By Paul Cunningham
The man sat in his corner office, rain pouring down the windows. Nobody was eavesdropping with dark eye's in the night from the neon electronic billboard posted on the skyscraper surface across the street. It was dark, and he only kept his desk lamp light on. The moonlight reflected off the raindrops streaming down the glass.
The walls were made of wood paneling, looking very old fashioned and the room was furnished with a burnt sienna carpet with a coral pattern that looked like a maze that couldn't be escaped from, or the pattern of a human brain. The room really was empty and barren except for the man’s broad raw wooden slab of a desk and his sturdy-looking black IBM ThinkPad™. There was thunder booming in the background, and it charged into the room like a Deus Ex Machina or like it was coming from a machine. He looked out the window and into the darkness. The darkness was the invisible and the nothing and what couldn't be known and the yet-to-happen. Then at the locked drawer in his desk, third one from the top, next to his right knee. Sat the German Mauser officer’s pistol his father had given him, a war trophy from World War II.
It was kind of a cliché, when the man watched movies he saw people collecting these things on the battlefield, and it was like that. But it seemed more important in this situation because his father had given it to him personally and told him nobody should ever forget people who died in the past suffered because that suffering continued in the present in some way even if it helped them to be happy right now and that's what gave the pistol meaning to him. Regardless of whatever it was in the movies or not, too, it added a footnote to the plot of his life.
His father had continued, had told him that it was important to be thankful for the peace they were living in, for the food on their plate, to not take for granted the order in everyday life, because underneath it all was only chaos, and not to get bored because monotony was actually a good thing only he just didn’t know it, and he shouldn’t complain and be ungrateful. War was something that destroyed everything and all the meaning that people had worked so hard to build through their whole lives and from their birth.
That’s the speech his father had given him when he gave him the pistol. But it probably had never sunk in, because Preston felt bored right now, sitting at the table, face illuminated by the cyberpunk glow of the IBM, his face felt blue and his eyes were tired from the light of the LCD, the millions of liquid crystals that were shooting light into his brain through his eyes and inserting information into into it, and he interacted.
He felt like he was watching a movie and wanted to live a movie instead. He wanted to be an actor on the stage of the world. Maybe that's why he got involved with Lola when he knew it would be trouble. Right now, he wasn’t even watching a movie, just sitting and thinking and wishing he could be watching a movie. And wishing he could be living in that wished-for-movie. He was sitting at a desk and collecting money by the minute, that was all, and there was no story to it. That was depressing - most days of people’s lives were boring, but not in the movies, which were so interesting in every second of every character's existence. Every second of their existence had meaning and was interesting.
Better to be dead, or ashamed, or frightened, anything other than bored. Boredom was the arch-nemesis of life, of life-lived-and-affirmed. His destiny and the plot of his life was pushing him inexorably and unknowingly into the future, ignorant of the obtrusive key lesson of his father's horrific and unspeakable war experience. The experience that couldn't be said or known or quantified without doing it violence. The life of the mind, the better life, felt empty to him and was a shadow, from his perspective and at the moment.
The pistol sat there and how he had never needed it. It’s aged appearance overflowed and had the aura of history, like a rock floating down a stream and suddenly picked up by a man who brought it to life and gave it a purpose, and who when he was finished set it back down in the stream when it was no longer needed at some undetermined and unknown time in the future which was yet - and in Preston’s desk it was still unmarked, dormant.
The phone rang and jolted him back to the present, grabbing his attention. He picked it up. Nobody said anything on the other end. It was probably one of those mysterious marketing calls or scams where they tried to record your voice and recreate it with computers to pretend to be you and sign up for fake credit cards. To act in a play and live for you, to take your money so they could live their lives and have fun. It was selfish.
On the other end of the phone he thought he heard a woman’s voice, calling to him, like the voice of conscience. It was very faint, but he could hear her calling his name, Preston, Preston, Preston over and over, like she needed him, needed to bring him into her life. But it sounded like there could also be the voices of children singing in the distance, like in a choir, beautiful sonorous voices singing in unison in a church, like angels hovering over the dark clouds of his life, stormclouds and ugliness and dark valleys and fecund dark earth rotting and dark decrepit abandoned houses with rotting walls and ceilings and mold. Or it could have been the sound of birds chirping in the summer trees, in the light of day, before they fled from the night when the light changed and the sun set and plunged the world into darkness. He thought he heard the woman calling his name, over and over, calling him from somewhere like his conscience. Come here, come to me, help me, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, thou shalt not kill. He hung up and the ringing in his ears and the pain stopped and he came back into the reality of society and went back to work as if nothing had happened.
Later that night he met Lola while she was working at the diner down by the highway outside of town. She was a rough girl and he smelled trouble but she was the right one for him. The diner came up on the drive out of town right before the river which led to the woods and the unknown darkness.
