Chapter 1

From a distance, the middle-aged man didn't look like anyone special. Most people would consider his appearance to be average. He was of average height and average weight with short cropped dull brown hair and a tendency to have a five o'clock shadow by late afternoon. It wasn't until one got closer to him that his more distinctive features were noticeable. His loose baggy clothes hid muscles created by hours of hard exercise performed daily. A small scar on his left cheek, made more obvious by his tan, gave him a dangerous appearance. He looked like someone who had seen violence in his life.

He lived an isolated quiet life in a small efficiency apartment. He greeted no one and ignored all attempts at conversation. None of his neighbors could have even known his name except for the fact that Samuel Reynolds was printed in large block letters on his mailbox. None of his neighbors even bothered to learn that much about him.

Samuel worked for an insurance company with the impressive title of Grounds Maintenance Engineer which was a politically correct way of saying that he was a gardener. It was a structured job in which the work performed followed the seasons. In the summer, he mowed the lawn, trimmed the hedges, and edged the walkways. In the fall, he raked leaves and prepared the flowerbeds for winter. In the winter, he plowed the snow from the parking lot, cleared the walkways, and maintained the equipment for the coming year. In the spring, he planted flowers. In short, it was a job that didn't require him to interact with people.

Every Monday morning, his boss, John Delgado, called him into the office for the purpose of laying out the work for the rest of the week. The meeting this particular Monday morning was going to deviate a little from normal. Without saying a word, Samuel took his normal seat to get his marching orders for the day. He stared down at the floor while listening; giving an occasional nod of his head to indicate that he understood what he was being asked to do.

Although used to that kind of behavior from Samuel, John didn't like it. These Monday morning briefings with the man felt a lot like talking to a wall. However, John preferred it to those few occasions when Samuel looked him in the eye. Bringing up the last bit of business for the morning, John said, "I got an e-mail from personnel. They said you haven't identified a beneficiary for your insurance."

Acknowledging that he was fully aware that he didn't have a beneficiary, Samuel nodded his head and waited to be dismissed. Not trusting the curt nod of the head, John said, "You need to take care of that."

Lifting his head and swiveling it to face John, Samuel looked the other man in the eye. John hated the flat blank look that seemed to last forever. The absence of any sign of life within the man's eyes sent chills down John's spine. Looking away, John said, "I'm serious. You need to go to personnel and take care of it."

The middle aged man rose from the chair assuming that the discussion was closed and left the office to start mowing the lawn. Calling out to Samuel's retreating back, John shouted, "Do it before you mow the lawn."

John settled in his chair listening to the rattle created by the maintenance bay door opening. A few seconds later, it was followed by the sound of the mower starting. Fully aware that he had been blown off, he swore, "Two can play that game."

After making a telephone call, John went over to a bay door and watched Samuel drive away. Behind him, he could hear two of the other men who worked for him talking about the sports events of the weekend. They should have already left the maintenance area to take care of the first item on their work list. As a boss he knew that he should interrupt the conversation and send them out to work, but after dealing with Samuel he appreciated the sounds of people being people too much to break it up.

For ten minutes he watched Samuel drive the mower across the large front lawn of the insurance company property. It would take the entire day to mow the lawn. The property was thirty acres and the front lawn was fifteen acres of well cared for grass. A small hill with the name of the insurance company in stone faced the main road that passed by the facility. A two lane drive cut through the property branching to large employee parking lots on the sides of the building and to a smaller visitor's lot at the front door.

Normally a property of that size would have two or more gardeners, but Samuel managed to take care of it alone. The man worked at a steady pace throughout the day. He took the mandated breaks, but never paused from his work otherwise. He even took sips from the ever present water bottle while riding the mower. John might not have liked Samuel, but he had to admit the man was a good worker.

During the lunch break, John carried his lunch tray to a table next to one of the windows that looked out over the outdoor picnic area in back of the office building. He watched Samuel take his normal seat at an isolated picnic table. The other tables were occupied by smokers and others wanting a little sun during their lunch time. Most tables were filled with folks engaged in typical lunchtime conversations while eating their lunches.

Samuel sat where he could observe others without having to directly face them. No one even glanced in his direction. It was as if a wall existed between him and everyone else. He reached into his brown paper bag and removed a sandwich, small bag of chips, a piece of fruit, and a small bottle of soda. He ate the contents mechanically without demonstrating even the barest pleasure from taking his meal.

A light gray tabby cat that had incorporated the picnic area into its territory appeared from the edge of the hedges that lined the side of the building. It slowly padded its way over to the picnic area; pausing occasionally to check for any potential threats. The cat changed course to arrive beside Samuel. It sat six paces from Samuel's table at an angle to the middle aged man without once looking at the man.

