Cold Storage Furs
As Foil Arms and Hog would discover, anything can be hidden in Warehouse 1. Hog had been mistaken, the sound wasn’t emanating from a deep freezer, but an enormous cold storage unit which the boys and Big Sam found quickly as they moved through the second floor of the warehouse.
Built like a bomb shelter, but standing in the middle of the vast warehouse floor the sound that emanated from the cold storage unit upon being close to it made the boys feel like they were in a war air raid; the floor vibrated from both the sounds and the large generator that stood on the back end of it; they wondered why they hadn’t heard it earlier but the walls of the warehouse were built to suppress and hide sound; a convenient attribute for criminal activity.
They approached with their guns drawn, but they needn’t have worried, the door to the unit opened easily and without resistance and they all walked inside. The first thing that hit them was the smell, both sweet and acrid, and then the waft of cold air bringing the range of animal scents to their noses. The unit was large, and filled to the brim with furs of all kinds, and from all animal species. Besides Big Sam whose criminal activities had brought him into contact with many a back-alley fur vendor, Hog probably had the most experience of the other men with furs since Laura pined after them and he had recently invested in a decent priced rabbit stole for an anniversary gift.
But Arms and Foil had never been in contact with furs before, and of course the thugs, Billy and Roy, had been kept away from the business and were never near Big Sam’s vendors so they gawked at the coats in front of them like school boys. “Boy, we could get some money for these, boss,” said Billy. Roy nodded, ready to grab a few at the first sign from Big Sam. But Sam was pensive. He was thinking and Arms watched him begin to look around the space at the coats hanging in long rows, organized by fur type and color.
“These must be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Arms said aloud to no one in particular, taking in the breadth of space in front of him and admiring the sheer number of furs and variety of colors. Foil reached out and touched a few silver fox coats, feeling their cold, softness against his hands and marveling at their beauty. It was always a wonder to him that women liked to wrap their bodies in these fineries, but touching the fur in this brief moment he suddenly understood the enticing sensual nature of it. He wouldn’t mind seeing Bette in one of these, and for a minute entertained taking one just for her.
And then Big Sam yelled sharply, snapping Foil out of his reverie; “hey, boys, these are the furs I gave to Bella!” and Big Sam quickly moved further into the cold storage unit, pointing at a group of coats and stoles hanging in the corner. All the men walked towards Sam and indeed there hung the furs with the original tags on them from the very vendor that Big Sam used for his criminal purchases. Of course, anyone with a sense of fashion would know that the brand name of this fur company was a fake, but it managed to fool the masses and Sam made a pretty penny off people who he tricked for a living.
Sam was pacing now between the rows of furs and getting agitated. “She must be here, somewhere,” Sam bellowed, forgetting that they were all meant to be stealth and quiet. Probably no one could hear him over the generator and the vibrations of sound emanating from the cold storage unit, but Arms stepped up to him anyway and got in his face, stopping Sam in his tracks. “We’re here to find her,” said Arms calmly, “we’re here to find her and we’re going to find her, so calm down big guy and let’s get focused.” Big Sam looked down at Arms, for he towered over everyone, and seemed to deflate like a balloon. It had been a hard time since Bella disappeared and he was feeling the pressure from it all. “You’re right, Arms, yes, of course, we’ll find her. You guys will make that happen, I’m sure. It was just a fuckin’ shock to see the furs again. Yeah, okay, let’s go, let’s find her,” and he started for the door.
Seeing the furs here in Warehouse 1, however, was a good sign, Hog felt, and he believed that they were all on the right track to find Bella and crack the case. But it would be a long, long night before they were anywhere near the end of this case, and they would find out soon enough that their hope was short lived or at the very least a hard one to achieve. For now, they all decided that they needed to search the other floors and see if anything else could be found.
Arms had been surprised to see Big Sam’s furs in the unit, and he had a bad premonition about it. He tried to shake this off, but it stayed with him, even as they all stepped out of the cold storage unit into the heavy air of the warehouse heat, and turned back to the stairwell, marching towards the third floor with the intent of finding more clues. He didn’t say anything to Hog or Foil, hoping that he was wrong about his own theories, but something deep down somewhere in him knew that he was right and that things were going to get really bad before the night was over.
Bella stood in the corner of the room where she had lived for the past two and a half weeks and stared at the tiny bit of light from the bright moon coming through a window at the top of the wall. She was still wearing the same dress that she had on when she left her parents’ house the night of the church social at St. Cecilia’s. And there remained bruises on her face, and arms from where she had been grabbed and hit by the men who took her and Alice as they walked home. All her tears were gone now, her voice hoarse from screaming for help, and she felt numb.
