Homunculus: Chapter 13: Janitor

The black van rolled into the Medimetics parking lot. Most of the building’s windows were dark, and there were only a few cars scattered throughout the lot. The van pulled into a handicap parking space near the front door and switched its lights off. The doors opened, and three men dressed in blue janitorial uniforms climbed out.

Alex turned wordlessly to the two other men. They nodded, and Alex approached the front door. Through the glass doors, he saw the lobby, illuminated only by a single overhead light. The reception desk sat in front of the far wall, unoccupied. A row of chairs lined the other two walls, also empty. No witnesses.

Alex pulled the key card out of a pocket and swiped it through the reader mounted alongside the doors. The lock clicked, and Alex pulled the door open and entered, followed by Burt and Charley. As Charley let the door gently swing closed, it clicked again as the lock reengaged.

Silently, the three turned and walked, single file, down one of the hallways branching off from the lobby. They turned right, then left, until reaching the supply closet. The door was locked, as expected, but the key in Alex’s other pocket took care of that.

Inside, they found exactly the supplies they expected: a pair of mops and large wheel buckets, and a stack of short yellow sandwhich-board signs with “CLOSED FOR CLEANING” in big black letters. Burt fished out a rough hand-drawn map of the building’s floor plan, while Charlie began filling the buckets with water from the faucet. With his finger, Burt pointed to the room they were in, then slid his finger along a series of hallways until it reached a room circled several times in red ink at the corner of the building. He folded the paper back in his pocket.

Alex grabbed the stack of signs, with Burt and Charlie each took hold of one of the mops, using them as handles for moving the half-full buckets they sat in. Alex opened the door, and the three preceeded down the hall along the agreed upon path.

As they rounded a corner, Alex’s heart jumped as he saw someone walking towards them. Alex quickly caught himself and remembered what they had talked about during planning. Walk confidently, like you know what you’re doing and where you’re going. Don’t make eye contact with anyone. Don’t draw attention to yourselves. Alex followed those rules as best he could, keeping his eyes focused on the corridor in front of him and silently hoping the two behind him weren’t going to blow their cover. He relaxed as the man nodded his head slightly as he passed but otherwise said nothing.

For the first time, Alex felt confident that this was going to work.

The rest of the walk proved uneventful, and soon they were at their next destination. Alex dropped two of the signs in the hallway and handed the rest of the stack to Burt, who took them and his mop and bucket around the corner to do likewise. Charlie left his mop and bucket next to the signs Alex had placed and approached the door. None of them needed to consult the map to verify which was the right one; there was only one with a yellow triangle with a black lightning bolt on it. They didn’t have a key for this one, so it was now up to Charlie.

Alex picked up the mop and began slowly wiping it back and forth across the floor. Around the corner, the sound of sloshing water told him that Burt was doing the same. Without any soap or cleaner, all the mop was accomplishing was pushing any dirt or grime around, but that wasn’t important. What was important was that as long as he and Burt kept their backs to the corner and looked like they were working, anyone who happend to come across them might not notice Charlie kneeling in front of the door, lock picks in hand.

As seconds gave way to minutes, Alex confidence began to waver. Was it supposed to take this long? They had each had their turn with the set during training, and Charlie had proved to be the best of the three at it, but that didn’t necessarily mean he was good enough. This was the riskiest part of the plan, the one part where they were all fully exposed, with little any of them could due to avoid notice other than to provide a distraction and hope that anyone who came along would turn around and look for a different path without looking too closely at what was happening. The lights in some of the windows, the couple cars in the parking lot, and most of all the person they had seen earlier all proved that there were still people here, even in the middle of the night. Not many, but all it took was one.

Charlie coughed three times. Alex sighed in relief. The signal.

Alex looked behind him just long enough to see Charlie enter the electrical room. Smooth sailing from here. Alex returned the mop to its bucket, and Burt soon rounded the corner, his equipment in tow. Alex picked the two signs up and, with Burt, carried everything back towards the supply closet. Charlie would stay behind, waiting for them to give their signal.

This time, they passed no one in the hall. The two of them quickly dumped the buckets out into the wash basin’s drain and returned the equipment they had borrowed to its original place. The hard part was over, so as long as they didn’t leave behind any obvious clues, they were in the clear.

