It's Oscars time. Somebody wake the Grouch.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Earl's Novel - Chapter V (Part I)

(Editor's note: Earl Fando is currently writing a novel as part of the insane National Novel Writing Month Contest. As of this post, he has managed nearly 20,000 words, though not all of them may be coherent English at this point.)

Chapter 5
A Nice Cake Is Waiting for You

As I drove back to the blog office, I ran over the eerie landscape of the now deserted Phoenix Corporation in mind again and again. What on earth could have caused them to pull up shop? It was obviously a quick move, given the still relatively immaculate condition of the grounds. The grass did seem a tiny bit taller than usual, but not by much, and given the autumn weather, it wouldn’t have grown much anyway. The secrecy with which they would have had to move was also unfathomable, but then again, I wasn’t in government work.

Still, they had nearly 250 famous people in their employ who were supposed to be dead. It did occur to me that none of them actually lived on the grounds itself though. I know that most of them lived in special gated communities that the average person had no access to, but I’d never been to one of them. In fact, I’d never seen anyone from Phoenix outside the compound, except for Janis once, at a Cracker Barrel, and then she insisted that I refer to her as “Debbie” and left hurriedly afterwards, with her “Uncle Hershel’s Breakfast” hastily stuffed in a take away sack.

I suddenly remembered that I had bumped into one other person outside the facility, a security guard named Jim Williams, who, like me, was neither famous nor presumed deceased. I saw him at a local grocery in front of the deli section. I was waiting for the clerk to slice up some hard salami and liverwurst (you’d be surprised how good they are together) and Jim stepped up to the counter to order eight ounces of Baby Swiss cheese and a pound of Virginia Baked Ham. We chatted a bit about how strange it was to see each other outside of work, both of us scrupulously avoiding any mention of the job itself. Jim did mention that he lived a few blocks down the street and gave me the street name and address, suggesting that I come by some time to catch a college football game on television. Apparently, he had a number of the other security guards from Phoenix over to watch games as it was one of the few times they could chat about work and not worry about anyone overhearing them and thinking them as mad as Lyndon LaRouche.

The funny thing was that I could remember exactly what Jim ordered, but hadn’t a clue which street he lived on or what the house number was. Still, I knew where the grocery was, so that was a start. I turned my car west towards the section of town I lived in.

I called Stew on my cell phone to let him know how my search was going but got nothing. He had no doubt turned off his own phone, so as not to be disturbed in the middle of a backswing. I called my wife’s office, but she was out to lunch. I called her cell phone but it too was not answering. I surmised that the battery in her phone might be out of juice and wondered why on earth she hadn’t charged it. She’s a lovely and brilliant woman, I thought to myself, so what could be so difficult about charging a cell phone. I tossed my own phone into the passenger seat and noticed the charger for the phones, sitting half covered by some papers. I shifted them with my right hand as I drove. Right next to the charger, was my wife’s phone, which I suddenly remembered I had borrowed the day before because I couldn’t find my phone, which later turned out to be in my jacket pocket. I would have banged my head on the steering wheel if I didn’t think the blunt trauma would cause me to lose control of the vehicle.

I passed the store and suddenly remembered that Jim had given me directions to his house as well.

“Just go up Maple two blocks,” he said, “and make a right onto Wheeler Lane. It’s the third house on the left. There’ll be a navy blue Mazda Miata in the driveway, along with a grey Chevy mini van.”

I drove up Maple Street and made the right onto Wheeler. Three houses down, I jammed on the brakes and sat in the car staring in disbelief.

Where Jim’s house should have been there was now the still burned out wreckage of what once must have been a lovely middle-class, three-bedroom, two-story home. The frame, only half-standing, was as black as coal, and ashes and charred wood were piled in the centre of it.

An elderly gentleman was in the garden next door. I rolled down my window and called out to him.

“Excuse me sir!”

He turned in my direction.

“Do you know what happened to the house next door?” I asked.

“Burned down,” he called back.

“Yes, I can see that,” I said in as pleasant a voice as I could muster. “However, do you know why it burned down, perchance?”

“Arson is what the police said,” he shouted back.

“What about the family that lived there?” I asked.

“They were on vacation when it happened, but nobody’s heard anything from them since then.” He answered. I was watering the flowers for them, but I don’t suppose there’s any point in that since they all burned up like fireworks.”

He told me that the blaze had happened only a week ago, and that most of the neighbors were shocked at how fast the home went up in flames. I asked if any other people had asked about the fire, other than the usual crowd of investigators, insurance personnel, and news reporters. He shrugged his shoulders.

I briefly thought about going door to door but I figured that would raise too much suspicion. I thanked him and drove off. This was too much to take. I couldn’t even remember seeing a story on the fire in the news, but that was what I got for not watching the local broadcasts. I wondered if maybe it was just a coincidence. Jim could have moved since I left the Corporation. Perhaps it was just an unrelated arson that afflicted some poor strangers.

I realised even as the thought crossed my mind that it was utterly ridiculous. There were no coincidences when you worked for Phoenix. During the period I worked for them, I never once ran out of fuel or had a flat tyre. Someone later told me that they regularly ran checks on the employee vehicles in the parking lot to make sure they were in excellent working order. This way, they could avoid employee encounters with the police or repair workers who might ask for work addresses or phone numbers. I tested this several times by driving into work low on petrol. Sure enough, each time I left the building, my car had a full tank. I had to stop this though when I realised that the company was docking my pay every time they filled the car up. I suppose after two weeks of using their parking lot as my personal petrol station, I had it coming.

Phoenix even employed special security personnel to add unique security equipment to the homes of employees, again, to keep down the encounters with police or other official or private entities who might fancy a call to the employer or a visit to follow-up on the investigation of a burglary or assault. It was like having our very own invisible bodyguards. Once, there was a rash of burglaries in the neighborhood. After a robbery just three doors from our home though, the burglar suddenly turned up outside a local police station with two broken legs and a typed confession note in his pocket. Reportedly, when the police asked him who did it, he said “Elvis and the men in black.” Of course, he was also completely drunk when they found him, but simply assumed that to be the work of Phoenix as well.

Knowing Stew was still on the links and Nuffy was somewhere apparently watching grown men dance around future beefsteaks with elaborate capes and Mickey Mouse hats, I decided to head home. It was still early afternoon and I hadn’t had lunch yet, so I decided to stop off at the Chinese buffet we had eaten at the Friday before, as it was on the way. After such a strange and nerve-wracking morning, the idea of all you can eat sushi and Szechuan Chicken sounded comforting.

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