The room where she stood was an airtight prison; she had tried to find a way out; she had searched every inch of the space, crawling on her hands and knees looking for a crack or any opening of some kind in the walls. The door was like a vault, heavy and huge, impossible to push open or to even begin to think about taking off its hinges. Light was scarce, coming in only through the tiny window far above her head, and when the clouds passed over the sun she and Alice were mostly in darkness.
Alice was faring worse than Bella at this point; a sweet, innocent young girl of 17 who had just moved into the neighborhood and joined the church, she had been excited to meet new people. Alice had asked Bella to walk her home from the social because she was parentless, having only recently left the orphanage where she had grown up. Now she was out on her own for the first time, living at a boarding house near the church, her life just beginning. At church she met Bella and told her how lonely she had been until she discovered St. Cecilia’s. She had no one in her life and the church became her family. And now she lay on a thin blanket on the floor, her blonde hair disheveled and her lovely dress dirty from weeks of wear.
Bella remembered little of that night after she and Alice were taken, except that she knew that she had lost both her scarf and her music box in the battle to free herself from the men who grabbed her and that if she ever was going to be found, those two objects would be the only clues to her disappearance. She prayed daily for God to save her, and to spare Alice the horrors that she was enduring at the hands of the men who took them both.
Bella had no idea where she was, or why she was brought to this place. She had been interrogated repeatedly by three men, one of whom had been rather kind to her, but the other two were menacing and evil. One man had a deep scar that ran down the left side of his face, and he leered at her when he came into the room with the other two men. The smallest of the evil men was crippled, bent over and old and he would not leave her alone. He repeatedly tried to touch her, and the nicer of the other two men, who they called Jack, kept the old man at bay every time. At one point the old man had pinned her against the wall and started to pull up her dress even though she struggled to get away from him, but Jack had yanked the old man off her and pushed him away violently. She had run into the corner of the room to get as far away from all of them as she could, and Alice held her as she sobbed.
Bella did not know why Jack protected her, but she was grateful. Still, she knew that she wouldn’t be able to count on him forever, and she was in a constant state of fear that the old crippled man would come alone and then she would have to fight him off herself. She worried about what was going to happen to Alice too, though as of yet, the men had not bothered with her. But she did not know why.
Bella was a fighter, though. Although her brother, Sam, thought of her as a meek little thing, she had grown up the only girl in a family of boys and there was a side to her that gave her strength to take care of herself or at least try to. When the men had rolled up to her and Alice as the girls walked home, she had fought against them and screamed just before they put a hand over her mouth and rushed her into their car. Alice had been so scared that not a sound came out of her, and they picked her up easily as she did not resist at all. But Bella continued to fight, even after they brought her to this space and left her there.
The blood on her scarf and her music box that Hog had found was not her blood, but the blood of the man who grabbed her, the man with the scar. She had scratched at him with her hands and hit him in the face with the music box, attempting to get away; she did not understand why nobody heard the scuffle, but perhaps it had happened so quickly that she and Alice were gone by the time anyone noticed.
She was grateful that they had not separated her from Alice, for to be alone in a place like this would have been even more horrible than it already was for the two young women. In the corner of the room was a sort of makeshift toilet, and they had little to sleep on. Food was brought into them by Jack, who tried to be kind but clearly knew he had a job to do. At first the girls wouldn’t eat at all, but hunger drives a person and now they ate everything given to them no matter what it was. They didn’t care, food was food, and it was some kind of nourishment even if it wasn’t very good.
Bella was sure that her family would be looking for her, that her brothers, especially Sam, would have contacted someone, maybe one of his detective friends to help him and this is what she prayed for every night and day. Tonight, she stood looking at the bright moon in despair about being trapped. She looked around, as she did constantly for anything that might help her escape, and once again she could find nothing. She knelt down then next to Alice; the two girls huddled together and tried to comfort one another the best they could.
On this particular night, the night that her brother found the furs in the cold storage unit, she and Alice had been asked once again about her relationship with Antonio Boudreau and her involvement in his death. When she first heard about the news of his death, she was shocked. She had no idea he had been killed and was devasted, but could not make her captors believe that she had nothing to do with his demise. She could not understand why she had been taken or why there could be any link between herself and the man that they called Antonio. To her, he was and remained Charlie Martin and she could not be convinced otherwise, but she slowly began to learn what kind of man he really was.
He had been involved in a smuggling ring, bringing in exotic animals from different parts of Africa, Asia, and even Mexico and selling them on to pet shops, zoos, and private collectors. His role in this business seemed to be mostly a person who connected people to other people, but then he got greedy and started intercepting shipments of highly prized parrots from Mexico. He made his own deals on the side, and pocketed all the money, double crossing his employer, and making a name for himself in the smuggling trade. This was when Bella met him, at the height of his success, and this is also why their relationship ended just as suddenly as it had begun.
