I am the traitor, p.9

I Am the Traitor, page 9

 

I Am the Traitor
 


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  “Our?”

  “Your father’s and mine. We were research partners. What began as a simple testing facility grew into the finest psych research center of its kind. This place is your father’s legacy.”

  “If that’s the case, where’s my father?”

  He winces at the question.

  “I’m sorry, Zach. For everything.”

  “What do you have to be sorry about?”

  “About your parents—” He hesitates. “The way things happened.”

  “You mean the way they died?”

  I’m hoping he will contradict me, tell me they’re not dead, tell me the story I’ve been led to believe is not true.

  But he doesn’t do that.

  He simply says, “Yes.”

  “What did you have to do with their deaths, Dr. Silberstein?”

  His demeanor changes completely. His breathing grows rapid, and his eyes flit around the room, skimming over Howard and Tanya before returning to me.

  “I caused their deaths,” he says.

  The muscles in my shoulders tighten, rage rising inside me.

  “Indirectly,” he adds quickly. “Zach, you have to understand, your father was a genius. His discovery was unparalleled.”

  I look at him, not comprehending. He realizes I know a lot less than he thought I did. I see him sorting through information now, preparing to spin the story.

  “Don’t do that,” I say. “Don’t change the story in any way. Tell me everything.”

  Silberstein continues, “We were studying post-traumatic stress disorder.”

  “PTSD,” Tanya says.

  “Exactly,” Silberstein says. “During trauma, pathways in the brain become imprinted by traumatic events. That results in a kind of stress reaction in the brain, one that is experienced again and again, replaying long after the events have ended. Your father was searching for a way to break the cycle before the imprinting could take hold.”

  “How could he do that?”

  “By taking away fear.”

  I hear men’s voices in the hall. Silberstein does, too, because he stops talking. After a moment footsteps pass by the door without incident.

  I glance across the room. Howard has set himself up in front of a computer monitor and he’s typing away.

  “Be careful over there,” Silberstein says.

  “How many false keystrokes before it locks down?” Howard asks.

  “Five,” Silberstein says, a little surprised. “How did you know that?”

  “Even my iPad resets itself after ten bad login attempts.”

  “Give him access,” I say.

  “Why?” Silberstein says.

  “He’s a genius,” I say. “Like my father.”

  I’ve never thought of that before, but it’s true. Howard reminds me of my father, or at least what I imagine my father might have been like when he was a kid.

  “I can’t let him in,” Silberstein says.

  “You can and you will,” I say.

  “There is classified information on our server.”

  “I’m guessing you have a military contract. That’s why there’s so much money available for the psychology department.”

  He nods. “DoD,” he says.

  The Department of Defense.

  “I’ll lose my job if I give your friend access,” he says. “I could go to prison.”

  “You’re about to lose a lot more than your job,” I say, rising from my seat.

  Silberstein gets up quickly, leans over the desk in front of Howard, and keys something into the terminal. Then he steps away.

  Howard taps at the computer. “I’m in,” he says. “I just need a thumb drive.”

  “No way,” Silberstein says.

  “Check his desk drawer,” Howard says.

  Tanya opens the desk, searches around for a moment, then holds up a small stick-like device.

  “Perfect,” Howard says.

  Silberstein paces the room now, growing more agitated by the step.

  “You said my parents’ deaths were your fault,” I say, bringing the conversation back around.

  “I didn’t say that. I said I had something to do with them. Indirectly.”

  “What did you have to do with it?”

  “You have to understand, we were small-time academics running a PhD program. Totally under the radar.”

  “But something happened.”

  “Opportunity,” Silberstein says. “At first, it was a single grant. It seemed like the source was benign, an obscure foundation. As time went on, we were offered additional money, more prestige. And then the agenda started to change. The donors began to throw their weight around. They wanted us to apply our research to understanding why young soldiers were returning from war with such terrible psychological trauma. Your father didn’t like what was happening. He thought we were losing control of our own research.”

  “He didn’t like it, but you didn’t have a problem with it?”

  “It was an opportunity to expand the good work we were doing and grow the department at the same time. It seemed like a beneficial trade-off to me. But your father had this stupid obsession with remaining independent. He believed the only real research was pure research, unencumbered by other agendas.”

  “So he resisted.”

  Silberstein nods.

  “Neither of us realized who we were dealing with. By the time we knew, it was too late.”

  I look around the lab at the state-of-the-art equipment and high-end furniture.

  “It looks like you got what you wanted,” I say.

  Silberstein’s face is tormented. “I never wanted your family to be harmed.”

  I hear footsteps outside the door again, but this time they don’t pass by. There’s a loud knock.

  I leap up. “What did you do?” I say.

  I pull his chair back with him still in it and examine the space where he was sitting. I squat down and look under the desk.

  There’s an alarm button under the lip of the table. A button he’d obviously pressed.

  “Did you get what you needed?” I call to Howard.

  “It’s a complex system,” he says. “I could use another ten minutes.”

  “I can get you five,” I say.

