Dan woke up the next morning in a fog of partial amnesia, hung over and dizzy. He staggered out of bed, stumbled into the bathroom and brushed his teeth, struggling to keep his eyes open. The sound of the water running down the drain hurt his ears. He was halfway finished with shaving when he suddenly remembered with great relief that he didn't have to go to work.
He dimly recalled the phone ringing sometime earlier in the morning. It had gone unanswered.
Dan checked his messages. There was one from Carol.
"Hi, Dan. Just wanted to let you know I'm going to pick up Andy at your mom and dad's in a little while. So you don't have to worry about bringing him back. See you later, bye."
Dan made some coffee and pop tarts and turned on the TV. The news was on. Dan squinted at the clock on his cable box, trying to focus his muddled thoughts. It was a half hour past noon. He looked back at the television quickly.
A grim looking reporter was standing in front of a big building that was surrounded by police cars and fire trucks. A bunch of cops were walking around, inspecting the parking lot and putting down little markers with numbers on them. Thin wisps of smoke were rising from the charred roof and water was dripping down the walls and draining out of the gutters.
Dan froze, staring dumbstruck at the television. Nausea began to roll over him in waves as he suddenly realized what he was watching.
Two men in plastic coveralls came out through the front door of the building. The one in front was walking backwards, facing the man behind him.
They were carrying a body bag between them. As they walked carefully down the front stairs two more men came out behind them, carrying another, larger bag. They were followed by another two men in coveralls, with yet another bag.
The bags kept coming. Dan began counting them, hypnotized.
He stopped at seven and grabbed the phone.
He dialed Bellingham's cell. There were seven long rings. Then an answer.
"This is Todd,"
"If you're getting this message I'm obviously not all that interested in what you have to say right now. So let me know what's going on and I'll call you later (beep)."
"Bellingham, this is Dan. Call me right away."
Dan reached under his coffee table, grabbed the phone book and frantically flipped toward the b's.
He found the number he was looking for. It was
BELLINGHAM, Todd & Jan 734-87**
The phone rang. And rang. And rang.
There was a beep from the other line. Dan answered it.
He heard a tumultuous, confusing jumble of voices, all talking at the same time. Dan listened carefully. Someone was breathing heavily, close to the phone.
"Where are you? Are you okay? What happened at the plant?"
"No. The hospital. I'm at the hospital."
"What happened? Was it a fire?"
"No, a boom. A big boom. And a fire."
Dan tried to make a mental picture out of all the chaos he was listening to. He imagined Bellingham lying on a gurney, rolling down a hallway in a hospital somewhere surrounded by doctors and EMTs.
"I got fired," Bellingham moaned incoherently. He was delirious.
"Bell, give your phone to someone. Let me talk to a doctor! Do you hear me? Let me talk to a doctor! Or a cop! Hurry!"
"Don't worry. They're saying I've got a good shot. A damn good shot. And they're giving it to me right now. Okay? I'm going now."
"Bell! Give your phone to someone!
Dan heard a sharp clattering noise as Bellingham's phone fell out of his hand and hit the floor, where it was kicked away by quickly moving feet and lost in a corner somewhere.
There was a few seconds of silence, followed by a dial tone.
"I'm going to go play now, mom."
"Okay, honey. Be careful."
Carol watched Andy run down the sidewalk. He passed the pool, dashed across the playground and made a flying leap onto the merry go round.
Sheila came outside, sat down on the steps next to Carol and lit a cigarette.
"There goes your little streak of lightning again."
"He's not so little any more. He's already outgrowing the clothes I bought for him last spring. His grandpa got him some new pants yesterday."
"They grow up so fast, don't they?"
"Is that your ex pulling up in the front lot?"
Carol leaned forward to get a better look. It was Dan all right, parking his little Mazda in the stall next to her Chevy. He got out in a hurry and came rushing up the sidewalk.
"Uh oh. He looks upset. He's not mad at you is he?"
"I don't know why he would be. I tried to call him before I picked up Andy this morning, but he wasn't home."
Carol got up from the steps and came down to meet Dan, approaching him cautiously. His face was pale, his shirt was moist with sweat, and he reeked of stale booze and body odor.
