William Couper vs. Mason Bushell
He patted the ground next to him, grumbled in puzzlement and patted again. He scrabbled in a small arc before he finally looked and found that the electric screwdriver was gone. He stared at the area around him. His tool bag and other tools were still there, but the screwdriver was gone.
‘Shit,’ he muttered.
A robin on a nearby fence post warbled. He stared at it and it returned his scrutiny, tiny black eye fixed on him. A twitch of the head and it looked at him with its other eye. A flutter of the wings and it bent down to clean its beak on the corner of the wooden post. It warbled again, a longer fluting sound.
‘Who do you think you’re laughing at, you little bastard?’ he said.
‘Are you shouting at a bird, McNeill?’ Evans asked him.
‘Would you look at the smug sod?’
‘You’re shouting at a bird.’
‘It knows I’ve lost my screwdriver.’
‘It’s not in your bag?’
‘Where do you think I checked first, captain brain?’
‘Okay, man, no need to get snippy about it.’
‘Can I borrow yours?’
Evans frowned. McNeill knew it was a strange and hazardous thing to request. Power tools were precious commodities on any site, and he had just proven he was not up to the task of looking after his own equipment.
The robin piped in with a series of ticking sounds. McNeill glared at it.
‘Look, you can take your battery out of yours. I’ll use my spare,’ McNeill said.
Evans did not move and kept his hard gaze on McNeill. He knew what happened to tools that were borrowed. ‘Borrowed’ items would ‘accidentally’ find themselves in the borrower’s bag and ‘forgotten’.
‘It’s a short job. You can make sure I don’t forget its yours when I’m done,’ McNeill tried. When Evans still would not budge, he said, ‘Your name’s in huge letters on the bloody thing. I’ll buy a new one at the lunch break.’
Evans sighed and rolled his eyes. ‘Okay, but if I see you putting it anywhere near your bag, I’ll break your fingers.’
The bird flew away, warbling as it went.
His whole bag was gone now. He had replaced the screwdriver, two wrenches and half a dozen hammers in the last two weeks. At least he still had his new screwdriver in hand.
Chyak-chyak chyak-chyak chyak-chyak chyak-chyak!
There was a flock of about twenty jackdaws in the trees, hopping around branch to branch. Their already loud calls became more deafening and frantic when he looked at them. One dropped to the ground and flapped in a circle. Was it dancing?
‘McNeill have you seen my bag?’ Evans said.
‘I’ve never lost so much shit as have in the last month,’ Coulton said as he sauntered over.
‘Lost your bag too?’ McNeill said.
‘Bag, belt, bloody hat.’
There was an uproar from the birds. More had dropped to the ground and joined the first.
‘You know, I think you were onto something the other week,’ Evans said. ‘The cheeky bastards are laughing at us.’
Coulton started laughing. Evans and McNeill looked at him until he stopped in confusion.
‘Why have you gone all quiet?’ he said.
‘Haven’t you been paying attention?’ McNeill said.
‘I thought you were joking.’
‘Every time something goes missing a bird’s there. A robin, a thrush, a blue tit, a pigeon. Watching you, chirping or cooing or whatever.’
‘Has driving through those protesters every morning made you soft in the head?’
‘I don’t give a shit about those anti-fracking hippies,’ Evans said. ‘But you have to admit it’s been weird the way the birds keep watching us.’
Coulton was still smiling, but he glanced at the nearby group of flapping and circling jackdaws. He knit his brow and the smile wavered. He made a dismissive grunt.
‘You pair have either lost your minds or you’re taking the piss. In either case I’m going to have another look around for my stuff,’ he said.
‘He’s not going to find anything, is he?’ Evans said.
‘Have you found any of your stuff that’s gone missing?’
‘What the hell are you two doing?’ Evans sagged and McNeill rolled his eyes. Vance, their foreman, stomped up to them.
