Chapter 5: Gents With Heaters

From the moment Chelsea de Modelo walked into my office to talk about her husband’s accident, I knew that my life was starting to resemble an old Raymond Chandler novel, and that feeling grew steadily with each passing day. As I sat in my office looking at the telephone, thinking about dead beekeepers, I realized that this would be the part where a couple of gents with heaters showed up to take me to the office of some crooked land developer or local crime boss.

I smiled at the image. For some reason I had them in my mind as still dressed from the 1940s, wearing fedoras and holding snub-nosed pistols at their hips, calling me by my last name. But my smile faded when I thought about the homicide detective I was now expecting in the morning. He’d be real enough.

Leaving a little later than normal, I collected my briefcase and my phone and walked out to my car, glad to have some daylight left. The parking lot was almost empty, and my feet clicked across the pavement in the way they never seem to during business hours. I glanced at my phone out of habit, then dropped it into my pocket. Then I noticed two things at the same time. First, I noticed I was slowing down, but only by the decreasing pace of my shoes on the parking lot.

The second thing I noticed was a black Grand Cherokee a few spots away from my car, its engine idling.

I stopped and frowned at it. The Cherokee’s tinted windows were rolled up, its engine so quiet I could barely hear it, just the whirring of a fan under the hood. A faint whisper of exhaust rose from its tailpipe. The plates were local.

But I couldn’t stand there all night, and after all, it was just parked in a parking lot. That’s what parking lots were for. So I shrugged and walked past it, feeling foolish for really feeling anything at all about the Cherokee. When I passed it, I shot a glance over my shoulder and caught a glimpse of a slim figure behind the wheel, and a ribbon of cigarette smoke rising from an open sliver of the driver’s side window. No gents. No heaters.

I got in my car shaking my head, gave myself a minute to check my phone again, get the radio to a local news station, and generally calm down. One good thing about leaving the office late was that traffic was a breeze, rush hour forgotten. Within a couple of minutes, I was on the outer belt heading for home.

My wife and daughter weren’t due home until around ten – a college visit up at Bowling Green. That would make for a fairly quiet evening. I strolled through it in my head. I’d need to walk the dog, and then my responsibilities ended. I was thinking about a steak I had sitting in the fridge next to a couple of beers, and a Netflix show that neither my wife nor my daughter watched. I pulled into a gas station to pick up a bag of kettle-cooked potato chips and figured I was set for the night.

Dusk was just falling when I arrived home, and there was a large box truck backed into my driveway, the words Maxwell Mechanical on the side. An oval-shaped man with a huge outlandish beard and a baseball hat was walking away from the front door, holding a clipboard. He waved as I pulled in next to the truck, pausing at the tailgate, where a ramp had been pulled out to unload something. There was something askew about the front porch, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

I’d hit the garage door opener out of habit. When the door finished rolling up, I pulled inside and got out, emerging from the garage just as the bearded man was stepping around the ramp. He said, “Mr. DuPont.”

Not a question. I glanced inside the truck, where a larger man sat looking at me, perched on a long box laid on its side. The top of the box was facing out at me. It was prominently marked “THIS SIDE UP.”

Then I realized what was askew. The front porch light was out. I had changed the bulb only weeks ago and it was motion activated. We never turned it off. In its absence, I couldn’t initially see any features of the man inside the truck, but I shielded my eyes and after a moment, he came into focus.

He was wearing a clown mask.

I backed up a step, right into the bearded man, who had moved behind me while I looked into the truck. I turned and faced him. I’m 6’4 and he was two inches taller than me, and he had his clipboard upside down. Sitting on top of it, his fingers curled around it, was a large, red pipe wrench.

He said, “Get in the truck.”

I’d often lectured my daughter as she grew older, that in any abduction, there’s a Crime Scene A, which is the place where you’re taken from, and a Crime Scene B, which is where they take you to do something awful. Don’t go willingly to Crime Scene B, I’d told her. The place for the fight is Crime Scene A.

