Stanley Bennett checked the time again. His hand trembled, but he didn’t notice. What he did notice was the golden hands on his watch seemed frozen. They’d barely crept forward since the last time he looked. It would still be another hour, maybe even two, before his plan was set in motion.
For better or for worse.
He should be doing something else besides standing there, the thought crested above all others. He should really be at work, but he didn’t move. He couldn’t. He stood framed in the window of his lavish house and stared unblinking at the simple bag of trash that rested against the curb out front.
His breathing was slow and even, his heart rate steady, but his mind raced. He’d worked for Scinegue for years and had fully supported what they were doing—what he thought they were doing, he corrected—but if what he’d discovered was true, they must be stopped. He knew what he stood to lose; his house, his car ... maybe even his life—but as much as he wanted to, he couldn’t ignore this.
He closed eyes that burned from lack of moisture and rubbed them with the palms of his hands before letting his focus revert to the innocuous bag of trash that could hold the key to changing everything. He wasn’t prepared to take on the company himself. He was opposed to what it was doing, but he had a family.
Others had disappeared within the company. He knew he could ‘disappear’ just as easily, which would be bad enough, but what about his family? Would they ‘disappear’ as well? He pushed away the question that chilled his blood and turned his thoughts back to his plan.
He might have found someone who could help.
He was too closely monitored to make direct contact. He couldn’t afford for anyone to make a connection between them. Foolhardy on one hand, his plan also held the greatest chance of succeeding with the least amount of risk to himself. He couldn’t afford for this to go wrong.
His pulse spiked for just a second as he again considered what would happen if he was caught. If he was right—if everything he’d uncovered was what he feared—he wouldn’t survive a mistake.
It would go as planned, he reassured himself with a brief nod. Every detail had been precisely executed, and the connection he’d discovered had been confirmed.
And it felt right. He released a shaky breath as he acknowledged that had been the deciding factor. It simply felt like this was what he was supposed to do.
But if he was wrong...
With the key halfway in the door that led from the garage into the house Billy Roth suddenly stopped and leaned forward, letting his head rest against its smooth coolness. He closed his eyes as question after question crowded his mind.
What kind of company did he work for? Could it really be as ominous as Ben made it sound? What should he tell Sarah about today? What would he tell her?
He resisted pounding his head against the door in frustration knowing it would do nothing to answer the odd questions that had come up at work and would probably just leave him with a headache. Instead he unlocked the door and pushed it open.
The delicious aroma from whatever Sarah was cooking surrounded him, even before he registered the lively 80s music she was playing. He inhaled deeply, enjoying the savory scent as he walked inside.
He never knew if he would be coming home to a house filled with pumping rock or mellow soul, but he did know he could judge Sarah’s mood by her selection. Today the music told him she was happy and upbeat. He sure didn’t want to darken her mood with his news.
He found Sarah in the kitchen as he usually did, given her love for cooking and baking. She was washing dishes amongst the white cabinets and powder-blue countertops in their tiny, dated kitchen and sang along with the music. Her shiny blond ponytail was swinging as her dish towel swiped dishes in time with the beat. ‘Cute as a button’ was the description he often heard referring to her, and even though he wasn’t exactly sure where that expression came from, he found it fitting.
She didn’t notice him come in so Billy leaned against the doorframe and crossed his arms over his chest, content to watch her as his thoughts continued to race.
She looked so happy and ... innocent, he guessed was the word, and a sad smile tugged at his lips. Dressed in a pair of worn jeans and a crisp white button-down with the sleeves rolled up, she easily still looked like a college student.
He rubbed a hand over his chin. He’d felt as carefree and innocent as she appeared to be when he left the house that morning. Only two years separated them, but after the day he’d just experienced he now felt many years her senior, as if the weight of the world—at least their small piece of it—rested firmly on his broad shoulders.
Billy pushed away from the wall and closed the distance that separated them with a few silent steps. He wrapped his arms around her, causing her to drop the shiny metal lid she was drying with a resounding crash. She uttered a cry of surprise and spun around then gently pounded Billy’s chest as a broad smile covered her face.
“Hey! You’ve got to stop sneaking up on me like that,” she scolded in a mock serious tone.
Her playfulness lifted a layer of the stress that was weighing him down, and he did his best to hide the rest. “Maybe if your music wasn’t so loud, I wouldn’t be able to sneak up on you.” He grinned down at her.
