Thursday, November 26, 2015

Chapter Eighteen

                 Alex woke up at eight o’clock the following morning.  He noticed, without much surprise, that Harold had laid out an outfit for him at some point.  Digging through his closet, he realized that he didn’t have any clothes that were clean apart from what Harold had put together for him.  With a sigh, Alex put on the clean clothes, and went out to see what he could figure out for breakfast before getting to work again.
                Harold was nowhere to be seen, but there was a clean bowl, a spoon, and a box of corn flakes left out on the table.  There was also a fresh pot of coffee, and a clean mug waiting next to the coffee maker.
                With the first cup of coffee for the day in one hand, Alex grabbed a carton of milk from the refrigerator and sat down to have some corn flakes.
                Nearly the moment Alex had put the first spoonful of corn flakes in his mouth, his phone rang.  The name of the caller that came up was ‘Megan’.  Alex glanced at the time (eight twenty three) and wondered why Megan was calling him already.  She had to have just gotten up as well.  He swallowed his cereal, and answered the phone.
                “Hey Megan, what’s up?” Alex said.
                “Good morning, Mr. Minor,” Megan said.  “I thought you might be interested to know who the guys were that ambushed you two last night.”
                “Seriously?  You’ve found them already?” Alex said.
                “Of course.  It wasn’t that hard, they screwed up traffic on a major freeway and drew guns on you – the internet is full of photos taken by everyone who witnessed it,” Megan said.
                “Wow, so we’ve got clear photos of these guys?” Alex said.
                “No such luck, but we do have photos of their cars which, in this case, is almost as good.  And we even got a couple shots of one of their license plates,” Megan said.
                “That’s incredible,” Alex said.  “So, what have you been able to find about them?”
                He was on his feet, breakfast forgotten, looking for a pen and paper to make notes with.  He didn’t have to go far, fortunately.  There was a pen and notepad right where he’d left them on his desk.
                “They’re part of a car racing club that seems to be connected with a lot of automobile thefts.  Some more digging turned up some other crimes that club members have been involved with.  My guess is that they’re using criminal means to fund their racing hobby,” Megan said.
                “Hmm… So the chances are that someone hired them to steal the artifacts, as opposed to them stealing them for their own purposes,” Alex said.
                “Well, that could be, unless they somehow got wind of what you guys were doing and thought they’d be able to resell the artifacts,” Megan said.  “I kind of doubt that they’re a club of automotive racing and occultism enthusiasts, though.”
                “Yeah, right,” Alex said. “So have you got the names of these guys?”
                “No, but I’ve got the address that one of the cars is registered at,” Megan said.  “I’ve emailed it to you, along with some of the better photos I found.”
                “Awesome, thanks Megan!” Alex said.
                “You’re welcome, Mr. Minor,” Megan said.  “Have you got any idea who might be motivated enough to hire these guys?”
                “Not yet,” Alex said.  “I’m thinking the guy who we recovered the artifacts from isn’t well connected enough to have put something like that together so quickly.  I’m trying to figure out who could possibly have known where we were with enough precision to catch us like that, too.  It’s not like Harold and I advertised our travel plans.”
                “Well, someone has been keeping an eye on you.  Anyway, I’ll let you know if I find anything else,” Megan said.
                “OK, thanks Megan,” Alex said. 
                He ended the call, and went back to his cereal.  He took a bite, and was disappointed to find it had gone soggy already.  Oh well.
                A voice just over Alex’s left shoulder said, “Good morning, Mr. Minor.”
                Alex jumped a bit, and splashed some of his coffee on the table.
                “Ugh, shit.  Good morning, Harold,” Alex said.  He used a paper napkin to mop up the spilled coffee.  Once he’d gotten it cleaned up to his satisfaction, he turned to face Harold.  Harold looked alert and was dressed as if he’d just finished getting ready for an important meeting, to Alex’s amazement.  Alex hadn’t even bothered to comb his hair yet.
                “Was that Megan on the phone?” Harold said.
                “Yes,” Alex said.  “She learned that the guys who ambushed us are part of some kind of outlaw auto racing club.  Who even knew there was such a thing?”