But now I looked at the wrench, standing there in the shadows between the truck and the garage, and I didn’t see much of a fight to be had. And with my wife and daughter a couple of hours away, the last thing I wanted was for them to stick around. I glanced at my neighbor’s house. It was completely dark. There was a twelve-year-old kid over there who was always peering out the windows watching me cut the grass or grill hamburgers, but either he was in bed, or they weren’t around.

I thought about throwing my briefcase through the neighbor’s window. If they were home, that’d be as sure as calling the police. But if they weren’t, probably no one would hear anything at all.

Looking back at the bearded man, I saw the beard wasn’t real. His flat eyes looked at me over it, his face too narrow for it. He was wearing a disguise.

Might as well get them out of there. I walked up the ramp and the guy in the clown mask held up a brick and said, “Sit down and shut up or I’ll hit you with this brick.”

I sat down on another box exactly like his. There were a half dozen of them lying on their sides, and a half dozen more farther back in the truck, standing upright. I said, “So funding for whatever project this is – it’s a little bit of a problem?”

“Give me your phone.”

So I gave the phone to the clown, and he handed it out to the bearded man, who walked into the garage and emerged again a few seconds later, the door rolling down behind him. He slid the ramp back into its slot under the truck, and the clown lowered the door, leaving us in complete darkness inside. I heard metal clanging on metal as the door latched.

The clown turned on a small flashlight and pointed it at me. The light-filled the truck and I saw that the boxes were all furnace units. The clown said, “Don’t get comfy.”

Which didn’t seem likely anyway. The truck rumbled to life and we started rolling away from Crime Scene A.

I looked down at the box I was sitting on it. I had a furnace unit very similar to it inside my house, but I hadn’t used Maxwell Mechanical to get it installed. The clown seemed annoyed that I was reading the box, so he pointed the flashlight to the back of the truck. Shadows dropped over us like a fog.

“A couple of gents with heaters,” I said. “Would you believe I was actually expecting you?”

“Shut up,” said the clown.

I sighed. “Okay,” I told him.

Even when you aren’t being kidnapped, it’s always stressful when you don’t have your phone. But I knew some pretty good coping strategies which – in the absence of vodka – generally proved effective.

The trick is to focus on something. In this case, I focused on keeping track of the lefts and rights the truck was taking, visualizing a map of the neighborhood in my head, trying to maintain an idea of our location. A right out of my driveway, a left at the end of the street, then it got tricky. He went straight for a while, and it was one of the main streets in my neighborhood. How fast was this thing going? By the time he took a right, it could have been any of three rights. Within a couple of minutes I had no idea where we were.

The clown lit a cigarette in the shadows, glaring at me like he expected me to ask for one. In another brilliant coping strategy, I decided to name him Sparkles, and I didn’t ask him for anything. I leaned back against the wall of the truck, trying to appear resigned to my fate, but really craning my neck a little so I could look at the door latch. It really looked like it could only be opened from the outside once it was locked, but that seemed like an outrageous safety hazard. Had no one at Maxwell Mechanical ever been accidentally locked in a truck before?

So I sat there watching Sparkles smoke, watching him play with the brick in his lap, thinking that I should probably take my chances and try to get the brick from him. I noticed that every time we stopped, he went off balance just a bit, and that every time we started off again, he did it again. There was a pattern to it, a rhythm. If I were standing and he were still sitting, gravity would be on my side, I wouldn’t need to get the brick very high, just get it above his eye level and then push it against his big red nose as hard as I could.

It was starting to sound so simple, I was ready to go for it. At the next stop, I braced my ankle against the furnace box I was sitting on, ready to launch myself at him. Then the engine stopped.

Sparkles had just finished his cigarette and was carefully putting it out against the floor of the truck. When he was sure it was out, he put it in the pocket of his flannel shirt; Sparkles was only dressed like a clown from the neck up. He didn’t get up, just sat there looking out me, letting out an annoyed sigh which absolutely sang of regret, irritation, and stunningly poor vocational choices.

