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“Do you have a child inside, sir?”
“The entire town has a child inside.” Krupov drew a breath. “My wife is in there, too.”
“Can you walk us through the plans? Do you have the drawings with you?”
“They’re digitized. I’ll have to call in to the office.”
“We’ll download them.”
The soldier who had criticized his windows was punching at the buttons of a PDA and cursing under his breath. “Piece of shit. Can’t get online.”
“Where’s the access point?” the chief asked Krupov.
Krupov pointed to the streetlamp. “The network went down. Right before the … right before.”
A young man with a sleek black CoolPix camera ironed to one eye walked up and snapped Krupov’s photo. One of the soldiers twisted the young man’s hands behind his back. The camera clattered to the concrete.
“I’m with the press, gentlemen,” the young man snapped.
“Are you going in?” The photographer shot the chief a sharp look.
The soldier released him. “Fuck. Off.”
The photographer stooped down to collect his camera. “OK. Did the terrorists take out the wireless network? Been trying to upload photos to my newspaper’s site for an hour.”
The chief’s radio crackled; a static-choked voice messaged an indecipherable command. Through the interference, Krupov thought he heard “children,” and “courtyard egress.” The chief cut the voice off with a brusque pressure on the call button and whisked his men away. The photographer and Krupov stared at one another. A tide of mothers’ wails rolled languidly through the heat. The cries of desperation. The scream of sirens. The steamy slowdown of high humidity. The sun had reached its highest point. Krupov brought a hand to his brow, wiped away a pond of sweat. The photographer scrutinized him.
“Are you the architect?”
Krupov nodded sickly.
Krupov broke into a run.
As he approached the fence, he saw black flak jackets pinwheel around the west side of the school toward the courtyard he’d designed around the hallway joining the gym and the cafeteria. Krupov ran after them, took the corner, and came up short when he saw the men crouched in a line, rifles drawn, scopes pressed to their eyes. Stock still. Ready to fire.
Beside him, the photographer gasped, “Jesus, they are going in,” and raised his camera.
Krupov squinted at the gym windows. Sunlight glanced off the glass. He couldn’t see in. But they could see out. Katarina was fearless, he told himself again. She’d have made certain Nadia was sitting by a window. She’d have established the best position to thrust Nadia up and out should the bombs go off, or the authorities storm in. Should the glass shatter, Katarina would get their girl out.
And another of those architect’s observations cut wonderingly through his shock, one more specimen of the many catastrophes this job had birthed. A louver panel close to the ground had detached and was splayed on the clumps of dried clay the landscape guys hadn’t yet re-seeded. The vent was open to the outdoors. But the exposed duct hadn’t been on the punch list. He watched a trickle of brown seep from the duct.
They were facing the girl’s locker room. That exposed duct vented the pipe chase.
“Don’t shoot,” he whispered as a body tumbled from the open vent, rolled on the hard clay, and streaked toward the row of guns trained on her.
It wasn’t Nadia but a younger girl, stripped down to her underwear.
The men stood down as another child rolled from the vent and ran, weeping, for her life.
Like petals torn from a flower’s eye, bare-bellied children tumbled from the duct. As they streamed across the courtyard, the soldiers swept them up and ferried them around the building. Krupov cried out and started toward the vent. The chief grabbed his arm.
“My daughter,” Krupov stammered. “She knows that place. She’s helping those kids.”
“I can get her out before they see,” Krupov pleaded.
The chief frowned. “They have already seen.”
Beside Krupov, the photographer was kneeling on the clay, shooting photos of the fleeing kids. A boy sped past, bleeding from the nose. A little girl stumbled, fell; scraped her knees badly on the gravel. A sound at Krupov’s elbow made him jump. He looked down to see a wide-eyed girl staring at him, hiccupping. He raised her up in his arms. Light as air. Silent except for the tiny gasps of her hiccups. He handed her to a soldier. All of the escaped kids were tiny, he realized. Only the smallest could fit through the duct.
Nadia was too big to get out.
As soon as he’d thought it, a dark head of curls squeezed from the vent’s opening. Broad shoulders busted through, and the rest of her, arms and legs and everything glorious and blessed wiggled forth and fell to the clay. Her dress, too, had been stripped. She sprang to her feet. She wasn’t crying. Tough, like her mother. Big, like her Tverkassan granddad. Thank God she’d inherited none of Krupov’s smallness.
He called her name and waved as the first explosion shattered the tall window at Nadia’s back.