"I tried to call you. What on earth have you been doing?"
"I'm okay. I mean, I'm not hurt."
"Why would you be?"
"I don't work on Saturdays."
Carol began to get a little nervous. Dan was acting strange, and his eyes had a wild, scared look to them that worried her.
"I know that. Dan, what are you talking about? What's going on?"
"Have you been watching the news?"
"Something happened at the plant. Something terrible."
Carol gasped and put her hands over her mouth. "Oh, no! What?"
"I don't know exactly. The police aren't releasing any more information yet. But it was bad, that's for sure."
"How bad?" asked Sheila.
"Really, really bad. There was a fire, or an explosion or something, and the whole place was destroyed. I drove out there to try to find someone to talk to, but everybody was gone except for the cops. They were everywhere. They had chased away the reporters and closed off all of the streets for blocks around. I couldn't get anywhere close. But I did manage to talk to Bellingham for a few minutes before I left. He's in a hospital somewhere."
"I have no idea."
"What about everyone else? Was anyone hurt?"
"I couldn't find any of them. Carol, I saw body bags on the news. They were carrying them out the front door. Oh my god, there were so many of them."
Dan half sat down and half collapsed onto the steps. Carol sat down next to him and held his hand. It was shaking badly. Sheila gripped the handrail tightly, looking as if she might faint. Her face was turning a strange color.
"Dan, what's going on?" Carol asked, her voice hushed and fearful. "What happened at that place? Do you know?"
Dan's throat was bone dry. He couldn't swallow.
"No, I don't, Carol. I don't know."
Wendy was finally getting home after a long, exhausting day at work, made even longer and more exhausting by a trip to the grocery store that she had finally gotten over with after postponing for several days.
She pulled into her usual spot in the back parking lot of the Meadows, unloaded her groceries and lugged her four heavy bags down the sidewalk and up the steps into building 110.
Wendy put the frozen items away, left the rest of the groceries on the kitchen table for the night and washed the dishes. Then she made herself some macaroni and cheese in the microwave. When she was done eating she went into the bathroom to take a shower.
She took off her clothes and weighed herself. She had gained two pounds. She stepped off the scale and stood in front of the mirror. Every tiny line and wrinkle in her face seemed to be a mile long, and the small stretch marks and creases around her armpits and on her belly looked like deep, ragged scars.
After her shower Wendy changed into a long shirt and some panties and turned on the little TV sitting on her bedroom dresser. She plopped onto her disheveled, unmade bed and took a bite sized candy bar from the drawer in her bedside table where she kept her stash of sweets. She munched on the stale chocolate and thought about the long day she had spent taking monotonous phone calls, answering stupid questions and typing dull documents at the busy downtown insurance company where she worked as a secretary. She had done the same thing yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that.
Wendy had been following the same old routine day after day, over and over again, for a long, long time now.
She felt a lot older than her twenty five years.
Wendy Nelson's life was going nowhere, but ironically enough seemed to be flying by much too quickly at the same time. She smiled to herself, darkly amused.
That means it's going nowhere fast, she thought.
Wendy's eyelids began to droop. She had worked much too hard today. All those numbers and names and addresses and phone calls and mindless banal conversations she had been dealing with since nine o clock in the morning were still going around and around in loopy circles inside her head.
She forced it all away and fell asleep.
Soon she began to dream.
The dream Wendy was having was a recurring one that she'd been experiencing more and more often lately. She would always feel a deep sadness every time it began, because she already knew how it was going to end.
Wendy dreamed that she was standing all alone in the middle of a vast, rolling meadow carpeted with green grass and brightly colored flowers.
Off in the distance beyond the meadow there was a hillside covered with endless rows of beautiful houses, new and neat and perfect, glowing in the sunlight under a pale blue sky filled with puffy white clouds that drifted along on a gentle breeze.
Wendy started walking towards the houses. The warm wind caressed her face, and she could feel the luxurious sensation of the long cool grass pushing up between her toes with every step.
She could see people in the distance, standing out in their yards and waiting for her to join them in their happy little neighborhood just across the green meadow.
But the closer Wendy got to this beautiful place that she would always dream about the more distant it seemed to become.
