His car isn’t here. His office is dark. I breathe easier.
The phone summons me to HR. Do they know I filed the complaint?
“Congratulations! You’ve been selected to take your manager’s position. Here are this quarter’s metrics, your team is woefully behind. Your budget is exhausted. And here’s a complaint which you need to deal with immediately. Good luck!”
Beverly and I met in 5th grade when she broke my nose. She wasn’t trying to. Her twin brother Bart tried to take her bike. She swung, he ducked, I bled. At first she told me to suck it up, but when everyone else went back to whatever it was they were doing, she held an old rag to my face and walked me to the nurse’s office. That was Bev. Rough to start, dedicated to the end.
We were inseparable through high school, both in school and working at her father’s construction company. Bev never sat still. Whether she was scheduling the work crews, answering the phones, or driving supplies between job sites, she was constantly in motion. It all seemed so natural for her, like she was born to build. We didn’t really date, not for lack of effort on my part, but we were always together. We lost touch when I went away to college. She said she already had her dream job, why leave. Last year when her father died, she tracked me down.
“I need you. Can you come?”
I packed a bag and drove all night. I guess you never get over your first true love. That’s probably why she thought she could trust me. I’m sorry, can I get some water please. I’m feeling sick.
Of course. Understandable. Please, continue.
When I arrived, she put me in her guest room and explained that her father’s will left the company to her twin brother.
“He knows nothing about construction, or the company.”
She had always been a pacer, and I dizzied watching her that night.
“I worked my ass off for dad and I get nothing? Stupid old country first-born-son crap. I won’t stand for it.”
“You’re right Bev. It’s not fair. But it is legal right? I don’t think you have a choice.”
She stopped pacing.
“There’s always a choice. And if there’s not, I’ll just build one, like I always do.”
That was the last we talked about it. I joined her working at the company after that. At night, we’d eat dinner and she’d retreat to her room for the rest of the evening. I didn’t understand it then, but I know now she was building an alternate identity, a trail of events and interactions under her brother’s name to be found later.
A few months after I arrived, she asked me to help her build the shelter.
“Bev, what’s this for anyway?”
“Oh, just something I’ve been considering for the business. Survivalists are a relatively large niche for builders right now. We need to make sure all the supplies are documented correctly for taxes though, so make sure to use Bart’s name when you are buying stuff or asking for information, ok?”
I know how that sounds now, looking back, but I really didn’t think anything of it at the time. I did occasionally pick up supplies and sign his name, just a convenience thing. So it really wasn’t all that unusual.
When did it become unusual?
Well, I got the container buried and all the utility supplies connected. Water from the lake nearby piped through a filter and stored underground. A large generator installed for the electricity. Composting toilets. It was definitely a survivalist showplace. It would have made her dad proud. About a month later, she asked me to deliver some additional supplies though.
“Just to make it look more realistic, for the open house and photo shoot.”
I shrugged and went out to the truck. She was not only an amazing builder, but a good stager too. Supplies would bring the place to life. I had all the food, stored water jugs, batteries, all kinds of stuff placed before I saw the weapons.
You knew they were weapons?
Yes. I called thinking there was some mistake.
“Bev, the weapons….”
“Shhhh… Not here. We’ll talk later, okay? Just get everything settled and come home. I’ll grab us subs!”
That’s when she told you?
Yes. I tried to stop her! But it was too late. The news broke as we talked.
“A man was killed by police tonight after an anonymous caller falsely reported a hostage situation at a local survivalist camp.”
Bev was smiling at the tv.
“With no will, the company reverts back to me. I built the perfect solution to the problem.”
Thank you. As soon as we get your signature on this statement, we’ll work on that immunity we promised.
Dr. Ronda Karion unlocked her office door. Not many of the professors locked their offices but Ronda knew first-hand what a mistake that was. The door creaked as it opened, and she smiled as the echo bounced off the empty university halls. She loved these quiet Sundays at the University.
She threw her bag into her guest chair and walked to the back of her office. She unlocked the credenza, extracting the shoebox hidden behind the hanging folders. Last week’s finds were pretty typical. The protein bar that some TA had lazily left behind in the faculty lunchroom, an easy grab. She tossed that onto the desk behind her. Next, the pen from Dr Montrose. He’d noticed it missing and had been asking questions. She’d taken it without knowing he was so sentimentally attached. She worried over it most of the week but couldn’t decide. Seeing it now, it seemed too much trouble. She dropped it in her pocket to return it later.
