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Authors: KM Rockwood

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BOOK: Buried Biker
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I slept Sunday afternoon, so I would be well-rested for work. The Quality Steel Fabrications plant was only about a fifteen minute walk from my apartment. Whenever I thought about it, I still couldn’t quite believe I’d actually landed a job there. They participated in a program that gave tax breaks to companies that gave jobs to parole-eligible prison inmates. I did my best to prove to them that they hadn’t made a mistake hiring me.

I packed peanut butter sandwiches in my battered lunchbox and filled its thermos with instant coffee, then left for work. I got there about eleven thirty Sunday night and waited for Jim, the foreman, to tell me how we were going to handle the forklift work tonight.

Ramon, a beefy guy who drove a lift on the four to midnight shift, sat at one of the crude picnic tables between the time-clock and the vending machines that dispensed snacks and a vile dark liquid purported to be coffee. Since his shift hadn’t worked Sunday, they must have called him in. Ramon and I had problems in the past, but as far as I was concerned, we’d worked them through. We basically ignored each other most of the time. I hoped we could just let things lie now—I sure didn’t need any more trouble than I already had.

Ramon looked surprised when he saw me, but nodded a greeting. I nodded back.

Jim, the foreman, hurried in, his battered clipboard clutched in his one gnarled hand, a chewed pencil stub in the other. He stopped when he saw me.

“Didn’t think you were coming in tonight, Jesse,” he said, raising his bushy white eyebrows.

Why would he think that? “I’m here,” I said.

“So I see.” He scratched his chin with the pencil and looked down at me from his height of over six foot five inches. I’m just about six foot.

“I don’t think Kelly will be in, though,” I said.

“I expect you’re right on that. Her dad called the office earlier and said she’d probably be out most of the week.” He eyed my bruised face and seemed to be deciding whether to say anything more. “Do you know how she’s doing?” he finally asked.

I shrugged. “She’s supposed to be doing good, all things considered. But she don’t want to see me right now.”

“I can’t imagine why.” Jim shook his head and turned to his clipboard which listed all the jobs, shipments and information he’d need for the shift tonight.

Since they’d called Ramon in, I figured I’d be working my regular duties in the warehouse and the plant floor, with Ramon handling the loading and unloading of trucks. I hadn’t needed to come in so early, but that didn’t matter.

I put my lunchbox on the table, punched in, hung up my jacket on a hook on the wall, and grabbed my hardhat. A note on the time-clock reminded everyone that most of plant would be shut down next week for retooling. That happened twice a year, and production workers got a week’s paid vacation, if they were union members. I’d been working there long enough to be in the union, so I’d be on paid vacation this time. Unless they needed a forklift driver and told me to report. Then I’d work my regular hours and get the vacation at another time.

I sat down across the table from Ramon to wait for the shift to begin.

“They didn’t think they’d have a driver at all this shift,” he said. “That’s why they called me in. I can always use the overtime.”

“Really?” I asked. “Jim said Kelly’s dad called in, but why did he think I wasn’t going to show up?”

Ramon flipped open his lunchbox and pulled out a newspaper. “You see the front page of today’s paper?” he asked.

“No.” I reached for the paper he was holding out. This couldn’t be good.

There I was. Staring right into the camera, my face covered with blood. I looked totally deranged. My hands were pulled behind me, and a burly cop with a grim expression on his face had me by the elbow. It looked like I was trying to break away and he had to actively restrain me.

The caption had my name slightly misspelled, “Jessie Damon,” and said I was being arrested on charges of rape, kidnapping, and assault. The brief article below noted that I was on parole for a murder conviction and considered armed and dangerous. It primly stated that the paper did not name the victims of sexual assault.

But everybody here at work knew it was Kelly. My status as a paroled murderer was no secret to anyone. The first time I’d made the newspaper had been when I’d been arrested for murder at age sixteen. But that had been in the
Baltimore Sun
, a much bigger paper, and the article had been tucked back on page five or something. Now I was in the news again, and this was on the front page. While I told myself it didn’t matter and I shouldn’t care, it did bother me.

