Sunday, June 16, 2013

Orangeberry Book of the Day - Blood, Smoke and Ashes by Bradley Convissar

Part 1

What Happens In Vegas

Chapter 1

Glenn Baxter made his way through the massive indoor storage complex, following the echoes in the distance with the same precision of a bloodhound using his nose to track his quarry.  His ears, large like Dumbo's (according to his ex-wife, who rarely had a nice thing to say about him), picked up the sounds of laughter, arguing, banging, and shoes scuffing along concrete floor in the distance, and he dutifully followed.  It was almost four-thirty and he was already twenty minutes late—ownership had probably snipped the locks off the first two or three abandoned storage lockers and auctioned them off already—and he didn’t want to miss any more of the action than he had already missed.  Thankfully, he had registered for the auction earlier in the day.  If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have been allowed to participate at all, and that would have been unfortunate.  He always did well in Vegas.  And he had a good feeling about this place today.  Glenn had no paranormal or supernatural powers that he knew about, but when he had a gut feeling about a particular auction or a particular unit, he never ignored it.  And when he marked this day and this storage facility (Bob Jensen’s SafeStorage, a massive storage facility ten miles outside of the Vegas strip he visited at least once a year) a month ago, his gut told him that there was treasure to be found in the desert that day.

Glenn was not a professional storage picker, like many of the regulars he saw at these auctions.  He didn’t do it to earn a living.  He was a licensed handyman and ran a home improvement business from his house in Los Angeles.  The job provided a stable income but little excitement.  No, this was definitely a hobby, one he indulged in a half dozen times a year.  Most of the time he visited facilities in Southern California so he wouldn’t have to travel far from his home in Los Angeles, but once or twice a year for the past five years he ventured into Nevada for an auction.  He enjoyed the change of scenery.  And the casinos. And the legal brothels.

He felt like a treasure hunter when he went to a storage auction, and the allure of the unknown, the feeling of excitement or disappointment after opening an abandoned storage unit, was something that added a measure of spice to his life.  And since he didn't need it as his sole source of income, he didn’t get too down when things didn’t work out.  On one trip last year, he purchased a unit for almost five hundred bucks because the two-dozen boxes inside had been labeled electronics.  He had expected gaming systems and computer parts and movies.  What he found were rotting clothing, several dozen VHS tapes, four VCRs, and a couple of broken Apple computers manufactured during the eighties.

When he did find things of value, though, what he did with them was determined by what the items were: books and clothing he donated, electronics and multimedia, like video games and movies, he sold on eBay or Craigslist, furniture he sold to consignment shops, and anything else he found that he wasn't sure about he brought to a local pawn shop here in Vegas where he had developed a mutual respect with the hard-nosed but honest New York native who ran the place.

Glenn rounded the final corner of his chase and found a scene more raucous than expected, with hands flying into the air at a frantic pace and a chorus of voices vying for dominance as buyers rapidly raised their bids.  He discovered why when he spied the large LCD TV that stood bare for everyone to see in the front of the just-opened locker.  It wasn't just the TV that got the bidding—and the pushing and shoving—going, though.  A large, expensive TV like that, which may or may not actually work, oftentimes meant there were more electronics and other expensive items to be found deeper in the storage unit.  Video game systems, computers, monitors, home theater systems, speakers, nice furniture.  Glenn watched as bidding escalated quickly from $50 to $2,500— a relatively high number in the storage auction game—in under two minutes.  Though he was intrigued, he never considered getting involved in this particular auction; he had a thousand in cash in his pocket and that was it.  Besides... he had a feeling about this unit.  A small voice in the back of his head told him that maybe everything was not as it seemed.

As he waited for the auction to end (the final price wound up being twenty-seven hundred bucks, a price paid by a man who stood no more than five feet high and was wider than he was tall), Glenn surveyed the rest of the field.  There were easily thirty people crammed into the narrow hallway. Each individual looked scruffy and dirty (even the women) to some degree, and each possessed his or her own unique brand of body odor, the bouquets brought to full bloom by the heat inside the building. 

He recognized several of the bidders even though he had only wandered into Vegas for auctions half a dozen times over the past five years.  Brian Maslow, six-and-a-half feet of taught muscle earned wrestling alligators in the Louisiana bayou, stood toward the back.  He was easily recognizable by his massive frame, which dwarfed everyone else, and the score of red welts—his battle wounds, he called them—that covered his ruddy face. 

The Wilchak brothers, the slender, almost rat-like twins who owned a second hand shop in Denver, stood up front of the crowd, sticking their necks as far into the storage locker as the facility owner would allow, their noses constantly twitching with excitement as they peered into shadowy corners. 

And of course, Emilio Martinez was there.  The corpulent Mexican man stood quietly off to the side, a condescending sneer prominent on his ugly face. His tanned features were covered with a fine layer of sweat which glistened in the poor light, giving him a green, almost sickly appearance.   His heavy eyes, behind which lurked a reptile-like intelligence, casually observed his competition as he waited, his gaze lingering a bit too long as it fell on Glenn. 

Glenn himself was forty years old.  He stood six feet tall and was lean and long of limb, an advantage when it came to clambering up ladders and slinking through crawl spaces and attics while he worked.  His brown hair was pulled into a short ponytail at the back of his head, and he possessed a perpetual five o’clock shadow across his cheeks and chin.  He wore a pair of heavily stained jeans that were torn in half a dozen places and a white T-shirt covered by a red and yellow checkered short-sleeved button-down.

