Captain Barry Lockeridge was livid. “You bypassed WA protocol and contacted a Federal Cohort officer without authorization?”
Marco sat with a relaxed posture while Lockeridge paced and fumed.
“And you employed a known convicted felon to place the call?”
“C’mon, Barry, we’ve used Toby on a dozen cases.”
“He never went outside the warren for us before.”
“It was the next logical step. Don’t you want to know why Payne sent those files to Chadwell?”
“Maybe, if it’s not a frame-up by whoever monkeyed with Payne’s machine. Or by Cowan. Who knows how many grudges that nerd has been nursing?”
Marco made a sour face. Lockeridge was a master of tactical obtuseness.
“What did you find on the people whose files Payne allegedly mailed out?”
“No one’s seen any of them for weeks. Not many witnesses were very good with dates, but I couldn’t find anyone who’d seen somebody more than a week or so after Payne sent Chadwell their file.”
“Anybody see any of these people with Payne?”
“Sort of. Jill Lightman escorted her sister Kim to Payne’s Embarcadero ‘clinic’ a month ago. Payne sent Kim’s file to Chadwell three weeks ago. Jill talked to what she described as a nurse, who said that Payne was inside.”
“Did Lightman ID this nurse?”
“Nope. Couldn’t remember the name, and I showed her images of all of Payne’s staff; no hits.”
“So you have no direct evidence linking Payne to these other disappearances. This fake nurse coulda used Payne’s name to rope these people into a back alley, doped ‘em up and had her way with ‘em. Sounds much more plausible than your Big Sky wild goose chase.”
Marco snorted. Lockeridge had challenged his hunches before, but never so derisively.
“Okay,” said Marco, “so where’s Payne, then?”
“The fake nurse probably did for him, too.”
“Why? This thing was running for months. Why attract attention by vanishing Payne?”
“Payne probably found out, and she had to shut him up.”
“Why didn’t he contact the police?”
“Might not have had a chance to. Check out this ‘clinic’ in the Embarcadero. Betcha find Payne or least one of the missing people. Or part of ‘em.”
The “clinic” was easy enough to find, once Cowan pulled the plans. The Embarcadero was the lowest full-size level in the precinct, and the street life was correspondingly feral. Payne had leased the space for an entire year and paid up front. The landlord never visited the clinic, but in that he was no more negligent than any other property owner in the Embarcadero.
The clinic consisted of six rooms. All the gear necessary to perform the exams described in the records was present, even the 3D imaging scanner. A dumb terminal was on a desk in the office, and Marco quickly installed the rootkit that Cowan had sent him. He really wanted to get their forensic tech in here, but it might be days before an opening.
In the back of the exam room Marco noticed a door ajar. It opened on an empty closet, and the rear wall looked much newer than the other walls. The latch for the hidden door was under a tall shelf. Opening the door, Marco stepped into a dark hallway.
From the plans, Marco knew that the rear wall of the closet bordered on an abandoned sector of the warren where he could expect no power and poor ventilation. At one end of the hallway was a locked door. At the other end was a service elevator. An electrical panel on the opposite wall was humming.
Marco drew a deep breath, then pressed the elevator call button. The car took over a minute to arrive, and when the door opened Marco was greeted by a stale, dusty odor. The buttons on the panel inside the elevator indicated stops on 24 levels above the Embarcadero. If the elevator stopped on every level in the precinct, the top level was well above that where Marco resided and worked.
Marco pressed the button for the first stop above the Embarcadero. Nothing happened. He tried each button in succession with the same result until he reached the top button, which lit up. The elevator doors closed and the car slowly ascended.
The doors opened to reveal an unfamiliar level as dark and dank as the hallway Marco had just left, with even older design and fixtures. A pair of wheeled tracks in the dust led out of the elevator car and turned left. Marco followed the tracks through parts of the warren that hadn’t been inhabited in over five years.
The tracks terminated in the middle of a hall next to a large ventilation grate. As was typical of older warren construction, both the grate and duct behind it were large enough to accommodate the passage of an adult. The grate was loose on its bottom edge and easily swung upwards. Marco shined his flashlight into the duct and listened, but detected nothing.
It took Marco almost an hour on the disused level to locate a support rope of suitable length and strength. He fashioned a harness on one end and secured the other end to a pillar in a room across the hall from the grate. Marco fitted the harness over his shoulders and around his waist, then went through the grate.
The duct extended horizontally as far as Marco’s light could show, but he was still within sight of the grate when he encountered the vertical drop. He shined his light downwards but couldn’t see anything distinct. He lowered himself into the vertical shaft and slowly paid out line with one hand while shining his light downwards with the other. He estimated he had descended at least two levels when he thought he could see the bottom. The shaft didn’t seem to end in a pit or a grate but just opened up into a larger space, with a dramatic fall from the shaft to the white floor below.
Marco was still trying to decide whether he had enough line to reach the floor when he noticed his phone was chirping and an unfamiliar red light was blinking. He wasn’t receiving a call; it was an alert, one that everyone he knew was subject to but which no one had ever seen.
He was outside the warren.