So the old version was before I decided that one of the Lloyd siblings should be a girl. Same trigger warnings apply: immobilization / claustrophobia, discussion of blood. Honestly nearly all the changes are just to pronouns (I may have made one other change?)
We knew when the final meeting was going to be, and I couldn’t help but snort when Rowan told us where. “The problem is still that they will detect any electronic devices, any living thing larger than a rat,” she finished.
“Not any electronic device and not any living thing,” I corrected. “And considering the location…” Rowan glanced at me. It was so rare that I could catch my sister off guard.
“What are you proposing?”
“You know exactly what. It’s the best solution we have, after all.”
“What is?” James asked. Like usual he’d been left behind, but unlike usual, it wasn’t his own lack of observation. At least not entirely.
“Are you sure?” Rowan said, as we were driven up to the warehouse.
“You’re being ridiculous. I was sure when I suggested it.”
James’s hands tightened on the briefcase handle. “Is anyone going to fill me in or am I just here for decoration and heavy lifting?”
“I can carry quite a bit more than you,” I said. Rowan snorted. “Didn’t you ever learn ‘show, don’t tell’?”
“For god’s sake, Daniel,” James said, irritably.
“They’ll recognize you,” Rowan said, “even-“
I gestured toward James and the briefcase he carried. “Of course. That’s why I came prepared.”
The floors were clean but the discarded merchandise was covered in dust. A custodian came regularly then. Probably their source for this location.
“We’re already tracking the janitor,” Rowan said.
“Of course you are,” James said, flatly. “Will someone-?”
“My brother is not entirely what he seems. A childhood accident,” Rowan began.
I ignored them, reconnoitering. I’d found an suitable source of dust that wouldn’t be visible from the main floor and stripped to the waist, tossing my clothes to the side. I set about dirtying up my clothes as James made the utterly typical noises he made to anything surprising. I’d slicked back my hair at the flat and I dirtied that up as well.
“Well?” I said. Rowan glanced over and nodded.
“They were meeting there-“ I said.
“How do you know that?” James said.
I breathed out through my nose. “There are rubber skid marks from their shoes and the feet of the chairs. Those chairs,” I said pointing to a stack of folding metal chairs leaning against the back wall near an exit. “They’re not as dusty as the rest. Therefore, if I position myself here, behind this set of mannequins” – and I sat on a box – “I should be able to observe quite clearly without them noticing the addition.” I was pleased that my voice remained steady.
“Won’t you be cold?” James said. My skin was already prickling into gooseflesh.
“We can still find another way,” Rowan said quietly.
“Enough.” I tilted my head forward. I heard James’s breath catch as he noticed what had always been hidden. I’d inspected the hated thing often enough in the mirror. Between the top of my shoulder blades, a discreet silver circle with a recessed button.
Rowan sighed silently and removed a pen from inside her jacket. To prevent accidental toggling, when on the switch itself was not easily accessible. I couldn’t quite prevent a shudder, not from the cold, although it was faint enough that James didn’t notice. Rowan did, of course, and she squeezed my shoulder before I felt the button click off.
“Daniel has educated you on the use of basic prosthetics, correct?” I could hear her keeping her voice from shaking.
“A bit, yeah.” James didn’t have the same control. Oddly enough, his honest reactions were his most endearing quality. He opened the case. “The- um. Ah.”
“It will take a bit of time for his complexion to change. The blood-“
“That’s alright. I don’t need to know,” James said firmly. It wasn’t the gory details themselves, of course, not with his profession. It was intellectually interesting – the blood would collect in a reservoir in the chest cavity, taking with it my senses of taste, smell, and touch. I had never been able to get over the trouble of it happening to me, however, and James was naturally empathetic.
Rowan pursed her lips a moment. “But once it does, these should match exactly. One reason why we’re here so early.” She stepped out of my peripheral vision, frowning at her phone, as I heard him call for updates from her network.
James’s sleeve blocked my eyes, far closer than I was comfortable being with anyone, as he pressed one of the prosthetics against my cheek. I’d shaped them to make my face more generic, to fit in better with the rest of the mannequins. My hair had been nearly shellacked.
