Thunder announced itself through the overcast sky like sheet metal waves on the old radio shows. The gray Southeastern Pennsylvania clouds hid the sunlight, as they usually did. No one ever felt like waking up on days like this. Snooze alarms everywhere just buzzed, and rang, and sang their ringtones on smartphones. Secondary alarms went off, the sort one might set across the room without snooze features to force oneself to awaken and get moving at the last minute. The trees and grass, lush green from the plentiful rain, swayed in the gusty winds of the impending storm. The rain hadn’t started yet today. But the storm indeed loomed close.
Thousands of people already had awakened by then and made their way to the train stations for their morning commutes, suburban women in pantsuits and long coats fumbling in their purses for quarters to pay for parking at North Wales and Ambler and all the other stops along the R5 SEPTA regional rail, suburban men buying train passes for the month and reading over The Metro free newspaper, sipping their Dunkin Donuts, Wawa, or Starbucks coffee. Still, thousands more had already made it into town. The ones who had their shit together. Like Verne’s Phileas Fogg, never rushed, always on time. Joshua Phillips was not one of those people.
Despite wearing a suit and wing-tips, Joshua Phillips ran through Jefferson train station on the way to the Market-Frankford “blue line” El at 11th Street, with curly, overgrown locks flying, tie twisting and nearly strangling him as he adjusted his backpack. “Just another day. Late again, thank you SEPTA.” Though it actually wasn’t SEPTA’s fault. The regional rail trains run every 20 minutes from Jenkintown and he’d just missed his usual. It’s just that there couldn’t be a worse day for it.
“SHIT! Fuck, fuckfuckfuck shit double fuck with KARmul and hot fucking fudge!” The doors, naturally, had just closed and the El train moved away. “What can I do? Run for it? Wait for the next one? Fuuuccckk.” Running for it to the office, though not far, would mean getting soaked as the rain finally hit. Of course his umbrella was at home. If he only walked two blocks, he could stay close to the buildings and move fast, maybe he would manage to dry by his first presentation of the day. Each moment moseyed past until the next Blue Line train, about ten minutes later.
“69th street train making ALL STOPS. Next stop fifteenth street,” announced the haughty female train voice as Joshua dove in and sat in the nearest seat to the sliding door.
So far, so very ordinary for Joshua, 30 years old, MBA in Marketing, running behind but really not late, just not early as he prefers so that he can gather himself before the day’s pitches at the marketing firm, John Brooks Marketing Group, for which he works. He usually prefers to have some time to stroll by Starbucks and order a complicated sugary drink served by the cute barista working her way through grad school and chat with her a few minutes before walking to the office with smartphone in hand, stopping at traffic lights checking his emails and firing off a few replies, and maybe even scrolling his social media feeds a bit.
At that moment, though, he was stuck with the burnt communal work coffee and whatever stale TastyKake Krimpets or soft pretzels may be left in the breakroom as he briskly hoofed it directly to the office at the 12th floor of Ten Penn Center, tapping his foot at the lights, chatting with no one, scanning his security badge promptly at 7:55am. “Damnit.” He breathed with brief gratitude to at least be on time, though not with much time before his first pitch at 8:30am.
Some said hello to him on the way in, a pleasant cube farm with some coworkers chatting pleasantly with coffee mugs in hand and some already furiously working, tapping along at their work stations. Joshua turned on his computer, and to kill the five minutes while it loaded, filled his cup with the thick, ancient office caffeine brew, and then scanned his emails for any input for his first presentation. He didn’t want to miss anything from his boss Arnold because the first presentation was for his boss’s boss, Marvin Brooks, son of THE John Brooks. Of course!
To: Joshua Phillips
From: Arnold Jacobovich
Date: September 5, 2014 7:44am
Subject: Marvin Brooks presentation
Fuck. Yeah, better read that one first!
Please come to my office when you get in. We need to review a couple of things before the presentation.
Joshua went by Josh at work but never anywhere else. Arnold started calling him that without even asking if he goes by that, but he was so happy to have this amazing opportunity after graduation he wouldn’t have cared what he was called. Monkey Moosefuckingfield? Bobby Cornholejammerstein? Why not?
8:05am. Joshua chugged his coffee, popped a mint, and bolted to Arnold’s office on the corner of the floor. He knocked upon arrival.