“I just couldn’t resist that seductive little dance you were doing for me,” he added. “It was for me, right?” He swept a playful look around the room, and she swatted his chest again before standing on tiptoe to kiss him.
“All for you,” she joked. However she was dancing, she felt sure it had been anything but seductive. The thought made her lips curve into a smile as they pressed against his again.
Billy allowed the kiss to linger then deepen before he pulled back and used his fingers to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. “How was your day?” he asked, his voice low and rough.
“Good.” She reached back to turn down the volume of the music on her smart phone before stooping to pick up the lid from the floor to put it back in the sink.
“I decided today would be my baking day, so it was pretty busy. I made some cookies.” She gestured to the rack of freshly baked cookies still cooling on the cupboard. “Your favorite, chocolate chip. With nuts,” she told him with a smile, knowing his penchant for the added nuts.
“I also baked six loaves of bread to restock the freezer. I think I got every surface in the kitchen dirty,” she added with a laugh, and Billy noted the floured counters and stacks of washed cookie sheets and bread pans.
“I’m just finishing up the dishes, then I’ll wipe down the counters. I do have dinner ready, though.” She flashed a smile over her shoulder as she turned back to the sink, knowing he would be hungry as he always was after work.
Billy lifted the lid of the large blue cast-iron pot sitting on the stove. Sarah had been pretty proud of herself when she had found it online for what she considered a steal, always careful to watch her spending. “I can’t believe you use this heavy thing.” He pictured his tiny wife maneuvering the heavy pot, and shook his head.
He leaned over to inhale the delicious aroma that rose with the steam. He emitted a low sound of gratitude, drawing a laugh from Sarah. “Mmm, that really smells good. Stew?”
“It is stew. Chicken with fresh veggies from the garden. And it wouldn’t be nearly as yummy if I didn’t make it in that ‘heavy thing,’” she chuckled, enjoying Billy’s perplexity with her choice of cookware.
“Chicken, huh? Did Ella outlive her usefulness?” he joked, referring to one of the chickens their neighbors, the Bensons, raised.
“Billy, you can’t name your food!” She looked over her shoulder and wrinkled her nose at him, rinsing soap suds off the last washed bowl.
Billy laughed and raised both hands in surrender. “For someone who is able to process her own food, you sure are squeamish about giving it a name.”
He dipped a spoon into the pot for a taste.“Wow! This is so good. Your cooking just gets better and better.”
“Thank you. It did turn out good, didn’t it?” she asked, with a sparkle in her eyes and a touch of pleasure in her light southern drawl. “I played around with the seasoning a little bit and roasted the chicken before adding it to the veggies. I’m glad you like it.”
She turned off the water and wiped her hands on the dish towel. “The dishes are done. Go wash up. I’ll have everything ready to eat when you get back.”
He gave her a mischievous grin as he snatched a warm cookie off the rack and took a big bite. He chuckled and dodged the wadded dish towel she threw at him then disappeared around the corner.
Light brown hair still damp and a little spiky from his shower, Billy sat beside Sarah at their small breakfast table. It was set with cheery, multi-colored crockery bowls filled with the steaming stew and tall glasses of iced tea. They ate and visited, each enjoying their meal.
Billy savored his last bite of stew then reached for another cookie. “I think I spend half of my day at work just imagining what kind of delicious meal I’ll be coming home to for dinner. Thanks for cooking.”
“Well, since I’m home every day now, I have time to cook more than frozen dinners.” Her smile held a tinge of sadness. She’d quit her part-time job when she found out she was pregnant, but had lost the baby soon after.
“So how was work today?” she asked with forced cheerfulness, redirecting her thoughts to a happier subject.
Billy considered her question as he played with his spoon. Should he tell her he might be out of work tomorrow and make her worry all night, or hold out until he knew for sure?
Billy’s coworker, Ben Richardson—a man a couple of inches shorter than Billy’s six-two with salt and pepper hair still sporting the buzz-cut he preferred from his days of serving in the military—had been with the company much longer than Billy, and he was optimistic that nothing would happen at all. But Ben didn’t see the man standing in the window watching them.
Deciding he needed to tell Sarah what had happened at work, Billy huffed out a deep breath. “My day was actually kind of strange,” he began, choosing his words carefully as he gathered their empty dishes from the table and carried them to the sink.
“Strange how?” Sarah followed him to the kitchen and started the water to wash their dishes. The tropical scent from the dish soap filled the air, and she and Billy fell into a familiar harmony as they tidied the kitchen.
