by Mike Phillips
part 1 of 2
The sound of shots being fired rose above the machine din of the factory. Again and again the gunshots sounded, the bullets speeding in all directions, bouncing off the metal capture hood and steel girders, erupting from the molten surface of the number eight melter in brilliant, volcanic flowers.
The workers realized in panic and alarm just what was happening. The big man at the controls dove to the floor as he punched the angry-red emergency-stop button. The conveyor came to an immediate halt, but the gunshots did not. Gravity pulled what remained of the loaded cartridges into the pool of liquid metal as the two men covered their heads and whispered desperate prayers.
After a few moments, the angry reports came to an end. The melter deck was quiet but for the ever-present rumble of the air handling system and the sound of metal being worked on the manufacturing floor below like the ringing of faraway bells. The big man on the floor looked up, deciding it was safe at last.
Beginning with a barrage of profanities that commented on the low intelligence, questionable lineage, and inadequate sexual prowess of his young partner, the big man, Fritz, shouted, “Didn’t I always tell you to check the load before you start in the morning? You could have killed me.” And he continued with another torrent of insults aimed at the young Billy, these even more colorful than the first.
“I’m sorry, the night crew...” Billy protested, but he wasn’t allowed to finish.
“Nice work, Billy boy,” Fritz shouted, his hands shaking as he returned the conveyor control pendant to the panel. “What do they care about the garbage they throw in at the last minute? How many times do I have to tell you before it gets through that thick head of yours?”
“But why would they do that?” Billy asked as Fritz stomped toward him.
Fritz was a bear of a man, nearly seven feet tall. His thickly muscled body had been cast in the hard labor and heat of foundry work for over twenty years. The soot-covered, wire-brush whiskers of a chest-length beard sprouted from under his respirator like a lion’s mane. Fritz was as frightening as any lion would have been to Billy as he stood at the far end of the conveyor.
The stairs were at the other end of the mezzanine; Billy might have run for it if he thought he could escape. As Fritz came toward him, arms flailing to punctuate every insult, Billy backed right up to the handrail, sending a worried glance to the main floor of the factory thirty feet below.
The answer Fritz gave to Billy’s question was full of loathing. “What do they care? It’s all a big joke to them. If we’re not smart enough to check things out for ourselves, then it’s our own fault.
“You got to learn to take responsibility, Billy boy. It’s just like everything else with you, ain’t it? All a big joke, uh? Doesn’t matter who else gets hurt along the way.”
“But I checked it,” Bill shouted in defiance.
“Don’t lie to me. If you can’t get your act together I’ll have the foreman kick your sorry ass out of here. You’ll be slinging burgers so fast your head’ll spin.”
“But Fritz, I swear, I checked it twenty minutes ago, just before the meeting.”
Fritz took off his tinted safety glasses, leaving a mask of clean flesh about his eyes, and gave Billy a hard look. “Good job,” he said sarcastically, “it looks like you took care of that about as good as you did my Shelly.”
Sufficiently bullied by the comment, Billy said, “It was all clean this morning. I checked it. Besides, it was all that stuff from Comstock Metals. You know there’s no bullets in there. Someone must have put them in just before we came back.”
“What’s that?” said Fritz, pulling the respirator down to his chest, the anger suddenly gone. “You’re not lyin’ to me, are you, boy?”
“No, I swear.”
There was a moment as the two considered each other. The ever-present growl of the exhaust hood kept the silence from growing too much to take.
“Checked it, did you?” Fritz finally said.
“Yes,” said Billy, a step below pleading.
“You better not be lyin’ to me,” Fritz said, gently this time.
His wild hair no longer seemed so bestial. The anger that had hardened his features softened. It was then Fritz asked an unusual question.
“You see anything?” He paused. “Anything weird?”
Taken aback, Billy said, “What?”
“You know, something strange, like out of the corner of your eye.”
Billy froze. Now that Fritz had put it into words, Billy thought he had seen something strange that morning. He swallowed hard. His guts turned and he grew pale.
Scrutinizing the young man, Fritz said in a crazy half-whisper, “Ah, so you did see something, didn’t you?”
“No. I mean, yes, I did.”
“Make it feel like you had a few pops, did it? A little light-headed? Dizzy?”
“Yeah,” replied Billy tentatively.
“Oh, thought so, maybe.” Fritz said quickly, “You smell pine trees?”
“Yes, now that you mention it, I did.” Billy shook his head. “What’s wrong?”
Looking over his shoulder as if he were expecting an attack, Fritz said, “This place is full of strange things. Think, Billy, think. Machinery breaking down. People getting hurt. All kinds of stuff coming up missing. It’s not canny if you ask me.”
“No, that’s just the guys, the contract. They don’t really want to go on strike so they try to mess things up.”
“Oh no,” Fritz laughed. His voice was haunting. “It’s not the guys doing it. Contract or no it can’t be explained by the works of men.”
“What is it, then?”
“Don’t really know for sure. This place has had its spooks as long as I’ve been here. It’s like it’s been around too long. Maybe too many men got killed or hurt in the old days. That kind of thing can turn places bad sometimes, like prisons and hospitals, all the human suffering, the lost souls.”
“Come on Fritz, you don’t believe that.”
“Believe it Billy boy. There’s a lot in this world that all those college folks like to think they can explain, but they can’t, not really. The world is a strange place.”
Billy shuddered. He wanted to laugh, wanted to dismiss the talk as absurdity, but somehow looking at Fritz, he couldn’t. “So what do you think it is? Some kind of ghost?”
“No, a machine fink probably.”
“Yeah, I’ve run into them before, the nasty little buggers. They do this kind of thing all the time. They like to push buttons, break machinery, steal donuts, that sort of thing.”
“Do they hurt people?”
“Yeah, sometimes they do.”
“What do they look like?”
“Well, they’re small, about as big as your hand, and standing still they’re pretty much invisible unless you throw a blanket over them or something. That’s how Fred caught one once.”
“Not old Fred in maintenance?”
“Oh, yeah, Fred, he wasn’t born old you know,” Fritz said with an incredulous smile. He continued with his description, saying, “Anyway, you can see it when they move, a shape is all, not like an animal or a person. If they stand still they disappear.”
Unable to accept what he heard, Billy said, “Are they real?”
“As real as you and me, and don’t you ever forget it. They may be small but they’re incredibly strong and they can be real devils if they have half a mind.”
“If they’re not ghosts, where do they come from?”
“Well, the guys say a bunch came in with that new hoist from Ohio. That’s why it breaks down all the time and none of them hot-shot engineers we got can fix it.”
“You mean they’re all over?”
“Why sure, I think they came on the boats from Europe. The old stories from over there talk about stuff like machine finks if you know what you’re looking for. My guess is they’ve been playing games with folks for centuries.”
Fritz gave Billy a meaningful nod. “We’re going to have to get rid of it, you know.”
“But why do we have to do it? Let the Boss-man take care of it.”
Laughing raucously, Fritz said, “I said a machine fink, not a rat fink. That pinhead can’t do anything about it, not that he would believe us if we tried to tell him.”
“So what do we do?”
Giving Billy a conspiratorial grin, Fritz said, “We set a trap.”
* * *
Copyright © 2013 by Mike Phillips