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.
The rest of the afternoon passed quickly. There was barely time to install the final panel, do the required checks and then sign off a job well done before packing everything away.
As the little procession of a low-loader, a crane on the back of another low-loader, the vans carrying the construction crew, and finally Daniel in his battered Ford made their way to their overnight store, Daniel planned how he would spend the bonus he had just saved. There was already money set aside for most of the things that his wife wanted — or needed, he was never sure of the difference — but now he had the money for the car he had always wanted.
Porsche convertible, flame-red, 3.2-litre turbocharged engine, zero to fun in 4.7 seconds. He had wanted it for a long time, and now it could be his. But as they waited for yet another high-speed dash of blue flashing lights to pass by, he thought about what would happen after he had got his dream machine. Construction sites were not palaces of political correctness, and already he could imagine the jeers and catcalls when he turned up in an expensive sports car... An expensive German sports car.
The catcalls he could deal with, but could he deal with the accidental reversing of a bulldozer into that flame-red body work? Perhaps a supercharged four-by-four would be better, something with enough grunt to see off the wannabes at the lights. He was still pondering the options when the lead vehicle in their little procession slowed and maneuvered into the entrance to The Field.
Storage Facility One was a grand Orwellian title that appeared only on management PowerPoint slides. Everyone else called it “The Field,” a much more accurate name for the strip of muddy ground on the edge of town, where the heavy machinery slept between jobs. Protected by a double-thickness chain-link fence topped with razor wire, lit by arc lights and watched over by CCTV, it was a secure place for their tools.
As the crane and low-loader took their place in the neat rows of parked machines, Daniel began crossing items off his end of day checklist while the last of the team were still leaving the site. The metal shed for hand tools was locked. He worked his way down the parked ranks of machines, making sure that each crane and bulldozer did not have keys in it and that each cab was locked.
He had not been on duty the one time this check had been skipped, and the resulting trail of destruction had made the nine-o’clock news. To stop the council-estate brats from making a swing out of the multi-ton wrecking ball at the end of its steel hawser, the huge weight was locked to the crane arm that supported it, and he checked the padlock that held it there.
And then all items had been checked off, everything squared away. He walked back towards his car, idly tossing the bunch of keys that locked everything from hand to hand. Dreaming of high-performance cars.
When he dropped the keys, he had a momentary sight of them hitting the ground, and then before he could change his step, he saw his boot grind them into the mud.
He swore under his breath, using only the most imaginative words the Polish laborers had taught him, as he pushed his hand into the wet thick mud. Somewhere close, a door slammed.
While his fingers continued to search for the blasted keys, Daniel looked around. There were no houses close to the field; even the yobs from the local council estate needed their stolen cars to get here to vandalize the equipment.
He had just decided that an open cab door had slammed shut in the slight breeze, when he saw the mark on the flank of the bulldozer to his left. It was a new machine, and he was sure that it had only acquired a few minor scratches and scuffs; but now there was a neat dark spot a few feet from the ground.
He watched the mark as if it were part of some new magic trick, his fingers probing deep in the mud. He must have kicked a rock, and it had bounced off the nearest machine leaving a fleck of mud. He had just decided that this was a perfect explanation when his fingers found the keys, and as he squatted down a little more to retrieve them — his foot slipped from under him, and he sprawled full length in the mud.
Again, the door slammed. This time the sound was louder and something zipped past his ear, as another mark appeared in the yellow paint work. He lay there in the mud for a few seconds, trying to process the situation.
Finally, he put it all together. The marks? And the thing that had zipped passed his ear? The zip had been the sound of a bullet, and the marks were bullet holes. Someone near the field gates was shooting at him with a telescopic rifle.
He had no memory of crawling away from the two marks — the two holes, a voice told him — to the shelter of the nearest machine, but he sat with his back against the huge tire, his front thick with mud, his heart beating so fast that it was vibrating rather than beating. He huddled his legs towards his chest, feeling the warm damp patch at his crotch where he had wet himself.
He covered the screen of his touch phone with great muddy marks as he dialed emergency services, except the “No Service” display told him that it would be no help. He took a moment to curse the technology that could wake him at three in the morning with a wrong number but wasn’t there when you needed it.
He froze in position, convinced that the slightest movement would reveal him to the hidden sniper. He’d missed twice; the third time would be the charm. A few seconds became minutes, and he realized that he was still alive. Glacially slowly he twisted around, and millimeter by millimeter moved his eye until he could see around the sheltering tire.
There was nothing moving; he was safe. The nut with the gun had had his fun and run away. Daniel felt himself beginning to relax. Soon he could phone the police, and they would begin their painstaking work of finding out who it had been.
Then he saw the bushes move.
Around the base of the chain-link fence, there was a row of scrub brush a few feet high, and it was moving in a regular pattern towards him. There was a wave of motion behind the bushes, then a pause with a smaller motion, then the wave would resume. It didn’t take Daniel long to understand what it meant.
Someone was crawling towards him behind the bushes, pausing every few feet to check he was still there before moving on. In a few minutes, the tire would be no cover at all, and the sniper would have a clear shot at him. He looked behind him; there was nothing close enough to shelter him if he ran. It would just make for an easier shot.
For a second, he thought he had a plan. He had the keys. He could start up the machine he was hiding behind and just drive over the maniac with the gun. But then he saw the problem. The cab opened on the wrong side, and he would make a perfect target standing out there in the open.