I said, “Why don’t we just roll by a bank machine, I’ll grab you a thousand bucks, and then we can both get on with our nights. Hell with it, right?”

He lifted the brick over his shoulder and said, “Why don’t I hit you with this brick and then take your bank card? I’ll bet your daughter’s birthday is on Facebook and I’ll bet it’s your PIN.”

I shrugged. Sparkles was pretty much spot on there.

But now he’d already lifted the brick. If I went for it now, I’d have the literal drop on him if I were quick enough. I looked at him, thinking about it, and then metal clanged on metal and the door rattled open again.

The bearded guy needed a nickname. I thought about Beardy, but that seemed too obvious so I sort of panicked and named him Stupid Gandalf. He did look sort of dumb. He’d gotten rid of the clipboard and now just had the wrench, holding it like a club. He said, “Get out.”

Sparkles got up, seeming more and more interested in using the brick, so I slid out of the truck, instinctively patting myself down for my phone even though I knew it was back in the garage. We were in a darkened warehouse, parked next to two other Maxwell Mechanical trucks. Shelves of boxes and tools stretched into the darkness beyond them.

Stupid Gandalf started walking back to the shelves, and Sparkles gave me a shove so I followed. More furnaces were stacked on the shelves around us, then some air conditioning units. When we reached the back of the warehouse, we climbed an old metal staircase bolted to the cinderblock wall, then walked along a metal catwalk to the back corner. Some wire mesh and insulation had been pulled back to form a narrow doorway.

We slid though it, and then we were in the next warehouse, which stood dark and empty. Gray light filtered in through glass block windows from the exterior lighting, and the floor was swept clean and seemed to glow softly. We climbed down another set of metal stairs and walked across the warehouse to a white van. I didn’t think featureless white vans were ever good news.

Still, it had seats, which was a step up from the previous ride. Stupid Gandalf opened the sliding side door and cocked his head inside, so I climbed in and settled into the nearest seat, thinking Sparkles would ride shotgun, and then I’d be able to just open the door at the next red light and run. But neither Sparkles nor Stupid Gandalf were quite that stupid.

“Scoot over,” Sparkles said.

I scooted over and Sparkles climbed in, while Stupid Gandalf went around and got behind the wheel. I figured that they’d stolen the truck for the abduction, in case any neighbors had reported it and then brought it back where they’d gotten it so they could switch vehicles. He even had a bay door opener in the car; he pressed a button and it rolled up in front of us.

It really seemed to me that if they wanted to kill me, the thing to do would have been to hit me with either the wrench or the brick and left me there in my own garage. I thought stylistically, it would have made sense to use the wrench, maybe say “Meanwhile, back at the wrench” or something. But since they hadn’t done either of those things, maybe they weren’t planning to kill me. But I wasn’t getting any sort of innocuous card game or trivia night vibe off of them either.

So I sat there as we drove back into Columbus on the surface streets. I was hungry and we kept passing Steak-n-Shakes and White Castles, and it was hard not to ask them to stop at a drive-thru, my treat.

We pulled off the road not far from my office, and Sparkles slid open the door. Stupid Gandalf got out and walked around the front of the van while Sparkles made a lot of noise climbing out on his side. He sounded like he should probably knock off the cigarettes.

I slid over to get out but paused in the open doorway, glancing first at the passenger door, and then at the driver's side. The keys were in the ignition and the passenger door was locked. I looked back out at them through the open doorway, smiled, and said, “Wow, you really are Stupid Gandalf, aren’t you?”

Then I slid the door closed, banging my fist down on the lock. The two of them had expressions on their faces like I’d just beaten them senseless at checkers right out of nowhere. I wouldn’t say it was a very graceful maneuver, but I slithered up into the driver’s seat and started the van while Stupid Gandalf and Sparkles ripped off a satisfying round of angry profanity. I didn’t give much thought to their safety as I slammed it into gear and left a patch in front of them, surging away on the darkened road.

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