The three men continually pressed her for information about Antonio’s death that she did not have, until she almost started to believe that she had something to tell them. Initially, she fought against this manipulation of her memory, resisting their attempts to insert details into her experiences with Charlie that she never had. However, she was becoming tired of these interrogations and she could tell that her will was being bent to some purpose that she could hardly resist. She thought about Charlie, for she never used any other name for him, and his death. One minute he was there in the flesh, and in another his life was extinguished and over. Bella felt sure that her life might be over too, soon enough, if they got tired of asking her questions.
A Smuggler’s Paradise
On the third floor, Arms, and the rest of the men found the warehouse to be hotter and more claustrophobic than the other areas that they had encountered so far. The windows that ran along each side of the walls seemed to be mostly blocked out with black paper or plastic, it was hard to tell, but this made the area very dark. There was definitely a heavy, stuffy feeling to the space and a distinct smell permeated the area, one that was overpowering. The men lifted the lapels of their suits to their faces to block the smell that wafted over them as they walked along in the darkness, holding their guns and trying desperately to see what was around them.
But about a hundred feet or so into the space, they began to hear noises that sounded like muffled talking and they stopped immediately, flattening themselves against the walls and listening. Arms signaled for everyone to stay where they were, nodding to Hog, who moved forward slowly, holding his pistol out in front of him with both hands, ready to fire if need be. He crept along, stopping every few feet to get a sense of where the sounds were coming from being careful to not even let his breath be heard. Hog was very good at silent movements, which is why Arms sent him ahead, and now he was getting closer to where the talking was coming from and he could just see a dim light in front of him.
The smell, a stench really of animals and something like bird droppings, if Hog remembered rightly from his days on his grandparent’s farm and caring for chickens, hit him in the face as he stepped toward what he thought was a wall but which turned out to be stacks of bird cages. He waved his flashlight briefly over the spectacle and was shocked to see hundreds of black eyes staring back at him. In this one moment he had a chance to move quickly back to Arms and the guys, but just as he turned the birds awoke to his presence and started squawking wildly, and trying desperately to flap their wings inside the tiny cages. Hog knew he was fucked when he saw two large men emerge and run towards him.
Just behind Hog, Arms and Foil had heard the sounds and moved quickly towards them, followed by Big Sam, Billy and then Roy. For a moment there was utter chaos as the men grabbed Hog forcibly, pulling his gun away from him and in doing so knocked the wall of bird cages so that they started to topple and in one fell swoop came to the ground in a crash of metal, bird feathers, and screaming parrots. Arms and Foil watched this happen in what seemed like slow motion, but only had time to jump aside as the cages fell and scattered across the floor of the warehouse sending birds flying in all different directions.
The men who had grabbed Hog were so shocked by what happened that they let go of him to try to save the cages from falling, and in doing so lost all control of the moment for Arms and Foil came up with their guns drawn and caught the men by surprise. Ignoring the raucous screaming of the parrots, Foil stepped forward and stuck his gun in one of the guy’s faces, “hey you, get over there,” and he motioned to the wall opposite the bird cages. The other man was trying to gather up some of the birds who had either flown up to the rafters of the warehouse or who had been hurt by cages dropping on them. Other parrots were still stuck in their cages, and still more were continuing to scream and squawk. It was utter pandemonium.
Behind this mess, Arms could see more animals of varying shapes and sizes, but mostly small ones in tiny cages. “These must be the animals that O’ Shea was bringin’ in,” yelled Arms to Foil over the din of crying animals. Foil nodded in agreement as he corralled the men into an area away from the birds who still continued to flap about and make an unbelievable amount of noise. Foil stationed Big Sam, Billy and Roy by the two men to keep an eye on them, clearly this was when the force of two machine guns came in handy, and he and Arms, and Hog investigated the rest of the area.
They took out their flashlights and started hunting around among what must have been hundreds upon hundreds of cages filled with every small animal species imaginable; these were easy to smuggle in and sell quickly. Some of the animals were recognizable, but others were utterly strange and totally foreign to the boys; worst of all, they stared out of the cages with wide, frightened eyes. “The smuggling business sure is goin’ strong,” said Arms, “but even I know these animals don’t belong here in Warehouse 1.” The boys weren’t going soft, they were just being practical. The thing to do now was to interrogate the two men and find out as much as possible about what was going on in the warehouse, and who was in charge of the smuggling business now that O’Shea was gone. The bird noises had subsided a bit when they returned to Big Sam, and with the six of them against just two men, no matter how big they were, it was impossible for the two thugs to do anything but sit and tell their story.
