by STEVEN FINKELSTEIN
It was a holiday weekend and the building was quiet. The lobby was deserted except for Lamar, who sat behind the desk tapping his pen on the counter top. He had finished reading his newspaper and there was nothing to do, no one to talk to. He was working a double, and his relief didn’t come for another fourteen hours. The minutes crept along like arthritic turtles.
Outside, night had set in and it was overcast. It had rained earlier and was threatening to again. Lamar was not in the best of moods. Sometimes he felt like he had the best job in the world. His shift began when most of the people were leaving. He nodded goodbye to each of them on the way out, maybe exchanging some thoughts with the friendlier ones about the basketball game of the previous night. Then he was alone; except on the rare occasions when someone was working late. The cleaners only came in one night a week. At eight o’clock he shut and locked the front doors and turned on the radio, the volume low. Around that time, it was easy to feel like a king. Sure the pay was lousy, but at least there was nobody to tell him what to do. He surveyed the lobby with a kind of contented benevolence. Sometimes he got up and paced slowly up and down, whistling, stretching his arms out over his head. The elevators made mechanical popping and clicking noises, like a car engine after a long drive. The furnace plugged away in the winter, the air conditioner in the summer. Other than that, silence. Peace and quiet. A man alone with his thoughts.
Tonight he wasn’t happy about being there. Even with the holiday pay, he didn’t
feel like king of anything. Or maybe he felt his actual self, a menial wage
slave, stuck guarding an empty building. Unskilled labor, because he couldn’t
find anything better. It was good to have time alone with one’s thoughts, except
when those thoughts kept going back to a sour and resentful place. He stared at
the unchanging panel of video monitors, where half a dozen cameras showed feeds
of what was happening inside and around the building. Almost nothing that could
be described as noteworthy. The only screen with any activity to speak of
displayed camera feed from over on the side of the building, on
Lamar stood up and walked from behind the desk to stand by the double-doors in
the front of the lobby. Shutting the doors at eight was normally a good idea
because his building was in the middle of a triangle formed at one end by
Eventually he returned to sit behind the desk again. Rain was once more falling, softly as a curtain along the darkened street. The sidewalks steamed. There was nothing behind the desk to hold his attention, so he returned to his vigil by the front doors. He saw someone; a figure standing back from the streetlight just across the way. The streetlight was shining at an odd angle and the drizzle was now picking up. The face could not be easily seen. Lamar assumed it was a man. His clothes were voluminous so that a womanly shape might in fact be concealed within, but the watchman didn’t think it likely. There was the height, for one thing, over six feet tall. He was wearing what looked like a hooded raincoat or poncho, and this made it doubly difficult to see the face, or any distinguishing features of the body.
Lamar couldn’t decide what it was about the man, if it was a man, that had
attracted his attention. It might have been that the hooded shape had remained
entirely motionless, preternaturally still, even as the sky spat on him
unrelentingly. He was, and remained, as immobile as a painting. Or it might have
been that the man hadn’t seemed to come from either direction along
Lamar couldn’t stop looking at the man. He became aware that the hair on his arms was standing up slightly. For some reason he was thinking of a time, early on in his security career, many years ago. He’d been guarding a construction site across the street from a bank, and there’d been an armored Brink’s money transport truck in front of it. There had been something about the way some men were moving near the vehicle, kind of furtive, and sure enough, they made a play to rob it almost before his mind had put together what was happening. One of them had smacked one of the guards over the head with the butt of a pistol, and they’d ordered the other guard out before hopping in and speeding away. They hadn’t gotten far. He’d read in the paper the next day that they’d wrecked a few blocks over, smashed into a storefront.