‘This section needs to be done by the end of the week,’ he said and pointed at the half-constructed tangle of metal tubes.
‘We would be in the middle of that if our shit hadn’t gone walkabout,’ Evans said.
‘Tell me you’re kidding.’
Evans and McNeill shook their heads. The anger drained out of Vance’s expression, replaced by worry.
‘I don’t know if we’re going to finish this project, boys,’ he said.
McNeill was surprised by the bleak candour. In the few months McNeill had worked on the site Vance had been a tiresome and belligerent presence, never satisfied even when work was carrying on as expected. His hostility had increased in recent weeks, and this alteration made McNeill almost as uncomfortable as the intimacy of the man’s statement.
‘They’ve been haemorrhaging money,’ he said.
‘The contractor?’ Evans said.
‘Them and the power company. All sorts of documents have been going missing. Materials, too.’
‘I thought they were slow in getting me the valves I needed,’ McNeill said.
‘I asked for a welding machine a while ago and I haven’t seen it,’ Evans said.
‘All the welding stuff’s long gone,’ Vance said.
‘Why are you telling us this, Vance?’ Evans said.
‘I think this project is going to go tits-up. You lads might want to start looking around for somewhere else to work. I’ve been keeping my ears open for a couple of weeks now.’
Vance marched off and Evans looked at McNeill.
Chyak-chyak chyak-chyak chyak-chyak chyak-chyak!
All the jackdaws had now dropped out of the trees and were dancing in a large circle.
There had been no work done at the site for days. Half the workforce was gone. Coulton had found a job on a construction site a week ago, and Vance left a couple of days after telling Evans and McNeill about the troubles at the site. When it became obvious work had stalled, even the protestors had moved on.
‘Coulton snaked into that job before me. The bastard,’ Evans said again. He had been complaining about it since Coulton left.
‘You told him about it, yes, I know. Who could have seen him taking a day off for the interview? What can you do?’ McNeill said.
‘Beat him to death with a bit of piping I’m going to steal from here in the next few days.’
‘You could probably take it now. There hasn’t been any security for over a week. Haven’t you noticed the cameras are gone?’
Evans looked up and scanned what was left of the buildings and fences. He snorted in surprise.
‘I could have been stealing stuff for ages.’
McNeill saw movement inside the door-less and windowless prefab offices and break room. The computers, kettles, telephones and most of the chairs, tables and desks were all gone. The site manager, Schultz, came rushing out, harried, his phone pressed to the side of his head. He hissed, ‘What?’ and looked down the dirt road leading to the site.
McNeill followed Schultz’s gaze. A large car turned onto the road and bore down on the site. He looked at Schultz again, the man was stricken.
‘Why are you two standing around gawping?’ Schultz said when he put his phone away.
McNeill looked around in confusion, ‘What are we supposed to do? Mime?’
‘I don’t know! Do something!’
‘Get knotted, Schultz,’ Evans said. ‘I still haven’t been paid for last week’s work. You’re lucky I turned up today.’
‘Shit,’ Schultz said as the car stopped in front of them.
The man who stepped out was in his mid-fifties, tall and heavily built. He wore a dark, well-tailored suit that cost more than McNeill’s car, and McNeill’s car was not a cheap vehicle. This was the CEO of the power company, Alfieri. He cast his gaze around the site and did not look as concerned as McNeill would have expected.
‘Schultz, good to see you,’ he said and shook hands with him. Schultz did not look reassured by Alfieri’s genial tone. ‘What’s the situation here?’
‘Well we’re trying to get things back on track,’ Schultz said.
‘By standing around on a half-abandoned site?’
‘I’ve been trying to source some new materials.’
‘We’ve already spent millions on materials. Where have they all gone?’
Schultz was silent. McNeill saw the subtle change in Alfieri’s body language.
‘That’s too bad, because that’s just lost you your job.’
‘Please! I can get this place back up and running.’
