The Secret Humankind – Chapter 02
I’ve felt anxious on many occasions in my life. Every time a prospective parent had come by the home—at least until I realized I was too plain and shy, and later, too old, to be seriously considered. Meeting new foster parents and their kids, constantly worrying whether it would be a good or a bad home. Other jobs I’d hoped to get.
Currently, I stood at the bittersweet precipice of fearful hope and protective pessimism.
I stared at the glass doors emblazoned with the Remington Safe and Clean gold-and-purple logo. One miraculous step closer, but still with no guarantees. At least the weird sensations of being watched or followed hadn’t returned. I felt nervous enough already, and didn’t need my spidey sense adding to it. I hoped my black slacks and cream top didn’t make me look too drab.
I reached for the door, just as it yanked open on its own.
The receptionist’s squeal of joy and flashing smile made me step back. We’d only met the one time. No one that friendly could be genuine. “Uh, hi.”
“Come in, come in!” Karamel waved me inside. She was dressed in a blinding canary-yellow dress with puffed sleeves. Combined with her short stature, pixie haircut, and boundless energy, it made her seem like an oversized fairy.
I complied, now feeling even more jittery, though I still didn’t sense any insincerity from the receptionist. “There’s an interview and then a test, right?”
Karamel shook her head, her candy-scented perfume mixing with the aromatic scent of oak leaves from the thirty-foot trees growing on a strip of land on the other end of the lobby. Yes, you heard right—towering oak trees inside an enclosed lobby. Is that mindboggling or what? When I first came to apply for the job, I’d almost turned around and left after seeing them. Who in their right mind grew giant-sized trees indoors?
The massive lobby was all tinted glass in the front with white and gold marble flooring throughout. The impressive mahogany reception desk was the size of a small boat. Everything screamed money and success.
The receptionist kept beaming at me. I’d met friendly people before, and they usually had a hidden agenda, but she had seemed genuinely excited to meet me and thrilled I’d come to apply. A rather unnerving experience, since I was used to mostly being ignored. A state I rather preferred, if I’m being honest.
“Actually, it’s a test first,” Karamel corrected me. “And depending on how that goes, then the interview. No real point in the second if you don’t pass the first, you see.”
“Makes sense, I guess.” A way to get rid of the riffraff before wasting a higher-up’s time. Unlike Laurel, I was a glass-half-empty kind of girl.
“Doesn’t it?” Karamel flashed another smile. “I’ll take you to the changing room, and then you can meet Stan. He’ll tell you a little about the work and bring you to the test cleaning room.”
Our steps rang against the white and gold marble as Karamel led me her toward the line of thirty-foot Texas oak trees. Even though I’d seen them before, they were still an impressive sight. Spaced around ten feet apart, the trees partially hid several flush doors in the wall behind them. I still couldn’t wrap my head around the amount of money it must have taken to create such a lavish space.
Karamel led me to a different hidden door than on my original visit, and opened it to reveal a long hallway rather than a meeting room. A wave pattern made the soft beige walls more attractive. Recessed wooden doors and lush potted plants at irregular intervals also broke the monotony. If this area was for employees and training, I was surprised they bothered with such niceties. Most places I’d worked at cared little about esthetics in the areas set aside for workers.
The changing room looked more like what I was used to, except the lockers were made of wood instead of metal and were twice as roomy as any I’d ever seen. They even had fancy locks built into the wooden doors.
“Locker one-oh-three is yours for the day. Here’s your key.” Karamel pointed to a locker and handed me an antique-looking golden key with the number embossed at the end. “The dresser on your right has uniforms of multiple sizes. If you get the job, you’ll get fitted ones with your name stitched on them.” The receptionist’s smile blazed as if she had no doubt she’d be putting in an order for them this very day. “The hazmat suits are in the room next door. Stan will show you how to put them on after you get changed.”
I had to wear a hazmat suit? What kind of test was this? “Thanks.” I took the offered key but couldn’t bring myself to ask what would be involved in this test of theirs.
“You’ll do great. Good luck!” With a friendly wave, Karamel left me to change.
As promised, the dresser at the far end held purple, one-piece jumpsuits of different sizes. A small stitched version of the company’s logo graced the upper left chest and both upper arms, and a larger one decorated the back. It seemed a bit like overkill. I changed, my sense of disconnection with reality growing stronger by the moment—as if I were Alice diving into Wonderland.