“Come in, Josh.”
“Good morning. Have a seat.” Arnold was finishing an email. When he clicked send, he started to look up, and then he looked back at the screen. His face went pale and his eyes widened, mouth slightly agape. His eyes started welling up a bit, and he cleared his throat a couple of times and wiped his face with his handkerchief.
“Is everything okay?”
“Marvin Brooks was just in a car accident. I guess we don’t need to discuss the first presentation right now since it was pretty bad and he was declared dead at the scene. I’m going home the rest of today.” He choked a bit on the last part. Marvin wasn’t just Arnold’s boss. Arnold and Martin had worked together for two decades. According to the pictures on the wall and on the desk, they went golfing together on nice Saturdays, and their wives and children were friends.
“Thanks. Look, I know we have a couple of other presentations today. Spiffy’s Car Service and Mansfield Books. Are you squared away with those? You don’t need me?”
“Yes, absolutely, I have those under control.” Joshua stammered, still in a state of shock. He had never seen his collected, professional boss break down emotionally.
Arnold sniffed a couple of times and then blew his nose. “Good. I have to go. I just…” He closed his laptop and placed it into his briefcase, snapped the briefcase shut, and shrugged on his coat. “Can’t.” He stopped and sobbed a moment into his handkerchief, then pulled himself back a bit, wiping his nose.
“Don’t worry about anything here, Arnold, really. I’ll take care of everything for today.”
“You’re a star, Josh. Bye.” Arnold put on his hat, picked up his briefcase, and left, Josh following. He locked his office.
Joshua went back to his desk and opened his emails again. Might as well catch up on some things before the 10:00am with Spiffy’s. He had to email their manager, Martin Brown, to send him the billboard proofs. He clicked “compose.” The familiar window opened, and he typed in the subject line “billboard proofs.” Right. Simple enough. He typed the message:
Enclosed please find the billboard proofs for your review, and we look forward to your comments. We look forward to seeing you at the presentation this morning in our office. Should you have any questions, please call my cell phone 267-555-8637.
Thank you and best regards,
John Brooks Marketing Group
Then Joshua typed M, selected the email address from the drop-down options, and clicked send. Nothing unusual at all. In fact, many of the thousands of people who had been on the trains that morning, the ones who did and did not have their shit together, probably were doing the same thing at that exact moment. What happened next was not something any of those people experienced, however, of this Joshua would soon become quite certain.
Joshua had answered a few more emails and then gone to the men’s room. On his way back, he stopped in the breakroom to see if there were any TastyKakes left for his growling tummy and to get a cup of water from the water cooler. When he got back, feeling full of sugary energy rush and enthusiastically anticipating the presentation in the next hour, he sat down at his desk and noticed his computer was shut down.
Funny, he didn’t remember doing that. He pushed the button to power it back on. The screen display was sideways. He called IT and they fixed it, reminding him to put in a help desk ticket so they could make it official, of course. His icons were reversed. IT said he would simply have to put them back the way they were manually, one by one. He opened his emails. There was one he had never noticed before, and in fact it showed that it had arrived in his inbox at 8:50am. However, this one just wasn’t possible.
To: Joshua Phillips
From: Marvin Brooks
Date: September 5, 2015 8:50am
Subject: RE: billboard proofs
Fuck. He must have eaten too much sugar and caffeine. Tomorrow he would definitely make the time to get up on time and have a proper breakfast with lots of protein. Tomorrow…
His mouse froze. The computer beeped every time he tried to do something in his computer besides click on this email. His hands shook. He clicked on the message.
Can you read this? Please reply immediately. I need your help.
He called IT back right away.
“Joe Fitzgerald, IT.”
“Joe! Hey yeah, I thought we were squared away, but you can’t close the ticket yet. See, um, between you and me as I don’t think it’s been announced yet company-wide, Marvin Brooks shouldn’t be able to reply to my email.”
“Arnold left early saying Mr. Brooks was in a fatal car accident this morning, but I just got a reply when I accidentally sent an email to his address.”
“OK, usually we redirect email addresses to supervisors in the event of a, uh, termination of employment, but not even sure where we would redirect his, let me trace the IP address…”
“Did you change your password in the last five minutes, Josh?”
“Hmm…now I can’t log in. At least, not without resetting your password. What did the reply say, was it trying to get you to click on any links?”
