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