Vulcanised

by dfunction

A glint of moonlight reflected from Leon O’Bannon’s bald head as he turned to his companion, ‘Watch out there, Carl,’ he said in a soft northern lilt.
Carl Fenton looked down to see he was walking too close to the cliff’s edge, and veered away, ‘It’s a damn nuisance,’ he said, lifting his hawkish nose in disdain, ‘I know we have to be careful, but is all this really necessary?’
‘Better paranoid than banged up,’ Leon said.
Carl scratched at the orange stubble behind his ears, stretching his neck from the collar of his jacket, ‘I guess so.’
They walked on in silence, rounding the base of a steep hill that rose above the drop. On the other side of the dark mound, in a bay-like recess between two hillocks, stood a dark blue steel cargo container sat on a concrete plinth. ‘They better be here,’ Carl grumbled.
‘They’re always here,’ Leon replied. The immediate area around the cargo container had the appearance of a building site; a cement mixer stood silently beside dumpy bags of sand and piles of red bricks.
When they reached the container Leon grabbed two long silver handles mounted on the front of the door and wrenched them aside with a screech. Carl ducked inside and Leon followed, pulling the door to behind him. Inside there were just a few large wooden cable spools on the particleboard floor, and an old crisp box filled with open food packets and drinks bottles. In the rear left corner a flickering paraffin lamp illuminated a wooden ladder that poked up from a metre-square hole in the floor.
Leon walked to the ladder, sand crunching beneath his boots, ‘Anson? Tadita? You down there?’ He called softly.
The ladder creaked, and a few seconds later a swarthy head appeared in the opening, the lamp’s flame dancing in the dark pools of his eyes, ‘Right on time,’ Anson Kassar said, ducking back down the ladder.
Carl and Leon followed Anson down into an excavation below the cargo container. The basement was a single oblong room lined in concrete, with bottle crates stacked against the walls. At the rear end a blonde woman sat at a table with her back to them.
She turned from her work, her ice-blue eyes crinkling in a smile, ‘Hi, Leon, good to see you, Carl, always a pleasure, I’m almost done here, I won’t be a minute.’
‘Hi, Tadita,’ Leon greeted her. She gave him another smile and returned to her task.
Carl took off a bulging backpack and unzipped it on the floor. ‘It’s going to be a bit more this time,’ Anson said, his eyes darting between Leon and Carl.
Pausing, Carl looked up at him, ‘Why didn’t you say that before?’
‘I’ve lost some of the bottles to customs,’ Anson shrugged his solid shoulders, ‘I don’t get reimbursed, so I’m including them in the price.’
‘I understand that, but why didn’t you say this when I talked to you?’ Carl asked, waving a bundle of notes at Anson.
‘I didn’t want you to think that I was hustling you or something.’
Leon swapped glances with Carl, and then said, ‘Carl brought the exact amount, as always.’
‘You’ll just get less then,’ Anson replied.
‘How much less?’ Carl asked, his stomach sinking.
‘One kilo.’
‘That’s a fifth of our profit.’
‘That’s business,’ Anson snarled.
‘Ok, ok,’ Carl held up his money-laden hands.
Anson took the bundles from him and began counting them on the edge of the table. Leon picked up one of the empty bottles next to Tadita to examine the red and yellow label, ‘Vulcan laboratories, Bengal?’ He raised his eyebrows.
‘The best, most reliable stuff comes from India,’ Anson explained as he counted, ‘it has to come through customs, and we lose some, but you’re more likely to get ripped off by in-country suppliers.’
Leon looked over Tadita’s shoulder to watch the procedure. It was very simple, like melting chocolate to decorate a cake. On the table in front of her stood a portable butane camping stove with a pan of boiling water on it, she placed a ceramic plate on top of the pan then poured a fifty millilitre bottle onto the plate. Within a few minutes the shallow edge of the liquid began to crystallise as the water evaporated. ‘Look,’ Leon pointed out the plate to Carl, ‘it’s skinning over like ice.’
‘That’s the last one, it should be ready in around an hour,’ Tadita stood up from the table, ‘who wants a drink?’ She asked, looking at Leon.
‘Sure, I could go for a stiff one.’
Anson had finished counting the money and was handing the last four kilo parcel to Carl, who packed them into his rucksack. Anson looked at the unsealed packet on the table, ‘We’ll take the fifth kilo back with us,’ he said, searching Leon and Carl’s faces for signs of disagreement. When no objections were raised Anson hefted the sack of money, pushed past them, and made his way to the ladder, ‘And now for a drink,’ he said as he took hold of the rungs.
