Harold had never been what most would call a responsible or reliable man. He meant well, he just made bad decisions. Between whiskey and poor choices in women, he had burned the first thirty years of his life away. But it all probably seemed like a good idea at the time. After his thirtieth birthday came and went with the realization that he was going nowhere, Harold decided to take a fourth or fifth stab at getting his life together, and applied for an open position as a security guard. Security was something he had been doing off and on, interspersed with a smattering of menial temp jobs, ever since he failed to graduate from the local technical college. Harold was always a large man, with a torso the general size and shape of an oil drum. He also took orders well, had a high school diploma, was not visibly on drugs, and the company had uniforms that fit him in the back room; Securiqual Guard Services therefore immediately recognized him as exceeding all of their wildest dreams, and hired him on the spot.
Details on what exactly Harold would be guarding were scant, which was par for the course in the private security world. His manager shook his hand, wrote down the street address, and told him when to be there to receive his mandatory eight hours of training.
Finding the job site was tricky. The address was downtown, which was always a strange and confusing place for Harold, so he left twenty minutes ahead of how long it should have taken him to get there. Despite that, he was still almost five minutes late, because he forgot how difficult it is to find a parking spot downtown. Street spots all required quarters, of which he had none. And parking decks, to a sheltered suburbanite such as himself, seemed to be sprawling labyrinths full of wrong paths and too-narrow tunnels where the slightest misstep meant potential death-by-SUV. In the end he chose the least cyclopean horror of a parking deck he could find, and started walking toward what he believed to be roughly the direction of the building address.
At 9:04am, not quite five minutes late for his first day, he found the right place. There was a seven foot tall chain-link fence framing the building’s perimeter, with a sliding iron gate serving as its only point of entry or egress. The gate stood open, revealing two unremarkable wooden doors set into the center of a ruddy one-story brick building. The building seemed perhaps as old as he – neither antiquated nor modern, but nestled neatly between the two.
The doors led him into a lobby roughly the size of a doctor’s waiting area, and adorned similarly. There was a room with a few computers and video monitors jutting awkwardly out from the wall to his left, almost as if the room had been built as an afterthought. There were some tacky red and orange couches in the center of the lobby that looked like they could have been from the disco era, and a receptionist’s desk sitting just off to the side of a steel door. Other than four rather impressive brick columns which rose up to the ceiling at the compass points of the lobby, there was little else.
Except, of course, for the receptionist. When Harold saw the woman sitting behind the receptionist’s desk, he felt that strange lurching feeling in his chest which people usually refer to as their ‘heart skipping a beat’. He thought she was perhaps a few years his junior, were it possible to estimate the age of a goddess. Her auburn hair was tied back into a ponytail which had come forward to drape over the front of a shapely shoulder. He remembered a painting that he had to write an essay on for his Art Appreciation class, back in community college. The painting was of this beautiful woman, demurely censoring herself for the audience, standing in a giant clam shell surrounded by some floaty cherub-looking things. He didn’t mind writing the paper, because he thought the woman in that painting was absolutely gorgeous. The form and curvature of her body just seemed somehow so perfect, so undeniably right. Femininity personified. He had never seen any woman who resembled the one in that painting, until today. Botticelli’s Aphrodite was real, and she was filling out paperwork at a downtown lobby desk, ten feet in front of him.
Harold had moved past silent awe and progressed toward awkward fumbling for a conversation starter when she raised her almond-brown eyes up to his bewildered blue ones and cheerfully greeted him. “Good morning! You must be Harold. They told me you’d be coming. I’m Rebecca, but you can call me Becky.” She smiled brightly and jerked a thumb at the steel door beside her. “The night shift guy is inside doing his rounds, he should be back soon. Take a load off, hmm?” She gestured at the hideous but seemingly comfortable furniture, and then returned her attention to the papers on her desk.