“Well, we were collecting the trash in the super fancy neighborhood, Scinegue.” Billy took the clean bowl she handed him and started to dry it. “You know the gated community that’s named after the company and has all those big houses? The one we have to be so particular about.”
“Of course I know it. It’s the one where you’re not even supposed to talk too loud, right? A bunch of crazy snobs it sounds like!” She rolled her eyes thinking of the super strict policies the neighborhood enforced.
She remembered Billy telling her that one time they’d driven through some mud in a construction area on their way to the neighborhood. The guards at the front gate wouldn’t allow them to enter until they washed the caked mud from the truck’s tires.
“Sin-a-gue. What kind of name is that anyway? Does that mean something in another language?”
“I don’t know. Ben and I just call it the ‘gated neighborhood’. Maybe that’s what it means.” He lifted his shoulders in a quick shrug. The name was the least of his worries.
“Anyway,” he continued, “we were about halfway down our last street. You know usually there’s not much for us to pick up since they have us run the route five days a week for the residents’ convenience.”
Sarah raised her eyes to the ceiling and shook her head but didn’t interrupt him.
“Well, today one house had a ton of bags set out. I was letting my mind wander, thinking about getting a free workout hefting all those heavy trash bags.” He gave her a crooked grin and flexed an arm.
“I was really swinging them into the truck, when all of a sudden I swung one that was as light as a feather and the whole bottom tore out. Papers flew everywhere. Everywhere.” His eyes bored into hers, wondering if she understood the severity of what he was telling her, wondering if he should tell her the rest. His voice was low and dark as he continued, “Ben even came back to help me, and he usually doesn’t get out of the truck, so I knew he was worried.”
“Ugh,” Sarah scrunched her nose up in sympathy. “I’m sorry that happened. I’m sure it was a pain picking up all that paper.” She reached over and rubbed her hand over his arm. “You did get a good workout though!” She squeezed his toned bicep and tried to tease a smile from him.
His lips curved into the semblance of a smile, but she could tell it was forced, and she felt her first niggle of real concern. “It was a pain,” he agreed, picturing the papers scattered across the street. “But that’s not the strange part. I looked around after we picked everything up to see if we’d somehow gotten lucky and gone unnoticed, and there was a guy standing at the window of that house. He didn’t move away when he saw me look his direction, either. We maintained eye contact for a split second and time seemed to freeze. You know that feeling?” he questioned, and Sarah nodded as her concern grew.
“I’ve never had anyone in that neighborhood make any kind of contact before, but he just stood there watching. I’m sure he was probably just trying to see what we looked like so he could report us. I got this feeling when our eyes met, though. It sounds crazy, even to me, but he didn’t seem angry. His body language seemed anxious, maybe even excited.”
“Do you think he’ll report you?” Sarah asked, as the impact of what he was telling her hit. Cleaning up a mess was one thing. Having a report filed against him at a company as particular as Scinegue, was something else entirely.
He pushed a hand through his short hair as he considered her question. “Those people report every little thing. They don’t put up with anything. But like I said, I didn’t feel like he would.” He paused and stared toward the far wall, reliving the moment.
“I don’t know why I feel like that. We were so far apart; I could barely see his expression. He had his hands pressed up against the window on either side of his face in a way that made him look anxious, and I just had that feeling.” Billy shrugged.
“And then it got even more strange,” his voice rose as he continued. “Remember I told you about Jerald Tanner ‘disappearing’ after he waved back at that little girl who was playing in her yard when we drove by?” He reached up to put the glasses he dried in the cupboard but kept his eyes on Sarah.
“Sure I remember. Did you finally hear from him?” Sarah asked with a glance in his direction. She knew how much it bothered Billy that his coworker left without a word or a trace. “I figured he was just embarrassed about losing his job or something like that and didn’t want to talk to anyone who knew about it.”
“No,” he frowned with a shake of his head, “I wish that was it. Actually, I learned that he wasn’t the first one to disappear after having a mishap at work.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sarah frowned herself, trying to decipher what he meant about people disappearing.
They finished the kitchen, and Billy stood deep in thought for a minute before walking to the living room.
“Billy?” Sarah dried her hands and followed him. “What does that mean?”
