Chapter Two follows. To read chapter one, click here: Abducted: Book 1 of the Great Deception Series - My Gift to You
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Snow fell in huge, billowing flakes outside the window, irritating John Becker to no end. He’d set the program to sunshine and blue skies before leaving for work that morning. The realistic weather displays were a feature that marketing had touted as a luxury touch. A more practical reason was to keep the workers from going insane. When living and working underground, illusion was key.
John reached for the remote which he always kept on the end table by the black vinyl sofa, only to find it missing. He’d have to stare at depressing, lead-gray skies until he could locate the confounded thing. John hated snow. If he liked it, he would have stayed in South Dakota, where white flakes tumbled from the sky starting in October and lasting through March. Many an Easter morning in his youth he’d had to shovel the driveway and front walks in front of his home. Nothing cheery about snow.
And not only was it snowing outside, the air was downright chilly inside. Someone had adjusted the thermostat in his absence, which could only mean one thing.
He had a roommate.
He crept across the living room floor to the hallway leading to the bathroom on one side and bedroom on the other. Sure enough, the twin opposite his was laden with an open suitcase half unpacked, and a toiletry bag loaded with various sundries, including toothpaste and shaving lotion. The shirts strewn across the bed were sized extra-large. On the floor beside the bed stood a haphazard pile of cases and what looked like camera equipment.
John heard the front door open and returned to the hallway in time to see a large man step into the living room, shutting the door behind him. The guy had to be six feet tall with a wide girth and beefy hands.
“How’s it going?” The man sounded uncomfortable and a bit sheepish.
“Fine,” John said. “Good.”
The man clutched a paper-wrapped burger in one hand and a small sack of fries in the other. A spot of grease soaked through the bag. The smell of potatoes and rancid canola oil wafted in the air. “I’m Phil.”
“Got a last name?”
“Banowski. Phil Banowski.”
“Great to meet you, John.” Banowski fumbled with the food, shifting it all to one hand before extending a paw, which John accepted. His hand shake felt greasy, and John resisted the urge to wipe his hand on his jeans afterward. Instead, John retreated to the kitchen, opening a cupboard and retrieving a plate, which he held out to the man. “You’re not supposed to take that out of the food court.”
“News to me. Why not?”
“They don’t want crumbs in the rooms.”
Banowski looked puzzled. “But I bought food at the supermarket on the lower level. It’s in the fridge.”
“Good to know.”
“I didn’t have any money. The bank loaned me some.”
“Nice of them, isn’t it?” John turned on the tap and washed his hands. “Of course, they’ll expect you to pay it back with your first paycheck.”
“The interest was a bit steep.”
“Twenty five percent, last I heard.”
“Anyway. I bought food at the store, which is here, in this apartment. I rearranged things in the fridge, by the way. I have the second shelf, and you have the top one, if that suits.”
“Kind of you.” John walked over to the cupboard and retrieved a glass.
“But back to my point. I bought food at the grocery store, which I have to cook at some point, and eat here, correct?”
“Won’t that leave crumbs?”
“Most likely, which you’ll have to clean up.”
“So, let me get this straight. I can cook and eat food in the apartment, but I can’t take a meal that I have bought from the food court home?”
“A lot of the rules don’t make much sense. But they want you to follow them anyway.”
Banowski scrunched his face, perplexed. He set the food on the small dining room table off the kitchen. “Okay. But it’s weird, and I’m not taking this food back to the food court.”
“I don’t blame you,” John said.
“Guess that explains why the servers didn’t put it all in a bag.”
“Say, where’s the remote?”
The puzzled expression was back. “What remote?”
“The one that changes the scene outside the window.”
“Oh yeah. Nifty little gadget. It’s hot as the dickens topside, and I haven’t seen snow in like, forever, and I thought, wouldn’t it be great to make it feel like winter? So I changed the scene and set down the temp a bit. Hope you don’t mind.”
“I loathe snow. Where’d you put it?”
“The remote,” John took care to enunciate each word. “The one that changes the scene outside the window.”
“Oh.” Banowski rose and shuffled about the room, lifting one thing after another. He searched their shared bedroom and then crossed over into the small bath, returning moments later with the small black box in hand, which he held out to John.
“Sorry,” he said. “I get distracted sometimes and lay things where I shouldn’t.”
John pointed it to the window, clicking. Outside, the scene transformed: First, to a fall scene, brightly colored leaves floating onto a bright green lawn. Then to a waterfall, the water flowing past along a mossy riverbed. Then a bright beach — his personal favorite — and finally a city skyline at night. He left it there, returning the remote to its resting place on the end table. “In future, Mr. Banowski, I’d appreciate it if you’d leave it here.”
Banowski unwrapped his burger and took a huge bite, speaking around a mouthful of food. “Why are you calling me that?”
“Calling you what?”
“Mr. Banowski.” With the wad of food he chewed, it sounded more like Mr. Banooski. He rose and filled a glass with water from the sink. “You make me sound a million years old.”
John stepped around him to retrieve a carton of eggs from the refrigerator, along with milk and butter. “We’re not supposed to call each other by our first names.”
Banowski took a sip of water and made a face. “Say the powers that be who hate crumbs?”
“They’re the ones.”
“How do they know what we say in our own apartment?”
“Microphones. They’re always listening.”
Banowski choked on his water. “You’re joking, right?”
“As serious as I know how.” John reached for the skillet along with a spatula, small bowl and fork. He whipped the eggs and milk while the butter melted in the skillet, then cooked an omelet, adding parmesan cheese and sliced olives. He ladled the food onto a plate and sat at the table.
