Katherine seated herself in the other chair, directly across from Alex MacKenzie. Phillip was impressed; the cameras focused on Alex weren’t obstructed in the slightest by her presence. She pulled a pen from the left pocket of her lab coat and clicked it. “I suppose this might seem a little intimidating,” she said. “I have to confess I’m a little nervous myself.”
“I certainly hope we’re not making you uncomfortable,” Alex growled.
“No, no, not at all,” Katherine said. “Just another project going on; some data came in that is a bit strange.”
“I see,” Alex said. “What exactly are you a doctor of?”
“Well, child psychology, primarily,” Katherine said, her face reddening slightly, “but I also have master’s degrees in pediatrics and statistical analysis. But this interview isn’t about me, it’s about Rob. You have a remarkable son.”
“Do we now?” Alex said. Phillip wondered if the tone in his voice was his normal speaking inflection, or if he was intentionally sounding condescending and sarcastic. “Rob is really that interesting?”
“Yes, quite,” Katherine said, either not picking up on the tone or choosing to ignore it. “Some test scores that were shared by his school brought him to our attention. The Indigo Foundation has a program that is just perfect for him.”
“The project is currently called ‘Twilight Wings’,” Ihab said. “It’s an after-school supplemental education track intended to enhance and advance students’ natural inclinations to learn.”
“You must be mistaken,” Mirielle said. “Rob hates school.”
“He’s barely doing well enough in his classes as it is,” Alex said. “I suppose this is some kind of slow class, then?”
“Wait, don’t answer that,” Phillip said. Katherine clicked her pen three times in rapid succession. Y-E-S; she was acknowledging his statement. “Go along with it for now.”
“In a manner of speaking,” Ihab said. “The Foundation’s research has indicated that most children of his age have insatiable appetites for information. Until around sixteen, the human mind is one of the most efficient information-gathering tools in the world.”
“Of course,” Mirielle said. “That’s why kids go to school.”
“There’s a little more to it,” Katherine said. “Twilight Wings is designed to… re-engage students into the educational process. Students who might feel that school is too boring or too easy.”
“That’s not Rob at all,” Alex said, scowling. “Rob’s stupid.” The blunt declaration caused Ihab to blink, and Chloe to gasp. “He just doesn’t know enough to apply himself properly. If you ask me, the school’s not doing enough to discipline him into learning.”
“Rob isn’t engaged at school because he just doesn’t seem to care,” Mirielle said. Phillip noticed that she was speaking more slowly than her husband, but just as emphatically. The overall effect was odd. “We’ve tried many things in order to get him to be more responsible…”
“I don’t know about this,” Alex said. “What is this program really going to do?”
“If you permit him to participate,” Katherine said, “Rob will attend weekly after-school meetings at a facility near the school. There, he’ll work closely with about twelve other students and two specialized instructors in a high-intensity learning environment.”
“These sessions last around two hours,” Ihab said, “after which time he’ll be given a study guide to take home and fill out in his free time. The guides are based on our already-proven Blue Streak program. Have you heard about that?”
“Somewhat,” Mirielle replied. Alex didn’t say anything, but he glanced at his wife quizzically. “It sounds like something Rob wouldn’t be suited for.”
“Quite the opposite, actually,” Katherine said. “The test scores we received from the school showed that he was just what we were looking for.”
“What kinds of tests were being run?” Alex asked.
“We started with the most recent standardized tests,” Ihab said. “Rob scored in the ninety-fifth percentile in the nation.”
“Which means…?” Alex asked, rolling his eyes.
“Out of every child his age in America, Rob’s score was in the top five percent. It’s quite remarkable given his general test scores,” Katherine said. “As you said, his report cards are just barely around the average.”
“So, he cheated on this percent test or whatever,” Alex said. “Fine. What else makes you think Rob is worth paying attention to?”
