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 The Only Thing That Counts

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Anthony van
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PostSubject: The Only Thing That Counts   Thu Oct 05, 2017 6:08 pm

Chapter three – Twisted Mind, Strange Encounters     

 

            Paul had swung into a service road on the left parallel to the highway. It bordered a medium sized industrial park. There were mainly light industry and technology based companies operating on the various premises. He passed a specialised printing works, a distributor of optical instruments and a building signed ‘Byting Data’ representing the ubiquitous software corporation. The businesses mostly were fronted by neat gardens, and looked modern and up market. There were cars and vans and a number of people obviously going about their business.

            He saw Paul turn left ahead and slowed down to delay his arrival. The last thing he wanted now was to stumble around the corner and bump into Paul. His skewed thought patterns were already creating the scenario: ‘Oh hi, I was just in the area… oh nice place…’  He shook himself. ‘Did other people have this problem,’ he wondered, always entertaining the ridiculous. Then again other people wouldn’t stalk a client to his place of business on some whim, or imagined impropriety. The roadway here was quiet, being away from the adjoining service road there were no cars or people.

            Steve pulled over to the kerb and walked to the corner. Not far down the side street, Paul’s car was parked before an unexceptional looking medium sized, multi storey building, with a sign on the lawn stating ‘Horizon Earth Sciences’. This seemed to be Paul’s destination. On the left of the building there was a driveway that, beyond a chain link fence, appeared to dip and enter a basement car park. The site itself was older and less well kept than the other establishments he had passed. Steve approached cautiously, when he heard a door slam around the corner on the far right side of the building. He hesitated, briefly considering what he was doing. Wasn’t it enough that he now knew the mysterious company he was dealing with? He now knew where Paul worked. His mind raced. Maybe it was because of the minimal information he had received. Or maybe it was the feeling that this place was quite unlike any of the plant development and propagation facilities he knew of. It just didn’t look right.

            He glanced tentatively around the corner. Behind the multi storey frontage there was a big factory like structure. Looking past this he could see a rundown barbwire fence much farther along, indicating where the road ended. The area was sullen, even eerie. The whole section was paved concrete, interspersed with stringy clumps of weed. If anything, the factory seemed disused, slightly dilapidated, compared to the other buildings he had gone by that were clearly occupied and operating.

            This back driveway provided access to a large loading bay. It was closed up by two large mechanical doors which rolled into place. There were a few pallets and drums, some parking spaces and the side door next to the loading bay. Feeling that he had avoided detection, Steve went to the door and tried the handle. It was unlocked. He opened it carefully, concerned that it might squeak, or that Paul might be just inside. Through the gap in the doorway he saw the glow of a floor indicator from an elevator some distance away. It was flashing the descend symbol. 

            He stepped inside. Steve surveyed all around, trying to take a steadying breath. His thudding heart briefly unnerved him. The cavernous building was in semi darkness. Some light emanated from the occasional sky light in the roof and lesser glimmers came from green glowing exit signs along the main building wall. The quiet reassured him and he quickly gained confidence. He assumed Paul had gone in the elevator and, with an air of recklessness, decided to pursue. He was already constructing some explanation for his actions… ‘You had just left when I realised I wanted to ask you…WHAT?... and so I followed you…’  He couldn’t think of the ‘what’ he had to ask about. Maybe it would spring to mind under pressure. He could possibly try to interest them in some new disease resistant strains. He’d go with that unless a better excuse turned up.

            Even with sneakers Steve’s footsteps echoed alarmingly, and he jumped involuntarily when a sparrow flew across his path. The lowest symbol on the elevator indicated the basement of the main building. He paused before going to press the button. This action would reveal his presence to anyone near the lift doors on any level.

A wave of nausea passed over Steve. What was he doing? Was he being rational? How would this appear to a valued customer? How would other customers respond if they heard about his bizarre behaviour? He became aware of a chill sweat soaking his shirt and quickly back peddled to the side door. He could get out and there would be no harm done.

            While glancing over his shoulder in his hasty retreat he crashed into something with a loud bang! Steve had run into an empty drum just near the doorway. It spun noisily on an invisible eccentric axis, turning for ages. Like a slow motion replay everything seemed magnified before he could move himself into action and steady it. Then he froze and listened. Relief; there was only the regained quiet and the distant muffled traffic sound from the highway.

Steve eased himself out the door and quickly around to the front of the building. Stopping, he groaned inwardly. He gazed at the windows for any sign of movement. If anyone had been in any of the offices adjacent to the roadway, they would certainly have noticed him skulking up and down the street. What was he thinking? His mind catalogued the status of his misadventure. ‘If Paul was the only one in the building, and if he went down to the basement and nowhere else, and if he didn’t hear the racket I made. Then everything is okay.’ Steve went around the corner, got in the car and quickly drove off.

