Larry turned the ignition, nudging the engine back into rattling life. With a heavy foot he hit the accelerator and the car spun sideways spewing up dirt and stones in tinks and clunks. In the rear view mirror Constable Larry Collins twisted about in his handcuffs and ropes that bound him to a tree. The screams and curses at the disappearing police vehicle, died away into the background of the engine’s roar.
Larry raised his hand from the sticky dry blood on the steering wheel and regripped it where black plastic was still visible. Red-brown spots marked the glass windshield in a sideways spray and ended in a smear at the driver’s side mimicking a child’s finger painting. Cool air recirculated the stale smell of blood through the air conditioner and mixed with the warm air whistling through the hole in the windshield the size of a fist. In his mind he heard the shots again and flinched. He felt the bullet slice through his hand and saw the car crash into the rocks and trees with a fierce impact.
The cop said they had been going to a construction site in the hills to meet two or more people, but had not known who they were and did not know their names.
Larry could not be sure if it was just one bad cop involved in this crazy situation, or if it was the whole of the Kinglake department. Either way, he would not risk their involvement until he had an idea of what was going on and who was behind it.
Larry drove parallel to a high wire fence and turned right and through the open gates. A road stretched up and then flat, hiding what lay on ahead. A workman in plain clothes waved Larry to the right to follow a sign stating, “Foreman Office” off the main drive.
A small metal box-like building with a flat roof, balancing on concrete blocks, plonked on an expanse of open asphalt, stood starkly and alone. Two large air conditioners on the side of the building vibrated and seeped water from rusted openings, which splattered below into oily puddles.
Larry recalled a similar building next door to where he and his son had previously lived. Every morning heavy machinery had woken them both at dawn. The cozy two bedroom flat had otherwise been well suited to the two of them located just a few minutes walk from his son’s school, and not far from Larry’s new workplace. In the rush of moving off the army base in Puckapunyal he had not noticed the constant and nearby construction work.
Larry slowed the car as he passed a sign.
All visitors are required to report to the site-office before entering the construction area.
Almost identical to the site near where he had lived, so this had somewhat been his expectation. He now dreaded what he would find inside.
Larry parked out front of the portable office. He stayed staring at the grey metal door for a few minutes wondering what he would say and how they would react to his presence. The two small windows high up on the walls gave a great view of a set of fluorescent lights and white ceiling, but little else. No one walked nearby and no vehicles rumbled past. The only sound, which reverberated through the windows of the still running off-road police vehicle, was the thumping of heavy machines off elsewhere far away.
He turned the patrol vehicle around deciding to park facing the exit with enough room to speed off if things didn’t go well inside. He checked the police issue firearm in his belt holster, put on the constable’s hat, and stepped out.
The sun glare beat down on his exposed face and the warm air brushed over him in waves. Sweat began to form all over his body and pressed against the police uniform in dark spots. He closed the driver door bringing his reflection into view, the sun a sparkling giant to the side of him. His skin hung in flakes. His short back and sides sat in a messy knot spotted with grey. He raised his damaged hand and flexed his fingers, but could barely move anything under the clump of bandages. If he needed the gun he would never be able to hold it in his right hand, let alone fire it. His freshly pressed police shirt and pants gave him some measure of normal appearance—at least he hoped it did.
He climbed the three steps to the portable office door, took a deep breath, turned the handle, and walked inside.
A balding man of around 60 years looked up from a desk and steaming coffee. He stared for a moment, then said, “Can I help you?”
Larry looked around the sparse office and laminated desk, busy with papers and folders, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. The old man’s eyes dropped back to the papers in front of him and he continued writing.
After a moment he gave the appearance of finishing up what he was doing by putting his pen behind his ear. He picked up his coffee slurped at the full cup and stared at Larry.
“I’ve got a message to deliver about the guy I picked up earlier,” Larry said hoping the man would jump into the conversation knowing exactly what he was talking about. When the man said nothing, Larry continued on.
“Am I supposed to be talking to you? Where’s the other guy?” Larry said, knowing he made no real sense. His eyes went to the door, he should just walk out and forget about this place? Then just keep driving until he figured out what he should do next.
The man put his coffee cup down and took his pen out from behind his ear. “If you want to talk to, Mr Camperdon, or, Mr Green, then they’re out at construction area D. You can’t miss it, just drive down past the letters of the alphabet until D appears. Grab a hard hat and yellow vest from the hook on the wall.” His head bent to the wall behind Larry.
Larry grabbed the first hat and vest he saw, not bothering to check sizes.