“Mister MacKenzie,” Ihab began, “it’s imp–”
“No, don’t say that,” Phillip interrupted. “Let him think Rob cheated.”
Ihab nodded imperceptibly and squelched her statement. “All right,” she said, swallowing hard. “Our next measure was the Voight-Ford Reasoning Battery.” She explained the test to Alex.
“What are you playing at, Phillip?” Chloe asked.
“Something’s bothering me about Alex’s behavior,” he said. “Any father in the world would be proud to have his son proven so smart, right?”
“True,” Chloe said, “but we don’t know the full extent of Rob’s behavioral issues. Maybe he does act out at home.”
“I doubt it,” Phillip said. “If that was the case, he’d probably have destroyed the Mansion by now.” Katherine clicked her pen twice while he spoke, as well– agreeing with his refusal, he thought. “There’s something really weird going on here.”
“…and correlates that with behavior reports and other nonobjective analyses,” Katherine summed up, “to give a more complete picture of how his mood and his smarts match up.”
“So, you’re saying that as he gets, what, I don’t know, moodier, he gets smarter?” Alex asked.
“No,” Ihab said, “it’s more that his intellectual achievement level stays constant regardless of his moods. That’s a significant factor because it shows that Rob is always receptive to learning new things.”
“I still don’t buy it,” Alex said. “These are all driven by test scores. And while he might be doing really well on your fancy indicators, that doesn’t explain why he can’t be bothered to do well enough with basic school.”
“There are a number of factors which could cause Rob to be let down by the school system,” Katherine said.
“I’m not saying the teachers are doing a bad job,” Alex said, his tone rising slightly. “Though maybe if they’d whack him once in a while he might shape up.”
“Alex,” Mirielle said, taking his hand.
“No, I think Rob just doesn’t care,” Alex said, his voice returning to its normal level. “He’s got friends to help him out. Deacon is always there for him. If Rob needs help, he should ask him. Matter of fact, I should have Deacon over for a study session together sometime.”
“That’s certainly within your rights,” Katherine said. “But I think Rob could also benefit greatly from participation in Twilight Wings.”
“And I haven’t seen anything that being grounded can’t fix,” Alex said firmly.
“This is getting us nowhere,” Phillip said. “We need to shift gears, and fast.”
“Agreed,” Chloe said. “Where should we steer the discussion?”
“Get him off the intelligence stuff,” Phillip said. Ben nodded in agreement. “He should know about Rob’s real friends.”
“Before you discount it entirely,” Katherine said, “there are some other factors that make Rob a good fit for Twilight Wings, that you should probably be aware of.”
“Such as?” Mirielle asked.
“The evaluation process involved a great number of tests,” Ihab said. “Many of them were score-based intelligence exams, but others were subtle observations or social experiments.”
“Experiments?” Alex said.
“Poor choice of words,” Katherine said. “By ‘social experiment’, we mean a situation that Rob was placed into, in a controlled environment, to gauge his emotional and social responses.”
“I see,” Alex said. “Like what?”
“Well, one which tells us the most about a child’s capability to interact is what we call ‘The Great Wall’,” Katherine said. “Rob was instructed to build a wall out of some cardboard boxes, with the help of another child. This child was given secret instructions to try to stop Rob from building the wall, without actively knocking it down. The other student tried her best, but Rob was able to defeat her arguments every time.”
“Is this true?” Phillip asked.
“The girl eventually used direct threats of violence,” Chloe explained. “We considered that an unreasonable response, so we threw that out.”
“I’m surprised you found someone dumber than him,” Alex chuckled.
“Of course,” Chloe said, her voice lower, “the ‘other student’ was a high-schooler. He probably caved because she was bigger than he was.”
“He folded?” Phillip asked.
“Like a wet towel,” Chloe said, sadly. “He was doing so well, too. It’s about the only test he didn’t perform admirably on.”
“Still, he did manage to pass the test,” Katherine said, either disregarding Alex’s dig or the covert conversation. “Believe it or not, Rob is a very social person.”
