The door of the post office opened suddenly, the squeak of unoiled hinges grating on my ears in what had been perfect but unnatural silence. A man emerged.
He was in his late forties, balding and overweight, a businessman by the look of the suit. He blinked at us, a confused expression on his face.
“What’s happened? Everything…everything’s stopped.”
“Yeah, it does that,” Phil shrugged, a cigarette in his mouth. “Don’t worry, it’ll all become clear when the client arrives. It always does.”
Their voices had a strange quality to them, as if I was hearing them through a barrier of thick plastic or foam. Slightly muffled with a strange echo. And yet they were right next to me.
I turned from Phil to the businessman and back to Phil again. My head was swimming.
“What…what the bloody hell’s going on? What sort of delivery is this?”
Phil breathed out through his nostrils, twin plumes of smoke curling around his head. Smoke that slowly stopped moving and became a semi-solid fog. He shook his head and moved sideways.
“Shit, I forget this happens. Should pack in soon, anyway…”
I watched him crouch down beside the box, pulling out a pen. I gently prodded the wall of smoke. It yielded slightly, like a half-deflated balloon.
The businessman stared at me, an imploring look in his eyes. “I don’t understand…I can’t remember what I’m doing here…or why I came here in the first place. I don’t…I don’t get it.”
“That makes two of us, mate,” I said sympathetically, disturbed by the sound my own voice was making. Felt like I had cotton wool in my ears. And mouth, too. It was an effort to speak, as though I had to force my words out into the air. “Phil! An explanation, please.”
Phil waved an irritated hand at me, concentrating on filling out the details on the delivery note. “Not yet, chap. I’m busy.” He looked up. “Ah. Here he comes.”
Steady footsteps, the sound of well made shoes advancing down the gravelled path that ran alongside the post office.
The man that appeared was tall, about six foot five. A smart black coat, unbuttoned, showed an expensive business suit and a sober but obviously equally expensive tie. I’m no expert on office wear, but everything from the overcoat to the polished leather shoes screamed expense and quality, a sharp contrast to the clothes worn by the confused businessman he now stood next to.
It was difficult to judge his age. Very few lines on his face, no facial hair and short but not cropped black hair. He could’ve been in his early thirties, but he carried himself with the air of one much older.
He smiled to both of us, a brief but warm and genuine smile of welcome. This made him seem younger, almost boyish, until I saw his eyes.
They were a striking colour, a cold deep blue that put me in mind of Norwegian fjords. It might have been an effect of the strange time-frozen sunlight, but it seemed that there were flecks of gold in both irises.
But the overwhelming impression was that of age. It’s true what they say; some people can look younger than they really are, but it’s always the eyes that give you away. Age is carried in the way you look at the world, at other people, and the client was no exception to this.
His gaze was hypnotic. His eyes locked onto mine…and seemed to go further. As though he was reading my mind.
“You must be the new employee.” His voice was deep but not booming, with no trace of any regional accent. Well spoken, almost Received Pronunciation, reminded me of Oliver Nigel, but it didn’t sound like a way of speech that came naturally to him. Almost as though it had been learned.
Still, it was a voice that commanded attention – and respect. He offered a hand, his gaze not wavering for a second. “Welcome to Adasantsat. Hope you’re settling in okay.”
I found it hard to reply as I shook his hand. Firm, crisp handshake, no sweaty palm or excessive grasp. And still that cold, appraising and penetrating gaze.
“Morning, sir,” Phil Ross’s voice was low, almost timorous. I saw that he had hastily thrown his cigarette away as the client had approached. The smoke no longer had my attention. I was riveted to the events unfolding around me. “Delivery as requested for you.”
The client released my hand and turned to face Phil. “Ah yes, I see. Very prompt service as usual. Thank you.” He signed the delivery note, peeled off and retained the top copy, and handed the carbon to Phil. Phil’s hand was shaking as he took it. The client stared hard at Phil. “I trust this box has not been…examined. Like the last one?”
Phil shook his head frantically. The client smiled, nodding in approval before turning from us and picking up the box. I tried to catch Phil’s eye, but he looked at the ground instead.
