Sunday, November 1, 2015

Chapter One

Alex Minor was aware that one of his weaknesses was an inability to tolerate boredom.  It had taken him a while to realize it, costing him several jobs and, he realized, probably some friendships.  He was grateful, at least, that now he knew, and therefore he was able to work on correcting himself.
                So far, he’d failed at correcting himself.  He had, however, gotten better at keeping himself from getting bored.  And since he’d been recruited to work for Mr. Darcy, he hadn’t found himself fighting boredom very often.
                If Alex was being honest, and usually he was, he’d tell you that getting recruited by Mr. Darcy had turned out to be one of the best things that had ever happened to him.  Even if it did mean he found himself in dangerous situations, impossible situations, and now and then, impossibly dangerous situations.
                It beat being bored.
                That morning, however, Alex had realized he was bored.  Mr. Darcy hadn’t had an assignment for him in a couple of weeks.  So, there he was on a Tuesday morning, without anything to do.  Some people might cherish the opportunity to relax and take care of any odds and ends that they hadn’t been able to take care of due to work obligations.
                Alex, however, was losing his mind.  He’d tried sleeping in before giving up on it, getting out of bed, making coffee, briefly looking through a few of his favorite websites, and realizing if he didn’t get out of the apartment as soon as possible, he was going to go barking mad.
                 Which is how it came to be that on a fine Tuesday afternoon, he was running his Mustang flat out along the road approaching the border of South Dakota.  He had Fu Manchu blasting on the Mustang’s sound system, just barely audible above the song of the exhaust, wind and road noise.  The road wasn’t in the best shape, and the stiff suspension in the Mustang let Alex know about every single bump in the road. 
                Alex felt relaxed and focused.  The noise and sheer immediacy of his forward velocity (currently in the triple digits, and holding) worked better than meditation when it came to quieting down his brain.   The sun was high in the sky, a fine July day, not a cloud to be seen. 
Alex turned on the air conditioning.  In the distance he saw the twinkle of sunlight off of glass.  A windshield.  He’d had the road to himself for nearly an hour.  Glancing down at the speedometer, Alex figured it would only be another twenty minutes or so until he was in South Dakota.  At the moment, his plan was to find the first restaurant that looked like they served steak and stop there for lunch.
The road was only one lane in each direction, and the windshield Alex had noticed in the distance was getting closer, quickly.  Something about it seemed familiar, and Alex took another look.
His stomach sank as he realized it looked familiar because, as it got closer and closer, it was in the exact shape of a police car.  Alex glanced at the speedometer.
“Crap,” he muttered to himself.  There was no way he was going to be able to avoid getting a ticket.  At this point, the best he could do is try to scrub off speed and hope he was able to get it low enough that he didn’t get himself a ticket for going over one hundred miles per hour.  That could mean a one thousand dollar fine (not that big a deal), ninety days in jail (definitely a problem) and possibly even losing his license (a huge problem).
Stepping firmly on the brake pedal, Alex felt the Mustang’s big brakes bite and he needed to hold himself up to keep from pitching forward.  He alternated between watching the road, the approaching cop, and the speedometer.  The needle fell past 135, 125, 115, 100, 95, 85.  The cop was close enough now that Alex could see the lightbar clearly on top of the officer’s car.  It was not lit, yet.  75, 70, 65…  The cop was right on top of him.  Alex looked to see what the officer driving was doing.
What he was doing, Alex realized, was wagging his finger, No-no, at him. 
The cop passed by, and kept going.  To Alex’s amazement, the cop didn’t swing a fast u-turn and come charging up behind Alex.  Instead, in a matter of minutes, Alex couldn’t even see the police car in his rearview mirror any longer.
He laughed to himself, and said, “I can’t believe that just happened.”  Someone was on his side today, apparently.
Alex promptly downshifted and stomped on the gas.  He wasn’t able to suppress his smile as the engine howled and the car leapt forward once more.  The force of the acceleration, even at seventy miles per hour, shoved him back into his seat    
The Mustang was pretty new, and was his favorite toy.  Alex had owned other Mustangs in the past, but this one was the best yet.  Super-charged, tuned, bright red and barely even street legal, it was impossible to be bored in that car, since the slightest lapse in attention would probably send the driver careening into a high-speed collision.