Harold was extremely pleased about the suave grace with which he navigated that conversation. Smiling pleasantly and keeping your damn fool mouth shut, he reasoned, was an ingenious approach to wooing the ladies. He sat and waited for the arrival of the guard who would be training him, and occupied himself by trying not to stare too overtly at the angel in the powder blue angora sweater.
Harold stood upon hearing footsteps in the hallway beyond the steel door. A balding man who appeared to be in his late fifties or early sixties, wearing the same uniform Harold now wore, entered and hastily extended his hand with a pleasant grin. The two shook hands, and exchanged introductions.
“Name’s Matt Gordon, and it’s damn good to meetcha. Me and James, the afternoon guy, we been splittin’ twelves ever since that last fella quit. You get to be our age, sixty plus hour weeks in this stinkhole makes a body count the days until he can draw social security. Let’s go on now and show you the ropes, since they damn sure ain’t gonna pay for a nickel more than eight hours of training.”
Harold let his new co-worker lead him into the long hallway through the steel door, giving Rebecca – no, Becky – the most charming smile he could muster. Before she disappeared from sight, he caught her smiling back, but averting her eyes and biting her lower lip coquettishly while doing so. Damn, he thought happily, she’s good.
The hallway ended at another steel door approximately fifty feet down. “This is what they call the fire corridor;” Matt explained, “It’s where us and anyone else in the lobby would go if there’s a tornado, and what would keep the lobby area safe in case of a fire in the warehouse.” Matt shrugged. “Of course these days, there’s hardly any need for it, as you can see.”
Matt pushed open the door at the end of the hallway, revealing an open-area warehouse that stretched about fifty yards in all directions away from the door. The only sounds were some banal chatter and the faint hum of equipment running. The place was immaculate, and it quickly became apparent why: He looked around to see that there were merely a handful of employees throughout the entire facility. None of them paid Harold or Matt any attention, merely went about their various tasks at hand.
Matt gestured around him, and chuckled. “Hardly worth twenty-four hour guards on duty, but they pay us for it. Don’t look a Trojan horse in the mouth or whatever, y’know?” Harold considered correcting him, instead decided it didn’t matter and let the old man ramble. “Basically they want us to walk every inch of this place twice per shift, and log anything unusual on our reports. We’re keeping an eye out for anyone trying to take any of this junk metal they got laying around. Junk metal’s worth a few bucks, and the junkers don’t mind hopping the fence and sneaking back out without anyone noticing. But folks like that; they’re high as kites more often than not, and they’ll scatter if they see anyone with a tin badge comin’. We’re more concerned about scrappers who come to cut copper wire. That shit’s worth more than you might imagine, and the ones who come for that are usually sober enough to tell rental cops from the genuine article. And scrappers come armed. So if you see something like that, call the cops. Don’t be a hero. The people who own this heap are trying to sell it and everything left within, but that don’t mean we get paid extra to bleed for ‘em.”
Harold nodded assent, and let Matt continue in front of him – the world’s most cynical tour guide at the most boring tourist attraction in the history of mankind. Harold noticed that the few workers occupying the building were all women sitting at sewing machines, quietly going about their work. None of them appeared to be younger than sixty. He interrupted Matt while he was talking about what Harold thought was some stupid diatribe about a guy getting fired for stampeding cattle. He sounded mad, whatever it was. Honestly, Harold had completely tuned out long ago. Thoughts of the receptionist were distracting him, and they were far from unwelcome intruders.
“So what goes on here, anyway?”
Matt chuckled, didn’t mind being interrupted. He seemed like the kind of guy who enjoyed talking, regardless of the subject.
“These days, not much of anything goes on, as you can see. But it used to be one of the largest textile manufacturing centers on the east coast. Two hundred or so workers, mostly women, would sew all sorts of things: Pillow cases, sheets, blankets, curtains. This place got a lot of women into the workforce, which back then wasn’t such a popular idea. These were good American jobs.” Matt snorted after that last part. “Guess you can figure for yourself what happened to that.” Harold was afraid that Matt was about to break into some long-winded patriotic chest-thumping speech – he seemed the type – but surprisingly he let the subject drop.
