Twenty-four

Nikki stopped somewhere in Nebraska to eat.  Ravenous hunger always came, after she’d borrowed time.  There was a delay, but twelve or fifteen hours later, she had to eat eat eat.  In the past Taiisha had forced handfuls of multivitamins on her afterward, and now Nikki knew why.  It hit hard, hunger pains and shaky hands showing up within minutes of one another.  Nikki had stopped at the first restaurant she had found (a little place called Hendrick’s Family Fare) and ordered to her heart’s content.  She had already eaten a basket of cheese sticks, two chicken sandwiches and all of the attendant condiments and side dishes, and a big slice of pie, and she was working on a third sandwich.  She wanted more cheese sticks, too, depending on how the waitress looked at her when she returned.  They were already looking at her a little strangely.  She ate as slowly as she could, but it was hard to pace herself.  Must feed the machine, she thought, suppressing a grin.

She had never in her life owned a cell phone so when the one Eddie had given her rang, it scared the shit out of her.  She dropped the sandwich, looking wildly about to locate the trilling sound that was so close to her, then remembered the phone and dug it out of her bag.  “Hello?” she said, brushing hair away from her ear and trying to swallow at the same time.

“Lunch break?” Eddie asked.  She expected him to sound far away and scratchy, but the reception was perfect.

“Um.  Sorry.”  She washed her mouthful down.  “Okay.  What do you want?”

“I had a good day yesterday.  How ’bout you?”

“Could have been better,” she replied.

Some of the cheerfulness went out of Eddie’s voice.  She couldn’t tell if he was concerned for her, or about what she might have messed up.  Probably the latter.  “What happened?”

Losing her cool about it was probably not the best response, but she couldn’t help herself.  “It was bullshit, that’s what happened!  There was no job, Eddie.  It was a setup.  They wanted to know what you knew about that Ile du Soleil shit.”  Nikki didn’t want to lie to him.  She hated lying, and hoped he wouldn’t ask exactly what had happened.

“Mitch Mabry was there?  He was in on it?”

She could answer that.  “Yes.  To both.”

There was a long moment of silence.  “Are you okay?”  He sounded concerned, and this time she didn’t doubt it was for her. 

A small smile touched Nikki’s lips; it was nice that he worried about her, even though she was more investment than friend.

“I’m fine.”

“Break any noses?”

“Shut up,” she said, not liking the reference to the kid she had beaten up in San Francisco.  “Where are you?”

“Chicago.  Got lots of stuff to show you, and our next job, too.”

“What is it?”

“Tell you when you get here this evening, Poppet.”  She hung up without saying goodbye or asking if he wanted anything else.  Served him right for calling her Poppet.

Twenty-four

Ajax looked at the mountain of snow that separated his car from the sidewalk in front of the former Crane-Packard factory, and wished he’d never left Nashville.  The timing could hardly have been worse; it was unseasonably cool at home, true.  Meanwhile, Detroit had just gotten socked by the kind of blizzard that inspired people (like him, for instance) to move to the South and never come back.  He had his ski gear on, so he wouldn’t freeze to death, but still didn’t relish the notion of getting out and climbing a snow pile.

“What the hell,” he said to himself.  “It’s just frozen water.”  He got out of the car, climbed over the snow to the sidewalk, and slogged up the walkway, which bore only a single set of footprints and hadn’t been shoveled.

The factory’s front doors were locked, unsurprisingly.  He looked through the glass doors, and saw only the empty lobby.  The art had been removed from the walls, and there was a thin layer of dust on the floor.  It was a different world from what it had been like six months before, with fresh paint on the walls and a freshly minted office staff in residence.  More than at any other time during the whole saga, he felt like he was looking at the corpse of the company.

Around back, the story was different.  Ajax was outside the chainlink fence, which was topped with coils of barbed wire, but he didn’t need to get inside.  The loading dock and rear drive were plowed and partially cleared, and a pair of rented trucks was parked there.  The factory’s back doors were open, and there were two men dragging pallet jacks in and out, laden with boxes.

So, there hadn’t even been janitorial staff up front, but there was plenty of activity in the back.  That was more than strange.  The men with the jacks went inside, and Ajax moved toward the gate, so he could get a better look.  As he stepped over the last snowpile separating him from the drive, he dug in his pocket for his cell phone and dialed Molly.

“It’s me,” he said when she answered.  “I’m at the factory.”

“In Detroit?” Molly asked, surprised.  “What’s–“

One of the men came out onto the dock again, and Ajax sidestepped, keeping the truck between them as he crouch-walked closer, trying not to make to much noise.  “No time to explain.  What did you say they were doing with the factory?”

“Ian never said,” she replied.  “Storage space they rented out, was all he told me.”

“He didn’t know what was being stored?”

“No idea.”

“I’m curious to find out,” he said, keeping his voice low.  He heard motion in the truck he was crouched in front of, and wondered what he’d do if the driver came around to the cab and decided to drive off. 

“We don’t need to,” Molly said, an edge of caution in her voice.

“It doesn’t feel right,” Ajax said.  “I just want to take a look.”  The truck creaked as the man in the back stepped off, and he heard the pallet jack rolling back into the building.

“Don’t get yourself in trouble, Ajax.”

“It’s what I do,” he whispered, scooting around the side of the truck to the edge of the loading dock.  From here, he couldn’t see much inside, could only hear the echoing of the pallet jack inside.  He pulled himself up quickly and peeked in the back of the truck at the palleted crates that had been loaded.  “We’ve got big metal packing boxes,” he said.

“Where are you?  Ajax, you’re breaking up.”

“Bear with me.”  Wood crates would have been nailed shut, but these were metal units, like suitcases.  Ajax flipped the latch on the topmost one and found it unlocked.  He lifted the lid, saw fitted gray Styrofoam packing nestled around a smooth green cylinder.  “Well hell,” he said, and closed it quickly.  The latch clacked loudly closed, and the sound seemed to echo into the warehouse.  Ajax moved quickly to the rear of the truck again.

“What’s going on?” Molly asked.  “Dammit, Ajax, you’re pissing me off.”

“Sorry,” he whispered, edging into the shadows inside the warehouse door.  The men with the pallet jack were returning.  “Can you hear me?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not an expert, but I think that the box I just looked in had a bazooka in it.”

“A what?”

“Some kind of anti-tank weapon.  The men who were loading them are coming back now, I can’t talk.  I’ll call back in twenty minutes,” he said and hung up the phone, then switched it off in case Molly called him right back.  It wouldn’t do to have the phone ringing in his pocket.  Ajax crouched behind a forgotten oil drum as the men with the pallet jack rounded a corner of the empty shelving units, pulling another pallet full of the gray metal boxes.

Adrenaline pounded in his blood.  He needed to look in another of those cases, to see if there were any numbers on the devices inside.  It wouldn’t do to assume he’d seen a missile or something and blow the whistle, only to discover that it was an unfamiliar piece of photographic equipment or some such, of course.  Ajax grinned.  This was almost as much fun as outing illegal toxic dumps.