ick contacted Scunner Consulting the next morning, aiming his transmitter high enough to make sure that no one could see he hadn’t bothered to put on pants. The organization’s logo appeared above his palm, a shiny, happy-looking globe with the letters “SC” suspended behind it. The logo dissolved, replaced by a woman’s cheery face. She wore thick-framed, fashion-statement-only glasses and earrings that resembled tiny, silver wind chimes.
“Scunner Consulting!” she chirped. “My name is Judy. How can I help you?” Her smile was far too wide for so early in the day.
“Hello there, Judy. My name is Dr. Glen Ridwick. I’m interested in doing some volunteer work with your organization.”
“Oh, you’re a doctor? Great! I’ve got this mole that I’ve been worried about… Hold on, I’ll move the camera.”
“Actually, I’m a veterinarian. So I’m afraid I can’t help, unless the mole is burrowing in your garden.” It was a half-hearted joke, but she laughed hysterically. He wondered if she wore the wind chimes to take advantage of the breeze coming from her ears.
“A pet doctor? Oh, good. My cat has been having problems, too. This morning, he coughed up something that might have been a lizard.” She reached for her purse. “I’ve got some photos…”
For an uncomfortable twenty minutes, he improvised what he hoped was good medical advice. Finally, Judy made an appointment for him to speak to Reid Mason. Reid was a busy man and couldn’t see Nick until Monday.
Ending the transmission, Nick realized he had a message. Someone had tried to reach him while he had been talking to Judy.
A man in a ski mask appeared above his palm. A grainy, black-and-white hologram, undoubtedly from a public transmitter booth. “Mr. Wergild,” he said, his voice electronically disguised, “we have kidnapped Gabrielle. If you ever want to see her again, bring five million dollars to the docks. Come tonight at seven, alone. Look for the building with brown stripes.” He paused, listening to someone off camera. “Apparently the stripes are more of a burnt sienna. Either way, we’re watching you. Call for help and she’s dead.”
“Why the hell do they think I have five million dollars?” Nick wondered. “And why would I trade it for a woman who has already tried to kill me? Why would I trade it for any woman, when I could use it to buy a really nice boat?”
He replayed the message, watching for any clues. As public transmitter booths were intended for emergencies, they automatically broadcasted their locations. Unfortunately, the information was of no help. As he expected, the booth was at the docks, too.
“Whoever they are, this has to be connected to Renée’s murder. I have to help Gabrielle before she gets killed too. …How much do you charge someone for rescuing her from kidnappers? If she won’t pay me, can I give her back?”
The sun slid away, plunging the city into darkness. A bitter wind came up from Portland, carrying dark clouds and rain. As his car drifted slowly over the waterlogged streets, he forced himself not to think about where the rest of the night might take him. He left the car in a back alley and walked the last few blocks to the harbor, a large, steel suitcase under his arm. It was heavy, around sixty pounds, the weight of five million dollars in rhodium coins. However, not having five million dollars to spare, it was actually filled with rocks.
A rundown factory squatted at the end of the street. A tin sign over the door read “Caries Candy Company.” He pulled a pair of binoculars from his jacket and, switching on the infrared view, took a closer look. “This must be the place,” he thought. “Although, the stripes are more of a mahogany than a burnt sienna…” The parking lot was empty, the building dark. A man in a ski mask stood guard by the door. Oddly, he was facing the wrong direction, towards the sea.
Nick crept down the street, careful not to make any noise that might draw the lookout’s attention. Finally, he stood at arms length to the masked man, who still hadn’t moved. Nick leaned back and swung the heavy suitcase, hitting him in the back of the skull. The man’s head flew off, landing several feet away.
“It’s a dummy,” he thought, dropping the suitcase in shock. “A mannequin. That means this is a-” A black dart stabbed him in the arm. “- trap.”
Nick opened his eyes, choking. He was lying on the floor of a small, dimly lit room that was rapidly filling with warm liquid. Stumbling to his feet, he leaned against the wall, coughing the stuff from his lungs. The thick, brown liquid was coming from a steel pipe jutting from the wall ten feet above him.
“What is this gunk?” he thought, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. The taste was familiar. “Oh, chocolate! Thank god. That could have been so much worse…” He rubbed his arm, still sore from the tranquilizer dart. “So, apparently the kidnappers made me come all the way out to a candy factory just to drown me in melted chocolate. Why not use a gun? Maybe they were trying to make my death look like a highly-improbable accident…Have to figure things out later. This syrup is already up to my knees.”
At one point, the room must have been used as a secure storage closet. The door was reinforced steel and equipped with a biometric lock. Unfortunately, it was impossible to use lock picks on a fingerprint scanner. The room was windowless, the only light coming from a bare bulb near the ceiling. The walls were wood covered in peeling, green paint and old advertisements for candy. Unlike the thin plaster of his apartment building, these walls looked too solid to kick through.
“I’d better get some help. Wait, where’s my transmitter? Damn them. They must have taken it.” He emptied his pockets, looking for anything that might help. His laser stunner was gone, as well. He had a cigarette lighter, half a pack of cigarettes, his money pouch, and a set of lock picks. Unfortunately, he had left his battering ram in his other pants.
The chocolate splashed at his waist.
He lit a cigarette and blew the smoke at the ceiling. A shrill alarm buzzer sounded. “I have no idea where the nearest fire station is. If the fire department doesn’t get here soon, I’m going to drown. I already know what the newsfeed headlines will say: ‘Death by Chocolate.’”