                “I don’t think it’s that surprising,” Harold said.  “Are we going to assume that they were hired hands, then?”
                “I think so,” Alex said.
                “Any ideas on who would have hired them?” Harold said.
                “Not yet,” Alex said. 
                “What information was Megan able to give us about this club?” Harold said.
                “She didn’t say much about the club.  She did say that she was able to find all kinds of photos of the guys involved, and their cars.  And she found the address that one of the cars is registered at.  So, that’s a good start, I think,” Alex said.
                “An address is a very good start,” Harold said.  “What time are we going to leave?”
                “Well, I’d like to finish breakfast first,” Alex said.
                ‘Of course, Mr. Minor.  Did Megan email you the information she found?” Harold said.
                “Yes, she said she was going to,” Alex said.  “It’s probably already here.  I’ll print it off in just a minute.”
                “Excellent,” Harold said.  He left the kitchen then and went to sit on the sofa, where he picked up one of the occult books Alex had purchased while they were in California. 
                Alex had no idea what Harold hoped to learn from those books, but if Harold was sitting in one place and reading, at the very least it meant that Alex had a pretty good idea of where Harold was, so it didn’t bother him at all if Harold used his free time to sit and read.
                When he had finished with his (now very soggy) cornflakes, Alex topped up his coffee and logged in to check his email and print off the information Megan had sent.  The address she’d found looked like it was for an apartment complex in a suburb of St. Paul.  The photos of the cars matched up very closely with how Harold had described them.  None of the photos showed much detail of the guys who had been involved, however.  He printed everything off, and took the printouts over to Harold.
                “Here’s the info Megan found for us,” Alex said, and handed Harold the stack of paper.  “I guess I’ll go brush my teeth so we can get moving.”
                “Very good, Mr. Minor,” Harold said.
                Twenty minutes later, the two of them were in the minivan on their way to see if the address they had was actually accurate.  Alex wasn’t sure what they would do, exactly, if it was a good address, but he figured it would be better than the alternative of not having any leads at all.
                Harold and Alex were both occupied with navigating the best route, trying to stick to roads that had a speed limit of forty five miles per hour or less.  Alex was glad Harold was driving – the slow pace was killing him, and it was nice to have the distraction of actually having to read the maps and monkey with the GPS.  Harold did his part in the navigation by giving Alex information such as “No, that’s a one way road going the wrong way,” and, “decide which way to go quickly, this road is going to force us onto a freeway soon.”
                It took close to an hour to make a fifteen mile drive, but they arrived at an apartment complex in Eagan safely and relatively unshaken.
A quick drive through the parking lot didn’t reveal any familiar looking customized cars.  There were, however, lots of garages.  And, of course, there was also the possibility that the person they were there to find wasn’t home.  Or that the address wasn’t right. 
Harold parked the minivan in one of the spots marked for guests. 
                “Was Megan able to provide us with an apartment number?” Harold said.
              “Yeah, hang on,” Alex said, and looked again at the address.  “It’s apartment 316.”
                “Let’s see if anyone is home, then,” Harold said. 
                They got out of the minivan (Alex cringed at the noise the hinges made), and walked to the main entrance to the building.  They were disappointed to find that the building was secured, so they wouldn’t be able to just walk up to apartment 316 and see who was home.  There was an intercom system, however.
                Alex found the button for apartment 316 and pressed it.  The speaker in the intercom came to life, and they heard a dial tone, followed by the actual dialing, and finally, ringing.
                “What are you going to say to get the person who answers to let us in?” Harold asked Alex.
                “I don’t know. We’re selling Girl Scout cookies or something.  I’ll wing it once I hear their voice,” Alex said.
                The ringing didn’t continue long, before it went to a generic voice mail message that just said, “Please leave your message after the tone,” in a robotic woman’s voice.  After a few second, they heard the intercom click off again.
                “Well, shoot,” Alex said.  “Nobody home.”
                “So it would seem,” Harold said.
                Just then, a woman carrying a bag in each hand came to the door.  She turned to the side and used her hip to push the door open.