“You need to sign in here, too.”
Larry turned back toward him and walked to the site manager while trying to keep his steps steady. The old man rested a significant beer belly against the desk, which creased as he leaned forwards flowing up onto his stack of papers as he passed the clipboard over.
Larry took the pen and signed his name. He felt the man’s eyes on him and saw a question forming on his lips.
“You look like hell,” the man said, his eyes stopping at Larry’s bandaged hand, then moving down to his white sneakers. “What happened to you?”
“Car accident,” Larry said, as if that explained everything. He handed back the clipboard and pen.
The old man seemed to accept his story with a nod and grunt, then turned to put the clipboard away on the bench behind him. Larry took that moment to open the door and go outside.
He drove down past the alphabetized warehouses and construction sites until he came to the letter D. Simple enough.
The sound of construction was louder here, although still no sign of heavy vehicles or workmen. He passed by the entrance to D building and slowed when he saw a BMW and Audi at the entrance. A drip trickled from his eyebrow to his nose. He had forgotten to turn on the air conditioner for the short drive from the office. He convinced himself he sweated because of the oppressive heat, not because he was contemplating going inside to see people who might want him dead.
Larry squinted, hoping to see past the mottled reflections in the windows as he came around the side of the building, but only saw the distorted shape of a white off-road vehicle and the words POLICE backwards waving up and down.
He had no idea what he was doing here and what he might find inside or what they would do if he tried to talk to them. As he made up his mind that he was actually going to walk inside and finally discover who these people were, he decided that a silent entrance through a back door had to be the best approach. If the old guy from the office had already let these people know a cop was looking for them, then he would need to hurry. They may be searching for him right now. He parked far from the two cars and out of sight of the building and turned off the engine.
The car cooled with the same soft ticking from under the hood as before. His heart thumped in his ears. He was going to do this. He took a deep breath and opened the door with a squark from dry hinges. He cringed, then looked around. No one nearby.
He reached the nearest window, but found it too high and the ledge too narrow to get a hand hold and leverage himself up to see inside. The outside of the warehouse appeared to be the same concrete plain wall all the way along. Larry found a waist high pile of bricks not far from the next window. He collected three of them and piled each on top, then climbed up and stared into the expanse of the building.
Four men stood close to the center of the huge warehouse spanning, at minimum, the distance of a football field. Two appeared to be arguing. Both pacing the floor, pointing and shouting at each other.
Behind them, military equipment had been stacked in racks and piled on pallets as far back as he could see. He counted approximately ten trucks, all in a neat row and all painted army green camouflage. Next to them, jeeps and then further along more metal racks with a staggeringly large assortment of guns. Rifles he had never seen before, ones so big they should have been mounted on a vehicle, yet they had shoulder straps. Also regular M-16 rifles, M-4 rifles, M-249, EF88, and the AK-12, which if he remembered accurately from his army service days, the Russian military had adopted as the new primary weapon of choice. Then past that, even more equipment and crates.
He stepped down from the window and thought through what this meant.
He had no idea!
He had come here to find out who these people were and work out if he could talk to them. They didn’t look like they were the talking or negotiating type. They would probably hold him or kill him for seeing their cache of arms. So what next? Call the police, the government? Were they the ones storing the equipment here?
Until he worked out who wanted him dead and why, then he would never know who he could trust. He wiped his aching head of heavy sweat and turned around to take in the huge grey buildings, the narrow roads, the cars reflecting back the scorching sun. He felt laughter come as his situation struck him as absurdly surreal. He clammed shut his mouth with his hand before he could bark a squeak.
Once down from the bricks he put both hands onto his hips. There had to be a logical reason for this. The government wouldn’t allow this to go on without their knowing.
Larry ran along the side of the building and ducked around a corner at one end. Still no one in sight, but plenty more buildings. Every building might be holding an equal amount of arms. Surely this was government run. New testing ground? No, they would have guards on the doors and a double gate to restrict entry. Also, he would have heard something about it from his old work buddies at Puckapunyal. Tom would know, even if he was in the bio’ wing.
After walking a little further Larry came to a partially open roller door. He turned a full three-sixty; still no one. The roller doors spanned so wide that two enormous trucks could enter side by side without a problem. He crouched at the side of the door and peeked underneath to get a look inside. No one, just lots of equipment, crates and boxes. He looked all around again then back inside whilst listening for people or machines. Still nothing. He got to his knees, lay down flat and slid under the door. His open cuts scraped on the concrete floor and through his thin police clothes.
