He was an old man, bent and trembling slightly. His hair was pure white, sparse, and parted directly down the middle. On either side of his head two large ears stuck out like handles with drooping lobes quivering in the air. His face was wrinkled and spotted with age, and his watery blue eyes glistened weakly in the bright light thrown by the arc light overhead. Christ he must be a hundred years old, John thought. Ms. Walker led the old man towards the shack. He didn't shuffle as John expected, but he lifted each foot slowly and deliberately placed it ahead of the other.
“We didn't expect to see you here, Mr. Smith,” Carl hurried ahead of the couple to open the door to the guard shack.
“Mr. Smith believed it was time for him to visit the property,” Ms. Walker responded. “It has been far too long since he was last here.”
“Oh yes,” Carl held the door open and stepped to the side to let them through. “It's been quite a while.”
Inside the shack, an area designed for 2 was woefully overcrowded with the 4 of them. Carl managed to maneuver a chair into position for Mr. Smith to sit in. The old man lowered himself slowly grasping Ms. Walker's arm with one hand and his cane with the other as Carl held the swivel chair steady. To John the whole exercise seemed to take a painfully long time, though it could not have been longer than a few seconds. He tried to stay out of the way of the others, it seemed they knew what they were doing. Carl managed to bustle about in the cramped space, shuffling papers into some semblance of neatness, tossing the boxes that contained the remnants of their take-out dinner into the round trash can beneath the counter. The whole time their employer sat still, his veined hands now both resting, shaking, on the head of his cane. Neither he nor Ms. Walker said a word. The only sound was Carl muttering to himself as he tidied up.
After a few moments, the old man spoke: “Mr. Nelson. I would like to speak with Mr. Coe privately.” The voice was high pitched and just as shaky as his hands.
Carl stopped his busy work, but his hands still fidgeted as if they continued to find papers to shuffle in mid air. “Sir, is there anything I can do for you? John hasn't been here that long. I'm sure I can answer any questions you have.”
“No, no, Mr. Nelson,” Smith's eyes wandered about, taking a leisurely tour of the room before landing on John. “I would just like to get to know you Mr. Coe. We haven't met properly yet.”
“No, Sir,” John said. “I am happy to finally make your acquaintance.”
Poor Carl hesitated, a worried look on his face.
“Mr. Smith wishes to speak to your colleague in private,” Ms. Walker said. She rested a hand gently, but firmly on his arm. Carl had no choice but to follow her direction as she led him out of the guard shack. As he left, he shot John a look, as if he was trying to send a message to him telepathically. John could only guess at what the message might be, but he thought it was Don't say anything about the door.
Once they were alone, Mr. Smith motioned to the other chair in the room. “Please have a seat Mr. Coe.” John settled himself in the chair, sitting up straight, hands on his knees. “I have been very derelict in my duty as an employer. What kind of man does not make himself known to the people who work for him?”
“No worries, Sir. I figured you were a man who liked his privacy.”
“Yes, yes. That I am. But still, it's rude.” He shifted in his seat, and stroked the head of his cane. “How are you getting on? Are you content in your work?”
“Ah, sure. It's pleasant enough.” John had never worked anywhere where his boss asked how he liked his job. He was a little unsure of what the right answer would be.
“And Mr. Nelson, has he been helpful to you in learning your duties?”
“Oh yeah. Carl got me squared away pretty quick.”
“Oh good, good. It's always good to have a team that works well together.” He paused. “Your background check shows you are unmarried. Do you have any family. Anyone you're close too?”
“Not really. There's my mom, but she's in Arizona now. Couldn't take the winters anymore.”
“Oh yes.” Mr. Smith said, his shaking voice pepping up a little. “The southwest. I spent some time there when I was a young man. New Mexico actually. It wasn't a state then, but beautiful nonetheless. Ms. Walker thinks I should move south, better for the old bones, but I love the winters, the cold. You don't hear that often from an old man!” He cackled in a way that made John uneasy, but he chuckled along with him.
“No Sir. You don't hear it from the young very much either.” John mulled over the information. Before New Mexico was a state? How long ago was that?
“Everyone wants to be warm, Mr. Coe. From the smallest infant to the old man on his deathbed. They all search for it and they will find it, but in the end the cold wins out. I like being on the side of the winner.”
John decided his best response was to nod in agreement. It was a strange thing to say. His own hands began to fidgit on his lap. They sat in silence for a moment until Mr. Smith's quavering voice peeped up.
“How is the building? All secure?”
“Yes Sir. Every night the same thing. Nothing comes in or out, except me and the other guards.”
“I had heard that you have been having problems with animals?”
“Some coyotes dug under the fence and were wandering around the yard, but we filled in the hole and they haven't come back in yet. They have been hanging around though. You can hear them howling and yipping.”
“Not good to have animals about. Coyotes are dangerous creatures.”
“I know. Luckily nobody has run into any of them in person. We just saw them on the cameras.”
“Nothing else out of the ordinary?” Mr. Smith's eyes were fixed on John's face. They had lost their weak and watery appearance and were now shrewd and sharp as ice.
John acted as if he was trying to recollect anything. He shook his head. “No. Nothing else. Everything else is the same every night.”
Mr. Smith sat up straight in his chair. He still looked like a centenarian, but his body language had changed from doddering old grandpa to that of a man 50 years younger who sensed he was not hearing what he wanted to. He stared at John as if he could see the truth in him. John tried but lost the staring contest. Mr. Smith continued to watch him after he found something less threatening to look at.