Fuck this, I thought. I called out to the client, who was examining the barcode label on the archive box. There was an unhealthy grin on his face. Teeth bared, brilliantly white and even teeth, a smile of anticipation that looked almost like…hunger.
“Excuse me. Nice to meet you, but I didn’t catch your name.”
If the silence was unnatural before it was completely unearthly now. Phil’s face had turned white. I grinned at him.
The client lowered the box and turned to me. His eyebrows furrowed slightly, the gaze from those impossibly gold-flecked blue eyes turned colder. Then he smiled.
“I’m sorry. I thought your workmates would have told you. My name is Mr Golien.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr Golien.” Strange bloody name.
“You like asking questions, don’t you?” His eyes turned towards Phil, who looked like he was on the verge of having a severe stroke. He looked back to me. “I find that…refreshing. Too few people take a genuine interest in their work these days.
“I’ve a feeling you and I will be seeing each other again soon. Now, if you’ll excuse me…”
The confused businessman stared, bewildered, at the box offered to him by our client. The lid was peeled away, the opened box held one-handed by Mr Golien. Twenty kilos in one hand and the bloke was holding it as though it was an egg box.
“Mr Lander, I believe these are yours?”
The businessman bent over the box, stared at the contents. Mr Golien dropped the lid and delved into the box, pulling out a brown manilla folder.
“I think you remember now?”
Phil grabbed my shoulder as the client turned to us. Mr Golien nodded once, a dismissal.
“Let’s go. Now.”
I shook myself free. “Not yet. I want to see – “
“We don’t stay for the handover! Terms of the contract. We deliver, get the signature…and never look back. Get in the fucking van.”
Never look back. Yeah, right. The wheels of the Transit spun, gravel spinning as Phil swung it onto Wantage Road. He put his foot down, trying to put as much distance between us and the handover as possible. Handover, not a delivery.
The noise from the engine was suddenly drowned out by the scream of sirens. The beacons on the police car and the ambulance were moving again. I could hear doors slamming, and in the side mirror I could see the two coppers running into the post office.
Running through Mr Lander and Mr Golien. I couldn’t see much after that, but I was aware of the businessman falling to his knees and what looked like a scream coming from his wide-open mouth. A scream that was caused by the paper that Golien was holding out for him to see.
The journey back was tense. Phil didn’t say a word to me, just kept his eyes rigidly fixed on the road ahead, knuckles white where he clenched the steering wheel in anger. Or fear. His eyes had flicked to his side-mirror when Lander had fallen to his knees and screamed. He’d definitely seen it. But wasn’t prepared to comment. And I was too shocked and bewildered by what I’d seen to try and engage him in conversation.
Watch and learn. Keep your mouth shut. No questions.
Bollocks. If this was a typical Adasantsat delivery, there were some serious questions that would need answering.
Those questions were not going to be answered that day. When we got back Paul beckoned Phil into the office, giving me a hard look before pointing me in the direction of two lads who were breaking down pallets. After being shown how the handheld barcode scanners worked I spent the rest of the afternoon putting boxes to shelf with the scissor lift. The two storemen kept their conversation to a minimum, trying not to talk to me unless it was absolutely necessary. Even then, it was strictly regarding technical issues, the barcode scanning, where the boxes went, and so forth. They tried not to even look me in the face. I was obviously in someone’s bad books. Or perhaps the results of Jim’s disciplinary had been announced and made public to the staff.
Paul had gone out on a delivery himself. Bang went my chance of asking him the questions I wanted answers to. But when I got home later that night and put the TV on one of my questions was answered.
It had made both the national and the local news. An armed robbery in a post office in Harwell. The robbers had made their getaway long before the police arrived, and the ambulance that followed was too late to save the life of some misguided have-a-go hero. The post office clerk was seriously injured, but the surgeons at the John Radcliffe had miraculously managed to save her life. Stefan Lander, an insurance advisor from Wantage, was not so fortunate. He was shot in the face as he tried to wrestle the shotgun from one of the raiders.
The whole incident occurred at 11:15 am. Ten minutes before we had arrived to make the delivery to Mr Golien.