Larry hurried away while peeling his shirt away from a bleeding cut, and patted cement dust from his clothes in puffs.
From a squatting position behind a pallet of boxes Larry looked and listened for the men he had seen through the window. No voices echoed through the building and the lack of movement anywhere nearby gave the impression of absolute desertion. He stared up at the distantly high buzzing halogen lights and then into the distance through the huge warehouse to the doorway at the other end.
Larry stepped out from his hiding place and walked further into the building while keeping his footfalls light, dodging from crates to doorways, to forklifts. A few minutes later he heard the first echoes of people talking and arguing.
Past another massive open roller door he came to a second adjoining warehouse. He could almost make out what they were saying.
Larry took a side door that linked to a group of offices, and walked the grey carpet corridor past freshly painted offices to the last room furthest along. Boxes of equipment and half unpacked computer hardware filled each room. No sign of office staff, though.
Larry got down on his knees and crawled his way into the next room then poked his head up to look through a large window opening into the second plane-hangar sized room. The men still waved their arms around as if they were the planes readying to take off.
A cramp stiffened in Larry’s calf while he watched. He struck out with his leg kicking a box balancing on another box.
Like a cash register hitting concrete, it crashed to the ground, the box of nuts, bolts and washers sprinkled out over the carpet floor. Larry slapped his hands over the top to stop them jingling, then held his breath.
The arguing had not stopped. No footsteps sounded.
He breathed again and dropped his head. His mind spun with a light headiness that made him sick enough that bile rose to the back of his throat. He closed his eyes and waited for the nausea to dissolve.
A minute later he was able to open his eyes again. He wiped his wet forehead, then moved along the wall while staying low to the ground. He reached the door leading from the office into the warehouse and peeked around the corner. From there he could see the two men in their tailored suits, pacing and talking.
Sheets of papers in the tight fist of one the men fluttered about whenever he addressed the other. Larry watched on and studied their faces, but could not decide if he knew either of them. One had very white skin except for pink splotches on his drooping nose, cheeks and neck. His hair had been died a very dark black, which did not match his wrinkled body. The second one stood stooped over and thin. Bald except for grey short hairs at the side of his head.
Two other men stood further away and appeared uninterested in the discussion. One of them looked especially bored and made no effort to conceal a yawn. The first one wore a grey suit which barely contained his huge muscular form. The other giant of a man wore what looked to be military garb; black loose fitting and with many full and half size pockets on his legs and arms.
The conversation between the two old men grew in volume. Echoes of echoes sounded. Larry listened.
“...the money will mean nothing if they start finding dead people!” the thin one said and waved his arms around again.
Maybe to test wind speed? Tower, we’re ready for takeoff. Larry shook his head, while it filled with cotton and his stomach knotted. He took three deep breaths and concentrated on the sanity he was not sure he possessed. Dark clouds entered his field of vision. Blacking out while concussed was a big no-no.
Larry thought on what the men had said. Dead people... As in more than one. His life as well as others.
This was not a government or military operation. It couldn’t be.
“We have a man taking care of it, Billy, there is no need to worry,” the larger man said with the same distinct Russian accent.
“Like he took care of him the first time! How did the idiot not know he hadn’t killed him? Is he stupid? Does he know the difference between alive and dead!”
“He knows, yes.” He pointed at the other man with both hands. “This time he will bring us the body. Maybe alive, if he can.”
“He shouldn’t need to. I shouldn’t be here. I have to travel back to Moscow tonight. Instead I am in a strange foreign country with stupid people in it!”
“Yes, but no sense in becoming a crazy woman over it. The officer is all we have in this town and he keeps the rest of the police away. It will work out in time. If you feel you need to, you can yell at him until you have a stroke. Would that make you feel better?”
They stared at each other for a half minute before the thin man spoke again. This time too quiet for Larry to hear.
Water dripped from Larry’s chin and nose into a dark circle on the freshly lain grey-blue carpet. He thought back again and tried to remember these men, and then what he had done to deserve this, but nothing came to mind.
Larry’s thoughts turned dark and he saw himself down on his knees in front of the Russian men, telling them he knew nothing, their bodyguards holding a gun at his head. A click then a snapping sound—the last thing he would ever hear.
He had to find his family. He had to get them and him away from here. He turned on his knees and retraced his crawl making sure to avoid the tipped box and spilled contents, then ran from the offices. His sneakers squeaked on the recently painted yellow floor. He ran back through the large doorway into the second attached warehouse and then rounded a corner until he came to shrink wrapped machinery. He stopped and leaned up against a large crate to rest a moment. He coughed as he tried to settle his breathing and heard it echo through the warehouse, he immediately clasped his hand over his mouth.
