[previously: Chapter 1: The Insomniac, Part 1]
(More information on the audio version is available here.)
Chapter 1: The Insomniac, Part 2
The Admin building was built to look like a cattle barn from the air, and I was starting to feel a little like I was off to slaughter as I stepped inside. It was the one building that housed people who could and would tell me my business, and I tried to spend as little time as possible there.
The main hallway ran straight the length of the building, and a trick of the eye and the tiling made the far door seem as tiny as something Alice might stumble across. I walked the maroon, black and gray linoleum, passing office name cards, work orders, staff postings, funny page clippings, and finally taking a right into the den. Schwerdtfeger and Able had standard issue offices elsewhere in the barn, but after hours visits were largely fireside announcements from overstuffed chairs.
The room was smaller than their combined pretenses would allow, and I’d always felt like I was trying to find a corner in which to stand between Schwerdtfeger’s stuffed animal heads, and Able’s shelves of economic treatises and textbooks.
“Well, hello, Ms. Nix.” Able opened, obviously trying to get a rise out of me.
“Well, hello, Madam Able.” Able’s eyes and forehead tightened, but I did notice a rise in Schwerdtfeger’s moustache.
“If you’ll keep your jocular nature to a minimum for a moment, we need to have a quick chat before you take flight, Mrs. Nix.” Schwerdtfeger’s attitude had me wondering if Tom had been right, if this might be a virus after all.
“I’ll see what I can do.” I replied, shuffling under the watchful eyes of some long dead five point buck.
“Aunt Millie called this morning. There’s a shack just south of the permafrost line, vaguely near a town called Milner, a lumber town. There are five bodies in the shack, all stiff at their porridge. The doctor on the scene said they died of dehydration, which is odd given that they all still had the remnants of milk in their cups. We don’t know how long they’d been there, but they’re fairly well preserved as the door was open and the main room helpfully refrigerated. The doctor is not sick, nor anyone else in the area.”
“Couldn’t it have been food poisoning? Hell, maybe even an old fashioned murder?” Despite the lack of outbreak, it was all sounding a little too virus-like for me. I tried to move a little but found myself bracketed in front of the door with a shelf full of Adam Smith and his ilk to the left of me and a small pack of beheaded mammals to my right.
Schwerdtfeger glanced at Able, and Able picked up where he’d left off.
“It’s possible. You’ll have to endeavour to find out when you get there. I believe Junior has the plane fueled and ready to go. You’ve got your usual budget, Junior will fly back with your first round of samples and then pick you up at the end of your five day window. When you touch down you’ll head alone into Milner, there you will locate Constable Lummock and he shall direct you to the cabin in question.”
In other words he didn’t want to pay Junior for sitting on his ass doing nothing for a few days, especially not when I might need some company or backup, that cheap bastard.
Then I was dismissed. I was pleased to be back in the hall, but this had easily been the briefest meeting on the flimsiest circumstances I’d had while in King’s employ.
The snow and wind blew away my train of thought as I exited to find Junior still patrolling the ash can.
“You know where we’re headed?”
“Yeah, more or less,” he replied with a grin. “Is it just me or were they acting weird, uh, …er than usual?”
I took in Junior’s grin and ridiculous leather flight cap, his good hand holding the cigarette he now smoked like a train before our departure.
“If you ask me, you’re all acting weird.”
I missed my wife and husband.
The farm dwindled to speck as we puttered across the black sky in the farm’s single engine cloud buster. It had been modified for long flights, but I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between that one and the crates the bush pilots would drop into Mom & Dad’s lodge.
It wasn’t long before the hum of the plane, and a forward looking sense of self preservation, lulled me to sleep. I found myself dreaming about climbing the massive timbers of the lodge walls, over the gutters and onto equal footing with the swaying treetops. The lake lay blue and infinite in front of me, and my head cocked to better hear an approaching mosquito buzz. A plane shimmered out of the distance, wobbling at first, but soon righting itself and settling into a landing that left its pontoons kissing the shore. The sound of the motor died, and the pines rustled. The wind seemed to smell of gin. I wondered if Dad was around. It was then that I noticed the windows of the plane were black as tar.
