Photo by Thomas Wolf via Wikimedia Commons
The linen room’s lighting was more yellow-gray than white, and the same could be said for the linens. Carts of sheets, pillow cases, and towels lined one side of the room next to a bank of washing machines built into the walls. Dryers on the adjacent wall leaked enough waste heat and humidity to make the room a bleach-scented sauna. The room’s only recommendation was its lack of staff and its location across the hallway from the medical supply room. Corncob wiped his forehead and tried to focus on the problem at hand.
“It’s one of those card reader locks, the easiest ones to fool,” he said.
“Yeah, if we weren’t trying to fight with both arms tied behind us,” Michael said. “I’m never agreeing to dampen my magic for even five minutes if we get out of this.”
“Big if. Tommy’s probably calling the cops right now.”
“Maybe he’ll figure we left on our own.” Michael tugged at the front of his t-shirt a few times, trying to coax in some cooler air.
“When did you become the optimist?” Corncob asked. Michael glared, but didn’t have any other response.
“It’s a steel door, hinges on the inside, with a reinforced latch cover. Can’t pry it open, can’t break it down.”
“What if we started a fire? Doesn’t fire code require the doors to unlock?”
“I think the door always opens if you’re on the other side. Sprinklers might turn on, but nothing otherwise. Besides, then what would we do with everyone evacuating and the fire department coming?”
“Improvise,” Michael said. “Same as we always do. What if we cut the power?”
“Nope. Those locks are probably fail-safe. They need electricity if you want them unlocked.”
“Well, hell.” Michael pulled his flask and unscrewed the top. Corncob put his hand on Michael’s wrist.
“Not now, Michael.”
Michael wrenched himself free and gave a little grin. “If not now, when?”
Corncob may have been able to stare Michael down, but their battle of wills was interrupted by a clomp-clomp and click-click-click coming down the hallway. Michael closed the flask and put it away. They peeked around their linen cart blind just in time to see Thora wave her ID at the scanner by the door. The lock buzzed, and Thora entered, leaving the dog outside.
“Back off,” Michael whispered. “The dog might smell you and start barking.”
“Through all this dirty laundry and bleach?”
“Maybe see you, then.”
“It can probably hear you, so shut up and get ready, I have an idea.”
“I’m going to request separate cells at the hearing,” Michael said.
Corncob groped in the linen cart and withdrew a towel. He coiled it around his hands and gave it a snap. Wilhelm’s ears perked up, and the dog took a step towards the linen room’s open door. He stutter-stepped and looked behind him, seemingly reluctant to leave the storeroom door. Wilhelm sniffed the air and took another step forward. Corncob’s thighs strained from the squatting, a slow fatigue that began burning. He focused on Wilhelm’s jowls, masking teeth that had been bred to take down wild animals, animals larger and fiercer than any human. He wondered if he could somehow jam the towel in Wilhelm’s mouth if it came to it, or wrap it around the dog’s head. He tried visualizing how he could do such a thing, but stopped every time he pictured the dog’s teeth sinking into his arm. Blood would coat the walls, the floor, the lights. His legs, now cramping, would collapse as he slipped in the stuff.
Wilhelm took another halting step, and Corncob knew his muscles had frozen. Michael said something, but the words made no sense to him; it might as well have been in another language. The dog took another step, its nose now sniffing along the doorjamb. Any minute now, it would bound in, snarling, probably lunge for his throat and –
The door across the hall opened, and Thora clomp-clomped out.
“Wilhelm,” she said, and snapped her fingers. The dog wheeled about and came to her side. She set off down the hall, and Corncob came to his senses. The door to the supply room was closing, and he whipped the towel across the hall. It sailed with a slow tumble and hit the door jamb, sliding to the floor. One corner wedged itself between the door and the frame, leaving a finger’s width gap.
“Hurry,” Corncob said, “there may be an alarm if the door doesn’t close in time.”
Michael rushed over and held the door while Corncob hobbled behind, promising his legs they could stretch and relax in just a few more seconds. Michael yanked him through the door and pulled it shut.
“You nearly missed,” Michael said.
“Been a long time since high school ‘ball.”
“Track and field too.”
“Let’s just get on with it.”
Numbered and lettered shelves ran through the room filled with alien-like plastic-wrapped objects, syringes, and little white boxes with no-nonsense black lettering. They ignored the first few shelves and moved to those with the boxes, staring at labels and trying to decipher their meaning.
