by Troy Blackford
by Troy Blackford
Victor Espinosa caught himself pulling at the cuff of his pant leg, and willed his hands to his sides. He badly needed a job, and the thought that he might already be blowing this interview just because the lady conducting it made him nervous didn’t help to calm him.
“So, tell me about your driving experience,” the woman--the name of whom Victor had somehow not caught--asked in an even, emotionless tone. Her gaze rested on a point above his head, her eyes devoid of human warmth.
“Well,” Victor began, lifting himself slightly out of the chair and uncrossing his legs. This familiar topic made him feel at ease. “I drove for Halbach & Finch for nine years before they went under, hauling all types of loads. I was rated number one for safety for five out of those nine years, and received ‘Driver of the Year’ in 2005.”
“Did you ever have to work with refrigerated or frozen cargo?” the woman asked, her flat expression betraying no sign of approval or interest in Victor’s safety accomplishments.
“Oh, all the time!” Victor said enthusiastically, forgetting his nervousness now that he was on familiar territory. “A good sixty percent of my duties at Halbach consisted of hauling frozen cargo. I’m conversant with all the instrument panels and meters, in addition to having certification for level-delta roadside repair for operator-facing systems of all three market-leading manufacturers of cargo cooling solutions.”
The woman ticked a small box on her clipboard. “I can certainly believe that you received your certification--you sound like a brochure for night classes.”
Victor laughed too loudly at this comment, the first outward sign of humor from this blank, inscrutable woman. Her severe mouth pulled tighter, from a grimace to a scowl. He choked his laughter off. He didn’t know how to read this interviewer at all.
“All that seems to be in order. I can see you’re qualified for the work itself. The issue at hand is this: our... consortium, let’s say, requires deep commitment from its contractors. The up-front assurances we need from our staff before we put them to work go well beyond traditional non-disclosure agreements.”
Victor’s heart leapt at the prospect of employment, but something in the woman’s tone made him feel more wary than ever. An uncomfortable and strange pairing of emotions.
“I notice you tensing. Frankly, I’m concerned about your reaction. Non-reaction might be a more apt term,” the woman said, folding her hands upon the desk. Her hands were big, with long, graceful fingers. A medicinal smell, like some kind of prescription lotion, assaulted Victor’s nostrils. “It’s very important that we get a commitment from you before you leave here.”
Victor assumed she meant if he wanted to take the job. “So you mean I’m hired, if I want?”
The woman sighed. “I feel like I explained myself pretty well. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m just tired. Maybe I have a drinking problem I don’t know about. Do you think that might be the issue,” she paused to look down at her clipboard for his name, “Victor? Do you think I am a closet drunk who can’t even remember what she just said? Because it really sounds like that’s what you’re saying.”
Victor felt his wrists go clammy in his button-up shirtsleeves. He heard himself stammering before realizing--with something close to horror--that he had no idea what he was saying. In his sincere confusion, he sounded pitiful. “It’s just that I... I didn’t...”
The woman didn’t pity him. “Look, Mr. Espinosa. It’s really very simple. You either sign the agreement, or you don’t. Nothing more complicated than that.”
“So if I don’t sign it, I walk?” he asked reflexively, instantly regretting it.
The woman sighed, shaking her head. “This is not Jeopardy, Mr. Espinosa. We don’t want answers in the form of questions.” She pushed a packet of paper across the desk.
“Sign this now. Even if we don’t place you in the position, we’ll need the standard non-disclosure agreement. While you sign it, you can think about your decisions and why you might or might not be making them.”
Why did this woman make everything sound so ominous? Victor signed sheet after sheet in the packet, looking them over only enough to find the blank line where his signature should go. As he scrawled his name and filled in the date on one page and then another, and then another, he reflected on all he had seen since his arrival.
The generic office space where he had been summoned for this interview had almost no furnishings besides a door and a desk. No trash can, computer, telephone, or even clock graced the room. The only time he had ever heard the name on the door--Derwendt Enterprises--was in the online employment ad he had responded to in order to get this interview.
And the woman conducting it, the woman who was asking him to sign over all his legal rights to ever mention any of this happened, had never even given him her name. In return, she expected absolute assurance. Complete contractual commitment from Victor Espinosa, in perpetuity.
Victor thought of his small apartment. Its empty cupboards, the chronically late rent his landlord was increasingly despondent about. He decided his options were truly few.
“I’ll sign whatever agreements you need, ma’am,” he said. “I’m sorry to have come across as hesitant.”
“Very good,” she said, taking the packet back from him and slipping it into a briefcase she had been keeping behind the desk.
Victor sat expectantly, waiting for the second, deeper level of agreements.
“Let’s go down and show you your first load,” the woman said, rising from the desk.
“What about the employment agreement or whatever?” Victor asked, his voice wrapped in confusion.
“You just signed it,” she said. “Follow me.”
* * *
Victor was still reeling from the realization that he had been duped into signing over any right to discuss anything about what happened at Derwendt Enterprises with anybody in the world. The professional truck driver in Victor was more troubled by something else: what kind of company had a load of refrigerated freight just sitting outside an office building in the hopes that the next job interview would clinch a qualified driver?