After a quick check of the map, they set of down the hall again. The route that took them back through the lobby was the shortest, so they went that way. Even though there was a slightly higher chance of them being seen there, the experience earlier showed that no one they might encounter would probably be able to recognize them as not actually being janitors. Once they saw the uniforms, they didn’t bother looking at the face or for a badge. They were janitors, ignorable, invisible.

The route back through the lobby also had the advantage of matching the one they had seen in the video they had studied for hours on end. Even without consulting the map, Alex could easily follow the correct path to the door of the server room, despite never having set foot in the building before tonight.

Once they had arrived, Alex quickly surveyed the situation. A red light shone just above the keypad and card reader next to the door. Alex knew not to bother trying the card in his pocket; not only did he not have a code to punch in, but he was sure its owner wasn’t authorized to entire anyway. Burt tapped Alex on the shoulder and pointed down the hallway. Alex heard footsteps echoing from that direction, increasing in volume with each step.

Alex and Burt quickly took a few steps in the opposite direction, so as to be a little distance away from the door before the person approaching saw them. Burt leaned his arm against the wall, and Alex slouched against it in turn. Stay calm, act casual. In low voices, they jumped into the middle of a conversation about next Sunday’s football game. Just a couple janitors slacking off on their shift.

As they talked, the footsteps drew louder and sharper as someone approached from behind Alex. The woman passed them, not appearing to give any indication of taking notice of them. Good. Alex and Burt continued the ruse as the woman continued down the hall and rounded a corner. They stopped talking once she was gone but stayed in that position, listening and watching for anyone else.

Alex chided himself for being a bit too optimistic earlier. There were two times in this plan where they were at risk of being discovered, and this was the second. It was essential that they were alone before executing the next step. Alex hoped Charlie would stay patient and wait for the signal, however long it took.

Alex and Burt waited for a few minutes. They saw and heard no signs of anyone else in the area. They returned to the door to the server room. It was now or never. Alex took his phone out of his pocket and flipped it open. Holding it in his left hand, he used his thumb to type in a simple message: “OK”. He hit Send, returned the phone to his pocket, and waited.

The hallways had been dim up until now, with only every third light or so turned on, but it was briefly plunged into near-total darkness, illuminated only by light from the far end of the corridor or spilling out from intersections. After a second or two the emergency lights came on, effectively returning the hallway to its previous level of illumination.

But more importantly, the red light on the keypad was off.

Seconds ticked in his head as Alex turned the handle and pushed on the door. It was a little heavier than he expected, but it opened without any resistance. He and Burt quickly entered and shut the door behind him. Inside, they were greeted by hot air and a loud hum of hundreds of computers chugging away in unison. They seemed unaffected by the power outage, confirming that they were on a separate power supply than the one Charlie had switched off for them to deactivate the magnetic lock.

Alex’s count reached ten. Not that Alex had any way to tell from inside the server room, but according to the plan, Charlie would restore power to the corridor and exit the building, waiting for them in the van, his role complete.

But there was no sense in thinking about that now. Alex followed the path he remembered from the video, navigating the maze of server racks until he found the one that housed the administrative console. He tried the rack’s handle and found it locked. Alex pulled a small key from his pocket and turned it in the lock. Keys for these were easy enough to come by, the racks being mass produced by a manufacturer who, as a little Internet research found, didn’t bother making multiple keys for their equipment. The protective door swung open, and he stepped back to let Burt play his role.

Burt took a CD from his pocket and inserted it into the drive of the topmost computer in the rack. He then pulled out the tray above it and swung the monitor up into position. It lit up and displayed a login prompt. Alex watched as Burt typed in a user name and password.

Burt frowned.

Burt tried again, with the same result. Now Alex frowned.

“Something wrong?” Alex asked, as quietly as he could over the background roar.

“I don’t get it,” Burt said.

“Get what?”

“The CD was supposed to automatically set up an admin-level account for us as soon as I put it in. It did during the dry-run.”

“So what do we do now?”

Burt shook his head. “Maybe it just takes a little longer on this system to work.”

“How much longer?” Alex said, worried he wasn’t going to like the answer.

Burt shrugged.

Alex didn’t.

Chapter word count: 1,905 (+238)
Total word count: 22,869 / 50,000 (45.738%)

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