  I glance around the room, searching for anything that might be used as a weapon.

  Another knock at the door.

  “Let them come in,” Silberstein says. “They won’t hurt you. Not when they find out who you are.”

  That means they don’t know who I am yet. They only know an alarm has been triggered in the lab.

  I head for the door.

  Silberstein says, “Please, Zach. You don’t want to mess with these guys.”

  “On the contrary,” I say. “I really do.”

  I turn to Tanya. “Stay in the room, lock the door behind me. Don’t open it unless you know it’s me. I’ll knock a pattern, five and three.”

  “What if someone breaks in?” Howard says.

  I look from Tanya to Howard. I don’t have a weapon to give them, and I can’t expect them to defend themselves.

  I say, “If they force their way in, do whatever they tell you to do.”

  “What if they take us somewhere?” Howard says.

  “I found you before, didn’t I?”

  “We’ll be okay,” Tanya says, calming him.

  I’ve seen her stay cool in several tough situations. I have no reason to doubt her now.

  I set myself in defense mode. Then I open the door and slip outside, not knowing what I will find, but knowing I must be ready for anything.

  THREE GUARDS WITH GUNS ON THEIR BELTS.

  They are a few feet from the door, huddled together and strategizing.

  That gives me the element of surprise.

  The first guard is easy, I step in fast and use his body as a weapon against the second guard. The two of them topple to the ground, disoriented.

  The third man reacts quickly, jumping away from me and dr
awing his weapon in a single motion. I do what he will least expect: I move forward, shrinking the distance between us in less than two seconds.

  “You guys scared the crap out of me,” I say, making my voice high and afraid.

  He blinks at me, confused. A minute ago he saw me take down his two fellow security men, and now he sees me acting like a kid. His brain can’t process it.

  That’s exactly what I’m counting on.

  “Stop,” he says.

  But I don’t. I walk up to him and take the gun out of his hand.

  He is startled, so much so that it takes him a second to realize what happened.

  “What the hell?” he says.

  By then it’s too late. I strike at him, using the weight of the gun in my hand to deliver a forearm shiver to his chest, hard enough to rattle his teeth.

  “How many are responding?” I ask.

  He doesn’t answer, so I hit him again. That gets him talking.

  “One team responds to verify and report in. If there’s an actual problem, they send more.”

  “There’s no problem,” I say.

  “But I—”

  “Make the call.”

  I point the gun at him. I have no intention of using it. It’s a signifier, the symbol of danger that makes the threat more real. He doesn’t know it, but I am a lot more dangerous than this weapon.

  “Make the call,” I say.

  “Forty-three reporting,” he says into his radio.

  “Forty-three, go,” the voice replies.

  “Code red area seven—” he shouts.

  I bring the butt of the gun across his temple, sending his head careening into the wall and knocking him out cold.

  Whatever he communicated has turned the false alarm into an actual alarm.

  Nothing I can do about it now. I turn and run back toward the computer lab where I left Howard, Tanya, and Silberstein.

  The fight earned Howard an extra five minutes on the computer. I hope it was enough.

  I knock, five and three, as I arranged.

  “It’s me,” I say through the door.

  There’s no response.

  I knock again, identify myself again.

  I hear Tanya scream inside the room.

  I rear back and kick the door hard below the locking mechanism.

  Another scream, longer and more terrifying.

  Then a gunshot.

  I kick again, below and above the mechanism, weakening the structure before flinging myself through the door.

  It’s not what I was expecting. It’s much worse.

  THERE IS BLOOD.

  A pool of red, slowly spreading across the floor. Silberstein is sprawled on the ground at Tanya’s feet, his head at an unnatural angle, the side of his skull blown open from a gunshot wound.

  Tanya is holding a black .38-caliber pistol. It’s pointed at Howard, who is cowering in a corner across the room.

  “Tanya?” I say.

  Her expression is calm. The gun is steady in her hand, her grip firm but light. It is the grip of someone experienced with firearms.

  “What’s happening here?” I ask, keeping my voice low.

  First action: Engage her in conversation to stall for time.

  Second action: Neutralize the threat.

  I note the angle of the weapon. Half a turn in one direction, and Howard is in her sights. Half a turn in the other, and it’s me.

  I need to distract her, buy myself another moment of assessment time. Move myself into a better position for what I’m about to do.

  I slide a step to the right.

  “Stop, Zach,” she says.

  I stop.

  “I want you to understand—” she says.

  “I do understand,” I say.

  Her stance, her comfort with the weapon, the blood on the ground at her feet.

  Tanya is not who she says she is.

  “The professor pulled a gun out of the drawer,” Tanya says. “I had to act.”

  “She grabbed his arm,” Howard says. “She kept him from shooting me. She saved my life, Zach.”

  “We were fighting for the gun and it went off,” Tanya says.

  I appraise Silberstein’s body, its position on the ground, the gunshot that has sheared off the side of the man’s head.

  I look at Tanya. If a normal girl had just killed someone, she would be shaking and flushed.