He felt that way now, that sensitivity, that hyper-alertness. Yes that, and if he was being truthful, he felt a little sick. He thought that maybe, just at the fringe of his perception, he could smell something, very faint, a cloying sweetness like rotten fruit. The figure shuffled forward precisely one pace, so that he was just under the streetlight, then he stopped, as though he was aware that Lamar was watching him and he wanted to be seen clearly. Lamar swallowed. His hands had unwittingly balled into fists. The figure was indeed a man, he was sure of that now. He was wearing a dark gray custodian’s uniform, the heavy pants and the long-sleeve shirt matching, and steel-toed workman’s boots. The garment with the hood was a slicker, of the sort preferred by dock workers and seafarers. Because the hood was still up, Lamar couldn’t see the whole face. The only exposed skin was at the peak of the nose and the chin, and the hands that hung loose at the end of the dangling arms. Indeed, it was as though the man moved with great effort. He had not stepped forward with any conviction, but rather with the junkie swagger that Lamar recognized from so many denizens of this area. Under the harsh streetlight, Lamar could see that the skin had a yellowish hue to it, almost jaundiced. But what was most arresting now was that the man, the figure, seemed to be steaming. Like a tasty morsel fresh out of the oven, or perhaps more like a manhole cover, steam rose from the man who once again stood motionless on the sidewalk, the light from above cascading down on him declaring him real and true, not some figment of Lamar’s imagination.
The telephone at the desk rang, and Lamar jumped. He turned and walked quickly over to it, picking up the receiver. It was Abdul, at the head office, making sure everything at the site was running smoothly. It was Abdul’s custom to call at a different time every shift. That way, if a guard was sleeping or away from his post, Abdul would be able to catch him and report him to the higher-ups. Even if no one picked up the phone, it was no guarantee the guard was doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing; they might just be patrolling the floors. As a last resort, if management thought a guard was napping on the job or doing something worse, they could always go back and review the lobby camera footage. But that was time consuming, and the only time management ever bothered is if an incident had already occurred.
Lamar told Abdul that everything was fine. While still on the phone he’d glanced back toward the glass doors and across the street, to see if his hooded friend had come any closer. The man was gone. The rain drove down on the lighted sidewalk and on the shadows before and behind it with equal persistence, but there was no one to be seen, not anywhere on the street.
Lamar replaced the receiver, rose slowly, and crept his way to the glass doors like a child looking to catch Santa in the act. The weather gods had made up their mind about the rain, and he saw now a couple of people dashing through the crosswalk half a block away, shielding themselves uselessly with jackets. But there was no one else visible, and after a time he grew bored and returned to his desk. He contented himself with watching the video monitors, but there was little to hold his attention.
The hours ticked by at no pace but their own. Time is subjective, as some people know, and there is no time quite like guard time; when the “work,” if it can so be called, consists only of being in a place and trying to find ways to keep oneself sane. The hour after midnight is thought of by some as the time for working evil magic, as the hour before is the time for working good. At five minutes past twelve, Lamar found himself rereading, perhaps for the twentieth time, a takeout Chinese menu for a restaurant a few blocks away. He became aware again of a feeling of foreboding. It’s easy to give yourself the heebie-jeebies in an empty building at night, but it seemed to Lamar what he was feeling was similar to the awfulness that had come over him when he’d seen the hooded figure outside. He’d managed to almost convince himself that what he had seen was a derelict that had simply walked away when Lamar had taken his eyes off him for a few seconds. But now with this feeling again creeping up his spine, entering his very bones, it was impossible for him not to take heed. He looked out toward the street, where the rain had slacked once more. And saw nothing, but then, then…he saw the hooded figure once again. Not out on the street, under the light, not skulking in the shadows. It was on one of the video monitors in front of him…not anywhere outside, but downstairs, in the basement of the very building where he was posted!
There could be no doubt that it was him. Even though the images on the screen showed the scenes as fuzzy and green-tinted, there was no mistaking the size, the shape, the raised hood, the open and dangling hands, the rain dripping from the slicker onto the floor, and most of all the steam that rose toward the camera, toward the ceiling, even as Lamar, hardly aware of what he was doing, stood up with one fist closed and pressed to his mouth. There was no noise in the lobby but the persistent knocking and pinging of the elevator cables. The man in the slicker stood without moving a muscle, just as he had outside.
Lamar, his eyes locked on the screen, slowly lowered his hand to his side. Whoever the intruder was, obviously he hadn’t entered through the lobby. Which meant the loading dock, maybe? No, that was impossible too. He could see, through one of the other camera feeds that the steel shutter was still down. When the freight operator left for the night, he always made sure that it was in place, and padlocked shut to prevent it from being raised again till morning. How else might someone gain access to the basement? The only other way that Lamar knew of was through the Citizen’s Bank next door. There was a staircase connecting the bank to the basement of his building, but there was a locked door at the head of the stairs, and it was alarmed, too. Every possibility seemed unlikely.