I had to force myself into work the next day. What I had seen – hell, what I had participated in – was scary enough. I’d witnessed something incredible. A time warp, time-freeze, whatever you want to call it. And a conversation with a man who had died ten minutes previously. A man intact, even though his head had been blown away. I’d had all night to think it over, tried to put some rational spin on the events. Nothing would fit. And the more I thought it over, the more I got scared. My first instinct had been to question it – and I’d questioned the very people, my workmates, who thought it normal. Well, not normal but acceptable.
How the hell could this be acceptable? How could you go in day after day, doing something that you knew defied logical explanation? Why wouldn’t you question it – even challenge it?
No, that was bloody silly, I told myself as I rolled over in bed, trying to force myself to sleep. Wherever you go, wherever you work, most people just accept things they don’t agree with. Take it on the chin and get on with it. “Just doing my job.” “I do what I’m told.” They do it out of fear of upsetting the bosses, fear of marking their own cards. Fear of losing their jobs.
That was the key. Fear. But the fear that gripped the employees of Adasantsat was something else. This wasn’t fear of losing jobs. This was something else. It was a fear that was taking hold of me now. For the first time in my working life I was reluctant to ask questions. Not just because of the reaction – I had a feeling that losing my job, being still in the probationary period, was the least of my concerns. No, I was more scared of the answers that I might get. Answers that my workmates had written all over their faces.
Another true saying. Fears are worse at night, and daylight will diminish them, if not banish them completely. After a restless night, with no more than two to three hours sleep, I woke feeling tired but more confident. It was just a job, that was all. If these guys wouldn’t answer my questions, fuck ‘em. I’d find something else. As I scraped the razor over my chin I stared into my reflected eyes, trying to find the confidence I told myself I was feeling. The eyes were shrunken, a haunted look I’d never seen before. I blinked fiercely. No, that’s not me, that’s not how I look or feel. Confidence. You have the right to ask. You’ve got the guts to ask, to put others on the spot. That’s rare. Embrace it.
That’s better. I grinned back at the reflection as I wiped foam from under my left ear. Turning my head to make sure there was none remaining I noticed something odd. The overhead light had caught my eyes in a different angle. My eyes are a mix of hazel and green, and previous women I’ve known have always remarked on them, told me they’re my best feature. Said that they almost make up for the way I smile too much and too quickly, often in inappropriate circumstances. The fact that they change colour according to different light conditions has never been of interest to me. It’s never been enough to keep said women interested long enough. Certainly not Jackie, nor the two birds she’d caught me with last month that led to the break up.
It was odd. The lighting conditions in the bathroom weren’t changing. Perhaps it was the steam. Perhaps it was the fatigue from my lack of sleep.
But something was glinting in the irises. Almost like flecks of gold.
That morning I took advantage of the £1.99 breakfast special in the canteen. The weather had taken a turn for the colder, a sharp frost that had taken ages to scrape from the Toyota’s windscreen and had sharpened my desire for warmth and good food. Amazing how a full belly can inspire such a sense of well-being and confidence. Confidence that had taken such a knock with the reflected sight of my eyes. But I hadn’t seen that gold-flecked iris effect in the rear view mirror as I drove off to work, so it was safe to assume that that had been down to the lack of sleep and general full-scale weirdness I’d been subjected to yesterday.
Well, today’s another day, I told myself as I mopped up the last of the egg yolk and tomato juice with a thick slice of buttered bloomer. The day I get answers. I was sitting on my own, some of the warehouse staff had come in a few minutes after my breakfast was served and had deliberately sat at a different table. Backs towards me. I chuckled as I sipped my tea. Stuck in Coventry after only one day. Hell of an impression I was making.
I wasn’t on my own for long. A middle aged man in a suit sat down opposite me.
“Morning. And you are…?”
“Good morning, Mark. My name’s Peter Tyndall.”
Well, well. The managing director himself. Now I had a face to put to a name. I sat back, wiped my mouth and smiled politely.
“Don’t mind if I have a little chat with you, do you Mark? Unless you wanted to be on your own…”
“Not at all. Glad of the company. I seem to have upset a few people.” I gestured to the diners on the opposite table.
