He stopped her as soon as they got outside. At first she didn’t understand.
“What? Oh,” she said. Marco was no longer gawping at the full-size people, furniture, and objects passing by. His eyes were in fact closed, his face turned directly into the sun, unobscured on a rare cloudless day in Oakland.
Priyanka had done the research to know that Marco had last seen the sun almost twenty years ago when he followed his parents into the warren after their conviction for possession of property related to drug trafficking. She wasn’t ashamed of snooping; if Kobick had set her up, she needed to know all the possible traps, Marco included.
“What’s the plan, Centurion?”
“Well, Detective, since we’re here, I propose we have a look at the other side of the vent you discovered.”
“Makes sense to me. Do you know who owns the property?”
“The same Chinese real estate firm that owns half the commercial property in Oakland. For the past two years they’ve leased the property to a company that imports specialty foodstuffs from Russia.”
“Anything on the importers?”
“No persons of interest. The firm has a distant history with the mob, but no more so than any other Russian business.”
Priyanka crossed the street and turned into an alley. As she approached a fire exit she produced a long narrow device and went to work on the lock. Marco kept quiet until they were inside.
“We’re not talking to the manager? Why the B&E?”
“My Tribune wants this investigation to stay sub rosa as long as possible. At my insistence, last night he entered a Discretionary Order with the Prefecture, which authorizes searches like this, even without notice to the owner.”
“I’m impressed.” Marco let his praise hang for a beat. “So you’re telling me none of your people nor anyone from Warren Administration or the local cops have been inside this place.”
“They oughtn’t have. Mine and Kobick’s are the only names on the order.”
Priyanka consulted a schematic on her phone as she descended to the basement level, stopping in a storage room containing packing and shipping supplies. She switched on a light.
“Do you think this is it?” she asked.
Marco looked about the towering shelves and hulking boxes, trying to spot anything that might be the duct. Priyanka slowly stepped through the room, giving Marco a broad survey.
“That’s probably it,” he said when they reached a gap between two shelving units. A rectilinear duct precisely filled the gap as it descended from the ceiling, stopping two feet above the floor.
Priyanka lowered herself onto her metatarsals, then raised her open palm next to Marco’s pocket. Marco fished the flashlight out of his pack, then vaulted into Priyanka’s hand, which she then held under the duct opening.
“How far do you think you can raise me up?” he asked, shining his light upwards. Priyanka knelt on the floor to give herself better balance, momentarily upsetting Marco’s. She reached up into the duct until her shoulder touched the aperture. Marco thought he recognized the horizontal duct and grate, and hopped out of her hand.
“Detective?” called Priyanka, who couldn’t see what was happening.
“Just making sure,” replied Marco. He crawled to the grate and poked his head through to confirm the lower hinges were still unbolted.
“I’m back,” he said, prompting her to re-open her waiting hand. She returned him to her pocket and stood.
“Yep, this is the other side,” he said. “Too bad you can’t bring a forensic team in here.”
“We have what we need for now,” she said, producing another device that somewhat resembled an electric toothbrush. It started whirring as she methodically ran it over the duct opening, the floor below, the adjacent shelving units, and finally the door.
“I don’t know if any of your missing people are in our DNA banks,” she explained, “but this should tell us who’s been in there recently.”
She shut the sampler off and placed a tiny camera on a shelf across from the duct.
“The motion sensor is set high enough that even jaked people will trigger it,” she said.
“Sweet,” he said. “Anything else?”
“No, unless you have any ideas.”
“Well, I’d like to pick up where I left off. Assuming my people weren’t met by anyone on the outside, where would they have gone from here?”
“Alright.” She lowered herself again and set him on the floor, then slowly backed away into the center of the room.
Standing beneath the duct, Marco estimated that only a trained acrobat could fall from the aperture to the floor without injury, and anyone falling from the point where the shaft met the horizontal duct couldn’t escape at least a broken limb. Starting at the wall and proceeding clockwise around the base of the shelves, Marco searched for any gear or appliances that a jaked person might use. When he reached the door, he confirmed that the clearance with the floor was too low for a jaked person to leave the room while it was closed.
“Unless they sprouted wings,” he reported, “I’m sure as I can be that no jaked person left this room without help.”
“Very good, Detective.” The floor was set on concrete that minimized vibrations, but as Marco watched Priyanka approach him, the echo of her steps and the sway of her legs transfixed him. Beautiful and colossal, she was a creature out of myth, coming for him.
At the same time, Priyanka was trying to imagine the unknown outsiders who met the warren residents as they came through the duct. How easy it must have been to gather them up, to disregard their autonomy, to casually dispose of their lives. She resolved to let Marco put himself in her hand and in her pocket under his own power as much as possible.