Granted, Lamar had never thoroughly explored the basement. Why should he have? He didn’t much like basements to begin with…who does? But it was also his job to stay in the lobby, except for when it was raining, at which time he was supposed to go downstairs once or twice a shift to make sure there wasn’t any flooding in the boiler room or elsewhere. There was plenty of uncharted territory down there, at least as far as he was concerned, and it was just possible this guy had snuck in by some way that Lamar didn’t know about. As for his identity, a homeless street or park dweller was most likely, or maybe, Lamar thought, it was a crazy that had been released or run off from Belleview. But there was no doubt that he had to do something about it. However the security breach had taken place, it was now incumbent upon him to deal with it.
He opened the door of the fire command station behind the desk, got out the ring of keys and, after a moment’s hesitation; he also picked up the heavy black flashlight. This would serve as a weapon, maybe, if the man proved violent. He gave some consideration to calling Abdul at the office, or the police. He decided not to, for a couple of reasons. First, he didn’t like dealing with the head office unless it was absolutely necessary, and he liked dealing with the cops even less. Lamar, like so many overnight guards, was fiercely antisocial. The employees that the company deemed least appropriate for human interaction were always the ones that got the overnight shifts, or in some cases the guards would ask for them, as Lamar had. Second was that Lamar, like so many other guards, found the job monotonous, and often wished for some action. Whenever something unusual happened it was a blessing, particularly if it was an incident that might end with a physical confrontation. By law, a security guard is in no more a position of authority than a private citizen, in that they can’t lay hands on someone even if that person is violating the rules of the site where the guard is posted. If they touch the guards first, then the guards may do whatever is necessary to protect themselves. So it was in the back of Lamar’s mind at all times that if he was able to subtly goad someone into picking a fight with him first, he could retaliate and not be held legally liable, unless he got overenthusiastic.
Still, as he put up the sign in the metal stanchion which read: SECURITY WILL BE BACK SHORTLY, THANK YOU FOR YOUR PATIENCE; he couldn’t help thinking that the man who waited for him downstairs in the basement might not be the sort he should be antagonizing. It wasn’t so much his imposing size or the suddenness of his appearance. Rather, it was an indefinable fear, an apprehension that came from the most primitive part of Lamar’s brain, which made him pause before the door at the rear of the lobby, skin prickling. That part of his mind that screamed out for him to go fleeing into the night without delay, abandoning his post for the love of all he held holy, now, before it was too late. But he suppressed the instinct. He was a man, not a boy. He was in charge here. He was security.
He unlocked the door, and stepped forward onto the landing. This was staircase A, and the stairs going up would lead him to the empty offices, or rather cubicles, where during the day the worker drones did things on the computers that supposedly justified their salaries. Directly ahead of him was a second door, and this one led down, to the basement. His mind made up, he stepped forward and inserted key into the lock, turned, and opened the door. He was immediately assaulted by…this odor again, he’d caught a whiff of it before, but oh, it was so much stronger now. It stopped him short like a punch to the face. Something rotting, is what he thought. Rotting fruit? Rotting meat? He wasn’t sure, but he could almost taste it, his tongue heavy with the sweetness of it. He smacked his lips and descended, keeping a firm grip on the Maglite.
The walls of the staircase were painted canary yellow and the stairs themselves were hospital white. There was another landing below, at which point he would have to turn onto the second flight, which would lead him to the floor of the basement itself. When he was almost to the landing, he saw movement shooting across the flat surface in front of him. It was a cockroach. He paused, three feet over the landing, and it in turn and paused at about halfway across, legs splayed out below its armored carapace, antennae sounding the air like divining rods. It was a nice sized one, about three inches long, russet running toward a darker red at the rear of the body.
It wasn’t so unusual to see roaches in the building, he spotted them in the lobby every once in a while, but Lamar knew they mostly stuck to the basement. An exterminator came to set out glue traps every couple of weeks, but he could never get all of them. There had been some rebuilding and shoring up of one of the walls in the boiler room, and that area seemed particularly problematic. Maybe they were coming from the street outside, through the cracks and crevices, or maybe from the sewage pipes from behind the eroded wall. In any case, they were around, and Lamar, who didn’t like bugs any better than he did basements, didn’t miss an opportunity to kill one whenever he could. They were fast, though. He had to be quick on the draw with the can of bug spray he kept at the desk, or with the log book, which did the job even better if he ever caught one of the creepy-crawlers solid.
