Someone has tripped one of Nathan’s alarms.
In eerie silence, barriers slid down the inside of the doorway. They locked into place with a soft snick. Whoever was coming after us wouldn’t get through the door easily.
Jumping to my feet, I said, “I assume you have the same materials lining the exterior walls?”
Nathan snatched the data pad from the table next to him and replied, “Of course. Wake the others and go to the hidden room with my equipment.”
I set off toward the bedrooms, saying over my shoulder, “You didn’t show me how to open that.”
He tapped the data pad screen. “It’s opening now.”
“You’re going to join us in there?”
“Just as soon as I arrange a few surprises for our unexpected guests.”
“It would help if you figured out who they are, too.”
“I’ll bet all the money in my hidden accounts that it’s the Royal Intelligence Agency, Jana.”
I agreed with his assessment but didn’t bother responding. Instead, I banged twice on Tilly’s door, then the same on Mark’s and Kelly’s doors. None of them called out questions, but I heard each of them moving in response to my knocks.
Tilly emerged first, dressed in her black bodysuit and fastening her tool belt around her waist. For someone just yanked out of sleep, she looked disgustingly beautiful. I doubted I could look that good with hours of professional help.
Kelly was next, dressed in nondescript clothing and carrying her backpack of weapons. She, at least, had the decency to look tousled, as if she had just woken up.
I was surprised Mark was the last one to put in an appearance. I mean, guys usually pride themselves in dressing quickly. Once I saw him, his tardiness made sense. He was dressed in black clothing, similar to Tilly’s bodysuit though not as tight, had a gun belt slung about his waist, a backpack over one shoulder, and carried a large, black gym bag in his left hand.
“This way,” I said, heading to the back room. “Nathan will be with us in a minute.”
“Have you got any idea who’s here?” Tilly asked.
“It’s a safe bet it’s the RIA,” I responded.
“We were extraordinarily careful,” Mark said. “I don’t know how they found us.”
“I believe you, but it doesn’t really matter how they tracked us down—at least, not right now. What matters is getting out of here safely. Mark, do you know Nathan’s escape route?”
“Yeah, and he keyed it to my retina print. Let me past and I’ll open the escape tunnel.”
We three women moved to one side of the hall so Mark could pass, then fell in line behind him. True to Nathan’s word, the entrance to his hidden room was open. Mark entered that room, felt around the side wall for something, and then put his face against the wall. A light shined through an invisible pinhole, scanning Mark’s retina. Soundlessly, part of the back wall slid aside, revealing a narrow passageway.
“Follow me,” Mark said as he entered it.
Kelly, holding a blaster she had pulled out of her backpack, did as Mark instructed. Tilly glanced my way, a question obvious in her expression.
“Go ahead,” I said. “I’ll wait for Nathan.”
She hesitated for a second and then gave a quick nod. “Be careful, Jana. You’re the only best friend I’ve got.”
Without another word, she strode into the tunnel.
“Nathan,” I called, “please tell me you’re heading this way.”
“Almost, Jana. Give me thirty seconds.”
A bang sounded against the front door as our unexpected guests tried to make an impressive and destructive entrance. I couldn’t see the barrier, but it didn’t sound like it gave a millimeter. It reverberated again but still sounded as if it was holding fast.
Nathan appeared in the hallway, his pace steady but unhurried. He entered the back room, took my hand and drew me into his hidden room. Next, he tapped something on the data pad. The secret door slid shut, but Nathan did not head for the tunnel.
He cast a wistful gaze over his slicing equipment, sighed heavily, and, with a resigned flourish, tapped one last time on the data pad. The equipment sprang to life and made disturbing grinding sounds. As each unit finished grinding, wisps of smoke issued from inside.
“I’m sorry you lost your home because of me,” I said.
“Don’t be. You know this sort of thing comes with our choice of careers. Besides, Jana, I’d rather be running from the RIA with you than spending more undisturbed nights alone in this apartment.”
“That may be the cheesiest thing any man has ever said to me.”
Taking my hand again, Nathan pulled me into the tunnel. “I’m a slicer, not a poet. I meant every word though! Hey, when this is all over, can I introduce you to my mother?”
As the second hidden door slid shut behind us, I said, “Isn’t it a little early in our relationship for that?”
“If you’re not sure about me, we can wait awhile for that. All I can say is I am sure about you.”
The thing is, I was sure about Nathan. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to admit it to anyone, least of all him. No, that’s not right. I wasn’t sure I wanted to admit it to me.
Unbidden, I remembered another couple on the run. I remembered how deeply Jeanine and Drake cared for each other. What I didn’t remember was any reticence about sharing their feelings with each other. And hadn’t I recently found myself wishing I had a ‘Drake’ of my own?
Casting caution to the winds, I said, “I would love to meet your mother, Nathan.”
Can Jana and friends make good their escape? If so, can they escape further detection by the RIA? Find out more in Chapter 24, coming Monday.