Thursday, 3 February
"For your living room, you could go with Sea Froth or Linen Sand."
I stared at the woman behind the desk, a two-inch-thick slab of tempered glass set on glass blocks. Her ingenuous gaze didn't match her angular looks, sharpened by a military-style suit and slashes of red at mouth and nails.
"What the hell is Sea Froth?"
She frowned slightly, as if she didn't understand my question. Then her brow cleared.
"It's a very nice, warm, pale chocolate. Linen Sand is a pale yellow, on the cool side." She paused, cleared her throat. "We could always go with Timid Dove, which is a very nice pale grey, if you dislike the other two colors."
"What's wrong with plain white? I like white."
Her eyes widened in horror then closed for a second. She took a breath.
"Mr. Meter, please. I know you're getting impatient, but this is the last decision you need to make before we start on your apartment. White is not an option the builder offers. Besides..." She glanced out the window, and then looked back at me. "White is such a ... a stark color. I can't imagine you wouldn't want something with more warmth."
I've got news for you, sister, white ain't a color. I didn't say it out loud, though. She'd probably hit me with her spiked heel or break into tears. I kept mum and shrugged instead.
"Just pick one, okay? I don't particularly care."
She gasped, shook her head. "No. No, I can't do that, Mr. Meter." She opened the folder she'd set in front of me and pointed at the three paint chips. "You'll have to live with the choice. I can't be responsible."
With a sigh, I looked at the swatches. To me, they looked grey, yellow and beige. I tried to think what Annie would have liked. The yellow, I guessed, which would enhance the antique furniture she'd collected. She'd put it in storage when she came to live with me. I'd hated the fussiness of it--not to mention it was damn uncomfortable--but now it was the only part of her I had left and I'd decided to use it to furnish my new apartment. I thought it would make me feel closer to her, somehow.
"That one, then."
She beamed at me as if I were a child who had taken his first step, picked up the yellow chip and wrote something down.
"Very well. Now, for the fixtures..."
My cell rang. With a prayer of thanks to the God of Communications, I raised a hand to stop her, fished out the phone with the other. "Yo."
"As usual, Mr. Meter, your bedside manner leaves much to be desired."
I grinned at Charlie's prim voice. "That's cuz we're not in bed, darling. What's up?"
"First of all, I must impress upon you that I am not your secretary. I am the administrative assistant for Mr. Winston, who, in a spirit of generosity I will never understand, lets you rent the rooms above. My calling you to relay messages will not become a habit. Is that clear?"
"As melting snow. What's the problem?"
"There is a gentleman standing in front of my desk who insists on speaking with you."
I raised an eyebrow. The disdain she placed on the word gentleman led me to believe he was far from one. The guy's demand must have been quite forceful to get Charlie to track me down.
Then it clicked. "He wouldn't have a gun pointed at you, by any chance?"
She sniffed. "Yes. He does."
My heart started playing bongos against my ribs. "Where's Winston?"
"Tell the guy I'll be right there."
"He wishes to speak to you now."
I heard some rustling then a smooth voice.
"Mr. Meter? No cops. Cops make me very nervous. You have ten minutes to get here."
"It's the middle of the damn day. I won't make it."
"Ten minutes." The phone went dead.
I closed the cell, shot up. "Gotta go," I said to the woman, who was watching me with wide eyes. I couldn't remember her name--Sue or something--and I didn't care.
"I heard you mention a gun," she said. "Shouldn't I call the police?"
"I'll take care of it."
"What about the rest? Your apartment."
I stopped in the doorway and turned. "It goes like this, sweetheart. You have a choice. You have five days to take care of everything, or you lose a fat--very fat--bonus. Got it?"
She straightened, eyes glaring, the red of her lips a dash of hostility, and gave me a short nod.
I rushed out and clambered down the fire escape from the second floor to the underground parking garage. I hit the ground running, at the same time zapping my car unlocked and starting it with the remote on my key ring. My doubts about spending a small fortune on four wheels and an engine flew out the window. The SUV's engine purred immediately, and the tires didn't even squeal when I burst out of the garage and veered west onto Wellington.
Winston's office and mine were in an old house on Bronson near Slater. At eleven at night, I could make it in under five minutes. At eleven in the morning, on the major downtown street, I wasn't sure I'd make it in ten, but I was damned if I wouldn't try.
I crawled in front of the Parliament buildings, weaved between buses and cars, chanced driving through a red. This time, my tires squealed when I turned left on Lyon and zipped through the Memorial Arch; I swore and muttered at the buses, taxis and pedestrians who made it their duty to block my way. Three blocks later I turned onto Albert and heaved a sigh of relief that it was quieter. Two long blocks later, I was on Bronson.
