Art thought about asking her about Tony’s daughter but decided it would be better not to mention it.
“So, why do those rumors spook you?” Art asked.
“Well, it’s not that. But what happened before. So, what started was that part of their experimentation got loose. Sounds like they were doing some rather creepy things. Some of those things got loose one night. No one knows if it was intentional or not. But they said this building was full of creepy people like you’d see in a zombie or vampire movie.”
“What? Like they had fangs and bit people?” Art asked.
“I don’t know,” Joanna said. “Everybody that was working that night disappeared.”
Art scoffed. “Seriously? That sounds like something from some Hollywood conspiracy movie.”
Joanna shrugged as finished drying the last of the pans and put the towel away.
“Maybe you’re right,” she said with a laugh. “But one of the girls that works with us in the kitchen was on duty that night. I haven’t seen her since.”
“You think Tony killed her?” he asked incredulously.
“Maybe the creepy things dragged her off in some dark corner,” she said.
Art shook his head and then looked at her waiting for her to laugh. But she was serious.
“I’d quit if I could. It scares me sometimes to work here. But the money is too good, and I need something to take care of my daughter.”
“I’m sure you can get another job somewhere else or start your own burger joint,” he said.
Joanna laughed and splashed some water at him.
“It’s not that bad of a job, and they pay me triple what I could make anywhere else. Even if I went into competition with McDonald’s I’d have to work longer hours and be away from my kid.”
“Zombie burgers!” Art shouted. He made a monster face and claws like he was attacking her.
“Oh, stop it, Art!” she laughed.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! What do we have going on in here?” Tony said from the doorway.
Joanna screamed, and Art spun around toward the door.
“Oh, hey Tony! I’m just teasing Joanna about her giant monster burgers.” Art said nervously.
“Good. Aren’t they?” Tony asked as he reached for a fry.
“Sure are.” Art replied. “Finger-lickin’ good.”
“Good. Glad to hear it. Did you sleep well?”
“I did. Slept great,” he answered.
“Good. You looked exhausted.” Tony said.
“Yeah, but I feel much better now.” Art replied.
“Well, don’t stay up too late. We have a long day tomorrow. So, make sure to get some sleep.”
Joanna finished putting all her dishes back on the cart. She pulled a few things out of the fridge to take with her.
“I’m going to run along. I think I’ve pretty much wrapped everything up here. Would either of you like anything else?” she asked politely.
Both of the men shook their heads.
“No, thank you, Joanna. Run along and have a nice night.” Tony said gruffly
“Good night, Joanna.” Art said as she pushed her cart out the door.
Tony walked into the living room and tossed himself onto the couch with a loud sigh. He loosened his tie and kicked off his shoes.
“Do you live here?” Art asked. “Is this your house. I can stay in a hotel or something. I don’t want to impose.”
Tony chuckled and waved him off. “No, no. Of course not. I couldn’t stand being cramped up in this underground hole.”
Art looked around. Cramped up isn’t the word he would have used to describe how he felt here. It was at least three times bigger than his home. It felt very spacious and comfortable. He wondered what Tony’s home must look like if he thought this made him feel cramped.
After a few moments, Tony opened his eyes and looked at Art.
“Be careful, Art. I have a lot of enemies. Once people find out that you are working with me, they’re going to do everything they can to trip us up. It’s going to be dangerous for you out there in the real world. I know you are going to want to go out and I can’t keep you locked up in here forever.”
“Why’s that?” Art asked. “There seems to be so much mystery around here and this Sector Seven thing.”
Art realized he shouldn’t have said that and froze up. Tony chuckled and waved him off.
“So, they’ve already told you about it. Huh? Well, at least I know the company water cooler works. I told you about my daughter and Alpha Four’s brother. That’s where the research was going on.”
“And the zombie vampire things that escaped?” Art had to ask.
“That is rumor, Art. I actually started it.” Tony said. “I told you that we have a war going on in here. You saw how Alpha Four reacted. I couldn’t actually tell people that we had rogue employees running around shooting each other up. So, we told them it was some experiment in sector seven that got loose. It was a very good way to keep people from sniffing around down there. But there is really nothing to hide. You’re welcome to go down there anytime.”
“And Carla’s brother?” he asked.
“Carla?” Tony mused. “Who is Carla?”
“The girl that was cleaning in here tonight.” Art replied.
“What are you talking about? There’s no one scheduled to clean in here tonight.” Tony said and stood up. “Hey, Delta Two! Who cleaned in here tonight?”
Bill walked into the room and shrugged. “One of the cleaning girls came down and said she was supposed to touch things up. I assumed it was something you had requested.”
“No, I didn’t. That’s mighty strange,” he said. “Have security go back and look at the tape to see who it was. I want to know what’s going on. You probably won’t find her, but if you do, bring her to me.”
“Sure thing, boss,” Bill said.
“Bill is Delta Two. Huh?” Art asked.
Tony chuckled. “Don’t ask. It started a long time ago. It’s a security thing. I’d much rather call them by name. But they think it feels more professional. It’s not like this job is that dangerous or anything. So, I suppose most of the time they’re just standing around making up cool names for themselves.”
Art nodded pensively as he reviewed his conversation with Carla and wondered what was going on. Was she there to spy on him. Would she have killed him if he hadn’t woken up?
Tony noticed the worried look on his face. “Don’t worry, she won’t get in here again,” he said. “I’ll have Bill notify security not to let anyone near you that hasn’t been personally authorized by you or me.”
Art felt relieved and thanked Tony.
“Look, don’t mention it kid. I’m doing this for myself. You are doing me a huge favor. I’m counting on you. Not just me, but the whole world. You have come up with something amazing, and this is the least I can do to show you how much you deserve it.”
Art grinned and blushed. It felt good to have someone compliment him like that. Pedro had never said anything nice about him. In fact, it seemed like his superior had purposefully sought to tear him down at every opportunity. So, this was a nice change. He was going to enjoy it as long as he could.
“So, why don’t we go take a look at your new house?” Tony said.
“Huh?” Art replied. “What are you talking about?”
Tony grinned. “After you fell asleep, I had my real estate agent show me what was available on the market. I went ahead and picked something out for you.”
They walked out the door and down the hall. When they got to the parking lot, Tony tossed him a set of keys. Press the unlock button and see which one is yours. Art looked at him in shock. There were only three cars in the lot.
The first was a matte black BMW right in the center of the other two. He could tell right away by the symbol on the front. It must have been a newer model because he didn’t recognize it just by looking at it. And that was because he was an avid car fan that read all the top auto magazines each month.
The second was a tungsten silver Aston Martin to the right. He recognized it as a Vantage with custom wheels. He whistled when he realized it was a convertible. The third one was a red Ferrari with tinted windows and a black top to the left. Art gently ran his hand along the side of it.
“Hey, what are you waiting for? We don’t got all night.” Tony snapped.
Art grinned and pressed the button. The lights to the BMW flickered as it beeped. Tony and Bill hopped in as Art admired the car.
“Stop, drooling and let’s hit the road, son.” Tony shouted in mock disgust.
Art climbed in carefully and started the car. He looked over at the Ferrari once more. Tony looked back at Bill and handed him a twenty dollar bill.
“Told you so,” Bill said as he shoved the money into his pocket.
“What’s that all about?” Art asked.
“We gave you the keys to this car because the Ferrari and Aston only seat two people. I wanted Bill along for protection. So, we bet twenty dollars on which car you’d really want to drive.”
“Bill put his money on the Ferrari,” Art finished. “He has good taste.”
Tony and Bill both chuckled.
“The Ferrari is a nice car, but once you drive the Aston, you’ll never look back at it again.” Bill said. “I just figured you hadn’t had the privilege to drive one yet to know how sweet it really is.”
“Don’t worry, son. You can drive them all, all you want, tomorrow.” Tony said. “I’m giving those three cars to you.”
She got right to work, chopping, slicing, and dicing. Soon, she had a whole pile of pans out on the stove with all kinds of delicious smells wafting out into Art’s nostrils. His stomach growled hungrily. Art went into the living to get away from it, but he could still hear the food sizzling over the fire. He almost couldn’t take it anymore and was about to go raid the fridge for something to munch on when she brought him out a huge plate of fries. Joanna set them on the table with a large bottle of Heinz ketchup.
“Hamburgers are almost ready, but here’s a little appetizer to get you in the mood,” she said.