Wendy walked faster. Then she began to run. But all the houses and yards and people kept getting further and further away, until finally they rushed off over the horizon and disappeared.
Wendy sat down in the meadow and cried, as the grass dried up and died and dissolved into desert sand around her.
Then a face appeared in her mind's eye.
It was the face of a man. Her man.
He was thundering down the desert highway on a big black Harley Davidson with the wind rushing through his long blond hair.
Wendy was standing by the side of the road, waiting for him to stop so she could get on the back of his motorcycle and ride away from all the desolation and nothingness that surrounded her.
She knew that he was headed someplace full of fun and laughter and happiness. He always was. But Wendy didn't really care where he was going as long as it was far away from where she was now. She smiled and watched him getting closer, waiting for him to come for her.
But he didn't. He drove by on his bike without so much as a glance at Wendy and kept riding on down the highway.
Wendy cried out in shock and disappointment and screamed his name and cursed at him as he roared off into the distance. But he didn't hear her. He drove away and vanished, just like the houses on the other side of the green meadow.
But the houses over the horizon were only a dream, and always had been. The man on the motorcycle wasn't. He had been real.
Wendy had loved him with all of her heart. And every time she would dream about him her heart would break all over again, and she would feel the same pain she had the first time he had left her.
She had been his lover, and his friend, and so many other things to him. And he had been everything to her.
He had trusted her and she him beyond question, and Wendy had kept all of his many dark secrets faithfully for three wonderful years that had gone by much too fast.
Those years seemed to be long ages ago, and magical compared to the drab existence that passed for Wendy's life now.
On most nights Wendy's recurring dream would be coming to an end now. When it was over she would wake up alone and unhappy in the small hours and cry herself back to sleep. But tonight the dream wasn't ending the way it usually did. It continued, and Wendy began to dream things she never had before.
She dreamed that she was in a huge, dark room, seated at a small round table covered with a white cloth and lit by tall, flickering candles.
He was with her again.
The candles cast a glow like a magic halo that protected them from the darkness outside.
He held out his hand across the table. She heard him say
This is for you
The halo of light cast by the candles blurred and changed shape, until it became the sparkling of golden sunlight on crystal blue water.
Then the light faded and the water became dark, and the golden rays slowly changed into the silver glimmer of the moon.
Dan called his bank's automated teller line and checked his account. He had one thousand fifty nine dollars in checking and two thousand in savings.
He looked over the classifieds hopefully, but as usual, saw nothing promising. Lawn care? Telemarketing? Pizza delivery?
Dan knew he could do better. He had to. And soon.
Dan smoked a cigarette and stared at the calendar in his kitchen. He hadn't lit up in almost two years, but a few days ago he'd decided this might be a good time to start again.
He had been unable to locate Bellingham, or anyone else from Chemical Concepts. It was as if they had all just vanished into thin air. Except for a strangely subdued article in the paper the next day that really hadn't said all that much Dan hadn't seen or heard anything else about the mysterious disaster, or accident, or whatever it had been.
Something in the back of Dan's mind kept telling him that whatever had happened at his job that morning hadn't been an accident.
He would just let the police handle it. They would sort it out. Wouldn't they?
Dan was beginning to wonder. Lately he was starting to feel as if he'd fallen down some kid's sandbox hole to communist China.
Or down a rabbit hole and into the twilight zone.
The sick feeling that had taken hold of his guts when he'd turned on the TV and seen all those body bags haunted him. That awful scene kept replaying itself in his mind.
Who had been in those bags?
Dan made a great effort to take his mind off the whole thing. He put his cigarette out underneath the kitchen faucet, only half smoked, and threw it in the trash.
He would have to make up an entirely new resume from scratch. Dan wasn't looking forward to that at all. He just didn't have enough time.
"Do you like to do it?"
"Do I what?"
"Do you like the job you are doing? Do you like to do it?"
"I'm not really sure yet. This is my first day."
"I like my job I am doing. It is very relaxing. It is very easy to do it. What is your name?"
"I am Kobey."
"Pleased to meet you."
"It is the same over here."
