With his hands free, Eric had only to stretch his arms and shoulders as much as he could to warp and distort the duct tape holding him to the chair. The cold made his muscles a bit more reluctant to the task than usual, but he managed to stretch the tape just enough to pull himself off of the chair.
The room outside the freezer was devoid of people, but it wasn't empty. The table where the man in charge had been sitting when Eric first woke had his cell phone, wallet, ipod, and keys were set neatly in a row. Eric grabbed them and put them in his pockets. He noticed that his cell phone was off, and turned it back on before he stowed it. According to the phone's screen, it was late in the day on Monday -- he'd been in the freezer for at least 36 hours.
To the left of the table was a long shelf built into the wall with several stools pulled up to it. In front of each stool was an Enterprise-class Dell laptop, all of which were on and running. Eric grabbed the two closest ones, closed them, and tucked them under one arm.
It was daylight outside, though it didn't look like it would last much longer. Behind the old industrial building, Eric found a Nissan Titan with a banged-up front end -- presumably, the one that had knocked Johnny's car off the road last week. There were parking spaces for at least four more large vehicles, but all of them were empty. Eric set the laptops on the ground, then smashed the driver's window of the Titan with a nearby rock. In forty seconds, he had the truck hotwired and running. He placed the laptops on the seat next to him and pulled out his cell phone.
"Eric! Jesus, man, where the hell are you?" Nathaniel sounded worried on the other end of the line.
"Not sure yet. Listen, Nathaniel, something big's about to go down. All of our hunters are out of the nest, and headed somewhere. Get the task force ready," Eric said quickly.
"I don't have a location yet, just. . . " Eric trailed off as he noticed a small slip of white paper under the Titan's windshield wiper. In Russel's familiar, blocky handwriting, facing in towards Eric, was an address.
"3564 North 54th Street," Eric told Nathaniel. "I'll meet you there."
Eric hung up, threw the huge truck into gear, and pounded on the gas. He got out onto the streets and noticed he was around 108th and L -- about halfway across town from the lower North Omaha neighborhood Russel had pointed him towards. Traffic seemed relatively light, though, so Eric figured he'd make it there in about 15 minutes.
Depending on where Nathaniel was at the moment, he'd probably beat Eric to the location. It was only about three minutes from where the Deputy lived, after all. Eric spun the Titan left on 96th Street, almost flipping the large truck, and jammed the accelerator to the floor.
As he neared the address (thanks to the truck's built-in GPS), Eric could already see that he was late to the party -- in the failing light, the structure fires showed up rather brilliantly. He didn't need the GPS to tell him the address he was looking for -- all he had to do was follow the cloud of white smoke North from Northwest Radial Highway.
The banged-up Titan crested the hill on 54th Street, and Eric could see police and fire vehicles clogging up the block. He parked along Pinkney Street facing West and headed up 54th on foot -- he got about 15 feet before he was stopped by a uniformed Omaha Police officer.
"Sorry, sir. Can't have you walking through here," the officer, who couldn't have been older than 20, told him.
"It's cool, officer. He's with me," Johnny said, placing a hand on the officer's shoulder.
"Looks like I got here just in time," Eric grumbled sarcastically.
"Place was on fire when we got here, too. Meth lab. We'll be sorting out the bodies inside for days."
"Let me guess -- whoever did this was already gone by the time you got here."
"Fire Marshal says the blaze probably started about five minutes before we arrived."
"Shit. Thought we had them this time."
"Yeah. So where have you been for the past couple of days?"
Eric sighed. He pointed to the truck he'd stolen to get there.
"That's the one that knocked me off the road. Where'd you get it?"
"From the guys who knocked you off the road. They grabbed me just after the meeting with Pyotr. Used some frankly unpleasant means of interrogation to get information out of me, which I ended up giving them inadvertently anyway."
"Find out who they are?"
"Not yet. But I may have done one better. On my way out, I stole a couple of their computers. You know, and their truck."