Lola was serving truck drivers and assorted passerby of various vocations heading in and out of town: travelers and businessmen, priests and rabbis, families on road trips, woodworkers, wanderers, unemployed, runaways, criminals, gangsters, and many other kinds of people, most people leading productive or at least happy lives but some up to no good. You had no way of knowing anything about them from the appearance of the outside of their cars, but sometimes you could tell by the look of them, catch some sort of sign like a light shining and calling to you from inside, but only God knew for sure what you could only be guessing at. Anyway, he was driving along the dusty road as he headed home and spotted the sign with black plastic piecemeal lettering hand-set on an old white plate background with an old-style font:
Burgers and Malts
For The Whole Family
Never Eat at Home Again
It was an enticing and ambitious slogan. Progressive and pushing boundaries. He pulled into the dirt parking lot and walked inside. He sat down at one of the booths. It smelled like french fry oil and the seats were shiny red vinyl and the table was made of fake printed wood acrylic covering. Very classic, he thought, if the placed hadn’t changed in 30 years maybe that wasn’t a bad thing.
He was startled when the waitress came and sat down across from him at the table, her voice hitting him like a splash of water, calling him to focus as she stood out in her obtrusiveness towards him.
-“Mind if I join you?” she asked.
-“Well, this is unusual,” he said, “What do you want?” He took off his black sports coat and fedora and put them down on the seat next to him. She filled his cracked and stained off-white mug with coffee from the carafe she was holding, and put the carafe and checkbook down on the table. The carafe had hard water spot stains on it.
-“What’s your name?” she asked.
-“Preston.” he said.
-“Preston. Charming. Very austere.”
-“And what about you? What’s your name?”
-“Names don’t really say anything about a person, do they? You can’t judge a book by it’s cover. What if I told you I was a bad person? Wouldn’t that tell you more about me than telling you my name?” she asked.
-“I wouldn’t hold it against you. But names do mean something. I don’t know anything about you. And, I don’t have to believe you if you said you’re a bad person.”
-“Looks can be deceiving,” she said. The waitress was wearing a pleated red checkered dress with a white apron, “Just be sure to tip me when you’re done. My name’s Lola.”
-“Please to meet you Lola. My name’s Preston. I sure hope you’ve got some good food in here, I’m starving.” he said.
-“You seem very preppy, and clean-cut. That’s my impression of you. It looks like you’ve been on the road for awhile. Anyway, we’re the only restaurant for another two miles, unless you want to keep driving.” she responded.
-“Who owns this place anyway?” Preston asked.
-“Why do you care? You must be a businessman. Only people like you would care who owns what and who’s doing what with what thing. I like having a normal job, a normal life,” Lola looked him up and down, “but when I look at you, I just see money all over the place. You’d better be careful.” she said.
People with money Preston knew always seemed to attract the wrong kind of people. Actually, Preston himself didn’t have much money. But in his experience, people who seemed like they had a lot of money had problems sometimes, which was why it was best to fly under the radar, Preston thought to himself. He didn’t have the dream that some people do of living in a fancy house. He only dressed nicely when he went to work, when he had to put up appearances. But you couldn’t keep up appearances all the time. You could overflow from the inside if you tried to push all that stuff down.
-“Would you like to meet the man who owns this place?” she said, “He lives where the heart is”.
-“What? ‘He lives where the heart is?’”
-“What are you talking about? He lives downstairs. See that door over there?” said Lola, “He lives through that door, downstairs, right here in our shop. I guess it’s cheaper for him.”
-“I hear that’s a problem, living where you work. How does he escape his job?”
-“Never live to work, as they say. Would you like a hamburger?”
-“Sure,” Preston continued, “You know, one of my favorite songs is I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement. It’s by The Ramones. It’s basically just like 3 lines and they just keep repeating ‘I don’t wanna go down to the basement’ over and over.” set to punk rock chord progressions. Pretty simple, just the same chord progression repeated over and over.
-”Interesting. Does it mean anything? Why don’t they want to go down to the basement?” Asked Lola.
-”Probably not. Who cares, anyways right?” replied Preston.
She went off to the kitchen and placed the order for him. He kept wondering if he should go down and visit the owner, but he didn’t want to go down to the basement right now. It seemed a little sketchy and he’d never been here before.
When the order was finished she picked it up from the counter and dropped it on his table.
The next day he walking and noticed some things on the way to work. He passed other men on the street and it seemed like people were paying attention to him, like they were sizing him up. Usually, he felt like he was invisible. In a big city normally you didn’t randomly see the same person twice unless you made a point of it.
But he walked by a man who was wearing a brown camelhair coat and a grey fedora, and the man looked him straight in the eyes. Another man, standing on a street corner and less fashionable, wore a fraying black canvas coat and beat up jeans and seemed to be watching him out of the corner of his eye. He wondered if something was amiss - it could be his imagination, but the world seemed different after he had met the strange woman at the diner. Colors were brighter and everything seemed a little more vivid, and a little more interesting than real life.