Art grinned and attacked the plate voraciously.
“Oh, my goodness!” he moaned ecstatically through a mouthful of fries. “This is sooooo good!”
Joanna grinned with pleasure. “It’s an old recipe that was handed straight down from my great-grandmother. They’re made from the largest, freshest Idaho Russet Burbank potatoes dipped in secret seasoning before being fried at four hundred and twenty-five degrees for exactly four minutes.”
Art grinned and gave her a thumbs-up signal with one hand as he continued to shovel fries in his mouth with the other.
“It’s amazing,” he finally managed to blurt out after swallowing the food he was chewing on.
Joanna beamed with pleasure. “Good. I’m glad you like it.”
She went back into the kitchen and came out a minute later with one of the most delicious looking hamburgers Art had ever laid eyes on in his life.
“Whoa!” he exclaimed.
“I don’t think you’ll be able to finish this one all off, but I made another one just in case because you said you were really hungry. I’ll keep it warm for you in the kitchen.”
It was huge. She must have used at least a pound of meat just for the burgers. There were two large, perfectly round patties stuffed with melted cheese that was drizzling off the sides between large slices of pickles and tomatoes. Art could barely get his mouth over the edges of the sandwich.
Joanna brought out another heaping portion of fries that were still sizzling right out of the pan.
“Can you bring me some mayonnaise, please.” Art asked.
When she brought it out, he spooned out a large portion of the thick, white substance and squirted ketchup across the top of it. He dipped his fries in it and took a big bite.
“Ew!” Joanna said as she made a face. “That looks disgusting.”
“No, way! It’s so good.” Art said. “Besides, it can’t be worse than salt & vinegar chips. Here, try some.”
He shoved the plate towards her, and she tentatively ran a fry through the red and white mixture. She tasted it and seemed pleasantly surprised.
“You’re right. This is pretty good,” she said.
“So, what was that you said earlier?” Art asked. “Something about all the strange things that have been going on around here.”
Joanna got quiet and busied herself by bustling away to the kitchen saying she needed to check on the other hamburger.
Art followed her out into the kitchen as he polished off the rest of his burger.
“Do you want more?” she asked as she poked at french fries and stirred them around.
He shook his head and pulled out a stool to sit down at the kitchen island.
“I’m good. Thanks. That was great though. Leave it there because I’ll have the other one for a midnight snack.”
“So, about those rumors that you heard earlier. What was that all about?” he asked.
Joanna ignored the question again and turned toward the fridge.
“Normally, I’d make you something fancy for dessert myself. But like I said, today was exceptionally busy, and everything I prepared got eaten up. And they didn’t give me much advance notice about your supper. So, the best I can do for you is a slice of pecan pie with a bowl of butter pecan ice cream. Is that okay?” she asked.
“Sure,” Art said with a nod.
“But if you want, I can make you some crème de brûlée,” she added.
“No, no. Pie and ice cream sounds great.” Art said. “Actually, forget the pie. Just give me the ice cream. I’m pretty stuffed from the burgers and fries.”
She scooped four huge spoonfuls of ice cream into a large bowl and handed it to him with a spoon.
“Those rumors, Joanna. What have you heard?” he asked.
She sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Can’t we just forget I said that?” she pleaded.
“No,” Art said as he shook his head. “You got me curious now. I’ve just arrived and want to make sure I’m in the loop.”
Joanna giggled. It was a cute, little sound. She sounded almost like a child when she did that. She looked around carefully like someone might be listening in on them.
“Well, people have been talking you know. Mostly about you and whatever it is that you do,” she said almost in a whisper.
She looked at him knowingly as if she was waiting for him to confirm what she was talking about. Art raised his eyebrows and shrugged as if he didn’t know anything about this.
“Oh, c’mon. Don’t play dumb with me.” she said. “You’ve got some kind of DNA splicing technology. Right?”
Art wasn’t sure how to answer her. He didn’t think that was something that Tony had spread around. And he wasn’t sure how much she really knew. But right now, he needed to learn everything he could so it wouldn’t help to deny it.
“Yeah. My company works with plants though. What’s going on here?” he asked.
“Hmm,” she said and kept drying her dishes as she looked at him for a long time trying to decide what to say.
“I don’t want to lose my job or anything,” she said. “Did Tony really not tell you, or are you just stringing me along.”
Art decided to shock her just to see how she would react.
“Alpha Four was shot today over something he was going to tell me,” Art said. “But he didn’t get a chance to finish.”
“Oh, my!” Joanna said as she covered her mouth with the towel. “Then it’s bad then.”
She tossed the towel to the side and grabbed a clean one from the rack.
“Well, I probably shouldn’t be telling you any of this then, but if you want the inside scoop, you should talk to Carla,” she said.
“What? The cleaning girl.” Art replied in exasperation. “She was just here and acted like she didn’t know anything.”
Joanna grinned. “I know. I think she was just testing you. Did she tell you about her brother?”
“So, then she must have realized she could trust you somewhat. Her brother used to work down on Sector Seven. They were responsible for the top-secret projects going on here at LocTec. Something bad happened. There was a huge rift in the company. Several of the employees broke off in some kind of revolution. They swore they would bring down the company for whatever it was that had happened. I really don’t know. So, I couldn’t tell you if I wanted to. But Carla’s brother disappeared in the process.”
“Right. She told me about that,” he said.
Joanna raised her eyebrows, “Really? She must have taken a liking to you then. Some say that he’s leading a revolt against the company and that they are going to sabotage Tony’s work. So, just be careful and keep your eyes peeled if Tony wants you to do anything down there. You’ll most likely be on their hit list.”
“I’m sorry,” Art said. “Here take it.”
He pressed the phone into her hands. His fingers brushed against hers. They were soft and warm. He let them linger for a moment.
Carla looked at the phone but wouldn’t accept it. “It’s not my brother’s phone. Just the number remains the same.”
“Maybe the phone carrier transferred it to someone else when it wasn’t in use.” Art suggested.
“No,” Carla replied. “I kept paying his phone bill just in case he had been kidnapped. I thought he might need to contact me someday.”
“Sure you aren’t confusing the number. Check it again.” Art said.
Carla sighed in exasperation. “It’s saved in my contacts, Art. I don’t need to look at the number.”
“So, what do you think happened to him?” Art asked.
“I have no idea,” Carla said and threw herself down on the couch. “It’s the ultimate mystery in my life right now.”
“What did your brother do here?” he asked.
“Paul used to work for the research department. He didn’t talk about it much though. They were under some kind of non-disclosure agreement that he wasn’t allowed to talk about. So, I never really pushed him for any information.”
“Did he ever seem guilty, like they were doing something wrong?” Art asked.
“My brother was always moody, so it’s hard to say. But I could tell he came home stressed out a lot. I just assumed it was pressure from his boss.”
“The person who called me on this phone said that there was something really terrible going on here. And the woman who gave it to me was with a group of men inside a surveillance van outside. It was really weird. Then someone put a gun to my head and threatened me yesterday. So, maybe your brother tied up in something pretty messed up.”
“No, but my brother would never hurt anyone,” she said as she put her hand to her mouth and shook her head. “He was a good man.”
“I don’t mean he was doing anything wrong. Maybe he just discovered what they were doing, and they threatened to silence him.” Art continued.
Carla’s eyes moistened and teared up. “Do you think they killed him?” she asked.
Art didn’t know what to say to that. He wanted to lie and say no, but he knew she wouldn’t accept his false hope.
“Maybe you can use your job around here to do some digging around. Go to the sectors where your brother used to work. You have access to the building. Talk to people and find out what’s going on.”
Carla’s eyes lit up. “Yes, I will find out what happened to him. And I will get my revenge.”
Art sighed. That sounded ominous. Based on the way she treated her boyfriend, he wouldn’t put anything past this girl.
“Well, I need to get going. I have a lot to do tonight still. So, I better get moving, but it was really nice chatting with you. I’d love to talk some more with you sometime.” Carla said.
“Sure. That sounds great. We’ll keep in touch and set something up. I’ll be around for a few more days at least.” Art replied.
Carla smiled warm, easy smile and hugged Art briefly before leaving. Art smiled and raised his right hand in a quick wave as he left. He watched her prance down the hall pushing her cart.
“Evening, Mr. Costa. My name is Bill, and I’m the guard on duty for tonight. Would you like me to order something for you or have someone bring you something to eat? We have an in-house chef on duty. If you like, she can come down and prepare you something to eat.”
