Better Than Gold
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I love to fly more than anything else in life! And sometimes, I like to write too. "Better Than Gold" is a serial-style short story I've been writing for nearly a year now, purely for fun. A new part will be typed and posted here when I can find the time.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Eleven O'Clock

Inside the Leedwit Cecily Northlane factory it was dark and quiet. Years of relentless production had taken its first pause and the machinery now stood motionless as if on the brink of a wordless sigh of achievement. The giant constructions of kludged-together assembly lines and steel labouring machines were still. Their saws, riveters and torches had buzzed, punched and spluttered out. Along the walls the rows of white bulbs had finally gone dark behind their iron cages. Glassy banks of gauges and dials had twittered down into immobility. Lonely echoes were left to wander up and down the hangers and old concrete halls that were furrowed with shadow.

In one corner of Hanger Two a gauzy yellow light glowed through the grimy windows of the mechanics office, throwing fuzzy panes across the floor. Moths bumbled up and down the glass, dusting the light with dry powder.

Dark shapes moved inside the office.

“Jasper Bonneweiss?” said the mechanic. “Yeah, I guess it would have been two nights ago I last saw him. Why?”

“I need to get in touch with him,” said Mr Gent. “I’m afraid the business is rather urgent.”

The mechanic gazed at him warily. “He’s not in trouble, is he?”

“No, no, it’s not that. It’s a matter of time that I find him, not of punishment.”

“Ha! That's an odd way to put it."

"It's a rather odd situation, I'm afraid."

The mechanic sipped his coffee as he considered Mr Gent's remark. He sprawled on a dodgy looking leather sofa, while the detective perched tensely on a metal chair. An electric lamp on a desk softly illuminated the corner of the room, revealing the magazine articles, photographs, certificates, receipts and delicate carbon blueprints that papered the walls. In the golden light the aged paper seemed to glow like newsreel film.

A third man lingered in the gloom by the door. He regarded both Mr Gent and his wristwatch with an impatient distaste that was as stuffy and starched as his uniform.

Mr Gent had already become accustomed to ignoring the unfriendly stare, however. His attention was intently focused upon the mechanic, his fingers knitted together to brace up his chin as he leaned forward on his elbows. His brow was tightly drawn.

“Two nights?” he pressed. “You’re certain of this?”

The mechanic nodded as he set his coffee on the arm of the sofa. “Yeah, it would have been two nights ago. Like I told Mr Leedwit’s assistant, two nights ago the kid was just been wrapping up the last engine runups for the Mark Nine. The showroom display models have been finished for nearly three weeks,” he added. “Official production has been underway at the Largo plants since, uh… fall last year?”

He leaned against the back of the sofa and twisted around to peer up at a large chart tacked on the wall nearby. “Yeah, I can’t remember the exact date, but it would have been sometime last fall. Anyway, Leedwit and the chief engineer ordered final stage checks for all the components in the showroom models about a week ago. Two nights ago Jasper and Dan and the Intercontinental guy would have just been finishing up the reassembly and getting SR4 ready for the party.”

Mr Gent blinked. “SR4?”

“Sierra Romeo Four,” said the mechanic. “Or just Show Room Four, the factory code for the gyro Leedwit’s got out in the new showroom tonight.”

“I see. Please, go on.”

The mechanic shrugged. “There’s not much else I can say. Like I told you, I last saw the kid in the auto garage when he was heading for home that night, which would have been what, the eleventh?”

“Yes, that’s right.’

“There you go, the eleventh. I asked him how the engine looked, he said fine, and we both took off for the night.”

“What time was this?”

“Just after midnight, I guess.”

“He walked home?”

“Nah, he’s got a little car, nothing fancy.”

“And you saw him drive out of the garage?”

“Nope.” The mechanic shook his head. “I said good night, headed the other way to catch my ride back with one of the floor welders, and that was the last I saw of him. When he didn’t show up the next morning I just figured that Leedwit had finally given him a day off to get some sleep, you know?”

“You’ve been pulling many late night shifts, lately?”

The mechanic gave a colourless laugh and scrubbed his nose between both hands until his eyes stretched down into taut bags. “Late shifts, early shifts, double shifts, overtime shifts- you name it, we’ve done it. That’s nothing new. It always gets like this whenever a new gyro is scheduled to hit the line.”

Mr Gent rubbed his chin. “So, you and young Mister Bonneweiss were not the last ones out of the building?”

“Nah, probably not. I mean, we were some of the last ones there from this hanger, sure enough, but other guys were still finishing up their shifts when we left. And Security is here all night, of course.”

He jerked his chin at the bored looking man in the brown uniform who loitered at the door.

“That’s right,” said Mr Gent. “Still, I spoke with Security earlier this evening, and while they saw Mr Bonneweiss leave the hanger, no one on duty spotted him after that. You appear to have been the last one to do so, Mr Winston.”

“I think you’re making too big a deal outta this,” yawned the mechanic. “Jasper probably just took a few days off. He’s been working a lot of overtime lately, getting more and more stressed out. He’s catching up on his sleep somewhere, maybe at a friend’s place. He’s done it before. Leedwit ain’t gonna skin him alive for that.”