The last car Alex had owned was also a Mustang, but it had been pretty worn out.  Since then, he’d been using cars owned by Mr. Darcy until Alex realized he wanted his own car.  And there was no reason not to buy the exact car he wanted.
Working for Mr. Darcy was, well, highly remunerative.  He’d managed to amass a small fortune, watch it go up in flames in a house-fire, and had made it all back again in a matter of weeks.  He’d thought about buying himself a very nice house, and had even shopped several homes (ones with ballrooms), before realizing that he typically spent less than one night a week in his own bed.  And he almost never entertained anyone that wasn’t a co-worker.  A big house would have just been a source of boring problems.
So, instead, Alex rented a nice loft in Minneapolis.  He was on the top floor, and the building was well secured.  He had enough space for himself, and room for the occasional guest.  He couldn’t ask for more.  As such, the Mustang was, pretty much, his biggest indulgence.
Alex saw a billboard for a restaurant called The Chuck House.  It had a photo of an enormous steak.  The sign said it was just five miles up the road, too.  Good thing too, Alex was ready for a steak.
A couple of minutes later, Alex pulled off the road into a dirt parking lot in front of a run down looking building that had a big sign over the door that proclaimed that this was The Chuck House.  Every other vehicle in the lot was a lifted pickup truck, none of them newer than 1985.  Alex was pretty sure this place would make a mean steak.
Stretching as he got out of the Mustang, Alex looked around and noted that this was the only building visible in any direction.  Apart from The Chuck House, the only thing to see was miles and miles of corn fields.
It kind of gave him the creeps.  Alex had to admit, he was a city kid all the way through.
The gravel crunched under his feet as he crossed the parking lot.  After the door to the restaurant closed behind him, it took a couple of minutes for his eyes to adjust to the dark inside.  There were neon signs over the bar, and all of the furniture was made of heavy, dark wood.  He felt like he was in his grandparent’s basement.  He also became aware that everyone in the restaurant was looking at him.
“Have a seat where ever you like,” a woman’s voice said.  The woman speaking to him was standing behind the bar, wiping out beer mugs with a white cloth.
There were several stools open at the bar.  Alex picked one and sat down.
“What’ll you have?” the bartender asked him, setting down a napkin in front of him.
“A glass of Budweiser, I guess, and a menu,” Alex said.
The bartender produced a bottle of Budweiser from a cooler right in front of Alex, opened it and set it down in front of him.  She pulled a menu off the counter behind her and handed to Alex.
“You want me to get some chislic going for you while you decide?” She said.
“Some what?” Alex said.  He wasn’t sure he’d even heard what she’d said.
“Chislic,” she said again.  “It goes down good with beer.”
“What’s that?” Alex said.
“Food of the gods,” she said.  “And the best kept secret of South Dakota.”
Alex smiled.  “OK, but what is it?”
“Deep-fried chunks of meat, with toothpicks.”
“Well, I don’t see how I can go wrong with that,” Alex said.  “I just wanted to be sure it’s not lightly battered and fried bull’s balls.”
The bartender raised an eyebrow at him. “What kind of place do you think I’m running here?”
“OK, OK, I’ll try it.  Have you got ribeye steaks?”
“Best ribeye you’ll ever eat.  If your mom reached to take some, you’d slap her hand,” the bartender said.
“OK, one of those too.  Rare.  And some fries,” Alex said.
 “You’ve got it,” the bartender said, and walked away.
Alex looked to see who else was at the bar.  There was a couple, both wearing denim shirts, at the far end of the bar on his right.  On his left there were a few men wearing flannel shirts and un-ironic trucker caps. Everyone seemed to be wearing work boots.
He suddenly felt out of place in his white oxford shirt and suede driving shoes.
Alex also felt as though he was being watched.  He wasn’t able to catch anyone staring at him, but he knew all the same that he was probably the most interesting thing to happen in that restaurant in weeks, and he wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.  He hoped it wouldn’t be an issue.
It was somewhat ironic that feeling like he was being observed, without knowing where the person watching him was, had been the other reason he’d decided that a road trip was in order.