I was doing better than I’d expected. I’d budgeted time for my usual panic in the first several minutes after my body was shut off. But then I did have a number of distractions. Oh. There it was. I’d noticed absently as my spine stiffened straight, my jaw locked, and the rest of me going limp, ready to be posed. But the mental discomfort that those caused was exhibiting itself now and my thoughts were going annoyingly fuzzy.
I couldn’t feel the brush as James blended the edges of the prosthetics on, although I could hear the bristles and James’s quiet huffs to himself. Rowan had returned, her undeserved nervousness showing itself in greater than usual chattiness. If I had been able to, I’d be wrinkling my nose at her unneeded comments. It was ridiculous that she should be nervous when I was handling it quite well, even as my thoughts were circling. That would resolve itself though, fairly soon, I thought. And of course, I was the one risking bodily harm, not Rowan, but she didn’t handle danger well, even secondhand.
Together they hefted me and set me in place. Rowan checked carefully that I had a line of sight to the main floor, to the extent of waving James to stand in the likeliest locations and stooping to see what I would.
“He can see and hear everything,” she explained, unnecessarily. “Hopefully that will be enough.” Hope didn’t enter into it. They crossed my line of sight a final time as they exited.
The conspirators came as scheduled. Even in this private place they spoke in code, but what they didn’t realize is that verbal codes were never as obscure as people imagined. And I was deciphering them as I counted the remnants of the three hours we had agreed (half an hour for preparation, two hours for the meeting, and an hour just to be sure.)
I had double and triple checked my interpretations, gone over every nuance of every micro-expression from half a dozen possible directions, and still James and Rowan hadn’t shown. Two hours past, I was fighting down panic – not just for my situation, trapped in the box of myself, but also the possibilities of why they hadn’t come. It was no less distressing without bodily reactions – my heart didn’t pound, my pulse didn’t race, my mouth didn’t go dry – but my mind went grey, and I couldn’t interpret the things I saw and heard, as few as they were. There were snatches of bird calls, species unknown, and the rustle of something…
Suddenly I felt water dripping down my face and I realized I was looking up at the ceiling blocked by a head silhouetted in the dim light, through a haze of tears. No, not tears. Eye drops, of course. I hadn’t blinked in six hours and it was Rowan ensuring I didn’t have any permanent eye damage to be fixed when this was all over.
Finally there was enough blood flowing for me to gasp, raising off the floor, which I realized was unbearably cold. I jolted to my feet, not noticing how unsteady I was, and Rowan caught me before I could stumble.
“Easy, brother.” She wrapped my shirt around me and I struggled to button it with clumsy hands.
“Your flat is being observed. So he’s making sure it’s being seen as occupied.”
I nodded, still struggling to regain control. “What happened?”
“What happened?!” I snapped. She knew how I felt, even if she couldn’t completely understand it. As little kindness as we had, she never played on that fear as I never played on her compulsions.
“An explosion. Traffic was cut off entirely.”
“Even for you?” I said bitterly.
“It would have been too suspicious.”
I snarled. “Rowan, I was-“
She paled. “I’m sorry,” she said. Her quiet voice shook with sincerity.
I strode away, breathing deeply, as I wiped my face with my handkerchief. There was still the case. I savored the way my lungs filled. My body was still on automatic – no adrenaline rush of panic yet, and I’d rather not get it. My pulse was even as I got in the car.
“Notepad,” I said. Rowan silently handed one over and I recorded what I had observed with speedy precision, my deductions in a separate column, as we were driven towards Baker Street.
“So, my flat is observed. Now what?” I said as I passed back the notes.
The pad disappeared into her jacket. “We sneak you in,” she said with soft humor. Two car changes later, we were around the corner. “I’ve arranged for the local cameras to be off for two minutes. Enough time for you-“
“Yes, I see.”
I took a deep breath as I waited for his signal. She watched her phone, then quietly, “Now.”
I sprinted through the alleyway two flats over. An easy jump atop a garbage skip. Up to the top of the wall. A silent leap to the neighbor’s balcony, crouching low so as not to be seen, then to the roof, obscured by the adjacent building, down to the balcony of the flat next to my window, an easy leap to the opened window, rolling and stopping at the foot of my bed. I allowed myself a pleased chuckle, then rose as if I had retrieved something from the floor, shut the window, and headed downstairs.