‘Jesus Christ himself couldn’t resurrect this place. This project’s done. I don’t know what happened here and I don’t care. I refuse and, more importantly, the shareholders refuse to plough any more money into this dirt pit.’
‘Don’t make a fool of yourself, Schultz.’ Alfieri turned from the distraught Schultz and called to McNeill and Evans. ‘You’ll get your last pay at the end of the week. You can go. Feel free to contact us again though, we’re looking for new sites and we’ll be looking for experienced labourers.’
Alfieri was about to go back into his car when a huge bird dropped out of the sky with a slap of giant wings and stood, shrieking, in front of him. The heron thrust its long, sharp beak at the tall man and he recoiled. He stumbled back as the animal advanced on him, stabbing its spike-like beak at his face. The driver got out to help only to be kept at bay with a swipe of a wing.
While the bird snapped at Alifieri and his driver, forcing them back, McNeill noticed other herons land on the other side of the car. Two, three, four, five, more, landed and ducked out of sight.
Another screech and the bird launched into the air, leaving Alifieri and his driver stunned. Alifieri recovered, adjusted his jacket and offered a sickly smile. His driver hurried back to the car. Alifieri sauntered to the vehicle and climbed in.
The car started and lurched. The driver looked confused. The front wheels lifted four feet off the ground. To the clash of multiple huge wings, the car rose six feet off the ground. Terrified, the driver pushed the door open and dropped to the ground.
Alfieri opened a door, but it was too late, the car had risen thirty feet into the air and was still going. Under the car, working as a single unit, ten herons lifted the car up higher. Alfieri screamed. The birds decided, one hundred feet in the air, to move forward.
McNeill and the others left on the ground watched in bafflement as the car sped towards the horizon and out of sight beyond the trees.
‘I don’t think we can expect to get those jobs,’ McNeill said to Evans.
The site was mostly empty. The prefabs were gone, as were the fences, all that remained was some of the piping still poking out of the ground. McNeill expected the last evidence would be gone in a day or two, leaving an ugly hole in the ground.
It was quiet. In the short months he had worked here, there had always been noise, the shifting sounds of tools and the constant murmur from the protestors that reached every part of the site.
No bird song.
He walked to where he had seen the robin. The trees loomed dark and inscrutable. He had a vague, mad understanding of why he was back here, but did not know what he should do.
Movement in the lower branches. A tiny, round creature hopped closer. The goldcrest stopped at the edge of the treeline and regarded him, taking him in, one beady black eye at a time.
‘Can I have my stuff back?’ McNeill said.
No response. What did he expect?
‘I’m not going to work for any other fracking companies. I do need my tools though. My family needs me to earn a living.’
The bird fluffed its feather and shook.
The bird fluttered back into the woods.
‘That was a waste of time.’
He turned and found his tool bag on the ground. Everything was there as it should be. Sitting on top of his tools was a long grey feather. With a final look at the trees, he snatched up the bag and left.
“Maxi, are you sure this is a good idea?” Kai asked, switching her vision from the forested hillside to the double line of train tracks running beneath the iron bridge she was crouched upon.
“It’s still in the liminal stages. So, if you have a better idea …”
Kai kissed him. “I trust you. I’m just anxious.”
“Me too.” Maxi smoothed her obsidian hair. “The Oracle’s on that train. We have to stop Schweitzer escaping with it.”
They heard the clacking of a large train. Then saw it thundering along the forested line toward them.
“Let’s do this,” Kai took a deep breath as the train came neared.
“I love you.” Maxi touched his lips to hers, stood and vaulted off the bridge.
Kai was right behind him. Falling two-feet she landed on her knees and dropped to her stomach upon the train’s roof. “Ow, why did I choose shorts! Maxi — you okay?”
“No, not quite!” Maxi replied in a strained voice. He’d overcooked his jump and taken a tumble across the train’s roof. His fingertips had prevented him from falling onto the tracks. With a groan of exertion, he tensed his wiry muscles and hauled himself back onto the roof. “That was too close!”