They were back at the steel door now, and Matt led him through it once more. Their footfalls echoed down the corridor and Harold felt his heart race and his breath get short at the thought of seeing Rebecca again. When they came through the door leading to the hallway, she was turned away, filing her nails. At the sound of the door opening, she slowly spun her chair around. Matt had already passed her and continued on toward the room set into the wall. Harold, however, had to stop. He couldn’t think of anything to say, so he just smiled and waved. She grinned and flicked her newly-manicured hand at him in a playful “shoo” gesture. Matt turned and sighed theatrically.
“C’mon kid, quit woolgathering and let me show you the brains of this whole operation.”
Harold complied, reluctantly. As it turned out, “the brains of the operation” was exactly what Harold imagined it would be: A drab, filthy room – the one jutting out from the lobby wall – about the size of a walk-in closet. There were black and white television monitors mounted to the tops of the walls around the room, showing the various cameras throughout the building. The monitors were angled downward for easy viewing while reclining in one hideous orange-upholstered chair. There was just enough room for either one small man to sit and one small man to stand, or one large man to sit and one large man to stick his head in from outside of the doorway. The latter, unfortunately for Harold, was their current situation. With the exception of one more building round, he spent the next seven and a half hours leaning into the control room from its door frame. That is, of course, when he wasn’t finding reasons to smile at Rebecca.
His feet hurt, the pay was a quarter above minimum wage, the drive was a pain in the ass, his uniform was itchy and too tight around the shoulders, and his co-workers were talkative idiots. This was the worst job he could ever imagine. He would be spending most of his day sitting ten feet away from the most beautiful woman in the world. This was the best job he could ever imagine.
The rest of the week was undeniably the happiest time of Harold’s life. Mostly it was just him and Rebecca in the lobby, and he would always hurry through his building rounds to get back to her. They talked about their lives, their hopes (mostly hers), their regrets (mostly his), anything and everything to get to know each other better. By the third day she was joining Harold on his building rounds, so they could keep their conversations going even then. The handful of warehouse workers minded their own business. If they disapproved of the guard and the receptionist patrolling together, no one complained. Harold was aware that it was unprofessional, but could not in his wildest dreams imagine a world in which he cared less about anything than that.
On their fourth day together, when they had made it approximately halfway through Harold’s first building round, Rebecca stopped and gently reached up to squeeze his left arm. It was the first intimate physical contact between them, and it sent an unexpected tingle shooting up from where her hand gripped him. He felt his heart race and his breath catch. He turned toward her with what he prayed was a casual smile, trying to pretend he was a young Burt Reynolds and all of this pleasant arm groping was just a regular Thursday for him. When Harold saw her face, he had to struggle even harder to maintain his composure. No woman had ever looked at him the way she was at this moment. It was a curious mixture of worry and longing; and for him, perhaps, but he tried not to get his hopes up. Rebecca leaned in and tilted her head towards his, not quite whispering but taking on a low, conspiratorial tone.
“Harold, would you like to… go out with me?”
Grinning like an idiot, he whispered, “Are you really asking me on a date?”
She laughed melodiously, warming Harold to his very core. Her hand left his arm and punched him playfully on the chest. “You know darn well what I mean, Harold. Us. We. Go out. Can we get out of here together, sometime?”
Harold loved his father, and tried his best to make him proud. His father was a man of many sayings, most of them clever guidelines by which to live along what he called ‘the straight and narrow’. Harold was never very good at following the straight and narrow, but there was one saying which had always stuck: “Don’t shit where you eat.”
Sorry dad, he thought, but I’m pretty sure this is fate. Harold reached out and took Rebecca’s hands in his, nodding eagerly.
“I would like that more than anything in the world,” he said.
“So… maybe we can go out later today?” She stepped closer, and he caught an intoxicating whiff of her perfume. He was hardly an expert on the subject, but it smelled like jasmine and vanilla.
“Absolutely, getting out of this place with you sounds lovely.”
