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