“I don’t believe it,” Mirielle said. “He’s very shy around strangers.”
“Yes, we noticed that,” Ihab said. “Around older, unfamiliar adults, he loses a great deal of his outgoingness and activity. But within his peer group, he’s remarkably comfortable around students he doesn’t know well.”
“This will serve him well in Twilight Wings,” Katherine said. “Part of the project’s goal is to prevent students from being locked into learning with just one or two others; the entire group gets shuffled around every once in a while so that everyone knows everyone else, and everyone else’s strengths and weaknesses.”
“I still don’t think you guys understand,” Alex said. “Rob has you fooled.”
“Maybe we do have the wrong impression,” Katherine said, clicking her pen twice. “Go ahead, then. How has Rob fooled these tests?”
“Rob…” Alex sighed. “It’s frustrating. It’s like he hears when people tell him stuff, but he does the exact opposite on purpose sometimes. And sometimes he’ll do what he’s told, but the way he does it is smarmy and snotty. He’s completely unpredictable. I certainly can’t tell when he’s going to be good or when he’s going to go behind my back.”
“He has a tendency to tell lies, too,” Mirielle said. “The other day, even, he said the reason he was gone so long was because he was at a friend’s house. We called the Flays and he wasn’t there.”
Phillip blinked. “She’s lying,” he said. “Rob called the house… wait, don’t call her on it.”
“I really hope you know what you’re doing,” Chloe said. “We could lose him because…”
“We won’t,” Phillip said, “but we can’t prove that without exposing our connection.”
“He tried to say he was with other friends,” Alex said, “but we knew he was lying. And he compounded it. We were talking about this just a little while ago; he said that Deacon had threatened him. Preposterous.”
“I think we need to put in some investigation work on this Deacon,” Chloe murmured thoughtfully.
“He doesn’t do well in school because he thinks we won’t care,” Alex continued. “We’ve told him time and time again that he needs to do his work properly, but he never does.”
“Alex spends hours every night with him on his homework,” Mirielle said. “They go over every problem.”
“It’s fascinating to think that he has you so completely snowed,” Alex laughed. “You guys must feel really dumb right now.”
“I still think that perhaps we’re not as far off the mark as you believe,” Katherine said. “The tests not directly dealing with intelligence extend far beyond school, you see, and we’ve seen none of the behavior you describe.”
“How far?” Alex asked. “Just how much attention have you wasted on Rob?”
“We interviewed his classmates,” Ihab said evenly, “and his teachers. And many other people Rob interacts with on a daily basis. Crossing guards, neighbors…”
“You’ve been spying on him,” Alex hissed. His face flushed. “Spying. On my son!”
“Mister MacKenzie, please calm down,” Katherine said. “We have never, I repeat, never conducted direct surveillance on Rob.”
“No,” Alex shot back, “you’ve been sneaking around behind his back!”
“Calm down,” Mirielle said, squeezing his hand. Alex’s face faded back to its normal color, and he took a deep breath.
“We had to,” Katherine said. “Many of our criteria for Twilight Wings required that Rob not be aware that he was in a testing situation.”
“Because of this, too,” Ihab added, “we often had to repeat tests and social observations because he discovered their purpose. He’s very perceptive.”
“Perceptive,” Alex said. “That’s a new word. He usually doesn’t notice stuff unless he trips over it.”
“Let it drop,” Phillip said. “We don’t want to contradict him just yet.”
“We should take a break,” Chloe said.
“We’ve been at this for a little while,” Katherine said. “Do you need some water or something? Maybe some coffee?”
“Water would be fine,” Alex said. If he had been enraged a few moments earlier, his tone belied none of that now. “Mir?”
“Some water for me, as well,” Mirielle replied calmly.
“I’ll be right back, then,” Katherine said.
Once she had left the interview room, Katherine spoke again, quietly. “Clear.”