“Nothing looks out of the ordinary except who it’s from. He wants a reply.”
“Stay right there and don’t do anything, I’ll come up right away and check to make sure your computer doesn’t have a virus, though it’s strange that your machine is the only one this morning, no other reports. At least it seems contained.”
Joshua waited a moment. Then another. Then a few more. Really weird, usually Joe arrived much faster, especially when they had just spoken on the phone. The IT department was on another floor, but it usually was just a matter of hopping on the elevator and zipping right over. He got up, and as he walked past, he overheard people saying their computers were frozen. The elevators were stopped, too. He went back to his desk. Another email from Marvin Brooks. This time he clicked on it right away.
To: Joshua Phillips
From: Marvin Brooks
Date: September 5, 2015 9:05am
I’m running out of time. Please, if you can read this, reply now!
Joshua clicked “reply,” hands still shaking.
To: Marvin Brooks
From: Joshua Phillips
Date: September 5, 2015 9:07am
Subject: RE: HELP!!!!!
Where are you? Are you ok? Yes, I can read this. Just tell me what you need.
A moment later came the reply. As he read, the hairs on Joshua’s neck stood up, and his hands broke out in a clammy sweat. His heart pounded.
To: Joshua Phillips
From: Marvin Brooks
Date: September 5, 2015 9:10am
Subject: Re: RE: HELP!!!!!
The strange thing is I don’t know where I am. It’s really dark here, but nothing hurts and I feel fine. One moment I was on my way to the office on auto-pilot, then another an 18-wheeler seemed to be veering purposely into my lane, and then the darkness started. But I hear strange noises, and I feel like I am in danger. Can you find me?
To: Marvin Brooks
From: Joshua Phillips
Date: September 5, 2015 9:12am
Subject: RE: Re: RE: HELP!!!!!
Do you know where you were when the truck veered into your lane? I will try to find you as fast as possible, but this will give me a place to start. I guess I should cancel with Spiffy’s? Do you want me to call Arnold?
To: Joshua Phillips
From: Marvin Brooks
Date: September 5, 2015 9:15am
Subject: Re: RE: Re: RE: HELP!!!!!
There’s no time for any of that. Josh, I don’t even know how I’m emailing you right now, if it’s a dream, or even if I’m still alive, but if I am, these noises are getting louder and I need you here right now. I’m sorry I can’t tell you more. I’m counting on you!
Joshua bolted from his desk. The elevators and stairs were just down the hall from the restrooms, and Joshua happened across Arnold’s administrative assistant, Connor O’Malley, who had just exited the restroom. “Josh? Where are you going?”
“Oh! Good morning, Connor! That’s right, you had an appointment this morning so you’re just coming in. Arnold’s gone for the day, and I have to go, too. Could you do me a favor and cancel with Spiffy’s? Maybe Mansfield, too, the way things are looking.”
Connor still had a big invisible question mark on his face, his mouth moving but not speaking, hands helplessly raised.
Joshua couldn’t pause another second. He dashed on toward the elevators and stairwell. Connor would just have to figure it out. The elevators were back up and running. Of course. He pushed the down button and checked his phone for local traffic reports and news of a crash. Of course, at that confusing interchange where 276 met 76. However, Joshua remembered a vital detail in that moment. His car sat parked at the Jenkintown train station. Not only that, but in that car, lodged somewhere between the driver’s seat and center console, hid his wallet.
This new particular pair of dress pants with wide-topped pockets and narrow, shallow depths looked very sharp, but twice before already had caused this same problem. His monthly SEPTA pass, always in his left inside jacket breast pocket, worked for both the El and Regional Rail, so he would not have noticed until already downtown if he had not checked his pocket before. As a novice at his job and light in his wallet, he would not have realized the difference between say, a couple of napkins or his wallet in weight. In retrospect, though sharp and stylish, perhaps not the best pants to wear downtown. Fuck. On a normal day, any old normal day, he could ask Connor or someone in the office for a five-spot to borrow so he could at least grab lunch off one of the carts on JFK Blvd. and then his train pass would get him back to his car later on and all would be well. Today of all days!
He replied to Marvin from his phone:
Sorry I don’t have my wallet to get a cab. What do I do?
