Linens and Stuff, A Place for my Stuff, Stuff and Junk, Stuff Co., The Stuff Industry, and Stuff and Something Inc. Guy likes stuff.
At this rate, Dodger was learning to sleep during flights. Previously, enduring six hours on a flight had her constantly on edge, popping pills to keep calm, constantly gripping her seat. Now she found herself wandering to the bathroom half-naked, as if she were home again.
Next stop was Texas, where the head secretary Julianna Magdalena ran a small business out of an empty office in downtown Austin. It wouldn't do to accuse the woman of squatting in an empty lot, but the more slippery the floor became under the accumulating dust under Dodger's sneakers, the more she was leaning towards the idea.
"Coffee?" She tilted a cup towards her.
"For me?" The woman asked, taking the cup gratefully, "Mm. Where was I?"
"Mr. Peter, yes,"
"Is it Peter or Petter?"
"Is the same thing, no? We call him Peter, he doesn't mind."
"Alright, so… tell me about him. What was it like working under him?"
The woman offered her a seat on a couch, taking a seat herself atop a pile of boxes next to it, "Mr. Peter Vangen. Such a lovely man. Though, how you say… not very smart."
"Yeah I got the impression from others that he was kind of dumb."
"Not dumb, just not very smart. He was a good worker, always put in the best effort he could. He was all work, all business — anything other than work, he couldn't keep up. Like all he did all day every day was work."
"That seems to fit the image I've gotten thus far, but how does 'extreme workaholic' work itself out into 'this guy is an idiot'?"
The woman shrugged, "I don't know. I never talk to him much, outside of hello and goodbye. He was nice, though. Always remembered our names, our birthdays, everything. He'd step out occasionally to talk, but most of the time he's in his office, working. Always working. Sometimes he work himself so hard, he passes out. Right on top of his memos. Usually the other girls pick up his memos, but after 3pm it's just him and me."
"There were other secretaries with you?"
"Two others… I don't know where they went."
"What about Vangen? Do you know where he is?"
Plane rides, more taxi rides, calls, e-mails, meeting people, coffee runs, questioning, sorting through notes, and getting the run-around. Finally, after a week that had felt like a month, she tracked down Petter Vangen.
He emerged from an office building in downtown Miami, holding a cup of coffee. At least Smith Jim hasn't steered me wrong, yet she thought, clutching her own singular cup in one hand. She smiled and waved him down, "Mr. Vangen?"
The man was short, coming up to Dodger's shoulders, with short brown hair just a bit of gray on the sides, little blue eyes, and a handsome, winning smile, "Vangen." He said with a thick accent, "Yah, is me."
"My name is Dodger, I work with the Manna Charitable Foundation, I'd like to talk to you about your time as CEO of 'The Stuff Industry', if you have the time."
He looked at her oddly, then smiled, "I worked in Stuff. What you wanna know?"
"Are you free now?"
He looked around, then back at her quizzically, "I am not being kidnapped…"
Good Gods. "I mean, do you have some time to talk?"
He shrugged, and started to walk, "I'm at lunch hour. We can talk. What you wanna know?"
"Is English fine with you, or is there another language you're more comfortable with?"
"English is fine. What you wanna know?"
"I've been checking up on some of your former employees. It's been pretty difficult to get a firm handling of what's happened to the company and its products."
"Prod Ducks?" He asked quizzically, stopping at the crosswalk as it turned red, "Stuff. We sold it all."
"You cleared out everything before shutting down?"
He looked confused, and shifted from one foot to the other, "Sometimes."
She kept gently gnawing on her lower lip, keeping a neutral expression to his responses, "I heard there were some unsold products that disappeared after the company shut down. Some of it ended up being sold online, or on the black market. You wouldn't happen to know anything about that…?"
He shook his head vehemently, "I don't talk police. Call me a lawyer, I am finished."
"I'm not police, Mr. Vangen. I work for a nonprofit charitable foundation. We're just interested in procuring some of your products."
"Yes. Helping people. Building schools in Africa and Asia, helping poor people. You understand?"
He eyed her again, then smiled, "Israel."
"Yeah, we've done some work in the Middle East."
He wagged a finger at her, "Israel." Then he turned, heading across the street to the little café tucked away between two buildings. She followed along.
"If you still have some of the products stashed away somewhere, donating them would do a lot of good for people around the world."
"No. I don't like Israel."
"We're not Israeli, we don't help individual countries."
"You'll boycott Israel?"
"If you donate funds or equipment to us, you can specify where you want it put to use. We have a new program scheduled for India next year, and Somalia the year after that."
"I get it," He grinned, "Tax-deductible donations. Relief for the world. I took some things when we got fired, but the rest is with the company."
"The company? The company shut down, Mr. Vangen."
He looked at her as if she was confused, "Stuff is out of business. Fired us all, let us go, took everything and left."
"Who fired you?"
"The bosses," He shrugged, opening his coffee cup and filling it with fresh coffee from a dispenser.