“Perhaps,” murmured Mr Gent. He rolled over his wrist and shook back the cuff of his jacket. His frown grew hard as he looked down at his watch. The night was late. In less than two hours it would be twelve o’clock midnight, and then…

“This may be very important,” he said in a low voice. His eyes were bright beneath the hooded brim of his hat. “Can you think of anything out of the ordinary that happened around Mr Bonneweiss on the night that you last saw him?”

“Naw,” said the mechanic. He slanted his head to one side wearily. “It was a busy day, but we see a lot of those this time of the year. We get new gyros due for the showroom, regular service and maintenance jobs coming in, fifty hour inspections, one hundred hour inspections- oh, hey, there you go.”

Mr Gent sat up sharply as the mechanic slapped his knee.

“Yeah, hang on,” he said. “Here’s something for you- I did hear the kid get into a bit of an argument with a customer earlier that evening.”

“A customer? Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure, yeah. He was here in the office and the door was shut, and I was only walking past at the time, but I could hear him yelling at someone.”

“What time was this?”

“Maybe nine o’clock?”

“Are you certain it was a customer? Might he not have been talking on the phone?”

“Naw, there was definitely someone in here with him. When I first heard him shout I stopped for a moment by the door to hear what he was hollering about, and I definitely heard another voice in there with him.”

“But it wasn’t another engineer or an employee at the factory?”

The mechanic’s grin turned lewd. “We don’t have any women working down here in the hangers, Mister.”

Mr Gent blinked. “A woman? There was a woman in here with him?”

“Definitely. No man has a voice like that!” The mechanic whistled and then laughed.

“There were no female visitors scheduled to meet with anyone in the factory,” droned the security guard. “You must have been mistaken.”

“Women stop by here all the time,” shot back the mechanic. “We can’t ‘schedule’ when some dame is gonna come marching down to the hangers to complain that her Lionelle’s panel lights are all burnt out, or her engine’s running rough because she can’t remember to pull on carb heat!”

The security guard scowled. One hand wrapped around his belt, the other fell upon the butt of his pistol, which was holstered beneath the bulk of his stomach.

“We monitor all visitors to the hanger very carefully,” he said. “We check them in at the gates and check them out again when they leave, even when they’re service customers arriving without a previous appointment. We checked in no female visitors after four-thirty that afternoon.”

“There was a woman,” said the mechanic to Mr Gent in an airy voice of close confidence. “In here, in the office, with Jasper, alone. And she must have been a real harpy for him to be yelling at her like that.”

Mr Gent glanced at the security guard and then back at the mechanic, whose attitude had finally livened up with seedy interest.

“I don’t suppose you overheard what they were arguing about?” he said.

The mechanic hooted. “Hoo, no! I sure as hell wasn’t going to get caught hanging around the door if the kid came stomping out in that kind of a mood. But, like I said, I’d be willing to bet that it was someone coming in to complain to the service department about their gyro. Sometimes they’re too ticked off to talk to the floor mechanics and want to talk to someone higher up instead, in which case Jasper or Danny or one of the supervisors gets called down.”

“I see,” said Mr Gent distantly. “Did anyone see the woman arrive?”

“There was no woman,” growled the security guard. “This is all nonsense. Mr Bonneweiss was on the telephone, or speaking over the intercom, or listening to the radio. No woman was checked into the hangers after-“

“Four-thirty, I heard you,” said the mechanic, rolling his eyes. “No sir, I asked around afterwards and nobody saw her come in.”

“Could a female employee from another department have made a trip down to the factory to speak with Mr Bonneweiss?” said Mr Gent as diplomatically as possible.

“Eh, maybe.” The sly light faded from the mechanic’s eyes as he fell back against the sofa. “There are a couple of ladies over in Interior Maintenance that sometimes wander through around noon for lunch, or if they’ve gotta consult with a mechanic. But most of them work in Leedwit’s offices.”

Mr Gent remembered the blonde secretary with the snake tattoos and nodded, gazing bleakly at the floor. “I see.”

Forty minutes later his eyes were still cast downward as he trudged through the empty auto garage with slow, heavy steps, his hands thrust into his pockets. Beneath the brim of his hat his expression was gloomy. It would be midnight in an hour and he was no closer to knowing where young Jasper Bonneweiss had disappeared to than he was when he had raced out of Errol Leedwit’s tower office with a signed cheque in his breast pocket, time on his watch and a head clanging with unspoken questions.

Dull underground light flooded his vision and made him feel grey and weary. His footsteps rang hollowly along the concrete floor. The sound seemed to echo in his brain. Vague suspicions rambled through it, looking for something tangible to connect with.

Missing people were not unfamiliar to Mr Gent. One would think they would be, seeing as they were missing in the first place, but generally he had always had good luck in finding them. And in most of these cases you had to rely heavily on luck. As a private detective Mr Gent was classically trained in tracking people, but many of his clients were naturally skilled at disappearing- or at quietly making others fade away.