Samuel never glanced in the direction of the stray cat. Despite the man's apparent disinterest in the feline, John watched him pull some of the lunch meat out of his sandwich and toss it to the ground in front of the cat. The cat, without looking in Samuel's direction, grabbed the meat and retreated to an isolated area.

John had seen the man feed the cat in the past. He didn't know what to make of Samuel's actions. Shaking his head, John turned to his tray and started to eat. Jeff Conklin sat down at the table across from him. Jeff said, "I've assigned Julia Powers to meet with Samuel."

"Lucky her," John said with a snort.

"She's fairly attractive in a non-threatening way. Maybe she'll get through to him," Jeff said after looking around to make sure that he wasn't overheard.

John said, "I doubt it."

"Is he still one of the walking dead?" Jeff asked.

"The man is a zombie," John answered.

Jeff said, "That's not our problem to solve."

"I know. You just don't have to deal with him every day," John said. He looked out the window and watched Samuel eat his sandwich in a mechanical fashion.

"Is he a problem?" Jeff asked.

"He doesn't do anything wrong. He's just creepy," John answered.

"Creepy in what way?"

"I just keep waiting for the day when he comes in with a gun and kills everyone," John answered. This had not been one of his concerns when he had been promoted to his supervisory position. He had looked forward to the increase in pay without giving thought to the problems of dealing with people.

Concerned, Jeff asked, "Has he given any signs that he is thinking about doing that?"

"Not really. I just keep thinking that it is the quiet ones who perform the most violent actions," John answered. It was a common theme in news reports of violence.

John worked through the afternoon overseeing the work done by the men who worked for him. It was nearly quitting time when there was a knock on the door frame of his office. The knock was accompanied by, "I'm Julia Powers from personnel. I'm here about Samuel Reynolds."

"Thanks for coming, Ms. Powers," John Delgado said while rising from his chair. He prided himself on being a gentleman despite his blue collar background although there were times when he thought that it was because of his blue collar background that he was a gentleman. He took a moment to examine the young woman. She was in her late twenties and, despite being a tad overweight, was an attractive woman. She was dressed in a conservative brown suit; the skirt falling to just below her knees and the jacket covering a simple white shirt.

"Just call me Julia," she replied thinking it would let him know that she was not one to look down on men who worked with their hands for a living. Most of the people she dealt with in her job were secretaries and salaried people with college educations, but she came from a blue collar background.

"I know this is a Mohammed and the mountain kind of thing, but Samuel wasn't ever going to go to your office," John said apologetically.

"I went through his file," Julia said. Her friendly face took on a dark hue while recalling the details about Samuel's life. She hadn't liked what she had read within his file. She had been particularly disgusted by what she had read after searching the internet using his name as the query.

"I may not like him, but he's a good employee," John said knowing what had caused the change in her appearance. "He's never late to work and he does his job. He's never taken a sick day."

"Yeah, but..."

"You and I might not like what he did, but he served his time," John said waving a hand to cut her off.

"I know," Julia said. She wasn't going to make a big deal out of Samuel's past, but knowing what he had done made it difficult for her to face the man.

Stepping out from behind his desk, John said, "Use my desk."

"Thank you," Julia said dropping her stack of papers on the desk. She had Samuel's personnel folder and a stack of benefits forms to fill out. In reviewing his file she had realized that there were several problems with his paperwork.

"I'll wait outside in the hallway while you're in here with him. If you need anything, just give me a call," John said. He recognized that the young woman was well out of her comfort zone at the prospect of dealing with Samuel.

Appreciating that John would remain nearby, Julia said, "That will make me feel much better about this."

"Let me warn you; don't look him in the eyes," John said.

Wondering if a direct look would be interpreted as a threat by the man, Julia asked, "Does it make him go postal?"

"No. You just won't like what you see," John said cryptically. He couldn't contain the shiver that went through his body just thinking about it.

Near the end of the work day, Samuel returned the mower to the maintenance bay. He had just finished washing it and was getting ready to clock out. John stepped into the work area and said, "Julia Powers from Personnel is waiting for you in my office. You need to talk to her before you leave."

Looking over at the door of John's office, Samuel shrugged his shoulders.

Pointing towards the office door, John said, "Now."

The middle-aged man went into the office and sat down without greeting the woman seated at the desk. She looked up at him to find that he was staring at the floor without looking at her. Nervous, she asked, "Are you Samuel Reynolds?"

She glanced up from the papers spread out in front of her in time to see that Samuel nodded his head in response to her question. She had expected to see prison tattoos on his arms, but his arms were bare. The scar on his face and the obvious muscles of his arms did give him a dangerous look that increased the fear she felt.

Accepting his non-verbal response as an affirmation of his identity, she said, "I need the name of a beneficiary for your life insurance policy."

