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Chapter 7: Dynamic Synergies: After Dark

    Ada was working late. As a temporary employee whose only real duty involved answering phones during business hours, she had no reason nor authority to be in the office past five, but Summersteel wasn’t there to tell her to go home, and no one else knew who she was, or knew what she was doing there, or cared. So she was free to remain at her desk unhindered, plotting and scheming in peace. 
   Given the emptiness of the office, it of course occurred to her to take another crack at Summersteel’s gmail, but Derek—perhaps correctly surmising that Ada was up to some shit—had locked Summersteel’s door behind him on the way out. So Ada was exploring other ways she might infiltrate the company’s seemingly impregnable electronic security system. She started by Googling “hacking.” She had no prior experience in the field, but it had always been on her bucket list to expand her horizons in this area, so she was actually relieved that a fitting opportunity had presented itself. The first link she clicked took her to a wikiHow page, which suggested that the first step in becoming a capable hacker is to learn a programming language. Well, of course, that sent her down the rabbit hole, and soon she was knee-deep in docstrings and Java applets. She realized that learning a programming language was not something that someone could do in a single evening, so she switched her focus instead to the possibility of hiring a professional hacker to do her dirty work for her. She began tooling around the Dark Web (the ease with which she was able to access websites on supposedly encrypted networks made her question the quality of Dynamic Synergies’ cybersecurity, and whether a hacker might be overqualified to take on such a project). She nailed down a couple of leads; one was for Hotfix Hacking Services, LLC, but she wasn’t particularly impressed by their pricing schedule. Leon Fudgecannon: Hacker for Hire was another promising prospect, but his webpage was littered with racially charged epithets, so Leon was quickly discounted. Finally, Ada found someone she had a genuinely good feeling about—a woman named Janelle, who was the founder and CEO of I Can Hack It, a company that appeared to specialize in just this sort of thing. After looking quickly left and right to make sure no one was approaching, Ada dialed Janelle’s digits on her cell phone. 
   “Hi, this is Janelle.”
   “Hi, Janelle—I’m calling about your hacking services?” 
   “Oh, yes! Can I ask how you heard about us? 
   “I found you on the Dark Web.” 
   “Ah, okay.” Janelle seemed to be jotting this down. “All right, so how can I—Taylor. Taylor, let go of your sister’s hair. I am so sorry—”
   “Oh, that’s all right.” 
   “Taylor. Mommy’s on the phone, can you please just be quiet for like, five more minutes? I know. Yes, I know—we will go as soon as I’m done. Okay, apologize to your sister. Like you mean it, Taylor. Okay. Go get your jacket on, I’ll be right in. I am so sorry about that.” 
   “Seriously, don’t worry about it.” 
   “Anyway, what were you saying?” 
   “Oh, I’m just looking for someone who can help me hack into a company’s email.” 
   “I see, I see.” There was more jotting. “Is this a company you work for, or a company that wronged you in some way, or—?”
   “Both, sort of.”
   “All right, gotcha. And you’d just be looking for us to—?” 
   “I need you to track down any correspondence relating to hiring practices, especially as pertains to matters of race, gender, or orientation.”
   “All right—got it. What’s your timeline? Dylan. Dylan, I swear to God. Why did you bring that in the house? Okay, well can you put it back in the woods? You don’t need to go all the way in; leave it at the edge of the treeline, that’s fine. Okay, and then—can you wash your hands when you come back inside, please. Thank youuuu. Oh, Jesus, I apologize.” 
   “Not a problem. You had asked about timeline?” 
   “Yes. When would you need this done by?” 
   “Well, it’s a bit urgent. Every instance of social injustice is an emergency.” 
   “That makes sense. If I charge you the rush rate, I can get one of my guys on this first thing Monday morning.”
   “Monday? There’s no chance to move that up to this week? I’m out of here on Friday.” 
   “Oh—no, I am so sorry. We’re totally booked up through the weekend. Middle of hacking season. I can take your name and number and call you if anything cancels? Frannie. Why is this in the fireplace? But it doesn’t belong there, does it? No, I didn’t think so. Well, you’re not getting it back now. I’m sorry, no. Anything that goes in the fireplace goes away—you know the rule. Taylor, will you—can you come get your sister, please? Just until I’m off the phone, thanks. Fuck, this is embarrassing.” 
