North by the Red Death
by Peter Bailey
Daniel is a site foreman on a project building heavy-duty fences. When he accidentally takes the wrong clipboard from a parts warehouse, he finds himself in possession of information that shadowy forces will kill him to retrieve.
It was the screams that finally made Daniel look up from the eyepiece of the theodolite. His industrial ear defenders had muted the crashing and banging noises from the neat house across the road into just dull thuds, but these proved completely ineffective against the sheer lung-bursting power driving these shrill cries.
Daniel knew instantly that this was his moment to be a Concerned Citizen and raise the alarm, but he was still digging in his pocket for his mobile phone when the abrupt arrival of two police vans saved him the trouble.
The drifts of smoke from the trails of rubber that both vans had laid down obscured his view for only a second, but that was more than long enough for a flood of blue uniforms to smash their way into the house.
As he took a step closer to the eye-hurting blue strobe lights, there was a series of soft thuds and the suggestion of frantic activity inside. He didn’t take another step, as this would only have brought him closer to the large portable screen that was being unfolded to hide any further developments.
He was still musing over the fact it was odd to see so many armed policemen, when there was a cough from behind him. He turned around to deal with the latest problem, only Rhys had to repeat himself twice before he understood what he was being told.
Daniel looked at his site foreman in disbelief. “Bent?” He made it sound like a word he had never heard before. “Whaddya mean it's bent?”
Rhys took a step back, raised his hands, palms outward in the universal ‘Hey, don’t shoot the messenger’ pose and then pointed mutely down the school path.
Daniel looked past the shower of sparks as they welded panel last-but-two to its supports, past the clouds of diesel smoke as the crane lowered panel last-but-one into position. All the way to the low-loader that had delivered the panels.
Normally, the conjunction of the side of the truck, the ground and the panel leaned against it would have made a neat triangle. But even from where he stood, Daniel could see that the final panel was indeed bent.
Daniel walked quickly, his energetic strides covering the distance until he could see the extent of the damage. This wasn’t a minor problem that would make fitting the panel hard. It wouldn’t even be a case of just moving the mounting points to fit it. This was a distortion so great that the panel could never be fitted into position. It was, in short, completely useless.
“As near as I can guess, when they were loading they damaged one with the forklift.” Rhys prodded the panel as if this could fix the damage. “But rather than being their problem, they made it ours by restocking the pile with the bad one at the bottom. They knew that by the time we found it, it would be too late to send it back to them.”
Rhys carried on talking, but Daniel had already stopped listening. It had all been going so well. They had ripped down the old school fence and bored most of the holes for the new fence on the first day. After that, it had been a steady production line of concreting in the girders that would be mounts for the new security fence and then just dropping in the panels one by one. He’d been checking everything, making sure that the fence was as straight and accurate as laser-leveling could make it. But now, just when his bonus was nearly in his hands, the last panel was useless to them.
Daniel watched Rhys return to shout at the rest of the team, demanding to know why they hadn’t finished the jobs he had just invented for them, while he thought about the problem that had just been dumped in his lap. Being site manager had seemed just a nice title to go along with his nice salary, but now he could see that the title should really have been “the buck stops here.” Sure, he could order a new panel tomorrow — which would arrive in a week’s time. But by then his bonus would be a distant memory.
Daniel was still wondering what his wife would say about the non-appearance of a new three-piece suite when it occurred to him that the buck did not really stop with him. He had a bonus riding on this job, but then so did his manager. And he suspected that above him, there was a whole chain of increasing bonuses that all hinged on one damn panel. If he had a problem, then so did they. He thought they might be very motivated to fix this problem.
He picked up his mobile phone and dialed. The conversation was very brief and to the point. He liked his boss. At Christmas, they had got insensibly drunk together, but once it was no longer his problem, he felt much happier.
His boss had promised a resolution as soon as possible, but Daniel did realize that the fence panels were in great demand? Daniel knew that was an understatement if ever he had heard one. The production plants ran 24-7 making the things, and still there were not enough of them.
The safety for schools project had been the government’s big economic stimulus. Designed to jump-start the moribund economy by creating thousands of jobs, revive the manufacturing sectors and produce a lasting legacy of “safe, secure schools, where our children can grow and learn.”
The bill had been passed in Parliament with an unheard-of 100% approval. Of course, like anything designed by the government, once the plans had passed through committees, sub-committees and focus groups, the simple common security fence had morphed into a massively over-engineered requirement for a six-foot wide and twelve-foot high reinforced wire mesh panel, with additional internal supports, supported by girders driven deep into the earth. There had even been a joke about it on late-night TV.