“Mr. Phillips!” called a female voice when the elevator doors opened at the lobby. It was the desk concierge, blonde, middle-aged, perfect scarlet manicure and dark makeup, dressed a bit like an old-style flight attendant in a skirt-suit and patent leather flats.
“I just received a message from Mr. Brooks. He would like you to take his Bentley. Not many people know, but he has a spare car he keeps near here for when he has important meetings. Mr. Franklin, my manager, will show you the way to the right garage, since I can’t leave the desk.”
“Thank you!” Joshua exclaimed and followed the suited, mustached gentleman beckoning him forward.
“Here are the keys, Mr. Phillips. Do be careful,” said Mr. Franklin as he gestured toward the ghost white pearlescent 2016 Bentley Mulsanne.
Joshua stepped in to the beautiful car and felt molded to the seat as though it assimilated to him. He breathed softly. A brief little sensation of glee turned the corners of his mouth upward as he started the car and prayed in his lapsed Methodist little heart that he would be able to move swiftly yet bring it back in one piece since he couldn’t afford to replace this $330,000 vehicle. The intuitive controls responded quickly beneath his feet and hands, and he rolled out onto the street.
Usually Joshua drove a red 2002 Toyota Corolla. It had 160,000 miles on it, but it just kept going, and with his student loan debt, he couldn’t afford car payments. The accounts from today’s pitches would represent nice bonuses if their campaigns went well. Connor better have made those phone calls and the best excuses possible! Helping Mr. Brooks takes obvious priority.
His thoughts wandered since the car nearly drove itself. The rain had stopped, though the overcast sky still wouldn’t let the sun peek through, so he didn’t even need to find the windshield wipers. Had Mr. Brooks contacted Arnold? This unanswered question nagged at Joshua. If they were such good friends, why wouldn’t he contact Arnold instead of the new guy? Did it have to do with that fateful misdirected email? And if the crash was fatal, how was he emailing him at all?
He almost expected to be stuck as he approached the crash site, but there was a tow truck with the destroyed Mercedes Benz loaded on, as well as an ambulance, with a man on a stretcher, sheet covering the head, and the police directed traffic and tried to expedite the gaper delay. He pulled over, despite the officer vehemently waving him forward.
“Are you having some car trouble, sir? If not, you can’t stop here…” called out another officer, an older gentleman.
“I think I know the man in the ambulance!”
“Ok, ok, you can follow us and identify him at the hospital. A doctor has to pronounce him deceased before we can move him to the morgue.”
“Was he from the car, officer?”
“Oh, no, he was from the 18-wheeler, son. That vehicle was already towed. We don’t know where the man went who was driving the Mercedes. We suspect he might have been thrown from the vehicle, and we have other personnel searching for him.”
Joshua looked up at the car, and the windshield had a huge hole in the front. It didn’t seem the size of Mr. Brooks, though. The rest of the car looked crushed.
“How would he have been…?” started Joshua, but the officer had moved on and gestured him to do the same. He checked the time on his phone, and he saw another email from Marvin Brooks.
Follow the tow truck. Please!
Of course. What if his body was still in the car? But how? And how would the police not have found it? Joshua’s buddy Dave from Jenkintown, a mechanic, loved talking about all sorts of dream cars, the Mulsanne one of his favorites. Joshua wished he’d paid a bit more attention to Dave’s ramblings, but did remember one thing, and that’s that this car really likes to MOVE. Joshua might as well have been himself as he’d run through the train station a few hours earlier, except he was in a car, the car moving as an extension of him as he accelerated as fast as traffic would allow and weaved around to try to catch up to the tow truck.
He managed to catch a glimpse of the logo on the side. Benny’s Towing in Manayunk. Fuck, really? Manayunk? Pothole hell by the Schuylkill river? In a Mulsanne? Shit. Okay, let’s do this! He finally managed to get behind the truck coming off I-76 at Belmont and followed him through the narrow streets, up and down the hills and over the bridges. The Mulsanne made it through everything, as Joshua was used to maneuvering around the potholes.
He pulled into the parking lot of the pizza place next door and watched as the driver got out of the car and then went inside. Joshua quickly exited the Bentley and went to examine the Mercedes. He heard a soft moan.
“Mr. Brooks!!” Joshua called out.
“Josh…izzat…you…” groaned the voice deep inside the Mercedes somewhere.