Finally, she extracted the week’s prize pick. She returned the box to its hiding place, dropped into her chair and swiveled back to her desk. As she pecked at the protein bar, she fingered the gold and diamond bracelet. She’d lifted it when the insufferable Dr. Fancei removed it during Lit class last Tuesday, setting it on the podium while she taught. Ronda was too indecisive and missed a lot of opportunities, but this decision had been immediate. She’d always been attracted to bright shiny objects. Plus, it was just silly to wear something so expensive to a college classroom. Served “Dr. Fancy” right to lose it.
She tossed the empty wrapper and slid the bracelet onto her right wrist. She admired the sun’s sparkle off the diamonds as she adjusted the ties in her ponytail. She tugged at the long black hair pulling out a handful of loose hairs, and tossed them into the trash.
“You might want to add a hat.”
She jumped out of her chair at the intrusion.
“Dr Rook! I didn’t expect anyone else to be here today.”
“No, I’m sure you didn’t.”
The man walked over to her desk and held up a hand. He was holding one of her hairs, a long thick hair so black that if you looked closely enough, it shone blue in the light.
“When I found my favorite lighter missing last Monday and this long black hair in its place, I decided that perhaps I might find you here on this wonderful Sunday. I don’t suppose you know anything about that?”
Damn. This professor was new to the university, part of the attraction to pick his office. Ronda didn’t know much about him except for what she’d gleaned from last Sunday’s scavenge through his desk. She’d found some old classic rock CDs, and a recent picture of him and two other men she didn’t recognize. They were all dressed in black jeans and matching t-shirts promoting their 70s cover band. He was reasonably attractive but with the middle-aged paunch and a curly gray mess of hair, he was definitely not her type. She preferred her men lean and well-dressed, not to mention tobacco-free. The case of American Spirits in his bottom drawer put his habit well into the pack-a-day territory. She should have known such a heavy smoker would miss the cheap gas station lighter she’d lifted, a bright iridescent green thing that she just couldn’t resist.
“No, I’m sorry. I don’t know anything about that.”
She reached up and pulled her hair from his hand, dropping it into the trashcan under her desk as she sat back down. He was smiling when she looked back up at him.
“And I suppose that diamond bracelet isn’t the one that Professor Fancei has been so distraught over all week?”
She clapped her left hand over the bracelet, then realized how guilty that made her look. She slumped into her desk chair and struggled to compose herself.
“No. It’s not. Is there something I can help you with Dr Rook?”
“Yes, I believe there is.” He shifted her bag to the floor as he slid into the chair across from her.
“You see, I’m just dying to know what’s in Dean Stanton’s desk drawers. I think you just might be able to help me with that?”
She contemplated for a moment. There was some safety in numbers. Maybe it was time to change her type. She might not have a choice.
That commotion in the front must be John, finally. My best friend. It has to be him. Nobody else could energize a room like that. He just can’t resist good conversation, maybe a joke or two, especially with these pretty nurses. I want to jump up and greet him. My legs won’t move though. With this mask over my snout, I can’t even bark to let him know where I am. What if he can’t find me? Wait, it’s okay now, he’s coming closer.
“He’s just this way Mr. Carter. He’s pretty groggy. I’ll let the doctor know we’re ready.”
“Thanks. Hey G-Man. How you doing buddy.”
I’m wagging my tail right? Is it moving? I can’t tell. I don’t want him to think I’m not happy to see him. Good, now that he’s taking that mask off, at least we can say hello.
I don’t know John, not feeling so great, I whine.
“I’ve been so worried about you. I know it’s still hurts but the doctor’s going to make that stop.”
Thanks John, I knew you’d come back to help me.
“Here, I brought you something.”
Oh, I love that stuffed frog. It was a present from Jennie, the love of my life. Yes, right there, leave it right next to my head where I can smell it. Good John.
“Remember when we met her, that first day at the dog park?”
Of course I remember. It was love at first sight. But then, how could it not be? I was adorable! Once she found out that we were a package deal though, she learned to love you too. I know it was her idea to let me carry the ring down the aisle. The wedding was beautiful.
“She was so beautiful! Thank you for finding her. And for staying with me when she left. I know it’s silly but I really thought it was forever. True love. Ridiculous huh?”