Preston’s Boss Leaves Town
He walked through the revolving doors of his office building. 42 floors, and he worked on the 35th. He walked through all the people in the lobby, he didn’t know any of them although he saw some of the same people from time to time. They all dressed more or less the same, business attire during the day, of course. But one woman walked by him quickly wearing a tight black dress and a small black handbag. It seemed out of place. Other men in the lobby looked at her with desire and curiosity. She looked at him and smiled with the eyes of a cow, large eyes that wanted something. She smelled like designer perfume, the kind that the people at the counter of a department store personalize and sell to you, and then get a commission. She was like a stray cat. He wondered what she was doing there. She looked like she was headed somewhere. She left the building through the revolving doors and he never saw her again.
He said hello to his coworkers as he walked into the office. He knew most of them, everyone was friendly. They had to be. In was one of those things. The place buzzed with the excitement of people happily productive, or people pretending to be happily productive, to make sure they kept their jobs.
He walked into his office and saw a memo on his desk, next to a stack of files and a USB drive. He read it:
I’ve got some personal things to take care of. I want you to take manage things until I get back. I know it’s last minute, but don’t worry about it, I’ve got confidence in you that you’ll make things work as you always do. You were always good at improvising.
P.S. — I left you the key to my house, along with the address. If you can, please check on it once a week, to make sure everything’s in order. You can eat whatever you want or have a glass of wine from time to time. You can even have a party once in awhile you want. Just make sure it’s not too big, and make sure not to break any-“
The postscript continued but Preston got the idea, so he stopped reading.
Winston was his boss, Vice President of his division. He’d managed the office before, but he didn’t like it. The note was rather vague. He always wondered if his boss was taking care of some family matter or was actually out on a bender.
He sat at his desk and opened the files, skimming through them. Then he looked at the drawer where his German Mauser lay. He took out his wallet, and took the drawer key out from behind his credit cards. He kept it hidden there. He opened the drawer with it and took the gun and put it in his briefcase. You weren’t supposed to do that, putting a gun in an unlocked case. They could put you in jail if somebody found out. But for some reason he felt like keeping it safer in there.
The Door to the Basement
After work he drove a little out of town where the diner was. He asked for Lola but she wasn’t working. One of the waiters told him that she hadn’t turned up to work that day, which was unusual, since she almost always did. He saw the door down to the basement. The room was full of stock for the kitchen, cans of food, bags of pasta, and a walk in freezer for meat and other perishable products. Between the shelves, at the end of the room, he saw a light and a man sitting at a desk small beat up wooden desk.
-“Who are you?” Preston said to the man.
-“My name’s Jacob.” said the man. “Who are you?” he looked at Preston suspiciously.
-“Preston. Jacob? Do you know he wrestles with an Angel in the bible?”
-“Yes, people told me that before so I looked it up. It doesn’t mean anything concerning me.”
-“Where’s Lola? Someone upstairs told me she didn’t turn up to work this morning.”
-“I should ask you that,” said Jacob, “I had to scramble around looking for somebody to cover her shift. I was running around all morning trying to put out fires, it’s the worst time to be missing a body. There's a group of construction workers upstairs and she's usually good at entertaining those types and making them happy. Being something of a mix between a mother and a waitress for them, temporarily as they travel to wherever they're going.”
-“She was acting a little strangely when I met her,” said Preston, “making vague statements. Told me she wasn’t a very good person. Something seemed to be troubling her, maybe. She was being really friendly. I thought that people got jaded from this kind of job towards customers after working for a few years. Got to put up a barrier after awhile. One of those things, can’t be friends with people who expect service from you. I don’t think I’m so special for her to want to befriend me, either.”
-“That’s true,” said Jacob. “I mean, that most people don’t last for very long, like you said. Those that do, well, they become kind of war veterans out here. They can command respect but usually don’t take kindly to new people. But…you look like you’re made of money.”
-“That’s what she said too. I don’t get it, because I assure you I’m not,” replied Preston, “but look, do you know where she lives? Maybe I could check in on her. I don’t really know her very well, but something about her seemed a bit off. I’ve got a kind of weird feeling that something is happening.”
-“Well you don’t seem like a child molester or anything. And as her employer, I certainly can’t pay her a visit to see if she’s hungover or not. I’m sure there’s some kind of law against that, but I do feel responsible for her. But what makes you say that you think something strange is going on?” said Jacob.
-“I don’t know, just a feeling. Sometimes when people break their routine or something changes in their lives, they start to act strangely. Or they become really friendly. Like they are looking for somebody to help them. That’s kind of the feeling that I got. My sister used to do that.” Jacob said, clearing his throat, “she was really good at putting up appearances, and if something was wrong, she would act like nothing was happening to everyone except for me. She would tell me the truth. Actually, she would go out and make a lot of friends when she felt nervous. She became like a superstar or a movie actress. It was like she was trying to gather allies for a battle in her mind or something. Anyway, this is getting too deep, what’s her address?”
