OWIF 6: Dart

On Wednesday, my wife left town for a business trip. OWIF is what she left in her wake.

Links to Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, Part 5.


The room was bright, much brighter than you’d think if you had entered into it using the unlit rusty steel staircase underneath the Cage.  There was a large bank of lights along the ceiling, throwing an incredibly bright, sickly blue light over the room.

The room itself was about twenty feet on a side, with bare concrete walls that had several layers of white-ish primer painted over them.  The walls were sweating with moisture, as the humidity in the hot room condensed on the cool surface of the concrete.  When we stepped out of the staircase I had had to duck to avoid cracking my head open on the large control box that was attached to the wall.  It ticked, like the timer in a cheap children’s board game.  George had fought with his employees, at least the ones that had worked upstairs, over every little nickel and dime.  Even down here, where the stakes were higher, he used the most inexpensive solution possible.

When I had last been in here George has used a timer from a Christmas display to turn the lights on and off; he needed to make sure that there was exactly a twelve hour “daylight” and twelve hour “nighttime” cycle to each day down here, because the residents would sicken and possibly die without it.  After George, Echo, and I entered this time around, had opened the door on the control box and, sure enough, there was the Christmas timer: a plastic reindeer with a wry smile and that was cartoonishly ball-shaped.  His bright red noise served as the dial and you set one antler to “on” and one antler to “off” for the timing cycle.  Wires ran out of the back, carrying orders from their reindeer master to the lights.  I left the door open when I walked out, hoping that the ridiculous sight of the timer would at least make Echo laugh.

“Where did you go?” Echo asked me when I walked back in.  She was still standing near the door, where I had last left her.

“Hiding the car.” I tilted my head back and exhaled.  “Echo, it’s been a long day for you.  George is going out to get food and said you can take a nap on the cot, if you like.  Now that the car is off the street, we can take some time and figure out exactly what we know.”  I pulled up a folding chair and motioned for her to sit on the cot, which George had placed down here as well as some extra large towels to be used as a blanket.  The blanket-towel was a mere formality; it was sweltering in here.

Echo sat down with a thud, still wearing the oversized coat and her knit hat.  She stared at me, occasionally darting her gaze at the other three or four hundred eyes that were looking at her and at me.

In the middle of the room was a rectangular grouping of fish tanks, big ones, stacked on metal shelves almost up to the ceiling lights.  Each tank was only partially filled with water, which a pile of sand and fake plastic trees filling the remainder of each tank.   Also in each tank were four or five dozen  small frogs, flecks of bright blue or orange or red that hopped around manically every time one of us moved.  All fully adult, they still had a wide-eyed cuteness to them when you leaned against the glass for a closer look.  They always stared back defiantly, as if they knew that the merest tiny amount of the poison that soaked their skins were enough to kill a full grown man.  An arrowhead raked across one of their backs would have enough toxin to drop a buffalo.

The room was normally filled with these tanks.  I recall having to suck my gut in to squeeze past the last time I was here, but since George’s legal troubles passed he’d tried to move his shipments in and out faster.  The person or persons who bought his last batch conveniently bought the tanks, too, giving us enough room to sit in here and set up a cot.

“I want to know what’s going on,” I said.  “Who is chasing you?  Where is your father?  Do you know?”  I asked as calmly as I could, but I felt the curl of a scowl cross my face.  “I checked the news while I was upstairs.  They’re reporting that a couple of cops were shot at the airport today, but that both are in good condition.  The suspect got away.”  Echo fidgeted.  “A guy had been shot in his car earlier in the day on his way to the airport.  They found him crashed into the median on the highway exit.”

“Did they catch anyone else?”  Echo asked flatly, staring at the buttons on my shirt.

“No,” I said.  “You said your father was with you at the airport.  Where would he go?  Would he go to the meeting place?  Do you remember anything about where it is?”

Echo looked up, suddenly smiling.  “Oh, thank goodness – no one caught my father!”