It had been true love. It almost killed us both when she left us. I never understood why she left. Okay, I chewed up a few of John’s most expensive shoes and I did eat that expensive purse he bought her for her birthday. But I’m irresistible and women love John. Tall dark and handsome they call him. Her leaving was confusing.
Remember how I ran away that night after she left us? I was so tired of us feeling sorry for ourselves, and I had to make you stop moping around. So I ran out to our pizza place. Remember? You were chasing me, and you ended up flirting with that woman when I stole her pizza off the table. Ha! Good times John.
Whoa, that’s a pretty big needle you got there doc,I whimper. What you doing back there with … Yow that stings!
John starts to rub my forehead with his thumb, just like he used to when I wouldn’t go to sleep. Still makes me so tired. Maybe I’ll close my eyes, just for a little bit.
“How about that first day, the day you and I met, remember that?”
Of course! I remember that day. Do I ever! Why you breezed right in and played with every dog there before you even saw me! I thought for sure you would pass me right by.
“And then that lady, that mean little woman who showed me back? She tried to get me to pass right by you. She said, you don’t want that one, he’s a troublemaker.”
Yeah, I hated that woman! She always smelled like ammonia and was constantly yelling at me. She wouldn’t let me chew stuff or bark or anything. That’s why I sat up so politely for you. I had to show you how wrong she was about me.
“But I knew. As soon as I saw you sitting straight up like that, with your big ole paws crossed. Such a little gentleman, my little G-Man! I knew you and I were going to do great things. And we have, right? Why you saved my life little man.”
You saved my life John. I was headed for the burners. I know that.
“I’ll never forget you.”
Obviously. How could you forget me? I’m adorable! Of course you’ll remember me. I’m so tired now though. Remember me John.
I’ll try to remember you too. I hope I remember. I hope I remember everything.
If I could change one thing, it would be meeting Maxim. Maybe if I’d met him a little earlier in life, when I hadn’t been so bored. Or a little later after the stress of the job had calmed down. But he’d found me exactly when I needed excitement, a little passion to release the stress. Now, as I shivered under the sheet he’d passed to me through the bars, I longed for routine. All I could do now was wait for Maxim to retrieve my clothes while I watched the locksmith pick at my cage’s padlock.
“These old ones are tricky. Easier than just cutting those old iron slats though.”
I was grateful for his limited curiosity. Perhaps he saw this type of thing more often than I imagined. He paused to study the lock more closely, then swapped out one tool for another and began again.
I was anxious to have more on than just a sheet. “I can’t imagine what’s keeping Maxim, he should be back by now.”
It had started innocently enough when Maxim bought me a drink at the hotel bar one night.
“I’ve seen you here before, no?”
I couldn’t place his accent, somewhere from South America maybe.
“Yes, you probably have,” I answered. “I work for a bank with headquarters nearby. I’m here a few times a month.”
I wouldn’t normally have let a stranger buy me drinks, much less asked him to join me for dinner, but then nothing about my relationship with Maxim was normal. He wasn’t handsome in the typical sense. Of average height, his skin showed the wear of too many years in the sun and his hair was always a little too slicked back. The way he stared at me though, as if he knew something about me that I didn’t know yet. Which I suppose he had. He had captivated me long before I knew what it was to be captive.
We spent the first week at the hotel. Maxim was a tender lover, considerate in a way I hadn’t known before. The second week, Maxim rented a house so that, as he said, he could have me all to himself. I found more and more excuses to be in town. He insisted on cooking so we could eat at home. With the stress at my job increasing daily, I reveled in being forced to submit, not allowed to make decisions. His obsessive behaviors seemed just a way to spend more time together, his increasingly strange desires just a way to spice up a dull Saturday afternoon. The escalation to extreme play was so slow that I hadn’t noticed.
“Ah,” the locksmith said. “There it is.” With a final twist, the padlock sprung open and clattered to the floor. He pushed his tools to the side, opened the cage door and held out a hand to help me. My legs tingled to life as I struggled to straighten them, but the pain made me stumble backwards into his arms.
“Woah there! Take your time miss. Being all cramped up like that, no wonder your legs won’t work right.”
The locksmith supported me with one arm, the other holding the sheet around my naked body. He set me down on the red velvet couch and turned his back to me to gather his tools.
