the trees when the world behind him suddenly exploded into life. Shouts, footfalls, gunfire and the barking of dogs. Instinctively, Ervin dropped onto the ground and began creeping his way through the undergrowth for the remainder of the stretch. As soon as he had crossed the first row of trees safely away from view, he leaped to his feet, tightly secured his backpack and began a mad race through the woods.
Like an untamed savage from a prehistoric world, the man bolted on. Dodging low-lying branches, tree trunks and clumps of bushes, his athletic agility charged with adrenalin and the urgency of the moment propelled him forward. It did not take long for his conditioned senses to alert him that the canines had already picked up his trail. Though he had carved for himself a clear head start, he knew it was only a matter of time. He had to think and act quickly.
Presently, he broke into a small clearing where he paused for a few moments to regain his breath, check his bearings and confirm the wind direction. Within seconds, he had determined the next course of action and set out again, this time toward the north-east. Just as he had expected, the terrain soon changed and he found himself along a steep descent at the base of which was a winding river bordered on either side by lush grasses, wildflowers and thick brush. He strapped the weight on his back even tighter and immediately began making his way down as swiftly as he could, grimacing through scrapes and scratches that got past his protective wear. Three and a half minutes later, he was splashing his way toward the other bank of the water body.
Meanwhile, drama was unfolding in the clearing he had just left behind. The guard dogs were pacing around the area, amid the constant urging of their masters who were scouring the place for any clues as to the agent’s whereabouts. The wind had changed direction and the canines seemed to have momentarily lost his scent.
The stalemate did not last long, however. One of the dogs started barking excitedly, tugging at its leash toward a fresh north-easterly trail he had just picked up. His master wasted no time in hollering to the rest of the team and soon both man and beast joined forces in one melodramatic procession toward the river.
Minutes later, they emerged from the woods and were at the top of the incline. By this point, the dogs had become so excited, it took considerable force to restrain them from sending the entire party hurtling down the slope. With voices raised above the din, the guards soon reached a consensus. A few of them marked out a spot on the trail, adjusted their weapons and embarked on the steep descent towards the riverbank.
Whipping out their binoculars, the rest the party stayed put and scanned the entire area before them for any signs of their moving target. From a path of broken twigs, trampled weeds and disturbed earth, it was evident that the intruder had made it down the incline and proceeded through the river beyond. As far as the eye could see however, no human activity was detectable in the water body or along its banks. Moreover, the dogs had completely lost his scent by the time they got to the edge of the river. The guards had no choice but to relay their position to Central and request for a dispatch of the mobile trackers. As they retraced their steps back to rejoin the rest of the group, one had already reached for his cell phone and was presently making the call.
Hardly had the sound of their voices receded when a head cautiously popped up from behind a floating log on the water’s surface near the other bank. Ervin watched their retreat in silence. As soon as the coast was clear, he quickly hoisted himself from his crouched position and clambered up the muddy ascent of the other bank, grateful for his waterproof backpack. He spent a moment briefly taking in the new features around him, before selecting his route and once again making his way through the undergrowth. He had overheard the call for the mobile trackers and knew would be scouring the place for him shortly. There was no time to waste. He had to find the pickup point quickly.
He also knew that eluding the guards and the canines had set him along a path that deviated from the preplanned route so he now had to rely more on his instincts and sense of direction to find his way. He moved about, searching the area as swiftly and openly as he dared, till his efforts were finally rewarded and he found himself emerging into another clearing.
This has to be it, he thought to himself.
He could already hear the roar of engines in the distance and knew the mobile units were approaching. He would be no match for these on foot.
He quickly pursed his lips and made the prearranged cue - a high-pitched bird call. Once. Twice. Thrice. No response. He repeated it again. No response. Where on earth was Hector?
By this time, he knew the first of the units would be breaking into the clearing at any moment. He had to think. Fast. He was about to retreat into the concealment of the foliage he had just emerged from when suddenly, a high-pitched bird call pierced through the air in response to his. Then the clump of bushes to his left exploded and a Rokon trailbreaker came into view, its heavy-set rider sporting a dark motocross helmet and leather suit. The driver turned his machine around and sped straight toward Ervin.
Hector was holding out his hand. “Quick man, hurry!”
“Where have you been sleeping, old buddy?” Ervin shouted above the engine's roar as he leaped onto the motorbike behind his colleague.
Hector grinned as he turned the 2-wheel drive around. “Sludgy clown, do we have the box?”