Tucking the golden key into a Velcro-sealed pocket of the uniform, I wandered back into the hallway and noticed an open door to the right of the changing room. “Hello?”
“Great timing. Come on in.”
I spotted a lanky-looking man straightening up from a long table where he’d set several items on it. As he turned in my direction, I couldn’t help but notice the giant set of mutton chops on an otherwise dull face. Light brown hair streaked with gray and washed-out brown eyes made the chops stand out even more.
“Stan Lockhart, at your service.” He bent at the waist, giving me a bow with an added flourish as if removing a plumed hat from his head. Acting like a royal courtier and treating me as a highborn lady rather than a prospective employee—Alice in Wonderland, indeed.
“Hi. I’m Julia Xero. The last name is with an X but pronounced like a Z.” I’d had to explain this more times than I cared to count. After all this time, I still didn’t know how I’d ended up with the name. Probably someone’s idea of a joke, or a typo.
“Good to know.” Stan straightened, giving me a sideways grin. “The jumpsuit is the uniform we wear for clients. It makes sure people know who we represent.” He fingered the fancy gold stitching of his name beneath the Remington Safe and Clean logo. None of it looked or felt cheap. Stan pointed at the table beside him, indicating a folded garment made with white plastic material with the company’s logo stamped on it. “But these are the clothes that matter most. These are the ones that will keep you safe.
“One-use, non-porous wear, aka hazmat suit.” He pointed to the other items on the table in turn as he said, “Especially when combined with gloves, different types of respirators, and specialty boots. Thicknesses and materials will vary for different types of jobs. The key thing is not to be exposed to any viruses, diseases, or toxic chemicals, depending on what we’re dealing with in a particular project. Safety comes first and last. Always.”
I nodded. Crime scenes might have all manner of materials lying around. HIV and other contagious diseases would have to be a consideration as well. Good to know they kept all the angles covered.
“Let’s get these on you; then we can move over to the test area.”
Stan explained the best order to don the equipment and what to watch out for to ensure the suit and gear weren’t compromised. Then, after helping me with mine, he suited up as well. The last step was a buddy check to make doubly sure nothing got missed.
“The test today is only one of the many scenarios we might run into. But it’ll give you a decent idea of what the job entails and whether you can handle it. If you also pass the interview with Miss Anghelescu and get the position, there’ll be more in-depth training on a wide variety of aspects of the job—jargon, state and federal regulations, certifications, tools, safety, and more.”
The bulky filtered mask over my face felt awkward. The white suit was baggy, but not overly so. Together, they made me feel uneasy, though I couldn’t have said why. Stan’s voice sounded muffled, as if he were in another room rather than beside me.
“The filters prevent airborne contaminants from getting into your lungs, and also hold back most, if not all, the smells. It depends on what we’re dealing with.”
Stan led me to the rear of the room. Half of it was an open shower with a deep sink, the tiled area several inches lower than the rest of the floor. A hatch just past that looked like something you’d find on a submarine or aircraft carrier. Curiouser and curiouser.
“One last thing,” Stan said. “This isn’t human blood or remains. Pigs get you a close enough effect for testing. If you get the urge to hurl cookies, just run back out here and use the sink. You do not want to lose your lunch while wearing the suit and mask. Not a pretty sight when you have to get out of it, and until you do, you’re trapped in there with the stench and mess.”
That explained the shower. Ugh.
“We know the materials we use for testing are clean, so the masks only have a light filter to give you a fuller experience of what you can run into out there.
“Under no circumstances are you to remove any of your gear while in the scene location. Barf or no barf, it’s an automatic dismissal if you do.” His shrug was almost lost in the loose confinement of the hazmat suit. “Safety first.”
I waited with some trepidation as he opened the locking wheel on the hatch and pushed it open.
The smell hit me first—a thick coppery stench mixed with rotten eggs that triggered my gag reflex. It wasn’t strong, but it was extremely pungent. I shifted from breathing through my nose to breathing through my mouth. It toned down the smell, but now I could taste it. I was suddenly overjoyed to be wearing the bulky face mask and filter if they were keeping any of this out. Then I caught my first look inside. It was like a scene from a horror movie, yet more real than anything Hollywood could ever produce.
Red to dark brown stains covered the right wall, couch, and coffee table. Bits of meat and chopped entrails dotted the floor, the walls, and the furniture—a butcher shop gone mad. It looked as if someone had taken a bucket of the stuff and just pitched it across the room like throwing dirty water into the street.