Johnny escorted Eric to the largest concentration of undercover police cars, which had become a kind of field base for the task force.
"So, you said unpleasant interrogation techniques. What, exactly?"
"Threw me in a freezer for a couple of days. Poured water backwards down my throat and nose while I was hanging upside-down. Fun stuff."
"Waterboarding and cold cell. Straight from the Iraq War to you."
"You find out anything from your SF buddies?"
"Something small, but it may be nothing. Oh, shit, I forgot to tell you. Your new Marshal is here. When we couldn't find you, he started hanging with us, figuring you'd turn up sooner or later," Johnny nodded towards a man in a blue Marshal's Service windbreaker.
Though the Marshal had his back to them, Eric recognized him right away.
"Marshal Valder," Eric said.
"Heya, sport. How've you been?"
Eric stuck out his hand, and Marshal Valder shook it enthusiastically. His grip was unbelievably strong, but Eric's hands were still somewhat numb from the cold.
"What are you doing hanging out with these degenerates?" Eric smiled, nodding at the task force in general.
"Saw in Marshal Dean's notes that you'd been working with the locals. Good on you, sport. When you wouldn't turn up, I figured I'd ride along on their little jump-out squad here."
Eric opened his mouth to reply, but just as he did, the house behind them belched a huge explosion out into the street, sending police and firefighters scattering every which way.
"Though, perhaps this isn't the best place to catch up," Valder said as he hauled himself off of the ground and brushed ashes from his windbreaker.
"I tend to agree," Eric nodded, shaking the ash from his hair. "Let me catch a shower, and we'll grab some coffee. You have my address?"
"I'll be there."
Eric set off towards the Titan, motioning for Johnny to come with him.
"You'll probably want to take the truck and computers as evidence," Eric told him.
"Not a bad idea. You need a ride?"
"No, my car should still be at Joe's, and that's less than a mile down the road. I could use a walk."
"I'll get our IT guy started on the computers, but it'll take time."
"You know, I can take one of them with me. I'm actually pretty good with machines, what with advanced degrees in computer programming and all."
"I'll let Nathaniel know you're working one while our guy works the other. My money's on you, honestly -- our guy's kind of useless."
Eric smiled and took one of the computers from the Titan's front seat. He closed the door and started to head down towards Northwest Radial.
"Hey! I need the keys for the truck!" Johnny called after him.
"Twist the red wire and the yellow wire together!" Eric called back.
Eric walked for about four blocks down Northwest Radial, and just after it turned into Maple Street, a black BMW 5-series pulled up next to him. The passenger window rolled down, and Yang Shao's grinning face appeared.
"Need a ride?"
"Not especially. My car's just down the street. Meet me back at my place, though. Some interesting stuff to tell you."
Yang Shao nodded.
"I thought your car was impounded? And, you know, wrecked?"
"It was. Bought this one yesterday morning."
Yang Shao rolled up the window and drove off. Eric made it to the Thunderbird a few minutes later, and it thankfully started right up. He placed the stolen laptop on the seat next to him and drove back to his apartment. Yang Shao's brand-new BMW was nowhere to be seen, but Eric guessed he was already inside the apartment.
He was right -- Yang Shao was in the kitchen, rummaging through Eric's fridge, withdrawing a @Rockstar_Energy and opening it.
"So where'd you disappear to the other night? I stitched up the arm, got a little rest, and you were nowhere to be found."
"Just a minor kidnapping. Nothing big," Eric said, setting the laptop on his kitchen table and starting it up. "Question for you -- when you said Russel was already here, you meant he'd been here for some time, didn't you?"
"A couple of months, at least. But he wasn't looking for you -- he got that call last week sometime."
"Know what he was doing here?"
"Heard some rumors. Not much -- that he'd gotten caught by the FBI and cut a deal to work with them on something out here. No one really believed it -- we just all thought he went off the grid after Julian got busted."