“Where are you?” cried Joshua.
“Hold it right there. Hands behind your head, Josh.” Arnold. That’s Arnold’s voice.
Joshua looked back. Yes, it’s Arnold, with a jacket over his arm and hand. Arnold looked about and then flashed his gun so Joshua would see it and no one else in the midday gray and concrete landscape and sky.
“On the ground, Josh. This didn’t concern you, I don’t know how you got here, but now you have to stay, and because you know too much, oh, this is not good for you…” Arnold shook his head, keeping the gun pointed on Joshua as he sank to his knees.
“Joosshhh…” moaned the voice from the car.
“Shut up, Marv! If you would have just died in the accident like you were supposed to, I wouldn’t have had to come fix this botched job myself. Instead, you had to survive, then kill my thug, and then I had to put you in the secret compartment, cram is more like it, and then get you someplace I could dispose of you. How Josh even found out about any of this with my office locked and Connor ironclad at keeping a secret is beyond me.”
“Connor knew about this?” Josh muttered, eyebrows raised, looking at Arnold and his stained oxford shirt, ripped pants, and lopsided gray toupee.
“He’s my assistant, of course he knew! You’re a good kid, Josh. God knows, I was going to give you my job when I took over the company that Marv was leaving me in his will, since we were such good friends for so many years, a lot of good that did me.”
“Fooorrrgggeerryyy…” the faraway voice chimed in.
The remains of the TastyKakes in Josh’s stomach came up just then, right on the asphalt.
“Ughh, wish I could let you wipe that off your chin, kid, but I can’t take any chances. Hands don’t move. Larry!” Arnold screamed.
The chubby, bearded man clad in overalls, greasy t-shirt and a Phillies cap with a bowed visor came scrambling out of the tow shop, carrying a crowbar. “Is this the right tool, Arnie?”
“That’s fine! Get the screwdriver, too!”
“Phillips or regular?”
“We’ve already got Phillips out here, knucklehead! Bring the regular!”
Joshua thought fast. Though Arnold was taking great pains to conceal the gun pointed at him, it was unlikely that he would actually fire it off in broad daylight due to the lack of silencer. Arnold must be planning another way to kill Marv and him. The crowbar? Joshua felt his stomach heave again at the thought. He had to escape. Think!
He had also seen a police officer patrolling the area. He was due to come by again…yes! He rounded the corner just then! While Arnold was distracted with Larry, Joshua got up and ran toward the police car, shouting to get the officer’s attention.
“Officer, help! He has a gun and he kidnapped someone!”
“Whoa! Hold on!” The young, dark-haired officer pulled over, mumbled into the radio, and leapt out of the car, his drawn gun on Arnold. “Don’t move! Stay right where you are! Drop everything in your hands!”
Arnold and Larry both surrendered. The police officer picked up Arnold’s gun, and more backup arrived shortly thereafter. The fire department pried Mr. Brooks out of the car, and an ambulance transported him to the hospital.
Later on, in the hospital, Joshua sat with the recovering Marvin Brooks. Mr. Brooks said, “Incredible job, kid. If you can think this fast in an emergency, I can’t wait to see what you do with our accounts. You can have Arnold’s job, his old office, and the Bentley. Thank you for saving my life.”
“You’re welcome. Really, I can’t thank you enough, Mr. Brooks. I was just answering your call for help and trying to do the right thing. I was just wondering, though, how did you even send those emails?”
Mr. Brooks fiddled with the gift basket filled with treats that the office had sent over. “I don’t think I can explain it, Josh. My mother had telepathic powers when she was distraught, and maybe I inherited some of that. Who knows!” Then he grinned and said, “Would you like a Krimpet?” Joshua shook his head, smiling with his mouth and not his wary eyes. The sky thundered again with another end of summer storm. It had started like any other day in southeastern PA, with the wind rushing through the bright green trees and the slow awakening. The rain pelted the windows outside, and Joshua sipped the hospital coffee sludge.
Diane Holmes is a story writer and poet who has lived and worked in Montgomery County and Philadelphia, PA her entire life. She has a BA in English/Professional Writing with a minor in Literature from Kutztown University. She is delighted to share her home city with readers in her story “A Philly Afterlife” for The City Key. “A Philly Afterlife” was originally published in The City Key in 2016.