Meter Made

Chapter One

"MY BUILDING IS GONE, MR. METER. I want you to get it back."

The short, crown-balding man in the brown pinstripe suit wrung his hands and waited. I stifled a groan while I thought of a way to let him down gently. I was a private investigator, not a repo man. I glanced at Winston, who was leaning against the door jamb, pulling on his stogie, and filling the room with blue smoke. He grinned then shrugged.

"I'll let you two gentlemen sort this out," he said. He closed the door softly behind him, leaving a pile of cigar ashes on the floor.

I listened to his footsteps plod down the stairs to his lawyer's office on the floor below. Winston had always had a weird sense of humor, and the derelict in front of me was proof of it. I cleared my throat, and swore Winston would pay for this one.

"I'm sorry for your loss, Mr. Garner, but¯"

Garner made a cutting gesture and dumped his wide butt on the vinyl chair in front of my desk. The straggly white hair that circled his bald spot flew up. Dandruff settled on his shoulders.

His beard, which grew in white patches over reddened skin, made him look like a dog with mange. The suit he wore had an Italian cut, but the dark material showed several greasy stains and covered a yellowed white shirt. Tufts of salt-and-pepper hair sprouted out of his open collar. Onion and sweat smells now mixed with cigar smoke.

Even if this guy really needed my help, I doubted he'd have the wherewithal to pay my fees, which I'd purposely jacked up so as not to attract clients. What with being independently wealthy, I could afford to be choosy, and I took only the cases that really interested me. His being poor didn't really bother me, though, but I had a thing about lack of personal hygiene. I breathed as shallowly as possible.

"Winston told me you might be able to help me," Garner said. He swallowed visibly. "That you wouldn't laugh at me. He said you were used to the . . . unusual."

I frowned, and pulled the sleeve of my sweater a little lower to hide one of those unusual things I was "used to". If he knew that I had a piece of alien matter wrapped around my wrist that had allowed me to travel to different worlds, he'd probably turn tail real fast. I reserved that tactic for a last resort. I decided to try diplomacy first. "I suppose that's true," I said, my tone soothing, "but¯"

Garner scooted to the edge of the seat. "One day it was there, then the next, poof! Gone. I want to know what happened to it."

Now I was confused. His building had exploded? "You want me to find out who blew up your building?"

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"You said poof!"

"I mean poof!, not boom!"

"Poof." I was going to kill Winston. "Okay, let's start from the top." I made a big show of taking out a yellow legal pad and a pencil.

"Then you'll take the case?"

"I didn't say that. I'd like to know a bit more about you and your building first. Then I'll decide."

He stared at me for a moment, rubbed his bald pate with the palm of his hand then nodded.

"You know my name."

"Lambert Garner. You're a client of Winston's?"

"No, we're neighbors. I bought the house across from his four years ago."

I nearly whistled in appreciation. Garner might look like a rummy, but if he could afford a house in New Edinburgh, he must have been doing well.

"Address?" I wrote down what he gave me so I could check it out for myself. Owning a house didn't mean you had the dough for the upkeep. For all I knew, the place was a dump, just like him.

"Occupation?" I'd already noticed the silver pinky ring, which meant he had some kind of engineering background.

"I'm in property management. I used to be a civil engineer, but one day I bought a building and I was hooked." His eyes shone. "I couldn't believe how easy it was. I got tenants, they paid for all my expenses, and I made a profit. I bought a second one then a third. Soon after, I had to incorporate. I never looked back."

I suddenly made the connection. "You mean you're Garner Properties Inc.?"

"That's me. Of course, now it's not only me. There's a whole infrastructure set up. The corporation practically runs itself." He frowned, as if puzzled by his own success. "The company's assets are in the billions."

I closed my eyes then opened them again, hoping they had deceived me and the man sitting in front of me would look better, or richer. He didn't.

"So, you're claiming one of your buildings has disappeared."

"Yes, Mr. Meter, that's what I'm saying." His whiskers rasped under his fingers. His nails were long, broken in places, and far from clean. "Even though I don't have as much time as I used to, I like to do spot checks on the buildings I own, to make sure they're well maintained, that the people who work for me do their jobs. I pride myself on well-maintained buildings." He coughed. "Could I have a glass of water?"

"Sorry." I got up and pointed to the coffeepot. "Would you prefer coffee?"

He nodded, and I poured. After the usual ceremonies-"one cream, three sugars, please"-he slurped, smacked his lips then continued.

"I picked up the file on the building I wanted. What I usually do is, I go into my secretary's office, open a file cabinet drawer then pick out a file at random."

"I would've thought you'd have all that info on the computer."

"Oh, I do. But there's nothing like the feel of paper, isn't it? I suppose I'm old-fashioned. Besides, there are always pieces of papers that must be signed, contracts, leases, etc. We have electronic copies, but the originals must be on paper." He slurped some more coffee syrup then set the cup down, splashing a dollop of liquid on the desktop. Jesus, the guy was a slob.

I tamped down my irritation, reminding myself I wasn't Mr. Clean either. I yanked a tissue from the box in my drawer and set it under Garner's cup.

"So," he continued, "I took out a file folder with the name of the building on the tab. When I opened it, it was empty." He stopped, looking at me as if he'd said something significant.