“You have a tendency for close shaves,” Kai rolled her eyes and pointed, “Come on! We know Schweitzer has his private carriage behind the locomotive.”
“Right behind you.” Maxi winked as the couple bent low and ran along the train. Jumping between carriages, they aimed for the black diesel-powered locomotive. On occasion, they were forced to flatten themselves to avoid branches, power lines and junction signs.
With a little luck and agility, Kai reached her destination at a crouch, “It’s the next —”
“You! Get off the … argh!” A soldier had appeared in the gangway between two carriages. He’d seen Kai leap over his head.
Maxi had gone unseen until he swung into the gap. His feet connected with head and shoulder sending the soldier flying off the train.
“Nice!” Kai grinned as she dropped down beside Maxi and accepted a quick kiss, “Let’s save the hanky-panky for later, shall we?”
“Yeah, I suppose we better,” Maxi reached and turned the carriage door handle — it was locked. “Now, what?”
“My turn.” Kai scrambled back onto the roof. Flattening herself just in time to avoid the framework of another metal bridge, she hung over the side. A sliding window was open, but it was narrow.
“Careful!” said Maxi winking around the side.
Kai nodded and began to wriggle and contort her lithe frame through the gap. A tree raced towards her. She shrieked, took a breath and flexed her shoulders through the window. Landing in the carriages vestibule as the tree passed by. “That was a whiskery one!” she gasped as she unlocked the door.
“Yeah, and you’d look terrible with a beard,” Maxi retorted while checking the luggage store was clear of danger. “Come —”
The safety slide of a luger pistol being withdrawn froze his words in his throat. “Guten tag. That way and no funny business!” A six-foot-tall soldier wearing army fatigues stepped from the toilet. Keeping his gun on Kai, he closed his flies with his free hand.
Kai followed as she watched a bead of sweat rolled down Maxi’s face. “Easy, big boy,” she urged she moved to follow his instructions.
“Herr Schweitzer will be displeased — now move!”
Maxi put himself between the gun and Kai as he escorted her into the carriage’s main seating area. This one bore cream walls with burgundy curtains. A small bar and plush burgundy seats. All were unoccupied aside from two surrounding a table. A pretty brunette in a sleek red dress occupied one. A long black cigarette tube graced her fingers as she gazed at the countryside racing by outside. Across from her, the suited form of Schweitzer with his platinum blonde hair and monocle. Between them an object wrapped in brown paper and hemp string.
“Herr Schweitzer, two intruders for you,” the soldier saluted. His gun never wavered.
“Very good, Karl. Return to your position.” Schweitzer rose and studied his unwanted guests, his nose pointing toward the ceiling. “Maxi, you never quit. Und now, you involved the pretty hexe too.”
“Kai is no witch. Watch your mouth when you speak about her.” Maxi bristled.
Kai placed a hand on his shoulder calming him. A tough thing with Schweitzer snickering just then.
“Funny, boy. You are my prisoners. I will talk about either of you as I please,” he remarked with a gleeful smile.
“Did you, even for one second consider what you took? Do you realise the damage you did to that tribe when you stole their Oracle?” Kai demanded to know.
“Nein, the tribe matters little to me,” Schweitzer raised his arms nonplussed, “The greatness of the person is not measured by how much he cares, but in the wealth, he takes and controls.”
“The purity of the man and his lady are measured in the way they selflessly give their lives to help others. That Oracle not only foretells the future and guides the tribe. It is the centre of their universe. Without it they will war until every last one of them is dead,” Maxi’s nose wrinkled with fury. “There blood is on your hands.”
“Good, That will make it easier to conquer the country when we return.”
“Oh, Heimy. You are a devil, aren’t you?” Simpered the woman still smoking her long cigarette.