Samuel shifted his gaze from the floor to her. Without saying a word, he stared at her for a full minute. It wasn't a challenging or belligerent expression on his face. In fact, there was absolutely no emotion in his face. After the first few seconds, Julia was extremely uncomfortable. By the end of the minute, she was ready to run out of the room. Trying to invoke some kind of verbal response, she said, "I just need the name of a family member."

"No family," he said in a soft voice that was surprisingly deep. Despite the rich resonance, it was void of all emotion.

"How about a friend?"

There was a long moment of silence before he answered, "No friends."

"How about a good acquaintance?"

"No acquaintances."

"Is there a charity you support?" Julia asked in desperation. Life insurance was one of the company benefits and it required a beneficiary.

"No charities," Samuel answered.

Julia glanced at him and then stared fixedly at the sheet of paper in front of her. She decided to take a different tack and asked, "The money can be used to care of your burial expenses. Who will take care of your funeral?"

"No one."

"You've got to be buried," Julia said.

"Pauper's field."

"I need a beneficiary."

"You," Samuel said before leaving the room.

"I can't do that," she called after him. She looked down at the form wondering what she was supposed to do with it. In the distance, the sound of the time clock making a cha-chunk when it stamped the current time on a timesheet let her know that he was leaving.

John stepped into the office and asked, "How did it go?"

"He has no one to name as a beneficiary," Julia said shaken by the conversation with Samuel. She wondered if it was really true that he had no family, no friends, or even close acquaintances. She felt it was impossible for any human being to be that isolated from all others. The idea that it was possible disturbed her more than she would ever admit.

"That doesn't surprise me. I have nearly a dozen people working in maintenance and they all eat lunch together except for him. I've never seen him talk to one of his coworkers," John said. He snorted and added, "He's not exactly a friendly person. In fact, he's creepy."

Frowning, Julia said, "I watched over my grandmother when she was on her deathbed. I was there when she passed away. Her eyes had been open at the time. I watched my father reach over and close them. I kept thinking about how one second there had been life in them and the next they were just dull. You knew that she was dead just by looking at her eyes. My grandmother's eyes had more life in them after she had died than was present in his eyes."

"He's always like that," John said thinking that her description of his eyes was very accurate. He leaned against the door frame and said, "I've never seen him smile, get angry, or look bored. His face always has that same flat emotionless expression. It is that flat stare of his that sends shivers down my spine."

She shifted in her seat and stared at the sheet of paper in front of her. She asked, "What do you think he's thinking about when he stares at you like that?"

"Honestly, I don't know," John answered.

After gathering the papers, Julia rose from the desk. She said, "I'll have to see what we can do about this. I don't think we've ever had anyone who rejected the life insurance benefit before."

"I guess there's always a first time," John said trying to lighten the mood.

"True," Julia said. "Thanks for the use of your office."

"My pleasure," John said. He stepped out of her way and watched her leave for her office. She was an attractive woman despite being a little heavier than the ideal put forth by fashion magazines. He wondered how Samuel had reacted to her. The man would have to be totally dead inside not to feel a small spark of attraction to her.

Dismissing all thoughts of Samuel, John went through the process of closing the maintenance area. He looked forward to getting home and having a beer while waiting for his wife to fix dinner. Mondays were his worst day of the week and he was happy that the day was over.

Julia returned to her office and found her boss, Jeff Conklin, waiting for her. Jeff said, "I take it by the expression on your face that you just met Samuel Reynolds."

"Yes I did," Julia answered knowing that he was well aware of where she had been. He had told her to go there.

"Any luck getting a beneficiary out of him?" Jeff asked.

"No," Julia said defensively. She was concerned that he would view her failure as an inability to perform her job.

Recognizing her defensiveness for what it was, Jeff said, "I didn't think you'd have any luck. You're the fourth person I've sent to him. I do it every year. Don't take it personally."

"Why did you send me down there?" Julia asked.

Shrugging his shoulders, Jeff answered, "People's lives change over time. Maybe the next time we ask him he will have a beneficiary."

"I don't think his situation will change," Julia replied.

Jeff asked, "Why do you say that?"

"No woman would willingly spend two seconds with him," Julia answered. A hundred different ideas of what he had been thinking while starting at her had passed through her mind since leaving the office where she had met with Samuel. Few of those ideas made her feel comfortable. She was fairly confident that she would have nightmares that night.

Jeff made a dismissive gesture with a hand. He said, "There are a lot of desperate lonely women out there who will overlook a lot of things just to have a person in their lives."

"I disagree," Julia said. "Considering his past, no woman would ever give him a second thought."

Jeff shook his head thinking that he had seen things happen that were far less likely. Changing the subject, he said, "Maria Menendez has made an appointment for you first thing in the morning tomorrow. She's going through a divorce and needs to make some changes in her benefits."

"That shouldn't take long," Julia said. With over two thousand employees at that location it seemed to her that someone was always going through the divorce process. From her perspective it was just a matter of filling out a few forms. The only problem was dealing with the emotions that they demonstrated.

