The Pericles Conspiracy – Chapter Twenty-Three

You guys ready?  It’s time to strap yourselves in for another chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy.  We’re now about a third of the way through; it’ll take a few more months to reach the end.  As always, if you don’t want to wait you can go buy it (it’s available in ebook and trade paperback) from AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwords, or  iTunes.

The Pericles Conspiracy Cover

Chapter Twenty-Three

Over The Roof

The words hit Jo like a ton of bricks.  Get arrested.  Yeah right.  Agent Moore and her colleagues had no interest in arresting them; that was obvious from DiStefano’s remarks.  Removing them from the picture?  Absolutely.  Arrest and trial?  No way.  Not anymore.

“Like hell,” she said.

Turning back toward the front of the store, Jo crouched down behind a fallen shelf and took aim with DiStefano’s pistol.  At least go out fighting.  It would be a useless gesture, no doubt, but it was something.

A small part of Jo’s mind wept for lost opportunities.  If she had just stuck to the deal she would probably be home by now, and off on Agrippa in a few weeks.  Back to her normal life, with these troubles far behind her.

And the government would continue the alien egg program to its ultimate conclusion.  Sooner or later, the creatures would learn what happened.  These sorts of things always came out.  When it did, there would be no containing their anger.  Jo imagined the rage humanity would feel if the tables were turned; it would be murderous, and entirely justified.  Such a betrayal of their most helpless ones could not be forgiven.

But almost worse than that, Malcolm would be imprisoned or, more likely, dead.  And it would be her fault.  She could try to justify it by thinking of her own predicament, but in the end it would have come down to the fact that her friend was dead because she betrayed him while he was trying to do something she now agreed was morally and ethically right.  There was no way she could live with that.

So she took her place and silenced that part of her mind.  She did not regret her choice.

Malcolm crouched beside her and she passed him the other pistol she had taken from DiStefano.  He smiled faintly and settled down to wait with her.

“Never thought it would come down to this,” he said.  “I just wanted to blow the lid on it, not…”  He trailed off and shrugged.  It did not matter now, did it?

The shadows of the agents’ movements on the other side of the van grew larger.  Jo could hear their footsteps, slow and cautious but relentless in their approach.  They would have to climb over the van to get at them; that was something at least.  The store was narrow enough that the van, lying on its side, blocked most of it off.  Fallen shelving and displays took care of the rest.

“I think we can hold them off for a while,” Jo said.  “They’ll have to come over the hood, because of how the ceiling is sagging…”

She blinked, her train of thought stopping as she looked back at the sagging ceiling.  Then the column, nearly falling over where the van plowed into it.  Son of a bitch.  There were other columns throughout the store.  Some were damaged, most were intact.  And the building the store occupied was just one story tall.  Hope surged back into her.

“Malcolm, the columns!”

Malcolm looked quizzically at Jo, then followed her gaze to the columns.  His eyebrows rose high onto his forehead.  He was an engineer; he saw it immediately.  Raising his pistol, he took aim and looked back at her from the corner of his eye.

“On three?”

Jo nodded and sighted in on the bent column near the van.

Malcolm counted down.  Jo saw Agent Moore’s face appear over the side of the van the moment he reached three.  She dropped back to the ground as Jo and Malcolm opened fire.

Jo’s column went first.  It was already all but destroyed by the van’s momentum and only took two shots from the plasma pistol to give way.  Malcolm’s was undamaged, so Jo shifted fire to help him.  Their combined fire reduced the column in a few seconds.

They stopped shooting and waited.

The agents on the other side of the van were shouting something, to each other or to them, Jo did not care; she paid them no heed.  She watched as the second column buckled, then fell over, and felt a thrill of victory.  A low groan issued from the ceiling as members that were not designed to hold the total weight of the ceiling and roof above were suddenly required to by the loss of the columns.  The ceiling began to sag a bit more and for a moment Jo’s feeling of victory began to fade.  Maybe it would hold up after all.

Then it all came tumbling down in a roar.  A huge cloud of dust billowed up as ceiling tiles, beams, cross braces, lamps, electrical wiring, insulation, roof shingles, and all manner of other materials fell.  The collapse went on for a full minute, and then there was a sudden quiet, almost deafening in its own right after the sound of the collapse.

Jo took a deep breath and found herself coughing as she got more dust than air into her lungs.  Beside her, Malcolm was in a similar state.  She could not see Raúl, back against the wall.  Or anything else either; there was that much dust in the air.  But she could hear him.

“Holy shit,” Raúl coughed out.  Jo was inclined to agree with him.

Gradually the dust cleared and Jo was able to see the extent of the damage.  Her gambit had worked even better than she hoped.  The ceiling had fallen in across two-thirds of the store on their side of the van.  Rubble filled the space between them and the hole, but it looked to be climbable.  Better still, Jo could see the night sky through the hole in the ceiling.  They could get out.

“It worked,” Malcolm said.  He almost sounded surprised.

“Did you have any doubt?” Jo replied.  She stood up and dusted herself off, then started forward toward the debris pile and the hole leading to freedom.  “Come on,” she said.

Behind her, Malcolm chuckled.  “A little,” he said.  Jo looked back to see him grinning.

Raúl had a tough time of it, with his broken arm.  But Malcolm was able to help him over the worst of the debris.  Getting up onto the roof was another matter.  Jo had to lie down on the roof and take his hand, then pull hard while Malcolm gave him a boost from below.  Raúl was skinny, but he still outweighed Jo by a good twenty kilograms or so, and the angle was awkward.  For a moment, she was not sure she would be able to get him up, even with Malcolm’s help from below.  But finally he managed, and Malcolm quickly pulled himself out as well.