                Harold took the door and opened it the rest of the way, saying “Allow me to help you, madam.”
                She gave Harold and Alex a perfunctory smile and said thanks as she hurried down the sidewalk.
                Harold kept ahold of the door, and gestured for Alex to enter.  “After you, Mr. Minor,” he said.
                “Thank you, Harold,” Alex said.
                There was an elevator nearby, and Alex pressed the “Up” button.  Somewhere, the motor came to life, and they could hear the elevator slowly making its way down to the floor they were on.  It arrived after a surprisingly long time, and opened.  There was no one inside.
                “Wow, what took so long?” Alex said as they got on the elevator.  He pressed the button for the third floor, and after a few seconds, the door closed again.
                Getting to the third floor from the ground floor took an even longer time. 
                “I think we probably should have taken the stairs,” Alex said.
                “We’ll have to keep that in mind for when we leave,” Harold said.
                Once they finally reached the third floor (Alex suspected it had taken a solid five minutes), it was a simple matter to find apartment 316.  There was a bright light on the far side of the peephole. 
                These places must get a lot of sunshine, Alex thought.
                He knocked several times, then stepped back and waited next to Harold.  After a few seconds, they saw the peephole go dark, then it got bright again.  No one answered the door.
                “Jerk,” Alex muttered.  He knocked again and waited.  Then again.  And again.
                At some point, whoever was inside realized that Alex and Harold weren’t going to just go away.  The peephole went dark again for several seconds, then they heard the door unlock.  The door pulled open slightly, and stopped at the end of a chain lock.
                The man inside clearly didn’t recognize them, but Alex and Harold definitely recognized him.  He was one of the guys who had been involved with the ambush.  Alex made a mental note to buy Megan a pizza for giving him this guy’s address.
                “Yeah? Can I help you somehow?” is what the guy said.  He was doing his best to sound streetwise and intimidating.  It didn’t work.
                Harold said, “Yes, I’ve come to collect my luggage.”
                Alex would have been hard-pressed to describe what happened next, because it was so sudden and unexpected that he couldn’t believe he had seen it.
                One second Harold was standing next to him there in the hallway and then, in a blur of tasteful grey wool, he was somehow inside the apartment, despite the chain, and keeping the guy who had opened the door in a chokehold.
                “Let my associate in, won’t you?” Harold said, as calmly polite as ever, to the very surprised man he was currently restraining.
                The man grabbed fruitlessly at Harold’s arm instead.  Harold lifted him off the floor, effortlessly, and said, “It’s very rude of you to keep my associate waiting outside.”  
                The man being restrained seemed to understand his predicament then, and frantically slid the chain back so the door could open.  Harold lowered him to his feet again.
                “Thank you,” Harold said.  “It’s very kind of you to see us on such short notice.”
                Alex was nearly as surprised by this series of events as the man being restrained, but he let himself into the apartment, closed the door behind him, and locked it.  When he turned back to face Harold and the man, Alex saw where all the light was coming from after all.
                “Let’s sit down and have a little chat,” Harold said to the man, still keeping a tight hold on him.
                He turned and walked the man further into the apartment.  Inside, there was a large number of grow lights hanging over pots with small green shoots starting to come up out of the soil.
                “Growing tomatoes?  I enjoy a bit of gardening myself,” Harold said.  “I used to cultivate orchids, but that was quite a while back.”
                The man said nothing.
                Harold led him over to a couch, and said, “I’m going to let you go now, and you are going to sit down on the sofa.  We are all going to have a civil conversation, and then my associate and I will leave you to your business.  I’d like to remind you, however, that if you should decide to try anything funny, I am much faster than you, and I have never been known for my sense of humor.  Is that clear?”
                “Yes,” the man said.  He was starting to look a little pale.
                “Good.  Have a seat, won’t you?” Harold said.
                He released the man he had been holding, who took two big steps away from Harold and spun to face him with his fists clenched.  Harold raised one eyebrow, slightly, and the man facing him paused, apparently thought better of what he was doing, and sat down on the sofa.