   “It’s fine. Yes, please do let me know if you can help me this week. Thanks.” 
   As Janelle seemed to suddenly be grappling with some sort of jelly-related situation, Ada hung up without waiting for a reciprocation of farewell. She sighed heavily, and was startled to hear a heavy sigh in response. 
   Cautiously, and fearing the worst, Ada lifted herself out of her desk chair and peered nervously over the edge of her cubicle. 
   On his hands and knees was an elderly member of the custodial staff. He was scrubbing gently at a patch on the carpet where some coffee had been spilled. He didn’t appear to be making much headway. 
   “How much of that did you hear?” Ada asked. 
   “Enough,” said the janitor. 
   “How much to get you to keep quiet?” 
   The janitor responded to this question by slowly raising one finger to his slightly parted lips, and making a “shhh” sound. Then, after nearly losing his balance (because he had only one hand still on the floor), rolling himself awkwardly into a sitting position, and eventually getting all the way to his feet, he made the “shhh” sound again, and gestured for Ada to follow him. 
   “Am I supposed to follow you?” Ada asked.
   “Yes,” said the janitor. “That’s why I made the gesture.” 
   Ada, intrigued, exited her cubicle and followed the janitor down the hall. The gentleman leading this modest procession did not keep a rapid pace, so Ada had some time to examine his personage and make some assessments. Noticing the red, cursive “Richard” inside the white patch on his custodial uniform, she first established his name. Richard was an S-shaped sort of man, who was likely suffering from scoliosis, poor posture habits, or nightly rest on an unfirm mattress. Most of his hair had gone white, but there were areas that retained some gray, and even a few spots where the follicles were hanging fiercely onto their former, glorious brown. His skin appeared rough and weathered, as if he had spent much of his early life herding cattle or welding things. And he was exceptionally thin, which should make him easier to picture. 
   “Can you tell me where we’re going?” 
   “Oh, I’m not being impatient; I just thought if we had something to talk about on the way, it might help pass the time.” 
   “We’ll be there soon.”
   “Okay. Well, we can talk about something else then. Nasty coffee spill back there, eh? It wasn’t me that did it, by the way. I’m a very conscientious person when it comes to controlling spillage.” 
   “People here are animals.”
   “I couldn’t agree more.” 
   “It’s a wonder they can get themselves dressed in the morning.” 
   “I can see you have some strong opinions about this.” 
   “Filthy, disgusting pigs. They act as if it’s my job to clean up after them.” 
   By this point, they had only passed three offices, and Ada’s stomach was beginning to growl. 
   “You’re sure we’re almost there though? You wouldn’t want me to run up ahead and scout the place out for us, anything like that?” 
   “In here,” said Richard.
   Quite suddenly—in Richard terms, at least—the janitor turned to his left, thumbed through the keys on his key ring, settled on one, and unlocked the door before them. 
   The room into which they entered was a janitorial closet, which Ada did not find not overly surprising. Richard flipped a switch and a dim light gradually flickered on. Once Ada was inside, Richard closed the door behind them. It might have been a potentially compromising situation, but for Richard’s age and feebleness, and Ada’s mastery of martial arts. The closet was all of 25 square feet, and as Richard shuffled his way around a mop bucket and turned to face Ada, they were practically nose-to-nose. 
   “We must speak in whispers,” Richard whispered. 
   “Okay,” Ada whispered back. 
   “I’ve been watching you. Not in a creepy way.” 
   “Thank you for the clarification.” 
   “I believe I can trust you. And perhaps you can be the one to set things right. I brought you here because there are ears everywhere in this place. If you are really willing to accept this mission, there must be absolute secrecy. No blabbing casually in the halls or tweeting about it on your snapgram. One misstep, and we risk failure. And failure—”
   “Is not an option.” 