“I still don’t understand what’ve happening, Echo.  If you fill me in with some details, I’ll help you find him and find the meeting place.”  I took off my hat and scratched my head.  The heat and humidity in the room made my scalp sweat and beads of it ran down my temples.

Echo beamed, searching the pockets and pockets of the oversized coat. “Oh, don’t worry!” she chirped brightly.  She pulled out a metal cube, attached to a lanyard that stretched into the coat.  A small blue bulb on one of the faces of the cube glowed softly, even in the bright light of the terrarium room.

She stood up, holding the cube tightly in her hand.  “If they didn’t get him, my father will come looking for me.”


[End of Part 6]

OWIF 5: Smoke

On Wednesday, my wife left town for a business trip. OWIF is what she left in her wake.

Links to Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4.


The dark green car sped off, dropping pieces of cracked plastic and leaving a dark smear of rubber that stayed visible even through the light drizzle that came down.  Behind, the semi’s engine rumbled as it idled.  Too big to turn, the man had instead opted to brake after he had failed to crush the car and the two people inside it.

He was six foot four, or just a shade taller.  His muscles ached from the strain of the day; it had been years since a project had veered so far off the plan.  His thin, wiry frame was perspiring under his clothes, a heavy wool suit and black overcoat that seemed perfectly sensible for Chicago in the middle of autumn.

His had skin that was dry and grey, with a long face that didn’t grow a beard so much as grow hard.  When he was younger, his face would dull a razor blade in one sitting.  Now, grown and middle aged, he keeps keeps his razor blades sharp for reasons other than shaving.

The tall man turned back to the semi and walked up to it slowly.  He needed to know who was driving the girl and where they were going.  He closed his eyes and recalled the report he had been given that morning, the report that he read over and over until its details were burned into his memory.

Little girl, nine years old, wearing knit hat, light brown hair.  Flight 454 from Buffalo, New York, arrival at 8:34am.  Our Contact confirmed that she got on the flight and that the flight had taken off.   “One handler,” the Contact had stated. “Middle aged man, caucasian.  Five foot eight, 160 pounds.  Balding, dark brown hair.”

At the sound of sirens he snapped his eyes open.  The police were coming.  He needed to get off the road.  He whipped open the door to the cab of the semi and grabbed his satchel, a heavy nylon bag that caused him to grunt as he lifted its bulk off the floor.  He turned it over and inspected the bag.  A little blood from the previous driver had ended up on the bottom of the bag, but not so much that it was noticeable.  He wouldn’t attract attention with it, at least not until he could replace the satchel.

He jumped out and left the keys in the truck, engine running.  He couldn’t take the truck, as the shipping company that owned it and that employed the dearly departed driver would certainly have a GPS tracking chip on it.   He looked around the semi one time to make sure that he left nothing that could be traced to him, then sprinted for the edge of the highway.

There was a copse of trees beyond the chain link fence that marked off the interstate from the rest of the northwest side of the city.  Six, seven long steps and he was at the fence, climbing it with one smooth motion that barely broke his stride.  He was in the copse when the first police car arrived at the semi.  He crouched low in the trees, froze, and waited for the two cops to circle the truck, guns drawn and voices barking.

When he was sure that the copse of trees was not in the peripheral vision of either policeman, he made a beeline for the sidewalk.  He didn’t bother to run softly as he had been trained to do; the sound of the sirens swamped out any footfalls he made.  When he got to the sidewalk he slowed to an easy amble, taking care to mark anyone on the street that may have noticed him jump out from the trees.

The street was almost empty; the light rain had driven most people indoors.  When in Rome, he thought, as he pulled a free alternative music newspaper from a newsbox and held it over his head as most pedestrians would.  He also did his best to feign irritation at the rain, in case anyone in any of the storefronts saw.   As he walked, he kept his ears peeled to the sounds of police sirens heading to the now-empty truck.  He tried to clear his mind.

Contact says the handler has made arrangements for a driver to pick them up at O’Hare when the plane lands.  They have no luggage, so you must move fast to beat them to the driver.  Handler and girl have been told that the driver will be waiting for them a half hour before scheduled arrival to catch them in case the plane lands early.