“That would be great, Bill. Thanks. I am starving. It feels like it’s been ages since I’ve eaten anything.”
“Okay. I’ll have something sent down for you. Feel free to raid the fridge. There should be a few things in there for a snack to tide you over till supper gets here.”
“Great. Will do.” Art said and gave Bill the classic thumbs up signal.
Bill nodded curtly and walked back out the door. Art meandered into the kitchen and opened the fridge. There several bottles of pop and various assortments of cheeses. There was a pie and a few other things as well. It was nicely stocked, but nothing seemed to jump out at him.
Art opened up the cabinets that surrounded the fridge and found all kinds of delightful things to eat. It was chock full of chips and granola bars and boxes of cereal. He didn’t know what half of them were. Things that he had never seen sold in Brazil.
He was tempted to grab a few and start tasting them but resisted the urge. He didn’t want to spoil his appetite before supper arrived. And he figured he’d have plenty of time to try everything out. No need to make himself sick on the first day.
Art grabbed one bag that looked interesting. He looked at the lettering. Salt & Vinegar chips. That sounded like a strange combination but figured he would give it a try. He walked back in the living room and sat down in front of the TV on a plush chair. The whole room reeked of richness. He smiled to himself as he popped open the bag, careful not to let anything drop on the couch. He could get used to this kind of life.
He couldn’t wait till he had his own house and could decorate it with his own furniture. His mother could help with the decorations. She had always been good at that kind of stuff. He wasn’t worried about brand names or buying the most expensive products. He just wanted to make sure he got the nicest, most comfortable furnishings available.
But Art definitely knew that he wanted a Lazy Boy chair and a Jacuzzi in his bathroom. He had only been here a day and was already spoiled rotten. He sighed with pleasure and leaned back in the chair. It was so comfortable, he almost fell asleep right there.
“Mr. Costa? Hello.” he heard a voice in the distance through his daydreaming.
Art sat up and looked around. Had he been dreaming. He leaned back and picked up the bag of chips that was still half-opened. He opened it the rest of the way and took a sniff. He almost gagged on the smell.
He heard a noise in the kitchen and got up to go take a look. There was a petite, redheaded woman looking into the fridge. She had a long, white apron on over a white uniform.
“Hey,” Art said.
“Ah!” the woman screamed and spun around. She clutched a bag of carrots to her chest and breathed heavily. Art tried not to snicker at her. That would have been rude.
“Oh, hey there,” she said. “I called, but no one answered. I thought I was alone. Sure wasn’t expecting you.”
Art smiled and apologized. “Sorry,” he said. “I drifted off there on the couch and didn’t hear you knock.”
“Oh, it’s okay,” she said. “Bill told me you were around. I just get spooked easily. Especially after hearing all the rumors around here.”
Art chuckled and started to ask what she meant by that, but she turned around and started busily putting the rest of her bags and containers into the fridge. He needed a moment anyway to control himself and not burst out laughing every time he looked at her. The look of pure terror on her face had been delightfully funny. He had always enjoyed scaring people, and especially his mother when he was a child.
“Well, Mr. Costa,” she said.
“Please, call me Art.” he interrupted her. “What’s your name?”
“Sure, Art. My name is Joanne. So, what would you like to eat tonight? It’s been a busy day, so everything I had prepared has already been eaten up. Which is a good thing, because you get yours fresh.”
“Oh, I could eat anything right now. I’m as hungry as a bear. I tried munching on these chips, but they smell like old socks.”
Joanne laughed and grabbed a few chips from the bag. “Salt & Vinegar chips are a unique flavor that have to grow on you. But once you get addicted to them, your mouth waters just thinking about them.”
Art took one and nibbled on the end of a chip. He made a surprised face. It didn’t quite as bad as he had imagined it would. He grabbed a few more out of the bag.
“Well, if you’re hungry and want something quick and dirty, I could make you some Chinese Stir Fry or my specialty gourmet hamburgers with just about any toppings you want. They’ll take about twenty minutes to make. But if you want something fancier, we aim to please.”
“Yum, hamburgers sound great,” Art said as he licked his lips and rubbed his belly for emphasis.
“Great!” Joanne said. “How does a fat, juicy burger with caramelized onions on an Australian bun sound.”
“Whoa,” Art said and made a face of extreme satisfaction as he grabbed his belly.
Joanne laughed and started slicing up a pile of onions.
“You like pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese on your burger too? Anything you don’t like?”
Art shook his head. “No, ma’am. I ain’t picky. Pile it all on.”
“Really?” Art asked in shock.
“I heard Mr. Blanchet wanted to buy the company out, but I guess it’s good for him that it didn’t work out. But you should know about that because you work for them. Right? Why am I telling you this?”
“No, I haven’t heard any of this news. Please continue and tell me what else you know about this stuff and Mr. Blanchet.”
“Well, I probably shouldn’t say anything. It’s just rumor, and I don’t want to lose my job because I’m spreading gossip about him.”
Art waited anxiously for her to continue.
“They say he’s not from here.”
“You mean Mr. Blanchet?” he asked.
She nodded and continued. “They say he acquired his wealth through the suffering of others and built his empire on the back of pain. Some even say he isn’t human. I even heard recently that he is over five hundred years old.”
Art chuckled. “You gotta love the company water cooler.”
She didn’t laugh but fidgeted nervously. “I should get going. There is still a lot of cleaning I have to do.”
“No, please. Wait. Stay with me a bit longer. I’ll tell Tony that it was my fault because you were keeping me company.”
“Tony isn’t my boss. I work for an outsourced company. He’s my employer’s boss thrice removed.”
“Okay,” Art said. “I don’t want you to get in trouble.”
The phone in Art’s pocket started to vibrate, and he pulled it out. Carla looked at him in shock and anger.
“You don’t have a phone. Huh?” she hissed angrily. “All men are such liars. They sweet talk you while lying to your face.”
Art held out his hands for her not to leave while trying to answer the phone at the same time.
“Hey, Jonny! Good to hear from you. I need to call you back. Give me a minute.”
Art hung up and ran over to where Carla was putting her cleaning supplies back in the cart.
“No, it’s not what you think. Listen to me.” Art pleaded. “There was a woman here yesterday.”
“Yes, I know. Always a woman. You’re just like all the other men I know. If it weren’t for women, you would all be saints.” she droned on.
“She gave me this phone to talk to Johnny because he wanted to warn me about the bomb.”
Carla stopped her rant and put her stuff down. She crossed her arms and tapped her feet while she scowled at Art.
“Why am I trying to explain myself to you. I’m allowed to have a phone if I want, and I can talk to other women if I want. Where did the jealous bug bite you today?”
“You can have all the phones you want, smarty pants. And you can talk to all the pretty girls you want. Just don’t lie to me about having a phone when you do.”
“But I didn’t lie, and it’s not mine. I just forgot I still had it. Look, I’m sorry.” Art said.
“What? That you got caught lying,” she said with a smirk.
Art sighed in frustration.
“It’s okay. Forget it,” she said. “I’m just overly sensitive about it. I caught my boyfriend sending messages to another woman. He claimed they were just friends. I dug a little deeper and discovered the truth. So, I dumped him. You know the saying. How does it go? Once bitten, twice shy.”
“So, what happened to the boyfriend?” Art asked.
“I chopped him up and fed his liver to the alligators.” she giggled.
Art looked at her in shock and horror. She burst out laughing at the look on his face.
“I met that metaphorically. Don’t worry, he’s still alive. He tried to cover it up and proposed the following week in front of all our friends. I didn’t pull any punches with him. I let the cat out of the bag.”
Art gave a low whistle.
“Poor guy. You humiliated him in front of his friends.” Art said.
“They tore him to shreds. Most of them won’t even give him the time of day anymore. He always tried to pretend he was Mr. perfect goody-two-shoes. But I left no doubt as to who he really was. I gave them all solid evidence.”
“You are so evil! You could have just dumped him in private.”
“Oh, trust me, this douchebag would have just gone on and done the same thing to one of my friends. But you’re right. It was a little cruel. I was furious and wanted my revenge. I didn’t really think about it much.”
Art grinned. “Look at you little miss feisty. Thanks for the warning. Now, I know not to mess with you.”
Carla smiled, “It’s not just me. Mess with a woman, and you’re bound to get burned, boy. You’ve heard that old saying about hell and a woman scorned. Right?”
