"Mr. Irwin, good morning." The tall man bounded forward, hand outstretched. "Sorry Melynnda couldn't be here to meet you. She's over at headquarters today. I'm Lee Nabusho, office manager. Also, accountant, personnel, security, benefits clerk, and general odd job man."
...... The smaller man shifted his briefcase. "David Irwin from the Auditor's Office." He shook hands.
...... "Come on in. We're short on space like most places, but Driver almost never uses his desk." He led the way through the short hall and into a small office. "Because he's mostly in the field, and you're scheduled only part-time, the two of you may never meet. But if you do, we'll work out something comfortable. Meantime, make yourself at home here. Try the desk chair."
...... Irwin put down the briefcase and pulled a small notebook from a pocket. "Only one day a week here, two at most. Would that be J. W. Driver, or M. M.?"
...... "J. W., but everyone calls him Driver. To avoid confusion with his wife, Mrs. Driver, who heads this office, she's called Melynnda." He stepped to the large window and moved the blinds. "This place was a storefront originally, but the view of the parkinglot has its advantages. The white Pontiac two-seater is mine. Melynnda drives a ten year old, dark brown Mustang, which she usually parks by that light over there. Driver runs a dark-blue Jeep, the little one. A few days, and you'll know all the cars. Then it's easy to tell who's in."
...... "This is the principal field office, I understand. But what do you do?" Irwin sat at the desk and gestured outward. "My briefing was rather thin."
...... "So Melynnda expected," he laughed wryly. "We've put together a selection of reports and so on for your orientation. I'm document control clerk also, because I've got the only safe in the place. Let me get you that file. Do you drink coffee?"
...... "Black, please." Irwin nodded. "Thank you very much."
...... Lee gestured with a forefinger and left, returning a minute later with coffee and a bulging manila folder.
General Adminstration Archives - Case 1347 [Ref. No. D1174-411] |
They said it'd be easy to find. It was.
...... And this was where the victim had worked, a long windowless building bordered by a long featureless parkinglot. His ex-supervisor signed me in and led the way to the office, a windowless featureless pastel cubicle with a desk and two functional chairs. The only decoration was a large chart of photocell properties taped to one wall.
...... "Strange kid," the supervisor remarked, leaning back in his desk chair. "I mean, he looked like one of those biker movies. He wasn't anything like that. Long straggling hair, leather jacket, jeans, boots, one of those strange-shaped crash helmets. You know what I mean."
...... "But he wasn't involved in any gang or any other social group," I coached to get the conversation going.
...... "No, nothing like that." The man tapped a file folder at the edge of his cluttered desk. "We're very selective about the people who work here. I mean, we have to be, government projects and all. He was a test technician in a secure area. He was cleared to a higher level than I am. Totally trustworthy. The Security people really ran through the investigation on him. No problem at all. He was a hard worker too. Always after overtime. You know what I mean. I'll have a lot of trouble finding a replacement for him."
...... I nodded and stood up, mentally marking a line through this item on the list. The company investigation could be relied on, even though it was a small and not very successful company in aerospace industry terms. Its chief problem was that it didn't cut corners.
...... By daylight, it was a bureaucrat's dream -- a gray and leaden sky over a gray and leaden highway bordered by a gray and leaden landscape. Only a forgotten flare stub marked it as the site of last night's accident.
...... Two lanes of concrete road bordered by wide gravel shoulders, a sparsely grown cutting along the hill on the north side, and a wide expanse of flatlands protected by a guardrail to the south. The flatlands would have been a swamp, but it'd been a very dry year. Now, only stunted weeds struggled through the caked soil. An inch-deep stream ran parallel twenty yards away, not perceptibly swollen by last night's short hard downpour -- the land was that dry. Beyond the stream was a vista of dusty black, the stigmata of a recent grass fire.
...... As I pulled away, engine whine echoing back from the hillside, the gray and leaden sky remained miserly of the much-needed rain.
...... And this was where the victim had lived. An old clapboard farmhouse had been remade into a roominghouse for young drifters. The landlady hovered in the doorway of the tiny room, making sure I didn't hurt anything. Not that there was much of anything to hurt.
...... "A good tenant. A very good tenant," she declared. "He didn't drink, and he didn't smoke. None of that drugs or anything. Very quiet. He didn't have one rowdy friend the whole time he was here."
...... A very spartan existence in the single dilapidated room with mismatched furniture, within walking distance of his job. Motorcycle magazines were stacked in the corner, and a single motorbike poster hung on the wall. No other personal touches were visible. Several letters on the table were from home, money troubles on the family farm. It was understandable where his not-insignificant salary went. Johnny-come-to-town to support the folks back home.
...... "The only thing he did was work on that motorcycle of his," she continued after a moment's hesitation. "He kept it out back, and he worked on it every spare minute of his time. He worked quite a lot of overtime, you know. He was always riding that thing, and he knew every street in town."
...... Half a dozen business cards were taped to the mirror. The only one which interested me was for a repair shop which specialized in motorbikes. I took down the address and phone number in my notebook. The landlady was as relieved almost to have me go, as I was to leave there.
...... A lightning blasted tree, remnant from many years ago, reminded me to locate the fire station nearest the highway site and ask about the grass fire residue.