            He muttered to himself; “That’s a few ‘ifs’,” and then shook his head slowly. A broad grin appeared on his face as he enjoyed how amazingly alive he felt.

“Steve, I don’t think subterfuge is your game,” was his audible critique.

He drove back, deep in thought, but with that lingering smile. ‘So what if my customers are a little secretive. So what if they work from large, empty factories. So what if they’re a little peculiar… some might say the same about me after today. At least they pay their accounts.’

            After a short time he pulled into the plant nursery. Sally was on lunch break. Jimmy was eating his lunch behind the counter in the shaded veranda and customer walk-through area. There were two people standing at the counter with trolleys containing plants. Jimmy quickly put his salad roll down. He grinned when he saw Steve slowly shake his head as he walked past.

Inside the office, Steve put down the specifications sheet on the desk. Taking out his wallet he examined the cheque he had been given. It was a plain bank cheque. With no company name or account, there were still no obvious clues about the background of his mysterious client. He carefully transferred the cheque to the cash box and then sat at the computer.

            Firstly he searched for ‘Horizon Earth Sciences’ and was a little mystified when nothing quite matched his search. After several dead ends he grumbled, talking to himself about trying later, and then checked his email. True to his word Paul had already sent a message with an attachment.

            Steve,

            Here are the details for the plant tender (attached). Hope everything goes

            smoothly.

            PS Some factories have security cameras

            Paul

His fist thudded against his forehead ‘Good grief, what a dope he must think I am. Cameras!’

            He continued to castigate himself while he transferred the attachments into his work files on the computer. “If somebody gave you a brain it would be lonely. You dope, dope, dope.” He grumbled again as he used the heel of his hand to impress the message through his forehead. His disquiet continued as Steve printed out two copies of the order. One he pinned on the notice board and the other he stapled to the cheque after writing on the back of it, ‘Horizon Earth Sciences?’

            Jodie came in looking a little hot and flustered as she brushed some wayward dark strands of hair away from her face with a gloved hand. She became a little more aggravated when she noticed Steve’s grin. “What have you been up to?” he asked.

“Let me see,” she began deliberately. “First I put on the sprinklers in the greenhouses and then watered the display plants. I tidied the office… didn’t you notice the difference?” she added feigning offence. “And I’ve spent the last half hour collecting trays and nutrient gel from what you call a storage shed, but I can think of some other names for it.”

“Jodie!” Steve pretended to be shocked.

            Jodie continued with a hand on her hip trying to maintain her irritation, but unable resist a smirk. “Like tip, or dump or disaster area. Anyway I don’t know where all these supplies are supposed to be, but I could only dig up about a third of what we need.”

Now Steve was a little shame-faced. “Sorry, I forgot all about the ‘Nugro’ order I did last month. That used up most of the gel. I’ll ring for supplies right away.”

Steve rang, ordering in numerous tubes and nutrient medium, while Jodie slumped in a chair, watching him complete his phone call.

“I’ll do the paperwork for the order and fax it if you like,” Jodie offered as she made her way to the computer.

“Thanks, would you like a drink?” asked Steve

“Yes please,” she returned gratefully. He took two cans out of the old fridge and placed one next to Jodie at the computer already immersed in her task, as he grabbed the list off the notice board.

“I may as well start on this.” And made his way to the preparation shed. He set about preparing the plant culture dishes with the trays and gel available.

            Jodie came out and helped with selecting the required plants from the greenhouse. She used a copy of the list and then labelled trays ready for the preparation of the plants. As they worked she questioned the origin of the order. What had happened at the café? Steve noted her interest in Paul and the meeting they’d had. He described him as ‘different from the usual customer’ and then found he had to elaborate with physical description and some details of what had transpired.

            After mentioning Paul’s comment about his ‘Southern Baptist’ origins Jodie looked him in the eye, paused as if weighing up something significant and quickly changed tack. “Steve, I don’t mean to be on your case all the time, but are you coming to church this Sunday?”

“Yeah, probably…”

“You’ve said that the last several weeks, but never quite make it.” Her comment was more a statement of fact than a reproof.

“Has it been that long? I have had a fair bit of work, and ...well, maybe I have been a bit slack,” he confessed.

“David is doing an interesting series on ‘Making your Faith Real’, so how about I pick you up at 9:30.”

She was determined he thought.

“It’s okay, I can drive myself.”

“If I pick you up I know you’ll be there,” she laughed.

So it was arranged, she would pick him up Sunday morning.

            It had been a long day and they were still preparing dishes when Jimmy came in and said that he was staying on to do the Friday evening shift. He explained that Anne, one of the regular casuals, was sick. Seeing that Jodie and Steve were still busily finishing off, he told them he was ordering pizza for everyone and went off to meet Ben and Jillian the two casuals on that night.