At the moment he had more important things to deal with. He stepped down, and it got the roach moving again. It cleared the landing and vanished under a low overhang at the base of the wall. Lamar made the turn and crept down, step by careful step. There. He opened the door and stepped out onto the basement floor.
The smell was a lot stronger here, and it was all he could do not to gag. He was in a poorly lit area, with storage space directly ahead of him and boxes piled toward the ceiling, though whether the property of his building or the Citizen’s Bank next door he couldn’t say. Something was severely wrong down here. Despite that all of the industrial size light bulbs in the ceiling were lit, and none of them seemed to be burned out that Lamar could see, they were all emitting very little light. They flickered like candles. There was the stench, sweet, like food but yet, in a way, chemical. It burned in Lamar’s nostrils, practically singeing his nose hairs. His eyes burned now, too. From his right, the direction of the boiler room, where the camera had shown his eerie visitor in the hallway, he could see greenish steam, or smoke, streaming toward him along the ground. Hazardous material spill of some sort, is what came to mind. He knew there were painter’s masks somewhere, in the locked chief engineer’s office, maybe, but he had no time to think how he might retrieve them before the tendrils had rushed in around his ankles, and he was surrounded in an eye blink by the quickly thickening vapors. And now he saw other movement too, yes, beside the smoke, fog, whatever it was, skittering across the floor.
It was another cockroach, of much the same size and appearance as the last. It was coming from the direction of the boiler room, its antennae jutting out ahead of it like a lowered pair of lances, helter-skelter, pell-mell, but as Lamar looked on, it seemed as though its flight was not as random as all that. In fact, it seemed to be coming straight for him. It might have been coincidence, except...Lamar took several steps backward, toward the door from which he’d come, when the thing was several yards away from him. It instantly changed direction so that it was moving toward him on a line. He quickly made for the spot where he’d been standing before, and again it adjusted so that their courses would meet. The closer it came, the more Lamar felt a stomach-wrenching disgust gripping him. And, he had to admit to himself, fear. This was amplified when the thing reared up on its forelegs, the antennae quivering madly. In the silence he could hear the tap-tapping of the rear legs along the floor. At the last moment, more by instinct than conscious thought, he braced himself, pulled his right leg back, and executed a soccer-style kick at the insect assailant. He caught it with the tip of his shoe, solid, the noise a satisfying click. It went sailing back into the mist and out of sight.
It was into that mist, now risen to knee height, that he must go. A feeling had begun in him and was rising now, fear, disgust, and a sense of unreality, that sense that he had fallen into an unexpected pocket of nightmare. That is how life is, he thought, in a rare moment of reflection. You’re going along, and everything is deceptively normal, and then, just that quickly, it isn’t. Putting one foot in front of the other, gripping the Maglite, white-knuckled, he thought crazily that he must appear like one of those old Warner Brothers cartoon characters as they sneak along in a display of overly exaggerated stealth. He looked down and saw with disgust that more roaches were running along the floor past him. These did not stop or try to confront him, each running fixedly like ants on an anthill, every one seeming to have a specific mission in mind.
He came to the bend in the hallway. Immediately to his right was the door to the machinist’s shop. It was closed and locked, and on it were stickers for Local 32BJ, the powerful union that controlled so many blue collar working groups in New York, plumbers and carpenters and elevator operators. There was a bumper sticker showing the World Trade Center towers and the head of a bald eagle in profile, a tear shining in its eye, and the words “We Will Never Forget.” A nice sentiment, but what Lamar had never gotten past was that eagles, like all other birds, are incapable of crying, at least from emotion. He turned to his left, toward the boiler room.
Down the length of hall stood the man from the street, the man on the camera. He was about Lamar’s height, but the low ceiling here made him seem taller. His work coveralls were gray, the uniform of a tradesman. The rain slicker, sodden, hung from his shoulders and covered some of his body. The raised hood completely hid his face.
The sickly green smoke rushed out from the boiler room behind him. The lights back there and in the hall where the two men stood were flickering crazily. The smell was a rank thing now, nearly a physical presence, and there was no mistaking now that it was rotten, decaying meat. And Lamar, unable to do much more than stare, taking it in, this presence, saw that there were roaches climbing on him, all over him. They emerged from the mist, scuttling along his legs, over his torso, disappeared under the raised hood covering the face. There was one more thing that Lamar saw, as he remained rooted to the spot; a nametag, on the left breast pocket, sewed on, just visible. Tom, it read, in a cursive script.