“What the hell is with this guy?” Phillip asked.
“He’s hiding something,” Chloe said.
“Obviously,” Katherine sighed. “But what?”
“I don’t know. All I know is that I don’t think we should take no for an answer out of him,” Phillip said.
“Are you nuts?” Chloe said. “If he’s telling the truth–”
“How did you know Mirielle was lying?” Katherine asked.
“Rob calls home first thing, whenever he comes over,” Phillip said. “He said that if his mother gets the message first, he’s okay.”
“And if his father does?” Katherine asked.
“He never said.”
“Focus your questions and responses on Mirielle from this point onward,” Chloe said. “We need to see what she thinks.”
“She seems to agree with Alex,” Katherine said.
“That’s fishy and you know it,” Phillip said. “I think she’s being coerced somehow.”
“Prove it,” Chloe said.
“I can’t,” Phillip admitted, “but I’m trying. Go ahead and pressure her more,” he continued, “and I’ll keep my eyes on her.”
“I’ll watch Alex,” Chloe said.
Katherine returned to the interview room, but Phillip switched the camera view to focus on Mirielle. The woman took the bottle of water from Katherine, opened it, and handed it to Alex.
“Thanks,” Alex said, taking the water from Mirielle. He handed her the unopened bottle that he had received from Katherine. “Anyway. I don’t think you people are aware of what you’re getting into if you bring Rob into your program or whatever.”
“It seems that maybe we don’t,” Ihab said. “Why don’t you clue us in a little?”
“I’d be glad to,” Alex said. “A month or so ago, Rob came home from the Flays’ house carrying this little booklet. He says he didn’t get it from the Flays, but where else could he have gone?” He gave a little shrug. “Anyway, Rob says that it’s a list of prizes for some silly magazine sale, and that he has to take part in it for school.”
“I remember that,” Phillip said. “It was a fundraiser for the end-of-year trip.”
“Now, you have to know about the Flays,” Alex said, leaning in, “they’re Baptists. I don’t much mind, we’re Episcopals, you see, but they’re the funny kind of Baptists.”
Ihab smiled politely, not particularly keen on discussing religion. “The… funny kind?”
“You know,” Alex said. “The kind that protest… well, everything, you know,” he said. “Stuff like, well, your temples, I imagine.”
“Mosques, yes,” Ihab said. “I think I know the kind.”
“Completely ridiculous,” Phillip said. “Will Flay is a rotten father, but he’s not stupid enough to be a bigoted politician.”
“Anyway, I take the phony prize booklet away from him, and I tell him he’s not going to waste his time with crap like that, not when his schoolwork is suffering so bad,” Alex said, smiling. “He gives me some lie about how he can’t go on some bogus trip if he doesn’t do it, and I tell him nothing but the truth: I told him that they won’t let him go on the trip anyway, because there is no trip.”
Chloe gasped. “That can’t be true.”
“It’s not,” Phillip said. “Well, maybe what Alex says he told is true, but Alex was definitely not telling the truth.”
“So anyway, I think that’s the end of it, until a few weeks ago, when I see that damn prize book in his bag again. And what’s worse is that he’s already got a bunch of sales racked up on his little scam!” Alex said. “He went behind my back, he snuck around and did it anyway, after I told him exactly why he shouldn’t. And you’re not going to believe the lie he told to cover it up.”
“What was that?” Katherine asked.
“He said his mother let him do it,” Alex said. “He tried to play me against my wife. Not wise at all,” Alex said, his voice lowering. “Anyway, I dragged him back to all the people he scammed, he explained to them that he was wrong and bad, and they barely accepted his apology.”
“I never told him he could sell for the Baptists,” Mirielle said, her voice slow again. Phillip searched for something in her expression, but whatever he was looking for, she wasn’t betraying it on her face. “Alex did the right thing.”