Looking over the top of the building toward the street, Jo saw Agent Moore and her two companions coming out of the building, coughing loudly.  One of the agents’ legs was twisted and stiff, clearly broken.  Agent Moore and the other man had their arms over his shoulders, supporting him as he stumbled toward the street.

They slowly lowered the injured agent to the ground, then Agent Moore turned to look back at the building.  She mouthed what could only be a curse as she surveyed the damage.  Then she looked up and froze as her eyes met Jo’s gaze.  Her eyebrows rose and her lips compressed into a thin scowl as she raised her pistol.

Jo dropped into a crouch and cursed.  “To the back!” she said, grabbing Raúl by the shoulder – his good one, fortunately – and propelling him toward the back of the store.  Malcolm followed as balls of heated plasma began firing over the front edge of the building.

Fortunately, the angle was too acute for Agent Moore or her uninjured colleague to get a good shot at them.  Even more fortunately, the shop buildings lining the street were set one against each other for most of the block, so it would take some time for the agents to get around back to find them.

A narrow alley ran between the back of their building and the back of the next street’s shop buildings.  A dumpster sat against the wall of their building, and Jo was annoyed to see a door in the back of the building across the alley.  And every other building she could see.  Of all the rotten luck.  Muttering under her breath, Jo lowered herself down onto the dumpster, which thankfully was closed at this hour of the night, then reached up to give Raúl a hand in doing the same.

In moments they were on the ground in the alley.

“Ok now what?” Jo asked.

“Now,” Malcolm said as he looked quickly back and forth down the alley, “we find a manhole and get down into the storm sewers.”

Jo blinked.  “You’re kidding.”

“No way man.  Fuck that,” Raúl said.  He was looking pretty haggard, and Jo could not blame him for not wanting to do any more climbing.

“You don’t have to come,” Malcolm said, giving Raúl a level, icy look.  “It’ll probably be better for you if you don’t, to be honest.”

Raúl snorted.  “Yeah right.  Do I look stupid to you, cabrón?”  He pushed himself forward, thrusting his jaw up at Malcolm.  “Even if I trusted you not to sell me out if you get caught, you owe me.  For the job and for the van.”

Malcolm shrugged and turned away.  “Fine.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

He set off walking down the alley.  Jo hurried to follow.  After a moment, she heard Raúl follow as well.

“We’ll need flashlights.”

Behind her, Raúl spoke up.  “I have one.  Never leave home without it.”

The alley widened between two smaller buildings.  Off to the side, not far from the back door on the building on the left, was a manhole cover.  Malcolm stopped before it and crouched down.  Jo and Raúl joined him.

“The hard part,” Malcolm said, “is getting it open.  We’ll need something to pry it up with.”

Jo frowned and looked around.  Aside from dumpsters here and there, there was nothing in the alley that looked as though it would be useful for that.  “I’m not sure…”  The sign on the back of a door one building over announced it as a lumber store.  That brought a smile to her face.  “Wait here.”

Jo hurried over to the door and tried it.  Locked.  The lack of hinges meant it opened inward.  Maybe she could kick it in.  Jo stepped back and took a deep breath.  Then she kicked as hard as she could, striking the door just below the doorknob with her boot.  The door did not move.

“Impressive,” Raúl said as he stepped up next to her.  He smirked at her and reached into his pocket.  “Step aside,” he said.  He crouched in front of the door and pulled a small piece of metal out of the inner pocket of his jacket.  He inserted the metal piece – a lockpick, Jo assumed – into the keyhole and began working it around.  After a minute or so, Jo heard a soft click and the doorknob turned.

Raúl grinned and pushed the door open, swinging his arm wide in a grand offer for her to enter.

Jo rolled her eyes.  “You’re quite a character, Raúl.  Good with tech and with a lockpick.  I would not think those went together.”

“You would be surprised, señorita,” he replied.  He opened his mouth to say something more, but a ruckus down the far end of the alley drew his attention.  He shrank back against the alley wall.  “Shit, I think they’re coming.”

Jo blanched.  Even if he was wrong, there was no time to dilly-dally.  She ducked into the store.  It only took a moment to find what she needed.  When she emerged from the store and hurried back to Malcolm’s side, he gave her an incredulous look.

“I was thinking more like a prybar,” he said.

“Beggars can’t be choosers.”

He shrugged, conceding the point.  The piece of wood she picked out was about a meter long and two centimeters on a side.  It just barely squeezed into the little hole on the side of the manhole cover.  Jo and Malcolm took hold of the board and pushed down.  A sharp cracking sound issued from the board and for a moment Jo thought her bright idea was going to fail completely.  Then the manhole cover moved upward slightly and they were able to slide the board further in, allowing more purchase.  Shortly, they raised the cover enough that Malcolm was able to bend over and get his fingers under the cover’s edge.  From there it was a quick process to slide it aside.

Jo wiped her brow, panting from the exertion, and looked between Malcolm and Raúl.  “I’ll go first and help Raúl down.  I’m not sure I could move the cover into place anyway.”

Malcolm nodded.  Jo sat on the edge of the manhole and dangled her feet into the blackness below.  The hole opened beneath her like a gaping maw and she had to push aside a surge of fear.  Raúl handed her his flashlight, which helped, but still there was something about the descent into the sewer below that seemed creepy.  Swallowing hard, Jo kicked her feet around until she found the ladder rungs built into the side of the shaft, then she slid slowly downward.

*  *  *  *  *

I hope you enjoyed this chapter of The Pericles Conspiracy.  Stay tuned in a few days for the next chapter, or, if you don’t want to bother waiting half a year to read the entire book, you can always go buy it (it’s available in ebook and trade paperback) from AmazonBarnes and NobleKoboSmashwords, or  iTunes.

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