Drive: A Short Story (Part II)
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, handcuffed 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 something. Needless to say, the countenances of all three registered a measure of triumph.
They quickly booted a netbook and connected the drive they had found. They then proceeded to inspect the folders and as they did so, Ervin observed their countenances move quickly from disappointment to anger. There was nothing to be found in the drive except old Disney cartoons.
Presently, 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 curious onlookers, braking cyclists and honking motorists 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. So the intention of whoever the captors were had been to lure both himself and Ervin into a trap in order for the drive to be retrieved and all of them terminated as witnesses. The fact that they had been shadowed from the hotel to the gas station and thereafter to the rendezvous 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 busied itself dispensing relief from the summer heat. The attendant at the front had settled back into 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. 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 were out of breath and started talking hurriedly at the attendant who at first seemed taken aback by them.
Hector chanced a glance at the two and consulted his watch.
He shook his head. Wow, you have got to hand it to them, Hector. these guys are good. It has taken gas station man just 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 but Hector managed to move away just before that gaze 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 the stations.
Hector knew the gig was up. He was going to be discovered one way or another.
He had to act fast.
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 any drawn weapons 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.
90 percent... 100 percent.
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.”