s Nick’s car locked onto the highway’s magnetic rail, he put his feet up on the dashboard and closed his eyes. The navigation system’s breathy, feminine voice read off the names of the passing exits. Hearing a few familiar street names, he realized that Gordon’s apartment was on the way. A quick command reset his route. The car shifted onto a new rail with a gentle clink.
As he headed toward the Columbia River, he thought, “According to Sweeney’s records, Gordon lives just inside of Oregon. Why would anyone commute so far for such a low-paying job? Well, I suppose it’s not all bad. You get to meet new people, hold one-sided conversations with them, cut them into little pieces…”
After twenty minutes of high-speed driving, he pulled into the lot of Wellington Apartments. The decaying building had once been a factory for Grandma Edith’s Snack Cakes. The company had gone out of business when it was discovered that their Chocolate Sweeties contained insecticides, mercury, and twelve grams of saturated fat.
The new owners had converted the building into apartments and then simply let it rot. The building was the same dirty, gray color as the cement lot and just as cracked. An ancient pile of empty beer cans in the yard had been recently declared a historical landmark. The dumpster in the back hadn’t been emptied in so long that it was the site of frequent archeological digs.
“Now this is just sad,” he thought. “The guy spends all day slicing up human corpses, makes as much money as a babysitter, and he has to go home to a place like this. He’d almost be better off at a work camp. At least they get free TV.” He climbed the steep stairs to the main entrance. Despite the rundown condition of the building, the door looked very secure. There was even what appeared to be an alarm sensor mounted to the top of the doorway.
He returned to his car and pulled two bulging, paper sacks from the trunk. He carried them back up the stairs and waited. Soon, an older woman in a green sweater came up the steps to the apartment door. Pretending he had just arrived, he tried to reach into his pants pocket without putting down the sacks.
“Oh, do you need inside, honey?” the woman asked. She smiled politely, revealing teeth like popcorn kernels.
“Yes, please. I can’t reach my keys. We’re having a party and I have to get there before the girls do. You see, I’ve got the whipped cream!”
“Hold on, young man.” She yanked a large keycard from her purse and carefully unlocked the security door, the alarm light blinking off. The woman held the door open and waved him inside.
“Thank you so much,” Nick smiled. “Have a nice night.” Once the woman had gone on her way, he dropped the sacks by the door, spilling the old socks he had stuffed inside.
Gordon’s apartment was on the fifth floor. There was no alarm sensor, but there was a doorknob lock, two bolt locks, and a security chain. “I can’t believe this. He attached all this hardware to a pressed wood, hollow core door. It’s like going to war in a tee-shirt and bulletproof pants.” A couple of kicks with his steel-toed boot cracked the flimsy door nearly in half.
“Hey!” A voice from behind him. Nick turned to face a very short, very angry man in a bathrobe, Gordon’s neighbor from across the hall. “Cut out the banging!” the man snapped, shaking his fist. “You’re disturbing my ferrets!”
“Oh, sorry,” Nick said. “When it gets humid like this, the wood expands and the door sticks, so I have to force it a little.”
“Not my problem, Noisy McLoudington. Just stop with the racket!” He returned to his apartment, slamming the door closed.
Nick pushed open what was left of Gordon’s door and stepped inside. “Good thing Gordon’s at work,” he thought. “Explaining the noise to him would be much more challenging.” He turned on a flashlight and examined his surroundings. He was amazed that such a big man lived in such a tiny apartment.
There was a miniature kitchen with one of the new Schlock Products™ freezer/oven combos. He dimly remembered seeing the commercial on television: “It can’t be beat! It cools and it heats!” The commercial never explained what you were supposed to do with your frozen food while you were cooking.
The living room was even smaller than the kitchen. There was an exercise machine in one corner that looked like an abstract sculpture of an octopus. College dorm-style, cinderblock-and-wooden-plank shelves lined three walls. There was a camera and a few memory tabs on a shelf, mostly movies recorded from TV. Resting on top of the memory tabs was a long, silver tube that was either a large flashlight or a shockingly huge marital aid. Next to the tabs was a small, wire-bound notebook. It was mostly filled with grocery and to-do lists, but one page was different. This page was blank, save for two words written large and underlined: insurance fraud.
“Well, that’s interesting. Is that about Renée? Or is it just a reminder to commit insurance fraud later? Like, by burning this dump to the ground..?”
The shelf also held a brass, second-place trophy engraved with “Ellison High Kendo Team”. On the other side of the room hung Gordon’s diploma, again from Ellison High School. The date Gordon graduated was printed at the bottom. “Let’s see, that would make him twenty-four or twenty-five. He looks older, though. …I wonder if he was voted ‘Most Likely to Carve up Human Corpses for a Living.’”
He examined the rest of the shelves and, other than an exhaustingly comprehensive pornography collection, found nothing of interest. He decided to try the bedroom.
