I am the traitor, p.8

I Am the Traitor, page 8


I Am the Traitor

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  “It’s a mag-stripe security pass card,” he says.

  “Can you get the information off it?”

  “I need some equipment,” he says. “A mag reader of some kind. I might be able to adapt a POS system.”

  “Too many initials, Howard.”

  “Point of sale. You know, like a credit card reader or a payment system in a restaurant.”

  “Let’s get going,” I say. “I’m sure we can find one on the way to Corning.”


  It’s a small store, no cameras or security of any kind. There’s a credit card reader next to a register manned by a bored-looking teenage clerk.

  I motion to Howard and Tanya, and they follow me through the front door.

  I gesture to the credit card reader by the register. The clerk is standing practically on top of it.

  “Will something like that work for you?” I ask Howard.

  “Maybe. But how can I use it with the guy standing there?”

  “I’ve got this,” Tanya says.

  She smiles and walks toward the counter. I notice a flirtatious sway in her hips that wasn’t there before.

  “Holy crap,” Howard says. “What happened to Tanya?”

  Obviously, he notices, too.

  “Can you help me find something?” Tanya says to the clerk. His eyes almost pop out of his head when he sees her.

  “S-s-sure,” he stammers.

  A few seconds later, she has him all the way in the back of the store, combing through a high shelf that looks like it hasn’t been touched in half a century.

  “Go,” I say to Howard, urging him toward the register.

  I stand between Tanya and the register, using my body to screen whatever Howard is doing behind me. I hear beeps from the credit card reader, Howard cursing under his breath, and the sound of things being plugged and unplugged followed by more beeping.

  In the back of the store, the clerk is taking down a box of cereal for Tanya.

  “How much longer?” I say over my shoulder.

  “Thirty seconds,” Howard says.

  “Hurry,” I say.

  Tanya glances at me and I give her the sign to keep the conversation going.

  She acknowledges silently, then thrusts out a hip and starts asking the clerk questions that have him shuffling nervously in front of her.

  “Almost there,” Howard says. “I just need a pen.”

  “Is there one on the register?”

  “Oh yeah, I found one.”

  I hear him scribbling on a piece of paper, then he comes bounding out from behind the counter just as Tanya and the clerk come walking back up the aisle.

  “Who’s this?” the clerk says, surprised to see us there.

  “These are my brothers,” Tanya says.

  “You guys live around here?” he says.

  “Upstate,” I say. “We’re just passing through.”

  “Too bad,” he says. “It’s good to meet new folks. It’s kind of a small town, you know. It gets boring. My mom would probably invite you over to dinner.”

  “That would be nice,” Tanya says. “If we come back this way, I’ll drop by and say hi.”

  “Great!” he says.

  I palm out cash for the food, and we get out of there fast.

  “What did you get, Howard?”

  “An address,” he says.

  “I got crunchy granola,” Tanya says. “And a guy’s phone number.”

  “We’ll get to you in a second,” I say.

  Howard passes me a sheet of paper with a name and a Corning address on it. Some place called the Mercurio Institute.

  “Have you heard of it before?” he asks me.

  “Never,” I say. “But I have a feeling I’ll recognize it when we get close.”

  “How did you get that info from a credit card reader?” Tanya says.

  “Creativity,” Howard says with a grin. “How did you get that guy to leave his register unattended?”

  “The same,” Tanya says.

  “If you two are done high-fiving each other, I’d like to get on the road.”


  The closer we get to the Mercurio Institute, the more I remember visiting when I was a boy. I recall science labs filled with signs and symbols my father had to explain to me. It was like a giant playground for me at the time. I doubt it will be like that now.

  As I drive, I trust my memory and intuition, letting it guide me through the streets of Corning, through the center of town where I had lunch with my father so long ago, and along Powderhouse Road until a facility comes into view.

  I pull off the road and study it from a distance.

  There is a high fence around it that did not exist back then, and a military-style guardhouse at the entrance where cars must stop to gain access. The one building I remember has grown into three. I note people moving along paved walkways. A small placard next to a doorway reads MERCURIO INSTITUTE with no other identifying information.

  “We’re going inside, right?” Tanya asks.

  She’s kneeling in the backseat, looking over my shoulder at the view out the front window.

  “Howard and I are.”

  “What about me?”

  “You’ll stay here on watch.”

  “I don’t think so.”

  “Why not?”

  “In the movies, the one on watch always gets in trouble.”

  “That’s true,” Howard says. “I’ve seen those movies, too.”

  “What are you talking about?” I say.

  “You know how it is,” Tanya says. “Someone from the group keeps watch while the others break into the place. It seems like the plan is working until the one on watch gets knocked out with a rifle butt.”

  “That’s in the movies, not reality,” I say.

  “How do you know it’s not reality?” she says.