There were no sounds but the shudder and click of the boiler, and the bang¬-thump of cars rolling over a pothole on 14th Street with rhythmic regularity. “Who are you?” Lamar asked. Silence. The man stood with a terrible stillness, as he had when he’d first appeared on the street outside. “Who are you?” Lamar repeated. “Identify yourself!” The words rang false as he said them, stiffly formal. It was him trying to restore some semblance of normalcy, some sense of sanity to the proceedings. The man’s silence seemed mocking now. Behind him the smoke rose up as from a cauldron of vile soup, rushing toward Lamar hungrily. He felt a torrent of emotions building to a head in him, a potent brew consisting mainly of disgust and fear, the natural reaction to this assault on all his senses. It caused him to revert to some earlier version of himself; feral, primal, galvanized into action by a schoolyard bravado meant to psych himself up for what he now sensed must be a physical confrontation. “Look here, sucka!” he said, gripping the Maglite fiercely like a talisman against all things unexpected and unwanted and bizarre. “Drop that hood and show me your face! I’m serious now! I ain’t playin’ with you!”
It seemed to register. For the first time the hooded man appeared to be listening. The hood fluttered as though some synapse had fired, and then the head and the hood covering it turned slightly to the side, cocked at an angle, as if the man heard the summons, but from a distance. Lamar could only look on as, slowly now, ever so slowly, the hands, the arms, began to move up toward the face, the hood. The fingers seized hold of the material and tossed it back. And then Lamar’s world altered, shifted…the face was that of a dead thing, a corpse laid long in the marshes, the yellow of a tallow candle, the green of swamp gas, the whole thing melted, sloughing off the bones. The bones of the skull themselves stood out sharply underneath the fevered skin, or what had once been skin. The eye sockets were sunken pits. But for all that, this thing that stood before him was clearly dead, a corpse animated by he knew not what, perverted art or science, the eyes were still there, peering from out of the depths of those caves, and they rooted him to the spot, speaking to him of all the horrors they had seen, the emptiness of great expanses, of yawning charnel pits, of spectral horses drawing groaning carts of bleached and weathered carcasses. Cockroaches scuttled everywhere about him, appearing and disappearing into hidden pockets. But what caused Lamar to swoon, what allowed him to pass, perhaps mercifully, into unconsciousness, was when the creature opened its mouth, perhaps to introduce itself or give some piece of sage advice, and a cockroach crawled out from the esophagus and between the gapped and jagged teeth. Only then did Lamar feel his knees buckling, and it was with a lingering sense of embarrassment as much as dread that he saw the cold hallway floor rising up to greet him. It didn’t jar him in the slightest; on the contrary, it was as soft as eiderdown.
He was having a dream of cold dead things when a sudden explosion sounded near him. Before he was really aware of what was happening he found himself groping for the Maglite. It wasn’t close to hand, and someone was speaking to him. The light was bright, bright! It was, in fact, the light of morning, and he was sitting at the desk in the lobby. Someone was pounding on the glass double doors right in front of him. It was Santos, his relief, who worked the eight to four shift. Santos was in uniform, grinning cheekily. Lamar understood the noise that had awakened him had been Santos swinging one of the outer set of glass doors back against the wall of the entryway, to startle him. Brother, had it ever worked. He stood up, head thumping, still nearly overwhelmed by what he’d seen, what he’d smelled! Or had he? The keys were on the desk on front of him, and he swept them up, forced to accept the reality he saw before him as Santos continued knocking on the inner doors, making faces at him…way too cheery for this time of morning, especially with how Lamar was feeling. He strode to the doors and bent down to turn the key in the lock, his limbs heavy, fingers clumsy and thick.
“Man, you was passed out cold!” Santos said.
“No I wasn’t,” Lamar replied. He turned away so that Santos couldn’t look at him too closely, trying to regain the relative safety of desk and chair until he could sort it all out in his head.