Art shook his head.
“Well, forget it then,” she said and pushed her cart on past him.
She stopped at the door and turned back. “So, are you going to give me your number or not?”
“Uh, sure!” Art stammered. “But I don’t know the number to this phone. And I have to get a new one later.”
“Okay, Art. Forget I asked,” she said with a sigh and pushed the door open.
“Wait, give me yours, and I can call you. Then you can save this number on your phone. Whatever it is.”
She brightened up and smiled. “289-4735,” she said, and Art punched the numbers into the phone.
“I’m dialing now. It’s ringing,” he said.
“Oh right,” she answered.
She reached into her purse and pulled out her phone. It was large and white. Almost too large for his tastes. Art didn’t understand why they made phones so big. He preferred something smaller and more discreet. If you wanted something that big, you may as well just buy a tablet. It was a weird size. Too big for a phone and too small for a tablet.
“Maybe we can go grab a bite to eat after you get off work.” Art said. He didn’t think there would be any problem with him going out at night. There wouldn’t be hardly anyone around to see him.
Carla was staring at her phone in shock.
“Where do you get this number from?” she demanded to know as she pointed to the screen. “How did you get this number.”
There was a name on the screen, but he couldn’t see it. So, he took a step forward.
“I told you that a woman gave it to me in the lobby so Johnny could talk to me.”
He looked that the name on the screen. He saw the name, Paul Ortiz.
“Is that your father calling you,” he asked.
“No, that’s the phone number your calling me with. It’s my brother’s phone number. I wanna know how you got it.” she said taking a step forward.
Art stepped back and shrugged. “Here, you can take it and give it back to him.”
“I can’t, Art, because he’s dead. He used to work here at LocTec. One night, he just didn’t come home. I filed a missing person report, but nobody knew what had happened to him.”
“They were sick. I was desperate. Mark promised miraculous results. So, I put them in the same study as Alpha Four’s brother. At first the results were excellent. They surpassed our expectations. But then they started regressing. Then horrible things started happening to them. You know what happened to Alpha Four’s brother. Others died. I had the means to have my daughter put into cryogenics. I didn’t wait for the tests to fail to have her deep frozen. But the rest all died. So, everyone blamed me for the deaths of the other subjects while sparing my daughter. But I just couldn’t wait until it was too late.”
“That’s why they call you an evil monster.” Art said. “And now you want to try to use my technology to reverse the effects. To do that we’ll have to perform more experiments. More people might die. I’ll take the blame like Mark did.”
“I told you that he took unnecessary risks with the patients. He didn’t follow protocol. He tried to work his own miracles and didn’t follow proper safety procedures. I want you to do things the right way. There is no longer any rush. I just want the hope that someday, I may be able to save her and hold her in my arms again. But I would never ask you to take unnecessary risks or do anything you didn’t feel would work.”
“I get full control over the research procedures and how the technology is used. You won’t try to squeeze it out of me and have one of your henchmen do it behind my back?” Art demanded.
“Of course not, Art. I would never do that. Do you think I would knowingly have let anyone do something that would harm my own daughter.”
Art looked down at the paper and then back up at Tony. He sighed as he weighed the decision. Tony’s eyes pleaded silently.
“We only have a minute left, Art. The ball’s in your court. I’ll make the transfer for the first payment as soon as you sign this. You can still keep it at the end of the two weeks if you don’t think we can do good, save lives, and change the world together.”
Art looked him deep in the eye, trying to gauge how sincere the man really was. He hated to be under pressure like this and have to make such a snap decision. Ultimately, it was a judgment call. Art knew he had to give it a shot, but before he could get the pen to the paper, Tony started talking again.
“Thirty seconds, Art. I’ll even throw in the second payment today if you sign it right now.”
“Half a billion dollars,” Art paused to ask.
“Yes, five hundred and eighty million dollars!” Tony shouted. “Sign the stupid thing already! Will you?”
Art signed his name to the dotted line. All the pressure of having to make a decision flowed out of him. Relief flooded his body, and he relaxed.
“For crying out loud, boy!” Tony half-shouted and half-sobbed. “You know how to keep an old man on the edge of his chair.”
Art smiled as watched Tony sobbing with relief. It seemed too genuine for him to have faked. He felt like he had made the right decision. He would do his best and change the world.
It had been so worth it. Every sleepless night. Every sacrifice made to achieve the results of this project. To know he had the potential to transform people’s lives. To give a father fresh hope for a better future.
Art started to tear up himself. He wiped a tear from each of his eyes and reached out his hand to comfort Tony.
“It’s okay, Tony. We’re gonna do this. We’re gonna save your daughter.” Art said gently.
Tony reached out with both arms and hugged Art tightly. He sobbed a bit longer, then let Art go. He wiped his face and picked up the contract to show to the lawyers.
“Let’s wrap this up y’all. Make sure to let them know in Brazil that their prized project is no longer up for sale.”
Art snickered. This was so worth all the trouble Pedro had put him through. Pedro had taken him to task time after time. Pedro tried to have the board shut Art’s project down. Art would have loved to see the look on his face when he realized how much Art had made off it. Not that Art ever planned on telling him. There was no way he planned on telling anyone. He would just tell them that he had gotten a new job in America and was getting paid in dollars. He would do his best to make sure that his friends and family were taken care of for real.
“Can I go now?” Art asked.
“Where do you wanna go? You can take a shower in there, and we can have some food brought down.”
“I just want to go for a walk,” Art said.
“I think it’s best if you didn’t just yet,” Tony said. “You still have a lot of people who want to suck your brain dry. And now that you’re an instant billionaire, you need proper protection before you go out.”
Art sighed but nodded in agreement.
“I’m gonna go take a shower and take a nap. I didn’t sleep much before your henchmen came to pick me up.” Art said.
“Frank and Joe are good, upright, honest cops. Some of the best you’ll find here in Brimhill. They aren’t my henchmen and never have been. They were just trying to do the right thing for Johnny. He was a well-liked character around here. So, word of warning, just be careful what you say about him to folks around here. They’ll lynch you if you try to bad mouth Johnny without proof.”
“Sure,” Art said. “I wouldn’t do that to anyone.”
“Good,” Tony replied.
That seemed to be the end of their conversation and what Tony needed from him. Art went off to find a similar bathroom to the one he saw earlier complete with the Jacuzzi. He took off his clothes and wrapped a towel around himself. Then he plopped himself down into the Lazy Boy chair while he waited for the hot tub to fill up.
The warm water felt so good as it embraced his weary body. If this was what being rich felt like, he could take it on. This was the most wonderful feeling in the world. He dozed off a bit in the tub, and then woke up to drag himself into the huge, king-sized mattresses in one of the many bedrooms. He didn’t bother to ask Tony which room he could use. He didn’t think it would really matter, and he was too tired to go looking for him. He crashed on the soft, downy pillows and fell into a deep and dreamless sleep as he imagined what he would do with half-a-billion dollars.
Art woke up feeling like a million dollars. Five hundred and eighty million dollars to be exact. It felt great. He stretched lazily in the huge, soft bed and rolled around a few times before finally getting up. He walked out into the kitchen where the clock on the wall said it was already seven p.m.
Tony was nowhere to be seen. Beta Five wasn’t around either. Art walked into the living room and sat down on the couch. He turned on the T.V. and started randomly flipping through channels.
“Oh, hey! You’re awake.” a soft voice said behind him.
Art turned to look. A young woman dressed in spotless uniform smiled at him brightly from across the room.
“Did you sleep well?” she asked with a light Spanish accent.
“Where is everyone?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she replied. “I just got here myself. You’re the first person I’m seeing.”
“You work with Tony?” he asked.
She giggled. “No, I’ve never even spoken to Mr. Blanchet in my life. I think I’ve only seen him one time in the past few months that I’ve worked here.”
“What did you say your name was?” Art asked.
“Carla Ortiz,” she replied.
Art’s ears perked up, and he sat up straighter. “Did you know Johnny well?”
She looked at him funny. “Johnny,” she repeated. “The name sounds familiar, but I can’t put a name to the face.”
“Johnny Silva,” he prodded. “One of the directors here at LocTec.”
She shook her head. “Can’t say I do,” she replied. “But I only work the night shift after everyone has left. So, I don’t see many people.”
“Do you know any other Carlas around here,” Art continued.
She shook her head and smiled again. “She must be pretty special. Huh?”