  I glance over my shoulder at Tanya. She stares back at me, stubborn, her jaw set tight. For a moment she seems older than her years. Then she makes a silly face and I remember how young she is. Maybe just a couple of years younger than me, but still, she’s a kid, and I am—

  “So can I come?” she says.

  It could be beneficial to have her with us. If we are discovered inside, two boys alone are more threatening than two boys with a girl. And the thought of all three of us together gives me an idea about how we might get in.

  “Come on,” Tanya says. “You don’t want me to get knocked out by a rifle butt, do you? My nana paid a lot of money for Invisalign braces. I don’t want these beauties to get messed up.”

  She smiles wide, revealing perfect teeth.

  “Okay,” I say. “You can come.”

  “I told you he’d let me,” she says to Howard, like she planned it all along.


  So it’s exactly what we do.

  “Everyone relax when we get to the guardhouse,” I say under my breath.

  “Driving toward a man with a gun is not very relaxing,” Tanya says.

  “No kidding,” Howard says. “I feel like I have to pee and throw up at the same time.”

  Tanya whispers something to him, and I see him relax slightly.

  I stop at the guard booth. There’s one man inside, his uniform shirt bulging at the arms. He takes one look at us and practically goes cross-eyed.

  “Good morning,” I say, in a friendly voice.

  “You must be lost,” he says.

  “Nope. My dad works here.”

  “Your dad?” he says, not believing me.

  “Of course. I’m Joshua Silberstein,” I say.

  First calculation. Silberstein got spooked after seeing me, and he ran to where he’d be the safest. Second calculation. His son is not going to be recognized by the guards because he never comes down here.

  “You’re Dr. Silberstein’s son?” the guard says.

  “Baseball player extraordinair
e, good with the ladies. I’m sure you’ve heard about me.”

  The guard laughs. “We’ve heard,” he says.

  He looks into the back of the car.

  “And who are they?”

  “My friends. Dad said I could bring them for the tour.”


  “We’re doing a summer school project. Also Dad forgot his security card again. My mom said to take it to him and tell him he’d forget his butt if it wasn’t attached. Between you and me, I’m not relaying that part of the message.”

  The guard takes the card, swipes it on some sort of device, then hands it back to me.

  “Your dad is here,” he says.

  “Would you mind telling him that Joshua is on time, as requested?”

  If the guard were smart, he’d ask for ID right now, and when he didn’t get any, he would order me to back up two hundred feet from the gate, call out men to search us, and lock the place down until he figured out what the hell was going on.

  That’s if he were smart. But he’s not smart. He’s so thrown by the appearance of three teenagers at the gate, he does the opposite of what he should.

  He picks up the phone and calls Professor Silberstein.

  Third calculation. Silberstein is scared after yesterday, and his son appearing at the gate is going to throw him. He won’t follow proper security protocol when he hears Joshua’s name.

  The guard turns away from me, speaking into the phone for a minute before hanging up. After a moment he turns back around.

  He says, “When you get inside, pull up to your left and wait. Don’t get out of the car. Your dad is coming out to meet you.”

  “Fantastic. Thanks,” I say with a smile.

  And the gate opens in front of us.


  Silberstein will come out of the building, and one of two things is going to happen.

  He’s going to run. Or he’s going to freeze. I’m hoping for the latter.

  I’m in a car he won’t recognize, and that will confuse him. If I can keep him from seeing me for long enough, I might be able to pull this off.

  I wait for the door of the building to open.

  It’s Silberstein. He’s alone.

  He begins walking across the parking lot toward us.

  I turn around so I’m facing Tanya, showing Silberstein the back of my head.

  “Talk to me, Tanya.”

  “About what?”

  “Anything. We just need to be in conversation as he comes toward us. Then do what I tell you, okay?”


  I glance at Howard in the back. His eyes are clear and his energy is better. The drugs have worked their way out of his system. That’s good, because I’m going to need him in full form once we get inside.

  “Look over my shoulder, Tanya. Is he walking toward us?”


  I make sure my window is lowered all the way. I relax my posture and let my shoulders move around as if I’m distracted and in conversation.

  “Give me a countdown,” I say.

  “What am I counting?” Tanya says.

  “Number of steps until he reaches the car.”

  “About twenty steps,” she says with a whisper.

  “How does he look?”



  “Ten steps.”

  “Whatever happens, I want you guys to stay calm,” I say.

  Tanya lowers her voice. “He’s here in three, two—”

  “Joshua?” I hear Silberstein say from outside the car.

  I turn quickly, reach out and grab his belt buckle, and yank him hard up against the side of the car.

  He gasps, startled, and tries to pull away.

  He reaches down to free himself, and I grab him by the wrist and jerk him down until I can get hold of his shirt collar and pull his face close to mine.

  “You know who I am,” I say.

  He looks at me, and his pupils dilate.

  “Yes,” he says.