"Empty," I repeated. "Your secretary must have misplaced the papers."

"That's what I thought, although Inga's been with me for fifteen years and she's never misplaced so much as a parking stub. I asked her to call up the file from the computer and print me the documents. She couldn't find the file."

"The file folder must have been stuffed in the drawer by mistake then."

"That's impossible."

"Everybody makes mistakes, Mr. Garner, even faithful secretaries."

"Granted, but in this case, Inga didn't make a mistake. You see, I'd picked up the file of the first building I ever bought."

"So you sold it, never removed the file folder."

"It has great sentimental value for me, Mr. Meter. I'll keep that building until it falls to the ground on its own." He frowned. "At least, I will if you can find it again."

I wasn't sure I wanted to go there yet.

"What did you do next?"

"I was greatly puzzled, but Inga assured me it was only a glitch in the system, and that she'd find the missing papers. I decided to check out the building anyway. I know the address, of course. When I got there, it was gone. There was no such building."

"Someone dug it out and left with it?" I said, grinning.

He glared then picked up his cup. "You don't understand. There wasn't a hole there, or another building. On one side of my building is a bank, on the other side a restaurant with an apartment above. Now they're side-by-side. The entire space occupied by my building is gone."

***

followed Garner into the back of a silver Mercedes 450SL. After he gave the driver the directions, he picked up a cell phone and began to make some calls. His driver wove smoothly through traffic in the direction of Richmond Road, where Garner's building supposedly had been.

I tuned him out, trying to decide if I believed him, or if he was just a kook stringing me along. A rich kook, maybe, but a kook nonetheless.

The thing was, if he'd come to see me a year ago, even if I'd been in good-enough shape to listen to him, I'd have sent him packing with a referral letter to my old warden at the Royal Ottawa, recommending a nice padded cell for an indeterminate time. But after what had happened last fall, I wasn't so sure that vanishing buildings were an impossibility.

I pulled up my sleeve and peeked at the swirling colors of my telecarb. For a reason that neither the Thrittene nor I understood, it had resisted extraction, so I was stuck with it. I couldn't use it anymore, though, unless I wanted to live the rest of my days as a Thrittene, a fate I'd rather avoid.

In the last three weeks since I'd whacked Mueller, I'd tried to get back to a more normal life, if there could be any kind of normal without Annie; tried to forget that I was wearing a piece of alien technology. It was far from easy, especially since memories I'd rather not revisit filled my dreams.

Through the car window I watched as the Ottawa River, flat and gray under the late-October sky, passed by. A few joggers ran on the bicycle path, the tip of their noses red and an expression of pain on their faces.

I'd done nothing in the last three weeks except lounge around and shop for a few clothes and some new toys for the office. I had to admit, normal was boring. I couldn't even drink myself into oblivion anymore, as much because the telecarb wouldn't let me as because I'd lost the need to forget. Maybe that was why, as wacky as I thought Garner was, I'd felt the faint pitter-patter of thrill walking up my spine when I heard his story.

The driver stopped across the street from the bank and the restaurant. Sure enough, there wasn't even space for a toothpick between the two.

"There," Garner said, "that's where my building was."

"Did your building have a name?"

"The Carlisle."

How original.

"Okay, wait here." I crossed the street and went into the bank. "Excuse me," I said to the pink-faced man at the information desk, "I'm looking for a building called the Carlisle. I was told it was around here."

He looked at me with a confused air then said, "Does this have to do with a banking problem, sir?"

"No, I'm looking for a building."

"I can only help you with banking matters."

I raised my eyes to the big sign above his head with INFORMATION printed on it.

"That's what I want."

He perked up. "Would you like to sign up for a bank card?"

I turned on my heels and tried the restaurant next door. As soon as I stepped inside, the skin around my telecarb tingled. I stopped, astonished. It was sending me little shocks, a bit like static electricity, which meant something potentially dangerous to my health was going on and I should pay attention. I knew I wasn't in mortal danger because it would have whisked me out of there faster than I could blink, but it was warning me.

I nodded at the hostess, who was waiting for me with a big smile and an overlarge menu clutched to her chest.

"Smoking or non-smoking, sir? We have a heated patio in the back."

My throat constricted, thinking of my beloved Gitanes. I still missed the pungent sticks of death with smoke that caressed the throat and loose tobacco that burned holes in all my clothes. I shook my head.

"I'm not here to eat; I'm looking for a building. The Carlisle?"

Her grin slipped, and she looked down at her menu then back at me through her eyelashes. "I'm sorry, sir, I've never heard of that building."

Was she lying, or did she look sly every time people said they weren't here to eat?

"Are you sure? I was told it was around here. I'm supposed to meet someone there."

Her head shot up. "Really? I'm sorry, I can't help you." She looked past me. "Hello. Smoking or non-smoking?"

I took that as my cue to leave. My telecarb stopped tingling as soon as I stepped outside.

Back in Garner's car, I noticed the addresses. The restaurant was at 2091, the bank at 2095. There should have been a 2093 in between.

"So?" Garner said.

I glanced at him and his anxious eyes, red skin and dandruff. I'd never seen a sorrier-looking billionaire. I didn't need his money, but he'd caught my interest. I stared across the street at the restaurant facade.

"I'll take the case."

___
© 2005 M. D. Benoit



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