“What!” Art exclaimed. “What a jerk. How could he do that to me? I’m gonna kill him! Is that how you found out? He told you about it?”
“No, we found out first. Remember, Johnny approached you first. You were the one who had to convince Pedro and the rest of the board that they should let you continue developing the project so we could partner up together.” Tony explained.
Art shook his head in disbelief. He stood up and walked to the window. Tony picked up a bottle of water and stood behind him. He waited for Art to turn around again and poured him a glass.
“So, then we got word that Pedro was putting out feelers about this to a few other tech companies.” Tony continued.
“He’s going to sell off my idea and research.” Art fumed. “That turkey didn’t even want me wasting time on it in the beginning. I had to invest my own money and work on it in my spare time. Then when Johnny came down, he realized it was important, so he started telling me that we shouldn’t share this with the greedy gringoes in capitalist countries.”
“Well, your good friend Pedro has his hands deep in the pockets of a lot of politicians with government contracts which I’m sure you already know. They all want a piece of the action. Their plan is to offer it to other socialist countries so they can promote their agenda that socialism works better than capitalism.” Tony finished saying by raising his cup in a toast to Art.
“Viva la worker’s party,” Art said ironically. “I’ve never been so furious in all my life.”
“Well, word on the street is that your company is going up for sale at noon today. They’re going to make it look like a real auction, but the fact is that they already have a buyer in place to front the money for their investors.”
“But all they really want is my research?” Art fumed.
“Another good reason for Johnny to kidnap you. With you out of the picture, the company would be worthless. That would give him more time to get you on his side.”
Art stood speechless. He opened his mouth and then closed it again. He turned and sat down facing the window again.
“Look, Art,” Tony said gently. “I don’t mean to pressure you, but I really would like the chance to work with you and use your research to make a real difference in the world. I’d like you to come work with us. We’ll give you the freedom to work and all the resources you need to make this thing happen. Name your terms and your price. I’ll have my lawyers draft up a contract before the company goes on sale at noon.”
Art sighed and shook his head. “Johnny told me it was a trap. How do I know you’re not lying?”
Johnny shrugged. “You can always wait and call my bluff. But the fact is Johnny’s dead. And your research is about to fall in the hands of greedy government bureaucrats that are going to tie it up in research so that no poor people are ever benefited from it unless they pay through the nose for the technology. It’s gonna be worse than what companies are doing with genetically modified seeds today. You won’t even be allowed to use or promote the very research you developed unless you play by their rules.”
“No!” Art screamed and jumped to his feet. “They can’t do that. That’s not fair.”
Art stormed to the window breathing heavily. Tony gave him a minute to compose himself and waited patiently for him to turn around. He smiled sympathetically at Art who scowled back at him.
“What will you let me do with my ideas and research if I close this deal with you first?” Art blurted out.
“I’ll let you do anything you want, Art. I told you that my company has no interest in the modifying crops and plants. You can turn it into a non-profit organization and give it away to all the needy people and poor countries that you want.”
Art scoffed and wiped a hot tear from his right eye with the back of his hand.
“Yeah, right. So, then what’s the catch?” Art asked. “Do I have to sell my soul to the devil. This deal sounds too good to be true.”
Tony turned and waved his hands for them to leave. He turned back to Art who was really fidgety.
“You tell me the truth, Tony!” Art shouted. “Don’t try to play me here, or else I’m walking.”
“No, you won’t because I’ll have you arrested,” Tony said with a smile. “You realize that I have the upper hand here, Art. I could force you to sign this over right now. But I don’t want that. I really do want to make a fair deal with you. Don’t you see that?”
Tony seemed sincerely hurt. He pouted at Art.
“It’s nothing personal, Tony. I just don’t know what to believe. I’m sorry. Please just tell me why you really want my research if it’s not for the food and crops and money?”
Tony smiled and motioned for him to sit down. He flipped open his laptop and set it on the coffee table between them.
“Please, Art. I’m not trying to be facetious here. I just want you to open your mind and think bigger. Why is being able to splice DNA into living organisms such a unique concept?”
Art thought for a minute. Suddenly it dawned on him. His eyes lit up, and he sat up straighter.
“Because we can splice human DNA with wolf DNA to create a real, live werewolf.”
Tony burst out laughing. He laughed so hard he stomped his feet and held his belly. His whole body heaved with rolls of laughter. He finally gulped a few times to catch his breath and managed to contain himself. He wiped away the tears of laughter from his face.
“That’s a good one, Art. We’ll have to add that to the contract in our sales agreement as a bonus for you. Wow. I hadn’t even thought of that idea myself. Maybe I underestimated you. Genius, but no. That’s not what I had in mind.”
“So, it’s health-related technology that your company is looking to achieve.” Art asked. “And you want to splice healthy DNA into sick individuals.”
Art’s eyes opened wide in amazement. He looked off into the distance and then looked back at Tony in awe.
“That’s right, Art,” Tony said quietly. “Just imagine a world in which we could recreate anyone’s DNA and make them healthy again. Maybe even undo the aging process. We could change the lives of humanity on a massive, global scale that has never been seen before. And you, my friend Art, are the genius who invented this technology. Next year, you’ll be awarded the Nobel prize.”
Now, Art was confused. That put a whole new slant on things. Johnny didn’t seem as devastated as a husband should when he discovered his wife was dead.
“As for who was after him last night, it may have been a ploy to kidnap you. And things got out of hand.”
“Huh?” Art asked with a confused look on his face.
“C’mon, Art. Don’t play coy with me. You know we already know about your project. Why are you surprised that we know you’re leading the team. Everyone wants to discover what you know and how it works.”
“But what would Johnny get from kidnapping me?” he asked.
Tony laughed out loud. It was an ironic laugh that made Art feel miffed. It was as if Tony was expressing disbelief at Art’s naivety.
“To blame it on us, Art. They were gonna torture it out of you. If that didn’t work, Johnny would have swept in to ‘save’ you to earn your trust and turn you against us.”
“Are you kidding me?” Art asked in disbelief.
“I don’t have any proof,” Tony said. “But that’s just what my gut tells me. And my instincts are usually pretty accurate.”
“That’s messed up,” Art said and whistled in shock. “It’s almost harder to believe your version than Johnny’s version.”
“What do you think it is everyone wants Art?” Tony asked. “Why do you think it is that everyone wants what you are creating?”
“Oh, sneaky!” Art said. “You’re trying to play good cop bad cop on me and get me to think you’re on my side so I’ll spill the beans. I see what you’re trying to do. I can read right through you.”
Tony slapped his palm in his face and shook his head. “C’mon, Art. Do you think you would be here if we didn’t already know what you were doing? You’re splicing DNA into living organisms. I want you to understand why this is so important. I’m asking you a rhetorical question because I want you to think for yourself. I want you to see the bigger picture. I’m trying to help you stop thinking so small.”
“So small?” Art asked. “We’ve developed a way to splice DNA from one species to another via nanobots. Specifically between crops like corn and mango trees. That way we can grow crops on a perennial basis. That way farmers don’t have to go out planting crops every year. They just go out when it’s time to harvest the corn. And if they irrigate, they could harvest three times a year from the same tree for a long, long time. We want to end world hunger.”