Larry glanced the way he had come. No footsteps.
He started off again, this time at a walk. The room had a strange smell about it, something he recognized. He sniffed deeper. An antiseptic smell and it was coming from a box laden pallet and yellow containers marked with... red biohazard symbols. He diverted that way and found stainless steel surgery equipment sealed in clear plastic sheaths, all sorted into different sizes.
Behind the rows of pallets, hundreds of hospital beds stretched out to the distant opposite wall. Most dressed in blue and white sheets, many had not yet been unpacked, the linen still inside plastic vacuum sealed bags sitting at the head of the bed.
He continued on, his legs ached further and his chest still hurt when he breathed deep. He soon came to the roller door that lead to the outside. Thankfully it was still open a small way, just as he had left it.
He leaned down to crawl underneath, but stopped when he heard voices from the other side. The voices came closer.
Larry turned, tangling his feet, and tripped before getting his balance while still staying upright. He ran and reached the same pallet of shrink-wrapped boxes he had crouched behind before and waited.
They had to have heard him. Maybe they even saw him.
Larry took a deep breath, unfortunately swallowing cement dust and a tangy odor of newly manufactured plastic as well, from the top of the shrink wrapped pallet. A cough began to form at the back of his throat.
Larry squeezed his eyes shut and gulped it back down while his throat moved involuntarily.
Sweat trickled down his back and along the curve of his spine. When he finally gained control of his lungs, he reached around and scratched to rid himself of the tickling water.
Bent over and in a squatting position, his knees ached, and his back hurt. Damn it if he wasn’t as fit as he thought he could be, yet his body still wanted to rebel.
The roller door started upward, clanging and rattling. He turned his concentration to who would appear from behind the yawning opening, and was intent on getting a look at them before they him.
Dark shadows of the four legs stretched out under the roller door with hard edged clarity, breaking the stranglehold of the bright light within the large room. The two men’s shadows lengthened to reveal their upper bodies. Larry pulled his head back and into the safety of the stacked boxes.
After several seconds the roller door halted. The two men talked of work and other senseless things. It meant they could be just workmen grabbing supplies. His shoulders sagged at the sight of small automatics at their waists.
“So, why’s the cop car outside? Door’s open, so he has to be making his way to the boss, right?
The man continued talking, not waiting for a reply, and walked past Larry’s hiding position. “Hey, Jay, you should have heard the boss screaming in Russian when the cop stuffed up and didn’t kill that guy.”
“Yep, and he may be inside, so be nice. Otherwise you could find that you’re the next one he gets rid of,” the other one said.
“So you’re saying I’ll live then.” He barked a laugh. “Come on? You gotta laugh.”
The other man ignored him and continued to scan the warehouse while still back at the roller-door.
“Jay, you gotta loosen up, man, you’ll end up a miserable prick and walk off the edge of a cliff or somethin’.”
“Hmm. We’ll go and see what the boss says about the cop car.”
He hit the roller door button and walked further inside past Larry.
The metal door rumbled on its downward journey. Larry risked a look from where he hid and saw the two men talking and walking toward the other adjoining warehouse. Both rested their hands on their guns with the main weight born on their shoulder straps. The two men stopped and began looking over a half assembled machine still in shrink wrap as if trying to decide what it did.
Larry crept to the roller door while looking over his shoulder. The men still wandered around; their eyes ahead on the path they took.
Larry turned his full attention to the door and took longer strides. The door would mask his foot falls. Even if they did turn around and see him, he counted on them seeing a cop, not a target.
The roller-door lowered further down and past where it had been when he had sneaked under it upon entering. It would close any second. He had to run for it.
Larry ran, then dived, sliding feet first, and rolled under the door hitting his hip on his way through. The door rumbled even louder from the impact.
Larry rubbed his side as he stood. A moment later he was running.
Behind him, the roller door continued to come down. The door would clunk closed and he would be safe. His strides shortened as his breathing became more strained.
The roller-door would have closed by now. He looked back, but it was climbing up.
Larry put all his concentration into running as fast as he could.
His throat burned and his legs stiffened as if they were stilts. He rounded the warehouse and hobbled to the patrol vehicle and threw himself into the driver’s seat.
He turned the ignition and crunched the car into gear. The engine croaked and spluttered. He slammed his foot on the accelerator. The car revved a high pitched whistle. Wheels spun and the vehicle leapt forwards and away.