Walking off the elevator on the fourth floor, the huge marble fireplace at the end of the room is the first thing you see. The stamped concrete floor was stained the color of weak coffee. The fire wasn’t lit, but I fought the urge to stand inside the brick opening and look up the flu.
The elevator’s operation was smooth. The inside was non-descript and lined with stainless steel panels and a walnut colored wood railing with a basic button panel for accessing the various floors. I didn’t notice the need for a key card to access the top level.
There was a long, narrow, wood table just outside the elevator doors adorned with a single bankers lamp. A large planked wood art installation caked with bits of teal and red paint chips took up most of the wall space above it. The wood planks looked old and weathered like they had been salvaged from an oceanside amusement park. More than likely it was purchased online from Ikea, but it fit the sparse room well.
A long meeting table sat in the first third of the room. It could comfortably seat more than a dozen people and had a great view of the city streets out the large windows that made up most of the wall. The tabletop looked like it was cut from a single swipe through a large oak tree; It’s dark candy lacquer finish complimented the floor.
A large sitting area occupied the space in the center of the room. Overstuffed red leather couches sat bordered by narrow glass tables that held decanters and liquor bottles seemingly suspended in midair. Two hallways connected the large room at either end. I guessed this is where the living areas and bedrooms were located. All the windows in the room were installed on the front face of the building. While the plumbing seemed to all be located at the back.
Female laughter came from what I assumed was a kitchen area on the back wall. The dumb waiter and plumbing probably share space with the elevator shaft. I noticed a laundry chute on the lower level while I was putting away my supplies.
The schematics of the building were falling into place in my mind putting me at ease. It’s a sometimes off-putting but useful tick I made peace with. I need to know where I’m at in a building to relax. I don’t mind new places, but I do a bit of exploring before I commit to a meal or an overnight stay. Knowing where the exits and windows are located is helpful, but I like to see the basements and parking garages too. I want to know where every possible exit can be made.
This was not the arrangement I expected to find after meeting Ed. I was prepared for any number of stereotypical man cave situations, fuzzy murals of dogs playing poker immediately came to mind, but this room was elegant and minimalistic. There were no mirrors on the walls, I suppose it’s common enough not to have mirrors, but Ed struck me as a vain man. I suspected there was more to his levels of inner turmoil than he let me see so far.
Ed emerged from a room beyond the fireplace buttoning the sleeves of a freshly pressed white dress shirt. He looked mentally occupied and appeared to have come from a bedroom. The door to the room shut behind him before I could get a look inside.
“Come in. Don’t stand on formality here. How did it go today, was Jimmy any help?”
“Oh yeah, Jimmy was great. We saw everybody on my schedule. I made progress today.”
“Good news, good news. Have a drink, you up for dinner. Manny made some pasta and baked chicken tonight. He does these roasted potatoes in herb butter. Better than any restaurant you’ll find. I’m just saying.” Ed was happy, animated, possibly high.
“That sounds great. I didn’t know I was hungry until you mentioned food. I’ll take a short bourbon if you have some.”
“Ah yeah busy day, busy life, no time to think of yourself. I know how it goes. Routine is what moves my day along. Let’s me get everything handled.” Ed handed me a short, stout, glass of bourbon with a large ice cube floating in the middle. “Here try that one on for size.”
“We are a lot alike, you and me," I offered, raising my glass in the air. "routines are important to me too. It’s the only way.” I wanted to connect to Ed. Being gone all day, I missed any chance for observation. We suspect he is up to something, but nobody has any proof of what that something is.
“Nah I saw the gear you use man. I don’t have the stomach for your kind of work.” Ed waved his hand through the air as if to remove his visions of gore.
“You would get used to it. No big thing after a few jobs. Your father said you were a man who gets things done and from what I have seen around here, Ed, I believe him.”
“The old man said that, well it’s good to know he sees what’s going on. Good to be seen doing good things. Your father, I mean he plays at a whole different level. I do what I’m told. I’m not the one who’s doing the telling. It’s in your blood, these levels you reach are expected.” Ed chuckled.
“Nick adopted me when I was a boy and showed me a good life. He added me to his family, taught me how to work, how to get things accomplished, but we aren’t blood," I explained.
“You know then man maybe we are more alike than I realized. Life is a damn, funny thing.” Ed shook his head slowly and swirled the ice in his glass.