“And why do you think we want this technology?” Tony prompted.
“Because you want to get the upper hand on the companies that produce the current GMO seed market and make a killing off it.” Art said smugly.
Tony shook his head. Art looked confused.
“Well, then I suppose you want to put the greedy GMO companies out of business like we do. We want to put the power back in the hands of the people. But that doesn’t make sense, because you’re a greedy, money-guzzling organization that’s only out to make a profit for your investors.”
Tony laughed out loud. “Oh, my goodness, Art. You are so cold. You’re right, we do want to make a profit, but we’re not out to put anyone else out of business.”
“So, then you want to patent the technology so no one else can use it and the GMO seed companies continue to make a profit doing things the old way. You know that never works. The market will adapt once they know what we have.” Art was speaking loudly over Tony’s laugh.
Tony kept shaking his head and wiping away tears from his eye. “Oh, that was good Art. It’s been a long time since I’ve had an honest, refreshing talk like this. Most people just tell me what I want to hear.”
Art shrugged. “So, why don’t you fire them all and hire better people.”
“Seriously, Art. You gotta stop smoking the socialist agenda. Not everything is about money. You talk like I’m a greedy, heartless jerk who fires people for the slightest thing. I genuinely care for the people that work for me. They’re like family to me. That’s what’s important to me. It’s one of our core values here. We empower people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps as high as they wanna go.”
“So, why are they afraid to tell you the truth.” Art asked.
“It’s human nature. And seriously, after hearing about your breakthrough, I thought you would be a lot smarter about other things too. I guess being a genius isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Or else you just got lucky.”
“Hey, that sounded like you were trying to butter me while insulting me in the same sentence. Calling me a genius, but stupid.”
“Relax, Art. Not trying to offend.” Tony said. “I just want to break you out of this little box that you frame your reference around. I want you to see the bigger picture here. So, I’m gonna come right out and tell you point blank that we don’t want your technology to grow crops. We can already splice DNA across species and reproduce them through cloning processes. Think a little bit deeper. What makes your project different from everything else out there?”
Art’s eyes lit up. “Oh! Because we can splice the DNA into a living organism. We can release the nanobots and splice the DNA into a full-grown mango tree so that it produces corn the next time around.”
“Bravo! Tapé, tapé!” Tony cheered in his best fake accent as he clapped slowly.
“Wow!” Art gasped. “I didn’t even realize it. Pedro never acted like it was a very big deal.”
“Well, just so you know, Pedro is already shopping your project around in the European market. He’s got a bidding war going on right now. That’s why we brought you here to negotiate directly with you.”
Frank and Joe escorted him into a large room that definitely wasn’t at the police department. Art looked around a bit confused.
“What’s this boys?” Art asked. “I thought I was under arrest for murder.”
Frank and Joe glanced at each other nervously.
“Yeah, um, but you’re not a citizen of the United States of America. And LocTech is responsible for your coming since they signed a letter of invitation for your business visa. They want to handle this discreetly.” Frank answered.
“It’s better for you,” Joe butted in.
“Uh huh. Sure.” Art said. “That’s just an excuse to get me in here. How much is Tony paying you guys?”
“Hey, watch it, bud,” Frank said. “That’s a strong accusation.”
“Look, we know you didn’t kill Berta,” Joe said. “But Johnny is missing, and you’ve been accused of having been the last person seen with Johnny. They showed us video footage of you two leaving the building last night.”
“And you made us think that you were looking for Johnny but hadn’t found him. Which you have to admit does make you look pretty suspicious.” Frank said.
“Look, guys.” Art started to say, but then Tony walked into the room interrupting him.
“Well, well, well. What have we here? The infamous Brazilian genius who came to kill our best employee and was trying to escape.” Tony said.
He motioned to the door for Frank and Joe to leave. There were two large security guards holding the door open for them.
“Thank you, gentlemen. I appreciate your help in locating this man. We’ll take it from here and see what we can get out of him. If you find Johnny, please let us know immediately.”
Frank and Joe still seemed a bit nervous. They glanced at each other as if trying to come to a silent agreement. Joe didn’t look comfortable leaving Art with Tony and his henchmen. But Frank nodded in affirmation and indicated they should leave by jerking his head toward the door for Joe to follow. Joe looked at Art again and then left with his partner.
“Well, Art! Nice to finally meet you. Let’s get down to business. I’m going to make this short and sweet. I’m not going to insult your intelligence by playing games or beating around the bush. I know you didn’t kill Johnny. Personally, I don’t think you look like the kind that could hurt a flea. But I do need to close this deal. So, I’m going to make you a really, really good offer which I highly recommend you take for your own sake. But if you don’t, I will have you charged with Johnny’s murder and thrown in jail for the rest of your life. And I will close the deal directly with Pedro, your boss.”
“Pedro will never make a deal with you. He hates American’s and globalization. He’s one of the most outspoken socialists I know.”
Tony chuckled. “Socialists and their rhetoric make me chuckle,” he said. “Do you know capitalism was a word that socialist dictators invented to take power. They needed a common enemy to unite the people to their side. So, they blamed the natural state of affairs of society for all of people’s problems by giving it a name that made it sound bad. And people bought it hook line and sinker.”
“But it’s greedy capitalists like you that kill people for money.” Art shouted. “It’s evil. You’re evil.”
“No, Art. I didn’t kill anybody. Our enemies did. Somebody that wanted what we have.”
“It’s all the same. It’s about money. You made it available for them.” Art replied sullenly.
Tony sighed and sat back.
“I’m disappointed you think that, Art. The least you could do is ask questions. Do you automatically assume the worst in everybody you meet like this?”
Art didn’t know what to say to that and waited for Tony to continue. Tony snapped his fingers, and the bodyguards opened the door. A young lady entered the room pushing a small table full of food and drinks.
“I thought you might be hungry, Art.”
“A little,” Art said. “I suppose I can eat something.”
The woman smiled warmly and poured him a large mug of coffee. She served him some croissants and a plate of fruit. After she left, Tony continued.
“I’m not in the mood to argue politics this morning, Art. So, let’s forgo all the hullabaloo. Regardless of what Pedro’s political preferences may be, he has shown an interest in selling us your team’s research after hearing Johnny’s proposal.”
“What?” Art exclaimed. “Why did Johnny go to all the trouble of having me convince them to take the deal, and why bother spending all this money bringing me here personally?”
“Because it’s your idea and you came up with the breakthrough. I know you think we’re greedy corporate monsters, but we’re not out to steal everything we want in life. We have money, and we’re willing to share it. Consider it our way of distributing our wealth with society. We reward those who are creative, exercise discipline, and apply it in a way that benefits others.”
Tony’s answer didn’t convince Art that was what they were really after. He could tell there was more to the story. But he knew he couldn’t push Tony into giving him the answer. He would have to discover what it really was by reading between the lines and working his way down through Tony’s mysterious hidden levels of secrecy.
“So, who killed Johnny & Berta,” he asked.
Tony didn’t beat around the bush but pressed directly into the core of Art’s doubts. The slick man smiled wryly.