Thirteen three-wheelers broke into the clearing almost at the same time as Hector started speeding off. There was a considerable distance between the pursuers and the pursued, but the gap was closing fast.
“Hold on!” He yelled above the din as his trailbreaker arrived at the other edge of the clearing. He lurched the machine forward and the trailbreaker shot over an embankment.
Ervin closed his eyes. They were airborne.
When he opened them again, shouts and gunfire were receding behind them and the open terrain was rushing up to meet them. He hugged his colleague's torso tighter and braced himself for the impact.
As soon as the trailbreaker hit the ground, Hector employed his skills to maneuver it and avert a disastrous accident. The bike zigzagged for a few moments, building a huge cloud of dust and smoke as he worked to break the momentum and regain control. By the time the dust began to settle, they were both making a beeline toward the nearest row of boulders. They were soon out of sight, much to the chagrin of the guards watching atop the embankment.
Back in the hotel where they had booked a room using aliases, Hector wasted no time reaching for his smartphone and sent an encrypted update to the boss to the effect that the object had been secured and that their getaway had been successful. While Ervin attended to a much needed hot shower, Hector noticed that Clifton had sent him a message confirming he too had made it out of the facility safely.
Three hours later, a black sedan raced through the highway en route to a pre-arranged meeting place. With Hector at the wheel, Ervin could not help but drift back in time and review the circumstances that had led them to the present moment.
As a transnational in the pharmaceutical industry, Metrone Group Inc. was no stranger to controversy. Recently, news had been circulating concerning the fact that their disposal techniques were creating contamination levels responsible for the spread of disease among locals, not to mention the endangerment of the ecosystem. However, their team of well-paid lawyers and defenders had successfully managed to refute these and other related claims.
Not that they directly denied the allegations of water pollution, but they instead argued that the real cause was a combination of climate change and industrial discharges much further upstream. Their army of chemists and other professionals seemed to have been specially selected to poke many holes as possible to the notion that a correlation existed between their byproduct composition and the cited human and environmental hazards.
Moreover, they proceeded to do what other companies before them had done in the name of obsessive self-preservation. They countersued for defamation. Still, this did not in any way alter the view of many locals who saw the business entity as holding the prosecution at bay, while lives were being compromised - sacrificed on nothing less than the altar or corporate greed.
Something had to be done. Quickly.
Metrone Group would have carried on their winning streak with the court system, had it not been for an ex-worker-turned-informer who claimed there was irrefutable evidence that they were lying through their teeth and he knew where this proof could be found. The claim in fact, was that the data was so incriminating, it would do much more than cripple the company and its network of subsidiaries when leaked.
This was where Ervin and his colleagues came into the picture. Obtaining the evidence became their objective, despite the fact that they knew they would have to penetrate a major facility managed by the company in order to obtain it. This was a dangerous undertaking, as the Metrone Group had its own private security and was capable of reacting swiftly and ruthlessly. But it had to be done.
Both Ervin and Hector were retired intelligence officers working with a private researcher for the prosecution, nicknamed the boss. Clifton was also a former spy, though during the operation, Ervin was not completely sure if it had been a wise move on their part to bring him along. Anyhow, they joked that if the operation was successful, they would accompany Hector on one of his fishing expeditions - something they had put off for years since both he and Clifton disliked fishing.
Suddenly Ervin snapped back into the present. The car was slowing down.
A quick glance around indicated they were nowhere near the meeting point. As he looked ahead from the passenger seat, he realized Hector was easing the car into a gas station.
As soon as they pulled in, Hector reached for his wallet, extracted a crumpled note and handed it to Ervin. “Full tank, lad.”
Ervin gazed at him with a feigned look of incredulity.
“Anything you say, pops!” He shot back, half-grinning as he grabbed the note and exited the vehicle.
Within minutes, he had refilled the tank and joined the queue inside the service store. His turn came and while the attendant completed keying in his transaction, his alert senses began processing his immediate environment. Not that he was overly sensitive or even mildly the paranoid type. But being observant and having his wits about him was something that came to him naturally, after serving in multiple deployments over the years. He was conscious of the same inclinations in Hector and had not failed to notice the latter observing the black sedan's rear-view mirror constantly while on their way here.
