Kobel Industries was one of the big companies in Munsterville that employed a lot of people, bought a lot of real estate, and diversified often. Because of that kind of expansion, Kobel Industries had a lot of stuff that had no immediate function. They also had a lot of properties that had no immediate uses. But both the properties and the stuff needed to be protected from those without property and stuff.
That’s how Velvet Li made her living, by working as a security guard at one of Kobel Industries’ miscellaneous warehouses.
It wasn’t a glamourous job, by far, and certainly wasn’t anything that Velvet had set out to do when she graduated high school, but it was a job she enjoyed, weirdly enough. Maybe because the third shift suited her night owl tendencies. Maybe because it really wasn’t too stressful of a job since nothing ever happened. Maybe because her partner for the last five years was Otis Gorski, a man so odd that Velvet couldn’t help but enjoy his company. Whatever the reason (Velvet suspected it was a combination of all three), the job got her through four years of college. When she graduated, she never left the warehouse to pursue her chosen career, much to the chagrin of her parents, who didn’t even like her chosen career of event planner anyway. But somehow being a security guard was considered worse. Maybe Velvet could be doing so much more with her life (definitely, according to her parents), but she was happy where she was. She made enough money to buy a house in sort of a less-than neighborhood, but she loved the neighbors, even if dead people did pop up on their front steps now and then.
Such was the charm of Murderville.
The warehouse Velvet worked at didn’t have an official name. None of the Kobel warehouses did, as far as she knew. The large metal and brick square building sat a half a mile off of Rockrine Road on the south side of Lake Munster, so that’s what people in town called it. The Kobel Warehouse Off Rockrine Road. It was one of the older, more secluded warehouses, connected to the main drag by a long lane, the whole building surrounded by trees, the building’s original purpose lost to time. Most of the Kobel warehouses were in the industrial slum area that contained many of the factories and warehouses of the Munsterville businessfolk, making The Kobel Warehouse Off Rockrine Road feel even more isolated.
Velvet Li arrived for her shift about fifteen minutes early as usual. She drove down the lane to the small, seldom-if-ever used front lot, taking an alley down the east side of the building to the back. The huge rear parking lot behind the building was lit by a single pole near the backdoor which was framed by two massive, closed rolling doors on either side. Three cars huddled around the light like children out after dark. Velvet parked in the last free space next to the light, Otis’s little hatchback sitting on the other side. Velvet liked to be early; Otis liked to be earlier.
Velvet locked her cellphone and her purse in the glove compartment. Unless it was that time of the month, Velvet didn’t bother bringing her purse inside. And there was a strict rule keeping cell phones out of the building. Why? No reasonable explanation had ever been offered. The best reason that HR could come up with was it was unprofessional to have a personal cell phone with you while on duty. There were phones in the building if a call needed to be made, but only in the case of an emergency and no personal phone calls, please. Velvet suspected that it was because Manfred Kobel was a soulless, controlling man. At least, that was the vibe he gave her every time she had the misfortune of being in his presence. But nobody had minded when she brought her homework to her shifts while she was in college, so Velvet wasn’t too put out about leaving her cell phone in the car.
Dressed in her official navy polo with the Kobel Industries logo on the left breast, her black slacks well worn and comfortable, her black shoes cushy and sensible due to the rounds she walked, her black Kobel jacket keeping out the chill autumn air somewhat, her radio clipped to her belt, Velvet locked her car and walked to the building looking professional for an audience of no one. The parking lot was empty except for her and the cars, and if Cami or Trey were watching the monitor for the backdoor camera, they likely wouldn’t have been too impressed by the familiar sight of her round, Black self.
Velvet unlocked the door with her key (the set contained one for the backdoor, one for the office that no one used, and one for the security room) and went inside, locking the door behind her before clipping the keys to her belt loop. There was no alarm system at this warehouse. If there had been, Velvet wouldn’t have a job. At least, that’s what Mr. Kobel said. He’d told the press multiple times over the years that he preferred to employ real humans to watch after his properties and security cameras were all the technology they needed to do it. For a businessman at the forefront of industry in Munsterville, his own feelings towards technological advancement stopped somewhere in the early 1990s. Velvet suspected it was because the man found more satisfaction in firing employees rather than replacing machines, but nobody asked her about that, so she kept it to herself.
Door secured, Velvet turned and entered the maze.
Most of what The Kobel Warehouse Off Rockrine Road contained was miscellaneous things acquired by Kobel Industries for reasons that didn’t have much immediate use. In the five years that Velvet had worked security here, she’d seen plenty of stuff brought in, but couldn’t remember a single thing being taken out. Worse, when some new pallet or box or whatsit was brought in, it was just that. Brought in and left at the nearest empty space. There was no system of organization, no attempt at neatness. Instead, the pile up over the years had created a maze of boxes and pallets and crates, some stacked over ten feet high, some only waist high to Velvet. The disorganization drove her crazy some nights when she walked her rounds and she fantasized about how she would go about organizing the mess she guarded. Most of the time, though, she ignored it and walked the maze to the security office like she was going on an adventure: the mundane adventure of adulthood and collecting a paycheck.
If it weren’t for Otis Gorski, she wouldn’t have any fun at all.