Our descent woke me. In those days we pulled up short of habitation and had a local friend meet us with a car if we could, no reason to make the townies think the Germans were launching an expeditionary force. The area was far too small for us to know anyone though, and Junior explained that they’d paid a local for his old Model A, to be delivered to the middle of nowhere beside a stretch of barren back road that they’d paid the same farmer to plow flat. Our landing depended on his work ethic and Junior’s ability to read the plane’s instruments, but we were soon down and not far from my ride.
The car, a Fordor, looked relatively well for its age but had been left at the road side so long it initially refused to turn over. I had my flash light out and was looking over the engine when Junior spoke from somewhere over my shoulder.
“I think I can get her straightened out, the cold is just making things stiff.”
I think he muttered some kind of response, but I was too busy tinkering. Suddenly his face loomed beside the manifold and I.
“Ignoring me?” His breath was a solid wall of gin, too thick to have been built since we’d touched down. I was glad the wind had waited to pick up. Still, it must have been a tricky landing given the conditions.
“I’m just busy. I thought you were pitching camp?”
“I’ve got a fire going, but my tent is still waiting.” He seemed to be expecting something.
“Well, that’s something at least, I’m going to need to boil some water to get out of here.”
The fire was burning within the L of the wing of the plane, and I knew Junior would set up his tent right under the flap as some minor added protection. I pulled the kettle from its storage compartment, stuffed it full of snow and placed it directly onto the burning logs, pocketing its detachable handle.
If he’d previously taken drink on the job to wait out the periods while I was off exploring, he’d never let me see it. My black overcoat created a cone of heat around me as I stooped close to the fire, one eye watching Junior pound in the last of his tent pegs.
“There should be some left over for coffee.” I said, nodding towards the kettle.
“Listen, Molly,” he attempted to mirror my crouch, but between wind and drink ended up in a position closer to reclining in the snow. “We’ve been working together for a while now, a long time really. We’ve spent a lot of long hours around campfires and card tables and… remember the first year you came to the farm, when we had that Christmas dance? Remember that dance?” He’d asked me to dance, and both AJ and Tom had smiled their assent. We’d had a stiff swing around the floor, and I’d spent the majority of the time silently and sweetly damning my two loves for letting me leave the table. I’m not much of a dancer.
“Do you know something about this piece of work that I don’t? “ The kettle was beginning to whistle, feasibly through the sheer force of my will. I pulled the handle from my pocket and lifted it from its now sunken position.
“Heh, no.” His face darkened though, which I took to mean he’d been struck by a flash of sobriety. He fell silent and after a moment I moved out of fire’s circle.
I was right, and a little hot water quickly had the car turned over and ready for the road. I was playing my flashlight through the backseat’s window, mentally checking off everything I’d collected from the plane, when I felt a hand reach through the gap between my overcoat’s brass buttons and run its fingers across my belly. I breathed a mist of gin as I turned, my elbow hammering Junior just below his right eye. He reeled, his hand slipping from my coat, and it was then that my boot connected with his left knee. His balance went out and he collapsed into a tangled jelly. To ensure closure I made a final connection with his diaphragm, firmly but not excessively, just as I’d been taught. While he fish puckered for air I dragged him back under the shelter of the plane wing.
“Look you drunken arse, we’ll have a talk about this when I get back tomorrow, but you better get your shit together or I’m going to hand it to you myself.”
He wheezed from his pile beside the fire, and I made my way back to the car.
The road was full of drifts, and it took some time and patience to finally make my way north into town. There was little warning between leaving the woods and entering the town proper, one minute I was keeping an eye out for wolves and the next I was pulling to a stop in front of a squat gray brick building, a single light visible in its large window. It was a meager main street, the police having easily the largest front on the road, the rest of the buildings dark in what was by then the earliest part of morning.
I stepped out and made my way around the hood, eyes straining through the large window to make out a pair of desks. I was wondering if I’d have to awaken Constable Lummock with a thorough door pounding when the entrance in question swung open. A large form lumbered from the doorway shouting harsh, unintelligible consonants back into the warmth. He turned and seemed un-phased to find me in his path on the stoop, passed with a curt nod and made his way further into the subzero dark beyond the building’s meager light.