“Two of the most critical skills in this job are elbow grease and attention to detail.” Stan opened a case on a table sitting against the back wall. It held several sizes of scrubbing brushes and scrapers. Beside it, a roll of biohazard bags and an industrial size sprayer sat side by side. A bucket, broom, and dustpan sat tucked beneath the table. Items I had plenty of experience with.
“We usually work our way from large to small. Depending on the scene, CID may have taken some of it with them. The rest is left for us to deal with.” Stan grabbed a set of tongs. “The job has more facets than you might think. But cleaning is the largest part of it. So let’s get cracking.”
It was surreal. But once we picked up all the larger pieces and began spraying the liquid to break down the blood, the strangeness and the morbid, stomach-churning vibe receded. The smells became muted as I acclimated, though I was soon covered in sweat; both the suit and the labor increased my body temperature.
Once we sprayed everything down, we moved on to the scrubbing. Soon, all that existed for me was the cleaning—a strange Zen-like state I had experienced before when intensely concentrating on a simple task. My own personal Nirvana—an escape mechanism honed over time to take me away from the screaming, the crying, the bullying, the questions, and the sadness—all the turbulent feelings and surroundings of my tumultuous youth.
I dived into the simplicity of the act of cleaning and making something better than how I’d found it. My minor mark on an otherwise uncaring and chaotic universe. A way to help me survive another day in the modern world without losing my mind.
“Huh? Oh, sorry. Yes?” I stood and stretched, my knees trying to lock on me. I put on my well-honed poker face, a flash of hot embarrassment shooting through me as I realized I hadn’t been paying enough attention to my surroundings.
Stan bent down to inspect my work and popped the baseboard to check behind it. “Time to call it, I think,” he said. “That’s some pretty thorough work. I’m kind of impressed. First-timers don’t typically have much of a clue on what it truly means to get things clean.”
I rolled my shoulders, only now feeling the strain from the effort. “Nothing like a nitpicky foster mom with a heavy hand to teach you to look in all the creases.” I snapped my mouth shut, surprised I’d said anything. Sharing wasn’t in my nature. It rarely ended well. To my surprise, though, he didn’t prod, just let the comment drop. Points for him, then.
Stan led the way out. “Tai chi is pretty useful for keeping limber. It also centers your inner chi. Staying centered is a must for this work. There’s a lot of emotional fallout to deal with. People just don’t realize the multiple layers of this job. It takes a special kind of person.”
I wasn’t sure how to take that. “So what happens now?”
He barked a laugh. “We get cleaned up. Then you meet the boss. After that, we’ll see what we shall see.”
I didn’t blame him for keeping it vague—the final decision wasn’t his—but some kind of encouragement would have been nice. Or maybe not. The churning I had forgotten about for a while came back. “Well, regardless of how it turns out, I appreciate the time. Thanks.”
“Yeah. Right back atcha.”
Since I’m a glass-half-empty type of girl, I checked to make sure the shower area in the back of the dressing room was empty and that there weren’t any signs of hidden video cameras to be found. I didn’t know a ton about crime-scene decontamination, but I’d seen plenty of skeevy things happening at what appeared to be legit places—like disguised spy cams propped in women’s fitting rooms, bogus job listings requiring prospective employees to change into a uniform, and the like. Yeah, my spidey sense was quiet at the moment, but since I still wasn’t sure what to make of this place, and was about to bare my all, I figured better safe than sorry. I did appreciate that the showers were actual stalls, though I still brought Switch in there with me just in case. I quickly showered off the sticky film of sweat from my skin and took even less time getting dressed.
A beaming Karamel stood poised like a neon sign outside the dressing room. She looked even peppier than before—something I wouldn’t have thought possible. It made me tired just watching her try to keep still. Where did she find the energy?
“I’m so excited!” Karamel twirled on her tippy-toes. “You get to meet the boss! That’s like super good news!” She let out a tiny squeal. “I’m so thrilled for you!”
I didn’t know how to deal with this much positivity on my behalf. It felt strange having someone be so delighted for me. “Thanks?”
“You have no idea how picky she is about who gets to work with us,” Karamel said. “She’s always so very, very careful. So the fact that you’ve gotten this far…!”
I watched the diminutive receptionist struggle to hold back another squeal. Karamel’s liveliness only made me more anxious. Her choice of words seemed a little odd as well. Thinking about it, a few things Stan had said were also a bit weird.
Or maybe I was just reading too much into everything.