"And, coincidentally, ended up in the same town as me?"
"No one knew where you were until the computer geek Julian had working for him picked up an NCIC request on your profile."
"That Brazilian kid? @Shroudripper, right?"
"That's the one. He put in a call to Julian, Julian called Russel. Shroudripper called me, because he owes me one."
"None of which answers what Russel is actually doing here -- but this might," Eric said, nodding toward the laptop.
"You expecting someone? Someone in a big black Suburban with government plates?" Yang Shao called from the window.
"You're slipping, Chief. That's my handler. You might want to --" Eric turned to Yang Shao, or rather, where the assassin had been. There was only an empty space next to the window. " -- vanish. All right, then."
Eric let Valder in the door. The Marshal tossed his jacket on one of the kitchen chairs and stretched out his arms.
"Man. Hell of a day. I believe someone promised me coffee," Valder smiled.
"True enough. I'll put some on. So how'd you end up stuck with me?"
"Volunteered, sport. The assignment popped up on our assignments site, and I jumped on it. Seeing as how I already knew you, the bosses figured I was the man for the job. Valencia would have gone for it, too, but she's busy with another witness at the moment."
"How is Maria?"
"She's good. Told me to thank you for the flowers you had sent to the hospital. She's just been back on duty a couple of weeks now, but she seems to be all healed up."
"Good to know."
"So, hear you got yourself into a nice mess with the locals here," Valder chuckled as the coffeemaker began to percolate. Valder walked over to the patio window and looked out. "Nice view of absolutely nothing you have here. What's that, an alley?"
"Yeah, panoramic vistas weren't in the brochure," Eric shrugged, looking over at Valder. He saw the Marshal's tie flip up, and Valder fell back hard. A half-second later, the entire patio door shattered, raining glass on the fallen Marshal as bullets started to chew up the furniture.
"Shit! Yang Shao!" Eric yelled, crawling for Valder's body.
"Already on it!" the thin Chinese yelled, the twin .50 caliber pistols booming in his hands, returning fire out the window. Eric made it to Valder, who was conscious and swearing.
"Fuck. Sniper, backup team," Valder grunted, reaching for his Glock.
"You wearing your vest?"
"Even to bed, sport. Still cracked a few ribs, though," Valder started firing out the window as Eric dragged him behind the couch. Valder managed to sit up into a crouched position as he reloaded his Glock.
"Who's the Chinese guy with the big guns?"
"He's a long story. You gonna live?"
"Yeah, I tend to do that. My cell fell out of my pocket when I took the round to the chest. Get on the horn and call in your task force."
Eric nodded and speed-dialed Nathaniel's cell. He quickly explained the situation, then hung up -- the task force was still at the Meth Lab, so it would only take them two or three minutes to get there under full lights and sirens.
Yang Shao's Desert Eagles clicked empty, and he threw them to the ground. As the bullets tore into the couch Eric and Valder had taken cover behind, Yang Shao slipped around the corner and returned with a QBZ-95 assault rifle.
"Where the fuck have you been hiding that?" Eric yelled over the gunfire.
"Bathroom!" Yang Shao smiled back, opening up on the sniper team in the alley. A few seconds later, all of the noise stopped, and Yang Shao took a look out into the alley.
"You get them?" Valder asked.
"Nah. They've fucked off. I think we gave them a little more fight than they were expecting."
"Cops are here in sixty seconds, Yang Shao," Eric reminded him.
Yang Shao picked up his spent handguns and walked out of the room. Eric and Valder stood, Valder with his gun pointed towards the patio door as a precaution.
"Oh, yeah. Do me a favor? You never saw that guy," Eric nodded in the direction Yang Shao had gone.
"What guy? I'm fucking awesome, and repelled the whole attack myself."
"That's the spirit," Eric grinned, pulling out his cell phone. He scanned through the device's memory and clicked Russel's number, then typed in a quick text:
Now. . . where were we?