“So he was grounded already,” Alex said, “when he pulled his little stunt this week. He’ll be lucky if he’s let out of it before Christmas. You see now?” he said. “Rob can’t be trusted. He will be told something, in very explicit terms, and then he will turn around and defy you. If you’re very lucky, it will be openly. But he loves to sneak around behind your back when he thinks he can get away with it.”
“I see,” Katherine said. “Mister MacKenzie, I think there’s something you should know.”
“Wait, Kath,” Phillip said. Two clicks of the pen.
“What?” Alex said, his voice rising slightly.
“Mister MacKenzie,” Ihab said patiently, “the majority of the tests that we received data for were conducted by the school. The Indigo Foundation has a very strong relationship with Seneca Public School, and with your son’s teachers in particular.”
“What are you saying?” Mirielle asked, her voice wavering.
“The prize booklet that Rob had really was from the school,” Katherine said. “The school was conducting a fund-raiser for an end-of-year trip.”
“I know that!” Alex snapped. “I know that now, anyway. His teacher sent me a note–”
“You told me Rob–” Mirielle started, before she cut herself off. She squeezed her husband’s hand.
“Rob had two of the booklets,” Alex said calmly. “The one for the school, he showed no interest in. The one for those Baptists,” he spat, “was the one I caught him with.”
“Bullshit!” Phillip shouted. “There was no other booklet!”
“Anyway, Rob blew off the school sale, so he’s going to have to do without,” Alex said. “I don’t see why this is so difficult.”
“I do,” Katherine said. “You say Rob got the booklet from the Flays, yes?”
“That’s right,” Alex said.
“The Flays happen to go to my church,” Katherine said, “and I’m on the board for their Youth Bible Study program. We made a point of not doing a fund-raiser this year.”
“Kath, watch out,” Phillip said. “You can’t–”
“Katherine, you’re Catholic!” Chloe said. “What are you–”
“I think, Mister MacKenzie,” Katherine said, “there is some other reason that you do not want Rob to participate in Twilight Wings.”
“You’re damn right there is,” Alex said. “I don’t trust you.”
“Excuse me?” Ihab asked.
“You mean to tell me that you can sneak around behind my back, bombard us with fake promises,” Alex said, “and then drag us into here on a Saturday all because you think you know better than I do about how smart my own son is?”
Phillip was taken aback at the change. Whereas before, Alex’s suit appeared to be nothing more than ill-fitting, Phillip thought it fit him perfectly now: Raw power, barely held back. He knew why Rob was terrified of angering his father now; the faint afterimage of a belt held in Alex’s clenched hands was wavering in and out of Phillip’s sight. Mirielle’s grip was still there, though he didn’t think she could let go even if she wanted to.
“You people disgust me,” Alex said. “I did some reading up on your little projects.”
“And?” If Katherine was afraid of Alex, she did not show it. “What did you find?”
“All sorts of things,” Alex said. The condescension in his voice was back, and Phillip had no doubt that it was genuine this time. “Your study guides, or whatever you want to call them, basically let the kids pick what they want to learn. There’s no discipline, no structure. I bet those guides are full of garbage and nonsense.”
“We provided you with a sample of the Blue Streak–” Ihab started.
“Shut up,” Alex said, “when I’m talking to you. The guide you sent was all pretty but it was worthless. Nothing in there worth knowing. Rob is stupid. Rob can’t possibly answer any of that stuff. And here you think you can tell me what he should be able to do? No. It doesn’t work like that. You most certainly have no right to tell me what my child will learn. That is my right and my right alone.”
“Mister MacKenzie,” Katherine said, “you are certainly within your rights to–”
“I’m not finished!” Alex roared. The microphones crackled with static. “Rob isn’t just stupid, he’s too clever for his own good. He’s evil.” At this, Mirielle winced. She gripped Alex’s hand tighter, not letting go as he stood and pointed with his free hand. “That child does not know what is good for anyone, let alone himself. The only time he ever works hard is when it goes exactly against what I say, and I am sick of everyone not realizing it.”