Billy sat on their old, red plaid couch that had graced Sarah’s parents’ living room for many years before they passed it down to Billy and Sarah when they remodeled. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. “Ben came over to me after work today. He was getting ready to leave, and it was like he made a decision to tell me something. He chewed me out a little for not being careful enough with the trash, then he said people who mess up around there disappear.”
“You mean they get fired?” Sarah narrowed her eyes and tilted her head to the side as she tried to clarify.
“Well, that’s what I thought at first too, but he said they disappear. As in not just gone from the job. Just gone. Like Jerald.” Billy glanced at her face to gauge her reaction to his words.
“You know I’ve really looked for him,” Billy continued. “I thought it was too strange for him to lose his job and move the same day. I’ve tried tracking him down online and I talked to his neighbors. I can’t find a trace of him. And no one is too excited to talk about him. To talk to his neighbors, you would think they never even knew him.”
“How could that be? You said he lived in the same area his whole life. Even if he wasn’t friends with his neighbors, they would have known him.”
“You would think.” He shrugged. “Everyone I talked to was vague, acting like they didn’t know who had lived in his house. When I told them his name and described him they seemed surprised they’d forgotten about him. ‘Oh, right! Jerald Tanner. Of course, he...’ and that was it. It seemed like they were going to tell me something about him, and then nothing.”
Sarah shook her head. “That sounds pretty crazy, you know. It sounds like a bad spy movie.” She pushed her blond bangs back from her face and gave a nervous laugh, but Billy didn’t join her.
“You’re right,” he agreed, rubbing his thumb over a callous on his palm. “I don’t know what to think, though. You know this job was strange right from the start.”
“Don’t say that! It’s a great job. You were so fortunate to get it with the economy the way it is. It’s so much better than working two part-time jobs like you were doing. You know not everyone who took that test got job offers.”
She paced over to the window and stared unseeingly into the backyard with her hands on her hips. Since Billy started working at Scinegue things were finally starting to turn around for them financially. She knew money wasn’t everything, but it sure was nice knowing the bills would be paid every month.
“It is weird that they don’t want you to talk about your work, and that you have to be so careful,” she continued with a half shrug. “I mean it’s garbage, stuff people are throwing away.”
She paced some more and then continued speaking as if Billy had replied. “It’s also strange that you’re not supposed to have any contact with the people who live there.” She thought out an answer to her own comment. “They just have more money than anyone should be allowed to have and want things done a certain way. That’s not all that strange. Picky, sure. But if they’re going to pay top dollar to have a job done, it’s not strange for them to request it be done just so.” She almost had herself convinced and turned to Billy for his opinion. “Right?” she asked, looking for his reassurance.
The job was strange, but the money was phenomenal and Billy was smart. When the local job fair offered IQ testing for free job placement, he and Sarah were very excited about it. He’d always done well in school—finishing both high school and college early—and had scored an impressive 146 on an IQ test when he was younger. Not exactly Einstein level, but high enough to get him noticed. He figured he would score well on the test at the job fair and hoped the score would translate into a decent job.
When he was offered a position as a trash collector after the test, his pride had been more than a little bruised. Until he found out how much it paid. He’d expected—hoped for—some type of office job, and ‘trash collector’ didn’t sound very glamorous. But he decided that glamour was low on his current list of requirements, and money was high, and he really didn’t mind the physical labor, so trash collector it was.
He turned his thoughts back to the present. “I wasn’t being as careful as I could have been today, but I didn’t drag that garbage bag across the street or do anything that would have torn it. There wasn’t anything heavy or sharp in there that could have poked through, either. Now that I’ve had time to think about it, I’m guessing the bag must have had a huge hole in the bottom, not even just a small rip. If I didn’t tear it, someone must have been very careful to set it out with the hole perfectly on the bottom so the papers wouldn’t blow away before it was moved.” He stood up and stretched his long limbs.
“I’ve been wondering if someone was trying to cause problems for us, get us fired. But that doesn’t make sense.” He turned to look at Sarah. “Why would anyone care about us?”
“They won’t fire you over something that small,” Sarah tried to reassure him, even as her mind raced. “Even if they do, we’ll be just fine. We have the garden, and the Bensons are probably willing to trade some of our produce for eggs from their chickens,” she rambled while pacing the polished wood floor.
“I canned the peaches from our trees,” she continued, holding up a finger as she made each point, “and we’ll have pecans later in the fall. We might have enough to sell. The house is paid for now, and we have money in the bank. I might even be able to get my old job back. We’ll be okay.” She nodded briskly, cheeks flushed and eyes bright, as she finished reciting a list almost identical to one Billy had gone over himself earlier, thankful now that they’d lived frugally to pay off the mortgage on their nice but tiny home.