“I know Johnny was trying to turn you against me. I assume he told you that I did it and that you shouldn’t close this deal with me today. Am I correct?”
Art didn’t answer him but shifted his eyes uncomfortably to the table.
“That’s what I thought,” Tony said. “Berta was a loyal employee. Our guess is that she discovered what Johnny was planning and who he was working for. We think he killed her himself.”
When they got to the department, Frank went inside while Joe stayed with Art to keep an eye on him. Art saw a doughnut shop just across the street.
“Is it true that here in America, all cops eat doughnuts when they are on patrol?” Art asked. “If so, that’s a great place to put a doughnut shop right in front of the police department.”
“Of course,” Joe laughed. “Actually, it’s the other way around though. The doughnut shop was here first. The police decided to put the department right in front of it for easy access.”
They both chuckled over the irony of that.
“Why? Don’t Brazilian police eat doughnuts too?” Joe asked.
“No way,” Art replied. “We don’t have many doughnut shops there.”
“So, what do they eat then?” Joe asked.
“They prefer salty food like coxinhas made with chicken and kibes made with beef. They’re deep fried with the meat in them.” Art said.
His mouth watered at the thought of the delicious food.
“What are we talking about?” Frank asked as he came back to the car. He hopped in and started backing out.
“Brazilian food,” Art replied. “On your next vacation, you should come to Brazil. You can stay at my house with my family. My mother will cook a different dish for you each day. You’ll love it and never want to leave Brazil again.”
“Your momma’s a good cook. Huh?” Joe said.
“I tried calling Johnny, but he’s not answering his phone. I made a few phone calls, but nobody seems to know where he is. His secretary said she saw him at work today, so he must be around.”
“Oh, good,” Joe said. “Maybe he’s just sleeping with his phone on silent. You should be able to get ahold of him tomorrow then.”
“Yeah, that would be great,” Art said half-heartedly. He sank back into the seat and rode in silence the rest of the way. Frank and Joe dropped him off at a Denny’s that was in a residential area near the airport.
“If Carla lives near the airport, this is probably the most likely place you’ll find her,” Joe said cheerily.
Art thanked them and waved as they drove off. He stood at the door till they were out of sight. Then he started walking towards the airport.
The trip there was fairly uneventful. Art dragged himself along. He was exhausted from his long trip and the crazy unfolding of events. He still managed to enjoy the cool pre-dawn breeze and the view of the neighborhood. It was nothing like the area he lived in.
He lived with his parents in a small house without much of a yard in a middle-class section of the town. All the yards around his had high walls, and here in America the houses were all out in the open with large yards. Some of them had a small picket or chain-link fence. It was completely different from the life he was used to on the other side of the equator. It would have been nice to have sealed the deal with LocTech and moved here to Brimhill. His mother and girlfriend would have loved living in a place with wide open spaces like this.
Art made it to the airport a little before sunrise. The sky was still dark, but he could see the edge of the horizon turning into a lighter shade of grey with a tinge of pink along the edges of the clouds. He took a deep breath of the fresh cool air, and listened intently to the birds twittering and shaking themselves awake in the trees that bordered the road leading up to the airport.
Art made his way to the ticket counter of the same airline he had flown in on earlier. He asked about flights to Brazil. The red-head behind the counter and helped him book a ticket for a flight that was leaving at 9:15 a.m. with a layover at an airport in the U.S. and another in Brazil. He could have waited to catch a direct flight to a large city near his. But it wouldn’t leave until 7:00 p.m. and he didn’t want to sit around in the airport that long with Tony and the henchmen in the SUV out looking for him.
He paid with his company credit card and thanked the cute woman for her help. She was surprised he didn’t have any baggage to check on but didn’t ask why for which he was grateful.
Art mosied on down to the gate where his plane would leave from in a few hours. He picked up a coffee and blueberry muffin. He savored the sweet, tangy flavor as it wasn’t something that was easy to find around the area where he lived.
The seats in the lounge were comfortable. Art stretched out as best he could and closed his eyes. It was a little noisy with the sounds of people running up and down the aisles talking loudly. It was irritating, but he reasoned to himself that most of them had gotten a decent night’s sleep. They were rested and refreshed. But what bugged him the most was the volume of the announcer’s voice over the loudspeaker each time a gate opened or a flight was preparing to take off.
But in the end, Art managed to drift off for a bit. He woke up a bit later and was startled by the silence around him. He opened his eyes to see that he was surrounded by several serious-looking Brimhill cops. Art blinked several times to get the sleep out of his eyes. Frank stood in front of him with his hand on his gun. Joe was off to the side a bit with half a dozen officers fanned out around him.
“Arthur Costa, you’re under arrest for the murder of Johnny and Berta Silva.
Art jumped to his feet and considered making a run for it until he looked behind him. There were several other policemen at strategic locations. Tony had set him up. He cursed inwardly, but at the same time smiled at the man’s efficiency in getting what he wanted.
“Hey, Frank,” he said. “What’s going on?”
“Put your hands on your head and turn around slowly, son. There’s no need for this to get ugly. We just want to talk to you about what happened last night.”
Art sighed in resignation and complied with Frank’s orders. Several officers grabbed his arms and pushed them roughly behind his back as they snapped the cuffs on him.
“You have the right to remain silent,” Art heard them say. He mouthed the words silently along with them. This was just like some crazy movie he was watching on tv. Or maybe it was just a crazy nightmare that he would soon wake up from. Art wanted to pinch himself, but that was kind of hard to do with his hands cuffed behind his back.
Joe looked at him with a mixture of sadness and remorse. “I’m sorry, Art. I was looking forward to that visit to Brazil. My mouth was already watering over your momma’s cooking.”
“Don’t worry, Joe.” Art replied. “This is all a huge misunderstanding. We’ll get it straightened out here. I can explain everything.”
“For your sake, I sure hope so,” Joe said. “Because this doesn’t look good for you at all.”
“Shut up, Joe,” Frank said. “I keep telling you that you gotta stop getting attached to the people you arrest. You’re a professional, now act like one. Go put him in the cruiser. I’m gonna grab some coffee.”
He looked at Art and shook his head as he walked off muttering something about young people nowadays. Joe took Art’s arm firmly by the elbow on one side and guided him toward the car with another cop on the other side.
Everyone stared at him as whispered as he walked by. “News must travel fast,” he thought. Art felt like a celebrity as they walked down the hall and out the airport. As Joe pushed his head down to put him in the car, Art could almost see everything going on around him taking place in slow motion with loud rap music playing in the background. He grinned to himself as he settled into the back of the car and waited for Frank.
He really wanted to go back to the car and get his suitcase. But that was out of the question. Either the men in the black SUV would still be there looking for him, or Tony’s men would have taken over. And Art didn’t want to be found by either one of them.
He checked the travel pack he had bought for the trip along with a money belt. It was a convenient way to carry his documents. Fortunately, he still had it on him. He started walking down the road. He had no idea where it was headed, but it would take him somewhere he could get directions.
More headlights were coming in his direction. Art decided to take a risk. He continued walking, but turned and stuck out his thumb. The car blew on past him without even slowing down. It didn’t even swerve out into another lane to move away from him.
