The painting hung in his supervisor’s office above the desk. Milo would toe up to the edge of the carpet and stare at it when he was being reprimanded. A lot was crammed into the canvas. Medieval hounds, painted with little care given to proper anatomy, dominated the scene. Snarls distorted their snouts. They had the eyes of men. The unlucky goose hung like an afterthought from the muzzle of the lead dog. The artist hadn’t even bothered to fill in detail on the bird’s head, leaving only a thin cyan oval to suggest a skull. The meaning of the name had escaped him until the day he spied the hunters, dressed in the same earthen tones as the surrounding vegetation. Two of them held up a theater backdrop, a painted sky that had presumably lured the bird to its doom.
“Do you see what I’m saying?” Nealy looked over the rims of his glasses.
“Yes, sir.” Milo had long ago memorized a stock set of phrases designed to appease. “I hope I can live up to your expectations.”
Nealy sighed through his nose. “Well, I guess I do too, Milo.”
Milo nodded. There was a tension in him that did not ease until he closed the door behind him. He disliked scrutiny, even in the most harmless of forms. The secretary Janet’s once-over of his body rankled, her unfocused eyes woke a nameless hunger in him. The weekend could not come soon enough.
Milo wedged his body in an aisle of the warehouse. Nearby, the guys were huddled in a rough circle, talking over styofoam coffee cups and vending machine snacks.
“…Moscone county killer.”
Milo had developed a trick wherein he appeared very absorbed in a meaningless task, but was really focused intently on something nearby. He sorted order envelopes and listened.
“I mean, really? This guy broke into five houses?”
“Always comes from the place you suspect the least, am I right?”
“Yeah. I mean, the unabomber was literally the most unassuming guy in the world.”
“The guy in the sketch was.”
“I’m just saying, Caramina’s a rich county. Nothing but rent-a-cops. I wouldn’t trust ’em to arrest the Hamburglar.”
Janet walked up, pink receipt pages in her hand.
“They’re really treating you today, aren’t they?” she said, fanning herself. Her perfume was too sweet and sat like a blanket long after she left a room.
Milo mumbled a reply. The weather was hot and damp, neither condition was relieved by the swamp cooler running behind him. He actually preferred this weather, it made his skin feel tight. It was a secret kind of excitement, kept him going despite the people around him. They looked past him, unsuspecting. He had an urge, deep and pathological, to tell them what he really did when he wasn’t at work, to watch their faces change.
“We should really do something about it,” Janet said, tucking the paper into a folder on the top of a box. Milo did not reply. He had learned that people mostly talked at him and not to him. Replies broke the rhythym of office talk. Replies brought him to their attention. He didn’t want that.
Nealy walked up, arm around a younger, shorter man. “Milo, this is Bill.”
Milo gave him a damp handshake.
The three of them stood awkwardly.
“…you know, that thing I was talking about?” Nealy prompted.
Milo assumed a look of recognition. “Of course, sir. It’s just this heat…”
Nealy nodded. “I get ya. We really need a proper AC unit.” He turned and pushed the young man forward. “Just show Bill the ins and outs. Whip him if you need to.”
Bill stumbled in mock horror. Milo donned noncommital work smile #4 and gestured out to the warehouse floor. The quicker he accomplished the task, the sooner he could be left to his own devices.
Bill was good. Too good. He asked too many questions. About the office. About Milo.
Milo began to wonder. Was he training a replacement? He didn’t mind being fired, he had been fired from many jobs, but being replaced rankled.
“So what do you do for the big weekend?” Bill was never less than a step behind, always full of bright energy.
“Erm, biking.” Milo tossed an answer off the top of his brain.
“No shit. You train for the M.E.C.? Because I’ve been looking for a partner—”
“Not professionally.” Damn. He’d gone on autopilot and dropped an order form behind a shelf. Milo scrambled to retrieve it before Bill could see the other files he’d “lost” over the course of a few months.
“Whoa, nervous there big guy?” Bill smiled. Milo hated how white it was.
“No, I’m just—I’m off my routine.”