   “Okay, so you get it. It isn’t. It isn’t an option. There are nefarious goings-on within these office walls, as you have correctly surmised. There is too much at stake to take any of this lightly, or to proceed without the utmost caution.”  
   “Just so I know we’re on the same page, can I ask—what are these nefarious goings-on you mention? 
   “Oh, I have no clue. I just know they’re nefarious, and that they’re—” He trailed off, searching for the right words. 
   “Going on.” 
   “Well, Richard, thanks for bringing me into your cozy little clubhouse, and I will take everything you’ve told me into consideration. But without any more information to go on—”
   Richard’s eyes suddenly narrowed, and his wisps of white hair seemed to float gently on the AC-generated breeze. He leaned in slightly, which was almost impossible given their close proximity to one another, and at the very least unnecessary. He was at once enveloped in an aura of mystery. He spoke slowly and purposefully. 
   “Where time has stopped, and the ground is alive, you must turn about, and not arrive. There in the well, you shall do good, if several times you knock on wood.” 
   Ada would normally disregard such nonsense, but this was especially riveting nonsense. Her interest had been piqued. 
   “That’s cool, but can you just tell me where you want me to go?” 
   Richard paused, still looking mysterious, then retreated to his prior posture, allowing his eyes to un-narrow and his hair to settle back against his temples. He pointed upward. 
   “The ears. I can’t say anything too plainly. They’ll know.” 
   “Ah. Okay. Well, I’ll see what I can do. Thanks for the tip.” 
   “You’re most welcome. Oh, and—”
   “If you ever need any face shields or rubber gloves or all-purpose cleaner, you just let me know. I can hook you up.” 
   “I sincerely appreciate that, Richard.” She truly did sincerely appreciate it. Ada had found that, in her line of work, it never hurt to know people who could get you things. 
   Ada exited the closet, pausing to make sure that Richard didn’t have designs on following her out, but it appeared that there was a mop that needed wringing. She gave a quick wave and was gone. 
   She repeated the janitor’s words over and over again in her head, until she had them committed to memory. “Where time has stopped,” she thought. “So I’m either looking for a traversable wormhole or a broken clock. I feel comfortable assuming it’s the clock thing.” Ada, confident she knew what to look for, began exploring the office, turning down each and every hallway, glancing inside each and every office and cubicle. She hoped that the unexplained presence of a temp at this late hour didn’t raise any eyebrows or prompt interrogation; fortunately, stealthiness was one of her attributes. 
   She had nearly investigated every nook, cranny, and crevice of the office, when she finally ventured past a series of unoccupied cubicles and around an oddly placed filing cabinet into the west wing, which was mainly shrouded in darkness, thanks to a couple of burned out fluorescents overhead. She almost didn’t notice the wall clock which read 1:36, a time that it most certainly wasn’t. But as soon as she spotted it, she knew she was on the right track. 
   “Where time has stopped, and the ground is alive.” Glancing down at the carpet, Ada observed a trail of ants busying themselves around an apparent cola spill. “That guy is not a good janitor,” Ada thought. The frenetic activity of the ants did, however, confirm that she was in the right place. “You must turn about, and not arrive.” Doing a 180, Ada noticed that there was a door in front of her, with an “Exit” sign dimly blinking above it. “I suppose exiting is roughly the opposite of arriving,” she whispered inaudibly. Ada pushed open the heavy door, and was delighted that it failed to trigger any sort of deafening alarm. “There in the well, you shall do good, if several times you knock on wood.” Ada did indeed find herself in a stairwell, and immediately began scanning her surroundings for anything made of wood. Everything was either metal or plaster, save for a small wooden panel on her right. Somewhat doubtful that anything would come of it, she knocked several times. 
   Nothing came of it. She knocked a few times more. Still nothing. Well, she had tried. The janitor had seemingly sent her on a wild goose chase. And it was the worst type of wild goose chase—one that resulted in the capture of no geese. Ada turned to leave. 
   “Heeeelp. Meee.” 
   The man’s voice was barely audible, a circumstance which can only be vaguely hinted at by the use of italics. But hear it Ada did. There was clearly a room behind this wood panel, wherein some poor innocent was being held captive. Perhaps he held the answers Ada was seeking. 