He walked past an irritated young woman with a small lapdog.  Even in the rain, the dog sniffed at trees and benches, looking for a place to relieve itself.  The woman grumpily tugged at the dog’s leash. “Come on, Max, hurry up.”  The tall man discreetly covered his face with the newspaper as he passed her.  He needed a quiet place to make the phone connection.

After a block he passed a storefront without the lights on.  “Taco Burrito King,” the sign said, dark and faded.  A large handwritten placard was in the window. “Pardon our dust!  We’re renovating and will be back soon!”

The tall man stepped back.  The front of the building was all glass, and there was still enough light seeping through the clouds to make the front room dangerous.  He peered in.  The kitchen was walled off from the dining room.  That would have to do.

He walked around to service alley of the burrito place, past a shoe repair store, and walked up to the rear delivery door.  It had a standard deadbolt.  The tall man reached into his front pants pocket.  He fished past the cell phone he carried pulled out a pair of metal rods, one of them bent into a ninety degree angle at the very end.  He worked the straight rod into the bottom of the deadbolt, then the bent rod.

It took him twenty seconds to pick the lock,  or at most, thirty.  The deadbolt slid open with a click and he slipped into the door and closed it softly behind him.

Handler has already passed the package to the girl, and may separate from her to check path to driver before allowing her and package outside.

The tall man moved to the back of the kitchen and kneeled on the floor, pulling the cell phone out of his pocket.  Small drops of rainwater rain ran off his overcoat onto the floor.  He turned the phone on, then punched in the sixteen digit code needed to unlock it.

Handler is unarmed and is carrying false identification.  Girl is also carrying false identification.

The phone flashed softly as it looked for a signal.  Satellite phones always took a while to connect, and he was inside a building of unknown age.  Older buildings sometimes shielded the signal worse than newer buildings.

Driver is mostly likely armed, and mostly likely trained.  Contact says that driver will be picking up handler and girl using car of rare color, make, and model to reduce chance of mistake, mostly likely a dark green Oldsmobile Aurora or similar GM car.

The phone connected, and the tall man shook the water off his hand and typed.  GIRL AND DRIVER GOT AWAY.  UNKNOWN IF WE HIT THE WRONG DRIVER EARLIER OR IF THERE WERE TWO DRIVERS SENT.

The response came back within a minute.  RECEIVED. POLICE CONNECTION HAS ID OF 2ND DRIVER LICENSE PLATE.

The tall man heard the sound of jangling keys on the other side of the rear door as well as the sound of two adult men laughing.  He jumped up and grabbed a carving knife from the stack of clean dishes and moved silently to the door as it opened.

The satellite phone flashed on the floor where the tall man left it. 2ND CAR REGISTERED TO MARK N——,  4713 NORTH WILMONT AVENUE, CHICAGO.

Ten minutes later the tall man shook the rain off his coat and picked the phone up off the floor.

[end of part 5]

OWIF 4: I know why the caged bird sings

On Wednesday, my wife left town for a business trip. OWIF is what she left in her wake.

Links to Part 1Part 2, Part 3.


The warehouse was different from how I remembered it; the laundry machines that had lined the walls were gone and the tables where the employees used to sort and fold the towels and sheets were also gone.  Large machines filled the center of the room and whirred rhythmically at some unknown task as we walked by.

“George?” I called out.  Echo has settled in behind me and looked around at the warehouse.  She didn’t flinch when one of the big engines sputtered (which they did every thirty seconds or so), but she glanced back nervously at the grey doors behind us once or twice. “George, it’s Mark.  I’ve got a favor to ask of ya.”

The room was about a hundred feet wide, and only slightly less deep.  The ceilings stretched up about twenty five feet above the floor, and the lazy spin of useless ceiling fans were the only other movement in the room other than the machines and Echo and I.  The only windows in the place were high up, a halo of frosted glass that let you know if it was daytime or nighttime outside but did absolutely nothing else; the light in the room came from sodium lights off the ceiling that has the weird effect of making everyone in the room seem jaundiced.  I often used to wonder if it made people who actually had jaundice look healthy.