“Why does everything end with ‘HCl?’ “ Corncob said.
“I don’t know, I only made it through high school chemistry by blackmailing the teacher.” Michael said, he reached out for a box, but Corncob slapped his hand.
“You don’t need oxycodone, Michael.”
“I was just reading the warning label.”
They made their way to the end of the aisle, and Michael clucked his tongue. “Here we are.”
He reached down and grabbed a box. He frowned, and picked up another. Then another.
“What?” Corncob asked.
Michael tossed a box over his shoulder, and Corncob struggled to catch it.
“You idiot! I could have – oh.” Corncob hefted the box in his hand.
“Empty. Every single one.” Michael said.
“Yeah, but they just replaced everyone’s dose on the floor,” Corncob said. “That would account for most of this stock.”
“So they take the meds out and leave pristine boxes behind? Do you leave empty boxes in the pantry when you’ve finished your crackers?”
“Okay, so what does it mean?”
Michael looked away, chewing on his upper lip. “I don’t know. It can’t have been like this for long. The first legit staffer coming for morphine will notice it’s all missing”
“Maybe the thief panicked and they’re clearing the stock before they make a run for it.”
Michael turned back and raised an eyebrow. “And leave the other stuff like oxycodone behind? If you were robbing a bank, would you only take the tens and not the twenties sitting right alongside?”
“If you’re going to call me an idiot, just say it. Don’t put it in the form of a question.”
“Just humor me. If you were robbing a bank … leaving a fat stack of twenties on the table …”
“If I were in a hurry, maybe.”
Michael grinned. “Then you’d be a terrible bank robber, Corncob. At least on your own.”
“Thank goodness I have you then, right?” Corncob said, deadpan.
“Absolutely. In fact, we should be leaving the scene of the crime, so to speak.” Michael got up and headed for the door.
“And then where?”
“Archie’s room. Let’s see if we can’t find his stash.” He pushed on the door latch and turned right into Tommy, holding a card up to the lock reader. The other man startled, then reached for his pocket and pulled out a phone.
Corncob shouldered Michael aside and slammed into Tommy. He bull rushed the larger man into the linen room as Tommy tried to get his feet under him. They crashed into a folding table, and his grip loosened for a moment. Tommy recovered first and grabbed Corncob in a headlock. The man’s grip was like steel, and he felt himself being maneuvered around the table. Tommy jerked and heaved Corncob toward the wall, and Corncob realized that Tommy was going to run him head-first into the concrete.
Corncob’s hands flailed for something to brace against, but every time his fingertips brushed something, Tommy jerked him away. He pummeled at the man’s ribs and back, but it was like hitting bread dough. Fighting every step, they were getting closer to the wall of dryers. He reached up and tried poking Tommy’s eye, but the other man leaned away, and he only grazed an ear.
“Corncob!” yelled Michael, who pushed an empty linen cart in their path.
Corncob grunted and put his shoulder into Tommy’s stomach. He surged forward and Tommy called out as they toppled into the cart. Corncob braced his hands on the cart’s opening and wrenched himself free. Tommy scrambled to get up, but was buried under a sudden avalanche of grey towels, sheets, and blankets.
“Quick, in there!” said Michael. He ran to a storage closet and opened the door. As the mountain of laundry churned, they pushed the cart into the closet and slammed the door just as Tommy’s arm found its way free. A folding table’s legs squealed and stuttered across the floor as Michael and Corncob maneuvered it in place, jamming the door shut.
“Thanks,” Corncob said, and took a swig from Michael’s offered flask. Whatever the contents were, it burned all the way down.
“De nada.” Michael took a swig of his own before screwing the flask’s top back on. The closet door boomed as Tommy slammed against it, but the table held.
Michael picked up Tommy’s phone. “Well that’s interesting.”
“No recent calls out. It doesn’t look like Tommy called the cops.”
“Maybe he used the phone at the front desk.”
“If you had the sheriff on speed dial, would you haul yourself even across the room to use a land line?”
Corncob looked around for a handy towel to throw at Michael. “You’re doing it again, Mike.”
“Michael, you mean. Sorry, fella. Come on, let’s go see Archie.”
The pounding and muffled cursing continued behind them as they closed the door. Michael shook his head.
“What now?” Corncob said.
“Tommy. He’s shouting lines from the movies. If a man’s going to use death threats, he should at least make them original.”
The door to the linen room closed, and the two headed for the stairwell.