Banowski joined him. He leaned close to John and whispered, “You ever see them?”
John cut a piece of omelet with his fork. “See who?
John rose and pulled out a bottle of tomato juice, filling the glass he’d retrieved earlier and stirring in a fourth of a teaspoon of cayenne pepper. He carried the glass back to the table and sat down to his meal. “Sometimes. Not as often as others do. You don’t see them much in the hydroponics department.”
“That your line of work?”
He nodded. “I’m a farmer.”
“Cameraman.” Banowski patted his chest.
John took a sip of his tomato juice, savoring the spicy flavor before taking another bite of his omelet. “What are you going to film?”
“Training. Tips on successful underground living. A documentary on this place, stuff like that.” Banowski leaned close, whispering once more. “Tell me where the microphones are at, and I can adjust the cameras. Give us a little privacy.”
John wiped his mouth on a cloth napkin. “My last roommate tried that. Didn’t work out so well for him.”
“Oh yeah? What happened?”
John rose, pulling a pen and pad of paper from his pocket. Although he was careful not to look, he was fairly certain cameras were hidden behind the grills covering the air vents. Two were bolted into opposite walls that provided moving air into the combined living/dining area. One looked down onto the dining room table, but if he stood behind Banowski, he could write a note without it being recorded, which he did. He scribbled one word, holding it before his new roommate.
Dead, the note read.
Both men worked for a deep underground military base, whose acronym was DUMB. The purpose of the enormous bunker was to provide protection for an a-list of individuals should the planet be decimated by global thermal nuclear war, worldwide contagion or general universal rioting. The one percent of the population political activists griped about would ride out the storm in peace and comfort.
John’s role was to provide them with healthy food grown indoors through the use of hydroponics.
Banowski complained that he had only seen the bank and the store before being deposited in his apartment. He’d found the food court after wandering aimlessly through the area. He paced about the living room. “What else do they have down here? Anything fun?”
John rose and filled the sink with soapy water and began washing his plate and glass, addressing his new roommate over his shoulder. “We’re not here to have fun, my man. We’re here to work.”
“Until we go nuts.” Banowski joined him, adding his own plate and rinsing and drying what John had washed. “Come on. There’s gotta be something.”
John shrugged and dried his hands before handing the towel to Banowski. Then they left the apartment. John locked the door behind them, and they took the escalator to the main floor.
Apart from the food court and movie theater, which Banowski had already located, there was a gym where John liked to go after work to blow off steam. It was a large room with a wide assortment of ellipticals, rowing machines and treadmills, along with weights and the requisite wall-length mirror to either admire one’s physique or cringe in horror at the flab. Banowski gave the equipment a morose glance. “I’m not one for working out.”
John glanced at the man’s large abdomen but remained silent. Next he took Banowski to the small skating rink where they leaned on the railing and watched people gliding on the circle of ice.
Banowski’s expression creased in a look of disgust. “Lame.”
The dance hall was next door. A robot, dressed in jeans, a fringed leather shirt and cowboy hat gave directions while square dancers twirled across the floor. A bar nearby offered sodas and weak drinks for a steep price.
“I hate dancing,” Banowski said.
So John took him to the aquatics center and showed him the surf simulator. Large waves rolled across the pool as a woman on her surfboard struggled to stay afloat.
Banowski gave the cameras mounted on opposite walls a leery eye. “Any place around here that’s private?”
John led him next door to the large room that housed an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The high domed ceiling was painted blue with a realistic hologram of the sun above them. The sound of waves crashing and sea gulls crying echoed throughout the room. Several people splashed about in the water. Lounge chairs encircled the area in which several others reclined, some dozing. “It’s so noisy here with the waves, that it’s private.” John had to raise his voice to be heard.
Banowski moved toward two empty chairs and lowered his bulky frame into one. “Why are they always listening?”
“They’re curious about us.” John took the other seat.
“We’re not that interesting.”
“Guilty minds are paranoid.”
Banowski turned to him. “Why do you say that?”
“Something my dad used to say.” John glanced at the swimmers. “Why are you here?”
“The money, of course.” Banowski shaded his eyes as he stared at the fake sun. “What are they guilty about?”
“Never mind. Sorry I said anything.”
Banowski lowered his gaze to him and gave him a level stare.
John sighed. “You tell me. They land on our planet, but keep their presence hidden for decades. They keep saying they come in peace. That they want to help us. To save our planet. So why haven’t they already?”
Banowski leaned in close and whispered. “You’ve heard about the abductions, right?”
“Any happen here?”
John stared at the water, silent. Some people had disappeared, although there was always an excuse. Hartfield, that annoying expert on fertilizers, reportedly had a nervous breakdown. Parks, his onetime assistant, didn’t show up one day on account of a family crisis. If it weren’t for the lovely girl who replaced Parks, John might have had a crisis of his own by now. Still, all of those could have been coincidences. John shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Don’t know or won’t tell?”
“A couple of people. Emergencies. That sort of thing. It’s not like they vanished right in front of me.” John yawned. The place was warm and humid and always made him sleepy. “How about you? Know anyone who was abducted?”
“My daughter,” Banowski said.
John sat up. “What happened?”
“We were hiking in the woods. I was taking pictures of her. One moment she was there. The next, gone. Been missing eleven months and seventeen days.”
John’s mouth dropped open in disbelief. “I’m sorry.”
Banowski stared at the water, a distant look in his eyes. “You think you can protect people. Keep them safe from all the bad things out there. Love them enough and everything will be fine. Afterwards, all you can do is pick up the pieces.”