Ordinarily, he would have taken the time to return the camouflaged doorway to its original state. But with The Mock dead, he saw no reason to hide the fact that someone had accessed the hub. That much he could leave to the custodian. Right now his only interest lay in outpacing any trailing gas. Hurrying from the bathroom, he didn’t slow down even though the sensor on his belt had gone silent.
The portals to the other two outer rooms he had explored when he had initially arrived remained closed, just as he had left them. There was no sign of the old janitor. As Cardenas exited the bathroom, that door slammed shut behind him. No matter. He’d seen all he had come to see, and learned all he could. All that remained was to get back to his hotel room, pack up the few personal items he had brought with him, and catch the next flight back to Nogales.
As before, the elevator at the end of the narrow hallway did not respond to his touch. Anticipating as much, he did not linger over it, and prepared to return to the surface the way he had come, via the nearby stairwell. He grabbed the handle and pulled. When it failed to give, he tried again. Repeated attempts to unlock the barrier using the sesame proved equally fruitless. Frowning, he returned the device to its holding pouch, stepped back, gripped the handle with both hands, put one foot up against the wall alongside the door, and pulled with all his strength. Nothing. Letting go of the handle and taking a step back, he began high-kicking in the vicinity of the lockseal. The sound of his foot slamming against the metal barrier echoed down the corridor. As for the door, it didn’t budge. Exhausted, he splashed backward and wondered what he was doing wrong.
He had inadvertently triggered another defensive mechanism.
Looking down, he saw that water was rising rapidly around his shoes. It was over his ankles and climbing toward his knees by the time he reached the doors at the opposite end of the corridor. All three were, unsurprisingly, locked, sealed, and inviolable. The atypical slamming behind him of the bathroom door that led to the concealed workplace now assumed an ominous significance. The stink of the intracoastal waterway, a pungent mix of salt water, fuel oil from older vessels, and commercial runoff from West Padre #3 & 4, began to permeate the available air.
Sloshing back to the elevator and stairwell, he started to reach for the door handle one more time, but stopped. Removing the compact police cutter from its belt pouch, he made a hasty examination of the metal barrier. The handle was embedded in an armored lockplate. Struggling against the water as he moved to his left, he activated the cutter and started in on the middle of three hinges. The alloy was tough, and it took the cutter longer than Cardenas would have liked to slice all the way through.
By the time he began on the bottom hinge, the water was up to his chest and rising faster than ever. Even as he worked frantically, manipulating the cutter while wishing it was a more powerful commercial model, he found himself admiring the straightforwardness of the trap. Filling the access corridor with seawater was not only a way of creating a significant barrier against intruders from the surface, it was also a means of dealing very efficiently with anyone who had already gained unauthorized access and was subsequently trying to leave. While the flooding corridor did its work, staff could relax in their self-contained, watertight offices and continue their work unhindered.
Now only the topmost hinge remained in place, holding the door to the metal jamb. As he waited anxiously for the cutter to cleave the metal, he wondered how many guests who had offended The Mock had ultimately been floated out of his presence instead of walking away under their own power. Certainly when The Mock was in residence, visitors had been searched prior to being admitted. Any weapons, anything like a cutter that might enable them to make an escape, had surely been confiscated prior to admittance.
The water was up to his chin. Designed to function in any environment and manufactured to meet tough NFP specifications, the cutter continued to slice at the stubborn remaining hinge. Seawater swirled around him. He half expected to see smelt or sardines finning past. Three times, he had to fill his lungs and work underwater. The last time, there was barely enough of an air pocket between rising sea and impermeable ceiling in which to snatch a breath.
Ducking back down once more, he placed the cutter over the hinge, working from the light of its glow. When the beam finally severed the last of the implanted bolt, he switched it off, stuffed it in a pocket, and began kicking as hard as he could at the middle hinge where it was attached to the door. The surrounding water slowed and weakened his kicks. But with all three hinges cut through, the door began to give. Sensing weakness, and a potential outlet, the weight of the water surrounding him added its own pressure to the effort.
For a terrible moment, he thought the door was going to stay jammed in place despite his best efforts to free himself. A lifelong resident of the desert Southwest, he did not particularly like the ocean. Of all the possible deaths he had envisioned for himself in the course of nearly thirty years with the Department, of all the near misses he had experienced working the mean streets of the Strip, the last thing he would have imagined was drowning in the course of doing his duty.
The pressure of the rising water proved irresistible. With it supplementing a hard kick from his right foot, the barrier finally gave way. Handle and lock remained tightly fastened, but the door bent inward off its severed hinges far enough to admit a single human body. Almost out of air as he struggled through the gap, propelled by the escaping water, Cardenas found himself giving murky thanks for his modest stature. Hyaki could never have made it through.
He banged his head on a railing when the roaring water threw him hard against the stairs on the other side of the lower landing. Dazed by the impact, sucking in huge, reinvigorating lungfuls of fresh air, he paused to collect himself on the third step. With water gushing out of the corridor behind him, he struggled to his feet. He stumbled up the stairwell, using the railing for support and to pull himself upward.
Thankfully, the door at the top was not locked and he was able to leave the lifesaving cutter in the pocket where he had absently shoved it. A pair of hardcapped workers saw him stagger out of the stairwell entrance and immediately started in his direction. Still coughing up seawater and breathing with difficulty, Cardenas fumbled for the shocker holstered inside his sodden windbreaker.
Tall, bearded, and powerfully built, the bigger of the two reached for him—to put a steadying hand on his shoulder. “Facilit, homber. You okay? You look like you’ve been in a real frog strangler!” His equally concerned companion mustered a reassuring smile.
“Around here, compadre, we prefer to do our fishin’ with poles.” The other man’s expression of honest bafflement as he peered past Cardenas reinforced his appearance of innocence. “What the hell happened down there, anyway?”
Cardenas let his hand fall away from the shocker. He’d been needlessly concerned. Like their supervisor Chanay, these men were blithely ignorant of the illegal activities that had been an ongoing concern beneath the warehouse.
Digging into a belt pouch, he pulled out some fragments of sea grass along with his ident bracelet and weakly flashed both at the two men. “Angel Cardenas, Inspector, NFP.” He nodded back the way he had come. The sound of rushing water could be heard clearly now, rising from the rapidly filling stairwell. “You may have a leak in one of your subsurface chambers. I can’t say for sure. I’m a little tired and not feeling too well. I wonder if one of you could—could…?”
Reacting swiftly and simultaneously, both men reached out to grab him as he fell forward.
HE CAME TO, DRY AND AT EASE, IN A HOSPITAL bed in Masmatamoros, with the faint but fading taste of the Gulf still clinging tenaciously to the back corners of his mouth. Recuperating in bed for the rest of the day, he had time to reflect on how his hospital visit was considerably less physically taxing than his partner’s had been.
As soon as he could wrest an official discharge the following morning, he communicated all that had transpired to Pangborn. The Captain would see to it that The Mocks apparently vacant command center was carefully monitored, in case any of the deceased feleon’s subordinates attempted to make use of its facilities. As per the Inspector’s specific instructions, the authorities would not try to enter it or interfere with its latent functions until the safety of Katla Mockerkin could be guaranteed.