The warehouse maze was counterintuitive because its first turn took folks in the opposite direction of the security office. For a maze it made perfect sense, but not for a workplace that was not supposed to be a maze. It also made for an interesting experience for anyone visiting the warehouse, including Mr. Kobel. The front door was never used, at least on the night shift (Velvet didn’t even have a key for it), so everyone came in through the backdoor. The security escort was so visitors didn’t get lost.
Velvet took the first turn, then the second, and then stopped short.
The path she’d walked multiple times a shift had been altered. Not by much, but something new had been shoved in, jutting into the path, narrowing it by two or three feet, not that the path had been that wide to begin with.
“It’s a good thing that side door is sealed,” Velvet muttered, annoyed. “There’s no getting to it now.”
Velvet skirted around the new bulk, wondering what it was. She took the next turn, her footsteps echoing inconsistently around her. Some nights she didn’t take much notice of how creepy walking this labyrinth was, with its blind corners and uneven stacking and alternate paths. Other nights, she did, and she found herself hurrying and looking around like she was about to be attacked by an unseen monster lurking behind one of the stacked pallets.
And still other nights, like tonight, Velvet just had the vague feeling of being watched, no doubt thanks to the security cameras she knew were placed at various points around the warehouse. There were blind spots, that’s why they did rounds, but they never figured into the weird, spidery feeling of eyes following her movements.
At the opposite end of the warehouse, at the end of the maze, sat the security room, the cheese for the uniforms in this rat race. Velvet ducked inside quickly to shed herself of the feeling of being watched.
Cami and Trey sat at the desk, watching the rows of monitors mounted on the wall. Between the two of them, they’d only been working at this warehouse for less than two years and as a team for barely one. They’d only started the middle shift three months before and Velvet had yet to bother learning their last names. Turnover tended to be high. Except for her and Otis, who currently stood behind the younger, seated security guards, arms crossed, sour, judgmental look on his face.
Otis Gorski had only ever been a security guard, but to look at his old, white, wiry frame, the wrinkles positively etched around his eyes and mouth, his thinning, grey, buzzcut hair, it would be easy to mistake him for retired military or law enforcement. He just had that no-nonsense feel about him that made people automatically mind themselves. Velvet, however, knew the truth. Not that being only a security guard diminished Otis in her respect any; it just changed the coloring of the stories he liked to tell her.
“Good evening,” Velvet said cheerfully as she shut the door behind her.
Otis grunted in acknowledgment.
“Hey, Velvet,” Cami said.
“Anything happening?” she asked.
“Never,” Trey said.
“It’s that kind of attitude that will catch you off guard,” Otis said, his voice a mix of gravel and age. “You get used to the routine of the job and you’ll miss something happening right in front of your own face. You’ll never see it coming. And do you know what happens then?”
Cami and Trey exchanged looks, unsure of what to say. Velvet was unsure of what to say, too, but that was only because the choices were too numerous to narrow down. Gunshot to the head, knife to the throat, kick to the groin, impalement, with Otis, the sky wasn’t even the limit.
“You’re clobbered with a blunt object and left for dead, only you don’t die. You just spend the rest of your days watching game shows and sipping apple sauce through a straw.”
Cami and Trey looked appalled. Velvet rolled her eyes.
“A head injury isn’t a requirement for that, Otis,” she said.
If Cami or Trey had said it, Otis would have snapped on them so hard a drill sergeant would have saluted. But Velvet said it, so he just shook his head, like she had no idea of the harshness and complexities of a world that had no place for a joke.
On that awkward note, Cami and Trey wrapped up their shift, standing and grabbing their jackets from the back of their chairs. Everyone left the security room so they could either clock out or clock in via the old-fashioned punch clock on the wall next to the door. Back inside, Velvet and Otis took Cami and Trey’s places at the security desk, their eyes on the monitors, watching as their co-workers worked their way through the maze and out of the building, crossing the parking lot to their cars and driving away.
The dark grey walls of the security room dimmed the fluorescent overhead, absorbing the light and making the room feel more like a cave. The scuffed tile was peeling in places and there was a sizeable divot in the floor next to the door; Velvet, like the other security guards, had conditioned herself to step over it to avoid the risk of a twisted ankle. The job required them to walk rounds and it was too much walking to be hobbling. On Otis’s side of the desk was the computer that ran the surveillance system, which replaced the banks of VCRs that used to be on the wall opposite the door. On Velvet’s side of the desk was the pointless paperwork they were required to fill out every shift. Behind them, on a little table, was a coffee pot that never seemed to have coffee in it, and two flashlights. Next to the table was a mini-fridge that most likely held Otis’s lunch. Velvet would have her lunch delivered from the 24-hour diner that technically didn’t deliver, but she had a friend who worked there and took a break at the same time. She was really looking forward to that patty melt and found her mind wandering to it while she watched the monitors mounted on the wall above the desk.
And that’s how Velvet and Otis’s shift began, as normal as any other. For the first couple of hours, they followed their routine. Otis walked the first round and Velvet walked the second, the two of them taking a flashlight for the outside portion, spending the time in between keeping an eye on the monitors while Otis regaled Velvet with his security guard tales and Velvet poked Otis with a verbal stick. It was the reason Velvet loved her job so much. It was easy, and Otis was great entertainment.
Around midnight, something on one of the monitors caught Velvet’s eye.