Down in the control room of the Kylma Kala offices Ralf Tuppence scratched his head with a 12mm socket wrench and scowled at the environmental management display.
‘I don’t understand it,’ he said. ‘We installed it, we tested it, we got it signed off. Now it don’t bleedin’ work.’
Ralf’s companion was a big lad with a crew-cut, bulging pectorals and sleeve-straining biceps. He pointed at the display with a large finger. ‘There’s a blockage, Mr Tuppence. Up there.’
‘Well spotted, Tiny. Fetch the step-ladder and we’ll take a look. And call me Ralf, I’m not the foreman.’
‘Yes, Mr Ralf.’
Tired from his exploration of the building, Smith had retired to his nest of sheets in the ducting of the top floor. The bang and rattle of ventilation grilles being removed alerted him just in time. He grabbed his fleece and squirmed up into the roof void.
Ralf tugged on his braces. ‘Right, lad, what are we here for?’
Tiny frowned. ‘Fix the air-con?’
‘Bang on, except these days we’d say “malfunction identification and remedy” instead of “fix”.’
‘Do we still say “air-con”?’
‘What we have here is an atmosphere management and control system incorporating absolute filters for particulate allergens, optimised temperature and humidity via regenerative heat pumps and electronic gateways managed by artificially intelligenced computers.’
‘Indeed. We’ve come a long way from opening a window.’
‘What’s wrong with it?’
‘Good question. Short answer, dunno. Long answer? Haven’t a clue. What we do know is that with all these noises and what-have-you, the computer saying some gates are opening when they should be shut, Mr Koponen wants it sorted out pronto. Hence this tidy piece of overtime.’
Smith decided the best thing to do would be to absent himself to another part of the building. He backed away, his boot thumped into the rear wall and an echoing boom rolled down the ducting and out of the conference room vents.
‘Get that ladder, Tiny,’ Ralf said.
By the time they were set up Smith was long gone, elbowing through the ducting to the opposite side of the room. In his haste he knocked a side panel.
Ralf and Tiny looked at the new source of noise.
‘That came from over there, Mr Ralf.’
Tiny hugged himself. ‘It’s moving around, Mr Ralf, like an animal.’
‘It’s echoes from different vents,’ Ralf said at the top of the ladder. He pushed up a ceiling tile and peered into the roof void. ‘Looks like some bolts have pulled free and a seam’s gone. Put your foot on the bottom step, I’m going up.’
Tiny’s eyes grew round. ‘Be careful, it might be up there.’
‘Don’t be daft, big lad like you.’
Standing on the topmost step, Ralf reached into the void. ‘Looks like somebody left a pencil up here. Got it. Right, let’s take a look over the other side.’
Smith backed away. Then the Hand was there, it fixed him straight in the eye and said, ‘They’ve captured the pencil. Stay here and we’ll be next.’
They scooted down to the next floor. Tiny’s voice floated after them through the vents. ‘It IS an animal, Mr Ralf. There’s something alive in there.’
The Hand insisted Smith slow down. Just one more down ramp and they would be safe.
‘Excellent work, soldier.’ the Hand said as they reached the bottom.
‘Sir, thank you, sir!’ Smith attempted a salute and whacked his funny-bone.
Two floors above, Ralf and Tiny listened to the hollow booms and eerie hooting. A shiver ran up Ralf’s spine. He took the heavy rubber mallet from his toolbox, the weight reassuring in his hand. Things hit by a mallet stayed hit. ‘Come along, lad.’
Tiny’s eyes were as large as gobstoppers. ‘It almost sounds human, Mr Ralf.’
‘Don’t be daft.’
Tiny didn’t move.
‘Look at the size of you. What have you got to be scared of?’
‘I don’t know, Mr Ralf. That’s the thing.’
Ralf grabbed the lapels of Tiny’s boiler suit. ‘Look, I know this is your first evenin’ and I know it’s a bit weird, but remember this: we are Building Maintenance Engineers and we get the job done.’
‘It’s me imagination, Mr Ralf. I read a lot of science fiction.’