“No, it’s not like that,” Art said. “A friend of mine told me to look her up to ask her something.”
“Well, I can ask around,” she said. “How do I find you if I learn something?”
“I’ll be around. My name is Arthur Melo, but you can call me Art. Just look me up.” he said.
“What? And you don’t have a phone number Mr. Mysterious Melo?” she asked with a pout. “Or is your girlfriend jealous and doesn’t let you give it out to other women.”
“No.” she said.
“No, she doesn’t?” the girl said with a wry smile.
“No, I mean that I don’t have a phone and that’s not why I can’t give it to you. I just flew in from Brazil yesterday and planned to buy a new one here.”
“Brazil. Huh?” she said. “Do you work for that company called A3 Robotic Solutions?”
“Yes,” Art replied. “What do you know about it?”
“Everyone is talking about it. They say that the company declared bankruptcy earlier this afternoon. It sounds like a big deal with all the political scandals and corruption that’s been going on down there.”
“You okay, kid?” Tony asked. “I knew we had a mole in here. I just wasn’t sure who it was. Get him outta here, Beta Five.”
Tony put a comforting arm around Art’s shoulder and pulled him gently away from the door. He handed Art a handkerchief to wipe his face.
“C’mon. It’s not safe out there. We need to make sure nothing happens to you. You are our golden goose, and we have to take care of you.”
They walked down in the other direction to what seemed to be a dead end. But when they arrived, Beta Five pressed a button, and a bookshelf full of cleaning supplies slid up the wall automatically revealing a secret passage.
Beta Five went through first to make sure everything was okay. He gave them the all-clear signal and Tony guided Art on through by the hand as he still seemed to be in shock.
“It’s okay, Art. I know it’s a lot to take in all at once in a single day. But when you have something this amazing with so much potential, this is what happens. Didn’t you ever consider that anyone would try to steal it from you or kidnap someone you love to force you into handing it over.”
Art shook his head numbly as they walked down another flight of stairs and came to a large vault. Tony put his eye up to a retina scanner, and the door hissed open. He led the way inside and motioned for Art to enter.
He took a step forward and looked around. It looked like a normal house. If he didn’t know any better, he never would have guessed that they were underground.
“A bomb shelter?” Art asked.
Tony smiled. “Do you like it?”
Art nodded his head and looked at Tony questioningly.
“Oh, everyone is fine. We got the lawyers out of there. They’ll continue our meeting via conference call from their office just down the street. Our security team disarmed the bomb with the robot. But in the end, it seems that it wouldn’t have really worked. It was just put there to distract us. Which leads me to wonder how you knew about it.”
He gave Art a hard look.
“I noticed that Alpha Four looked suspicious. He kept glancing at the desk, and I saw it under there.”
“C’mon Art. Don’t insult my intelligence. Really. Please don’t. I’ve been open and honest with you the entire time. The least you could do is repay me with the same respect.”
Art hung his head in shame.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You’re right. The woman, Carla, told me what was going on.”
Tony continued staring at him with a hard look on his face. It made Art nervous. Could he tell that Art still wasn’t telling the truth? Did he know about the phone? Art tried not to fidget or shift his weight under Tony’s gaze. The man finally smiled and slapped him on the back.
“You mean April,” Tony said. “You’re braver than I thought if you went back up to the office after she told you all that.”
Art chuckled nervously. “I thought she was making it up to scare from going back up. I wanted them to know that their threats won’t keep me from letting them steal my project.”
“Good. That’s good.” Tony said with a smile and slap on the back. “You’re a good man. C’mon in and make yourself ‘homely,’ I mean at home.”
He looked at Art expectantly waiting for him to laugh. “Never mind,” Tony said. “American humor. We call them puns. My uncle used to tell that one to me all the time. Just an old habit.”
“They’re ready, sir.” Beta Five’s voice boomed through the room. Art was surprised to hear the man finally speaking. Maybe it was just part of their hierarchy.
“C’mon over, Art,” Tony said. He was already seated in front of the computer. He could see two screens with the lawyers. But he only saw two of them. One of the men and the woman. After an instant though, the other lawyer came on screen beside the woman.
“Sorry for the scare there, but I’m glad everyone’s okay.” Tony started off. “So, do you all have the contract ready?”
“Yes,” they all said in unison.
Art could barely contain his irritation. A bunch of ‘yes men’ telling Tony what he wanted to hear. Art swore to himself that when he was rich, he wouldn’t surround himself with people like that. He would find the best employees who know what they were doing and weren’t afraid to say ‘no’ if they didn’t agree with him.
Tony printed off two copies and gave one to Art. The lawyer who was on the screen by himself ran through each of the main points explaining them briefly and asking Tony and Art if they had questions each time.
It was pretty self-explanatory Art thought. He didn’t pay much attention and skimmed through it. His mind was busy thinking about Johnny, Carla, April, Alpha Four, and this whole crazy mess he was in.
“Look, let’s just cut to the chase guys,” Art said. “I can’t sign this. You guys are lawyers, and if you want to get something over on me, you can just weave sneaky terminology the way Tony wants you to so you can pull a fast one on me. I don’t know Tony because I just met him last night. You seem like a nice guy, Tony, but you could have some evil plan. Besides, I don’t have anyone I trust to sit here me and explain this to me.”
Tony’s eyes flashed with anger. “What are you doing, Art?”
“Tell me about Alpha Four’s brother,” Art demanded.
“Excuse us a minute,” Tony said to the lawyers and muted the connection.
“Art, we are down to the wire. I have given you more than you deserve. I could have offered you only ten percent of the company shares if I was as evil as you seem to think. I’ve negotiated with you on every item that you wanted. Why the cold feet now?”
“Don’t change the topic, Tony. Explain Alpha Four’s brother, the government contracts, and deadly experiments.”
Tony sighed in resignation and raised his hands as if giving in to him. “Okay, okay. Imagine Art, that I hire you to run this project, but you do some experiments that go awry. Who takes the blame? Me. That’s what happened to Alpha Four’s brother. He was dying. He wanted to live longer and submitted himself to an experiment similar to yours that didn’t pan out. He died. We aren’t trying to do anything evil here. But bad things happen. We did realize that the lead scientist didn’t take proper precautions and took some unnecessary risks that were uncalled for. We took measures to discipline him so that it wouldn’t happen again. So, yes! I understand that Alpha Four was upset. He was afraid that your experiments would eventually hurt others. I’m taking a risk on you. Ultimately, I’m responsible for bringing you and your project onto the team. But that is a risk that I’m willing to take for the greater good. But what assurances do I have that you won’t do something bad to other people in the future. I need to trust you just like you need to trust me. We have to work together.”
Art pursed his lips thoughtfully before replying.
“Look, we have to find another way to make this work. But I’m not signing this contract…”
Tony jumped to his feet and slammed his fists on the table.
“You will sign this right now before the noon deadline, or I’ll call Frank and Joe in here to haul you off to jail for the murder of Johnny Silva,” he shouted.
Art shrugged smugly. He knew Johnny was alive so he wasn’t worried about the charges sticking.
“I have my principles,” Art said. “I would love to work with you, but I won’t be rushed into anything that could jeopardize my research and this project.”
“What do you want, Art?” Tony growled.
“I need to know the truth about Johnny and those men in the black SUV. I need to find a woman named Carla. And I want to know what all that confusion was about with that woman in the lobby.”
Tony glared at him.
“Oh, and I want to see the files on Alph Four’s brother. I want to make sure I’m not making a mistake that I’m going to regret for the rest of my life. I want to be able to sleep well at night because I know for sure that I didn’t take blood money.”
“Would you like my medical records and a full bank disclosure as well?” Tony spat bitterly at him.
“C’mon, Tony.” Art said and spread his hands out palms up. “You would never sign close a deal without doing your due diligence. If you are as innocent as you claim to be, I am sure you can prove it to me. We can still move this deal forward. You’re a smart guy, and I’m sure your lawyers can spin something up quick.”
Tony growled and muttered something under his breath as he turned to the computer to explain Art’s position to the lawyers.
After a few minutes, he had printed off another document and handed it to Art.
“This is a binding contract stating that you have two weeks to make a decision. I’m going to give you full access to our files and resources. But you have to prove me guilty. If you can’t find any concrete evidence that I’m anything other than what I’ve told you, then we conclude the deal.” Tony said with a glare.
