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 ignition slot seemed a completely different shape to the car key that had fit it perfectly so many times before, but finally the damn car started, and the engine screamed as Daniel pushed the accelerator hard into the faded carpet.
The voice of the earpiece had been thin and scratchy, but he had had no problem understanding it.
“HK1, HK1, squawk ident.” Then a pause. “HK1, HK1, additional assets inbound, ETA five minutes.”
Tires spun uselessly in the mud as he broke the exchange down into easy fragments. He guessed that HK1 was the call sign for the sniper. He had no idea what “squawk ident” meant, but he had no problem with the last part of the message: it meant that the sniper had friends, and they would be here in less than five minutes.
Before Daniel changed his mind about buying the Porsche — an idea that seemed completely fantastic now — he had test-driven several models to work out which one he really wanted. He briefly thought he could really use the 3.2-litre super car right now. Instead, he had the battered Ford, and it fishtailed wildly on the corners as its front-wheel drive scrabbled for grip. The mass-produced two-litre engine screamed as he pushed it harder than ever before.
And still he was not going fast enough.
Daniel didn’t let anything slow him down, not the traffic lights on red or even the roundabout that jumped out in front of him and nearly wrecked the car. What did slow him down was the sudden understanding that he had no idea where the sniper’s friends were coming from.
If they were coming from the town centre, they would pass him any moment now, and driving like this would only attract their attention. The battered Ford slowed to a much more conventional speed as Daniel started to watch for the sniper’s friends. He had no idea what he was looking for, but he had a vague image of absurdly oversized macho four-by-fours crammed full of the sort of right-wing fascists who thought it would be a good idea to kill an innocent site manager just to disrupt a government project.
He was still scanning the sparse evening traffic for bald-shaven bullet-headed thugs with neatly inked Nietzschean tattoos when a helicopter passed over head.
The sound of its passage was a Wagnerian Götterdämmerung on iMax speakers, but the downdraft from its rotor a minute later was worse as it shifted the ton-weight of the Ford around like a toy. The traffic was light at this time of night, which was just as well, because there was nothing behind Daniel when he abruptly slowed to a halt.
In the rear-view mirror, the bulk of the helicopter was a rapidly shrinking shape and Daniel told himself that it was just an air ambulance ferrying a drunk driver to hospital. But he stopped saying this when he saw the insect shape of the helicopter descending into the arc-lit glow of The Field. Daniel tried simultaneously to drive much faster and not attract attention.
* * *
Sarah opened their front door before his key had even touched the lock. The expression on her face was mingled relief and anger and Daniel thought she had never looked more beautiful. Then she stepped past his arm, still outstretched to unlock the door, and kissed him briefly but with passion. That’s the relief, Daniel said to himself, and he wondered at his chances of turning that into some enthusiastic sex later on.
“Where have you been? What time do you call this? You could have phoned!”
That’s the anger, Daniel thought as she held his hand and pulled him into their house. The front door closed behind them with an odd metallic thud.
“I’m sorry I’m late. There was a problem at work.” He paused. He felt dazed and confused, the events of the day slipping through his fingers like sand at the beach. “There was something about a wasp that made marks on a bulldozer.”
Sarah looked at him in confusion “Why are you talking like that?”
“Why am I talking like what?” he repeated dully. But then he listened to his voice, and she was right. He was talking in some strange mid-Atlantic accent, a bizarre fusion of upper-class British and west-coast American.
But then he saw the reason in the mirror. He was Gary Grant, and the lights and cameras were here because this was the film set for North By Northwest. Later on, they would film the classic crop-duster chase scene, except Alfred wanted to use trains in place of the planes, and he didn’t think it was going to work.
* * *
The train horn sounded again, and Daniel woke up completely. Stiff and cold on the back seat of the Ford with only a thin travel blanket covering him. Carefully he sat up and peered through a window thick with condensation. The train station car park was nearly full, and the 6:05 to London sounded its horn again as it gathered speed. He lay back down and tried to sleep, tucking the blanket around him to catch every therm of heat.
He had pulled into the car park at two in the morning, so tired and punch-drunk from driving that each junction had become a death trap. He had been driving for hours since he had seen the helicopter, only pausing twice. Once for ten minutes in the local council estate and then later to buy petrol and something to eat at a petrol station. He’d made sure to pay cash.
His evening meal had been a Mars bar, a packet of crisps with a can of Coke to wash it all down. And most of the coke had spilt all over the passenger seat when he had taken a corner too fast. He had spent all those hours looking for somewhere safe to spend the night.
Parking by the side of the road was too vulnerable to someone walking by and wondering if there was any connection between the car windows thick with condensation and the mound huddled on the back seat. The town centre car parks had been empty. He would have been far too obvious there.
He had just given up all hope of finding somewhere safe when he had seen the train station car park. Even at two in the morning there were cars there that must have belonged to shift workers or those taking advantage of a cheap overnight trip. Parking between two other vehicles, he had fallen asleep to the ticking sounds of his car as it cooled down.
His sleep had been light and easily disturbed. First by a courting couple having very noisy sex a few cars away and then finally by the early train as it pulled into the station, and he had made all of those things into part of his dream.
For a moment, he tried to think about Sarah, but all his attempts were replaced by the film set of North By Northwest, and he knew exactly where that idea had come from. Because wasn’t that film the archetypal model of fear, paranoia and the little man pursued by a shadowy, all-powerful network? Only he has no idea why they are chasing him.