“Thanks!” Art shouted after the fading taillights.
He kept walking, willing another car to show up. But none came. He must have walked for a good twenty minutes or so when he saw sirens flashing in the distance. He considered jumping behind a tree but decided against it. The worse that could happen is he would have to tell them what really happened in the accident.
The police cruiser slowed down as it got closer. Art ignored it and just kept walking until it pulled up right alongside him. He looked over at the officer who was driving the car. It was an elderly gentleman with gray hair and handlebar mustache.
“Howdy, officer,” Art said with a smile. “Nice night for a stroll, huh?”
“What are you doing out here at this hour, son?” the officer asked. “We got a call from someone saying you were out here trying to hitch a ride, but they were too scared to stop. They felt bad for you though and asked us to make sure everything was okay.”
“Yes, sir! Everything is hunky dory.” Art replied. “I’m on vacation and just drifting along here. I caught a ride up a ways back and got left off a gas station. But then forgot my stuff in the other car. I guess I was frustrated and started walking. I assumed there would be a city closer than this.”
“No city out this way for a hundred miles. You gotta go back that way to get to the city limits.” the policeman said. “I suppose you don’t have any ID on you either. You probably left with your stuff.”
“Oh, I do.” Art replied. He pulled out his passport and handed it over to the elderly gentleman.
“Arthur Costa from Brazil, huh?” the man said with a friendlier tone. “You’re a long way from home, Arthur.”
“Yep, I miss it already.” Art said. “And your name is?”
“I’m officer Frank. This here is Joe. We’re gonna head back into town. We can give you a ride to somewhere safer for you to catch a ride with someone to continue your journey.”
Art thanked them and hopped into the back of the cruiser. Officer Frank turned the car around and drove back the way they had come. It didn’t take them long to get to the placer where the black SUV had rammed them off the road. The black SUV was no longer there. No one was in fact. He couldn’t even see Johnny’s car.
“Pretty calm out here tonight. Huh?” Art asked.
“Yeah. Brimhill is a quiet little city. They seem to have their own way of dealing with things that often don’t even involve us police. It’s strange. Nothing like when I used to work in New York.
“Nice,” Art said. “I always wanted to visit New York.”
“So, what brings you to Brimhill, Art?” the younger officer asked.
“I was supposed to meet an old friend of mine named Johnny.” Art answered. “He’s from Brazil too. But I tried calling him, and he didn’t answer.”
“You mean ol’ Johnny from LocTech?” Joe asked. “He’s a friendly chap. A friend of yours. Huh?”
Art nodded. “Yeah, I met him in Brazil, and he told me to drop by whenever I was in the area. He told me to look up Carla if he was traveling when I came. But I don’t know how to contact her. Do you guys happen to know her.”
Joe turned around to look at him and grinned. “Afraid I don’t. There are probably a thousand Carla’s here in the city. You have a last name on her?”
Art shook his head. “No, he just told me to look her up, but I don’t know where she lives. That’s why I decided just to head on out of town and enjoy the trip. I’m on vacation and time’s a wasting.”
Joe looked a Frank and grinned. “See, that’s what I’m telling you, partner. There are places to go, and things to do, and people to see. We’re getting too old for this stuff. We need to get out and enjoy life while we still have the chance.”
Frank just grunted. “That’s the last thing I want to do. I like my house just fine. I can watch National Geographic channel when I want to see something different.”
Joe burst out laughing. “So, how much longer you got on your vacation?” he asked.
“I just started. So, I have thirty days of vacation.”
“Thirty days!” Joe whistled. “I’m lucky to get a week.”
“Everyone in Brazil gets 30 days of paid vacation each year. It’s the law.” Art said.
“Well, I’ll be jiggered. Sorry, Frank. I’m gonna request a transfer to the Brazil department.”
They were coming up on the edge of the city. Art started to see a few buildings on the skyline that he recognized from earlier.
“There’s a gas station up the road aways that should be fairly easy to catch a trucker to give you a ride. Would you like us to drop you off there?” Frank asked.
“Walmart is right beside it too, so you could pick up a new backpack and some clothes.” Joe chimed in.
“Actually, could you drop me off somewhere near the airport?” Art asked. “Johnny said Carla lived near there. I think I can find her place if I can get there. If not, I’ll just stay at an inn for the night and head out first thing in the morning.”
“It’s on the other side of the city, but we can take you there,” Frank said. “We just need to swing by the police department first.”
Art started to panic. He knew they were still suspicious and were using this as an excuse to check up on him a bit more thoroughly. But if he backed out now, they would become even more suspicious. So, he kept his mouth shut and waited to see how this was going to play out.
“Art, are you there? Can you hear me?” Tony asked.
“You will send someone to kill me too,” Art said.
“Are you crazy?” Tony replied. “Of course not. Why would you say something like that.”
“Because you know where I am. You would only know if the men in the black SUV told you.”
Tony burst into laughter. “No, no. I can see why you would think that. But that’s not true at all. I’m simply tracking Tony’s cell phone. It’s a company phone, and we track all our phones in case of an accident or kidnapping.”
“Look, Tony. It’s nothing personal, but I don’t know you. You might be a good guy and telling the truth. Or you might not be. I don’t know. So, I’m going to go back home and wait for this mess to straighten itself out. We can schedule a meeting another time.”
“Wait, please don’t go, Art,” Tony begged. “I’m desperate. I don’t know what Johnny told you. But I’ve suspected for some time now that he was a double agent working for my competitors. I’m guessing he told you not to trust me and not to make the deal with me. That way he could pull you over to the other side.”
“Why are you so desperate?” Art asked. “What do you want from my company? We’re just a technology company.”
Tony chuckled. “Art, you know that we’re a big company. We didn’t get that way by sitting around waiting for things to happen. We keep a close eye on all of our competitors. Which means that we know about your current research into DNA splicing.”
“What?” Art half-shouted into the phone. “That’s a brand-new project, and it’s top secret. Only three other people know about it.”
“Relax, Art. I know you came up with the concept and designed the project. That’s why I send Johnny down there to meet with you. We don’t really want to buy out your company. The only thing we want is your project. But we’ll buy the whole company if we have to.”
“So, why didn’t Johnny just ask me about it?” Art asked.
“Because he didn’t know about your DNA splicing project. I knew he was persuasive and could convince you to come meet with us. But I never told him what I really wanted. I suspected he might be playing for the other side.”
“So, you killed his wife.” Art spat into the phone. “Will you kill my family too if I don’t give you what you want? Will you send your man in a black SUV to run my mother over in the middle of the street? You’re just like most Brazilians think about you rich gringoes. Capitalists. Do anything for money, and kill anyone who gets in your way.”
“It’s complicated, Art.” Tony replied. “But I wasn’t the one who had her killed. And it wasn’t because he was playing the other side.”
“So, why are you so desperate for my DNA splicing technology?” Art demanded.
“Let’s just say that we’ve been working on something similar for a very long time. We started ten years before you ever even came up with the idea. But we didn’t have much success and put our version on the back burner. And then, voila. You came up with a very elegant solution that we had never even considered.”
