It started with the daily commute. Day after painful day crawling along in the traffic on the 110 or I-5; each mile more soul-sapping than the last. Mike had thought about leaving Pasadena and moving closer to work, but given the hours he worked he had no time to even start looking. The hours that he did not spend at work seemed to be spent on the journey there or back. He became an expert on the buildings, roadside architecture and environment along his route. Any changes he instantly spotted, be it a new billboard for Orchard Supply Hardware or a different set of shades in a house overlooking the route.
Mike first spotted the shuttered building whilst in stationary traffic in the evening rush hour. He had never seen the three-story structure before, probably because it was completely nondescript in every sense. There was nothing that made it stand out at all—no signs, no color, no interest. Nothing. It was like a stealth building, in plain sight but completely hidden at the same time, blending into its drab surroundings like a concrete chameleon. For that day on, Mike’s eyes were drawn to the enigmatic building every time he passed, and his curiosity grew.
Numerous online searches found nothing, no trace of a business or owners, no telephone number. This only stoked his curiosity, and every time he drove past he stared hard looking for information. He knew the building was occupied from the few cars sitting in the fenced parking lot. But even the cars were intriguing: mostly big and expensive, and usually there for a just few days before being replaced by different ones. He simply had to find out more, and started to park in the street near the building on his way home, waiting for clues. But the mystery remained; no one seemed to know anything about the building, and no one entered or left whilst he sat there.
Mike was happy to wait. Years of long hours at work had diminished his social life to a point where his free time consisted of whatever he picked up at Trader Joe’s and cable TV. His senior position paid well, but he had little time or energy to spend his money. Obsessing about the mysterious building seemed to give him a new sense of purpose, no matter how stupid it seemed.
It was on his seventh visit when he finally saw movement inside the compound. A shadowy figure moved to one of the solitary vehicles and climbed inside. Like a flash Mike jumped out of the car and ran to the opening gate, rushing through in the darkness as the car moved past. He was finally inside, but with no idea what he was going to do there. Surprised by his own actions he made his way sheepishly towards the small door in the grey building. He tried the handle and found it unlocked. After a reflective pause he stepped inside, only seeing the two men when it was too late.
“Mike,” the smaller man said coldly. “We meet at last.”
“Oh!” Mike yelped, instinctively raising his hands.
“You seen to have an uncommon interest in us,” the second man said. “Let’s have a chat in the office.”
Mike stood speechless, unsure of what to say. Both were impeccably dressed in expensive business suits, but neither looked like business men. He followed the larger man, eyes drawn to a slight bulge under the man’s jacket, a bulge which looked suspiciously like a gun. They walked down a tastefully decorated corridor which would not seem out of place in a downtown legal firm. The large office that they ushered Mike into had a feel of understated opulence and expensive taste.
“How do you know my name?” Mike ventured as he sat on the preferred seat.
“We’ve seen you parked outside for the last week,” the smaller man said, taking the leather seat behind the antique oak desk. “We just checked your license plate. We probably know more about you now than you know yourself.”
“I can explain,” said Mike flatly, his confidence returning.
“Sure,” the smaller man smiled. “Did you manage to find out anything about this building?”
“No,” Mike admitted.
“Then let me satisfy your burning curiosity. We are a business that helps people. Our clientele are people who want to break away from their normal lives but don’t know how. People who find themselves burdened with responsibility, duties they can’t easily walk away from. People who have succeeded in this world, but wish they hadn’t.”
“How do you help them?” asked Mike.
“An example would be an executive, tied to a job, tied to an alimony settlement, wanting to leave everything behind and start again. But starting again is a difficult thing to do in the modern world. So we help by making that person disappear; fake a suicide and provide a new identity. Allow that ex-executive to become the teacher, the nurse, the aid-worker, or whatever they really wanted to be.”
“So why the secrecy?” Mike quizzed.
“Because faking suicides and creating new identities is hardly legal,” said the smaller man, “and we’ve helped many powerful people who want to remain in their new anonymous life. We also help people who see suicide as their only remaining alternative; for those we ensure it is as painless and un-messy as it can be.”
“Assisted suicide,” the smaller man answered. “Ensuring the family are spared the shock discovery, the train operator spared the trauma of hitting someone, the emergency crews spared scraping a jumper from the concrete. All very civilized, and all for just ten percent of the value of the estate after tax.”
“So why are you telling this?” asked Mike.
“Why do you think?” responded the smaller man.
Mike looked out of the narrow slats of the window at the stationary I-5, seeing the legion of drivers trapped in their air-conditioned cars, desperately looking for an escape.
“How do I join?”
© Copyright 2013 Ross Baxter. All rights reserved.
After thirty years at sea, Ross Baxter now concentrates on writing and being a father. His varied work has been published in print and Kindle by a number of publishing houses in the United States and the UK, and other work can be found on numerous websites. He lives in Derby, England, but spends most summers writing in his boat house on the west coast of Norway. Visit his Amazon author’s page.
3 thoughts on “The Disappeared by Ross Baxter”
Good one, Ross.
Wonderful. My favorite kind of story. Mysterious, simple, well-paced. A bit of Richard Matheson in the plotting. I caught a typo, I believe. “You seen to be interested in us.” Should it not be ‘seem’?
Hi Stephen – thanks for your positive comments, and thanks for pointing out the typo! It’s a real boost to get feedback – I appreciate your time.