Daniel shifted uneasily on the cramped seat as he thought about the nightmare his life had become. At the start, he had thought that the police summary of tonight’s madness would read “Daniel was attacked by a group violently opposed to a major government project,” but shortly after the helicopter had landed, the little ear piece had whispered to him again, and he had known that the reality was much worse than that.
Because the thin scratchy voice had spoken the registration of his battered blue Ford and said, “Urgently wanted.” Then he had known that they wanted him. Not the project, nothing to do with the economic stimulus, they wanted him because he had something that they wanted or knew something that he should not.
If only he had some idea what it was.
* * *
Shortly after that, the thin voice had been replaced by a waterfall of random noise, and he had dropped the box and earpiece out of the window at 40 miles per hour.
After that, there had been just a brief stop in the local council estate to swap the number plates of his blue Ford with those of another blue Ford of nearly the same age, and then he had driven, just driven all night. He had known that home was off limits after he had passed by the end of his road and seen the parked car with the two half-seen figures in it.
He had no idea how long it would take before the substitution of number plates would be noticed. Just how often do people check their own registration? He could have days, hours, or they might be looking for this car right now. But all the time they thought he had something... No, better than that, they knew he had something. But what?
Daniel gave up trying to sleep and sat up straight, scaring the driver of a gleaming BMW looking for a parking space so much that he nearly crashed. Thinking through the day and what had been so different about it.
There had been the visit to collect the replacement panel, but he doubted that its location was some sort of state secret. The only other thing strange there had been the humane killer, and as much as he tried he could not build that into some grand conspiracy.
That left only the clipboard that he had accidentally swapped for his.
Carefully, he picked up the simple piece of A4 board with its few sheets attached to it and wondered what could be so important about it. The first page was a map of the local area, and even though each job site had been given some code, he recognized the relative positions of the schools they had completed.
Other than that, there were only a few random notes about stocking, re-supply and helipad access. The most damming thing he could find — and he tried very hard — was a scribbled note on the back of the map.
Check adequate tear gas supplies to clear any inhabitants of areas VP1, FSS1
And it was only when he put that together with the information that VP1 and FSS1 were codes for two of the schools that they had completed that he could rewrite that cryptic sentence as:
Make sure we have enough tear gas to get the kids out.
Daniel watched the commuters as they hurried to their trains, as he weighed up that sentence.
Enough to kill him for? Not a chance.
Skipping over the fact that there were a lot of people who thought a little tear gas in the schools wasn’t a bad idea, all he had was an unsigned note. Anyone could have written it, he could have written it himself. The note meant nothing.
He stared at the map, not seeing it, trying to work out what he was going to do. Where could he go? The announcements from the earpiece had sounded worryingly professional; had they been directed at the police? Could they be part of it? For a moment, he saw himself as the centre of some endlessly patient machine, watching and waiting for him. When it found him, it would crush him like a bug.
He was still thinking about machines when he saw the other sites that had been hiding in plain sight on the map.
The school sites that they had completed had been marked out in bold, but now in the stronger morning light he could see that there were two more sites that had not been highlighted: “Processing (1) — 75%” at the top of the map and, at the bottom: “Processing (2) — incomplete.”
For years, Daniel had been irritated by the manual action windows on the Ford, but now for the first time they came in useful, and he lowered the back window without having to turn the ignition on. As the condensation cleared in the draft, he could see from the location that “Processing (2) — incomplete” was the place they had collected the replacement panel from.
“Processing” meant nothing to him. What were they processing? Perhaps that was related to the cryptic comments about stocking and resupply? But the “inactive” made sense: that was why the site had been empty, perhaps why they had been allowed there.
But the 75% on the other site sounded hopeful. It was doing 75% of whatever it had been built for. Perhaps it might supply 100% of the reason they wanted to kill him.
Daniel checked the distances on the map. It was only a few miles away, even in the morning traffic it would take less than an hour. Such a short time to find the mainspring of the city-wide machine that was trying to kill him — and to stop it.
Outside the car, it was even colder, and Daniel’s back ached as he stood up straight, but as he opened the driver’s door he smiled for the first time in hours. At last, he had a chance to do something other than run and hide. He could find a way to fight back.
But as he sat down in the driver’s seat, there was a smell in the air and he closed his eyes and breathed in the memory of slow Sunday mornings, his head aching slightly from the night before. Laughing with Sarah over what they had done and where they had been, and all the time this same scent — the backdrop for those easy Sunday mornings.
Daniel opened his eyes and looked around. Somewhere close, there was a fast food van selling breakfast to the passing commuters, and they had bacon. He had paid cash for the petrol last night, but he checked quickly, almost frantically. He still had nearly four pounds, more than enough for a bacon sandwich and a cup of coffee with three, no four, sugars.
His mouth watered and drops of saliva darkened his trousers as he imagined biting into the smoky taste of bacon covered with so much ketchup that it would drip down his chin. Sarah called this “a ketchup sandwich with bacon,” but he loved it.
Standing up was easier now, and he turned, trying to find the source of that delicious smell. A few minutes walk and as long as he kept his head down the CCTV cameras would never see him, and he would be safe.
And then he saw the police car enter the car park.
He took a step further away from his car, telling himself that it was just a routine check and nothing to do with him. But then he saw the police car pause slightly as it checked a parked car. The car was a blue Ford. He took another step — it was just a coincidence. The police car slowed to check another blue Ford.
For a moment Daniel weighed up the options, the uncertainty of the police car versus the delicious promise of a bacon sandwich and found them almost equally matched. The police car moved a little closer. Thirty seconds later he was out of the car park and heading north. He stopped on the way to buy breakfast. A Mars bar, a packet of crisps and a can of Coke.
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Peter Bailey