Art picked up the beautiful, gold-plated pen Tony had placed in front of him. It was exquisite and perfectly balanced his hand. He wiggled it between his fingers as he read through the contract. Short and sweet. Only one page long. He skimmed through it and scratched his head.
“Sign it already,” Tony insisted. “If you don’t sign that in the next two minutes, your company will make their announcement and you’ll lose control of your project.”
Tony looked like he was ready to pull his hair out. He was an anxious, nervous wreck. His hands were shaking.
“Tell me the truth, Tony. This isn’t how most business people react when deals don’t go their way. There’s something you’re not telling me, and I won’t sign it until you do.” Art said. He put down the pen for good measure.
Tony looked at him like a deer caught in the headlights. He took a deep breath and leaned back.
“You just can’t let it go, kid, and do it for the money like everyone else. Fine! I’ll tell you. But this stays between us. The only people you can tell about this are the members of your team who will be working on this. Is that clear?”
Art nodded. “Of course.”
Tony put his head down and wiped away a tear from the corner of his eye. He took another deep breath. It was a deep shuddering sob. He looked like he was going to break down into tears. But he took another deep breath to control his emotions and looked Art straight in the eye.
“It’s for my daughters,” he said.
“Why did you set a bomb here, Johnny?” Art whispered in horror.
“Everything okay?” Tony’s voice boomed from across the room.
Art turned quickly hiding the phone behind his ear as if he was deep in thought. He smiled and nodded at Tony. The man turned back to what he was doing at the desk with the lawyers.
“I didn’t put there. The same guys that tried to kill us last night did. You gotta get out of there now. But don’t tell Tony or anyone. Just leave. Tell the guards you have to go to the bathroom again and run.”
“No,” Art whispered in horror. He watched the Tony standing by the desk with the three lawyers. Two men and a woman. They would all be dead within the hour. Standing there, discussing something that wouldn’t matter any longer if the bomb went off.
“Look. I can’t let them die. Tell me why I shouldn’t sign the contract. Give me one good reason.”
“Fine,” Johnny replied. “Tell them about the bomb and get them out of there. I’ll call you back. But go, or you are all going to die. Don’t raise suspicions because it’s remotely activated as well. So, if they see you all are leaving before the timer goes off, they can still detonate it.”
“Schmack!” Art whispered.
Art turned toward the group and tried to decide the best way to go about this without making a big deal about it. He walked over to Tony’s side of the table and glanced under it.
“Hey, Tony!” Art said. “Can we go take a look from the view of the roof while they finish up the contract.”
“Sure, Art,” Tony replied. “Just as soon we get this printed off, and you sign it.”
Art leaned forward in Tony’s ear, “We have a serious situation here.”
He pulled Art away from the table so they could talk in private without the lawyers overhearing them.
“Don’t make a big deal, but we’re being watched. If we try to run there’s a bomb that’s remotely activated under the desk. It’s set to go off at noon.” Art said quietly but naturally as if they were just shooting the breeze.
Tony pulled away and looked at him in shock with his eyes open wide. He stared at Art hard for a second to see if he was just pulling his leg or making up another excuse to get out of the room.
When he realized that Art was serious, he turned around and sat down in front of the desk so he could get a better look underneath. He saw the bomb pressed against the inside of the desk, and stood back up.
“Sure, Art,” Tony said loudly. “Why don’t you go up and enjoy that view from the roof. One last look at the world before you become a billionaire.”
Tony motioned to the bodyguards and whispered something in their ear. Art followed them out of the building. The spokesman took Art by the elbow and guided him to the stairwell hurriedly. The other bodyguard took off running down the hall as he spoke into the walkie-talkie.
“What’s your name again?” Art asked. “I’m sorry. I guess I didn’t catch it earlier.”
“Just call me Alpha Four,” the spokesman said curtly. “We take our jobs seriously and don’t use our real names around here.”
The man smiled at him, but it was a strange, eerie sort of smile. There was something off about it. It gave Art a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach. It wasn’t reassuring at all. Art pulled back a bit. He didn’t want to go down the dark stairwell with this man. After all he had been through, Art didn’t know who to trust. There were a million things that could go wrong, and for all he knew, this man might be one of his enemies.
Art finally realized what was bugging him about this whole situation. Everyone was his enemy. Everyone wanted something from him. But any one of them would turn against him if made the wrong decision. He knew that moment was coming soon. He would have to make a decision one way or the other.
But how did he know who to trust? Every one of them seemed to have their own second intentions. Pedro spoke bad about capitalism but wanted to sell his project off. Tony said he wanted to help the sick, but Johnny didn’t trust him. Tony said Johnny worked as a double agent. And then there were the men in the black SUV and the woman in the reception today. Art still didn’t know if they worked with Johnny, or someone else.
If Tony was right and Pedro had spilled the beans about his research, there was no telling how many other companies, underground organizations, or even rogue government agencies would try to get their hands on it. And who knew what evil intentions that had for it.
“So, whose side are you on?” Art asked Alpha Four. “Tony or Johnny?”
Alpha Four didn’t look up or acknowledge the question. Art continued to walk behind him in silence. They rounded the final flight of steps and came up to the door. Alpha Four stepped to the side and Art kept walking to the door. As he reached out for the handle, the bodyguard shoved his hand away and slammed him up against the wall. He cocked his gun at Art’s temple and shoved the back of his forearm tighter against Art’s throat.
“I’m not on Tony’s side or Johnny’s side. But do not sign the contract. I will shoot you personally myself. Tony can’t get his hands on this technology. The man is evil. Pure evil.”
“Okay. Fine.” Art said with his hands raised up at his side, palms forward. “I’ve been hearing that a lot lately, I don’t want to sign the company over to him. But if I don’t someone else will get it and do something bad with it.”
“No, one could do anything worse to it than Tony. Sell it to anyone, but him. Use it yourself. I don’t care what you do with it. But I aim to make sure that Tony doesn’t get his hands on it.”
“What does Tony do that’s so bad,” Art asked in exasperation. “I wish someone just tell me what these people do.”
“They have other government contracts in other places. They’ve been working on cloning, body transplants, and all kind of weird things. He promised to help my brother, and he never came back alive. We got him in a body bag. I found out from Carla that…”
Alpha Four’s head exploded right before Art’s eyes. His body slumped to the floor lifelessly. Art looked up in shock to see Tony walking down the stairs with the other bodyguard in front of him. Alpha Four had been shot by his partner. Art realized he was still holding on to Alpha Four’s arms. He let go and let the man drop to the ground.
Art paused to mull that one over. That sounded exactly like what Johnny told him. But how could he know who to believe? He had very little time to make a decision.”
The bodyguards pounded on the door again and pushed it open. Art slipped the phone back in his pocket.
“I’m coming. I’m coming. Sheesh. Let me pull my pants up at least your perverts.” Art shouted and pushed the door closed. The bodyguard put out his hand to stop it from latching.
Art stood up and turned around. He pulled the phone back out and typed, “Meet where? I’m under surveillance.”
He finished buckling his belt and turned around to open the door.
“Don’t forget to flush the toilet,” the bodyguard said with a smirk.
Art turned back to flush it and then followed them back to the office.
“Feeling well enough to get started?” Tony asked Art with a raised eyebrow.
Art nodded and sat down still trying to make up his mind about what to do.
“Okay. So, based on our evaluations and research, your part of the company is worth two point nine billion dollars. We’ll pay you the first ten percent up front. If your research pans out, and you can give us what we need with it, then we’ll pay out the rest. Fifty percent in stock options and the rest paid out in installments based on projections for rolling out our plan.”
Art’s head reeled at the numbers. Never in all his life had ever imagined making that much money. He had been hoping to make a few million off this deal, and here they were talking billions. His mind started to spin again for the second time that day. Imagining what he would do with all this money. The kind of life he could live. What he would do for his family.
This was a no-brainer. He could give them the technology. If they tried to trap him or do something bad, he could just disappear to some little town in Brazil or another country. He could be a philanthropist and help more people with cash than just giving them plant technology.
“Art! Yo, Art. Are you with us?” Tony asked while snapping his fingers in front of Art’s face.
“Yeah!” Art nodded dumbly. “I just got stuck back on the two-point nine billion.”
“It’s twenty percent of the company shares, Art,” Tony said. “The other eighty percent will be split up among shareholders. Thirty percent will stay in-house for the directors. Fifty percent will be sold to investors to raise cash to fund the start-up costs and initial operations.”