Tadita and Leon were close behind Anson as Carl shouldered his rucksack and followed on after them. She climbed from the hole and went to pick up a bottle of vodka from the box of supplies. Fishing four tumblers from beneath the half-empty crisp packets, she poured a measure into each one and handed them around, ‘To staying out of prison,’ she charged her glass.
‘To staying out of prison,’ the men echoed, and they all sank their drinks.
As Tadita began to refill their glasses an insistent rain began to patter above their heads. ‘It’s been raining a hell of a lot recently,’ Anson wrinkled his nose as he examined the underside of the corrugated metal roof.
‘It really has,’ Tadita nodded.
Leon was about to say something when the rain intensified, hammering down with a sound like thunder in the tiny steel box. On and on it went, getting louder with every second, then a new sound began to twine with the pelting rain, a vibration Leon could feel in his feet, a low, rushing hiss, ‘What’s that?’ He raised his voice over the cacophony.
‘I don’t know,’ Tadita shouted.
The hiss became a roar and the cargo container began to judder and vibrate, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ Anson staggered back to land on his rump.
All of a sudden the container titled violently and began to tumble like a wooden joist thrown down a hill. The four of them were flung about like rag dolls for a brief, horrifying moment, then the movement stopped and they slumped together in the corner, panting as the roar slowed to a whisper, then stopped.
‘What the fuck?’ Carl growled in the darkness as he tried to prop himself into a sitting position. The container had come to rest with a corner pointing down, so they were all wedged together at the bottom with the cable spools.
‘Everyone alright?’ Leon asked, pushing the cardboard box from his face as he awkwardly attempted to stabilise himself in the v-shaped trough.
‘I think my leg’s broken,’ Anson said, his voice thick with pain.
‘Hold on a second,’ Leon began crawling along the trough, wrestling the heavy cable spools to the side and behind as he moved.
‘Tadita?’ Carl called.
‘I’m here,’ she said from further down the container, the cloying smell of spilt paraffin heavy in her nose.
Leon’s hands found Anson in the darkness, but before he could utter any reassurances, the roar returned, and the steel around them began to buck. They screamed as the container rattled down the hill, bouncing around the interior like crash-test dummies.
The motion stopped and the door fell open, allowing the cool night air to pour inside. Tadita’s head was spinning, but apart from being bruised from head to toe, she didn’t think she’d sustained any serious injuries. ‘Hello?’ she shouted, ‘Everyone alright?’ A few seconds of silence passed, and then she saw a shaky movement highlighted in the silver moonlight. ‘Leon, is that you?’
‘No.’ Carl groaned as he sat up, ‘It’s Carl.’
Tadita crawled toward him, and, as she pushed one of the weighty spools aside, her hand brushed against something wet. She drew it back in disgust and sat still in the darkness. Eventually a thought came to her and she pulled a little orange lighter from her pocket. When she spun the spark wheel she saw a single stark image of Anson lying in a puddle of blood, his head staved in. She instantly released her thumb from the lighter and the image disappeared. Gingerly she crawled over his body, touching him as little as possible.
With Anson behind her she flicked the lighter again and saw the sack with the money inside, She wrapped her hand in the cloth and dragged it along until she came to Leon, who’d wound up in a similar state to Anson, she shook her head and kept moving.
Carl’s trousers were dark and glistening with blood, the shattered neck of a bottle lay next to him, ‘I Landed on the fucking vodka,’ he groaned as Tadita reached him.
‘Did you bring the ketamine up with you? She asked in a gentle voice.
‘Yeah,’ Carl frowned, ‘it’s in my rucksack,’ he hiked his chin at the bag hanging from his shoulders.
‘Good,’ Tadita said, and with a gentle smile, she reached over Carl’s body, picked up the jagged bottleneck, and rammed it into his throat, twisting back and forth. He squeaked as blood bubbled from his neck, and clawed at Tadita, but she simply turned him onto his front, and, with a powerful jerk, ripped the bag from his back. It was only a few steps to the open door and she walked over to peep out, shrugging on Carl’s backpack as she stumbled toward the light.
The open end of the container had come to rest jutting out over the edge of the cliff. She dropped the money sack, steeled herself, and placed her foot into one of the crevices on the inside of the open door. Pulling herself up she peeked over the top, the container was half buried in mud, with the bulk of its length still resting on the cliff top.
Dropping back down she grabbed the money and hauled herself up onto the container’s roof. She walked hastily to the point where blue metal gave way to brown earth, and slid down the muddy bank to land on the grass. She jogged painfully along the overhang, stopping to turn round when she was a good distance away.
A section of the hill above the container had sheared off and swept them toward the ravine. Her eyes left the ruptured brown hillside and came to rest on the container. She stared into the darkness beyond the door for a long time, then turned and limped away.