Kobey was a wrinkled, ancient looking Indian man. He was dressed in a loose fitting red garment and a big white turban that was wound tightly around his head. Kobey was sitting on the other side of Dan's work table patiently trimming the metal leads from the back of a fiberglass circuit board with a pair of rusted wire cutters.
Kobey checked his progress, holding up the board and examining it carefully.
"Every one must be the same. One quarter of an inch in length. Ahh, just perfect."
Kobey smiled pleasantly at Dan and went back to work, humming along quietly to the slithery sitar music playing on a portable stereo on the table beside him.
"I like this job very much. I do for six years."
"How much are you making now?"
"Nine dollars an hour."
Dan pushed his glasses up his nose, concentrating on the relay circuit he was trying to assemble. He finished making all of the connections and put his soldering iron back into its holster, looking over at the tall pile of unfinished units sitting next to him. He took his glasses off and wiped his face with a towel.
There were about a hundred people crammed onto the hot, stuffy production floor. Young men and women, frail old people, and exotic immigrants dressed in the garb of faraway lands were all sitting together at long tables and working hard, soldering, twisting wires, testing batteries and doing a dozen other things at a furious pace. Blue smoke clouded the air, making Dan cough. He felt his head beginning to throb.
He looked down at his work table. There was a small, crude drawing next to his stack of finished circuit boards, deeply engraved into the table with a blue ball point pen.
It was a cartoon skull and crossbones with bulging eyes and a toothy grin. A word bubble coming out of the skull's mouth said, 'FLUX YOU!'" inside it.
A short, ugly man suddenly appeared at Dan's table.
"You need to pick it up, buddy," he said crossly. "You're not even finished with the boards they brought you half an hour ago."
"Yes I am. They're right here. I've already started on more of them."
"You're supposed to bring them over to us as soon as you're done."
"The boss told me to leave them on the table for you to come and pick up."
"That's not what he told you."
"Yes it is. He told me this morning before I even started working."
"He is right, Dan," Kobey said. "That is what you do. Bring boards when you done. Faster that way."
"That's not what the boss told me this morning when I started. Where is he, anyway? I haven't seen him all day."
"He stay in his office most all the time. He does not come out here where we are."
Dan heard a string of loud curses coming from across the room. A skinny old black man with patchy hair was swearing at some strange looking electronic device that wasn't working properly. It was old and beat up and held together with crusty glue and masking tape. Dan hadn't the faintest idea what it was.
"What's that guy doing?"
"He test batteries. Always problems with battery tester."
"That's a battery tester?"
The old black man pushed over a big pile of twelve volt batteries in disgust and left his work station, headed for the front door. The batteries tumbled and thumped to the floor.
"Those all bad batteries."
"What are they used for?"
"Life support. Gas mask for military and firefighters."
Dan heard someone laughing and turned around. Some people sitting at one of the back tables were making fun of an enormously corpulent man who was sitting at a table behind them, falling asleep. The fat, sleepy man was holding a very sharp exacto knife in his clenched fist with the blade facing upwards, pointed towards his face.
"That is old Joe there. He narcoleptic."
Old Joe's head moved slowly downwards, coming perilously close to the upturned knife. Then it jerked back quickly as he forced himself awake.
"What the hell is he doing working here?"
"Where else will he be going to work?"
A skinny old woman walked up to Kobey's side of the table. She had a long red mark across her neck and shoulder that looked like a big burn.
"What's going on, Chuck?" she wheezed at another man sitting nearby.
"Same old shit, different day," Chuck answered. "How are you?"
"Not so good. My cancer might be coming back. They found a growth when I went for my last exam. How's your cancer?"
"I've got another treatment Wednesday. Just to make sure it's gone. How's your cancer, Kobey?"
"No cancer anymore."
Kobey put his soldering iron down. He sat up in his chair and slowly began to unwrap his turban. Dan stopped working and watched him closely.
Kobey's head was totally bald. There was a long scar running down one side of his scalp, lined with fresh stitches.
"They remove tumor a couple weeks ago. All gone now."
Dan stared shamelessly, unable to speak, his eyes glued to the stitches.
"Don't, worry, Dan," Kobey said. "I am all right. Really."
A loud bang erupted from somewhere behind Dan's chair. He ducked reflexively and covered his head with his hands. Tiny bits of glass fell out of his hair.