“No, I don’t want you to take my project and assimilate it. You’ll chop it up and destroy. Then you’ll probably use it to do something extremely evil and vile. And I’ll go down in history as the guy who was responsible for all the evil you and your greedy corporation does with it.”
“Listen, Art. It’s a free world. A free market. So, you are free to do whatever you want. But I’m only gonna make you this offer once. If you decline, we’ll just buy your company out.”
“I’ll leave the company and start my own. It’s not even part of the company’s common knowledge yet.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Blah, blah, blah.” Tony said. “Your decision, Art. But we’ll still get it from you one way or another. Even if I have to steal it from you myself. We have the manpower, means, and resources to make it a reality, way before you get your first tests completed.”
“See, I told you,” Art said. “Greedy gringoes.”
“But I don’t want that,” Tony sighed. “I’m willing to pay you good money for it. I can help make you famous. I’ll give you and your team all the credit. All I want to do is have the opportunity to make this a reality.”
“Why? What do you care about splicing DNA? It’s not that complicated.”
“See, that’s just it, Art. You don’t even realize just how powerful your results are. You’re thinking too small. You haven’t grasped the bigger picture. You don’t even realize the full potential of what you’re doing.”
“So, run it by me.” Art said.
“Let’s meet in person. I’ll explain everything. I think you’ll like what I have to say, I think you’ll like my ideas, and I think you’ll like my offer. I want you to stop thinking of me as the villain here, Art. I want to help you and be your partner.”
“And so you can force me to sign an NDA.” Art replied. “You’ll have some little clause you can use to sue me later in court by claiming I stole the idea from you. I’m not stupid, Tony. I know how you corporate big shots with your fancy lawyers think. I’ve been working with your type long enough. All you care about is making money while wrapping it up with pretty words like social responsibility to fool everyone else. But it won’t work with me.”
“Fine, Art. I won’t force you to sign an NDA. Just let me explain what I have in mind.”
“Are your men on the way?” Art asked.
“Yes, they should be there any minute. A group was dispatched as soon as Johnny told me there was trouble. They were already in the area when I called you.”
“Who’s Carla?” Art asked.
“I don’t know,” Tony answered. “Where did you hear that name?”
“Johnny’s dying words,” Art replied. “He was muttering something about Carla. I thought it was his wife.”
“It could be one of his secretaries, assistants, or an ex-girlfriend. It’s hard to say.” Johnny replied. “But I can check into it for you. Did he leave her a message.”
“Yes,” Art replied. “But it’s rather personal. I’d like to give it to her myself. Just out of respect to Johnny. You know what I mean?”
“Sure,” Tony said with a light chuckle. “Knowing Johnny I can imagine. He was a real, smooth Don Juan. He had a way with the ladies.”
Art didn’t wait for Tony to finish his sentence. He turned off the phone and threw it into the bushes.
Several more shots rang out. Art jumped from side to side every few steps as he ran to make it more difficult for them to aim at him. He managed to make it into the safety of the trees.
Once he entered the shadow of the trees, he no longer had the light from the moon and stars. He couldn’t see much in the dark shadows of the forest. He didn’t want to turn on the cellphone flashlight because that would make it easy for the men to see where he was and follow him.
Art ducked into the underbrush trying to decide what to do. He couldn’t run in the forest without light to see by, and he couldn’t use the light he had. But if he stayed here, it wouldn’t be hard for the men to find him either.
He saw three flashlights moving in his direction. They spread out to cover a large area, and it wouldn’t take them long to get here. Art tried to turn on the phone to call this Tony guy, but it was locked.
“Great!” he thought. “Johnny could have at least told me what the passcode was to unlock the phone when he told me to contact this Carla woman.”
Art began to move along the edge of the woods to get away from them men. He stayed far enough under the trees to remain in the shadows, but close enough to still see light from the reflection of the moon. He moved along slowly doubled over and half crouched to make himself as small as possible. He also felt along with his hands for sticks that might be hidden in the dark and snap under his feet making noise that would attract the men’s attention.
He looked back a couple of times, but no longer saw the flashlights that the men were carrying. They must have entered the forest looking for him. He hoped that none of them were good trackers because it wouldn’t be hard to follow the sloppy trail he left behind as he shuffled through the forest in the dark. So, he just kept moving to put as much distance between the men and himself as possible.
Art stopped and stood up straight to relieve the ache in his back. He continued walking normally in an upright position. He figured there was enough distance between him and the men that they probably wouldn’t hear a small twig cracking. But he still walked slowly, feeling along for twigs and small branches under his feet. It was slow going.
He finally paused to take a rest and look back. Everything was dark and quiet. He pulled the phone out of his pocket and swiped at the screen. It required touch ID or a passcode. Art tapped at the screen a few times to see if he could get it open. But nothing worked.
Art pressed the Emergency button, and the number touchpad popped up on the phone screen. He dialed 911 and held the phone to his ear. Nothing happened, and he couldn’t hear the phone ringing.
“Hello. Hello. Is anyone there?”
He pulled the phone back from his ear and saw the numbers still glaring back at him from the screen. He realized he hadn’t pushed the call button. He sighed in frustration and half-laughed at himself at the same time. Art reached out a shaky finger to tap the green call button. It made him realize how exhausted he felt, even though he was amazed that he hadn’t suffered any serious injuries from the accident. Art waited for the call to go through and the operator to answer.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“Yes, hello. I was in an accident, and I think my friend is dead.”
“Where did the accident take place?”
“Uh, I don’t know exactly. We’re on a road here, and there was a bad curve. A black SUV smashed into us, and the car rolled off close to some trees.”
“Are you near the vehicle now?”
“No, some men with guns were shooting at me, so I ran into the woods.”
Art heard something snap and pulled the phone away from his ear. He listened closely, but he didn’t hear anything after that. So, he put the phone back to his ear.
“Sir, are you there. Hello.”
“Yes. Yes, I am here.”
“Can you give me any more details about your location.”
“No, I’m from Brazil. I just flew here tonight, and I was with my friend. We came to the morgue and.”
Something or someone came flying through the underbrush and tackled Art in the dark. They wrapped their arms around him from behind and squeezed tightly lifting him off the ground.
“I got him. He’s over here,” a man yelled.
Art struggled and kicked against the pressure, but the man held firm. The man holding him was solidly built, and Art couldn’t break away from the grip of his thick muscular arms. He wiggled and squirmed, but it was no use. His legs moved freely, so Art pulled his foot forward and then kicked back up towards the man’s groin.
It was a solid blow. The man groaned and immediately relaxed his grip. Art was able to pull his arms out from the bear hug he was in even though the man kept his arms wrapped around his torso. Art continued to squirm and kick, but the man held firm.
Art heard the other men yelling as they came. He desperately tried to twist around and reach out to poke his finger’s in the man’s eyes. But he couldn’t reach them. Art pulled back his arm and smashed his elbow into the man’s face. He felt the man’s nose crunch and crack under his first blow.