The thing about his co-workers, for want of a better way of describing the other people who worked for Mr. Darcy, was that none of them were really cut out to do anything else.  That seemed to be a part of how Mr. Darcy found them.  Alex had been recruited after getting fired from yet another menial office job where he just couldn’t stay awake.  Prior to working for Mr. Darcy, the last job Alex had that had actually engaged him had been serving in the military. 
Everyone who worked for Mr. Darcy had a similar story, if they were willing to tell it (his co-workers also tended to be, shall we say, private).  Alex had never heard any of them so much as mention family, or spouses.  As far as he could tell, they were all odd ducks.
Which meant that, despite their strong desires for privacy, they all helped out any co-workers who needed it.  More than once, Alex’s co-worker Megan had shown up to help him when he was stranded, or in need of a place to stay due to, for example, a fluke house fire.
The unspoken agreement to help each other out meant that Alex was currently playing host to Harold.  And Alex really needed a break from Harold.
Harold was, apparently, English.  His accent was so slight that it was barely perceptible.  He was unfailingly polite. 
“Fifth generation butler,” Harold had told him when Alex had asked him about his background.  “My father was a butler, his father was a butler, and so on.”
“So, were you a butler?” Alex had asked.
“How could I not be butler?” Harold had asked in reply.  “I’ve been the butler for several noble families in the U.K.  My references are impeccable.”
“So what are you doing working for Mr. Darcy?” Alex had asked.
Harold had simply raised an eyebrow at him, ever so slightly, and said nothing.
“OK, understood,” Alex said, and let the subject drop.
Having spent the last couple of weeks around his loft meant that Alex had spent a lot of time with Harold.  Or, at least, aware that he was in the same space as Harold.
Harold had the uncanny ability to slip unnoticed from room to room.  Alex would be reading on sofa, thinking Harold was in his own bedroom, only to be surprised when Harold came out of the kitchen carrying a teapot and two cups.
Surprise tea parties weren’t the unsettling part, however.  The unsettling thing about Harold was his understated aura of menace.  He could somehow stand just slightly too close to a person.  It was nothing you could take offense at, directly.  It bothered Alex how Harold would look at him, politely impassive, yet giving off the impression at the same time that he was sizing Alex up, and deciding what the best, or most entertaining, way to incapacitate him would be.
Making it worse was Harold’s attempts to repay Alex’s hospitality.  Harold kept, well, being the butler for Alex.  Since Alex didn’t exactly have a household of servants, or much of a kitchen to oversee, or even guests to receive, that meant Harold kept finding other ways to helpful.
Such as somehow entering Alex’s bedroom and laying out an outfit for him to wear every morning, without Alex noticing him.  And Alex was, generally speaking, a light sleeper.  He would usually wake up every time the central air kicked on.  Yet this six foot four giant in house shoes with leather soles was sneaking in, coordinating an outfit from Alex’s disorganized closet, laying it out for him, and leaving the room undetected.
Making it even more puzzling was the fact that Alex’s bedroom door squeaked.  Because of this, Alex had spent a good ten minutes trying to find a way to open the door without making it squeak the other day, without success.
Alex had asked Harold to please stop it.
In response, Harold had said, “Forgive me, being a butler is in my blood, and I can’t bear to stop.”
So Alex decided to start locking his bedroom door.
The following morning, he was supremely surprised to find another outfit laid out for him.  And the door was still locked.
In the kitchen that morning, all Harold said was “Good morning Mr. Minor, did you sleep well?”
Alex was startled out of his rumination by the bartender, who set down a plastic tray lined with red checkered wax paper, filled with cubes of fried meat.  It smelled divine.
“Let me know what you think,” the bartender said, before walking away again.
Alex had just picked up one of the toothpicks and skewered a piece of meat with it when his cell phone rang.
“Dang it,” Alex muttered. 
He thought about letting it just go to voicemail for a moment, but finally took it out and looked to see who was calling him.
“Darcy Custom Brokers” was the name on the display.  He answered.
“Mr. Minor, hello!” Mr. Darcy said, “I have a new assignment for you, I think you’ll enjoy it.  Can you come down to the office right away?”
Alex smiled, and looked at his watch. 
“I can be there in about four hours,” he said.

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