"Make sure that you have a box of tissues on your desk," Jeff said before heading to his office.

Julia watched him leave with a frown on her face. The comment about tissues usually meant the people were going through a very messy divorce. She muttered, "I wonder who was cheating on who."

Reaching her office, she looked out the window at the parking lot. Cars were lined up to get out of the parking lot. It took a half of an hour for the building to empty out and cars to vacate the parking lot. More often than not she was one of the last people to leave the building. Not wanting to be reminded of this afternoon's activities the next day, she picked up Samuel's file. She sighed and put it the filing cabinet. Before shutting the drawer, she muttered, "What kind of man can kill his wife and two kids in cold blood?"

The white pickup truck turned into the parking lot of a run-down apartment complex. At one time the complex had been filled with singles starting out in their careers and young couples starting families. Since then it had become home to low income families with a quarter of the occupants on welfare. The poverty was painfully obvious and one could not look at the complex without feeling depressed.

The three buildings that lined the large central parking lot were over forty years old and showed every day of their age. The battleship gray paint was faded from exposure to the elements. Many of the buildings' windows were missing screens or had screens that were torn. The lawn, filled with weeds and bare patches, needed mowing. Battered toys and bicycles were scattered in front of apartment doors. A few apartments had worn out chairs set up on the small porches or balconies.

Samuel turned his truck into the parking spot in front of his efficiency apartment. Once parked, he stepped out of his truck and made his way towards the mailbox stand in front of the apartment complex office. A tricycle that was missing a rear wheel was lying on its side in the middle of the sidewalk. The absent wheel was a couple of feet away in the parking lot. He stepped around the obstacle without giving it a glance. The cries of a child echoed out from an open apartment door.

He opened the door to his mailbox ignoring the message, 'U SUCK, ' spray painted in black paint across the bank of mailbox doors. He removed the half dozen envelops before closing the door. Without looking through the mail, he headed to his apartment door.

A young woman wearing a tube top and shorts was standing by the tricycle with a young boy pointing at the broken toy. Her large breasts threatened to escape from her tube top. Her belly hung over her tight shorts in a substantial roll of fat. Her dirty blond hair framed a face marred by a black eye that had turned yellow. Her days as someone's high school sweetheart were far in the past and a distant memory for all of those involved.

The woman noticed Samuel approaching and grabbed the hand of the young boy before rushing to the door of her apartment. The boy had protested until seeing Samuel and beat his mother to the door. The door slammed closed behind them.

Samuel walked past staring at the ground ten feet in front of him. He turned up the walkway to his apartment. The small porch was empty. There was nothing to indicate that anyone lived with the apartment. He went into his apartment closing and locking the door behind him. He went to kitchen table and sorted through the mail. The advertisements and offers for credit cards went into a small trash can by the table. He opened the electric bill and examined the amount owed on it.

Taking a seat, he reached for the checkbook and opened it to the first blank check. Double checking the amount due, he wrote a check for the amount of the bill. After tearing the check out of the check book, he turned to the registry and recorded the check. The balance remaining in his checkbook was over forty thousand dollars. He stuffed the check and the bill into the return envelope. After sealing it, he set it aside to take out to the mailbox in the morning.

Opening the freezer door, he removed a TV dinner without looking to see what it was. Turning it over to the back, he read the directions. Following the directions, he popped the TV dinner in the microwave. He went into the living room of his apartment and sat on the edge of the bed. Without moving, he stared at the far wall until the timer on the microwave went off.

Using a pot holder, he carried the hot container of food to the table. He returned to the kitchen and poured a glass of milk. Picking up a fork and knife, he carried his glass out to the table. He sat and ate his meal. Moving mechanically he shoveled the food from the plastic container to his mouth pausing occasionally to take a sip of his milk. It took him less time to consume the meal than it had to heat it in the microwave.

Samuel rose from the table upon swallowing the last of his milk. It took him a minute to clear off the table, throw away the trash, wash the dishes, and clean up the kitchen. He left the room spotless and returned to the bed. He sat down and stared at the wall for the next two hours without moving.

When it got too dark to see the wall across the room, Samuel reached over and turned on the light. The bare light cast harsh shadows around the room. He rose from the bed and stripped to his underwear. He then began his nighttime regime of a hundred push-ups, sit-ups, deep knee bends, toe touches, and other exercises. He finished by running in place for thirty minutes.

After picking up his clothes, he stripped and took a shower. He washed with a simple bar of soap; using it on his hair as well as the rest of his body. It didn't take long for him to get clean and dry. He went to the kitchen table and picked up a pen and notebook. He spent two minutes writing in the notebook before closing it and going to bed. He turned off the light and went to sleep.

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Story tagged with:
Mystery / Slow / Caution /