He needed a weapon, something he could fight back with, and he looked around for a rock or something he could use. And then he realized that he had a weapon, a terrible, awful weapon, and he hoped that the shooter was good with his god, because his wasn’t going to be a good death.
The taste of the key was thick and cloying in his mouth as he licked the mud from its wards, then he stretched out his arm, the keys jingling as his arm shook, until he could just reach the padlock while keeping his body safely behind the shelter of the machine.
His eyes flickered between the lock and the motion behind the hedge. For one moment, the keys began slipping from his grasp, and he knew that if he dropped them it was all over. Then he felt a wonderful, almost sexual thrill as the key slid smoothly in. The lock clicked open. The movement behind the bushes was closer now, and he waited for the right moment that time and gravity dictated. The bushes moved and paused, moved and paused. The instant the motion had resumed he pulled the locking pin free.
For a moment, the three-ton weight of the wrecking ball just hung motionless at the end of its steel hawser as if unaware that it had been released, and then slowly and implacably it began to move, driven on by the remorseless engine of gravity.
As it reached the low point of its arc, Daniel could hear the increasing hiss of the huge mass as it accelerated towards the bushes.
The movement behind the bushes stopped, just a fraction of a second before the wrecking ball hit at that exact point.
There was a strange zinging noise that Daniel later realized was the chain-link fence being stretched beyond any sane limit, and then the ball rebounded. But there was no more motion where it had hit.
Daniel didn’t think that the wrecking ball would have enough energy to return to him, but when you are dealing with a multi-ton weight that had just crushed someone to death, “think” wasn’t enough, and he stepped away from the launch site of his terrible weapon on legs that didn’t seem to work very well.
Then his legs quit completely, and he dropped to his knees as if offering up a prayer to the god of construction sites: “Please, God, don’t crush me.” The arc-lit field turned grey and then black as the ground reached up to meet him.
* * *
The bed was cold and Daniel reached over to drag back the duvet from Sarah, but as his hand touched something wet he woke up. He lay there on the muddy ground of the field trying to work out where he was and what the earth taste was in his mouth. Then the weight of memory dropped on him, and he remembered everything.
He didn’t know how long he had been unconscious, but it had been long enough for the motion of the wrecking ball to decay to an arc just a few feet wide. Certainly long enough for the sniper to have finished his job if the hammer weight had missed. Daniel said thank you to no one in particular, and tried his mobile phone again. It was no more successful than before.
The muddy ground was unsteady under him as he moved towards the entrance to the field, checking his phone every few steps. The instant he got a signal he would phone the police, and they could start the long inquiry to find out if the nut job had been shooting at him because he had been deeply opposed to the government’s economic stimulus or because the psycho had forgotten his pills this morning, and a voice from his microwave had told him to do it.
But he only took a few steps before he stopped and turned around. He told himself that he had to know that the sniper was dead, and he was safe, but really the reason was deeper and more primal. He had won, and he wanted to see who had lost.
He moved carefully towards the meeting point of ball and fence, expecting any moment that the sniper would leap up, shout “Surprise!” and then shoot him in the face. But when he carefully parted the scrub bush, he could see that the sniper was there, but his leaping days were over.
The shooter lay on his back, his head directly below Daniel, and his legs pointing back towards the entrance. But Daniel wasn’t ready to look at the face of the man he had killed, and he looked away — towards the gun that the sniper had dropped at his feet. Except it took Daniel a few seconds to work out that it really was a gun, because it was festooned in so many weird scopes and attachments that it looked more like some fabulous sci-fi weapon than anything as simple as a gun.
He let his gaze travel up, over the oddly shaped chest under the green and drab camouflage, and only then, when there was no other alternative, he finally saw the face of the man he had killed. There was mud in his short, iron-grey hair that had dripped down to cover his eyes, something that Daniel gave eternal thanks for, but his mouth was open in a silent perpetual scream.
When Daniel put it all together, he was instantly and comprehensively sick.
The sniper must have seen the wrecking ball in the last second of its travel and stood, up, as he tried to run, but the huge hammer weight of the ball had caught him in his chest, forcing him back into the chain link fence with its awful, implacable force.
He’d tried to scream but already the pressure had emptied his lungs and the scream had never happened. After that it had been simple physics: the ball had continued on its path, forcing the sniper back into the fence until the point where the fence had held, but his ribs had not. Trapped between the fence and the ball, his ribs must not have just been broken, they must have been shattered, and their bone knives had been forced into his heart. Under the green and drab camouflage, there was only pulp.
Daniel was still busy being sick when he heard the thin whisper of sound. At first, he thought it was a distant car radio, but then it came again, and now he could hear that its source was at his feet.
He had seen the single headphone next to the killer’s ear, but he had just thought that the sniper just liked to listen to some cool tunes while he worked. But now he could tell that there was an urgent voice whispering from the little ear bud. Daniel wondered if the sniper was just listening to some motivational tape for madmen or was there some more urgent message there.
He paused for a second, before deciding that he would listen to the thin voice for just a minute and then go in search of a phone signal. Being very careful not to touch the cooling cheek of the dead man, Daniel lifted the little rubber ear piece, pulling away the box it was connected to away from the dead man’s shoulder with the obscene ripping sound of Velcro. Carefully, he wiped off the earwax of the dead man and inserted the ear bud.
Less than a minute later, he was running to his car. His legs miraculously worked just fine now.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Peter Bailey