"Excuse me for a minute," he said, getting up quickly.
"Can't you get unemployment?"
"I've already tried that. I'm in some sort of legal gray area right now."
"Because my former employer no longer exists."
"Yeah, I know. It's crazy. It's going to take a while for me to sort through the whole thing."
"Mommy," Andy interrupted.
"I'm on the phone with your daddy, honey. Hold on."
"Mom, can we get more Oreos?"
"We just got some last week honey. We don't need any more yet."
"James ate them already. And he said not to tell you about it."
Carol frowned. She felt her forehead getting hot.
She felt stupid for continuing to put up with it at all. She calmed herself down and listened to Dan.
"I had to get my cable shut off. The phone will probably be next. And I was already behind on my rent. Now I'm really screwed. See if you can find that stuff, Carol. Please?"
Carol closed her eyes and sighed. "I'll try, Dan. I'll try."
Dan hung up the phone. He sat back on his couch and stared at the TV for a few minutes, but he wasn't paying a bit of attention to it. His mind was working.
He began to notice his vision getting blurry. Dan took his glasses off and then put them back on. His sight wavered back and forth for a few moments, and then went back to normal.
His head began to hurt. The pain slowly became worse, quickly turning into a pounding headache. Dan was having another migraine, his third of the week. He'd never had migraines before.
The doorbell rang. Dan got up slowly and looked through the peephole.
"Hey Dan, It's me. Can I come in for a minute?"
It was Jerry, the apartment manager. Dan opened the door.
"Hi, Dan. Sorry to bother you, man." Jerry eyed Dan curiously. "You doing okay? You look kinda sick or something."
"Oh, I'm all right I guess. Is it about the rent?"
"It is, Dan. It is. I'm really sorry, Dan, but I've given you all the time that I can for that back rent you owe, and now the landlord is on my ass saying if it isn't all paid by the fifth along with this month's I have to evict you. Believe me, I don't want to do it, but I'll have to if he tells me to. Damn, it's hot in here."
"The air hasn't been working that great. I told you about it last week, remember?"
"Yeah, I'm sorry, Dan. I'll look at it in a minute."
"Thank you, Jerry."
"Dan, you're a good tenant. Always have been. And it kills me to have to do you this way. But when it comes to the rent, well, them is the rules and that's that. The landlord won't put up with it no more. You understand, right?"
"Yeah, and I'll have it paid. Just give me until the fifth."
"You got it Dan. Sorry I can't give you more time. Really, man."
"Don't worry about it."
"And I'll get on that air right away. Just give me about half an hour, ok?"
"Sure, Jerry. Sure."
After Jerry left Dan went to his refrigerator and looked inside. It was almost empty. He opened one of the beers he had brought home from the captain's house after their night of drinking at the park and looked at his calendar.
Don't worry, Dan , the Chinese calendar girl whispered in his mind.
You'll be okay.
We'll see, Dan thought. We'll see.
He sat down at his kitchen table with the paper and skimmed through the want ads yet again. Part time janitorial? No thanks. Auto body tech? Experience required. Short order cook? Dan never could cook.
Then a busy looking ad towards the bottom of the page caught his eye.
START YOUR OWN BUSINESS!
WOULD YOU LIKE A CHANCE TO MAKE $18 AN HOUR WORKING WITH AND LEARNING FROM EXPERIENCED PROFESSIONALS IN A FUN, FAST PACED WORK ENVIRONMENT? YOU CAN START TODAY, RUNNING YOUR OWN CUSTOMER SERVICE AND SALES BUSINESS. DON'T MISS THIS GREAT OPPORTUNITY TO GET AHEAD WITH MERCURY MANAGEMENT AND SALES. CALL AND ASK FOR THAD. DO IT NOW!
Carol was driving to the park up the street from her house, with Dan sitting beside her. Andy was buckled into the back seat, desperately trying to finish a rapidly melting ice cream cone before it dissolved onto his lap.
They arrived at the park and ate sandwiches on a picnic table next to the playground while they watched the other boys and girls rocking on hobby horses and climbing on the monkey bars.
"Come on, let's go ride the merry go round," said Carol to Dan.