Jacob wrote down Lola’s address on the back of a receipt on his desk. The receipt was slightly soggy from fryer oil.
-“Go check it out,” said Jacob, “it is a little odd that she didn’t turn up. She hasn’t missed a day in years without giving me at least some heads up, and she’s not answering her phone.”
-“I would think you’d be more worried if that’s the case,” said Preston.
-Jacob replied, “Hey, things happen sometimes with some of the other workers here. It’s none of my business. As long as they don’t cause me too much trouble, I cut them some slack sometimes. But maybe you’re right, check it out and let me know what you find,” Jacob continued, “Anyway, if you need something to eat, tell one of the girls the password and she’ll give you something for free. It’s ‘big kahuna’”
-“‘Big kahuna’? How did you come up with that?” asked Preston.
-“It’s got to be something nobody would guess. And I want to go to Hawaii someday. Seems like a fucking wonderful place, I need to get out of this shitty town.” replied Jacob.
Preston ordered a steak when he got upstairs. He poked at the corn and potatoes on his plate. He cut into the steak and blood ran out of the meat. The other waitresses were nice to him. Preston wondered what Lola’s house was like.
Into the Suburbs
Preston drove down the highway the opposite direction he usually wanted to. Lola lived in the suburbs, and he followed the directions to where she lived. Driving through the lanes with driveways and front yards with picket fences reminded Preston of his childhood. He hadn’t been out this way in a long time, usually he stayed inside the bastion of the city, but this place was a different world and the air was different. Finally he came upon her house, a wood-frame building that looked like it was built in 1960. The lawn was overgrown and the green paint was chipping on the outside. The windows were black. He reached into his briefcase and pulled out the Mauser, and stuck it in his blazer pocket. He walked up to the front door, looked under the doormat, and found the key. How quaint. He opened the door and walked in. Too cliché and easy.
He had a bad feeling so he didn’t call out Lola’s name. He was full of bad feelings right now. The house was dark and the moonlight came in softly through the shutters and curtains. He moved quietly across the living room. The moon cast a long shadow of some shape into the hallway, coming from the kitchen. Maybe a tree from outside.
Preston looked around the corner and he saw a dark shape seated on a chair at the kitchen table. He thought it a little strange. He stretched a bit further so he could see more, and he saw an even darker object lying on the table. It was a gun. Immediately, he took out his Mauser from his coat pocket. Holding it up, he undid the safety and inched towards the kitchen. He heard snoring, and breathed a sigh of relief. Walking into the kitchen, Preston pointed his gun at a large fat man wearing a black wool coat and a black fedora. Preston picked up the gun from the table and put it in his pocket.
-“Wake up.” said Preston. The seated man opened his eyes slowly then jerked backwards, almost falling out of his chair.
-“Holy shit man! What the fuck?” the strange man screamed.
-“You should be careful where you doze off. What the hell are you doing here? Do you know who’s house this is?” asked Preston.
-“Fuck man. Jesus,” said the strange fat man. “Look, settle down.”
-“What are you doing here? Where’s Lola? Man, you are fat as a roast ham.”
-“Fuck you man! Anyways, be quiet, the neighbors are gonna hear.”
-“Why should I care? I found you sleeping in here with a gun.”
-“Yeah I dozed off for a second….Lola, huh? Who are you to her? Another boyfriend?”
-“Shut the fuck up man. Look, who are you? And what the hell are you doing in my friend’s house?”
-“I’m supposed to be watching this place. Look, Lola is in some deep shit man. Well, not Lola, exactly. Did you meet her boss, Jacob, at the diner?”
-“I sure did. So, what’s this about?”
-“Well, maybe you don’t know, but that diner of his hasn’t been doing so well lately. Somebody hasn’t been paying their bills.”
-“He owes some very bad people a lot of money.”
-“Is that so?”
-“Yeah. Maybe he knew what this was about. And he sent you here because he knew we would be looking for him, so you would take the fall for him.”
-“I doubt that. I came here looking for Lola.”
-“Right, well if you want to see her you’re going to have to get Jacob to pay the money he owes. Or pay it yourself.”
-“How much does he owe them?”
-“About two million.”
-“What, dollars or toothpicks? Jesus, that much money for a diner?”
-“Hey man, I don’t ask questions. All I know is that he owes them a lot of money. Businesses cost a lot to run, and he’s been in debt for buying that place for a long time. Interest adds up.” said the fat man. Preston thought about Jacob sitting at his desk, hunched over the greasy receipts and papers and he thought who knows what else Jacob was working on in that room.
-“How do you know he’ll pay the money? Maybe he doesn’t even care about this girl, she’s just one of his workers.”