Billy pulled her into his arms, hoping to stop the pacing and ease her racing mind. “Whoa, there, calm down.” He gave a slight laugh, surprised to see her so wound up. She was usually very calm and level-headed.
“Everything’s going to be fine.” He bent down to look in her lowered eyes. “All right? Let’s just put this behind us for tonight and not even think about it again until tomorrow. If that guy reported us, we’ll know first thing. There’s no sense worrying about it now. Even if he did report us, it doesn’t mean I’ll lose my job over it. Technically I didn’t do anything wrong. If that bag already had a hole in it, I couldn’t do much about that.”
Sarah swallowed hard and firmed her chin. She knew Billy was as worried about his job as she was, and she didn’t want to add to his stress. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m overreacting, and I’m also forgetting where our help comes from. God has always provided for us and I have no reason to think He’ll stop now.”
She circled his waist with her arms and leaned into him, finding strength in his embrace. Her head only came up to his chest with the foot in height difference between them, but somehow they were still a perfect fit.
“Why don’t we go out back and work in the garden for a while?” she suggested. “That’s always relaxing, and the weeds are popping up quicker than I can keep them pulled by myself.” She gave Billy a more confident smile, her eyes moist with unshed tears but full of determination. “I know everything’s going to be okay.”
Carefully emptying trash cans and swinging loaded trash bags into the back of the truck the next day, Billy felt stress trying to overwhelm him. He took off his gloves and wiped his sweaty palms on his khakis, telling himself again to relax. If he was going to be fired, it would’ve already happened. Management wouldn’t even let him be on the back of this truck if they weren’t happy with his work.
He tried to talk to Ben about what happened the day before, but he was tight-lipped and in a hurry to get their route started. Billy didn’t know if management had talked to him about the spilled trash or not.
Working hard with his back square to the house where his troubles started the day before, Billy noticed a persistent tingle start between his shoulder blades and work its way to his scalp. He knew it could just be nerves causing the sensation, but a brief glance over his shoulder revealed his senses weren’t deceiving him. He was being watched. He found he was only slightly surprised to see the same man framed by the window, his expression intense.
Billy wiped his forearm across his brow, the tingle turning to a chill. In a neighborhood where he usually didn’t see anyone, he knew it wasn’t a coincidence that he’d seen the same person twice. Both times watching him. He decided it didn’t mean anything good.
After finishing their route, Ben hopped out of the truck without a word the minute it was parked and strode across the parking lot towards the main building to sign out for the day. It was obvious he wasn’t in the mood to talk, but after just a brief hesitation Billy hurried after him. He had so many questions and felt sure Ben had at least some of the answers.
Ben had already signed out and was hurrying past the main building on his way to the parking lot, with Billy not far behind. Suddenly the smoky glass front doors swung open in sync. Two men dressed in dark suits walked out side by side, each grabbed an elbow and escorted Ben inside. Billy was too far away to hear what—if anything—was said, but the single desperate look Ben cast over his shoulder as he let himself be led away was chilling.
Billy stopped where he was. His heart hammered in his chest. He pictured Ben’s desperate expression and found himself wanting to run away. But what was he running from? A torn bag and a few papers on the street? They’d cleaned up the mess and didn’t do anything wrong. No, he didn’t want to be escorted inside like Ben to what, get fired? But there wasn’t anything to be scared of.
Before he had time for another thought, the front doors swung open a second time revealing a pair of men almost identical to the first, walking straight towards him. “William Roth?” the one on the left wearing a deep blue suit asked. Without waiting for a reply, each man grabbed an elbow and started to lead him to the front doors.
Billy’s cold fear flashed to hot anger at the treatment. His hands balled into fists at his sides as he appraised the situation with glances from one man to the other. The men looked pretty solid with their broad shoulders straining against what could have only been custom-made suits. Every bit as tall as he was, they were built like linebackers and it was two against one, but Billy was no lightweight himself. The physical labor of his job kept him in excellent condition and although he wasn’t exactly proud of it, he knew how to fight.
They probably expected a fight, or at least some type of resistance. Otherwise they wouldn’t have come out like a couple of enforcers. His eyes narrowed at the thought. He wouldn’t prove them right, he decided with growing anger, but he wasn’t going to be led around like a criminal either.