“Don’t worry about them. I’ve always said popularity’s overrated.”
I couldn’t help myself, I laughed at that. Tyndall seemed normal, well, as normal as an MD can be. Although he looked tired and drawn – a consequence of the late night calls – he also looked youngish, early forties, and wasn’t running to flab and baldness as most execs do. Unlike Lander. Looked more like Golien, come to think of it.
I shivered. Tyndall noticed. He leant back in the chair, fingers still steepled. His eyes narrowed, his gaze appraising.
“You’ve noticed a certain…atmosphere.” His smile was frozen. “Don’t worry too much about it. Our team aren’t used to people asking questions the way you do. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s admirable. And the client was impressed also.
“Do you know what he said to me?” Tyndall asked, leaning forward, a conspiratorial look in his eye. “’That man has great potential. See he doesn’t waste it.’ Now…what do you think Mr Golien meant by that?”
I frowned. The warmth imbibed by my forced self-confidence and the breakfast was beginning to evaporate in the cold appraising gaze of the MD.
“I’ve no idea, Mr Tyndall. What do you think?” I forced myself to look up from the mug I was drinking from. To face his gaze without flinching.
“I see. A question with a question.” He smiled. Then stood up. “You’re destined for great things, young man. All I will say is this…”
He looked back to the management types sitting on the table behind us. Then he turned his gaze to the storemen. All were talking, all wrapped up in their own little worlds. But no matter how hard they tried to cover it up, all of their attention was fixed on us. All looked out of the corners of their eyes, their interest poorly masked by their forced conversations to each other, listening to what the Big Boss was saying to the new guy.
“Remember where you started. And remember that everything has its price. Every endeavour its reward and its punishment. And…”
And this is where I get really scared. To see such a look of pain…no not, pain. Despair was what I saw on his face.
“…a reward can be punishment. Remember what I forgot.”
The words were unsettling enough. But what made them really unnerving was the way he delivered them. In a whisper, with a quick backward glance to his management minions and his warehouse staff, as if hoping that they didn’t hear him.
As if his admission of fear would be fuel to their own ambitions. Or confirmation of their own fears.
Tyndall’s words haunted me as I reported to Paul for the morning work detail. The morning was spent sorting out returns, and Paul felt that I’d gained enough experience to supervise the two youngsters who had just started. They were breaking down two pallets of returns, placing selected boxes in cages and wheeling them over to a marked off area. The list we were working on was the Destruction List, an inventory of boxes that were no longer required to be stored for the client. Old, obsolete data. A stores team member would take these at a later date to an incineration unit on the outskirts of Oxford for destruction.
A lot of the boxes had labels on them that showed they had been stored here at Adasantsat, been called away on retrieval requests and returned several times. It seemed that the average number of despatches for a box was ten.
Some of the boxes were ancient, falling apart, splitting at the seams. Some of the heavier boxes were newer. It was explained to me that the client would request a box and add more data to it. Then it would be returned. Of course, when it got too full or the box was showing signs of wear and tear the client would rebox it with a new printout of the same barcode.
It was halfway through the second pallet that I realised that I hadn’t seen Phil Ross.
The two youngsters with me were pissing around with the scanner guns, playing Cowboys and Indians. I barked an order to stop and they lowered their guns, staring sullenly at me. One stepped onto the blue pallet truck and began to skateboard away. I grabbed him by his hi-vis waistcoat and the pallet truck went from underneath him, banging into one of the racking uprights.
“All right, speedy,” I growled into his ear. “Fun time’s over. Back to work.”
Muttering obscenities under his breath, he slouched back to the pallet that was being broken down. He pulled one of the storage boxes off and threw it to the ground. He looked up at me, a challenging look on his face.
“Pick it up,” I said levelly.
He looked at the box on the floor. The brown parcel tape sealing the lid had broken and the lid had come away, the contents spilling out onto the floor. Sealed and tamper-proof, they had said at my interview. Yeah, right.
“Go on, pick ‘em up,” I said to the storeman. “No back-chat this time.”
He started to put the papers back into the box. He frowned, something on one of the papers catching his attention.