“You’re lucky the supervisor didn’t see you asleep like that,” Santos said. He crossed the lobby and opened the door to the coat room with the bathroom adjacent to it used by the guards. Lamar looked at his watch. It was almost eight AM. Whatever rain there had been, either in his mind or in reality, seemed to have blown over. It was clear outside, and the sun was shining. He simply sat behind the desk like a man saved from drowning, hardly able to credit the normal world into which he’d been brought back. He looked at all the camera monitors. They were as fuzzy and green-tinted as ever, with poor resolution and pixilation, but there was no nightmare invader, no face hooded or nor exposed, not inside nor outside on the street. Was it really possible that he had dreamed it all?
Before Santos came back out from the coat room, Lamar opened the log book to see what his last entry had been. He had written at midnight that all was safe and secure. That had been the last one; guards were supposed to make a new entry every hour if nothing was amiss. He quickly wrote in hourly entries for the intervening hours during which he now felt that he must have been asleep at the desk. For if what he thought had happened, if what he remembered, had actually taken place, would he not have woken up down in the basement, in the claws of the festering, rotting horror that had lured him there? There simply wasn’t time to puzzle it out. Santos came back out, talking blithely, and Lamar had no choice but to respond with banter of his own, acting as if all was well and he’d merely dozed off for a moment. The super, Sergio, arrived, nodding to them both as he used his own master key to allow himself through the door toward stairwell A. Lamar glanced at the door nervously as it closed, gave the air a tentative sniff. “Let me borrow the keys,” he told Santos. “I left something downstairs.” He took the keys and followed behind Sergio, whose progress he could hear as the stout Columbian clomped down the lower stairwell and out through the heavy door into the basement, toward…Lamar, suddenly convinced that the horror was waiting, morning sunlight or no, came thundering down the stairs behind him, two at a time. By the time he flung open the door at the base of the second stairwell, Sergio had his key in the lock of the engineer’s office and he was right across from where the hooded and rotting death had confronted Lamar. He hurried over, gritting his teeth as he rounded the corner…but there was nothing there. No noxious green gasses, no roaches, no stench, no sense that a nightmare given flesh was lurking. Sergio watched him from the doorway, curious now.
“Everything okay, muchacho?” he asked.
Lamar shrugged and tried to laugh. He and Sergio had known each other some years and the two men respected one another. They were of much the same temperament, somewhat world-weary but with a strong work ethic, each understanding what their respective jobs required of them. Lamar knew him to be a sober man and a quietly contemplative one, a good person to confide in. He knew he couldn’t say anything about what had happened, if only in his dreams, to Santos. The other guard was too much of a clown. He wouldn’t appreciate the gravity of Lamar’s vision…the strength of what had been visited on him, which even now caused him to doubt the seeming normalcy of another tedious work day. “Listen,” Lamar said. “Let me tell you about this dream that I had last night…”
Sergio listened. At first he was bemused, but his face quickly grew serious. For Lamar, it was as though the dam of a river had burst, and the story, once he began telling it, came pouring out faster and faster as he frantically tried to convey the terror and utter hopelessness of what he’d felt and seen. As he told it, he gestured toward the ground, describing the roaches, then back down the hallway toward the boiler room as he described the hooded figure. As Lamar spoke, Sergio’s face ran a gamut of emotions. He seemed puzzled, and then rapidly more fascinated, until at last some degree of horror crept into his face that mirrored that of Lamar’s. It was difficult to say whether Sergio believed what the frightened guard was saying, but from the conviction with which Lamar spoke, it was obvious that Lamar believed it. With the story told, the two men stood looking at each other in silence; Lamar with almost a pleading expression on his face, begging for some form of validation.
After what seemed on his part like careful deliberation, Sergio spoke, haltingly at first. “Primo, I don’t know what you saw or didn’t see,” he began. “But there’s something I’m going to tell you, and then, maybe…well, you make of it what you will. I been with PBM for twenty-six years, and for twenty-two of those I been at this building. When I got here the chief engineer was a guy named Curtis Sloan. He been retired, I don’t know, close on to fifteen years. But anyway, when I come here I was a young guy, they was training me to replace this other old timer who was on the way out. Tommy Crocceta, his name was, but everybody always called him Old Tom. He’d been at this building a long time, real, real long time. Probably since they built the place. Everybody in the building knew him, liked him too, for the most part. But he had personal problems, I don’t really know what kind. I think Sloan might have told me there was a girl involved, didn’t work out, something like that. So Old Tom, he was a drunk. Didn’t do a very good job of hiding it, either, especially in his later years. I guess at the time they brought me in it had gotten pretty bad, to the point that he was getting abusive with some of the tenants in the building. If it wasn’t for the fact that he’d been here so long, they probably would have axed him sooner…that, and the chief engineer, Sloan, had a good relationship with him. They’d known each other a long time, so I think that Sloan felt sorry for him…
“Then about the same time that this was going on, we was having a real problem with roaches here in the building. Got bad, man, a real infestation, you know? Management brought in different exterminators, they tried different things, especially down in the basement. But they was tough little putas, man, and nothing really seemed to help.