I heard the scraping of chain links over concrete, and I knew that someone was coming out of the Cage.  That is what we used to call the little elevated half-office were George would sit, watching us fold and press airline towels, blankets, and pillow cases.  It was also were he kept his knife collection, since the Mrs. wouldn’t let him keep it in the house anymore, not after the last incident.

I heard the heavy wheezing and smell of cheap cigars that I knew all too well, and sure enough George poked his head around the forest of storage cabinets that had grown on the west side of the room.

“Ho-lee cow,” he said, scowling with his mouth and laughing with his eyes, “look who it is, come back to get his last fucking paycheck, probably.”  He was fat, but not a lazy, soft fat.  His bulk was tight under his skin, giving him the appearance of a billiard ball, albeit a billiard ball covered in grey body hair with the consistency of piano wire.

“How’s it going, George?  You’re looking the same as always, and for that you’ve got my sympathies,” I said, grinning.

“You’ve still got all the charm you always had, Mark, and that’s ’cause it’s not possible to have less than zero,” he barked, pulling a used cigar out of his breast pocket and relighting it.

I waited until he had the cigar going and had taken a big drag before I said, “George, I’ve got a problem and I’m not sure what to do at this point.”

He looked at me through the smoke of his cheap Dominican, popped it out of his mouth, then pointed at me with the ashy end. “Why I’m doing, fine, thanks.  Yes, it is interesting what I’ve done with the place,” he said, sweeping his arms out over the warehouse floor.  “I am so much happier now that my employees are all automated, and not a single one of them bitches about my smoking.”

He turned back towards me and opened his mouth to say something else, but then his eyes darted to Echo.  “Hey, girl,” he said, “you shouldn’t be listening to all this adult language.”  Echo, unlike her namesake, said nothing in reply.

“That’s what I’m here about, man,” I said, stepping aside so he could take a look at Echo.  “This kid is in trouble, and I have no idea what to do.”

“What the hell, pardon my French, are you doing?  Just call the cops.”  He barked his words out with authority, boss to employee, which is what the majority of our relationship was, and not like a client to his lawyer.

“I would, but here’s the thing: she insists that I can’t call the cops and that I need to find the place she’s meeting her dad.”  Echo nodded when I said this, little head inside huge coat.

He took a puff of his cigar and said, “I don’t see why you came to me with this, just drive her to the meeting place.”

“George, someone shot up a bunch of cops and tried to run me off the road with a semi to get to this kid.  The dude who knew where the meeting spot was is dead, probably killed by the same guys who are chasing us, and I haven’t more than 2 minutes to think all day.  I need your help, and I need to store the kid and the car in the room under the cage.”

George’s eyes lit up, mostly with sympathy but rimmed with a small amount of malice.  “Now I get it,” he said, flicking ash on the floor, “you want my, uh, special services.”

Echo looked at me with some concern, and looked at her with the same.  “Yeah, I think we do need your help.  The full package.”

George slapped his belly with his free hand and gave it a scratch for good measure.  He grinned, cigar in mouth.  “I gotcha, I gotcha.”  He let out a small laugh. “We’re clear after this, then?  I don’t owe you anything if I help you.  Our slates are clean, from now on.”

I fixed my eyes on him.  He was asking for a lot, but, then again, so was I. “Yeah.  Yeah,” I said, “we’re clear.  Even stevens.”

“All right, then!” he bellowed, suddenly animated.  “I’ll start the preparations. You have to call my wife and tell her that we’re doing something legitimate, that you needed me to do some followup.”  I nodded.  He continued, “You’re lucky, I just cleared some merchandise out of there, and we’re not due for any more shipments for a couple of days.”

Echo looked at me as George climbed back up into the cage, keys jangling. “What is he going to do?”  What’s going to happen?”