   “How do I get to you?” Ada loudly whispered at the wood panel. 
   “Knock on the wood,” said the voice. 
   “I tried that already,” said Ada. 
   After a pause—”Wait. Are you a woman?” 
   “Yes. Is that a problem?” 
   “In terms of you getting into this room, yes. Bring a—” 
   The man started hacking violently, his instructions cut short just before a seemingly vital bit. 
   “Bring what?” 
   “Bring a—” Once again, the man’s respiratory system betrayed him at an inopportune time. 
   Ada was just about to urge him yet again to complete his sentence, when she heard footsteps approaching the stairwell door. This is a testament to her ears, as the office hallways were carpeted. Acting quickly, Ada raced up one flight of stairs, then dropped to the floor so she might have a decent angle at which to view any activity outside the hidden room. 
   Just as she was getting into position, the stairwell door a flight below her opened. Ada could see the backs of two heads—both white and grappling with varying stages of hair loss. The two men waited for the door to close, then one of them reached up and rapped three times on the wood panel. A large portion of the wall responded by sliding in the direction opposite the hallway, apparently into itself. 
   “Who are you talking to in here?” one of the men said, directing his question at the room’s occupant, whom Ada could not see. 
   “Just my personal Lord and savior,” replied the prisoner. 
   “Oh—tell him we said hi,” said the second visitor reverently. 
   The two men entered the room, and the wall slid shut behind them. 
   Ada maintained her position, even creeping back down a few steps in order to make sense of what was being said inside the room, but there was not even muffled conversation to be heard. Only the muted screams of someone who had probably been gagged, and was now being tortured. Once she had satisfied herself that she was not going to glean anything further from her current perch, she placed a phone call and, once the recipient answered, spoke in exceedingly hushed tones.
   “Hey,” said the answering individual. “What’s going on?”
   “Toren—I need you to get down to the office.” 
   “What—why? I just sat down to dinner.” 
   “What about Kira? Can you call Kira?” 
   “No, I—”
   Ada swallowed, and closed her eyes. These words were going to be difficult for her. 
   “I need a man.” 
   “I’m sorry. It sounded almost as if you said—”
   “Will you get your fucking ass down here, please? It’s an emergency. Text me when you’re here, then wait until you receive further instructions.” 
   “Yes, drill sergeant.” 
   While Ada waited for Toren to get his ass down there, she continued her vigil. Because there was nothing to see, she closed her eyes so that her sense of hearing might be marginally heightened. At one point, she was able to discern a few snippets of conversation, which went like this:

CAPTOR #1: [unintelligible] you really [unintelligible] and now [unintelligible] for your [unintelligible] unimaginable pain [unintelligible]
PRISONER: [loud screams]
CAPTOR #2: You’re in [unintelligible] to hire [unintelligible] piece of shit [unintelligible] and you know [unintelligible] never [unintelligible] again.
PRISONER: Wait, don’t [ear-splitting howl]
CAPTOR #1: [unintelligible] how you feel [unintelligible] just getting started [unintelligible] that Patrick Warburton commercial [unintelligible] wish you’d never been born.
PRISONER: [coughing fit, followed immediately by additional screams]

    After about half an hour of such dialogue, Ada received a text alert on her phone. It was Toren, informing her that he was parking. Ada wrote him back, telling him to take the elevator up to the fourth floor, access the north stairwell by whatever means necessary, quietly open and close the stairwell door, and then stealthily walk down to the third floor landing, where she would be waiting for him. Toren texted back with a snarky retort, to which Ada replied with an even snarkier retort that put Toren in his place. His next text simply stated that he would see her shortly. 
   Several minutes later, Toren arrived at the third floor landing.
   “Be quiet, and get down,” said Ada. 
   “The ad agency on the fourth floor was closed and locked. I had to dislodge one of the ceiling tiles and crawl through the ductwork.” 
   “You’re a true American hero. Get down.” 
   “I had to wriggle past a rat at one point. And then I got momentarily stuck inside a wall.” 