“Of course you know why they are building this fence? It’s to make it easier to spot the pedophiles. They are the ones buying ex-army tanks off eBay to get through them!” It wasn’t a very good joke, and the comedian’s ratings dived.
But the project had been massively popular. Safety and schools paired well together, and for a while the unemployment rate fell to nearly zero. Daniel would be happy with his bonus, if he could get it, and his wife would be happy with the things it would buy. But he forgot all this as he lost himself in the comforting routine of checks and cross-checks. He never even noticed the silent disappearance of the police vans.
When his mobile rang, he had nearly forgotten its importance. Ten minutes after the call he was sat in the passenger seat of the low-loader, navigating to the address his boss had given him.
* * *
The drive didn’t take long. Their destination turned out to be a series of prefabricated buildings on the edge of town, protected by the same common security fence that they were trying to finish. The gate was closed, and the site seemed deserted, but there was an intercom to their left, with a speaker and a call button. There was a swift exchange of greetings before an unseen voice directed them to bay two, and the gate slid open.
Inside there were a number of buildings, but only one had a loading bay with a giant “2” stenciled on it and a figure waving to them. The reversing alarm of the huge low-loader echoed across the deserted tarmac as it maneuvered until it was perfectly positioned with the concrete bay.
The voice on the other end of the intercom turned out to belong to a middle-aged man called Steve, who seemed pleased to see them. He shook Daniel’s hand, said that he’d get them on their way ASAP and did he want a cup of coffee?
Daniel turned down his offer with real regret. Building sites are dry, dusty places, and even instant coffee sounded good.
“Come on up then and we will get you sorted.”
“Up” was on top of the loading dock. Daniel followed Steve up the concrete steps and then through the huge doorway into the dimly lit space of the building.
On the floor, was the panel that they needed and Daniel had never been so pleased to see a piece of metal before.
While Daniel and Steve stood to one side, the low-loader driver performed double duty and operated the fork lift truck that Steve had pointed out to them.
It was while Daniel watched the smooth ballet of the truck maneuvering, that it occurred to him that there was something very disquieting about the dock area.
He couldn’t see more than a few feet into the shadowy spaces of the dock, but all the time he had this ant-crawling sensation of being watched. There was continual half-seen motion out of the corner of his eye, but the moment he focused on that area there was nothing to see. He was very glad when Steve said, “Come on through to the office and sign that you’ve taken delivery.” He led Daniel towards a door that he hadn’t seen.
On the other side of the door, it was brightly lit and as Daniel pulled the door closed behind him, the light picked out something odd that had been hidden on the floor behind him, a strange swollen flashlight tube. It was a humane killer.
* * *
Daniel had spent a lot of time at his granddad’s farm when he was young, and he had seen the same device there. Granddad believed in calling a spade a spade — when he wasn’t calling it a bloody shovel. Sitting Daniel down he had explained what it was and what it was for. “Captive bolt humane killer. You put a bullet in here.” He loaded the slim projectile with his slow arthritic hands, and closed the latch. Place it against the animal’s head and then when you pull the trigger — put your fingers in your ears, young man” — Daniel curled his hands into fists and put a thumb into each ear — “you get this.”
There was a muffled thud, and a short metal bolt appeared at the end of the barrel, like some adult version of a “bang” flag at the end of a toy pistol. “I don’t know why they call it humane. It’s all the same to the dumb animal. They get a lump of metal at high speed in the brain except you don’t have to worry about the bullet going straight through.”
He had smiled at Daniel as he pushed the bolt slowly back inside the device’s body. Daniel had woken up screaming every night for the next week. After his Mother found out why, he hadn’t spent much more time at the farm.
“Sign here and here, initial there and there. Print your full name there.” The mundane ritual of bureaucracy soon made Daniel forget about the incongruous item, and they were on their way back to the nearly completed project a few minutes later.
It wasn’t until the rest of the team were unloading the panel that he realized he had the wrong clipboard.
The clipboard was the centre of any site manager’s life, with its growing and changing lists of things done and things to be done. His board had been full of signed work orders and job permits. This new clipboard just had a map of the sites they had completed with some scrawled notes.
Daniel visualized the scene, trying to see what had gone wrong.
He had gone into the office; put his clipboard down with his left hand. Signed there, initialed there. Turned around and then picked up a clipboard with his left hand. Except it wasn’t the same clipboard any more.
He threw the new clipboard into the back of his car, along with the mass of papers that accumulated with any job, and he made a mental note to return it to its owner. But this promise soon slipped his mind. By the time they came to kill him, he had forgotten all about it.
* * *
To be continued...
Copyright © 2013 by Peter Bailey