By Ben Van Dongen
The door closed behind the fleeing woman and Thomas slammed into it in pursuit. He lunged forward, running right into the back of the waiting officer, pushing him. The tall man turned on Thomas, red faced and furious. He tried to get hold of Thomas, but momentum was against him. Thomas spun, ducking the reaching arms, and sprinted in the direction the guard had been looking.
At the next junction, he paused, listening for the principal’s clacking footsteps. Hearing the sound, Thomas ran after it, further into the building, back towards the records room. He had to force the smile from his face as he ran.
The woman was fast and far enough ahead that he hadn’t caught a glimpse of her. He was determined though, and manage to follow the footsteps echoing down the empty hallways. He heard the click and slam of a door closing and traced it to a stairwell. He pulled open the door and chased the principal up the stairs.
“I just want to talk.” He had to yell between his heavy breaths. The woman was engineered to be fast and he spent most of his time behind a desk.
The woman looked down over the railing and he spotted her, a flight above him. He pressed on, pulling himself forward with the help of the railings. He didn’t think he could catch her, so he raced through his options, trying to outthink her.
They raced up three more flights and the principal widened the gap between them. She burst through the door to the third floor halls. By the time Thomas caught up to her, she was halfway down the long corridor. He struggled to keep up his pace and felt he had to catch his breath or he may faint. He stopped and thought through his novels, searching for an idea, listening to the sound of the woman’s footfalls carrying her away. The memory of his own time in school came to him and, excited, searched the walls. He licked his lips, still heaving, but smiled when he saw a fire alarm on the wall near him.
Thomas pulled the alarm. The woman skid to a stop and looked back at him. He waved to her as the doors lining the hallway opened and students poured out. Her path was blocked, but the space between them was filled with bodies too. The tide of people forced him back towards the stairwell in a calm and orderly fashion.
He watched her straighten and converse with some of the students and their teachers as she slowly walked away with them. He was nearing the stairs, searching for a way to get to his target, ignoring the looks from the people around him. Just inside the doorway was a space where he could let the procession pass. When the flow of bodies became a trickle, he pushed back into the hallway and, feeling refreshed, sprinted after the woman. She wasn’t there, but he followed the direction she had been taking and hoped her progress was slowed by his tactic.
At the end of the hallway, Thomas was stopped by a teacher, counting names on a list.
“What are you doing here?” The woman was what Thomas thought of as a typical strict teacher. Her grey hair was in a tight bun and her mouth was pursed in a tight snarl.
“I was in a meeting with the principal when the alarm went off.” Thomas showed her his credentials, but she was unimpressed. “We were separated in the commotion. Do you know which way she went?”
“She went down that stairwell.” She pointed to the doors behind her. “It leads to the side street.”
Thomas thanked her and slowly walked away, through the doors. As soon as they closed behind him, he ran, galumphing down two and three stairs at a time. He jumped down most of the last flight and nearly twisted an ankle. He recovered and crashed through the doors onto the street at the side of the building.
Students and faculty were milling about, waiting for someone to take charge. The ones closest to the doors jumped as Thomas crashed through. He stretched to look for her in the crowed then pushed his way through them, searching as he went. He thought he saw a woman run around the corner to the front of the school, but when he got there, all he could see were more students and a fire truck parked on the street. Thomas leaned against the school, catching his breath. He looked through the gathered people, but there was no indication of where his target had gone.
Thomas walked back to the front of the school and called Rachel. As Rachel answered, he sat on the stone steps watching the hubbub he’d caused play out.
“I had her.” Thomas sighed. He had been excited that his hunch was correct but frustrated that he lost his target.
“You did wonderfully.” Rachel slipped out of her character. “You found her and-”
“I let her get away. I have no idea where to look now.”
“Come back to the office. We have more than we started with. I can start a new search based on what you found.”
“Yeah. I’m going to look around here first, see what I can find. I can probably get some of the staff to spill what they know.” Thomas looked for the heads of the faculty above those of the milling students. “See if there are any street cameras around here and get a warrant for them while you’re at it.”
“Good thinking boss.” Her accent came back. “Leave me with all the tough jobs.”
“I’m the one who has to call diaz and let him know I spooked the target.” He scratched his chin, imagining the conversation.
“Maybe leave out the part where she got away.”
“I’ll consider it. See you back at the office.” Thomas hung up and got to his feet. The people had gravitated into groups based on age, position, and some hierarchy Thomas didn’t know. It made walking through them easier, and many of the teachers were standing together near the edge of the street, talking and corralling students who strayed too far.
He asked them a few questions, but they were protective, or scared, of their principal. Thomas tried to get back into the school, but no matter how much he protested, the guards refused without permission. He considered trying to speak with some of the students, but didn’t want to give anyone more of a reason to dislike him. Instead, he went back to the decrepit train station and headed back to his office.
When he was seated on the main train, he took out his phone and called the direct line Mr. Diaz had given him. The train was mostly empty, being so far from the city center. Still, he sat at the back of the train, away from the other passengers.
The phone was answered on the third ring. “Ah, Detective. I wasn’t expecting a call so soon. Do you have information for me already?”
“I do.” Thomas scratched his chin. “Unfortunately it’s not all good news.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Diaz’ voice was deep and expressive, making the comment seem insincere.
“I found the girl. She was working as the principal at her old school.”
“You don’t say.” He paused long enough to make Thomas think there was a problem with the connection. “And what was the problem you encountered?”
“I confronted her, to be sure it was her, and she ran. I lost her.”
“That’s unfortunate. Still, you have provided us with information we lacked. I’ve had your payment sent to your charming secretary, along with a bonus for such speedy work.”
“I’m not sure I’m clear what you’re saying.”
“Your services are no longer required Mr. Holliday.”
The strong voice stung Thomas. “I see.”
“Don’t misunderstand me. I’m happy with your work, but we have what we need to take things from here. I’ll be sure to tell my colleges what a fine service you provided. Good day.” Diaz hung up the phone. Thomas licked his lips, reeling from the unexpected direction the call took.
From the height of the rail line, Thomas saw drop ships rising from the Diaz Research building, like bugs being shooed away, and streak past him, towards the direction of the school. The train ran thought a building, cutting off the view, and Thomas considered getting off at the next stop and heading back to the school, but he didn’t know what he could do.
His office was close, so he decided to continue there and consult his secretary. His dismissal didn’t sit well with him, even if his employer seemed satisfied. The connector car for his building caught up with the train and latched on. Thomas boarded it and was carried back to his office to lick his wounds and plan.