"What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean. Where the hell were you last night?"
"I was out."
"Damn it, Artie, that's not an answer."
"Look, Dad, you know I was out with Dak and his buddies. We were just hanging out."
"Until seven this morning? No, that's not acceptable. Not in my house. You will get ready for school and get on your way, right now. And as of right now, you are grounded. When you get home, I will tell you for how long."
"What? You're kidding me. I was just out late! It's not like we got into any trouble or anything."
"Grounded. Final. Go."
That was Artie's Dad. Final word in everything, and it always ended with a "Go." You'd think that "Go" was Artie's Dad's favorite word, given how often he said it. Some parents think they're pushing their kids out the door, in order to help them grow up. Artie's Dad just wanted him to out the door on command.
Not that they had a terrible relationship. Artie was just at that age where the boundaries were being pushed to the limits. His Dad simply was trying hard to keep his son inside those lines.
Artie changed his shirt, grabbed his book bag and took off through the door. "Go" still meant "now."
Dak was waiting down by the front door of the building. He hadn't bothered to change his clothes from the previous night out. His t-shirt had the look of one that was probably warn too many days in a row, it's snow white had changed to old cream.
"Artie, man, ready to head Uptown?"
"Dude, I'm grounded. 'School. Go.'"
"Eeh. Screw it, we'll get you back home on time to get your medicine."
Dak flashed his easy smile and jerked his head in opposite direction of school. He was very convincing.
"Besides, what the hell are you going to learn there anyway? Mr. Travis' civics? Math? Come on, Artie, you know that shit better than any of us. We've got better uses of our time, right?"
"Right," the thought of a grounding already fading away.
"Where to today, Dak?"
"Joy's. Where else?"
Joy Noodle House was a small Korean hole-in-the-wall owned by Dak's uncle. It was always open to Dak and friends, and had become a bit of a hang out for their little group. At that moment, though, there was just Artie, Dak, and Uncle.
"Why aren't you at school?" Uncle's English was heavily accented, but his meaning was always clear.
"Breakfast, Uncle, breakfast"
"Ah. The most important meal of the day. Have some noodles."
He handed a couple of plates full of cold noodles through the service window. He was never harsh with Dak - one of the benefits of being an Uncle.
"Ok, Dak. Last night was crazy. What do we do now?"
"Look, I don't know. Let me think, would you?" He slurped away at the noodles. Thinking seemed to be the last thing he was doing while polishing off a plate.
Artie poked at has noodles. As much as he had come to prefer noodles over a bowl of cornflakes, he just couldn't bring himself to eat.
"Damn it, Dak. What did we see last night?"
"Don't...know," he said around a fat wad of noodles.
"Those guys were up to something. They were doing something..."
Dak sucked down the last couple of noodles and wiped his mouth. He sat for a moment, collected himself and let out a small yet pungent belch.
"Artie, Artie, all we saw was a couple of guy's slipping out of that warehouse. They were probably robbing the place. Finish your breakfast and we'll wander over there. You'll see that the cops are all over the place, and they'll be finding the perps in no time. You are going to eat that, right?"
"Yeah, yeah," finally digging into his noodles. Dak's hunger stare made anyone protective of the food in front of them.
They left the restaurant, and headed to the warehouse district. During the late morning hour, the district was in full swing. The last of the overnight shipments were on their way out the door, heading down their last mile. Local trucks were pulling in, dropping off local goods, or picking up out-of-town supplies.
There was plenty of activity at the Marseilles Import-Export warehouse. Trucks in the loading dock, workers moving pallets and creates, but no cops. Not even a squad car parked out front.
"Dak," speaking in an urgent whisper, "no cops, no cops. What do we do? What do we do?"
"Don't panic. We didn't do anything wrong. We just saw a couple of guys in obvious burglar-wear, leaving out the side door at three in the morning. We'll just call the cops ourselves."
"No, no, no, then my Dad will find out where we've been, he'll think we were out here for drugs or something. There's no way he'll believe otherwise."
Artie tried smoking pot once, and was caught by his Dad. That was a grounding that had lasted until the start of the school year.
"Relax. We'll phone it in, anonymous-tip style."
"In case you haven't noticed, there aren't too many pay phones left. What are you going to do? Call with your cell phone? The cops will know."
"I've got my laptop, jackass. We'll call over the internet."
They headed back to Joy's. Uncle was still in the kitchen, prepping meat for the lunch rush. The sound of the knife slicing cleanly through the pork filled the little restaurant with a rapid, swishing sound. It would pause, briefly, as Uncle would grab a new piece of meat to apply swift steal.
Dak took out his small laptop, and plugged it to the router via a cable. It was the Joy's attempt at providing free internet to it's customers. Three long cables, hanging down from the router nailed to the ceiling.
"Got to have Uncle get wireless in here."
Dak did a quick search for the right police number to call, and phoned it. He lowered his voice, trying not to sound too much like his fifteen year-old self, and throw some of Uncle's accent in for good measure. The call was quick, and the information was brief.
"I'd like to report a break-in at Marseilles Warehouse at 321 12th. I saw two suspicious men leaving at four in the morning with a package. They looked, ah, suspicious."
He hung up, quickly. A little bit of his own cool was fractured, but a look of excitement spread across his face.