“Alex, honey,” Mirielle said. “Maybe–”
“You let him get away with too much, too,” he said, turning on his wife. “You can’t let him get his way forever. You have to let him know that the world is always going to hate him, and that…”
Alex continued ranting. Phillip cut his microphone and turned to Ben. “This is bad,” he said. “I think we’ve lost him.”
“You think?” Ben said, smirking in the glow. “Oh, watch out!”
Alex yanked his wife to her feet. “I think we’re done here,” he said, smiling with a level of sarcasm that Phillip had never seen before on anyone. It went beyond sarcasm and directly into malice.
“You will sit down, Mister MacKenzie,” Katherine said. She moved between him and the door.
“Out of my way, bitch,” Alex said.
“You will also not address the doctor in such a manner. Furthermore, you misunderstand,” Daniel said, opening the door and entering the interview room. “It was not a request. It was a statement of what will happen.”
“Who the hell are you?” Alex demanded.
“My name is Daniel,” he replied, “and I am the vice chair of the Twilight Wings steering committee. Please, sit.” To everyone’s surprise, the MacKenzies did indeed return to the couch. “To start with,” he continued, “Rob has correlated much of what you have said. We are not accusing you of lying; Rob has a serious problem on his hands. Such behavior is inexcusable, and I believe that the Indigo Foundation is presenting you– both of you, Mister and Missus MacKenzie– with an opportunity to bring to him… exactly what he deserves.”
Phillip went back to the eight-way view and studied each face in turn. Alex’s fury was still evident, but he regarded Daniel with equal measures suspicion and respect. Mirielle was less composed, tears forming in the corners of her eyes. The MacKenzies still had their hands linked.
“What just happened?” Chloe asked.
“I’m not sure,” Phillip said. The interview room was silent for a moment longer.
“Doctor, I believe I have this situation well in hand,” Daniel said. “Please see to the examinations in progress, and we will be ready shortly.”
“I– I understand,” Ihab said, stepping to the door. “I hope you will reconsider, Mister MacKenzie.” Katherine left in silence.
Daniel closed the door. Slowly, he seated himself; he idly picked up the pen that Katherine had left behind. “Now, then, Mister MacKenzie, I think–”
The video feeds cut out at that moment. All eight views on the screen went dead, showing the static blue ‘no input’ field. “What happened?” Phillip said, standing.
“We’ve lost video,” Chloe said. “Ben, is everything–”
“I don’t know,” Ben howled. “It just– died!”
“Do we have the audio?” Chloe said. “Use the backup microphones.”
“Those are down too,” Ben said. “We lost it.”
“Back it up, now,” Phillip said. “Save it. Whatever, just don’t lose what we’ve already had.”
“Running the backups now,” Ben said.
“Phillip, examination room three, now,” Chloe said. “I’ll meet you there. We have to get the kids out before…”
Before they can be spotted, Phillip thought, grimly. “Gotcha.” He threw the headset onto the chair and dashed out of the monitoring room.
Jeanne and Gene heard the shouting a few seconds after they had guessed it was coming. They clung to each other on the overstuffed chair, where just a few moments earlier Gene had sat alone. Gene was shivering, and Jeanne was near tears.
“It’s happening again,” Gene whispered. “It’s always going to happen.”
“It’s okay,” Jeanne said. “You’re not going to be hurt. I won’t let anyone hurt you.” She pulled him closer; what little of his life before becoming her brother that she knew of told her that unfamiliar men shouting behind closed doors was not a good sign for him. It was, in general, she mused, not a good sign for anyone; still, that part of her mind was quieted by the paralyzing fear of the shouting.
Amberlynn had not been back for a while, and unfortunately the effects of her previous trips to check on the kids were starting to manifest themselves. Jeanne wished she had held back a bit on the hot chocolate.
“This stinks,” Gene said. “I’m scared and now I need to go to the bathroom.”
