Chapter 4 — Roads of Destiny
Whither these roads led he knew not. Either way there seemed to lie a great world full of chance and peril.
— Roads of Destiny, O. Henry, American Author
If you were to ask me how we got from Siciliano’s to Terrapin Creek, Wisconsin; I would tell you that we took I-94 north. Of course, that would not answer your question, as what you really meant was; what chain of poor judgment and unsound reasoning lead us to the compromising situation in which we found ourselves.
The real answer, to that very real question, is that I’m not entirely sure. Somehow, Telmar convinced me that we needed to check out the engineering department of El Rey Industries. I can hazard a guess that the circumstances in which my moral superiority toppled involved an increased fee and one too many glasses of Chianti.
That then, this was now. El Rey’s engineering building loomed in front of us. The entire place looked like an old prison. It was all red brick. There were no windows on the ground floor. The few windows on the second floor were barred. Considering the size of the town, I assumed that they were to keep the employees in, rather than criminals out. There was a gate topped with razor wire, which lead into a central courtyard where I guessed VPs and such parked their cars.
If viewed from the air, the engineering building looked like a red cancerous growth on the side of El Rey’s industrial, grey-steel, manufacturing center. Which is simply a poetic way of saying the manufacturing building was bigger, and the two buildings were connected along the north south axis.
The front entrance was on the corner of Park and Mason. The other three blocks were occupied with a four-story office building, a park, and a residential neighborhood respectively. We were currently parked on the street across from the main entrance to the plant. Telmar removed a pair of binoculars from his briefcase.
I grabbed his hand, “Rule number one of surveillance: Don’t ever use binoculars.” Telmar looked at me and stuffed the binoculars back in his briefcase so I continued. “People who use binoculars are suspicious. If you use them anywhere except a nature preserve, people assume that you are some sort of spy, or pervert. On the other hand,” I opened the backpack which I had slung over my shoulder and pulled out a camera. “If you carry one of these, with a telephoto lens, you can see just as far; and people assume that you are either, a photographer, or a reporter; neither of whom are suspicious individuals. In addition, you have the option to record what you see.”
I looked through the LCD display, adjusting the lens until I could see through the front door and into the reception area. “Jot this down.” I ordered; more because I didn’t want him fiddling with anything in the car than because I needed a stenographer. “Employees wear badges... office personnel wear green... orientation of the badge is vertical... picture fills top two thirds.”
“What is this good for?”
“If you want to find out about a company, the best way is to walk in and ask. And the best way to do that is to dress the part.”
“So, you’re going to dress up as an office staff member?”
“No, people know each other in the office. I want to be an outsider, an unknown entity; but one who has access to the entire building.”
“Are there people like that in businesses?”
“Yeah, maintenance personnel, you only see them when there is a problem. So instead of remembering them you remember the fact that the coffee machine was not working, or that the light in your cube was burned out. As a result, you don’t focus on them, and cannot remember what they looked like later. They are like the motivational posters on the wall; a necessary evil, just part of the scenery.”
“So, what are you trying to do?”
“Find a maintenance person and figure out if they have a uniform.”
We continued to wait in the park. It was getting close to 4:00. Suddenly, the doors on the plant opened and people streamed out like a swarm of ants determined to wreak havoc and death on the six year old who just kicked over their anthill. I began snapping pictures as fast as I could. I would need all of the data possible if we were going to make a quick job of this.
“Next stop the library.” I said as the crowd thinned, and I put my camera back in its case.
“I need to buy a uniform.”
“And how is a library going to help?” Telmar said, in the same patronizing tone which I liked to use, when I thought he had said something particularly inane.
“I need internet access.”
“You have a smart phone.”
“Let me tell you something. I am about to enter a facility in a manner which could possibly be construed as trespassing. As a result, I don’t want a search history tied to my internet service records. So, we stop at a library and mooch off their wireless network. Capisce?”
It did not take us long to get to the library; Terrapin Creek was a small town. And it took even less time to connect my laptop to the library’s wireless network and establish an encrypted connection. Most towns with a large manufacturing facility have a uniform store, and Terrapin Creek was no exception. It only took a few moments to run the searches.
“There’s a store at the corner of Main and Spencer.” I was talking mostly to myself, a known side effect of being in my line of work. “Good, there’s also a hardware store next door. There are a few additional supplies which we will need.”
I used my phone to book us rooms at the nearest motel. A rookie mistake in internet security is using your secure anonymous connection to tie you to unsecure public records like credit card purchases and hotel reservations.
The uniform store my search had pointed me too, was more or less what I expected; four lumens brighter than an unlit cave, low-ceilinged, and decorated in a style which was high fashion in the 1970s. Think puce wallpaper and goldenrod carpeting. The floor was covered in racks of clothing, which did a lot to hide the hideous carpet. A wise consideration, since the color scheme reminded me of a pastrami sandwich I once left in my glove box for three weeks.
Unlike a standard clothing store, all of these clothes looked more or less the same, blue shirts, blue slacks, and steel-toed boots, with the occasional flowery set of nurse’s scrubs thrown in for variety. I hoped that what they lacked in selection, they made up for in customer service. I approached the counter warily; the clerk looked like he was singlehandedly trying to resurrect the fashions of 1985. I made a mental note: plaid pants and purple paisley ties are never a good idea.