-“Not my problem. Look, if he’s a normal guy, he doesn’t want to have some girl’s life hanging over his head.”
-“Fine, so we get you the money, and you’ll give us Lola back. So, how do we meet and where do we bring the money?”
-“There’s a house,” said the fat man, “a few miles from here. Out in the country, that way we know nobody’s following you. Don’t tell anyone or bring anyone else with you, just you and the money.”
Danger is in the Air
He drove down the highway, further this time, past the diner, past the suburbs, into the country. The map they had given him led him to a dirt road that curved through the woods, and as he drove further he saw a clearing with an old broken down wooden house. It had a tall roof and almost looked like a church. The outside was bleached like driftwood. Maybe he has finally made it to Hawaii. There was a car parked in front of the house. Pulling up next to it, he drew up the briefcase with the money and opened the car door, and headed towards the front door. There was a man with a black blued steel shotgun standing outside the door, wearing a black suit and fedora. He pointed at Preston.
-“You’re late.” said the man with the machine-gun.
-“I’ve got the money.”
-“Good. Everyone is inside.”
Preston walked through the door. The living room was fairly basic and was full of old dusty antique furniture. Preston felt that it was very hot in the room, and he saw several men wearing suits and holding machine guns in the kitchen where the light was on.
-“Come in.” called a man from the kitchen.
-“Be right in.” said Preston.
Preston walked in and saw a man seated at the table like a throne room, surrounded by other little men with machine guns. He didn’t see the fat man he had met at Lola’s house the other day. The man at the table looked very serious. He was wearing a slightly shiny grey striped suit and his camelhair coat was draped across the table, sitting next to a glock pistol. A new gun, much more modern than his Mauser. Even though he was sitting, the man seemed to loom over him, and he seemed bigger than the other men.
-“Do you have the money?”
-“Straight to business, huh?”
-“That’s what we’re here for, isn’t it?”
Preston threw the briefcase full of money on the table. The man opened the briefcase and looked inside. Then he closed the briefcase.
-“Now get the fuck out of here.” said the seated man. He seemed like the leader, with the way he held himself, but appearances could be deceiving, just like small dogs barked the loudest, and Preston checked himself and snapped back to reality, and the man shrunk down to normal size again.
-“That’s it? Look, we had a deal. What about Lola? I want the girl.”
-“You really have no idea what you’re doing or who you’re dealing with. I suggest you get the fuck out of here while you can. Once we check with the boss, we’ll let her go. Or maybe we won’t. That’s up to us. The important thing is you’re still and alive and she’s got a better chance of staying alive too, now. Anyway, if he’s happy, he’ll let her go. That’s a fact, and there is honor among thieves. Tell Jacob that the guys from the Beehive say ‘Hi’.”
-“Wait, that wasn’t the agreeme-“ Preston was interrupted by two of the men witwho grabbed him by the arms and rudely started carrying him out. They opened the door and shoved him outside. Like bouncers at a club with a drunk, or a rookie private detective foolheartedly trying to save a damsel in distress.
-“Get the fuck out of here.” said one of the men, who spat on the ground next to Preston and dusted off his coat with disdain. They walked back inside. They didn’t even bother to watch him to make sure he left. They didn’t take him seriously at all. He felt like a sissy. He was a joke to these gangsters.
But Preston knew Lola was in the house somewhere. He felt some sort of obligation to her, and he could almost feel her calling to him, arms outstretched like Aphrodite in a Greek painting, like his conscience, to do the right thing. He walked back to his car, got in and opened the glove compartment. He felt the cold black lump of steel from the German Mauser in his palm. He took it out and shoved it into his belt.
Making sure that nobody was watching from inside the house, he walked around to the back yard. They had luckily underestimated him. Some working stiff who was soft from lounging in an office all day, surrounded by raw oysters and bloody Marys and beautiful secretaries. There was a gate in the backyard fence. He checked and it was unlocked. The light in the bedroom of the second story of the house was on, and he could see the light through the closed blinds. Preston guessed that's where she was being held. It seemed like the most logical place. Difficult to escape from, and difficult to see into, and away from the front rooms. Even in this place they had taken some precautions, although he sensed they had made some tactical errors due to lack of competition in their small city. Preston could hear music from a radio echoing down the stairs from the top floor. Jazz music, it sounded like Ella Fitzgerald. He didn’t know gangsters had a taste for vintage jazz. It sounded brightly through the crisp cold air:
I've got you under my skin.
I've got you deep in the heart of me.
So deep in my heart that you're really a part of me.
I've got you under my skin.
I'd tried so not to give in.
I said to myself: this affair never will go so well.
But why should I try to resist when, baby, I know so well
I've got you under my skin?