  I thought so. He wouldn’t have reacted the way he did in the lecture hall unless he knew me.

  “If you know me, then you know what I can do,” I say.


  I sense his fear. So it’s not just that he remembers me, he knows about The Program, too.

  “You owe me,” I say.

  “What do I owe you?”


  “You want to know about your father,” he says.


  “Who are these people with you?” he says. He looks at Howard and Tanya, suspicious. Maybe he thinks we’re a hit squad come for him. I can use his reaction to my advantage.

  “You’re going to take us inside the facility,” I say.

  “I can’t do that.”

  “You have no choice.”

  “They won’t let you in.”

  “They already have. The guard thinks I’m your son. He believes you’re giving me and my friends a tour today.”

  “That’s ridiculous.”

  “Do you want to tell him or should I?”

  “I still can’t take you inside,” he says.

  I pull his head down farther, lean forward, and whisper in his ear.

  “You will die now,” I say calmly. “Which means you won’t be around to see what happens to your family when I get back to Rochester.”

  He gasps. “Okay,” he says. “I’ll do what you want.”

  “Smile and wave first.”

  I hang on to one wrist while he stands up and uses the other to wave to the guard, signaling that everything is okay.

  “Do we understand each other?” I say.

  “Absolutely,” Silberstein says. “Park up here on the right. I’ll take you in.”

  If I let him go, he could do anything. Shout out, run for safety, trigger an alert—but I’m betting he won’t do any of those things.

  So I let go of his wrist.

  He walks ahead of us, indicating where to park.

  “Are you guys ready?” I say.

  Howard and Tanya nod.

  “Game time. Follow my lead.”

  “What did you whisper to him?” Tanya asks.

  “Let’s just say I made a compelling argument why he should help us.”

  “You told him you’d kick his ass, right?” Howard says.

  I wink at Howard and slip on a baseball cap before I step out of the car. It’s nothing like a real disguise, but it may obscure my features enough to slow down any facial-recognition software linked to the cameras inside. It won’t keep a sophisticated system from recognizing me, but it might send a few false positives and buy us some time.

  For a moment I regret bringing Howard and Tanya with me, exposing them to this level of danger after the things they’ve already been through.

  But it’s too late for regrets now. It’s time for action.


  “I guess you had a backup,” I say, showing him the stolen pass that got us through the guard at the front gate.

  “How did you—”

  “It was in your jacket at the University of Rochester.”

  He scowls as I hand it back to him.

  We enter unchallenged. There are no additional guards inside, no metal detectors, no cordons to pass through. At first, it seems that security might be lax inside the building, but then I notice the coded locks on every door. There is logic behind the design. I imagine warrens of buildings, departments, offices, each secured from the others and limited by different levels of access. Nobody can enter a door unless that person is previously authorized.

  It’s called atomization, and it’s one of the most effective security protocols that exists.

  Silberstein leads us down a bare hallway. There are numbers on the doors, but no other signage to speak of.

  “You found this place,” he says, “so I imagine you know where you are.”

I could bluff and pretend to have knowledge I don’t have, but that could be counterproductive. If someone suspects you know more than you’re telling, they’ll be careful about what they say, fearful of telling you too much or leaving out what they think you already know.

  So I say, “I came here once with my father when it was being built. Beyond that, I know nothing.”

  A woman comes down the hall toward us, her expression changing to surprise at discovering the strange group of people in front of her. Silberstein gives her a friendly smile. Look what I’m stuck doing today. She stifles a smile and continues by without comment.

  “We’ll talk when we get inside,” Silberstein says under his breath.

  We stop in front of a door with a number on it. Silberstein touches his pass to a white square on the wall, then keys in a code; the door clicks. It’s a dual security measure. Something you have + Something you know. This way if a pass is stolen, it alone does not provide access. Not unless you also have the code.

  The door opens to reveal a small computer lab. Silberstein guides us inside, making sure to close and lock the door behind us.

  Once the door is closed, Silberstein slumps down in a chair.

  “You’re Zach, aren’t you?” he asks.

  I nod.

  “I knew it,” Dr. Silberstein says. “I haven’t seen you in almost five years, but I guessed it was you the moment you walked into my lecture hall. You look just like your father.”

  “That’s why you called for help at the university?”

  “What are you talking about? I didn’t call anyone.”

  So Mike was telling the truth. Nobody tipped him off. He anticipated my visit to the U of R and got there before me.

  “Who are these kids?” Silberstein says, looking at Howard and Tanya.

  “Friends of mine.”

  “How long have you known them?”

  “Forever,” I say.

  He looks at them warily.

  “Let’s put it this way,” I say. “I trust them a lot more than I trust you. So why don’t you tell me what’s going on in this facility.”

  “You said you had been here once before,” he says.

  “That’s right. It was one building back then. None of this security.”

  “The building you visited with your father was the beginning of a sea change in our research philosophy.”

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