Chapter 10: Welcome To The Clown Show

By the time Carl joined us and we were all gathered around the back table, it was impossible not to notice that the chicken was ready. The smell was killing us. I flipped up the lid and moved the piece around, and they were just perfect, and the de Modelo boys, in particular, lacked subtlety in their attention to it.

“I’m just thinking,” Jackson said, “I’m starving and as long as you’re not going to take more than a couple of minutes, I could use a piece of that chicken.”

I said, “Look we don’t have much time here.”

But Julia came out with a stack of paper plates and a handful of forks, perhaps sensing that the chicken was going to get eaten even if these guys simply grabbed pieces and dove under the table gnawing them like dogs. The plates were on the table for less than a second before suddenly everyone had chicken and started tearing it apart noisily.

Why fight it? I grabbed a piece and talked with my mouth full while I explained my thinking to them, starting by telling the boys about my own abduction, and the warehouse next to Maxwell Mechanical where they’d stashed their second vehicle.

“Think about why they picked me up here in a Maxwell Mechanical truck, parked it right in my driveway, fully identifiable, and then took me back to Maxwell Mechanical itself, then took me next door where they had an anonymous white van parked, and we left in that. Originally, I thought that meant that they had to have some connection with Maxwell Mechanical.”

“But,” Mueller added, “Special Agent Tom Fine might be scary and suspicious and possibly crazy, however, he’s nothing if not thorough. He will have checked the owners and all of the employees, and even the former employees of Maxwell Mechanical. If only to rule them out so he can be suspicious of Greg, and you two jokers.”

He pointed to the de Modelo boys as he said it, and they were so intent on their chicken that both of them simply nodded indirect acknowledgment that they were in fact a couple of jokers.

“Right,” I said. “The more he can show that no one there has any connection to my abduction, the less crazy his theory about me not getting abducted at all.”

Carl was the only one not eating chicken. He just stood by the back door leaning against the house, watching us and listened. He said, “Didn’t the neighbors see the truck? Can’t they at least confirm that much?”

“It’s disappointing,” I replied. “And more than a little scary, but sadly no. Not one of my neighbors or anyone on the whole street reports seeing the truck parked in my driveway, though it may have only been there for as little a time as two or three minutes. And they had time to unscrew the light bulb on the front porch, which left the whole driveway in shadows.”

“Still,” Mike said. “They can’t have been counting on that. It’s more like they wanted to advertise it.”

I snapped and pointed at him, using a folded extra paper plate as a makeshift napkin. “Exactly. To lead us in the wrong direction. Maxwell Mechanical figures so prominently in my abduction not because the kidnappers have a direct connection to it, but because they don’t.”

The de Modelo boys had skeletonized their chicken like a couple of piranhas. Jeremy smacked his mouth around his final bite of it, an awful sound, and then said, “Okay, so then why do you want to go there so badly?”

“Because they have some kind of indirect connection to Maxwell Mechanical. It’s somehow convenient for them. They helped themselves to the warehouse next door, knowing somehow that it was empty. And it’s not the only warehouse in the complex. My guess is, they’ve got a connection to one of those, and that’s where they’ll go to recover from their attempt at killing Jackson and Jeremy going so wrong. So if everyone’s finished with their chicken, we need to get over there because we have no idea if they’re going to hang around the place long or what.”

Julia stayed at the house and so did Charlene. I even took the time to make sure Carl didn’t have a firearm with him, as the last thing we wanted to do was go over there and shoot somebody. So far there had been no reports of Sparkles or Stupid Gandalf ever having a gun, and I wasn’t expecting the OK Corral over there. I was expecting to find them, to have superior numbers, and to show them that there wasn’t any way to hide anymore.

Their run at Jeremy and Jackson reeked of desperation. If they were telling the truth about seeing Chelsea with another man coming out of her house, that man could have seen them too. Their car was after all, the sort of vehicle you notice. So if Chelsea had been having an affair, and he was the sort of guy who could pick up a phone and have a couple of guys try to kill a couple of other guys, then he was also the sort of guy who could arrange to have a beekeeper rig a car’s ventilation with hornets. He was the sort of guy who could then have that beekeeper killed.