The man let go of him and stepped back to grab his face. Art dropped to the ground and picked himself up. He didn’t turn around to look back but took off running again. This time he stepped out of the forest and back into the field. He ran along the edge of the forest using the light from the moon to move as quickly as possible. Art no longer worried about making noise. He was a decent runner. He ran five kilometers at least three times a week. And often longer on the weekends. He had even participated in a half-marathon a few weeks before in his city. So, he simply focused on running and putting as much distance between himself and the men as possible.
Art didn’t know how long he had run for, but eventually, he reached a road. He turned to the left and started walking in the opposite direction from where he thought the car accident had taken place. The last thing he wanted to do was run into those guys again.
A car approached in the distance with the headlights blazing down the road. Art stepped into the trees and waited for it to pass. The last thing he needed was to be picked up by someone these guys were using as backup.
The phone rang, and Art pulled it out of his pocket. The name Tony glowed brightly on the screen. He paused. Johnny had said not to trust him. But on the call, he seemed fairly sympathetic and unaware of the danger they were in. Even Johnny had seemed surprised to discover they weren’t being tailed by Tony’s men.
Art decided to risk it. He didn’t have anywhere else to go or know anyone else to turn to for help. He swiped the screen to the right to answer it.
“Hello, Tony. Jonny is dead.” Art said.
There was a long silent pause on the other end before Tony answered.
“I’m sorry to hear that. This is Art, I presume, or are you one of the men who killed him?”
“No, it’s me. Art,” he replied.
Tony sighed. “Stay right there. I’ll send someone to pick you up.”
Art’s heart froze. How did the man know where he was if he wasn’t in cahoots with the guys in the black SUV.
Johnny had already noticed it and slammed on the brakes. The other car overshot and flew on past them. The tail end of the SUV sideswiped the front of Johnny’s Mercedes Benz tearing off a portion of the bumper on the driver’s side.
“What in the world are they doing?” Art shouted.
Johnny’s phone rang. He silenced it to focus on his driving. The SUV was now on the passenger side near Art. He still couldn’t see anything through the window though. Johnny started to speed up so he could pass them, but the SUV swerved like it was coming at them. Johnny slammed on his brakes, and the SUV did the same. This time it nailed them just behind Art’s door.
The blow pushed them off the side of the road and into the grass that separated the two lanes of the highway. Since Johnny had already braked and slowed down, he wasn’t in danger of losing control. He simply spun the car around and cut through the grass. He doubled back and started driving back the way they had come.
Johnny’s phone rang again. Art looked down and saw the name, Tony. This time Johnny answered it and put it on the loudspeaker.
“What?” he shouted. “What do you want now?”
There was a long pause. Art thought the call had been disconnected but saw the name was still up on the screen.
“Is everything okay?” Tony asked. “I was calling to see how your meeting went with Art.”
Art glanced back. The other vehicle and made the turn and was still following them, but it was still a little ways behind. Johnny was clipping along at over a hundred miles per hour. The other car was pushing it to catch up with them, but Johnny’s car seemed to hold it’s own and staying ahead of them.
“You’re not the one who’s had a black SUV trailing me for the past few days. Are you?” Johnny asked.
“Uh, no! That’s ridiculous. Why would I do a thing like that?” Tony asked. “What’s going on, Johnny?”
“Nothing! I gotta go.” Johnny replied, and with that, he turned off the phone.
Johnny pointed in the direction of the glove compartment. “Reach in there and grab my gun.”
The phone started ringing again, but Johnny just muted it. Art opened the glove compartment and felt around. He didn’t find a gun.
“C’mon!” Johnny yelled at him. “Where is it? Give it to me.”
“There’s nothing here,” Art replied.
He started pulling stuff out. Books, wires, twinkies, and a bunch of other junk. He looked at Johnny when he was finished an indicated with his outstretched hand that he had pulled everything out.
“Argh!” Johnny groaned. “Somebody must have stolen it.”
“You thought those were Tony’s guys keeping tabs on you?” Art asked. “That’s why you weren’t worried about them back there.”
Johnny looked at him and nodded without saying a word.
So, if they aren’t Tony’s men, then who are they?” Art asked.
Johnny just shrugged but didn’t look up. He glanced into the rearview mirror.
“Hang on to your seat,” Johnny finally spoke up. “It looks like they activated a turbo booster. They’re coming in fast.”
Art turned to look back. The SUV was right behind them and closing in fast. He turned away as it smashed into the back of their car. Johnny tried to change lanes but was too late. The other vehicle plowed right into them.
Johnny lost control of the car. Between getting clipped in the back while trying to switch lanes caused them to spin out of control. Art gasped breathlessly as the Mercedes careened off the road and went over the embankment.
There was a short drop, but the car didn’t stop when it hit the bottom. It crashed through a wire fence and still kept bouncing through holes and over rocks. The vehicle hit something that spun it around and flipped it over, and over, and over.
When Art came to, they had stopped short of running into the trees where the woods started. Art shook his head and tried to look around. He felt his body, but everything seemed to be okay. He breathed desperately wondering how he had just survived that accident. Johnny had floored it, and they were flying.
He unbuckled his seatbelt and looked over at Johnny. He was leaning forward with his face on the steering wheel. His arms were thrown forward across the dash. The windshield was completely gone. Art touched his shoulder and shook him lightly.
“Johnny, you okay? Johnny?” he said.
Art looked around to get his bearings. He couldn’t see the road itself because of the darkness. But he could see the headlights of the SUV. The men had probably already jumped out and were headed their way.
He gave Johnny a firm shake. This time, he moved his head and groaned loudly.
“Let’s go!” Art said as he tried to undo Johnny’s seat belt.
“You gotta go. Get out of here.” Johnny moaned. “Those aren’t the same men who killed my wife. You’re not safe here.”
“No! Not without you.” Art said firmly while trying to keep his voice down. “Let’s go. Open your door.”
“I can’t feel my arms and legs, Art. I can’t feel anything. I’m going anywhere, but they’re only after me. You get out of here.”
Art pulled on Johnny’s arm, but it felt limp and loose.
“It’s okay,” Johnny said. “I’ve lived a good life. I’ve enjoyed more than my share of good things. And I’d rather they put me out of my misery then lie around on a life support system for the next twenty years.”
Art saw flashes of light moving back and forth as the men walked in their direction. He didn’t want to leave Johnny here, but there wasn’t he could do for the man. Johnny looked like he weighed twice as much as Art, so he knew he couldn’t carry him. He knew that might make things worse. Better to get help and hope the men didn’t kill him before he got back.
“I’m gonna go find help, Johnny,” he whispered. “I’ll come back. I promise.”
Johnny grinned. “Good, I’ll wait for you. Listen, don’t trust anybody. Turn the deal down and go home. If you want answers, find a woman named Carla. She is the only one who might be able to help you.”
He breathed a raspy breath and closed his eyes. Art shook him gently.
“Johnny! Johnny! C’mon, man.”
He looked back and saw the glow of the flashlights still moving slowly but steadily in his direction. Art unlocked the doors and pushed his open. The sound of grass and brush scraping against the paint grated on his nerves. He couldn’t get it completely open because there was something blocking it. But it was still wide enough for him to squeeze through.
The flashlights were closer and strong enough to light up the area around him a bit. He saw that it was a rock that had kept him from opening the door. He left it open and walked around it so he could move into the trees.