"You take Andy and go ahead," Dan answered through a mouthful of chicken sandwich. "I get sick on those things."
"You big chicken!" Carol teased.
"Dad isn't chicken," Andy protested.
"Yes he is," Carol ribbed, running behind Dan and grabbing him under his armpits. "See!" She tickled him mercilessly.
Dan was caught by surprise. He started laughing and coughing half eaten pieces of sandwich out of his mouth as he tried to push Carol's hands away.
"Chicken, chicken, pluck, pluck!" she cackled.
"All right, all right," Dan finally shouted. "Go get on and I'll turn you."
Carol got on the merry go round and lay on her back, holding Andy tightly across her stomach as Dan stood on the edge and pushed.
The sky became a whirling wheel. The sun, the moon, and the clouds spun around them in crazy circles, moving faster and faster with every touch of Dan's hand.
After they were through on the merry go round Carol and Dan took turns pushing Andy on the swing set.
Andy sailed up into the air, swinging higher and higher. One of his flip flop sandals slipped off of his foot and went flying away. Everybody laughed as it tumbled end over end across the playground and landed at the bottom of the slides.
Carol thought to herself that she had never before been as happy as she was right now.
Then she woke up.
She was back at her apartment, in Andy's room, lying in his bed, with her son snuggled up next to her underneath the covers, sleeping soundly.
Carol ran her fingers through Andy's hair and wiped tears from her eyes, remembering why she was there.
Then she went back to sleep, feeling very sad.
Dan arrived at his job interview early, pulling into the parking lot at about a quarter to nine. He was feeling enthusiastic, and was more than a little intrigued. The ad in the paper had been rather slim on specifics, and Dan was eager to find out just what kind of business it was that he was getting into. He'd taken some management after college, but had never really gotten an opportunity to put what he had learned to work.
The Mercury office was headquartered in a row of store fronts, sandwiched between a Laundromat and a music shop. Two men in dress suits were standing on the sidewalk outside, waiting for Dan.
Dan had never worn a suit to work before. He had never even owned one before a few days ago. But when he had called to inquire he'd been told that it was required for the job, so he'd hurried down to the thrift store around the block from his apartment and grabbed a cheap one off the bargain rack. He was pleasantly surprised at how good it looked on him when he tried it on. The coat was a little big, and the pants were just a bit too long, but it still looked pretty sharp for twelve bucks.
Dan found an open space at the far end of the Laundromat. He parked, adjusted his clip on tie and got out of his car. Before he had taken three steps one of the men standing in front of the office had already come over and started talking to him.
"Good morning," the man said to Dan with a friendly smile.
"Beautiful morning, sir," Dan answered, smiling back warmly.
"Well, you're here early. I like you already. My name is Thad Carson. But you can call me Thad." Thad extended his hand.
"Pleased to meet you, Thad. I'm Dan."
Dan shook hands, glancing at himself in Thad's mirrored sunglasses. Thad's dark brown hair was trimmed into a longish crew cut that suggested an athlete or a soldier. His handshake was tight and reassuring, and he emanated a contagious confidence that boosted Dan's spirits immediately.
"Dan," he said, "this is my business partner Lio Ramirez."
Lio was short, blocky and broad shouldered. He looked vaguely Asian, but Dan couldn't quite place his nationality. He was wearing a black suit and a blue tie printed with palm trees. Dark wraparound sunglasses covered his eyes.
He smiled faintly at Dan, revealing a couple of shiny gold teeth. But he didn't offer his hand, or say anything at all. Dan returned his attempt at a smile anyway, which seemed to cheer him up a little.
"Come on Dan, let's go for a ride," said Thad, briskly rubbing his hands together. "We'll take my car."
"Isn't that your office over there?"
"My office is wherever I am."
"Don't I need to fill out an application?"
"You can do that later, if you want. First I'm going to share some information with you about our company, what it is that we do and how we do it, so you can decide whether or not this job is for you. Then you can make up your mind about whether or not you want to fill out the application."
"Okay," said Dan. "Sounds fair."
"We've found that it works better that way. Come on and get in, you can sit in the front."
Thad pushed the front seat forward and slid quickly into the back. Lio climbed in behind the wheel and started the car.