If they were telling the truth, that would be the guy behind this whole thing. He’d scared these two guys into doing whatever he told them to, perhaps leveraged their role in the original crime to keep them doing what he said so they didn’t go to jail for it. The only weapons I’d ever seen them use were a brick and a wrench. I didn’t need to bring a gun to this fight. I needed to bring my law degree, and I needed to show these guys a way out from under the mastermind behind it all.

The five of us piled into my Highlander, Carl in the back with Jeremy and Jackson, Mike riding shotgun without calling it. No one argued with him about it. As I backed out of the driveway, I realized I’d forgotten all about the stolen food truck. We’d need to circle back around and clean that situation up later, but if I spent the next few hours explaining its presence to the police and a hostile FBI agent, we’d lose our chance to find these guys.

I hadn’t been back to Maxwell Mechanical since I’d been brought there in the back of a truck, but it was easy to Google and then I was one click away from concise driving directions directly there. The five of us were quiet on the way there, the silence peppered with the eerie AI voice telling us when to turn. Carl and Mike had their phones out, probably texting their wives something about when to expect them later, while Jackson and Jeremy did nothing, just looked out the windows. I was just starting to feel sort of bad for the boys, as they apparently had no one who might be concerned about their well-being, no one to call and check in with. But then out of nowhere, Jackson said, “Dude, everything else aside, that was some seriously good chicken. What’d you do, marinate that all day?”

I just gave him a silent scowl in the mirror as we rolled on in the rising darkness, then looked back at the road. A full thirty seconds passed and then Jackson added, “Maybe later you could text me what you marinated that in, it was like Italian dressing but there was more to it than that, some kind of…”

He trailed off as he noticed I was scowling at him again. The electronic voice said to get ready, we’d need to turn right in two tenths of a mile. He didn’t mention the chicken again.

When we pulled into the industrial complex housing Maxwell Mechanical, my first thought was that it didn’t seem familiar at all, but of course it didn’t. I’d have to ride there in the back of a darkened box truck with a smoking guy in a clown mask with a brick, for it to be familiar.

There were three sizable buildings covered in blue aluminum siding, each made up of two warehouse units. One building was under renovation, an elaborate scaffold erected along one side over a skid of roofing shingles. It was wide open, the garage door had been completely removed but the unit itself was dark and deserted. Another unit housed a carpeting company, and a tile distributor; their logos were so similar I suspected they were owned by the same umbrella company. They, too, were dark and locked up tight at this hour.

I parked right in front of Maxwell Mechanical as if I owned the place, in a surreal juxtaposition of the Maxwell Mechanical truck I’d found not so long ago, parked in front of mine. We got out as quietly as five grown men can, but we weren’t trying to sneak around. If Sparkles and Stupid Gandalf were here, they’d either leave or stay where they were. If they left, we’d see them, and we’d see which unit they came out of.

And if they were there then we’d find them.

We walked right into the missing door of the unit under construction and found it stripped to concrete and frame inside. There were no vehicles inside, and no evidence of anyone having been there other than a roughed-out break area made of buckets to sit on, and empty soda bottles as ashtrays. An office area was waiting on new carpet, the floor was plywood with tack strips for carpet still attached along the walls.

There was no way into the second building. We could look through the garage door windows and see the rolls of carpet and the crates of tile looming inside, and both offices had windows through which we could see they were dark and shut down for the night. The Maxwell Mechanical building was similarly closed up tight, a few all-too-familiar trucks parked on one side, with no vehicles at all in the other unit. I knew they’d had a garage door opener in their van. It was possible they had another one. But if they did, they apparently didn’t use it. There was no one there, either.

Still, we looked through all the windows, scanning thoroughly for anyone inside. We saw no one, and no one showed up to ask us what we were doing.