It was barely audible through the glass and in his weary state propped up solely by adrenaline, he had the strange notion that the song sounded like the sound of birds chirping, or the voices of children talked excitedly in a playground, echoing in the distance. The same noise he had heard on the phone in his office. How strange. It was late and the sun was turning orange as it went down through the trees, and everything looked blurry as he tired from exertion as he climbed the back wall of the house, holding on to the drainpipe and window sills, trying not to bend or break anything on the old crumbling structure and make any noise.
Very slowly he opened the window, and crawled through, careful to be quiet. Everything was very vivid. The lights seemed brighter and his hands were shaking and he could see all the details of the wood patterns on the furniture and the cracks in the paint on the walls. He felt the pistol under his shirt again. He heard the jazz music coming from the room next door. He heard the guard talking to Lola:
-“Well, well, well. Looks like our boss has a lot in store for you. The rest of the guys are headed back here pretty soon, then we’ll head out. Went to get snacks from the drug store down the road. Sounds like your boyfriend didn’t do much to save you. Didn’t even show up.” the man lied. “You know, I've grown quite fond of you. You've been a good listener, way better than my wife. She never really listens, but I can tell you really care. You really do, I can tell by the way you look at me, even though you can’t talk. All my wife does is talk about herself. Constantly, like she were the only person who ever existed in the history of mankind. I feel like we’ve grown closer, you and me, and soon we’ll be good friends, talking buddies.”
-The man continued his monologue, “I bet you got pretty good with getting along with people from working as a waitress. Got to listen to people’s problems all day long, I bet. Small, meaningless problems. But, I mean, it helps with the tips doesn’t it? Serving people is the only true meritocracy left in this country, I say. They don’t like the eggs, the ham, the way their steak is cooked. I mean, in the big scheme of things, eggs don’t really matter, do they? I mean, when you really think about it, when it comes down to life and death, like right now, we start to think about the real issues in life. I mean, who cares about the texture of your eggs when you could die any second? What about the bad decisions you made in the past. The girls you passed up, they could have been true love. What led you to where you are now? Where did you go wrong? Maybe I should have done something else with my life. Should have become a teacher, then I could have saved the world.” the man was a vulgar philosopher.
Preston listened for the guard’s footsteps, and after he stopped talking for awhile he heard the man open the door, close it, and walk down the hall. Another door opened and closed. Probably went to go take a leak. He opened the door quietly, and slipped into the next room where Lola was.
He saw Lola laying on the bed. Her eyes were closed. Her mouth was gagged and her hands and feet were tied to the chair she was sitting on. It made him feel a little sick. She twisted her head immediately to stare at him wide-eyed, her eyes red and mascara running from crying, like the film poster for Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He motioned for her to be quiet. She nodded. He went into the closet, went in, closed the door, and waited for the guard to come back.
He pulled the Mauser out of his belt, quietly. Quietly, quietly, he undid the safety on the gun. It made a soft click, wincingly, but luckily the noise from the radio drowned it out. The guard returned, opened the door and strode into the room. Held his hands on his hips and cocked his head as he looked at Lola, with his back to Preston. Preston quietly opened the closet door and crept up as the man started jabbering away again, and all movement was drowned out by the sound of jazz music. By the sound of birds chirping and children laughing.
Preston slammed the pistol as hard as he could into the back of the guard’s head, and the guard crumpled forward and hit his head on the edge of a desk. Ouch. He started to bleed a bit into the carpet. He was out cold. Quickly, Preston undid Lola’s ropes.
-“How are we going to get out of here?” asked Lola.
-“Be quiet. We can go out the window, and and make a run for it to my car.” said Preston.
-“I know of another way out. If they see us from the front window, they’ll shoot us and we’ll be dead.”
-“Where is it?”
-“Downstairs. In the basement. There’s a passage, an old tunnel from Prohibition they used to use to smuggle liquor into this house and store it.”
-“Great, so now they are using it to smuggle you, I guess. How do you know all of this anyway? How do you know this place?”
-“This is my town, I’m telling you, I know it. I grew up here and it’s under my skin, deep in the heart of me, just like Ella says. I’ll tell you about it later.” said Lola. He got the sense there was a lot going on that he didn’t understand. He felt there was a lot going on in her statement.
They went downstairs and opened the basement door. It was dark and smelled like mold, spores, and dirt. They descended into the darkness, quietly as always. Walking through the old dusty shelves and came across an old door. Preston kicked it open. It lead into a tunnel, which seemed to have been carved into the rock wall, and was only high enough to crouch through. They went head first into the darkness. They could only hear the wind flowing through the tunnel and feel the coldness of the walls, the whooshing sound like the waves in the ocean as they tossed about adrift on a small boat in a large, stormy sea.
The trapdoor flew open and they emerged into the sunlight. They climbed out and into the crisp winter air. It was refreshing and cleared Preston’s lungs. Looking around, they were somewhere in the woods on the outskirts of the house in the clearing. The clearing lit up the area and he felt refreshed, emerging into the light, away from evil men. They ran, as fast as they could, towards the nearest town.