“You must think we’re pretty strange,” I said. The door was open. I leaned over to see what could be keeping Maxim with my clothes. I saw some kind of shadow, not Maxim but something dark, a puddle of some sort.
“No ma’am. Not at all. None of my business what people choose to do with themselves. I never seen nothing so pretty as you caged up before though. Why I knew as soon as I saw you huddled up in there that we could have a mighty fine time together.”
A shiver passed over me and I gripped the sheet closer. Sweat tickled the back of my neck.
As he turned, I heard the clang of the shackles before I saw them. I sprung off the couch but my legs gave way. I scurried on my knees toward the door but felt the metal restraint snap in place on my ankle. I’d made it far enough to see the puddle, with Maxim’s bloody body just off to the side.
“Yes ma’am. We’re gonna have a mighty fine time now that we got you out of that little space.”
She started finding pomegranate seeds at the doorstep, and knew it was time. But she had no idea where to start.
“First it was just droppings, so I figured a neighborhood dog or something. Then it was chicken bones and candy wrappers. Now it’s rotten pomegranates! It’s obviously a squirrel or something, so how do I get rid of it?”
She grabbed her coffee cup and moved aside so her friend Abby could brew hers.
“No idea Susan. Sounds like an exterminator to me,” Abby said.
“Great. Where am I supposed to find an exterminator? The only thing worse than rodents is dealing with service people that will overcharge me, if they even show up.”
“I can get rid of it for you,” he said. She hadn’t even noticed the janitor.
“Really? Have a lot of experience with this kind of thing?”
She unlocked her phone and shook it in the air. “Have a phone? Or am I going to have to actually write down my phone number for you?”
He pulled a phone from his pocket and took her number. “Okay if I come by tonight to look around?”
They agreed on a time and he pushed the janitor’s cart out of the lunchroom.
“Seriously?” Abby said. “You’re going to let the janitor come to your house?”
“Why not? At least I know him. Well, I know where he works,” said Susan.
“You are so clueless sometimes. You know he has a huge crush on you, right?”
Susan stared at the door he’d left through, then shook her head. “No. That’s ridiculous.”
“Okay. Whatever you say Susan. Just remember. I warned you.”
He got there early. She saw him scope out the tree, take something from his truck, then start for the front door. When she opened the door, he was carrying a large white cat with the goldest eyes she’d ever seen.
“Oh, she’s beautiful!” said Susan.
“Yes she is.” The janitor scratched behind the cat’s ear. “I think she’s your answer. Much more effective than trying to trap them. If you are willing to let her stay for a few days?”
“I don’t know, I’m gone most of the day and I don’t have litter or anything.”
“She’s really no problem. I noticed you have a cat door already.”
Strange, she hadn’t seen him go in the backyard. “Prior owners. I guess it still works though.”
“And I don’t want you feeding her. She’ll hunt better if she’s hungry. Plus, she’s an outdoor cat, so no litter.”
“Great!” He dropped the cat, who disappeared into the house, then retrieved a box he’d dropped on the porch. “I grabbed you some pomegranates too. They’re perfect. No wonder they attracted rodents.”
She looked at the fruit and wrinkled her nose. “I’ve never actually eaten any. Are they good? “
He smiled. “You’ll love them. I could show you a few things?”
She hesitated, remembering Abby’s earlier warning. “I don’t know. I was going out…”
“Give me 15 minutes. Then you can throw me out. But, I think once you have a few pomegranate seeds, you won’t want me to go!”
She pulled one of the fruits from the box. It was heavier than it looked. She knew you were supposed to eat the seeds but she had no idea where to even start.
“Well, maybe you could just show me how to open it?”
As they made their way to the kitchen, the cat swirled around his legs.
Abby wrung her hands in her lap as she sat in the boss’s office.
“I’m so sorry to bother you John. I know you may not be able to tell me anything, but I’m worried about Susan. You said she’d be out for a few days but that was weeks ago. I haven’t heard from her at all. Can you just tell me, well, is she all right?”
John hesitated. “You are right, I really can’t give you any details. Well frankly, I don’t know any details. She just called into HR and said she needed time off. Personal issues. She’ll be gone for the rest of the winter. That’s really all I know. I’m sorry, but I have to run. I agreed to help interview the new janitor candidates. Ours seems to have disappeared.”