"I thought you were the boss, Mr. Vangen."
"Mmm… The Stuff is not a big working place. But yes, I was boss over there."
Dodger was starting to feel a cold rush of anxiety and frustration threaten to overtake her. She followed him as he moved to sit at a bench, settling down with a hamburger and soggy fries, "What did you do at 'The Stuff Industry', Mr. Vangen? What was your job there?"
He grinned up at her, "I don't know. My English was not better back then. They put me in office with brand new Windows computer. I played games on it. Some fun games, some not so fun games. They had internet but I couldn't figure out login. Password had being 'case sensitive', you know what that means? I still don't know. When it got to working, I could surf the interweb."
Dodger stared at him intently, feeling her throat start to clench and her breathing start to become more labored, "What else did you do?" She asked softly.
He smiled at her again, witless and dim, "Bosses came down to me. Talked a lot. I pretend to listen. Then they left."
"Describe… to me… your work day."
"What you mean?"
"Today I woke up on a plane. We landed and I got out into a taxi. I called your company to talk to you. I stopped to get a cup of coffee. Then I came here and called your office."
"Aah, schedule! Schedule of the day!" He bit into his burger, then sipped from his coffee deeply, "'The Stuff Industry' schedule, Monday through Friday. I wake up 7 am, go to work, breakfast waits on desk. I eat, play on computer. Lunch is at 12 am to 1 pm. I go downstairs and talk to other guys and girls. I go back to office, people wait there. I watch them play together, then they talk and write. I listen, they give me papers. Then I take a nap. When I wake up, they leave and secretary takes papers."
"What people? Who are these people?"
He winked at her. She kept staring. Suddenly he stopped smiling, and stared coldly at her, "Who are you?"
"I just told you, my name is Dodger. I work for a charitable foundation."
He looked close to scowling, then set his coffee down, "Is this an exam?" His free hand slid into his pocket. She thought he was reaching for a gun.
She met his gaze, and suddenly smiled, "Yes. This is a test."
That caused Petter Vangen to noticeably relax. He brought his hand out of his pocket and laughed nervously, "You had me afraid, boss. But we can't talk business here. Business is over."
"Business is over. Where are you keeping the rest of the 'Stuff'?"
He shook his head and winked again, "Clever girl. I pass the test."
Dodger returned to her hotel, taking deep heavy breaths to ease her breathing. Once that was done, she called Hong.
Dodger collected herself, and gazed down at the sheet of paper where she'd written notes. With her mind racing, it helped her conversations to put down what she had to say.
"Big problem. I talked to Vangen. Either he's psychotic or jerking me around or something. I don't think he was jerking me around, but you should probably get him for a follow-up interview."
"I'm not entirely sure… what I gather is, he seems to be under the impression that there are other bosses that hired him. Might be he thought it was one branch of many, or that some board of executives above him worked elsewhere…"
"There are people above him?"
"I don't know. I asked him and he almost lost his shit. I think he thought I was one of the real bosses. Asked if I was testing him. I played along, he relaxed, asked if he passed the test."
"Stop. Break it down for me, step by step. The secretary…"
Dodger sighed, and put a hand over her eyes, squeezing down on them, "The secretary said Vangen did all the work himself. Sat in his office all day, basically doing it all, sending out memos and the like. That's all she knows. She led me to Vangen directly. Guy's out of his mind. Takes him a while to understand what a charity is, then describes his daily schedule. Says he gets there, breakfast is waiting for him on the desk at 7am. He does nothing until lunch time, then he goes and mingles with the employees. After that, he says a 'boss' is waiting in his office. He says they… 'play', and that he watches them 'play'. Then he says they talk and discuss things. It didn't sound like he meant they discussed anything with him. He passes out, they leave a memo behind, then disappear. Secretaries don't mention anything about him having any visitors."
"Anomalous goons, then?"
"I'm tempted to think this guy is just mentally ill."
"You check him out, see if he's anomalous?"
"Oh what, scan him with a Neuralyzer and see if he's a fucking skinjob?"
"Neuralyzers don't work that way. And 'Skinjob' is from Blade Runner."
Dodger gripped the receiver in one hand, flailing it in the air in front of her as if smashing it on a table, before bringing it back to her mouth, "How the fuck am I supposed to fucking know what the fuck is wrong with this fucking guy?"
"Don't worry. We'll pick him up and get the whole story directly. What about the 'Stuff' stuff, did he know where any of it's stockpiled?"
"No. He says the 'bosses' took the rest of it with them. Whoever 'they' are or where they are. Also, I think he thinks I'm one of the bosses."
"You said that already."
"It was… it was scary. I don't know… he was happy and smiling, then he started freaking out, like he was gonna kill me. I had to pretend, and he went back to happy and smiling. I don't think he's… I don't know. He might've had a gun, or a knife, or…"
"Calm down. You've done good, Dodger. Come on back home and take a few days off. Or stay in Miami and soak up some sun. You've certainly earned it."