“I need a standard blue maintenance uniform.” I said, as if I walked into uniform stores every day. “A men’s small short-sleeve shirt, 28-30 pants, and a small jacket; both the jacket and the shirt need my name embroidered on the patches.”
“What’s your name?” The clerk asked, clearly demonstrating that he didn’t care what my name was; except that he needed it for the embroidery.
“Jeff Sheridan.” I replied brightly, trying to infuse a sense of cheer into the crypt which passed for a store.
“Ok, that will cost one hundred seventy-two dollars and sixty-seven cents.” The cashier said, clicking the keys on the register with exaggerated slowness. He obviously hadn’t seen a lot of customers lately. I didn’t blame them.
“When can I expect the uniform?”
“Three to four business days.”
I groaned. “I can’t wait that long. I need it first thing tomorrow morning.”
“It’s going to have to be at least three days. We have a lot of other orders to fill, and we follow a strict FIFO policy.” He seemed happier now, as if by crushing the dreams of others he could absorb their hope by osmosis. There was no room for doubt, he was a psychological vampire.
I looked around the shop. “I can see all of the items that I asked for on the racks. All that I need is the patches to go on them.”
“I’m sorry, three days is the soonest I can get them for you.” If sentences were living creatures, the “sorry” was a vestigial organ.
“Do you know how to run the embroidery machine?” I decided that it was time to take a different tack.
“Ok.” I opened my wallet and counted out three hundred-dollar bills. “Do you know what baksheesh is?” The clerk said nothing, but his eyes grew wide; and I explained. “It’s a Turkish word. It means, greasing the wheels, oiling the clockwork, cutting through the red tape.”
“You mean a bribe?” His vampiric soul had retreated for the moment.
“Please, nothing so vulgar; I am simply trying to hire you to perform an independent commission.”
“So, if I make the patches for you tonight, you will pay me one hundred twenty-five dollars as a bonus.”
“Well in that case, I’ll get on it right away.”
“I’ll be back to pick them up in a half an hour. Make sure they are done, or your commission may decrease.”
“I can have it done by then.” He said sounding less like a vampire and more like an eager puppy waiting for a pat on the head.
“Good.” I left the vampire’s lair and walked over to the hardware store. As I had told Telmar, there were a few things which I needed to pick up before the infiltration of El Rey Industries.
Somewhere on the drive between the hardware store and the motel, Telmar developed a case of compulsive blitherer’s disease. His topic of choice was how insurance companies were the number three evil in the country; outranked only by the government and lawyers, at one and two respectively. He had just started a lengthy diatribe, against the insurance company which tried to frame him for arson, when I saw an opportunity to change the subject.
“There is probably a good reason they thought it was arson.” In my defense, it was an innocent comment. All I wanted to do was skip the chatter about the evil MIC. In retrospect, I should have picked a less inflammatory subject. “You see, any time a building burns down, the insurance company assumes it was arson, and that the owner was responsible.”
“Because they are evil.”
“No, it’s because people are criminals. So, the investigators look for a handful of clues. Hydrocarbon residues, epicenters in low risk areas etc. Because of this, you can’t use gasoline, or any sort of explosive, because they leave a residue. Once investigators find that residue the party’s over.” The light ahead of us turned red. I slammed on the brakes and skidded to a halt just behind the white cross walk line. “So, the reason that they assumed I was responsible for arson, was because they found residue of some explosives in my house?” I could see the wheels turning in Telmar’s head.
“That’s right, doc.” I said, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel, waiting for the light to change. “What most people don’t realize is that for residential homes, you don’t need any extra explosives. Every building carries the seeds of its own destruction inside itself.” I thought that sounded pretty profound, and Telmar had stopped talking about mind control and aliens. Things were looking good, so I continued.
“For example, any building which uses a hydrocarbon as its heat source has a massive supply of potential fuel. And because you are using a preexisting source of flammables, there is no evidence of foul play. Of course, insurance companies know this, so they insist on all sorts of safeguards to keep buildings from burning down accidently; safeguards like fire alarms, and in commercial buildings, sprinkler systems.
The light turned green, and I paused momentarily checking both ways before entering the intersection. “Of course, sprinkler systems are easy to eliminate. A thermite charge on the sprinkler main, guarantees that no water is available to dowse the fire.”
“You said not to use conventional explosives...”
I cut him off. “Thermite is not a conventional explosive. It is a mixture of aluminum and iron oxide, when coupled with a magnesium detonator, it doesn’t leave a residue.” That last bit was stretching the truth a little bit. Inspectors are known to get the slightest bit suspicious when a perfectly good sprinkler main gets torched for no apparent reason, but a conversation with Telmar didn’t require that level of subtlety.
“How do you know all of this?” Telmar asked the question as if I was some sort of pyromaniac, responsible for every conflagration from Rome to the Hindenburg.
“I took a class on arson investigation.” I replied. “They taught you all of the things to look for when trying to prove that arson had been committed. And of course, in the process, they inadvertently taught all of the mistakes to avoid when burning down buildings.” I felt pretty smug, knowing that I had successfully turned Telmar’s rant to a subject of my own choosing. This was a fact which would come back to haunt me.