“Come this way,” the receptionist said. “I’ll take you to her office.”
Karamel almost skipped along as she led me back to the main lobby, then we followed the trees to a golden arch that flowed into an even fancier area of the building. More shiny marble, super thick carpeting, and lots of crystal and chrome.
“This is where we woo the big clients. We keep high-class meeting rooms and posh offices to make them feel important and prove that we’re so worth it.” She sent me a mischievous wink. “I much prefer the trees in the lobby.”
They must serve some serious clientele if they felt the need to impress them this much. Even though I had just showered, I didn’t dare touch anything.
“Here we are.” Karamel knocked on an ornately carved wooden door. “Miss Anghelescu, I’ve brought Miss Xero to see you.” The receptionist waved me in.
My breath hitched in my throat as I stepped into the room. Lavish burgundy chairs, an old-fashioned French desk done in bone white with a scrolled trim, and granite statues in the corners screamed of sophistication and wealth.
Dawn Anghelescu, the owner of Remington Safe and Clean, came around her desk, exuding grace and poise as she offered a delicate, long-fingered hand. “Miss Xero, it’s so nice to finally meet you in person.”
Tall and lithe, Anghelescu wore a smart suit of black and white curves, her luxuriant hair tied into a thick braid of gold and brown. My roommate Penny, a popular fashion model, would have hated her instantly. Her oval face and lovely snub nose were pleasing, yet what drew you in and trapped you were her eyes. Dark brown with flecks of gold, her eyes seemed to look right into you, exposing your every thought or deed.
I had to consciously force my arm forward to take the other woman’s hand and shake it. Hers was the voice with the subtle accent—she was the one who’d called me on the phone. Anghelescu’s palm was smooth and warm, like a golden sunset. How she could stand to bring it into contact with my calloused, chapped hand was a mystery. Anghelescu’s captivating gaze searched my face as if memorizing it. Then she smiled.
“Won’t you take a seat?” She deftly guided me to a burgundy settee, then sat beside me as if we were old friends about to catch up.
I glanced around in a panic, only then realizing Karamel had left me there alone. “Um…”
“Do you mind if I call you Julia? Formalities are necessary on certain occasions, but I doubt we need them here.”
I had no idea what to make of this. I wasn’t certain what I had expected, but this wasn’t it. The woman didn’t radiate any malice or mischief—but this felt wrong all the same. “I… Sure.”
Those dark eyes bored into me while a soft smile graced Anghelescu’s lips. “Stan had nice things to say about you. So did Karamel. But what do you think of us? Or is that too forward a question?”
I felt like someone had yanked the rug out from under me. This woman was confident and gorgeous; she owned and ran her own business—and did it her way, from what I could tell. She was all the things I wished to be, but wasn’t—and those eyes seemed to see everything. “Unusual. You all seem incredibly unique.”
“How polite of you to say.” The soft smile grew. “It takes exceptional individuals to do what we do.”
I couldn’t picture this woman cleaning spilled wine with a sponge, let alone picking up guts with a pair of tongs while wearing a hazmat suit. “You’ve done the work?”
Anghelescu raised a well-manicured brow. “Of course. How else would I know what it entailed?”
I didn’t think she was a liar, but I still couldn’t quite connect this refined woman with that messy reality. “That’s rare.”
The brow rose higher.
“I mean, you rarely hear about company executives who’ve done the grunt work.” Yeah, way to put your foot in your mouth, Xero. “No offense.”
“Sadly, there have always been those who believe honest work is beneath them.” Anghelescu shook her head. “You will find no one like that here. To lose touch is to die.”
My brows drew together. What a strange thing to say.
“Do you have questions for me about the company? What we do?”
“Uh, no, ma’am.” I tried not to fidget. This whole surreal episode was making me twitchy. “I did some research before coming here and filling out the application. Though the website didn’t even hint at the amazing offices you have here. But it said you’ve been in business for over twenty-five years?”
“Yes, at least that long.” The woman appeared pleased. “Although CTS decon—that’s ‘crime and trauma scene decontamination’—is considered a rather recent industry model, cleaning itself has been around for millennia. It’s just become a bit more specialized in modern times.”
I nodded. “Until I saw it in the paper, I didn’t even know there were such unusual jobs out there.” The nature of it, though, explained the perks. Or at least I’d thought it did before I’d set foot in the place.
“There are more of them than you realize,” Anghelescu said.
Under that all-knowing gaze, I didn’t dare doubt it.