“How about we go together?” Jeanne said. “I mean, to the separate bathrooms, but together until we get there.”
“Yeah,” Gene said. His grip eased, and shakily he stood up while Jeanne did the same. Still clutching each other, they navigated around the table and to the closed door.
Jeanne tugged on the handle a couple of times. “Uh oh.”
“It’s locked?” Gene said, his voice wavering. Locks were almost as bad as shouting. “No…”
“Calm down,” Jeanne said. “This is different. We’re in the Fortress. We can’t be hurt here. Katherine said so.”
“Phillip said so,” Jeanne said, firmly. “This is our Fortress. This is the safest place in the world. There will never be anything to hurt us here,” Jeanne said; the litany was still fresh in her mind from the experiment from before. “Nobody bad can ever enter this Fortress. Here, we are among our friends. Here, we are safe. Here, we are invincible.” Gene nodded slowly. “Come on, say it with me. ‘This is our Fortress. This is…’”
“‘…the safest place in the world,’” Gene said, his voice gaining more depth as he spoke. Together, they moved to the chair once more and seated themselves. They repeated the litany twice more.
“Feel better?” Jeanne asked.
“No,” Gene said flatly. “I still have to pee.”
“Yeah, me neither,” Jeanne said. “All right. We’re smart. We’re not helpless in here. What do we have?”
“What do you mean?” Gene asked.
“This is our Fortress, but we’re the soldiers in it,” Jeanne said. “We have to be able to fight. To protect ourselves.”
“From–” Gene’s query was cut off by another loud shout from down the hall. “Okay, yeah,” he said, his voice quivering. “We need something to hit the bad guys with.”
“Okay,” Jeanne said. “There’s a bunch of mangas in my bag. We can throw those.”
“Your bag is in the lobby,” Gene pointed out. “And besides, they’re not that heavy.”
“Rats,” Jeanne hissed. “Okay. Throw stuff that’s heavy. There’s not much heavy here.” The room was sparsely decorated; she cursed under her breath that this would be the one waiting room in the Fortress without a bookshelf. Her eyes darted around the room, looking for any kind of projectile. “What about that plant?”
Gene follower her point to the tall, potted rubber-tree in the corner. “It’s heavy, yeah,” he said, “but we can’t throw that. It’s too heavy to throw.”
“First you say it’s not heavy enough, then you say it’s too heavy!” Jeanne said, throwing her hands up. “How about I throw you?”
“You can’t pick me up, either,” Gene said, not acknowledging the implicit threat. “Maybe we don’t need to throw something. The room’s locked, right?” She nodded. “But there’s no keypad on this side of the door, just a keyhole. The door opens this way, too.”
“It’s locked from the other side, then,” Jeanne said.
He nodded. “So the door’s locked to keep us in and not someone else out,” he said. “It’s silly, but we can work with this. We can stop people from getting in ourselves.”
“I get it!” she said. “If the door opens this way, we just need to block the door.”
“Exactly,” Gene said. “Come on, help me move the table.” The table itself was made of light pine, stained a deep red and covered in shiny, smooth varnish. It moved easily to the door, but that presented its own problem. “This is too light.”
“No kidding,” Jeanne said. “If we can move it, then a grown-up trying to get in can move it, too.” She shoved Gene slightly. “This is never gonna work!”
Gene pushed back, but Jeanne braced herself against the retaliation. “Jeanne,” he said, “you’re a genius.” He sat down on the table. “Get up on here.”
“Wha– Oh, I get it!” She sat down next to him. “We’re making it heavier like this.”
“Yeah,” Gene said. “Slide over that way a little. If there’s more weight there it’ll be harder to open the door, even if the bad guys are strong.” She complied, and he followed her. “So now, we still have to wait. But we know bad guys can’t get in here.”
A knock came at the door. “Kids?” Amberlynn asked. “Are you all right in there?”