A Tale of Two Thugs
The men stood in a circle around the two thugs, whose names no one bothered to ask because did it really matter, anyway? Information was all they wanted. Foil pressed his gun into the chest of the bigger man and said sharply, “get talkin’, what are you doing here with these animals? What’s the game?” The thug, who didn’t like a gun being aimed at him just sat and stared. He wasn’t about to talk or tell anything; he wasn’t going to be the snitch. Foil turned to the other thug, frustrated, “you then,” and he pushed the gun into his face and cocked it just so he was taken seriously. No answer came. Clearly, these guys didn’t understand the situation. Arms who could see that they weren’t getting anywhere, turned to Big Sam and gave him a look.
Big Sam nodded and stepped forward. The boys turned and walked away a few steps leaving Sam, Billy, and Roy to do their thing. Behind them they could hear Sam taking his swipes at the thugs one at a time with big sweeping movements of his arm, and the crack of their heads. Billy and Roy stood guard with their machine guns, ready to fire if necessary. There was no escaping Big Sam when he was angry; “where the fuck is my sister,” he wanted to know; he could pummel these two assholes all night long.
In a few minutes, Arms stepped back into the fray just so there was a little bit of something left of these two and stopped Big Sam just as he was about to make another swipe. “That’s enough, Sam,” Arms said calmly. “You got to leave somethin’ of them to talk, or else we got nothin’.” Big Sam relaxed and moved to the side. Both men’s heads were bleeding and they looked dazed. “Okay boys, tell me what you know or else Big Sam here starts his swingin’ again,” said Arms.
Talking while blood dripped down his face onto his suit, the bigger thug said, “We work for the Empress, she’s in charge of everythin’. We do what she says to do,” and he stopped to wipe his sleeve over his bloody face. The news of a woman being in charge stunned them all. “Who is she? Tell me anything you know!” Arms demanded, pushing the shoulder of the thug for emphasis. “Hey, man, I’ve never seen her. She just has these three guys who come and tell us what to do. One of them has a scar on his face, the other one is an old man, bent but he’s in charge. We hear them say, “the Empress.” We just do what we’re told, guard the animals, don’t let no one near,” and again he stopped to wipe the blood from his face.
“Where is she?” asked Hog, speaking up for the first time. “Hey, I don’t know,” said the thug, “I told you, we just take orders and know she’s in charge. I heard them say it once when they were here checkin’ on the animals. They seemed afraid of her, like she had some kind of control over them. Seems nutty to me, some broad having power over a bunch of men,” and he stopped again. Hog turned to the other thug and said, “What about you? You seen anythin’ that you weren’t supposed to see?” He had a hunch that the two thugs weren’t telling them everything and he was right.
“Yeah, I seen the three men bring in some girls. A real pretty one, black hair and sweet lookin’, nice number.” He stopped because Sam looked at him menacingly, and he didn’t want to get hit again. “Go on,” said Hog calmly. “I seen another girl, too. Small and blonde, homely looking. Not as pretty as the other one. She was scared and crying. The prettier one was fightin’ and makin’ a fuss. I don’t know where they took them, just saw them girls quickly and then they was gone. I don’t ask questions.”
This was good news to Hog, who had firmly believed from the beginning that Bella was in the warehouse, but now he understood that another girl was with her too. Two girls were harder to hide than one, so maybe they had a better chance of finding them.
“What else!” demanded Hog. “Hey nothin’, we just sit here and guard the animals. Sometimes they make us feed them, but our job is to keep people away. Some guy was snoopin’ around and we were told to get rid of him. I can’t quite remember his name.” Here he stopped as Big Sam came and stood over him, raising his fist, ready to strike. The thug, the smaller of the two, said quickly, “hey, okay, his name was Antonio something. Hey, that’s all I can remember. The old man said to watch out for him because he had double-crossed the Empress and he was trying to get into the trade. We were to kill him as soon as we saw him, and we would get some extra dough for that job.”
The bigger thug started to talk more then, “This job is shit, these animals stink, and they cry all the time. Only at night do they shut up their whining and squawking. Good riddance, man.” He spat some bloody spit on the ground for emphasis. Arms turned to Foil and Hog, and the three stepped away in a huddle. Hog wanted to split up and thought they would be able to cover more ground in the warehouse to look for the girls, but Arms felt that staying together was the best thing to do. “We’re never goin’ to find her at this rate,” Hog said, clearly frustrated at the situation. Foil decided the matter for them, as he often did when the boys were trying to strategize. “Let’s split up, each take a floor, and we’ll meet back here in a couple of hours. We don’t have a lot of choice; we got to find the girls. Billy and Roy can take these guys away and find a new home for them. Hog you take Big Sam with you, if you find the girls first, he’ll be some help. I’ll take the fifth floor, and Arms you take the sixth.”
It was a plan. But meeting up in a couple of hours never happened.