However, all seemed commonplace at the station. One tall, middle-aged guy with a straight face sat on the bench outside with a newspaper, sipping a diet soda. Two customers were working their way through rows of products along the isles. Another attendant with overalls had just finished mopping the rear of the store and outside, a blue convertible was just pulling in after their black sedan. He had started studying the convertible's two occupants when a female voice brought him back to the present. His attention shifted back to the attendant who had just finished processing his order and was now handing him the receipt and some change.
Ervin returned the lady's smile, took the cash and exited the store. He was soon strapping himself in the passenger seat next to his companion. Within moments, they were cruising away again.
Hector maneuvered the vehicle expertly through the traffic. Presently, Ervin broke the silence.
“You stated something about the operation not being quite right.”
Hector nodded, his brow slightly corrugating.
“But Clifton made it out safely, didn’t he? I mean you said he confirmed he was going to join us shortly.”
“Yes, I know what I said," Hector responded. "But the codeword, Ervin. Clifton did not text the codeword.”
What? Ervin knew about the protocols all three of them had agreed on. They had planned the operation meticulously and included their encrypted method of communicating discretely. Could Clifton have been that careless? Or was there another reason? His misgivings were now growing by the hour.
But Ervin did not have time to digest the implications of what he had just heard as the vehicle was already slowing down in a dilapidated part of the town, a few blocks away from the preplanned meeting point. This was also part of the strategy. They did not need to draw any attention to themselves. Hector switched off the engine, they both unbuckled simultaneously and shortly, their feet were on the hot tarmac. One glance around the place showed no signs of life, except for ramshackle buildings and some old abandoned cars parked side by side in the lot.
They walked for some time toward the east and presently came into a maze of alleys. They picked one, reached the end and turned left. As soon as they passed a couple of bins, Hector suddenly grabbed Ervin and pulled him toward the nearest wall. Before he had a chance to protest, Hector motioned for silence and gestured for Ervin to follow as he clambered up a nearby fire escape. Ervin obeyed and went up after him, internally questioning his intentions.
After a rapid ascent, both of them reached the rooftop of the abandoned building and Hector led the way to the edge where he crouched, overlooking the scene below. Here, they had a clear vantage point and could see the route they had taken to get to their present location. As Ervin took his place beside his colleague, he could see the maze of alleys below from the construction area in the east to the open countryside in the south.
Hector pressed a finger against his lips and whispered, “Watch.”
Sure enough, within moments, a dark-suited man on a cell phone appeared and came surreptitiously along the direction they had just left. His gait was cautious and he kept throwing wary glances about him.
"The driver of the blue convertible!" Ervin suppressed his exclamation in a whisper. "But-"
"I know. The convertible did not follow us from the gas station. I assume they must have switched vehicles or trailed us with a motorcycle. His accomplice cannot be far away."
Hector paused as they observed the unsuspecting individual. "As you saw from the fuel gauge, we had enough and really did not need to pull into that gas station. But the convertible had aroused my suspicion earlier on, so I asked you to go into the service store instead, so I could watch their body language in case they pulled in after us. And sure enough, they did."
Ervin contemplated this new turn of events. “But if they are onto us we cannot afford to let them think we are onto them. We must continue with the plan as it is till we fully know who they are and why they are after us.”
“Correct. If their objective was to get rid of us and retrieve the drive, they would have already done so. At this point, we will only be making things worse if we give them the impression that we've found them out. They will take whatever action they deem necessary, and if they already have one if us under duress-“
“We will be jeopardizing ourselves and the plan,” Ervin concluded thoughtfully.
The man was now moving back and forth, searching the alleys suspiciously. How easily they could just give him the slip and be on their merry way! Ervin thought. But In this business, he knew they had to be precautious and not take anything for granted.
“I need to warn the boss,” Ervin started as he reached for his phone, but Hector cut him off.
“Not now. Too risky. Come, let’s go.”
The duo had soon descended from the rooftop and were back on the streets. As they continued maneuvering their way through it did not take long for Hector to alert his colleague.
“Don’t look now. But the fellow has picked up our trail again.”
On the third floor of one of the old insurance buildings in the vicinity, three bulky men towered over the researcher, otherwise known as the boss. She was tied up on a seat, with her mouth gagged. Another man sat on the floor with his hands tied behind his wrists. This was the scene that met Ervin as soon as he walked into the room. A scuffle ensued shortly after he walked in, but he was overpowered, hand-cuffed and forced to the floor next to the other man who was already a captive.
Ervin flashed a half-grin to Clifton. “Good to see you again, buddy.”