Preston's Boss's House
Peter never thought he'd feel so glad to be back to society. He was tired of journeys, of adventures. Soon, the boss would be back from his vacation and he would be able to go back to work. He looked forward to being back in the office where he felt bored everyday. Boredom would be a good thing. He should never have forgotten the advice his father had given him when he was young.
Lola couldn't go back to the diner, of course, and he didn't know where else to take her, so he took her to the office with him. He set her up in one of the little cots they had in one of the break rooms, and made her coffee. He felt like a private detective or something. Or a kid, hiding a runaway under his bed.
Preston decided that it was best if they both hid out in Preston’s boss’s house since he was away. Preston remembered that he was supposed to check in on the house once in awhile, and that he’d been left the key.
When he left the office he noticed there was a bee's nest in a tree outside, in the strangely elaborate garden of the industrial park where the building was. There were all sorts of strange plants there, it was like a botanical garden, with strange, winding trees and plants, a preserve sponsored by businesses that nobody had the time or attention span to visit or care about. The bees were yellow, with black stripes, they were just normal bees. He hadn’t even noticed the hive before. The cleaning staff should probably get rid of that, he thought. What the hell was a bee's nest doing right outside the door of the building? Someone could get stung one of these days.
He went back to his office that night and opened up the portfolio holding his boss’s documents again. He started reading the rest of the letter his boss had written:
-make sure not to break anything. I realize what I’m asking is a lot. I’m asking you because I trust you, and that’s the main thing. There’s really nobody else who I have confidence in and who I trust at the same time. Perhaps that’s the downside of you working for me. I always ask unreasonable things but you always know that I do things for you as well. I think it goes both ways. So if you do this for me, I can promise you that I’ll do something for you in the future, although I can’t really say what that’s going to be right now.
Winston was always vague, and the mystery of where he got the money to start the company, his history, and what he did in his personal life.
They took his boss’s car, a yellow corvette. Unfortunate, that such a car was sure to draw some attention. He took the Mauser and put it in the glove compartment. It was an old gun, and it stood in contrast to the stylish modern sportscar. When they got to the house, it was not what Preston expected. As they drove up the bend on the hill where the house was, he saw that the main house was basically a mansion, with a circular fountain built in the front lined with greenery, and the house was white with three stories and tall windows, and roman columns on front driveway, where they would park their car. But there was an extension on the side of the house, which looked like an older house onto which the new house had been built. It looked a bit creepy - like it had been in disrepair for some time.
But as they drove up to the house, they spotted two figures standing by the front door. There were two men standing there, holding machine guns, one of them was the guard from the house in the clearing, with a bandage on his head from where Preston had wounded his pride. They looked up at the approaching car with apprehension in their eyes.
-“Keep going with the car.” said Lola.
-“What? Are you crazy? They’re going to kill us.” said Preston.
-“No, don’t you see the fear in their eyes? Keep going. They won’t shoot us. They don’t want to kill anyone.”
-“And what’s your plan?”
-“Just trust me.”
Preston drove the car up the the driveway, near where the men were standing.
-“Who’s that?” said one of the men in surprise.
-“That’s the master’s mistress.” said the former guard, with apprehension in his voice. They both had fear in their eyes, and didn’t move to shoot at the car. They seemed shocked that the two of them had simply driven up to the house without thought or fear. Sometimes the unexpected was the best to do, the brazenly and openly unexpected.
Lola opened the glove compartment and pulled out the Mauser, then opened the car door and quickly shot both of the men in the head, all in one movement. It happened very quickly, they weren’t expecting it and didn’t have time to react. She was a crack shot, hit both of them square in the forehead from about 20 feet away without missing. They crumpled to the ground and Lola held the smoking gun. The gunshot still echoed in the woods around them. She stood there in the darkness, her shadow cast against the white walls of the house and still in the cold darkness. Preston got out of the car.
-“Who are you? How did you know how to shoot that gun like that? And what the hell were they talking about?” he demanded.
-“They have no idea what they’re saying. Don’t worry, you’ve got nothing to worry about from me. Just follow me, we’ve got to finish things now that it’s gotten started, otherwise, the heart down there will just grow larger and consume everything.”
-“What? You’re talking crazy. What’s going on here?”
-“We’ve got to go into the house now. Come with me.” she said and grabbed Preston by the hand.
They went into the house through the large front door, through the foyer of the mansion and turned left, towards where the old part of the house was. They went through door after door, through the dining room, through more rooms, until they got to a very old door, which Lola led him through as well. The old part of the house was very dark, and the wallpaper on the walls was peeling. There were old portraits and pictures on the walls, old wooden furniture and opulent antiques in old world style. She led him down to the basement, down the dark stairs, until it got darker and darker.