It was a lot easier to hide a person than to find him, he reflected moodily. A fugitive had his entire imagination at his disposal when he needed to discreetly vanish, whereas someone like Mr Gent could only really utilize that suspicious little corner of his rational mind to determine where they had gone. And this time it was racing against an invisible countdown…

Facts argued in the corner. Jasper Bonneweiss had last been seen at the Northlane factory auto garage at midnight two nights ago. He had departed the company of Mr Winston and walked to his car. He had not returned to his small apartment over the Burrow Street barber shop- no one had seen him climb the stairs to his apartment, Mr Gent corrected himself, neither his landlady, Mrs Hill, nor Mr Tilt the downstairs barber.

He had not returned to work the next day. He had not joined Mr Tilt or Mr Arrow, the other tenant, for breakfast the next morning. His newspaper had not been collected from the hall mailbox. His apartment door was locked and inside it was a mess, although Mrs Hill had sourly assured him that this was usually the case, and would he mind locking the door again behind him when he was finished?

Dry sinks and showers, unmade beds, missing shoes. Many signs pointed to someone who was not at home, and had not been home for an afternoon at least. Mr Gent had wandered the cramped apartment alone, nibbled some bread, sipped a little milk from a glass bottle in the fridge and poked through a hamper of dirty clothing. An hour later he had wandered out again, locked the door behind him, and thumped downstairs to return the keys to Mrs Hill.

According to the other mechanics in Hanger Two nothing unusual had happened to young Mr Bonneweiss at the factory. Mr Gent found that there was often no better evidence to be found in the case of a missing person than that given by close colleagues. In general, few people seemed to watch you as closely as your fellow co-workers did. Not many people wanted to work either more or less than the person labouring beside them. They watched one another as a driver might eye his fuel gauge.

That only left the matter of the mysterious argument with the mystery woman. How had she managed to slip past Security without being noticed-

Wait…

Mr Gent’s brain quickly reworded that question. How had she managed to enter the hangers without being officially checked in on the records?

He thought of the blonde secretary and her green snake tattoos. He thought about Jasper Bonneweiss and the mystery woman, and then as he stepped up to the side of his little beige coupe and the shadow loomed over him-

“Ah, thank you for walking me back to my car,” he said meekly without turning around, his hands buried in his coat pockets as he groped for his keys. “I think I can find my way back to the gate again. I gather they’ll check me out as I drive through the gate, yes?”

The voice of the security guard growled from somewhere above his head. “Yes, Mr Gent. Ordinarily we do not let visitors down to the hangers at this hour, but Mr Leedwit gave notice of your arrival and departure time and they will be expecting you at the south gate promptly at eleven thirty. Please don’t be late.”

Departure time? thought Mr Gent.

“This is common policy?” he said aloud.

“Yes, Mr Gent.”

“The south gate is the only entrance that leads down to the ramp and the hangers, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Mr Gent.”

Mr Gent’s fingers closed over his car keys. He pushed them aside and they closed over something else in his pocket instead.

He gazed down at his reflection in the driver’s side window of his car. Haloed in light, it was little more than a silhouette.

“Out of curiosity,” he said. “What guards were on duty the night Mr Bonneweiss disappeared?”

There was a brief pause. “There would have been three on duty,” said his escort. “One in the gatehouse, one at the gate and one on the drive leading down to the ramp.”

“All armed?”

“Yes, Mr Gent.”

“I see. I assume that the guard in the gatehouse is the one responsible for keeping record of every car and visitor that passes through the gate?”

“That is correct, Mr Gent.”

“You mentioned earlier that you were one of the guards who were stationed at the south gate the night Jasper Bonneweiss disappeared, didn’t you, Mr, ah… Gages, was it?”

“That is correct, Mr Gent.”

The shadow lurched. Mr Gent wheeled like a bird. His coat whirled out behind him and his hand flew out of his pocket. Brass rings flashed against his knuckles.

Blood slashed across the window of his car.

3 Comments:

Blogger Cibo said...

whack! XD Hot diggity but I do love some BLUD!

I like the scene-setting in the first paragraph -- just the sputtering lights and iron and echoey hangars and concrete floors, you really do invoke a smoove image. XD

(Might want to do a search in the document for "women" and "entire", though...)

And also, any significance to the names Hill, Tilt or Arrow? You don't have to answer! ;D

And as usual, a vivid vocabulary, sexily executed. XD

3:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

uh. i think this is starting to go beyond the 'short story' designation. redrum in the hangar. where's Mrs. Torrance..?

chris

1:02 PM  
Blogger btg said...

Cil: Oh man, thanks for catching those typos for me - I'm LOUSY for missing my own dumb spelling mistakes XD.

I don't think I had any significance for Tilt and Arrow as surnames at the time... I think I just picked them because they sounded vaguely threatening XD. But for Hill, yessir, ho ho ho!

And thank you again! I hope things will prove spurty enough for your blood enjoyment! ;D

Chris: Hahaha, it really is only about 70,000 - 80,000 words altogether, honest! I guess that's, erm, sort of a shortish story? A novella? (I hate that word, but oh well... XD) REDRUM, REDRUUUM!

6:41 PM  

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