“Yes, I’m William Roth.” He surprised them by shrugging out of their grasp and stopping right outside the door with his arms crossed and legs spread slightly. “What’s this about?” he demanded, hoping he sounded much calmer than he felt.
The two men glanced at each other. They weren’t used to being questioned, and couldn’t seem to decide if they should lower themselves to answer, or just physically drag him inside. Deciding a bigger scene wasn’t necessary, Blue Suit spoke again, “Mr. Bryant would like to ask you a few questions about an incident that happened yesterday on your route.”
Billy’s eyes darted to the parking lot, and for a split second he considered making a run for his truck and just taking off and never coming back. Stay cool, Billy. Just stay cool, he repeated to himself taking a deep, steadying breath. You didn’t do anything wrong.
“I’ll answer any questions you have about my work. What I want to know first is why you’re escorting me as if I’m being arrested?” He managed to frown at each of the suits as if offended.
“What is it you want to ask me?” he continued when both men just eyed him warily.
The men exchanged another look and the man in the charcoal gray suit finally spoke with a gravely voice. “You need to come with us, Mr. Roth. We aren’t the ones with the questions.”
Making a quick decision, Billy walked forward with forced confidence, “Okay, sure.”
The suits flanked him on either side as he entered the building, but no longer tried to propel him with physical force. One step inside the door, however, and he stopped cold. His first look at the interior of the Scinegue building filled him with a combination of awe and trepidation. If he’d ever given a thought to what the interior of the office building looked like before—which he didn’t really think he had—he would never have imagined anything like what he saw before him.
Understated but gorgeous described it best. Simple but elegant tables with matching chairs arranged throughout a large lobby offered inviting places for visiting or discussing business. Real flames flickered from scones around the room, providing a refined, yet relaxing, ambiance. But the thing that made Billy’s jaw drop and kept him frozen in place was the ceiling. A beautiful patchwork of stained glass, so unexpected in a building with such a plain exterior, covered the entire ceiling three-stories above, letting in varying shades of light to tint the room with soft, ever changing colors.
A not so gentle nudge broke his contemplation of the ceiling and forced him to the left past a large marble desk. If the impeccably dressed men and women passing through the lobby hadn’t made him feel underdressed, the gorgeous redhead behind the desk took care of that instantly.
Without sparing a glance at the passing men, she exuded an aura of self-control and competency. She sat with her back ramrod straight as she efficiently answered the multiple phone lines. A silky, royal blue blouse buttoned to the very top gave her an appearance of class and distinction. Billy felt he should have showered and changed before even being allowed to walk through the front doors of the same building where someone who looked like her worked.
Billy’s escorts came to an abrupt stop, and he tore his attention from the receptionist to see what they were doing. Blue Suit swiped a card through a security device on a locked door then punched in a code. The door unlocked with a click.
Billy cast a nervous glance back towards what felt like the safety of the lobby and was surprised to find the receptionist watching him. She broke eye contact almost instantly, looking back down at her desk, but not before Billy saw something that was far from reassuring: fear. He was certain he saw fear in her eyes. Was she worried about what was going to happen to him?
Billy was given another nudge and looked towards the long hall in front of him. Was he being foolish going along with these guys willingly? His eyes darted from left to right, and his pulse jumped wildly. People were everywhere. It wasn’t like there weren’t any witnesses ... and here he stopped and gave his head a brisk shake.
He was letting himself get way too worked up over what was probably going to be a simple reprimand—he exhaled sharply. At worst he was about to lose his job. Thinking anything worse than that was about to happen was just crazy.
He made himself take a step forward and let the men lead him down the hall. As he walked between them he noticed the hallway was decorated with niches filled with delicate artwork, interspersed with a wide variety of paintings hung at precise intervals.
He craned his neck to look into the offices and rooms they passed. From the little he could see, the rooms looked almost identical with top quality furnishings, and neutral paint and flooring. The men he saw looked similar to his escorts, with business suits and short hair. The women he saw seemed to share a similar appearance as well. It was kind of eerie, like a building full of clones.
It’s probably like that in any profession, he decided. Like lawyers, they had a certain appearance to maintain.
The hall branched to the right, but they continued straight before stopping at another locked door. This one was more elaborate than the first, and required Blue Suit to place his open hand on a scanner before the lock disengaged with a click. Billy wondered what lay behind the door that required such tight security, but found the hall that continued on the other side was similar to the one they had just traversed.