"Where to?" he asked Thad.
"West, my man. Find a Denny's or something and we'll get breakfast."
Dan settled back into his seat, feeling a bit nervous but still optimistic.
"I appreciate your hospitality, Mr. Carson. It's quite a change from what I've become accustomed to lately."
"Sure. We like to keep things casual around here, Dan."
"So why the suits?"
"Well, we like to look good too. It promotes confidence in our customers, and a little confidence goes a long way in our business."
"And what business is that?"
"We handle direct sales contracts. Any experience in the field?"
"No. I took a little business back in school, but that isn't a term I'm familiar with."
"Well then by all means let me bring you up to speed, Dan. Are you listening?"
"This is how it works. Our company holds distribution contracts with the manufacturers of many different major market products. We buy these products in bulk from the manufacturers and then sell them for discount prices at local businesses. We can offer them to our customers for a lot less because of the way our distribution network is set up. We always have some great bargains going on."
"What kind of products do you sell?"
"All kinds of good stuff. Cell phones, clothing and accessories, credit cards, electronics, office equipment. You name it, we've got it. All at a big discount."
"So you make deals with the business owners?"
"Sometimes. More often with their surrogates, though."
"What does this job pay?"
"It pays well. You can make a few grand a month in no time at all if you know what you're doing. And it only goes up from there. It all depends on how good you are. And I can already tell just by talking to you that you're a pretty intelligent guy, so you'll get the hang of it fast."
"Okay, I've got two questions."
"I've got two answers."
"What's the most important part of this job? And what kind of skills do I need to do it well?"
"It's all in the presentation. Just looking good is half the deal. Sounding good and knowing what you're talking about is the rest of it. Familiarity with the products helps a lot. And we'll teach you all about that."
"Do you mind If ask you something that's a bit off the subject?"
Thad laughed a little. "No, I don't mind at all. In fact, I think I probably know what it is already. But go ahead."
"Why are you sitting in the back seat, if you don't mind me asking."
Thad laughed again. "Well, Dan, I tend to carry a lot of cash around. Especially when I make deposits into the company account."
"He's afraid of being robbed," said Lio.
"Have you been robbed before?"
"Not exactly. But we've had things happen. It never hurts to be careful."
Dan watched the cars zoom by on the expressway. "Is this job dangerous?"
"No, not really. No more than any other job that involves carrying a lot of money around. You always run the risk of someone trying to stick you up, of course. But otherwise, it's one of the safest jobs you could ever have."
"He's just paranoid," said Lio. "It's his past haunting him."
"Lio never has to worry about anyone messing with him. He's a martial arts instructor."
"Oh, yeah. He's got three black belts. Studied in Japan with a grand master. You wouldn't know it by looking at him, though."
"What's that supposed to mean, boss?" Lio said, sounding a little irked.
Dan watched Thad in the rear view mirror. There was a big smile on his face, and he had a look in his eyes that seemed almost playful.
"Don't tell me to relax. Are you going to start all that shit again? Tell me you're not."
"Just kidding, my man, just kidding."
"Kiss my ass."
"Good old Lio," Thad said, rubbing his partner's shoulder affectionately. "What would I do without him?"
"We already know that, unfortunately," Lio groused. There was a hint of something resembling humor in his voice now, and Dan saw that faint hint of a smile cross his face again.
"So tell me about yourself, Dan," said Thad. "Are you married? Got any kids?"
"I was married for almost ten years. But my wife divorced me last March. I've got a son who's eight. His name is Andy."
Dan noticed Lio stiffen in his seat. His grip tightened on the steering wheel.
"I said relax, partner," Thad chided. "Well what happened, if you don't mind me asking."
Dan was quiet for a bit.
"It just didn't work out. I guess I'd rather not discuss it right now. Sorry."
"I see. That's all right, sorry for asking."
"She took my son and moved in with some other guy. And he's a total asshole."
"That must have been tough."
"It was. It still is."
"You still get to see your kid?"
"Yeah, I spend every minute that I can with him. I love him to death."
"You doing anything for the fourth?"
"We're going to get ice cream, and go swimming afterward. Then his mother is going to take him to watch fireworks at the baseball stadium."