“You figured it out, after all.”
“Yes, thanks to the missing encryption.”
"Silence!" growled one of the armed captors furiously. His gloved henchmen were busy ripping his backpack open and emptying all the contents onto the floor. Eventually, one of them crouched and while sorting through the spilled contents, found and picked up a hard drive. Needless to say, the countenances of all three registered a measure of triumph at the recovery.
They quickly booted a netbook and connected the drive. They then proceeded to inspect the folders and as they did so, Ervin observed their countenances move from triumph to disappointment to anger. There was nothing in the drive except some old Disney cartoons.
Their irritation was obvious. One of them reached down and grabbed Ervin by the throat. "I will ask you only once. Where is your spying companion? Where is our drive?”
Hector tore through the streets dramatically leaving behind a trail of honking motorists, yelling pedestrians and braking cyclists in his wake. He eventually managed to dodge his way into a cyber café sandwiched between a hair salon and a hypermarket.
Fortunately, the front of the reception was clear and he got himself assigned a computer peripheral in under a minute. He wasted no time in connecting the drive and briefly scanning the contents. Relief. The files were just as the informer said they would be. Hector felt the lapse of time like a noose tightening and knew how precious every passing second was. He began initiating the upload of all the contents to the portal.
“Come on...come on,” he muttered under his breath, as though the monitor could hear him.
10 percent... 20 percent... 30 percent...
Hector had put two and two together and knew that Clifton’s exclusion of the codeword in his message meant it had been sent under duress, the intention of which was to lure both himself and Ervin into a trap in order for the drive to be retrieved and all of them to be captured and likely terminated as witnesses. The fact that they had been shadowed from the hotel to the gas station and thereafter to the meeting place served as proof of this.
As the upload progressed, he lifted his head for a moment and surveyed the cafe around him. The area was mostly quiet except for the steady humming of the soft drink refrigerator to his right and the air conditioner which dispensed relief from the summer heat. The attendant at the front had settled back in his chair and was preoccupied with texting on his smartphone, while the few customers present were each engaged in their assigned stations. Nothing seemed out of ordinary here. They were, for the most part, oblivious to his presence.
His attention reverted to the monitor.
40 percent... 50 percent...
Suddenly the tranquility was shattered as two dark-suited men made a sudden, unexpected entry. They appeared out of breath and were talking hurriedly to the attendant who at first seemed taken aback by their questions.
Hector chanced a glance at the two and consulted his watch.
Wow, these guys are good. It has taken Gas Station man minutes to locate my whereabouts. And this time he is not alone.
Taking care not to draw the attention of the other customers working in their stations, Hector abandoned his and quickly ducked behind the rows of empty seats, and began backing off toward the Gents. He presently flattened himself against a wall and warily cast a second glance toward the front of the cafe.
He saw Gas Station man reach into his coat pocket and extract what seemed to be a photo while still talking with the attendant. Meanwhile, his colleague scanned the interior of the cafe any signs of their quarry. Hector managed to move away just before the gaze of the man swept his way. He shifted his position and peered through a narrow gap between the desks above him. He squinted his eyes to view the progress on the monitor he had just left.
70 percent...80 percent...
There was not enough time. The two men seemed to be armed and Hector assumed they had passed themselves off as plainclothes policemen in search of their fugitive. The attendant had bought the whole story, hook, line and sinker. He seemed to have identified the face in the photo and was already leading the men toward Hector's station.
Hector knew the gig was up. He was about to be discovered at any time. He had to act fast.
What he needed now was a distraction. There was no one to initiate it except himself.
Without hesitation, he sprang into action and bolted for the door, knocking down chairs as he went. So quickly did he make his move, the exit was within his reach before the weapons that had been drawn could be discharged. The ruse worked. The two men instantaneously turned and chased him out of the cafe, leaving the attendant and a few curious customers trailing behind them. Hector now took the drama to the open streets where he meandered this way and that, his eyes scanning everywhere, this time for a real cop.
Back on the third floor of the insurance building, the captors had come to the end of their patience. Their instructions were now clear. Leave the area at once and eliminate all witnesses.
They were about to carry out the orders when the door suddenly burst open and half a dozen armed officers came pouring in.
“Drop your weapons! You are under arrest.”
As the officers proceeded to place handcuffs on the men and read them their rights, Ervin turned to Clifton, “I guess we need to prepare our fishing gear after all.”