The radio in the loading dock was on as Milo showed Bill how to fill out order reports. Blue went to the supervisor, pink was logged in the order, white—
“—was captured earlier this morning. Martin David Howe was living in a secluded shelter just off the West Jefferson trail. He had a history of stalking behavior and was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1997. Police say he was the main suspect in the Moscone county killings for some time, it was the nature of the terrain that made the investigation drag on so long.”
Milo stopped, forgetting what he was doing. His eardrums grew taught, his whole body stiffening like a receiving antenna.
Earl, at his station, nudged the radio dial. Through static, the speaker changed to a twangy country ballad. Milo stood up, perspiration cascading from his face and neck. He felt like he was peeling, like his skin was coming off in layers. He had seen it happen to a frog he’d touched against the neighbor’s electric fence in third grade. He’d savored the animal’s tense flailing at the time. Now he was afraid he might do that, lose control of himself. And he must never, ever do that where people could see.
“You okay, big guy?” Bill had his hands in his pockets, still crisp and dry, still smiling. He probably was there to replace Milo. Why not? Nothing he did mattered.
Milo bent, hands to his knees. “Sorry, I think I need to go.”
The bathroom smelled like swamp. Everywhere smelled like swamp. Milo spit in the toilet and examined the whites of his eyes. It wasn’t fair. He knew he wasn’t the smartest or best looking. But a man had to have something.
When he came out, Bill was over at the office door. He was facing out at the windows, hands in his pockets as he spoke to Nealy. So casual after a single day. Milo wished for one savage second that he could quit. Throw the coffee pot in Nealy’s face, see the glass shatter and watch red mix in with the dark brown of the coffee.
Instead, he slithered over like a slug. Bill turned around before he got to them, smile flawless as always.
“There he is! Feel better?”
“Actually, sir,” Milo made a point of adressing Nealy, “I think I have food poisoning. You think I can go home?”
“Again? It’s been two days—” Nealy began, but Bill interrupted him.
“I saw him earlier, Ken, he was pretty white. I’d hate to get chunked on, my first day.”
First name basis already? Milo decided not to bother coming back after he went home. There were other jobs like this. There were always other jobs.
Nealy gave his weary nod. Bill grinned.
“Hey, it’s nearly lunch. I’ll take you.”
“Oh it’s really—”
“Milo, you can’t get on the bus with food poisoning, just let him take you,” Nealy snapped, taking a shop towel to his perspiring neck. He would not look at Milo. Milo gave a one-shoulder shrug.
“I really appreciate you showing me around like this,” Bill said as Milo buckled in, “real stand-up of you. Ken says you’ve been sick a lot lately.”
Milo sank into his seat and grunted. Bill made no motion to start the car.
“Boy, I tell you, it has to be this weather. Food won’t stay good a single minute in this air. I had a hoagie, turned around to grab the salt, I swear it was moldy when I turned back.”
Milo nodded, closing his eyes and leaning his forehead against the cool window glass. The AC wasn’t on. The air in the car was still and hot.
“Lemme, guess, you got sick around the 4th, am I right?”
Milo nodded again.
“Knew it, knew it. No one cooks their meat all the way that day, too busy looking at fireworks. Then you were sick on the 14th, right? Coming back from Caramina?”
Milo nodded, drifting away. If he only had to nod, this was a good conversation.
“Must’ve had the crawfish. I hate those things, but I love ’em, y’know? More than five and my guts come up. You must’ve puked on the way back, right? They said someone cleaned the truck bed with caustics.”
Milo nodded dreamily. The car still wasn’t moving. Maybe the guy was just delaying going back to work. He hadn’t asked where Milo lived yet.
“So that was you? Whew, must’ve been some big job. Stayed out three days. Slip said you were scheduled two. You see the promenade?”
“Stuck around, see the sights? Do a little tourism? Don’t blame you, the way you’ve been working. They say they can never figure out what you’ve been doing. Making yourself indispensable, smart move. This is a good job, flexible hours. Not a lot of questions.
Milo was descending into a blissful mire. The shock of loss was beginning to wear off, and he was already planning for the future. He could find another job, another low-effort slog where they looked past him.
“I can see you’re tired, big guy. Just one thing I have to tell you.”
A metallic click. Something cold on Milo’s wrist.
“You’re under arrest.”