“So finally, management gave the okay to really kick things into high gear, to try and end the problem once and for all. They found this company that told them if they bombed the basement with the strongest chemicals they had, it would stop the problem at its source. They had a gas, they said, some sort of toxin, they only used in the most extreme of cases. Guaranteed to kill them dead, but harmful to humans too, so everyone would have to be well out of the building when they did it. It was only logical to do it on a weekend then, and it so happened there was a long one coming up, a holiday weekend. This weekend that just past, actually, Labor Day, twenty years ago. They was going to set the bomb off Friday night, late, after the building emptied. They’d check the floors one by one to make sure everyone was gone, then do the thing and let the toxin do its work, Saturday through Monday. Tuesday morning, the exterminator would come back, make sure there was no danger to the tenants, and hopefully the problem would be solved.
“It goes without saying that management was sure to tell the people about this well in advance, especially the few night owls that liked to work late hours. If the poison was only in the basement, it didn’t seem likely it would hurt anyone on the upper floors, but they didn’t want to take any risks. There was signs posted everywhere for days leading up to the weekend, I remember. Come Friday night we made sure everyone was out of the building, Sloan and myself, checking floor by floor. Then Sloan gives the exterminator the high sign, and me, I left for the weekend.
“The poison and the roaches didn’t cross my mind during the holidays. I spent time with my family, best as I remember. I came back Tuesday morning, and I found, well, just a mess, pretty much. The exterminator’s van was parked out on Fifth Avenue, and an ambulance, too, and a couple of police cars. There was people milling around outside, and right away they start asking me questions, but I didn’t know any more about it than they did. I managed to find Sloan, just as the police was making a path to the ambulance. The paramedics, they come by wheeling a gurney. I noticed both of them was wearing those protective gloves, and surgical masks. I couldn’t see who or what was on the gurney. It was well covered with a sheet. But I smelled…the most awful smell coming off of it…it was some time before the police let everyone go back inside. By that time rumors was flying, of course, but it was from Sloan that I heard what really happened. He’d let the exterminator in, early that morning, and together the two had gone down to the basement. Sloan had asked if they should be wearing masks, but the exterminator had said plenty of time had passed, they would be fine. Still, the smell of the chemicals was bad, Sloan said, so that he could hardly stand it. It seemed that there was a smell of something else, too.
“When they got to the boiler room, they found out just what it was. Old Tom’s body…only a raging drunk could possibly have missed all those signs about the poison posted all over the building. And Tom had his own set of keys, so getting inside had been no problem. He must have been really in the bag, though, if he went downstairs and never once noticed the smell, or the fumes. He had a little cot down there behind the boiler, and that’s where they found him. I’m sure management would have been pissed to find out he slept down there some nights, but like I said, Sloan had always been tight with him, so I’m sure he knew about it and never said anything. There had been dead roach carcasses everywhere, Sloan said, littering the floor, and all over Tom’s body as well. Sloan said the body was…well, he said the gas had done things to it. He said it was all swollen up, the limbs and the torso, the head, the face itself…had turned it different colors…he said the skin, it looked almost as though the man had been pickled in brine. I’m glad I never saw it, but that’s not even the worst of it. This is only a rumor, mind you, but I always heard that later, when they took the body to the morgue, they hadn’t even took the scalpel to it yet when the chest cavity burst open and a whole cloud of the gas poured out. That, and a whole shower of live roaches. These roaches was tough, you see, and a few of them had found a place to shelter from the gas…”
Steven Finkelstein is a graduate of the English Writing program at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of five books, a screenplay, a comic book series, and many short stories and essays. His work has been featured in a variety of publications both online and in print, in the US and abroad, most recently in Bare Back, Shadowland, and The Brave New Word. For more info on Steven and his writing, feel free to visit his website: www.stevenfinkelstein.com.
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