...... "Sure, I remember it," the station head allowed. "I was on duty the night it broke out. Natural causes for once. That lightning bolt hit so close, I jumped three feet. A minute or two later, we got the call, full box. It was a grass fire, moving like a big wave through those dry weeds. We had to come around back to get at it."
...... "It didn't jump the stream?" I asked specifically.
...... The man shook his head. "There was just enough water in it to stop that. It only took ten minutes to put it out. Nothing big at all. And for all that, we didn't get any rain to speak of. Just thunder and a few dribbles. We sure do need the rain."
...... I thanked him and walked back to my vehicle. Taking down the list from the loop on the visor, I marked a line through one more item. Too many people, too few leads. Driving off, I tuned the radio -- no news of interest, and the weather forecast was unchanged. Cloudy and dry.
...... The cycle shop was a neat but small building on a tiny lot in a light-industrial area. A postage-stamp lawn bordered a driveway which led to the garage door. The three-C logo might have been for Crazy Carl's Cycles, but it fitted equally as well Crazy Carl Chang, the proprietor. In aviator's jacket and a smashed uniform cap, his oriental heritage very effectively masked his late middle age.
...... "Good kid. I liked him," Chang admitted, as he worked on an engine. "He took good care of that bike of his. Only brought it in for a big job. Didn't waste my time. Paid on time. Didn't argue about the way the work was done. Like I said, a real good kid."
...... Scratch off another lead, another interview coming to nothing. The garage, which was attached to the showroom, was bright, clean, and well cared for. A variety of shiny tools filled boxes and racks. Spare parts were lined up neatly on metal shelving. The maintenance manual collection in the bookcase by the door was up to date and well thumbed. Under a canvas cover a personal computer waited for bookkeeping needs. Undoubtedly, the crazy was in reference to like a fox.
...... "One thing though." Chang lightly tapped a wrench against a chromed exhaust pipe. "That kid liked noise. Motorcycle show. He kept his machine clean and polished, but the muffler it had on could have been used for a colander. Couldn't get him to change it. That was the noisiest bike I've had to work on."
...... After all that sand, one tiny priceless nugget.
...... What I needed wasn't available here, but the state line was only a hundred miles away. Across the border, the liquor was kept in bank vaults, but no one cared if the real estate was burned down. It was hardly a difficult trip with the Cruise Control on, the air conditioning burbling against the humidity, and the CD player relieving the dependence on local radio stations. Yesterday's dreams forgotten -- how little the song writer knew.
...... Three stands and four sodas later, I had what I wanted -- a little bag of explosive potential. The sun was rolling in the awning already, and twilight would be long gone by the time I got back. Another drizzle would help, but it wouldn't be necessary, merely convenient.
...... Cruise Control set again, the headlights made a tunnel in the darkness, as the broken white line turned red and raced away in the wing mirror. The battle was being taken to the enemy.
...... Practice hadn't made perfect, merely feasible. Fuse in one hand, small finger hooked around the steering wheel, cigarette lighter in the other hand, window open and ready. Just beyond the accident scene, traveling at speed, I lit the string of firecrackers and pitched it out the window.
...... A moment later, sliding on the gravel shoulder with the brake pedal pressed hard, I tried to watch all three mirrors at once. Shift selector in Reverse to make the backup lights come on, emergency brake tight, I watched in the left wing mirror, as the big silver tentacle slashed down again and again on the exploding fireworks.
...... It hated noise -- like firecrackers, like the crackle of a loud exhaust pipe on a quiet night, like the boom and echo of the thunder which had brought fire and fear, heat and pain. It continued to hit at the string of fireworks, until the last cylinder exploded and its echo had faded into stillness.
...... Satisfied, it relaxed back onto its seemingly solid wood posts, its unburied end clenching into the characteristic monkey's fist. Straightening slightly, it became once again a perfect imitation of a highway guardrail.
...... From my viewpoint there was an easy solution. A mile ahead, a rural road and a small bridge crossed to the burnt area. Bounding over the blackened land, ashes blew and settled, leaving the smell of old disaster in the slight breeze. The creek was four inches deep now, but I drove through it as if it were a rain-swollen gutter, stopping in the weeds on the other side. The land was still dry; perhaps the lack of drizzle tonight would be an asset.
...... The letter from the Governor's office caught instantly in the heat of the cigarette lighter and fell in a red arc to the ground beside the front tire. Flames lunged out at the wisps of dry grass, fanned by the whispering wind.
...... By the time I'd recrossed the creek and turned onto the dirt road, the rearview mirrors were filled with yellow-red glow from the wind-driven grass fire. I'd stop in another few miles at a telephone and put in a call to the fire department. By then, it'd be too late to save any of the grassland.
...... Then the scene would repeat itself, red flares and headlights, blue flashers and the shadows of men at work. There'd be another death, but no one would know -- just the ashes of wood supports and the twisted remains of what once must have been a simple highway guardrail.
|chapter one||CHAPTER TWO||chapter three|
PLEASE NOTE: The above story is fictional - the characters and situations are imaginary. Resemblances to actual persons are accidental (and in some instances appalling!)