The suits came to a stop before a closed wooden door with an elegant brass handle. Gray Suit rapped his knuckles against the solid wood, opening the door when a muffled call to enter came from inside.
Billy realized he’d been expecting an interrogation room like he saw on criminal television shows. An empty room with just a table and a couple of chairs on either side, and the always present two-way mirror that allowed surveillance for anyone not wanting to be seen.
The room he was encouraged to enter with a slight shove from behind was far from his expectations. This was an office of luxury. He might not know the name or value of each article in the office, but they each screamed taste and wealth. Dark wood and deep tones throughout gave the room a distinct masculine feel that was almost oppressive with its countless pieces of priceless art and furnishings.
Billy’s eyes roamed from one display to the next before coming to rest on the well-dressed man studying him with a piercing intensity through dark, almost black eyes from behind a stately desk. Older than Billy by probably ten to fifteen years, his hair was still dark and he wore it slicked back from a closely shaven face of chiseled features. He appeared to be trying to decide if he should stand and welcome Billy as a colleague, or remain seated in a position of power.
The man abruptly stood and walked around the desk. His focused expression melted into a warm smile and he extended a hand to Billy as if he was happy to see him. “William, welcome! I am so glad you could spare the time to meet with me. I’m Eugene Bryant,” he introduced himself while heartily shaking Billy’s hand.
“Please call me Eugene. You go by Billy, I believe? Is it all right if I call you William?” He gave Billy a friendly smile displaying straight white teeth. “I have a thing about nicknames.”
Billy nodded his consent and carefully sat in the straight-backed chair he was motioned to.
“Please make yourself comfortable.” Mr. Bryant returned to his chair and closed some folders, stacking them in a neat pile on the edge of his tidy desk before turning to give Billy his full attention. “I’m sure you are curious why I’ve had you detained when you would much rather be on your way home to your lovely wife.”
His smile was winning, but Billy was far from being won over. This was just too strange.
“I have a few questions for you if you can spare the time,” Mr. Bryant continued as if Billy really had a choice in the matter.
Billy wondered what would happen if he just stood up and said, ‘Sorry, I don’t have the time. See you around, Gene,’ and walked out the door. He pictured the two men who had brought him here, and figured they would not allow him to get far.
“Of course, sir. What questions do you have for me?” Billy asked in a calm voice that belied his pounding heart.
“What’s this ‘sir’ stuff?” Mr. Bryant’s laugh was congenial. “I told you Eugene is fine.”
“Okay, Eugene.” Billy tried again with a stiff smile as he rubbed the palm of his hand against his thigh. “What were those questions you had?”
“Yes, of course. I’ll get right to that. First, let me just confirm I have my facts straight. You were hired close to seven months ago after attending the Scinegue job fair.”
Billy’s nerves were strung tight, and he nodded in confirmation, even though it wasn’t really presented as a question.
“You started out working with Benjamin Richardson and Jerald Tanner. You later continued work with just Mr. Richardson. So sad about Mr. Tanner.” He shook his head as if a tragedy had occurred, then continued abruptly. “Your route consists of three neighborhoods: Sunny Meadows, Warm Brook and Scinegue.”
Billy nodded again.
“Good, good,” Eugene said, as if the meeting was going very smoothly. He steepled his carefully manicured hands under his clean-shaven chin and met Billy’s eyes with a steely stare before he continued in a deeper tone. “As I’m sure you have noticed, there is a type of hierarchy, if you will, between the neighborhoods, with each being progressively nicer then the last. Scinegue being the most exclusive.”
Billy simply nodded again when a response seemed desired.
“You were also aware when you accepted this job that only complete competency and discretion would be acceptable in your position?”
Here it comes, Billy thought. That guy standing in the window must have reported them. He probably assumed someone else would turn them in and when they showed up again today he must have done it himself.
Billy leaned forward with his hands braced on his thighs. “Sir, if this is about the incident with a few papers spilling out of a bag yesterday, I can assure you it won’t happen again.”
Mr. Bryant looked irritated and then amused. “How exactly can you assure me it won’t happen again, I wonder?” He tilted his head to the side and looked at Billy expectantly.
Billy realized his mistake in an instant. “I guess I can’t assure you it will never happen,” he answered slowly. “But I can assure you I will do everything possible to make sure it doesn’t. I was really swinging the bags that day, never expecting one to be torn. Today I made sure to handle each one as if it could tear open at any second. If I ever come across another torn bag, I will at least minimize the potential mess.”