He remembered Johnny’s cell phone was in there, so he reached back in through the broken windshield to grab it. A shot rang out, and a bullet smacked into the car door that was still open in front of him. The flashlights were trained on him and moving quickly in his direction.
Art didn’t think twice. He started running for the trees.
Art had no idea what Johnny was talking about and didn’t know what to say to that. So, they rode in silence for a bit.
“So, what does my company have to do with all of this?” he finally asked. “Is my boss and the board of directors involved in this. I suppose I’m the dumb peon they sent off to be the scapegoat and get left holding the bag if something goes wrong when everything is said and done.”
Johnny smiled at him. “No, Art. There is something very special about you. You were chosen for a reason, but not by me. Someone much higher up that sees the bigger picture. I’m the peon that got sent to bring you into the fold.”
Art let that sink in for a moment. He glanced back at the car that was tailing them.
“What gave you such a sudden change of heart then?” he asked. “What did you find out?”
Johnny scowled at him.
“Give it a rest, Art!” he growled menacingly. “Right now, this is all on me. You still have a choice. I don’t. The only thing I can do is play my cards the best I know how and wait to see how things turn out. But trust me when I say that the less you know, the better. If I tell you something, then it’s all on you, and you won’t have a choice in the matter. Just wait until tomorrow and hear them out. After that, you can make your own decision.”
Art crossed his arms and pouted. The suspense was killing him. He had always hated waiting for things. One of his colleagues knew it and loved to irritate him with it. She sent him a message telling him that she had something really important to say to him that could only be in person. He finally caught on that she was doing it purposely. So, she told everyone at the office, and they all started doing it just to mess with his head. He learned to blow it off after a while, but it still bugged him to no end. Art could feel that this was going to be a long night. He would probably lay awake all night mulling it over and wondering what it could be.
“Something’s up,” Johnny said.
Art sat up and looked behind them, but the car that had been following them was no longer there.
“It’s here beside us,” Johnny said and motioned with his head.
The black SUV was pulling up alongside them two lanes over. There was very little traffic on the highway. It was late, and almost everyone was probably home sleeping on a Thursday night. Art looked at the clock on the dash. The numbers glowed 11:45 and a soft blue hue that blended in with the other lights on the dashboard and reflected off the interior of the car.
Johnny had sped up, but the other car continued to keep up with them. They were slowly pulling ahead of him. Art tried to peer through the windows, but the glass was tinted. All he could see was their reflection.
“Guess we’re too boring. They’ve given up and decided to head home for the night.” Art said.
Johnny shook his head. “Nah! They’re up to something. These guys have been at this now for too long.”
“Why don’t you call 911?” Art asked. “Everyone in America calls 911 when they are having an emergency.”
The burly man chuckled from the other side of the car. “You actually have to be in an emergency to call 911. What are we gonna tell the operator?”
Art didn’t reply, so Johnny continued.
“Hello. Yes. I’d like to report another car that’s driving along beside me a couple of lanes over. Could you please dispatch a police cruiser to pull them over so we can find out who they are, and an ambulance just in case they try to harm us. Sheesh, Art. You’ve been watching too many movies, man! Get a life.”
Art grinned at the thought. “Yeah, it does sound kind of funny when you put it like that,” he said.
“You know. You’re all right, Art.” Johnny said. “I was really upset when Tony sent me down to Brazil to look you up. I thought it was going to be a wild goose chase that wouldn’t amount to much. But you surprised me.”
Art beamed. “Thanks, I never did get much recognition from anyone at my company. So, it’s nice to hear you say that.”
“You know, after I left Brazil, going back was the last thing I wanted to do,” Johnny said. “I was fed up with the corruption and the bureaucracy. But when I found you, I was really pleased. You remind me a lot of myself. Well, the way I used to be before I got caught up in all this mess. Sometimes I wish I could go back to the way things used to be.”
“How’s that?” Art asked. He kept his eye on the car still following along beside them.
“Ah! I don’t know how to describe it exactly.” Johnny replied. “It’s hard to express and put it into words. I guess things were simpler then. Choices were easier then. Well, I could still make my own choices. Now, I don’t get to make them anymore.”
“Do what we say, or else we’ll kill your wife,” Art murmured.
Johnny nodded. “Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had a good life. A very good life to put it mildly. I’ve done things I never dreamed of growing up. But it all came a cost. I knew it when I joined. So, I’m not complaining.”
“That’s what you’re trying to warn me about,” Art asked again.
“Sheesh, Art! Stop fishing for answers to questions you don’t want to be asking. The less you know, the better. And I really don’t know all the details, but I do know they have a very specific plan for you personally. And I like you. You’re a good guy just like I used to be. I don’t want to see you get hurt or have to make the decisions that I’m having to make now.”
Art sighed and threw his head back against the car seat. “It sure would help to know what you are talking about.”
He looked over at Johnny who just grinned back at him. That cheeky boyish grin Art just wanted to punch.
“How did your wife die? Somebody shoot her?” Art asked.
Johnny frowned and looked back at the road. “Elliot said they were told to process it as a heart attack.”
“What do you mean they were told?” Art asked. “Aren’t the police investigating this thing. Don’t you want to know how she died? What they did to her?”
He glanced at the black SUV still driving along beside them and then back at Johnny. The man took a deep breath and cleared his throat.
“I told you that the police are involved. Nobody is going to investigate it. They told me that it was painless and she didn’t feel a thing when they called me back at the office. That’s all I want to know.”
“Seriously? That’s all you want to know?” Art demanded. “Are you kidding me. What kind of sick people are you dealing with?”
Johnny shrugged. “You take the deal, this is the kind of people you’ll be getting involved with.”
“Fine,” he said in exasperation. “I’ll hear what they have to say, turn them down, and then fly back to my little run-down apartment in Brazil. Does that make you happy?”
Johnny didn’t say anything.
“I say we find out who did this, and we take them down. Show them who they’re messing with. Bunch of gringoes think they can push us around.”
He chuckled wryly and looked at Johnny. There was a bad curve, so Johnny kept his eyes on the road.
“If only it were that easy,” Johnny muttered under his breath.
Art was still looking at Johnny when he noticed the car beside them jerk away from them and then back in their direction. At first, he thought it was because of the curve. Maybe they had overcorrected. But they didn’t stop when they reached the middle lane. They kept right on coming.
“Look out, Johnny! The truck!” Art shouted and pointed at the truck.
Johnny and Art rode in silence. Johnny had offered to have someone take Art to his hotel, but he refused. He wanted to go with his friend. It was the least he could do after his awful behavior earlier.
Art sat in the seat with his arms crossed. He looked down and noticed a small stain on his shirt. He licked his thumb and tried to wipe it clean. All he ended up doing was smudging the stain in even more and making it larger. He gave up and watched the light posts whizzing by along the highway. The skyline with the large, dark buildings loomed ominously against the night sky. It was completely different from the small city he had flown in from.
Everything seemed so strange and different here. That was to be expected he supposed. Different cultures, different people, different ways of doing things. Johnny was the only familiar person that he knew here. It would take some time to adapt and adjust to life. Sure, there were good things in this city. He could make a good life here. But there would be things that he would miss back home. If he decided to take the deal that is. After Johnny’s warning, he wasn’t sure what to think anymore.