I glanced down at her and shrugged.  “He’s going to help us figure what to do.  What’s going to happen, that I’m not exactly sure.”

Echo stared at me for a minute, until a storage cabinet on the north wall shuddered, then slid to the right.  George came down out of the Cage with a ring of keys, a flashlight, and a satellite phone.

“Well, I guess I can tell you what I am sure about,” I said to Echo, my eyes fixed on George. “It’s going to get weird.”

[end of part 4]

OWIF part 3: Grey doors

On Wednesday, my wife left town for a business trip. OWIF is what she left in her wake.

Link to Part 1, Part 2.


I hit the gas pedal as hard as I could  and jerked the steering wheel to the right as the truck plowed into the back of the Oldsmobile.  The driver meant to run into me, that’s for sure, and I wanted to make sure that he didn’t also run through me.

The truck slammed into my back left as I turned the car rightward as fast as I could.  I glanced at the speedometer on my dashboard at the moment of impact.  87 miles per hour.  If I hadn’t been worried about turning into a pancake on I-90 I’d have been impressed at how fast that bastard managed to get a semi to move.

After the initial crush and pop and metal on metal squealing, I felt the car turn and the rear end circle around; the semi steamed past, air brakes hissing and whining as the driver watched us, his prey, recede in his side mirror.  The Oldsmobile stopped facing into oncoming traffic, had there been any oncoming traffic, and the truck wheezed and shuddered past until coming to a halt under an overpass.

I sat there, staring the wrong way down the highway, for what felt like ten minutes but what was probably more like 2 seconds before the kid screamed, “He’s coming!”

The driver had gotten out about 150 yards down the road, the momentum of his truck carrying him too far down the road for his liking and still way, way too close to us for my liking.  I looked down at the dashboard; every possible warning light was flashing.  The car and I, united in distress, needed to get moving.

I took my foot off the brake.  I didn’t remember braking, I didn’t remember anything, and the only thought in my head was that the tall man was running straight at us, one arm up in the air.  I punched the accelerator as hard as I could and the  rear wheels spun and spun until enough rubber had been burned into the asphalt to overcome our inertia, the tires gripped the road, and we took off.

In the rearview mirror I saw pieces of metal and plastic fly off the end of the car, like a ticker tape parade for a championship sports team, except the only person there was the tall man, and I saw him hiss and curse something that was the opposite of a celebration.


The car was limping, the rear left wheel making a gawd-awful noise with each rotation.  We needed to get off the road, and we were still facing the wrong way.

I spun the car 175 degrees onto the exit ramp at Peterson.  There were, mercifully, few cars on the street and I turned into an alley behind a bagel and bialy shop, some restaurants, and a Greek furniture store.  After a half block, I stopped.

“Where are we?” the girl asked.

“In an alley, in the rain, driving a busted car and being chased by a killer.  But, other than that, you know, mostly safe.”

I jumped out of the car and looked at the trunk, crunched and ruined.  The pins holding it shut had come loose, and the mass of paper towels and energy bars I kept there for emergencies had fallen out.

I heard the sound of sirens race down the highway in the direction of the semi, and I opened the driver’s door and looked at the little girl huddled into the passenger seat. “What’s your name, kid?”

“Echo.  My name is Echo,” she said.

“Echo, I’m Mark.  I don’t know whats going on, but we’ve got a problem because I only know two people on earth who’d help me hide a kid without asking too many questions.  One of them is in Atlanta, and the other one is an insane asshole.”

She looked around at the alley, grey and dark red and slick with rain.  The place smelled like a Chinese restaurant was dumping its garbage into the storm drain on the pavement, and most weekdays that was exactly what was going on.  Pieces of broken chairs were piled up against the walls of the alley and a garbage dumpster stood next to the chairs, its doors missing and its belly gathering rain. “What are we going to do, then?”she said.

I pointed at the grey loading bay behind the furniture store.  “We’re going to ask the insane asshole for help.”

[end of part 3]