                Harold sat down on a chair across from him.  Alex remained standing, not sure exactly what was going on, but glad he was on the right side of it.
                “Please do sit down, Mr. Minor,” Harold said.  “I believe you have some things you wish to discuss with this gentleman as well.”
                Alex shook his head, and sat down in the chair next to Harold’s.
                “I believe some introductions are in order,” Harold said.  “I am Mr. Derby.  My associate is, of course, Mr. Minor.  And what is your name, Mr. Um?”
                The man on the couch twisted his lip slightly, and said, “Joe.”
                “It’s good to properly meet you at last then, Mr. Joe,” Harold said.  “Now then, where is my luggage?”
                “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Joe said.
                “Of course you do.  I’m talking about the luggage that you and your friends took possession of the other night.  By mistake,” Harold said. 
                “I have no idea what you mean,” Joe said.
                Harold sighed. 
                “Mr. Joe, we are all friends here, and I assure you there are no hard feelings over a simple misunderstanding.  I would quite like to have my luggage back, however,” he said.
                “Go piss up a rope,” Joe said.
                Harold fell silent for a moment.  He steepled his fingers and frowned for a moment, deep in thought.
                “Mr. Joe, do you know what a universal joint is?” Harold said.
                Joe said nothing.
                “Allow me to explain then.  In the simplest terms, a universal joint is one that can move in any direction,” Harold said.
                “So what?” Joe said.
                “Well, here is an interesting fact for you.  There are, roughly three hundred and sixty joints in the human body, depending on what you define as a joint.  I’ve sat down with a copy of a recent anatomy textbook and counted them myself, it was terribly interesting.  It was interesting enough, in fact, that I’ve memorized them without meaning to.  And do you know what I found particularly interesting, Mr. Joe?” Harold said.
                “What?” Joe said.
                “How many of them aren’t supposed to move at all, and how easily that little problem can be overcome.  Perhaps you would be interested in a demonstration,” Harold said.  He sat back and let Joe process what he’d just said.
                Joe looked puzzled for a moment, and then his eyes cleared.  He went pale again.
                “So, Mr. Joe, if you could tell me what has become of my luggage, I would be most grateful,” Harold said.
                Joe’s suddenly sounded much more respectful.
                “I really don’t know,” he said.  “A couple of the other guys took it.  I don’t think they were all that interested in your bag, even.  We were just supposed to stop you guys and get whatever it was you were carrying,” Joe said.
                Alex asked, “So you don’t know what it was you guys stole from us?”
                “Just that it was old,” Joe said.  “The lady who hired us didn’t tell us much, just that she wanted it and how much she was willing to pay to get it.”
                “The lady who hired you?” Alex said.
                Joe fell silent.
                “Who was it that hired you, Mr. Joe?” Harold said.
                Joe stayed quiet. 
Harold cleared his throat, stretched his arms out in front of him, and cracked his knuckles.
“I don’t know, man.  Just some lady,” Joe said quickly.
“Did she have a name?” Alex said.
“I think it was Porter, but you didn’t hear that from me,” Joe said.
“Porter?” Alex said.
He and Harold exchanged a glance.
“How did you guys find us, anyway?” Alex said.
“It’s pretty easy to find a new, red Mustang that’s all bashed up,” Joe said.
Alex felt heat rising in his face, and his legs tensed up under him.
“You were the fuckers who did that to my car?” he said. 
Harold said, “Remember, Mr. Minor, this is a friendly conversation.  That’s all.”
Alex took a second to get himself under control again.  On the one hand, he was eager to jump on Joe and choke him out himself.  But on the other hand, Harold’s technique of being politely menacing was getting a lot of information out of this kid.
“OK, so you knew what my car looked like.  How did you know where we’d be?” Alex said.
“One of us followed you to the airport a couple of nights ago.  Then the lady we were working for told us you were coming back last night.  We knew what route you’d probably take, so we just had to wait for you to drive by,” Joe said.
“How the hell did she know when we were coming back?” Alex said, to no one.
“Mr. Joe,“ Harold said, “Who had my luggage last?”

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