"So what were you doing before you found us, Dan?"
"What was your line of work?"
"Oh. Quality assurance. I was a lab technician."
"You went to college?"
"What did you get your degree in?"
"Chemistry, and lab work. I took some business management after college, too."
"Did you get laid off or something?"
"I worked at that chemical plant down in South Omaha for seven years."
"Chemical Concepts? You worked at that place?"
"Yeah. I did."
"Oh, wow. Were you there when they had that explosion, or whatever it was?"
"No, I had the day off."
Thad sat back in his seat and crossed his legs. He folded his hands across his lap and looked out the window thoughtfully.
"Lio, turn the car around."
"Turn around, we're going back to the office."
"Just do it. Get off at the next exit and turn us around. And slow down, please."
"Why are we going back?" asked Dan.
"I think we can set you up with something a little better than what we start most people off with, my friend."
"Like helping Lio and myself run things back at headquarters. We've been shorthanded for a while now. You can just skip all the bullshit and come work with us."
"That sounds super, Mr. Carson. Thanks."
"You'll like it a lot better than doing sales, trust me. And call me Thad. Please."
"Thank you, Thad. Thanks a lot. You really made my day."
As Lio was getting ready to get off the expressway a semi truck came rushing up on his right, threatening to cut him off from the exit.
"Pass him, Lio."
"I can't, he's going too fast."
"Well then slow down, quick. You're going to miss the ramp."
The deafening blare of an air horn sounded from close behind.
"Lio! There's another truck-!"
Another semi truck smashed into the car from behind, sending it skidding out of control through the guardrail at fifty miles an hour.
The car rolled down the side of a grassy embankment, turning over and over until it finally landed with a shuddering crunch at the bottom of the hill, flipped over onto its roof.
Dan was hanging upside down in his seatbelt, his hair brushing against the ceiling. He quickly freed himself and struggled out of the car.
Lio was semiconscious. Dan undid his seatbelt, pulled him out of the window and dragged him away.
"What..? What happened?" Lio moaned.
"You're okay," gasped Dan. "You're okay, don't worry. You're going to be all right." Dan's voice was a low croak. He had thrown up all over himself.
He looked back at the car. The roof over the back seat had been crushed flat over the top of a concrete dividing wall.
A hand was dangling out of the jagged crevice that the back passenger window had become. Its fingers were pale and relaxed. Drops of bright red blood dripped from its sleeve and fell to the asphalt. A wallet, some change, a credit card and a few small pieces of paper were scattered about.
Dan sat down on the ground, deep in shock. He heard a siren in the distance. It sounded hundreds of miles away. His attention focused on a small picture amid the litter of items underneath the window.
Dan sat and stared at the picture for what seemed like forever, his senses feeling as if they were lost in a thick fog.
He began to hear voices in his head. There were dozens of them, all talking and shouting at once in a confusing, fearful cacophony.
Dan's gaze was wandering. He felt his head turning slowly, as if moved by something invisible and irresistible.
Next to the picture was a thick roll of cash. It was all twenties, fifties and hundreds, held together with a big rubber band.
The voices in Dan's head began to fade away. They disappeared one by one, until only two were left.
One was a man's voice, and the other was female. Together, in perfect unison they said
Take it. It's yours.
Dan picked up the roll of money and ran, flying across the street and down the sidewalk like a bolt of lightning.
He passed unnoticed through the crowd that was forming around the wrecked car. The people he ran by ignored him and screamed in horror at the terrible accident.
After about a block Dan turned down an alley and leaned against a wall to catch his breath. He closed his eyes and tried to calm himself down, listening to the sound of his heart pounding in the darkness.
He opened his eyes and stripped off his torn, bloody suit. He was wearing swim trunks underneath.
Dan tossed the suit and his leather shoes into a dumpster and ran down the alley to the street on the other side.
He saw a sidewalk booth selling pool toys and beach wear. The vendor was gone.
Dan looked around quickly. No one was watching.
He grabbed a big beach towel and a pair of flip flops from the booth, slipped the sandals onto his feet, threw the towel over his shoulder and started walking again, moving away from the scene of the crash as quickly as he could. His heart was still pounding, so hard that it hurt.