They kept going, and it seems like the stairs led down forever, winding downwards like a storm or a plume of smoke. They went down further, and the stairs seemed to turn on their own and lurched to the right. Eventually they got to a hallway which opened up into a room that held a rectangular wooden shack, jutting out of the wall. What was such a rickety shack doing down here? They went into the dusty shack and the room led down into a hole, which they jumped down into. The hole was like a small chute, and they slid down the chute and slid and slid until they fell into a large room with a plop - they were sitting in blood. There was something organic in the middle - it looked like a human heart, and it had veins protruding from it’s sides which connected to the walls. Very strange, all of this, he thought, and the heart-shaped object pulsated oddly. It made a strange sound as the surface of it moved in waves. The ground was a pool of blood which flowed out of the heart. It seemed to be leaking.
-“What is that thing?” asked Preston.
-“It’s the heart of this house. It’s the heart of everything evil.” answered Lola.
-“And where are we exactly?”
-“We’re in the basement of the boss’ house.”
-“Somehow that doesn’t seem to answer my question. Which boss? Your boss or the mob boss?”
-“Either, or both. Who knows. Maybe they’re the same person. But we’ve got to destroy that thing. That’s all you’ve got to know.”
Lola took the Mauser and shot at the heart several times. It didn’t seem to have much effect, and the heart just sort of seemed to absorb the blows. The slugs slammed into the meat wall with a dull wet smacking sound. The sides kept undulating with every beat and dark blood kept coursing through the arteries that fused into the walls.
-“We’ve got to do something more drastic.” said Lola.
She took the explosives from the briefcase and placed it underneath the heart, among a nest of veins and arteries leading in different directions in the darkness. She lit the very long fuse of the dynamite. It sparked and created shadows in the darkness, slowly growing shorter, the fire creeping towards the briefcase. The heart was beating faster. It seemed to lurch towards them, as if something was trying to escape, but little did it know it was going to explode from the inside.
-“We’ve got to go.” said Lola.
-I’m on you. Let’s get out of here.”
It looked like there was an escape route, a shortcut or convenient easy way out. There was no way back up the chute, and there was a door on the side of the room. They entered the door way, through a series of complicated passageways, which led to a long hallway that seemed to go on forever. It let up and to a trap door in the ceiling, and made their way out of the house. The trap door opened near the front door, and they made their way quickly to the yellow corvette.
As they drove away in the yellow corvette the house exploded, sending debris flying, and they rode away back to Preston’s office, where they spent the night.
The next day, Preston walked outside and there were lizards in the garden outside the office, amongst the trees. The lizards were in the water waiting for flies to eat. Lola returned home and said she would go to work in the afternoon.
Back to Work
Preston returned to work the next day after sleeping in his office as if nothing had happened. Things went normally and the flow of the office kept his mind off of things. After work, he went by Lola’s diner.
He went down to the basement, and spoke to Jacob. Jacob was at his desk still, hunched over his desk and doing paperwork. The world was run by little pieces of paper, by imaginary invisible words and numbers moving around in people’s heads, while people ran around and shoveled real plates around and shot guns.
-“Who is Lola anyway?” asked Preston.
-“She’s nobody, don’t worry about it.” replied Jacob wearily, turning from his desk.
-“Nobodies don’t know how to shoot guns.”
-“Anyway, I owe you the money now. I’ll pay you back. I imagine you didn’t get anything back from the gangsters.”
-“You’re right. It was a lot of money.”
-“My debt is yours now. Although I’m more indebted to you than just money, since you brought Lola back from the dead. So you can be sure I’ll pay you back.”
-“I don’t know how I feel about that.”
-“Don’t worry, just keep coming back here and get free food when you want. We’ll give you payments every month from our profits here until your paid back in full.”
Lola was there waiting tables as normal. She walked up to him after he sat down on the red vinyl seats and asked asked him what he’d like to eat.
-“Big Kahuna. Steak and mashed potatoes, please.” Preston gave the password.
-“Coming right up! We’re going to name a Big Kahuna steak after you one of these days, but we’d be giving away the password!” said Lola, happy to be back at work again, things settling down.
-“We’ll just have to change it when you make the new steak.”
-“Oh, we couldn’t do that at all, couldn’t change the password. It feels special for some reason, I remember you for it.”
When the plate arrived he ate the mashed potatoes and cut into the steak. The steak was rare again, as he liked it, and blood flowed out of the steak as he cut into it. The juices tasted good and it felt very nourishing as he ate the steak. He chatted a bit with the waitresses and they were very nice to him. The place had a kind of family feel, like they wanted to be there, not like corporate puppet strings were controlling their movements, at least.
The place felt like the kitchen in a house, although there were no families there he felt like there were several sitting at the tables. It was warm and light inside and in the warmth it felt like it was indestructible. He felt like he would never die, as long as he stayed in here. But from the cracks in the basement door, although it could have been his imagination, he thought he could hear a faint rumbling in the distance, like the beating of a heart or the sound of children laughing, calling to him.