Finally, we gathered back at the Highlander, thinking the whole thing was a bust. Carl broke off another call to his wife, wandering off to the edge of the parking lot as he talked to her, while Jeremy and Jackson started talking about places they could go and get more chicken until Mike told them both to be quiet, offering to knock them out cold if they were having trouble figuring out to do it.

I shrugged and said, “Well, I guess we should go back to my house and call the police, if they’re not already there poking around the food truck.”

Mike said, “That’s kind of an odd coincidence, isn’t it? Another food truck?”

I frowned. “Where was the first food truck?”

“Behind Arturo’s car. You don’t remember the giant hot dog?”

“Giant hot dog?” Jackson said.

Jeremy smacked him upside the head. “The giant hot dog sticking out of the back of dad’s Hornet. You don’t remember hearing about a giant hot dog?”

“It’s been a long couple of weeks. Or days. I don’t even know how long it’s been.”

Mike agreed with them for once. He said, “Yeah, I can’t remember how long it’s been since this thing started. It feels more like, I don’t know. Ten months or so?”

We all shuffled around awkwardly, kicking gravel and sort of glancing around nervously, thinking about why on earth it might feel like ten months. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed the food truck connection, either, and it felt like the sort of detail that should snap into place and solve the whole puzzle for me, but nothing snapped into place and nothing felt solved.

“Well, let’s get back in the…”

But then Carl hurried over, excited. He was putting his phone in his pocket. He said, “Guys, come over and check this out.”

We followed him over to the fenced dumpster behind the third warehouse unit, where he’d wanted to talk on the phone. The complex was ringed by trees, and behind the dumpster, a well-worn path led into them, where another warehouse loomed over the treetops. An old stack of weather bricks beside it was getting invaded by weeds, but a few sections of it were clear of them, and someone had been sitting there smoking, leaving the butts littered around them in the unruly grass.

I recognized the cigarette brand. And I recognized the bricks.

We followed the path to the next complex, where we found the adjacent warehouse open just a couple feet off the ground. The complex was quiet and shrouded in shadows. All three warehouse units bristled with scaffolding and parked bulldozers and forklifts. The boys fanned out a little while Mike and I went over and peered under the open garage door.

Inside were a half dozen food trucks of random types of dishes, a taco truck, a fried chicken truck, some kind of cheeseburger-and-egg truck, which sounded fantastic. We stared around the warehouse at them, and then looked at each other. Three coincidences were too many.

I called the boys over and then the five of us crouched to get under the door, each of us making enough noise to broadcast that how many of us there were, and to the astute observer, how old each of us was.

Mike got out his phone and turned on the flashlight, shining it around the room. The warehouse was too large though, it couldn’t penetrate the shadows enough to see if anyone was here. I twirled my finger in the air and said, “Someone find the light.”

We fumbled around in the dark for a few seconds but the lights were easy to find. There were switches by the office door just as you’d expect. Mike clicked them on, and we all turned to look around the warehouse. Jackson screamed like a cartoon housewife who’s seen a mouse. I thought he was going to jump up into Jeremy’s arms like Scooby-Doo.

There were six men in clown outfits looking at us from various positions in the room. One of them, on the roof of the fried chicken truck, had what looked like a hunting rifle. Another crouched behind a workbench, pointing a crossbow at us. The others had more on-brand types of weapons like a baseball bat, an enormous pipe wrench, and a couple of old-fashioned bricks. They all started chuckling at us ominously.

I said, “I don’t know what’s going on around here, but the police are on their way. Whatever game you clowns have been playing is over.”

But that just made them chuckle harder, and then behind me I heard the click of a handgun getting cocked. Jackson screamed again and Mike told him to shut up.

I realized what was happening about a second before I turned around to see Carl standing there, a .38 in his hand, pointing it at me. He said, “I’m really sorry about this, Greg. I really am. I never expected it to go like this, but now I’m afraid, it’s the only way it can go.”

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