Art just nodded his head as if he was still in a daze.
“C’mon Art! I need you to keep your head in the game. We are down to the wire here. The clock is ticking. You just need to tell us what your conditions are and if you want to add anything to the contract. The lawyers are here, and they’ll add it right now. We got three of them at seven hundred dollars an hour just to help you seal the deal. Then you sign it. You have just over an hour to make this thing happen. I hate to put you under pressure like this. But the sharks are coming and it’s time to sink or swim. What’s it gonna be buddy.”
“Uh, yes. I got it. Well, um. First, I get to control the seed technology. All I’m gonna give you is the health and medical technology. Right?”
Tony nodded and looked at the lawyers. He waved his hands for them to hurry up. They started taking notes and conversing among themselves while another typed away on the laptop.
“Secondly, I want to bring any of my team members that want to continue working with me to live here in America.” Art said. “That’s twenty-three people. Along with my family members.”
“I can’t promise you they’ll all get a visa, but LocTech will do it’s best to influence their coming. We’ll do everything in our power to make it possible though by providing letters of invitation, housing, sponsorship, and whatever else is needed.”
“And you have to promise me that we are going to use this technology only to do good. That we won’t use it to knowingly harm anyone or take advantage of them.” Art continued.
“Of course, not Art. That’s like saying I’m gonna sell you this gun for hunting, but promise me you’re not going to shoot little kids with it. We would never consider it. It would go against the core values of our organization.”
“And I don’t want to be tied down forever. Once we get the project up and running, I want to be free to sell my shares to travel and enjoy life. I don’t want to be obligated to work on this project the rest of my life.”
Tony nodded. “Sure. You can share your research with us and leave a team running that can operate it. You can go off to live out your days in peace on the edge of the universe. Don’t worry, the lawyers will add in your exit options.”
Art nodded. He was still in a daze. This was all moving along and happening so fast.
“Anything else you want, Art?” Tony asked. “You want us to throw in a company house or a car for you. Yearly tickets to the Bahamas. Front row seats to the Bulldogs. This is a negotiation and now is the time to play your cards.”
Art shook his head. “I think I have enough money to do pretty much anything I want.”
He broke into a huge smile and put his hands over his face for a moment. Then he sat up and looked at Tony as if he had remembered something.
“What is it?” Tony asked.
“You’re gonna treat my team fairly. Right?” Art said. “They’ll get a fair salary comparable to other people in the same position. What about housing? I want them to have company housing and cars.”
“Sure, Art. We’ll treat them fairly and pay a decent salary. We’re an international company, and we’ve been playing this game for years. We can provide housing and transportation for the first year until they get settled in. We normally provide that for the first month, but for you we’ll extend it to a year.”
Art nodded. He felt pleased with himself.
“Well, that’s a wrap,” Tony said to the lawyers. “Make it snappy. We don’t have much time for Art to sign it.”
Art stood up and walked over to the window. He looked out at the city in fresh amazement. The sun seemed to shine brightly, illuminating everything with a beautiful hue. He took a deep breath to relish the moment.
The phone buzzed in his pocket. His heart froze for a moment. The money thrown around had made him forget all about the strange warnings and messages he had been receiving. But it was too late to back down now. They were already closing the deal.
Art pushed the volume button on the phone to stop the phone from vibrating. He kept staring out the window overlooking the city below. It was a beautiful view, and one he would enjoy seeing on a daily basis. He couldn’t wait to show it to his mother. She would be so proud of him.
He wished he could show it to his father as well, but he had died just over a year ago. Old Emmanuel would have been proud of him and been tickled pink to tell all his friends what his son did. But unfortunately, it was too late for that. All he could do now was move on making the most of his life with those who still surrounded him.
Art promised himself that he would do everything he could to improve the lives of his friends and family. He wanted to live the life of his dreams and surround himself with the people he loved most. He couldn’t wait to get this project off the ground and make a real difference in the world. He would show the world what he was capable of and make his family proud of him.
This was a new day in his life.
The phone buzzed again persistently.
Art put his hand in his pocket and fingered the button to stop the vibrating. It continued to ring silently in his pocket. Ominously. Persistently. Irritating Art to now end. He suddenly felt a wave of fear roll over him.
“You aren’t getting cold feet are you, Art?” Tony asked as if reading his mind from across the room. Art turned and smiled at him. He shook his head vigorously as if trying to prove it to himself as well.
The phone rang again, and Art turned back to the window quickly as if he was afraid that Tony would sense it vibrating in his pocket. Art shoved his hand in his pocket and felt around for the button to silence it. He couldn’t find it, so he pulled it out of his pocket.
“Carla.” The name jumped off the screen at him.
He gasped and looked around the room quickly to see if anyone was looking at him. Tony was hunched over the laptop with the lawyers. The two bodyguards were standing by the door but didn’t seem to be paying much attention to him.
Art pressed the green call button and put the phone to his ear. He listened to hear what they would say.
“Art,” a raspy voice said.
“Johnny? You’re alive,” he whispered into the phone.
“Get out of there,” Johnny ordered him in a hoarse voice. “There is a bomb under the desk. It’s going to go off at noon while you are celebrating your demise. Get out of there and come down to the entrance. A black car will pick you up there.”
“Argh!” he yelled.
Art wanted to yell the names of his bodyguards, but suddenly realized he didn’t even know what their names were. He didn’t think Tony had even told him, but if so, he had long forgotten.
“Hey! Help!” he yelled at the men. Then he yelled at the woman. “Stop it! That hurts. What are you doing?”
“What do you want with Carla,” she hissed.
“Johnny told me to find her,” he replied painfully.
She let up on his arm.
“I’m Carla. Stop these men and let’s get out of here.”
The two bodyguards were almost in front of them. They were reaching for the woman. Art was still kneeling. He stood up in front of them and punched the smaller guy, the one that liked to talk a lot, right in the gut.
The spokesman was a big dude, but he wasn’t in very good shape. Art’s fist connected with soft flesh and knocked his breath out. Art pushed him back into the other bodyguard. Then he turned and grabbed Carla’s hand to run. Art needed to find out what she knew.
“My car is over there,” she said pointing to a white van along the sidewalk. It was still running. She ran to open the door and motioned for him to get in. Art saw several men inside with headphones on.
“Get in,” she insisted.
Art shook his head and backed up a step. She turned to the men and ordered them to grab Art. He tried to back up and run, but tripped over the food truck equipment that was behind him. The men grabbed him on each side of the arm and pulled him to his feet. Just as they did, a shot rang out, and the woman fell against the van screaming.
The men let go of Art and turned to help her. They threw her in the van and turned for Art. More shots rang out, and the men jumped in the van as it squealed out of the parking lot.
Art turned to see his bodyguards coming in his direction. The smaller one he had punched came walking slowly with a limp. The other one was walking slowly too, but he looked out of breath.
They grabbed Art to half-push and half-pull him to the door where a small crowd had gathered.
“What happened? What’s going on?” Art overheard Tony saying as he pushed his way through the crowd.
“What are you two morons doing with him down here?” Tony shouted at the spokesman.
The man tried to explain, but Tony had already turned to Art demanding an explanation.
“That woman had a van full of electronic devices for spying and eavesdropping. I think they were listening in to our conversation.
They walked over to the reception desk. Tony had the security guard pull up the video feed and rewind it. As soon as he saw the woman’s face, he froze.
“No! April?” he said under his breath in such a low voice that Art could barely hear him.
“April?” Art asked. “She told me her name is Carla.”
Tony shook his head in shock and sat down on the security guard’s chair.
“April is my ex-wife. And I thought she was dead.”
Art just shook his head and walked over to a bench on the side of the reception area. This day just kept getting crazier and crazier.
He felt something in his pocket and reached for it. It was a small black cell phone. It lit up with a message on the screen.
“We will contact you.”
“This man lies.” Just then the bodyguards came walking over, so Art slipped the phone back in his pocket. He stood up.
“I’m sorry guys. I thought she was someone else. If I had known…”
The bodyguards grabbed his shoulder and started marching him back up the hall behind Tony.
“Wait. I gotta go to the bathroom.” Art said.
“It’ll have to wait till we get upstairs,” the spokesman said with a growl. “The last thing we’re gonna do is let you go in one of these bathrooms and escape out a window. I’ve seen that too many times in a movie. You think we’re stupid or something.”