“And neither can she,” Jeanne sighed.
Phillip hip-checked the door, slamming it open; the echo in the empty stairwell was considerable. The concrete steps were painted in a superfluous gray, with a long-since dulled glossy finish. He took them three at a time, practically jumping up the flight. When he reached the fifth floor entrance, he wrenched the handle and threw it aside; the door opened with a clang, startling Chloe, who had been standing beside it. “I didn’t expect you so quickly,” she said.
“Move,” he gasped, pushing her aside as gently as his frenzied state would allow. Chloe chased after his long stride. “Where are the MacKenzies?”
“Still in the interview,” Chloe said. “Ben hasn’t restored the cameras yet.”
“And the kids?”
“Exam three,” she repeated. “This way.” She slipped past him, leading him down a hallway that took him closer to the front of the building. Through the walls, Alex’s voice was getting louder and more angry.
“We need to get him out of here, now,” Phillip said. “Plan?”
“I was hoping you had one,” Chloe said. “Amberlynn?”
“The kids have barricaded the door,” Amberlynn said. A thin woman in a lab coat, only her hairstyle seemed to differentiate her from Katherine. “I don’t blame them.”
“Kids,” Phillip said, “please let Amberlynn in.” There was the sound of some scraping from behind the door.
“I don’t believe–” Alex’s voice was now audible through the door to the interview room.
“I’ll stay here,” Chloe said. “Get to the conference room, the kids’ gear is stashed there.” He nodded and turned on his heel. As he walked, he heard Amberlynn keying the entry code into the waiting room door behind him.
The conference room was dark and empty, making it even more intimidating than when it was occupied. The children’s coats and bags were piled atop the large table, and his own jacket was hung on the back of one of the chairs; Phillip pulled it on and gauged if he could carry the rest in one arm. It took him just a few seconds to situate everything properly: Gene’s backpack was slung over his left shoulder, Jeanne’s messenger bag in that hand, and both coats on the same arm. He stepped out of the conference room, nearly crashing into Daniel.
“Mister MacKenzie, please!” Daniel cried, stepping backwards slowly. Rob was being frogmarched forward by Alex, with Mirielle behind him. In the space between Daniel and Rob was the conference room door, where Phillip was standing, dumbstruck.
“You too?” Alex said, staring at him. The anger dissipated for the briefest of instants, replaced by confusion. “You too,” he growled. “You were in on this from the beginning!”
“Alex,” Phillip said. “This isn’t—”
“Shut it!” Alex snapped. “Don’t you ever come near my kid again! Don’t you let your little bastard kids near him, either!”
“Mister MacKenzie!” Daniel shouted. “You will–”
Alex pushed Rob forward, though from Phillip’s perspective, it looked more like he was using Rob as a projectile. Daniel stepped aside as Rob lurched forward; the boy did his best to maintain his balance as his center of gravity was thrown around by his father. “You bastards will be hearing from my lawyer,” Alex said, “and Willy Flay’s gonna hear about this too. Your scam ends here.”
As she was dragged past him, Mirielle’s eyes met Phillip’s. For the instant in which they were locked, Phillip understood exactly what he had missed while watching the interview. It all clicked. It was all so simple, all so clear now; Phillip didn’t have time to curse himself out for not recognizing it sooner. Mirielle blinked as she was yanked forward, and the contact was lost. Phillip nodded silently.
Daniel continued to chase after Alex, trying to get him to talk, but there was no reasoning with him. By the time they reached the lobby, Chloe was right behind him, and Phillip– still holding the coats– observed in stunned shock. The elevator had been left at the fifth floor, and Alex ranted as it descended, never so agonizingly slowly as it was doing so now. His rage was to the point of incoherence, and for a brief instant Phillip wondered if he was going to even bother to calm down before driving. The bangs against the metal gate of the elevator answered that question.
When the elevator shaft finally fell silent, Daniel sighed. “That could have gone better,” he said.