  Tanya is not flushed.

  A normal girl would be in shock, her eyes glazed, her pupils dilated.

  Tanya’s eyes are calm. And she is still holding the gun in firing position, halfway between myself and Howard.

  Tanya is an assassin.

  “Your move, Tanya.”

  She looks from me to Howard, struggling with something internally.

  “What’s happening?” Howard says. He doesn’t understand my reaction. Maybe he thinks Tanya got lucky and shot the professor by accident.

  I judge the distance between Tanya and myself. She is close, but not close enough for me to get to her and disarm her before she wreaks havoc. Not if she’s as good as I think she is.

  “Zach.”

  She turns toward me, and something shifts in her energy. She relaxes from a state of readiness. She spins the pistol, flicking on the safety before extending her arm and offering me the gun.

  A moment ago she killed a man and it looked as if she was going to do the same to Howard. Now she’s surrendering the weapon.

  It makes no sense.

  “Trust me,” she says.

  “That’s a little bit of a stretch given the circumstances,” I say.

  “Then trust your instincts.”

  My instincts led me astray. Tanya is dangerous, and I missed it. I had doubts about her at the beginning, but they were put aside by other feelings.

  Dangerous feelings.

  The gun is in her outstretched hand, butt end facing me.

  I take it from her and slip it into my waistband.

  “We can’t stay here,” she says.

  She’s right. We have to get moving, or we will be trapped.

  “Howard, did you get what you needed from the server?”

  “Got it,” he says, and he pulls a thumb drive from the computer and pockets it.

  “Then let’s get out of here,” I say.

  “Silberstein—” Howard says.

  “He’s gone,” I say.

  I reach down and grab the security pass from his body.

  I head for the door, pulling Howard with me.

  “What about Tanya?” he says.

  I look back. Tanya is standing in the middle of the room, watching me.

  “Can I come with you?” she says.

  “Why would I allow that?”

  “You can’t leave her here,” Howard says.

  He still doesn’t understand who we’re dealing with.

  I hear footsteps running through the hallway outside. Soldiers are approaching in response to the guard’s emergency transmission. Normal protocol would be to lock down the facility, keep the scientists safe in their offices until the guards can search the entire building and secure the premises.

  “You need me to get out,” Tanya says.

  “I don’t need anyone,” I say.

  “It will be easier with me. You know it will.”

  She’s right. The presence of a woman diminishes the perception of threat. In her case, that would be a very wrong perception, but the guards won’t know that.

  Tanya is dangerous, but she turned over the gun and made herself vulnerable to me. She wants to stay with us now. I just don’t know why.

  Footsteps approach the door.

  “They’re coming,” Howard says, his voice high-pitched.

  I have to make a decision. Take Tanya, or leave her.

  “We go together,” I say.

  “Thank you,” Tanya says.

  “Don’t make me regret it.”

  She crosses the room to join us.

  I listen at the door, creating a
mental map of what we will find when we step into the hall.

  “How are we going to sneak out of here?” Howard says.

  “No sneaking,” I say. “We’re going to walk out the front door.”

  “But they’ll see us.”

  “They’re going to see us anyway, so we might as well let them see what we want them to see. Make yourselves look like teenagers.”

  “We are teenagers,” Howard says.

  “Scared teenagers,” I say.

  “We are scared teenagers,” he says.

  “Howard—”

  “Okay, I know what you mean.”

  I lead them forward and slip into character at the same time, swiveling my head from side to side like a confused kid who doesn’t know where he’s going.

  We turn the corner to find two guards with weapons drawn. They stare at us, surprised.

  “Stop! Don’t move!” the taller one says.

  I freeze. Howard and Tanya follow my lead.

  I hold out the security card. “My dad says we have to evacuate.”

  “Your dad?” the guard asks.

  He lowers his gun. He steps forward cautiously, hand reaching for the pass. He doesn’t touch it, doesn’t come any closer than he has to. Instead, he gestures for me to hold the card out farther so he can see it.

  He cranes his neck, examining the pass. It’s legit.

  “I’m Joshua Silberstein,” I say. “My dad was giving us a tour. I have to do a report for school.”

  He looks from me to Howard and Tanya, surprised to discover three frightened kids in the hallway.

  The guard holsters his gun.

  “Of all the days,” he says, rolling his eyes.

  He points down the hall. “Keep going this direction. Two rights and a left. I’ll let them know you’re coming.”

  “Thanks!” I say.

  He speaks into his radio. “Three kids coming out F-1,” he says.

  “Kids?” the voice replies over the radio.

  “Get them the hell out of here before we have a lawsuit on our hands.”

  When we get to the exit door, there’s a group of three guards blocking it. They quickly wave us through.

  “I don’t know how you kids got in here,” the lead guard says.

  I shake my head, like I’m as confused as he is.

  I see him eyeing Tanya, and I note her head is slightly bowed, her posture meek.

  “Are you all right, honey?” he asks.

  “I guess,” she says.

 
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