It made no sense. As the woman--still nameless as far as Victor was concerned--led him down into the third subterranean level of the parking garage, he felt it made less sense still. In all his years of employment, he had never seen a cooled truck kept in a parking garage. The very nature of refrigerated freight implied quick, here-to-there movement. You unloaded the frozen goods from the warehouse straight into the trailer, and then you hauled ass.
It wasn’t cheap to drive gigantic refrigerators across country. The mechanics involved were complex, and the slightest breakdown could upset temperatures and destroy the cargo. It just wasn’t normal to keep such an expensive, time-sensitive, and delicate system sitting deep in a parking garage outside a nearly empty office building, any more than it was normal for grocery store cashiers to spend most of their working day on the roof of the establishment. Victor’s uneasiness continued to cascade inside of him.
“Alright, this is your truck,” the woman said.
“What, this?” Victor was taken aback. The ‘semi’ he was being asked to drive was just a U-Haul truck. The smallest with an enclosed back. Vaporous wisps issued from a crack in the chassis like primordial mists. A heavy chemical smell hung in the air. The walls of the U-Haul, with a large, starkly-colored mural proclaiming that Arizona was ‘America’s Moving Adventure,’ was covered in patchy condensation. He stared blankly.
“Again, you seem to have a problem with trust. Is this going to be a pattern?”
Victor shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I just didn’t expect a cobbled-together rig. I’m certified on the major coolant systems, but this clearly is just a jerry-rigged implementation. Now that you have me in your non-disclosure file, can you fill me in on what it is I’m going to be doing?”
“Yes, absolutely. You’re entitled to that, aren’t you?” Her voice sounded strangely pleasant for the first time since Victor had met her. It almost put him at ease.
She pulled out a keychain from her pocket, laden with what looked to Victor to be at least thirty different keys, of many shapes and sizes. She whistled a strangely jaunty tune as she rifled through them, breaking into a mnemonic singsong after a moment: “Copper long for shop, silver short for padlock, thirty-two bronze for the riverfront office, warehouse key six. Ah! Here we are!”
She unlocked the back of the truck and hoisted the hatch. Mist poured out in thick, billowing waves. In the flickering fluorescent light of the parking garage’s deepest level, Victor could see very little of the. The woman seemed to realize this. “Come on, take a gander.”
She sounded almost... Victor tried to place the tone of her voice, and squirrelly was the word that came to mind. He stepped up onto the deck and into the back of the truck. Cold air struck his face.
His eyes rapidly adjusted, and soon Victor could descry some dark cabinets towards the front of the trailer. His breath hung in the air. He walked forward, his past nervousness forgotten in his desire to understand what was going on. He could make out a ‘Kwikie-Cool’ logo on the closest of the boxes, and whistled under his breath. Retrofitting U-Haul trucks into refrigerated units was a tall order, and a vast expense. They would have to undo all this before they could return the U-Haul. He couldn’t believe it could be worth it to the company.
“Go ahead,” the woman said, the sound of eagerness unmistakable in her voice. “Open one.”
He shrugged, as if to say ‘Whatever you want, lady,’ and lifted the lid off the closest unit. He felt a warm sensation close to his skin, and realized he had wet his pants. The hatch had lifted to reveal row after row of what looked to be human organs--livers, kidneys, spleens.
He saw a shelf filled with eyeballs tucked into little bundles and wrapped in cellophane. Transparent containers filled with what looked to be human fetuses in various stages of development were suspended in a viscous, peach-colored fluid.
“Don’t throw up in there, buddy,” the woman said, sliding the back hatch of the truck closed as Victor put a hand to his mouth. “Close the lid.”
The woman pulled a chain, turning on the truck’s dome light. Victor stared in horror at the silenced handgun trained at his forehead.
“You’re a softie, you know that? We don’t like softies. You talk too much, and to the wrong people.”
Victor said nothing.
“Why is it so hard to find someone who is both desperate for money and willing to work for it? Do you know how much logistical difficulty you are going to cause? We have to hide your body for a good long time if we don’t want the Feds tracing your computer activity to this office building.” She sighed, slumping her shoulders with melodramatic effect. “We’re going to have to move out of here, effective immediately. And on top of that, all of your coolant specialization is going to go to waste. All because you think it’s ‘wrong’ to have a bunch of body parts in a truck. People like you, they always talk.”
Victor didn’t know what to say or do.
“Damn shame, don’t you think? How pointless.” The woman cocked her head, like a bird tuning in to some distant sound. “Well, not completely pointless. As long as you don’t have hepatitis, we could still get some use out of you.”
Victor finally realized he should try to put up some sort of fight, and charged the woman with the gun.
She did the only sensible thing, and shot him in the forehead--missing his eyes, but drilling a burning hole through his cortex and blowing the back of his skull out over the Kwickie-Cool cabinets. The U-haul instantly became a blood-red Jackson Pollock study.
“Thank god we already have some decent cleaners on the payroll,” the woman--forever nameless--said as she wiped a splatter of blood from her face. “But we really need to find ourselves a good driver. This is getting ridiculous.”
To find out more about this creepy woman, read 'Critical Incident' on Kindle or Paperback - links on the right sidebar.