"See easy. We can wipe our hands clean of it. Hey Uncle, how about some lunch?"
* * *
Artie was on his way home, after a day spent Joy's. Full of noodles and pork, he felt a little better about taking his punishment. He was sure that he'd get a couple weeks at most, which was doable.
He arrived at his house, to find the door open. Artie's heart immediately started to beat loudly. He swallowed hard, hoping to just find that his Dad had left the door open.
The apartment had been trashed. The desk, where his Dad did the bills, had been ransacked. The TV was there, but the stereo and the DVD player were gone, a few cables and dust bunnies showing where they had been. The kitchen cabinets were open, and food had been spilled about. By the look of it, they just had taken the chips, and his Dad's jerky.
Artie's first thought, surprising even himself, was 'Dad's going to be pissed about the jerky.'
He checked his own room, and his fathers, both had the same rushed, overturned look. Artie's cash-stash was missing: $189 bucks out the door.
He headed back out into the apartment to find find the phone. This time, he could call the cops without any worry about his own story.
There, standing in the middle of the living room, was one very large man and one very thin man, both in suits. Very Large Man's suit was neat, smooth, well tailored. Thin Man's suit was rumpled, wrinkled, and ill fitting. It was the fact that they both had gloves on that made Artie even more nervous.
"Ok, kid. Come with us."
Very Large Man looked at a little notebook in his hand, and then back up at Artie.
The certainty of his address made Artie's heartbeat in overtime.
"Look, we know where you were last night, and we know what you saw. We want to take you downtown to have a little chat. It looks as though whoever you saw last night, got a look at you, too," gesturing around the room with a nod.
"Cops," Artie said out loud.
"Right," Very Large Man said with a very wide grin, "and we just want to ask you a few questions, and look at a few photos. See if you can't identify the men you saw last night."
"Ok, yeah. I should probably leave a note for my Dad."
"Don't worry about that," Thin Man said, his voice a bit oily, "we've already called him, and he'll meet us at the station. Come on, we'll head down to the car."
He was put in the back seat of the usual dark blue, unmarked Crown Victoria. Artie looked around the back seat, while they were driving along.
"Hey, why isn't there any glass back here? Can't some junky just reach over and bite you or something?"
He thought they'd answer with something like "Oh, we call a squad car for arrests" or "Nah, we just taser them" followed by a too-much-truth-in-the-statement chuckle. Instead, they just looked at each other.
"I told you we should have done a more thorough job with the car."
Very Large Man, from the drivers seat, simply said "No worries, we've got the kid, right?"
Artie looked out the window and realized they were driving through the warehouse district, up 12th. On their way to the Marseilles warehouse.
* * *
Artie had been shoved into an office, only to find Dak waiting for him.
"Artie, Artie." His cool was completely gone now. "We are so screwed! Did you see that big guy? He's going to break us in half. Or that skinny dude? Oh my God, no idea what that guy would do, but he is freaky. We are screwed."
He seemed a bit focused on this screwed bit. Artie, on the other hand didn't know what to say. He's fear had peaked. He had seen enough movies to think that if these thugs were going to just kill them, they would have done it by now. Of course, this was just a working theory, but it seemed to keep him calm.
They were kept in the room alone for the rest of the afternoon, and into the evening. He could hear the work outside the office winding down, the last shipments of the daytime shift rumbling away from the loading docks. The warehouse become eerily quiet as the employees clocked out for the day.
Very Large Man came into the office at last.
"Let's go, boys. Time for another drive."
"Oh, man, this is it, this is it," Dak whimpered.
"Quiet, by now I'm sure my Dad's noticed me gone and started calling around. We'll be fine." He hoped to believe it himself.
Thin Man was waiting in the empty warehouse as Very Large Man pushed them along. Artie saw a look in Thin Man's eyes, which made his belief vanish. It was cold and alive all at once: he looked at them with a violent hunger.
There was a soft, singing sound followed by a wet smack. Thin Man looked down, to find a knife protruding from his chest.
"What the," and he folded at the knees, and collapsed into a bent heap on the floor.
Very Large Man swung his head around, a movement which was surprisingly fast for such a large body.
There, all in black, was Uncle, a second knife at the ready. He threw it with a tight flick of the arm. Very Large Man's arm had flicked as well, and the knife seemed to appear in is forearm.
Uncle stepped forward, crouched in a fighting stance.
They ran, out the side door, and up the alley. Neither boy turned back until they had reached the cross street. Panting, they looked back at the warehouse building, hoping to see Uncle right behind them.
They waited for what seemed like hours, both of them silent and out of breath. Artie looked at Dak with questioning eyes, but the response was just as baffled.
Finally, they saw Uncle walking up the alley way. He was limping badly, but didn't seem to be in a real hurry.
"Boys, I said 'go' not 'go up the street for a stroll'" He was bleeding from a cut to the face, and held his arm at a careful angle.
"But what about these guys? Won't they just send someone else?"
"Not if we get the police involved. Arson will force a pretty serious investigation into the Marseilles Import-Exports."
"What? You're going to torch the place?"
"No, no. A gas line may have just happened to break, and the phones are old. Frayed wires are a hazardous thing in a work place. And how would I know that when I call to inquire about my overnight fish shipment?" He winked.
"Boys, let's go have some noodles."