“The bag was torn?” Mr. Bryant lowered his hands to his desk and leaned toward Billy with a sense of urgency.
Billy sat back, distancing himself from the intensity of Mr. Bryant’s probing stare. “I’m not trying to make excuses, sir. I just think the bag must have already been torn to break open that easy. I know I didn’t drag it across the street, and there wasn’t anything heavy or sharp in it, so I just came to the conclusion it was torn to start with.” Billy gave a shrug, unsure if he had made things better or worse for himself.
Mr. Bryant’s dark eyes narrowed and appeared to gleam as he looked deep into Billy’s, making him even more uncomfortable.
Suddenly his face relaxed, and he settled back into his chair. He steepled his fingers under his chin and continued to study Billy with interest as he spoke slowly, “Yes, yes, I can see how that could happen. If the bag was torn, it would be very hard for you to prevent the contents from escaping.”
Billy remained quiet but felt the hairs on his neck rise under Mr. Bryant’s scrutiny.
After a moment, Mr. Bryant broke the silence. “I believe we’ve made your wife wait quite long enough for your return. Sarah, isn’t it? You may leave now,” he dismissed Billy abruptly. “I have some business to tend to.” He looked distracted and started tapping keys on his computer.
Billy stood. “Um, thank you, Eugene. I assure you I will do my best to make sure things run smooth on our route.”
When Mr. Bryant remained focused on his monitor, not acknowledging his words, Billy headed for the door. Just as he reached for the shiny handle, Mr. Bryant spoke without looking up. “William? All of the papers were picked up and disposed of, correct?”
Looking back, Billy saw Mr. Bryant still briskly typing on his computer as if his reply was of limited importance. “Yes sir, of course,” Billy answered, just before an image flashed through his mind of the last crumpled paper he’d picked up and shoved in his pocket after the truck drove to the next house.
“Mmm. Very well. Good day.”
“Good day, sir.” Billy hesitated, wondering if he should confess that he had one of the papers. It didn’t take much to convince himself to keep quiet about it. He would just destroy it as soon as he got home, which would be almost as good as never having had it in the first place.
He opened the door to find Blue and Gray standing on either side of it, patiently waiting to escort him from the building. Without a word, they walked him down the same hall, through the coded doors, and past the same receptionist who still did not spare them a glance.
They left Billy at the front door, apparently trusting him to make it to his vehicle without causing any trouble. Although he felt pretty sure they would be watching him through the smoky glass windows until he drove off.
He saw Ben’s old blue truck pulling out of the parking lot just before he reached his own truck. At least he hadn’t disappeared, Billy thought—only partially in jest—wishing he could have caught him before he left. They would talk tomorrow, he decided. No matter what Ben thought, they had to talk.
Billy’s thoughts centered on the piece of paper he had stuffed in his pocket for the entire drive home. He didn’t knowingly lie to ‘Mr.-Bryant-call-me-Eugene’. He’d honestly forgotten about the paper.
He just felt a twinge of guilt for not telling Mr. Bryant the truth when he did remember. He wasn’t sure why he didn’t say anything, except he was afraid it would make him look a liar after he said everything had been disposed of. Well that, and the fact that the whole situation was just downright weird.
Drumming his fingers against the steering wheel, he replayed his meeting with Mr. Bryant. He might not have ever collected trash before, but it didn’t take a genius to realize this was not standard procedure. Being escorted by two big bodyguard type men to see someone in upper management just because one garbage bag had torn? There was nothing normal about that.
He would just throw that stupid paper away when he got home, he decided as he turned onto the main road. Then reconsidered. Maybe he should at least look at it. He didn’t want to work for a company if it was doing something illegal.
But what were the odds that this one piece of paper out of the whole bag would just happen to have some kind of incriminating information on it? This wasn’t even ‘the company’s’ trash. This was just a resident’s trash who expected confidentiality.
Arguments waged war through Billy’s mind as he neared the older subdivision where he lived on the opposite side of town from Scinegue. He pictured the face that had watched him from the window again today. What was it about that face?
It didn’t matter, Billy decided as he slapped a palm against the steering wheel. He’d agreed to the utmost confidentiality when he accepted this position. He would go home, find the paper and shred it. No, he would burn it, he thought. Then he would honestly be able to say he’d disposed of all the trash.