Then his eyes widened in horror. He dropped the paper and stood up quickly. He swayed, his head clasped in his hands, moaning softly. My anger with him turned to concern.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
We all turned round in shock. Paul Maskell stormed from the office, heading straight towards us.
“You do not look at the contents of the boxes!” He grabbed the paper off the storeman, shoved it back in the box and hastily replaced the lid. He stood up and rounded on me. I’ve never seen such fury in another man’s face before. He looked like he was going to launch me.
It wasn’t just pure anger. This was fuelled by fear.
“You’ve been told – you’ve all been told. And you – “ his finger prodded my chest. “One of your duties is to ensure the confidentiality of the client’s paperwork. You lead by example, got it?” His hands were shaking as he reached for the tape gun and began sealing the box.
“Jesus, Paul, why the grief? He can’t put the papers back in the bloody box with his eyes closed! The box is going to be destroyed, anyway.” This was getting beyond a joke. The fear-fuelled anger of Paul Maskell was one thing – the terror-filled expression on the storeman was quite another.
“What did you see in the box, son?” I asked gently.
He stared dumbly at me, his jaw slack. His eyes seemed to have glazed over.
“Don’t answer him!” Paul snapped. “We’re in enough shit as it is!”
I turned away in disgust and headed for the restroom.
“You! Get back here!”
I turned to him and raised my eyebrows. “Don’t you think it’s about time we had a chat? I’ll get the coffee.”
Paul had calmed down slightly by the time he came into the canteen. With none of his staff to shout at, and no other company but me, he looked almost sheepish. But edgy.
“Right,” I said, passing him a cup of coffee from the vending machine. “We’re alone. No one can hear us – so there’s nothing to fear. Not from me, anyway.”
He looked up from his coffee sharply.
“Because that’s what it’s about, isn’t it? Fear. Even the MD’s shit scared. Your behaviour to me over the last coupla days is completely at odds with the welcome you gave me at the start. And all because I asked a few questions. I see why you didn’t want me to go out on that delivery. Christ, you must’ve been freaked out on your first run.
“And yet you carried on working here. You had the same attitude as Phil, did you? Keep the nose clean, get the job done, don’t ask questions. How many drops did it take for you to get used to it, to see it as normal?”
Paul swallowed noisily, then smiled weakly. “It took a few,” he admitted. “It’s why new guys don’t go out until fully…prepared.”
“Prepared? Interesting word. Covers a multitude of sins…”
Paul laughed as he took a sip of the coffee, coughing it back into the paper cup. Black Nescafe dribbled down his chin. He coughed twice, wiping the fluid away.
“Sins? Multitude? You have no idea!” He laughed again, coughed again.
I narrowed my eyes. His laughter was high-pitched, almost hysterical. It echoed around the empty canteen. Well, it was a start. Now I’d get my answers.
“Okay, Paul. Sins. Like…examining the client’s data? A disciplinary offence, I know. I want to ask you about that, want to know who this Jim bloke is and why he’s being DP’d. Okay, perhaps he was up to a few more naughties than Phil told me about, perhaps his case was different to the poor fucker you bawled out just now.
“As I said back in the warehouse, that box was on the Destruction List. It’s useless to the client. Why the performance? What can possibly be in that data to get so freaked out by?”
Paul looked at the puddles of coffee on the tablecloth. He dipped a finger, tracing a straight line. “Can’t you guess?”
He jumped as a loud ringing broke the silence, his finger jerking in the pattern he was making. He took a deep breath before answering the mobile.
“Oh Jesus. Oh my God, no…” he put a hand to his face, the phone clenched in his other hand, pressed into his ear as though trying to physically force it in. For a long time he said nothing, just took in each part of the conversation with a defeated, harrowed expression.
“Tyndall,” he said in a hoarse voice. “He’s just told me that there’s been a major accident on the A34. Serious stuff. Multi-vehicle pile up, three vehicles on fire…
“One of our vans is involved. Phil…Phil was driving.”