   “You shall be rewarded for your sacrifices. Why are you still standing?” 
   “This had better be good, Ada,” said Toren, as he lowered his bruised, disheveled, rodent feces-besmudged figure to the hard, cold floor of the landing. 
   “See that wall?” Ada pointed in the direction of the wall she wanted Toren to notice. 
   “I see it.” 
   “There’s a man being tortured in there.” 
   “Oh, so I’m not the only one.” 
   “He was alone when I got here, but then two of the assholes from Dynamic Synergies came along; one of them knocked on that wood panel, and a hidden door opened. They’re in there now, saying a lot of shit I can’t quite hear and torturing the bejeezus out of that guy.”
   “Wow. But—you said on the phone you needed a man. Kira’s the muscle—why did you need me?” 
   “Because somehow—I’m not sure how, exactly—that door only opens up when a man knocks on the panel. There must be some sort of sensor, or testosterone detector, or dick scanner, or something. So, after those guys are gone, I need you to get us in there.” 
   “I see. Okay, well, if you need a man, I’m your man. What do we do while we’re waiting for the torturing to end?” 
   “Just lie here. Listen. See if we can get any dirt on these fuckwads.” 
   Toren nodded. He and Ada turned their attention to the hidden room, straining to make out anything being said behind the wall. This was a tiring, fruitless procedure, however, and Toren soon got bored. 
   “They’re the initials of a famous person. You have to guess who it is, twenty-questions-style.”
   “Oh. Is it a woman?” 
   “Che Guevara?”
   “No. That’s C.G. And that counts as a question.” 
   “Giovanni Canestri?” 
   “No—Ada, it’s somebody really famous. And you should ask questions, not just guess the names.”
   “Older than fifty?” 
   “Gustav Cassel?”
   “He’s dead and not very famous, and that counts as another question. Look—he’s an actor.” 
   “Jesse Tyler Ferguson?” 
   “I don’t know many actors.” 
   “He played Danny Ocean.” 
   “I don’t know what that means.” 
   “Won an Oscar for Syriana?”
   “I got nothin’.” 
   “Married Amal Alamuddin?”
   “Oh—George What’s-His-Fuck.” 
   “Okay, okay, I get this now. My turn. Y.B.” 
   “Do I know this person?” 
   “I highly doubt it.” 
   “Okay. Let’s just—what’s going on in there?” 
   Not much new was going on in there, but Toren was at least successful in diverting Ada’s attention away from the game he had hoped would divert their attention away from the tedium of the stakeout. The pair watched the wall in silence for a while longer, occasionally digging a pistachio out of a pocket or gnawing on a cherry Twizzler. (Both Ada and Toren were always adequately prepared in the snack department, as this sort of thing happened a lot, and there often wasn’t enough time to make a run to 7-Eleven.) It was getting harder to hear anything being said, as the captors had apparently moved to the opposite end of the room. A long seven or eight minutes passed before finally there was some activity. 
   The door suddenly slid open, and as the two semi-bald gentlemen exited the room, Ada and Toren turtled their heads forward, hoping to catch a glimpse of the victim, but to no avail. They remained otherwise still and quiet, and went unnoticed by the man’s persecutors, who stepped into the stairwell, the door gliding and locking into place behind them. Now that their faces were visible, Ada and Toren could discern their features. Ada recognized one of them as Mr. Cliffblower, the Senior Vice President of the company. The other man was unfamiliar, and yet so bafflingly resembled his cohort that she almost identified him as Mr. Cliffblower as well. The man who was very nearly but wasn’t quite Mr. Cliffblower opened the heavy exit door and re-entered the offices, with Mr. Cliffblower following close behind him. 
   Once the coast was clear, Ada and Toren rose to their feet, a few pistachio shells falling to the metal floor. 
   “All right,” said Ada. “Let’s go in.” 
   Ada skipped down the stairs to the floor below, then waited a few seconds for her comparatively slow and lumbering friend to catch up. Toren, as his job duty had been explained to him, knocked on the wood panel. In recognition of the maleness of its visitor, the secret door slid obediently open. 


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