Art smirked to himself. They were behind him so they couldn’t see him smile. He picked up his pace to get up to the office quicker. He wanted to see what other messages had arrived and send some back.
When they arrived back in the office, there were several lawyers already in the room waiting for him and Tony.
“Have a seat,” Tony ordered.
“Okay, but I need to use the restroom first.” Art replied.
Tony scowled at him but waved him on.
“Don’t let him out of your sight,” Tony commanded the bodyguards.
Art started to protest, but Tony ignored him, and the larger, silent bodyguard pushed him forward.
When they arrived in the bathroom, both men entered the bathroom with him.
“Seriously, guy. Is this necessary?” Art protested. “You’re gonna stand there while I do my thing. I need a little privacy here. We’re several stories up, it’s not like I’m gonna jump out the window or ninjas are climbing the walls to get up here.”
“Fine,” the spokesman said. “We’ll stand right outside, but leave the door ajar.”
Art didn’t argue with them. He didn’t want to waste the time. He pushed the door most of the way shut and pulled out the cell phone. There were no new messages. He sighed. Art had hoped they would have sent more information clarifying things.
“Who is this?” he texted back.
There was a long pause and then some activity. He could see them writing. He waited for the message to arrive and looked around the room. This was a really nice bathroom. Probably one of the most luxurious he had ever seen in his life. There was a jacuzzi bubbling away in the corner, a forty-two-inch screen on the wall with a large Lazyboy throwback chair in the corner, and a large pile of thick, fluffy white towels to the side of it.
“Someone could live in this room,” Art thought. It was almost as big as his entire apartment back in Brazil. He loved the smell of bathrooms here in the United States. They always smelled so fresh and clean. A complete contrast to the bathrooms he was used to in Brazil. Even the ones at his office were dark and dingy while reeking of mothballs.
A new message popped up on the screen.
“We are friends. We want to help you get out of there. It’s not safe.” the text said.
“How do I know I can trust you?” he typed back.
“We know what Tony is planning. He is evil.”
“Come on, Art.” the spokesman said and knocked on the door. “Tony and the lawyers are waiting for you.”
“What is he planning?” Art texted back.
“Not sure. But it can’t be good. He planned to kill his wife. She had to flee. The man is evil.” they said.
“What do you want from me?” Art messaged back.
“Need to meet. But don’t sign the contract,” they replied.
“But my company is going on sale at noon. And that’s bad.” Art texted.
“Better to let someone else have it than to let Tony and LocTech get their hands on it.” the replied.
“Are you the company that’s going to by us out? You’re messing with my head.” Art shot back.
“No. We are former LocTech employees but discovered terrible things. We left. Some were killed. Attempts on our lives. We flee underground to survive.”
Art was floored. He threw himself back on his seat and let that thought sink in for a minute. He closed his eyes and tried to visualize the ramifications of what all his technology would bring about.
His mind whirled at a million miles an hour. One thought after another flying through his head. He had to focus and concentrate on his breathing. The smell of fresh coffee lingered in the air. He could taste the tartness of the blueberries still on his lips. He opened his eyes and focused on the colors around him. Everything looked so bright and vivid. His life had suddenly taken on new meaning and significance. He slowly reached out his hand and ran it slowly across the armrest of the couch feeling the smoothness of the soft, light fabric beneath him. The buzz in the air around him felt electrifying.
Art wanted to jump and run and shout and scream. But he contained himself. He looked up at Tony with a huge grin on his face.
“Tony! You’re a freaking genius,” he half shrieked as he reached out and grabbed the man’s arm. “How did you come up with this stuff?”
“No, no!” Tony said and shook his finger at Art. “This is all your thing. We’re just coming up with a way to apply your research.”
Art stood up and paced across the room two or three times. He didn’t even realize what he was doing. His mind was a million miles away and several years into the future as he analyzed various scenarios.
The only thing that really bugged him about all this was Johnny’s warning. He had warned Art that they would make him an offer he couldn’t refuse and later trap him. But where was the trap in this? They didn’t even want the part of the technology he had originally worked on, and this was something totally different. And what if Johnny really was the bad guy that had just been trying to trick him out of a good deal.
Carla! Who was she and where could he find her. Maybe he could ask to use Johnny’s office and computer to do some research or send some emails. Or maybe he could go for a walk and talk to some of the other employees to see if they knew a Carla that was close to Johnny.
“Hey, Tony. I need to stretch my legs. You mind if I take a little stroll down the hall?”
“Sure, kid. Take your time. I already got our lawyers drawing up a contract for you. When you get back, we can go over the final details along with anything else you want to add. Then you sign it, and we’ll make your first payment.”
“What about my team? There are a few people I need to continue on the project to make things happen.” Art said.
“Not a problem,” Tony replied. ” We can bring them all onboard over here, or you guys can keep a branch there in Brazil. Whatever works best for you.”
Art smiled and thanked Tony as he walked out the door. The two big brutes that Tony kept around looked more like henchmen than bodyguards. He felt sure they were there more to stop him from doing anything wrong than to actually protect him. But he just smiled at them and continued mosying on down the hall greeting people as he went past them.
He saw a woman sitting at a desk that had a nameplate that started with the letter C. So, Art walked on over like he intended to look out the window. He saw a food truck below and turned to ask her about it.
“Food any good in that truck down there?” he asked.
“Pardon?” the grey-haired lady asked him with a very proper accent.
“I was wondering what they served in the truck down there, uh, Carol,” he said as he looked at her nameplate. He tried not to sound disappointed when he said her name.
“No, sorry,” Carol replied. “I don’t eat junk food. I’m a vegetarian.”
“Oh, okay.” Art muttered. “Good for you. Well, thanks, Carol. That’s a lovely name by the way. I have a friend from Brazil who was here recently. He told me to look up a friend of his named Carla to give her a message. Do you know her?”
The woman looked back up from her paperwork over the edge of her glasses as if she was a little annoyed. “Sorry, I don’t know anyone named Carla here in the building.”
“But you do know someone named Carla?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied with a scowl. “My daughter’s name is Carla, and I have a friend from Sunday School named Carla. However, I highly doubt they are the person your friend from Brazil was recommending.”
“Yeah. You’re right. Probably not. Well, thanks anyway.” he said as he smiled and moved on. Art rolled his eyes and shook his head to the bodyguards as he walked on past them.
“You boys don’t know any Carlas around here do you? I really need to get her a message from my friend.”
Both men shook their heads and continued walking without saying a word. Not that he believed them. They probably wouldn’t tell him even if they did know something.
Maybe the janitor, he thought. Tony couldn’t have covered all his bases and have everyone lie to him. But she didn’t know anything either. Not that she told him much. She didn’t even speak any English. So, he used his Portuguese to try to make himself understood. Art noticed the two bodyguards looking at each other like they were trying not to laugh at him.
“I’m gonna go down to the food truck, boys.” Art said.
The men crossed their arms and shook their heads. “There’s plenty of food back there in the office.” one of them replied.
“Oh, c’mon guys. I can’t live on that fancy rich people food. I’m just a regular Joe like you guys. I need something with substance. Like a hotdog. Please. Just one hot dog. Real quick. Tony won’t even know we went down there.”
The two men looked at each other and shrugged.
“Alright, but make it snappy. And don’t try anything funny.” the same guy spoke up again.
“Sure,” Art replied and nodded his head.
They caught the elevator down to the ground floor. When the doors opened the two bodyguards stepped out first and looked around. Then they stepped to the side to let him out.
“Food truck is that way,” the spokesman said again.
Art started walking towards the main entrance. He saw a woman standing there that looked familiar. She looked like she was crying.
“Are you okay, ma’am?” Art asked.
The woman turned to him and nodded her head without looking up. But then she started sobbing again.
Art stood there awkwardly without knowing what to do. He didn’t know if it would be very appropriate to put his arm around her to try and comfort her.
“C’mon. Let’s go out and have a hot dog. You can tell me your story and cry on my shoulder.”
The woman looked up at him and tried to smile. She had a blue scarf and dark sunglasses on so he couldn’t really see her eyes. But she seemed to be a very pleasant-looking, young woman.
“Sure. Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate it.”
“Are you Carla?” he asked.
She put her head down and started to walk faster.
“Wait,” he said loudly. He reached out to grab her shoulder, but she jerked his hand off her shoulder and twisted his wrist down bringing him to his knees.