Paul told me a bit more later as we headed back to the warehouse to share the news with the team. He spoke in lowered tones, almost a whisper. He had gone out yesterday on a delivery to the same destination me and Phil had gone to earlier that day, the Harwell post office. Turned out that there should have been two boxes going out to Mr Golien, not one. Paul had rushed out to put the error right. How that affected the drop I had no idea. What it had to do with Phil dying on the A34 was equally a mystery.
Or maybe not. The post office clerk was still in a critical condition. But she was alive. Now I remembered what had bothered me about the delivery note.
Two boxes were on the order. Phil had only picked one. Golien had probably been too wrapped up in Lander to notice the mistake until he had gone for the clerk and found she wasn’t there.
“I don’t need to ask you why you’re telling me, Paul,” I said sympathetically. “You mentioned an error that had been made by the stores team a long time ago. One you were reluctant to discuss. Is this the outcome, then? One fuck up and someone pays with their life?”
Paul visibly composed himself before answering. “Before I started, when the operation was still running out of London. Over twenty years ago there was a record number of boxes to deliver. July the 6th, 1988. One hundred and sixty seven boxes. All correct, no picking errors.
“But there should have been one hundred and sixty eight. Someone missed a box off the order sheet.”
I thought back to what O’Neil and Nigel had said in my interview. “It was about twenty years ago when Piper Alpha went up in flames. The documents were connected with the incident, and they were required in Aberdeen urgently.”
I had a vague memory of the tragedy, heard it on the news when I was a kid. The worst offshore oil disaster in history hadn’t made much impact on me then, too far away and no one I knew had been involved. But one hundred and sixty eight boxes required…my blood ran cold.
“How many people died on the Piper Alpha?”
Paul looked knowingly at me before answering. “One less than there should have been. It wasn’t until 1994, when one of the fifty-nine survivors took his own life that the issue was resolved. That box was delivered then.”
Now I understood. Now I knew what I was involved with. I just needed confirmation.
“Your busy periods…I’m guessing that they always coincide with disasters, terrorist attacks…anything where there’s a large loss of life.
“And this is just the UK branch. Worldwide…fucking hell.”
Paul smiled humourlessly. “I think we all thanked our lucky stars that we weren’t in the American branch in September 2001. Let alone branches in the Middle East or certain African nations. They have busy periods virtually every day.” Paul shrugged his shoulders, his hands upraised. “But remember one thing. Boxes go out even if it’s…obvious… that they shouldn’t. Piper Alpha is a case in point. We all know that not everyone who died deserved to be taken by the client. Ten, twenty, maybe. But every casualty? Every single person who dies, visited by the client?”
I frowned. This was something new. “I don’t follow. What are you saying?”
Paul rolled his eyes and sighed. “After a major disaster so many boxes go out – but most of them come back untouched, unopened. Why do you think that is? The client tries it on.
“No, you don’t understand yet, do you? But you will, in time. Look around you, Mark. This warehouse is almost full to capacity. We were told that the London site would be empty of data two years ago. Two years! And still it keeps on coming! Why is that?
“Because the client has files on everyone. Not just the ones who are signed up to him. Everyone. The term for those files is “potential clients.” They…they have a last chance to sign the contract when they die. This is why time freezes, helps Adasantsat to get to them before…before the other party does.”
I could physically feel the blood draining from my face. “Oh, Jesus…”
“See why I didn’t wanna tell you?”
“I – I can see why you don’t let newbies out on deliveries until…until ‘prepared’”. My voice was hoarse. “That can mean only one thing. Anyone who works here has to be told, has to know the nature of the business. When does the company see fit to inform its workers?”
“After the probationary period expires. That’s when you’re guaranteed a job for life.”
A job for life. My blood chilled. Suddenly it looked like having a job for life was not the benefit it appeared on paper. Paul looked at me knowingly before going into the office to print out the orders, an unspoken thought shared between us.
A job for life didn’t necessarily mean employment until retirement age. It could mean a job that lasted as long as the employee’s life did. And there was nothing in writing that said an employee would live until retirement age.
Paul came out with a stack of printed orders. He passed several to me. One he looked at, considered it for a moment, and kept back.
“I’ll pull this one,” he said.
I nodded in agreement. It would’ve been unfair of him to make me pull the box labelled P Ross.