            They had an animated time over their meal of pizza and soft drink. Jodie telling tales of slave labour, Jimmy providing imaginative excuses for why he hadn’t started cleaning the storage room, and Steve owning up to his comical exploits of the day by introducing his story with, “Have you ever wished you didn’t act on one of those ‘spur of the moment’ decisions. They all had a hearty laugh at his expense, but he felt somehow a little closer for having shared his embarrassment. Steve left the two of them cleaning up as he had an early start the next day. Being Saturday, it was their busiest day, and he was usually there with the casual staff as Jimmy and Jodie rarely worked Saturdays.

            The journey home was quiet. He drove in a distracted daze along the final kilometre up the increasingly sloping tree lined street to the old family home. His wandering mind would have caused a considerable annoyance had there been any car travelling in the same direction behind him, as he drove much slower than the recommended speed. He turned into the leafy driveway and stopped before the large wooden garage doors.

            Once outside the car he stared at the tall gabled roof. Stairs led to a large decking area across the whole front of the house. The garage was underneath one end of the decking which provided the main access to the large front door. As well as the spacious main floor there were rooms in the considerable roof-space behind the gables. He couldn’t talk himself into selling it, but it was too big and empty for one person. His attachment to the place stemmed from his childhood, because it was home and it was familiar and friendly, but in his lower moods it could be a lonely place with a forlorn atmosphere and, in a strange contradiction, too many fond memories.

            Once inside, he grabbed a fleeting look at the news on TV and then went upstairs to relax in a hot shower. With the grime of the day removed Steve made himself a coffee, sat down and read some professional periodicals. He then went to bed. His thoughts twisted through unconnected spirals. Where was his work leading him? What were his ultimate goals? How important was money or a successful business to him? He tossed and turned and his questions changed direction. Why did he harbour the ‘what ifs’ about Angela? Couldn’t he admit that his ‘grand plan’ was misconceived? Was it pride? Was he ever going to have a meaningful relationship with a girl? His mind train switched again as he rolled on to his stomach. Where did he fit in the great scheme of things? Why did others seem so interested in his church attendance? Why did it seem such a chore to him? Was he really going this Sunday?

            His last coherent construction had something to do with avoiding eating spicy pizzas if you want a good night’s sleep.

                                    .............................................................

            Saturday morning and Steve was at work early. He went over the dockets of the night’s trading, put out the signs, opened the gates and was coming back to set the sprinkler timers when Sally arrived. She was a delightful, largish girl who was always smiling, always helping and highly competent. He opened the shop area for her when Anne arrived. Anne was slim and more serious than Sally, though usually pleasant. She capably set about watering the display plants before moving some flowering varieties near the entrance. It was a very busy morning and dealing with customers and answering queries took all of their time. Steve didn’t lock up until five that afternoon, although he advertised closing time as 3pm. He knew Mondays and Tuesdays were usually quiet so he wasn’t fussed.

            That night he was on his home computer when another email arrived from Paul. A churning feeling stirred in the pit of Steve’s stomach as he read these words:

 

Steve,

Something terrible is happening. I don’t know who to trust. I have emailed stateside but the people I know I can trust would be powerless to do anything. I don’t even know how secure my emails are. You’re the only local who may be able to help.

Firstly, it may be apparent to you by now that I work at a highly secret research establishment. We have numerous scientific projects aimed at developing self-contained biological environments using plants and micro-organisms. The stated aims of our group are entirely for the public good.

Today, sheerly by accident, I learned of a project running in our microbiology department that has no benefits for humanity. In short, they have produced a virus. I have attached the information I happened upon. We will have to collaborate to expose this thing before it’s too late. I’ll try and investigate who is responsible as carefully as I can, and what our options are. If you could use your contacts to find a way to counteract the virus it might give us an edge. This scheme comes from high up so we both need to take care. I already have some suspicions. …Will contact you again soon. …Careful who you trust.

Paul

 

            Steve read the lab reports and technical sheets sent by Paul and it was sinister news. The attachment outlined the development of a highly contagious and deadly short-term virus. Apparently the virus was being worked on to synthesise some pharmaceutical. However, the first genetic manipulation had resulted in the death of lab rats kept in the sealed unit for the very purpose of testing for exposure to biological hazards. Tests ceased briefly before being taken up by a special team. They reported that a neurotoxin had been produced as a by-product. Subsequent pages then detailed a series of manipulations that altered the viability of the virus. The appendix had specific descriptions of its genetic makeup, viral strain and its sensitivity to temperature specifically designed to break down upon the death of the victim. After a matter of twenty four hours the virus organisms would be dead along with the human casualty, assuming the victim had cooled to room temperature.

 

            Steve wondered if he could ring someone at the university where he did some of his post grad work. One of the microbiology professors maybe could help. He needed some support, but he also needed more information, some concrete evidence. He tried a return mail to Paul’s email saying much the same, but it was undeliverable.
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