He did not recognize anyone else; they were either newbies who hadn't been around when he was last in town six months ago, day trippers who decided they had nothing better to do with an afternoon and five hundred bucks than spin the giant wheel of fate and buy a random locker, or dabblers like him who came on a whim when they needed a little excitement.

Five lockers in this particular aisle were flagged for auction, including the one that had just been purchased, each unit identified by a small green flag numbered four through eight. 

The group of buyers moved on to the locker labeled five as the winning bidder of four, the electronics unit, slapped his own lock onto the door.  Glenn had missed four auctions, including the one that had just ended, but that was okay.  There were eight or nine left to bid on.

The manager pulled out his bolt clippers and snapped off the Master Lock which secured the gaudy orange steel door to the side mooring.  He rolled the door up, revealing boxes, boxes and more boxes.  Dozens of brown boxes of all sizes filled the five-by-ten room, none of them labeled, none of them open.  Flashlights snapped on and mirrors on short poles entered the unit as the hunters used every tool at their disposal to learn something about the contents of the room.  It was like a strip joint—you could look and drool as much as you wanted, but absolutely no touching.  Touching got you thrown out and often times banned.

Each man and woman was given fifteen seconds or so to explore the room with their eyes, but Glenn did not venture forward.  He got no feeling from the room.  Didn’t mean there was nothing valuable inside, just nothing for him.  This type of room, it was the toughest to judge.  The boxes could contain old moldy clothing.  Could contain baseball cards or comic books.  Could contain personal knickknacks.  Could contain crap.  Rooms like this, they never went for more than a hundred bucks or so. While the rewards could be great, the risks were even greater.  And if there was nothing valuable inside, you still owned the locker and were responsible for cleaning it out.  And that meant time.

Once everyone had gotten a good look at the non-descript boxes, the auctioneer, an independent agent named Carl Smithson hired by the storage company to run the auction, began doing his thing: “We’re going to start at ten dollars.  Do I have ten dollars?”  A hand went up in the back.  “Ten dollars.  I've got ten dollars.  Fifteen dollars.  Anyone got fifteen dollars?”  A “yup” from someone right next to Carl.  And that was how it went, the dirty, sweaty men and women raising their hands or emitting a rough harrumph until the cost got to seventy dollars, at which point no more hands went up and everyone fell silent.  The rat brothers won the box room.  One of them slapped a lock on it, and to the next locker the group went.

One by one, they visited the remaining three lockers, and the same set of events occurred each time.  The door was rolled up, the contents were examined, and the bidding commenced. 

Locker six contained a moldy king-sized mattress up front that blocked the rest of the contents (went for $20 to a man wearing a cowboy hat, a large broom moustache and a pair of faded denim jeans).  Locker seven contained some furniture and several boxes labeled clothing (this one went for $120 to the mountainous Brian Maslow). And locker eight contained a student desk, several computers from the nineties with their accompanying massive monitors, and several boxes labeled notebooks, spare parts, and clothing (that one went for $250 to one of the irregulars).

As the buyer of the final unit in this group locked up his prize, the owner of the facility, Bob Jensen (who always attended the auctions to make sure everything was on the up and up) took a call on his cell phone.  He did more listening than speaking, and after several moments, he hung up abruptly.  He announced to the crowd that only three lockers remained, not four, because some lucky bastard had just gotten a stay of execution in the form of a loan from a family member to pay both the back rent and current rent on his unit.

The small group let out a collective sigh of disappointment, then traipsed down several more aisles, Bob pulling down a small flag marked #9 along the way.  Glenn hoped this wasn’t the locker he had that feeling about.  That would have been disappointing.

They finally came to a widened area at the far end of the facility where the buyers could spread out and breathe a bit.  There were fifteen ten-foot-by-ten-foot units in the little cul-de-sac, three of them marked with the familiar flags.  Glenn walked quickly to #10 before the owner could snip the lock and looked at the door.  He felt nothing.  He moved three doors down to #11 and looked at it.  Once again, nothing.  He shrugged, made his way across the wide hallway to #12. He looked at the orange aluminum door, its rough face crisscrossed with dozens if not hundreds of scratches, and knew.  Knew that this was the one.  He looked back to the group, where the men and women were busily examining the contents of #10.  All except for Emilio, who was looking at Glenn.  The fat man offered a toothless smile which looked borderline grotesque on his frog-like face.  Glenn turned from him and walked to #11.

When this unit was finally opened, Glenn made a show of looking interested.  He tried to shine his flashlight in all the corners, tried to maneuver his little mirror-on-a-stick he had brought with him in every cranny.  It was an intriguing locker to be sure.  Two boxes labeled electronics.  Two boxes labeled books. Three boxes labeled clothing.  Some furniture.  Some artwork stacked against the back wall.  He thought he spied some baseball bats and hockey sticks leaning against a corner.  Signed stuff, possibly.  But even if they weren’t collectibles, used-but-not-too-worn sporting equipment almost always brought in a pretty penny on eBay and Craig’s List and in thrift shops.  Stuff like that could be expensive new, and struggling middle-class parents were always looking for deals for gear for their kids.  Taken as a whole, it looked like the personal contents of a studio apartment of a twenty or thirty year old.  There was sure to be some value there.

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Genre – Thriller / Horror

Rating – PG13 bordering on R

(Horror with some violence / Some sex, not overly graphic)

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