A nude woman was sprawled across the bed. Her head was shaved almost to the skin. Her small, strikingly perky breasts gently rose and fell with the soft whisper of her breathing. Around her neck, a tiny, gold crucifix reflected the beam of his flashlight. On the floor by the bed lay a crumpled, black dress. A decorative rack on the wall behind her held half a dozen Japanese swords.
“‘Kendo’ must be a Japanese style of sword fighting,” he thought. “Well, I can’t very well search the room with her in there, especially since she’s six inches away from a weapon. She looks like the type that would stab below the belt… Well, nothing else I can do here. Looks like its time to go see Clayton.”
Clayton West’s home was in a fashionable part of town, the kind of neighborhood young people moved to after they’d given up on becoming rock stars and artists and resigned themselves to working in an office for the rest of their lives. A row of bushes lined Clayton’s driveway, each trimmed into a perfect sphere. The house had round, protruding windows, hemispheres of glass. It looked rather like an overpriced, suburban submarine.
Nick crept cautiously up the driveway to the garage. Shining a flashlight in the window, he saw nothing but bare concrete. “No car. Looks like Clayton’s out for the evening. Still, I’d better be quick. In this neighborhood, security shoots first and asks questions at your autopsy.”
In an effort to prevent costly claims, some insurance companies employed security guards to patrol customers’ neighborhoods. The guards were heavily armed but also tightly restricted in where they could go, what they could investigate, and who they could arrest. Being kept on such a short leash made them resent manhunters, who had much greater freedom. Especially manhunters like Nick, who pretty much did as they pleased.
“I could pick the locks on the front door,” he thought, “but that would take time, and I don’t know how long I have until Clayton comes home. Looks like it’s the old Santa Claus gag…” He pulled his car up to the garage. He jumped from the roof of his car to the rain gutter and, once he pulled himself up, it was an easy climb to the chimney. However, sliding down the chimney was not nearly as much fun as he’d imagined.
Brushing off the soot, he switched on his flashlight and examined Clayton’s living room. The hardwood floor was covered in a circular, checkerboard pattern rug. The room smelled strongly of new paint, probably the hunter green on the walls. A line of framed photographs were hung over the fireplace. They were the old-fashioned, paper kind of photos, all of Renée.
“Nothing unusual. He dated her for a long time; of course he’ll have pictures.”
Then he turned to the other walls. They, too, were covered in photos of Renée: Renée walking down the street, Renée viewed through a window or from behind bushes, Renée putting on a sweater, Renée biting her toenails. He guessed there were around three dozen photos just in the living room. “On the other hand, this is a bit much. Not even Rent-A-Stalker gives you this much attention! I should make a record of this.” He pulled his transmitter from jacket and switched it into “record” mode.
“I am collecting evidence at the home of Clayton West,” he said into the tiny, twin cameras. “Subject appears to be obsessed with the victim, his ex-girlfriend, Renée Flockhart. Possibly psychotic. (Clayton, not Renée.) As Renée never returned her keys, Clayton could have had access to the premises through her. – Also, take a look at this rug. Isn’t it hideous?”
He filmed a few close-up shots of the photos, taking a couple off the wall to get a closer look. The frames were gray, almost the same color as the nails upon which they were hung. They were cheap and flimsy, the kind of frame that usually held a liberal arts degree. Finished filming, he decided to quickly investigate the other rooms.
A calendar in the hallway had several days marked “FLORIDA” in red. It looked like Clayton was leaving for vacation in a week.
The first door was the study. There was a computer in the corner and several long rows of bookshelves. According to Todd, Clayton bought paperback novels at random, as he only used them as accessories for his bookend collection. Next to the computer stood a stack of papers. Most of the pile was printouts of emails, correspondence with friends. However, near the bottom of the stack was a letter from Clayton’s medical insurance company:
Your new Schlock Products™ artificial heart comes with the latest in micro- processor software: HeartBeater 0.93b!
Please note that your new heart is designed for low-impact activities. Avoid all unnecessary stress, such as the following:
- Weight training
- Sexual activity lasting more than three minutes
- Thoughts of an overly philosophical nature
- Sasquatch hunting
- Drag racing (Cars or transvestites.)
Keep away from microwave ovens, garage door openers, and television remote controls. For internal use only. Not to be used as a sump pump.
There was nothing else in the study, so he continued down the hallway. “Oh, here’s the bedroom. Bed, dresser, television, enormous, snarling German Shepherd…”
He aimed his laser stunner at the dog’s head. Before he could fire, he heard the front door bang open, then heavy footsteps down the hall. “Anderson Security Incorporated! You have three seconds to prove you’re not a thief before we open fire!”
Nick turned to face the six security guards who were all pointing very large handguns at his head. Shielding his eyes from the laser sights, he said, “Jimmy? Is that you?”
A thick-necked guard switched off his laser sight and pointed a flashlight at him. “Nick? Nick Wergild? Fancy meeting you here! You know, we warned you that the next time you broke into a house there’d be consequences. Dire consequences.”
“Yeah, I remember,” he said, taking out his money pouch. “So, bribes all around then?”