‘You’re my apprentice. You ain’t got an imagination till I send you to stores to fetch one.’
‘No, Mr Ralf.’
‘Take this.’ Ralf held out the mallet and Tiny took it.
‘Now, come along.’ Ralf strode away down the empty corridor.
Tiny anxiously twisted the mallet in his hands. With a soft, rubbery pop the head came off. ‘Er–’ He stashed the parts in his pockets then hurried after Ralf.
Always ahead of them, Smith headed down through the office levels, the post room, the canteen, and finally reception on the ground floor. There he discovered a hatch in the ducting floor opened to reveal vertical tube set with rungs. He descended and discovered the car park.
Deep in the shadows at the back he found a black Airflow Chrysler Imperial Eight with Finnish plates.
Smith had never been afraid of the dark, it was just the same as daytime with the lights off. Where otherwise perfectly sensible grown-ups tried to convince themselves there was nothing there but didn’t quite believe it, Smith knew the only scary things in the dark were the things from his imagination. They made it fun to be scared and when the fun was over they went away.
Crouched in the cool, dank gloom beside the Chrysler, Persistent Smith brimmed with quiet satisfaction. The pattern that ran from Tim Wassiter through himself to Clive Barnett, the computer, this building, and the car, was complete. He had earned his fee.
Faint, perplexed voices came from the ventilation duct. Smith grinned, unzipped and zipped his fleece then clambered back into the air conditioning.
An hour later, hot, dirty and tired, Ralf and Tiny staggered into the top floor conference room.
‘I don’t think I can do any more stairs, Mr Ralf.’
‘Me neither, lad.’ Ralf wiped his face with his hanky. ‘I think I’ll skip the running club tonight.’
‘It’s doing me crust in, Mr Ralf. We’ve been on every floor, right down to the basement and back. Just when we get close it moves away. What are we going to do?’
Ralf’s stubble rasped as he rubbed his jaw. It was a good question. His eyes settled on the remote control on the conference table and held down the buttons. ‘Let’s try flushing the system.’
High overhead came the ascending whirr of great fans spinning faster and faster. The gentle breeze from the air vents grew to a roar. Freezing air blasted from the vents, loose papers blew round the room and frost-ferns crawled across the windows. Ralf and Tiny shook with cold. Ralf reset the controls. As the wind noise died down something big and soft thumped against the back of one of the grills.
Mist from Ralf’s breath plumed in the cold air. ‘Take a look at that, Tiny.’
Tiny removed the grill and extracted yard after yard of tangled dust sheet.
The two men looked down at the rumpled heap of material with the pride of Neolithic hunters beside a downed elk.
‘We done it, Mr Ralf! That’s the problem. It’s been blowing round the whole building with you and me chasing after it.’
Ralf prodded the sheet with the toe of his boot. ‘What muppet left that in there, do you think?’
‘Never said it was.’
‘It wasn’t an animal after all, Mr Ralf.’
‘No lad, it wasn’t.’
The two men acknowledged the fact with slow nods. Both felt a relief neither would ever fully acknowledge.
‘After all this mucking about I reckon we can call ourselves Consultants.’
‘Absolutely. Now, let’s pack up and get down the chip shop.’
Up in the roof void Smith’s tummy rumbled. He and the Hand grinned down at the two men and quietly laughed. Smith blew on his fingers, the air had been freezing but his fleece had kept him warm.
‘It saved your life,’ the Hand said. ‘Mine too.’
It had been fun, but Smith was tired. He remembered his long bath times back home, along with the glass of cold milk and biscuits that followed, so much better than a shower with a dust sheet for a towel.
Heidi might be working late again. A strange excitement burned in his chest. Before he left the building he’d clean himself up, get some food and see if she was there.
The Hand rolled its head. ‘So, we’re going to see her again.’
An unfamiliar mood came over Smith. He turned the Hand into a fist, splayed his fingers and rubbed his palms together.
‘No,’ Smith said. ‘Just me.’
To be continued…