She squealed eagerly at his reply, and hopped up and down, her sensible heels clacking on the warehouse floor when she returned to ground.
“Harold! You, sir, are the cat’s pajamas! I have to go tell all my girlfriends! They told me you would say yes.”
Rebecca reached up, gave him another playful punch to the chest, and issued that same laugh once again. Something of the melody in her laughter made his heart flutter. She darted off toward the lobby area; giggling and whispering to the old seamstresses as she passed. Harold was left flushed and bewildered, but far from complaining. He suddenly became self-aware, and jerked his head around to see if anyone had been watching their little exchange, but there was no one. Breathing a sigh of relief and tingling all over, he hurriedly set about finishing his round. He very much wanted to be back in that lobby, making small talk and making plans.
Rounding the corner of the building which marked his near return to the entrance, something flashed at the periphery of his vision, a yellowish-orange burst of light. Harold spun toward it, and saw one of the sewing machine operators about twenty feet from him. She was a heavyset lady of perhaps eighty years, wearing a white pantsuit. An outlet between her feet had been overloaded, and was sparking wildly in all directions. Around her ankles, the sparks were causing the hem of her pants began to sizzle and curl inward and upward with steadily accelerating rapidity. Harold breathed an obscenity as he watched the woman bend forward as far as she could and start flailing stupidly at her thighs, nowhere near low enough to beat at the flames – though he saw with mounting horror that this wouldn’t be the case for very long. He ran toward her and slid down to try to stop the fire from spreading any further upward, but could tell almost immediately that this had progressed to the point where he would need an extinguisher. Worst of all was that the old lady seemed to be going into shock; either that or she had some kind of dementia. She had ceased even the most feeble efforts to help him put out the fire, instead just stood there staring down at him. Harold scrambled to his feet, and grabbed the nearest fire extinguisher. He pulled the pin, aimed, and squeezed the handle.
A puff of carbon dioxide roughly the size of Harold’s head emerged, and promptly fizzled out after having traveled no more than a foot toward the elderly woman whose waistband was now being licked by orange and red flames. It was then he noticed they had gathered no onlookers. At first he assumed everyone was just paralyzed by the rapidly devolving situation, but after the fire extinguisher failed he desperately looked around and realized that everyone was merely going about their day. A surreal sense of his impotence in the face of doom sank in on him like a storm cloud as he watched their apathetic meanderings about the warehouse.
“Hey! Someone help us! Christ’s sake, she’s burning alive!” Harold yelled at the top of his lungs and far more shrilly than he intended, now running full-tilt to the next nearest extinguisher. The ladies nearby continued to sew, some making casual conversation with each other. He only then realized that something had begun to go horribly wrong, and that this was a trend likely to continue for the foreseeable future. This time he checked the pressure gauge before running back to the burning woman. The needle informed him that the extinguisher was, of course, completely empty. The noise he made at this discovery was a species of scream-grunt hybrid, and the dull clang of the extinguisher as he dropped it to the ground.
Harold spun back toward the woman he was increasingly sure would escape this incident with no less than third degree burns, and stood there slack-jawed and frozen at what had transpired in the ten seconds it took him to locate and inspect the second fire extinguisher: The woman was nowhere to be seen.
Not that she had vanished, just that locating her now seemed moot. She was doubtless trapped somewhere within the conflagration which had spread with such horrendous rapidity that it now enveloped the entire southern end of the warehouse. Harold felt his eyebrows and the tips of every exposed hair on his body begin to blacken and curl. His eyes, wide with disbelief, stung from the sudden and unexpected heat as he watched the dreadful scene unfold.
The fire was voracious in its hunger, mercilessly efficient in its task, and swept through the warehouse with a sort of chaotic precision. Its tendrils would whip and whirl in response to no discernible stimuli, only to unerringly land upon and subsequently consume its next target. Those workers who had not already become its kindling continued about their day, oblivious. Harold, having done what he felt was his duty and then some, turned and ran for the fire corridor.