“I’m good with life these days. I get to travel around. I don’t like to get comfortable. Tells me I’ve stayed too long if I start to get familiar with a place.” I explained.
“Ah yes, the call of the young man, out and free in the wild. I was young, but I got tired of the uncertainty. I’m still free, but I have made something for myself here with longevity.”
Ed and I talked while the room started to fill with his people. Three men entered got themselves a drink and watched us from the sides of the room. Eventually, a hurried man walked to the table with a tray of hot bread and two big bowls of dinner salad came from the kitchen.
The men took up chairs at the large table and began their conversation. This move told me that they didn’t find me threatening, I was becoming accepted, and they were dropping their collective guard. It was exactly what I was hoping for. I wanted to be invisible so I could look into a few things more closely.
One by one, women started appearing from the hallway opposite the room from the fireplace. They seemed happy enough, dressed neatly, most wore dark clothing. Gray and black dresses, heels and sparkly jewelry, they were an attractive bunch.
Ed seemed to be waiting for someone else to arrive before he sat at the table. There were a few seconds of empty space in the hall before a woman walked out towards the table. She was thin with small features and large piercing blue eyes. Red hair, with a long purple streak, hung next to her face. She wore the brightly colored tendrils in ringlets pulled off her with a purple band that matched the short purple geisha dress that clung to her curves. Her tall red heels clicked lightly on the floor with each step she took, making the red mushroom-shaped buttons on the front of her dress bounce excitedly.
Ed moved to seat himself at the end of the long table and motioned for me to sit in the open seat next to him. The redhead sat across from me. She was to be my interrogator, and I was going to enjoy watching her pouty lips form each question.
Her thin arms and a graceful neck were two things I love to look at. I could see her nail polish sparkle with every gesture of her hands. Light blonde peach fuzz hair on her arms told me her natural hair color was blonde. The woman looked older to me at first sight, but now I could tell by the bridge of her nose and the plumpness of her cheeks that she was very young. This was Ed’s reason for hiding away, he has five women in his household, and I began to wonder if they were with him by choice.
Ed introduced the young lady to me as Balle. She ate her dinner quietly with a pleasant smile and a cheerful, carefree quality to her voice when she spoke. I can’t recall the topics discussed during dinner. I was watching her the whole time. Exhausted from days of travel and hypervigilance in new surroundings. This woman was an absolute assault on my senses the only thing in my view with color and vibrancy. The only thing in my sight with any sign of real life. Ed’s cook offered me fresh peach cobbler at dinners end. I couldn’t eat anymore, but I wanted a cup of coffee.
“The cobbler looks great, but I can’t eat another bite. I could use a cup of coffee if you have some,” I asked.
“Sure thing boss, I’ve got a pot in the kitchen.” Manny looked rough like he had gotten his culinary experience in a State facility, but everything he served was impressively good.
“Balle go fetch our friend a cup of coffee. How do you take it? Let me guess, you like it black with one sugar.”
“You nailed it, Ed,” I replied, Ed laughed and looked around the room. It got quiet. I got the impression silence was a trigger.
Bring us two cups, Girly. Just like I take mine.” I found it hard not to watch Balle walk away and was glad to see her reflection playing in the dark panes of the nightscape in front of me.”
“She is something, isn’t she?” Ed remarked. Piling his fork with a cooked peach.
“I agree with you there. She’s got my full attention.” Ed patted me on the shoulder and pulled his ringing cell phone from his pocket.
Ed moved to the island of red couches to speak to his caller alone. Balle took his coffee to him and set it down on a napkin on the table in front of him. Ed reached up and patted her on the thigh as she made her way towards me.
“Here you go. Can I get you anything else, Sweetie?” Balle’s skin smelled like cinnamon-spiced cream. The smell was light but tangible in the air around her.
“No thank you, this is plenty.” Plenty? What ass hat uses plenty. Stupid, stupid fucking word.
I was tired, but I drank my coffee and sat, waiting for Ed to rejoin me. He seemed more serious after his call but took the time to show me to my room. My bag was sitting on a chair across from a tall queen-sized platform bed. The television hung on the wall, and the remote was on the nightstand. There wasn’t any more I could ask for.
I expected to have my bags gone through the moment I left my car in the loading bay. Nothing noteworthy was left to find. It wasn’t long after Ed left my room that I heard a knock. When I opened the bedroom door, there stood Balle.