What had brought about this sudden change in attitude? Just a few months earlier Johnny had used all of his persuasive powers and techniques to convince Art to help him close this deal. Why had Johnny chosen him in the first place?
Art turned to look at Johnny. He wanted to ask him, but the burly man seemed deep in thought. It was strange that he didn’t seem to be grieving like Art expected a man would after just having found out that his wife was dead.
“We’ve got company,” Johnny said breaking the silence in the car.
He looked in the review mirror signaling where to look. Art turned around and saw a pair of headlights a short way behind them. He looked back at Johnny.
“You’re paranoid, Johnny. It’s just another car out on the road. They’re all around us.” he said indicating the headlights in the other lanes. Johnny shook his head.
“They’ve been following us since we left the office. And it’s not the first time I’ve seen this car. They’ve been tailing me for the past few days.”
“So, call the cops,” Art suggested.
“Look, Art. You know what I told you earlier. And you know my wife is dead. Things are gonna get ugly. I don’t want you to get hurt. If anything happens to me, don’t trust the cops. They’re involved in this mess too.”
“What are you talking about, man,” Art replied with a twinge of nervousness in his voice.
Johnny didn’t reply. They were coming up on an exit. He slowed briefly to let a car pass on the right. Johnny threw the car across four lanes to make the turnoff. Art grabbed onto the dashboard in front of him.
“See. They’re still on our tail.” Johnny said.
Art looked back. The car was still there.
“So, who is it and what do they want?” Art demanded to know.
Johnny just shook his head. “It’s complicated. And truthfully, I don’t even know myself. I’m just picking up bits and pieces here and there, and trying to put the pieces together still.”
They drove on in silence for a while. The only sound was the humming of the wheels and the air blowing from the air conditioner. Art suddenly felt very cold. He reached out and turned the vent away from himself. He closed it for good measure. He looked back. The car was still tailing them.
When he got home tonight, he was going to make a note to himself in his journal to never be greedy again. Just keep his head down and do his job. What had he been thinking when he fell for Johnny’s promises of easy money and introduced the man to his boss?
He could have been home right now, stretched out on the couch playing his favorite video game. Had his girlfriend over for a nice supper and wine. Just a normal night like any other. But here he was on the other side of the equator being tailed with a guy he only met one other time in his life. He shook his head in the darkness.
They were on the outskirts of the city, and there were no longer light posts along the side of the road. Art looked back. The car was still there, but it had fallen back farther.
“Are you sure we should be here?” Art asked. “It’s kind of deserted. Shouldn’t we head to someplace that’s a little more populated.”
Johnny smiled and shook his head. “They’ve been there for a few days. I don’t think they’ll try anything. Besides, they already got what they wanted. They killed my wife, so I don’t think they’ll do anything to me.”
They came up to a huge warehouse in the middle of nowhere. Johnny turned on his blinker and pulled into the parking lot.
“Where are we?” Art asked.
“City morgue,” Johnny replied.
Art looked out the rear of the side window towards the road. The car that had been tailing them slowed down but didn’t pull in. It drove by slowly and kept on going.
Johnny parked near the door in the empty parking lot.
“Where is everyone?” Art asked.
“The dead don’t drive,” Johnny said with a wry grin.
His cynism surprised Art. Here his wife was dead, and Johnny was cracking jokes like it was just another day on the job. But he grinned anyway.
They walked to the door, and Johnny stopped him before they entered.
“Look, Art. I just thought of something. I don’t think they’ll do anything to me because they’re just trying to scare me into keeping my mouth shut. But they might try to get to you. So, we’ve got to be careful.”
Art had his hand on the doorknob, and a bolt of cold fear shot through him. He froze for an instant.
“What, like they’re gonna kill me?” Art asked.
“Nah, I don’t think so. They’ll assume your just here to close the deal for your company. But they might think I told you something, and try to get it out of you. The less you’re around me, the better. After we get out of here, I’ll take you straight to your hotel.”
They went in and met with the undertaker. Art didn’t like him from the start. He picked up some really weird vibes off the guy. Art was frustrated that he couldn’t put his finger on what it was exactly.
“Hey, Elliot. Good to see you,” Johnny said as he shook his hand.
“I’m very sorry for your loss, Johnny.” the undertaker said. “Berta was a wonderful woman, and we’re all going to miss her greatly.”
“Thanks, Elliot,” Johnny replied. “She was, but that’s just part of life. Right? Two hundred and fifty thousand people die every single day. Have her parents been here yet.”
Johnny’s callousness shocked Art. He could tell that it shocked Elliot too.
“Yes, they came earlier and already identified her body. Her father already signed the paperwork.” Elliot replied. “The deputy tried calling you, but we couldn’t get a hold of you. So, there’s nothing you need to do. Would you like to see her?
Johnny nodded and followed Elliot down the hall. Art started walking with them, but Johnny stopped him.
“It’s okay, Art,” he said. “You can stay here. I’d like a moment alone with my wife.”
Art nodded. He noticed the twitch in Johnny’s cheeks and around his eyes as the grieving man tried to control his emotions. He realized the callousness and coarse joking were simply his way of dealing with the pain he was going through. Art walked over to one of the hard, white plastic chairs lined up against the wall.
The room was mostly dark except for a lone bulb that hung down from the center of the ceiling cast long shadows against the wall in all directions. Art sat quietly in the stillness. There was a spooky feel to the place. It would be a great location to film a practical joke on someone. He grinned at the thought.
Johnny wasn’t gone long. He soon came out whistling a slow, melancholy tune. Art stood up to greet him. Johnny didn’t acknowledge him there. He just walked past Art to the door. Art walked behind him in silence. He wanted to say something to comfort his friend but knew that his empty words wouldn’t mean much.
They got into the car and drove in silence. Art glanced back a few times but didn’t notice the car tailing them. He felt relieved. But then he gave one final glance back and noticed it was there again. Johnny smiled at him and chuckled.
“You thought they were gone,” he said. “They’re never gone. They sometimes take a while to show up, but they are always there. I think they want me to know they are following us.”
“Why are you so calm about all this?” Art asked. “I mean they killed your wife for crying out loud. How can you act so normal.”
Johnny pursed his lips and breathed out a loud, long sigh.
“Art, what if everything you were taught about the world and life around you was a hoax. A carefully cultivated hoax to keep you from questioning things. A hoax that was carefully designed to keep you and your loved ones in line.”
Art rolled his eyes. “So, how you’re going to get all philosophical on me. You’ve discovered the truth and found out about some conspiracy theory that you want to expose. Now the evil Illuminati villains and an Italian godfather want to whack you off.”
“No, you’re wrong about me discovering the conspiracy,” Johnny replied. “I didn’t stumble into it.”
He turned to Art and gave him a long, hard look. Johnny looked back at the road and pursed his lips.
“I’m part of the group that orchestrated the hoax. Well, I didn’t actually orchestrate it myself, but I do help keep it running. So, I’m just as guilty as the rest of them.”