Harold flung the door open, the flames now closing in near enough for the steel handle to burn his hands as he bolted through the threshold and down the hall. He barreled through the second steel door, slammed it shut behind him, and sucked in deep draughts of fresh air. His lungs felt like they had been cooked to at least medium-rare. He had done his best; now it was time to get Rebecca to call the fire department, and for them to get the hell out of that inferno before the flames could consume them. Hands on his knees and still gasping, he turned toward the receptionist’s desk.
Harold panicked for a moment, then realized that she had probably either seen the fire or heard him screaming about the fire and done what any sensible person would have done: Call the authorities and then run outside. He turned and ran toward the doors, grabbing hold of both handles and flinging them open simultaneously.
Harold screamed. And screamed. And when he screamed, he backed away. And when he backed away, she stepped forward. By whatever infernal mechanism this nightmare made manifest was powered, she stepped forward. And when she stepped forward, he fell backward against the door frame. She raised her visceral visage over and past Harold, toward the fire corridor, and she spoke. This affront to sanity summoned Rebecca’s voice and gleefully issued a guttural imperative.
From behind he heard the steel lobby door flung open against its frame, and the gibbering cacophony of a dozen shambling horrors. He could smell the sickly sour stench of charred, rotting flesh inexorably approaching from that direction. He did not turn to witness their approach, or attempt to rise to his feet. He merely stared straight ahead, gawking hopelessly at the putrid, charnel creature he could not allow himself to accept as his beloved Rebecca.
She descended upon him, placing her cadaverous hands upon his chest and arm.
She whispered her thanks, and pressed what the grave had preserved of her lips against his. His mouth was sealed by hers, so with his last breath he inhaled deeply through his nose. He died with a smile on his lips, for her scent was jasmine and vanilla.
Lieutenant Hanes sat down on the charred remains of what had once been a hideous orange couch, scribbling notes while a few of his officers poked around some blackened brick columns and attempted to look busy while the county coroner bagged up the body behind them. Across from the Lieutenant sat a security guard, the first of several interviews he would have to conduct today.
“So, Mr. Gordon, please elaborate on what you told the dispatcher when you phoned this in.”
Matt shrugged. “Nothin’ much more to tell, really. Walked in, saw him sittin’ right there, leaning against the front door. I thought he might’ve fallen asleep, but part of me knew better. The kid had been doin’ a good job, by all accounts. My boss had me check the footage after his first day by himself. Y’know, to make sure he was doin’ the rounds and whatnot, not boozin’ it up or getting stoned or nothin’ like that.”
“And was he?”
“Booze or drugs, naw. Not sleepin’, neither. Doin’ the rounds? Oh hell yeah, like clockwork. Like I said, kid was doin’ a good job. Seemed to walk around talking to himself an awful lot, but eh. This job gets lonely, I get it.”
Lieutenant Hanes sighed and flipped his field journal shut. Much as he wanted to live up to the pomp and circumstance expected of him, this seemed like a fairly open and shut case. The county coroner suspected it had been a cardiac event, and there was no reason to believe otherwise. He stood.
“Just one more question, Mr. Gordon: Why the hell do they have you guys guarding the bones of an abandoned warehouse that burned down two years ago?”
Matt Gordon explained to Lieutenant Hanes about the junk metal and copper wire, the junkers and the scrappers, and the way things used to be before the fire. He went on to explain that while the fire that tore through the warehouse was blamed for killing a dozen of the women who worked there, including the most gorgeous secretary that Matt had ever laid eyes on, it wasn’t really the fire that was to blame. He’d been there, and seen the whole sad sight. Two hundred workers, stampeding like cattle, pushing down the defenseless old women in their way and trampling them on the way out the front door. Just like with Harold, Matt never did get to finish the story – Lieutenant Hanes had to cut him off. Dispatch was frantically calling out all available units to the third fatal house fire in the past two hours.
Three down and many more to go before the slate will be clean. And the smoke that fills their scorched lungs will smell of jasmine and vanilla.