“He’s an evil bastard but let’s not mince words.” Kai walked straight towards him. “One chance. Give me the Oracle, now!”
“She is a pretty, brave hexe, Maxi,” Schweitzer said ignoring the threat.
“Yup, she warned you,”
Schweitzer gazed on Kai and smiled.
“Fine,” Kai went from still to swinging like a peregrine falcon diving on her prey. Her fist hammered into his face with a resounding crack.
Schweitzer’s monocle flew from his cheek as he plunged backwards and crashed onto the table.
“Halt!” demanded both guarding soldiers.
Karl’s luger barked off one shot.
Maxi and Kai had been ready for it. Both hit the deck as the bullet zinged overhead.
The second soldier raised his Sturmgewehr 44 machine gun. The luger’s round slammed into his chest. He convulsed, unleashing a volley of bullets into the carriage as he dropped to the floor.
The woman screamed, cowered and dropped her cigarette.
Maxi swore as windows shattered and bullets smacked into the furniture all around him.
Kai had seen Karl preparing to shoot again. She vaulted into a cartwheel, somersaulted over Maxi, and planted her heels deep into the soldier’s groin. Landing on his chest, she winked and punched him into unconsciousness.
“Nice!” remarked Maxi standing with an appreciative smile.
“Thanks. You smell smoke?” Kai asked rejoining him.
“Nein, there is no smoke!” Schweitzer had gained his feet. Blood oozed from his cheek and mouth dripping onto his collar. He held a golden Mauser pistol in his right hand shaking with fury. Beyond him, a column of black smoke began rising toward the ceiling. “Now, you will die!”
“Err, I think the lady just set fire to the train!” Maxi said pointing.
Schweitzer sniffed his eyes going wide. “Verdammt! What did you do, Rosa?”
Rosa scurried from her seat. “I dropped my bloody cig—”
The curtains ignited with a deep whoomph
With springs in his legs, Maxi leapt forward. Cannoning into Schweitzer he deflected the Mauser.
Kai slipped by, her fingers wrapping around the object as she plunged into the thickening smoke. “I got it!” she cried.
Maxi groaned and choked. A knee slammed into his stomach.
Schweitzer pulled back to strike again.
Maxi blocked, collapsing Schweitzer’s nose with a sickening head-butt and shoved him into the minibar. Bottles of spirits rolled away and smashed upon the carpet. The alcohol igniting in pools of liquid fire.
“Run, Maxi!” Kai screamed.
He couldn’t, Rosa had seized him around the waist.
“Don’t make me hit a woman. Let me go and run while you still can!” Maxi said his eyes stinging from the smoke.
“Now, we all die!” Rosa shrieked.
“Hell —with — that!” Kai choked as she stepped from the smoke and delivered a withering slap. Rosa’s head bounced off the train wall.
Maxi didn’t stop to see what became of her. He burst free, seized Kai and ran. “Think this is our stop!” he said as they burst out the carriage. Taking one look at the grassy hillside, he kissed Kai and they jumped.
Both bounced and rolled as they barrelled through bushes and came to a stop inside the tree line.
“Owee! Next time we go on a date. I’m picking a much safer, softer activity,” Kai complained as she examined a new collection of bruises.
Maxi crawled over to her holding the object. Removing layers of brown paper, he revealed a near-perfect sphere of quartz. The transparent carving of an alien with a long skull glinted upon one face. “It’s a deal. First, we have to get this back to the tribe.”
Kai rolled on top of him. “I do love a man who is absorbed in his work. We —” an earth-shaking bang sent a hot breeze billowing through the trees. A ball of fire and a rain of wooden debris signalled the end of the train. Kai sighed, “Well, I was gonna suggest we lay and enjoy the moment for a while. However, we just sent a massive smoke-signal to every soldier in the area.”
Maxi stood. Taking Kai’s hand as they limped painfully into the forest. “Yup, like you said on the train. I have to save the hanky-panky the later.”