Nine minutes and forty-five seconds later, I careened into one of the two parking spaces behind the house then took a breath. If I came in too fast and scared the guy, Charlie might buy it. I had a sweet spot for Charlie, even though she had the personality of a porcupine and thought I was a bum. We both had a weakness for good coffee, and that was enough for me. After the first cup of java she'd served me, I'd adopted her as my pet secretary, to her deep despair.
Instead of going in the back way, I strode around the house and entered the front door. Inside, I stopped, listened. The house creaked, the furnace started, but there was no moaning or raised voices. That was good. Maybe.
Winston's office door was closed. I knocked.
"It's Jack Meter," I said, loud enough to be heard through the thick door. It opened quietly, revealing a white-faced Charlie sitting at her desk, her hands flat on the top. She looked like an angry rat, ready to jump and bite. No sign of her uninvited guest, so I assumed he was behind the door.
"Hey, Charlie," I said. "I would've brought you back a coffee, but I was caught in traffic." I stepped into the office. The door closed behind me. I wheeled around.
The man still pointed his gun, this time at my gut. His appearance matched the voice--average height with bright, intelligent eyes. Sharp suit, cashmere coat, Italian leather shoes, designer hair. All black. Not the kind of man anyone would imagine with a gun in hand, threatening a defenseless secretary.
"Please, take this man away," Charlie said, in the same tone she'd use if she were asking me to take out a particularly smelly piece of garbage.
"We're leaving, Ms. St. Clair," the man said in his smooth voice, with a charming smile that involved a lot of teeth. "I suggest you not call the police. If you do so, an unfortunate accident could happen to Mr. Meter, which, I'm sure, you wouldn't like on your conscience."
Charlie threw me a questioning glance. I shrugged.
"I'll be fine."
She pursed her lips then nodded.
I opened the door, stepped out. The gun and the man followed. "Where to?" I said over my shoulder.
He gestured with the gun towards the back door. "I heard you park in the back. We'll take your vehicle."
I shrugged again, relieved to get outside, away from Charlie. When we were both seated in the SUV, the thug--a well-dressed thug, maybe, but still a thug--instructed me to take the Queensway westward. I turned south on Bronson into dense traffic.
He whistled and caressed the dashboard. "Nice vehicle. Always wanted to ride inside one of these babies. I would've picked the sport coupe, though, not the SUV. A lot flashier."
"Does this conversation have a point?"
"Just trying to pass the time."
"You have a name?"
"Sure, but you don't need to know it. There's little chance we'll meet again." He waited a few heartbeats. "At least, you want to hope so."
I snorted. Yep, just as I thought. A thug. "Where are we going?"
I'd never heard of it, but it wasn't surprising. New businesses cropped up almost every week in this town. Some of them closed almost as fast. "Insurance company?"
The thug snickered. "Yeah, you could call it that." He pointed forward as I merged into traffic on the Queensway. "Get off at the Moodie Drive exit, toward Robertson Road. Turn right on Robertson."
"Who wants to see me?"
"Javed Ambrose, CEO of CompuLife. What Javed wants, Javed gets." He grinned, but there was anger in his eyes. It looked like someone, probably Ambrose, had applied pressure, and the thug didn't like it.
He fell silent after that. I thought about trying something, but there was the matter of the gun still pointed at me. I don't like guns. People who carry them have a tendency to use them, and I wasn't interested in an extra hole in my body, especially now that I didn't have my telecarb to whisk me away to Thrittene for a repair job. I decided to wait and see what this so-called Ambrose wanted of me.
The trip from downtown to Moodie Drive took about twenty minutes. Even though temperatures had been well below normal for the beginning of February, and there was the menace of snow in the air, the highway was dry.
Everyone was sick of winter at this point. There had been very little snow, but it had been bitching cold in January. Old farmers consulted their bursitis and said we were going to buy it in February or March, with snowstorm after snowstorm. I didn't believe them, really, but each day that passed without a flake was one day closer to spring, in my book.
As if to taunt me, globs of wet snow began to fall when I took the Moodie exit.
"Next?" I said when I turned on Robertson.
"Straight ahead, second light on your left."
His directions led me into a cul-de-sac, which ended at a five-story glass-and-steel structure that took up at least a full block; a sign reading CompuLife ran half the length of the top floor. The windows, tinted a sort of orange-red, reflected daylight and gave no clue as to what went on inside. All I could see was the reflection of my own car coming down the road.
I had expected a small business, one of those fly-by-nights that don't make a blip in the economic radar. Judging by the real estate alone, CompuLife looked like a major company. Strange that I hadn't heard about them.
The parking lot in front of the entrance was empty, another weird thing. Sure, it was nearly noon, but I doubted all employees had left for lunch, every one of them with their vehicles. I parked, turned off the ignition.
I pocketed the keys to the RX before I jumped out. My passenger rounded the front of the car.
"Go on in," he said, and gestured with the gun. "I'm right behind you."