I remembered the car that had pulled up on Friday when I was being hauled in. It must have been a reporter. With a camera. Probably listening to the police calls and hoping for a dramatic front-page story for the Sunday paper. He—or she—got it.

“My parole officer is gonna love this,” I said, rubbing my rough cheek. I still hadn’t shaved—I figured it covered some of the bruising, and no one at work cared what anyone looked like as long as the work got done.

“You’re not locked up,” Ramon said. “Did you post bail?”

I shook my head. “You really think they’d set bail for somebody with my record? On a rape charge? Or that I’d find a bail bondsman willing to post it, even if I could come up with my ten percent?”

“I guess not.” He took the paper back. “You look kind of rough in that picture.”

“True, that.”

“Truth be told, you don’t look that much better now.”

I grinned and nodded toward the newspaper. “That why Jim thought I wasn’t gonna be coming in?”

“Yeah. Everybody figured you’d be in jail.” His eyes opened wide. “You didn’t
escape,
did you?”

I laughed. “And come into work, where they could just swing by and pick me up? I don’t think so. They never charged me.”

“But the paper says…”

“I see what the paper says. The reporter overheard the cops talking about those charges. But when Kelly came to and they talked to her, she fingered someone else as the attacker. So they cut me loose.”

“Can’t they test for DNA or something?”

“I’m sure they will. And it’ll come back it wasn’t me.”

“So who was it? Do you know?”

I shook my head. “No. I tried to go see her, but she wasn’t in any mood to talk to me.” Slight understatement.

“She still in the hospital?”

“I think so.”

“Gonna be okay?”

“As far as I know. But she got a dislocated shoulder or something, so she’s gonna be off work for a bit.”

The other workers were drifting in. Most of them glanced over and did a double take when they saw me sitting there. Did they all get the Sunday paper?

Ramon leaned forward. “You know that picture was on the news on TV, too?”

Great. Anybody who hadn’t seen the paper had probably watched the news.

No point sitting here while everyone gawked. It was a bit early, but I got up and headed back to the charging bay where the electric forklifts were plugged in. Snatching the clipboard from a hook next to my assigned lift, I started on the pre-shift checklist.

Ramon trailed after me and took the clipboard for the larger lift next to mine, the one Kelly usually drove. “What do I do first?” he asked.

“Whatever John tells you. Probably start picking stock and assembling shipments. You get the paperwork from the computer by the dispatcher’s office. You know how to read the packing lists?”

“Yeah. But how about the packing line? Don’t I have to stay where I can service that?”

“Not until the very end of the shift. It’s a little easier than most nights. The plating line’s been shut down for the weekend, and it takes almost four hours to get that up. The lacquer line can’t start until the platers are running. And the packing line can’t pack until there’s something on the line
to
pack.”

“So I pick stock.” He nodded.

“Except when you got a truck to load or unload. Jim’ll tell you what to expect.”

“Thanks.” Ramon swung up onto his seat and backed out.

The whistle blew to start the shift. Machinery rumbled to life. Sparks flew, presses set into their thunderous rhythm, and the air filled with the pungent odors of oil and hot steel.

Back in the warehouse, I rearranged a few pallets of open steel rings that would be welded together to make baskets for tree roots at some point. The root baskets weren’t some of the most elegant products Quality Steel Fabrications made, but they were easy and profitable, and we made lots of them. Welding them was the first job I’d been put on when I’d started here.

As I replaced the pallets, larger rings in the back to the smaller ones in the front, I noticed something light-colored on the floor behind another pallet. I got off the lift and picked it up.

It was a woman’s purse. What the hell was that doing back here? I knew there were a number of women who worked in the plant who might have business back in the warehouse, but they were all production workers, like Kelly. I’d never seen one of them carry a purse to work. If they had stuff they didn’t want to carry in their pockets, like cell phones, it probably ended up in their lunchboxes, just like with the men.

And I’d
never
noticed a production worker with makeup.

The ladies in the office dressed in nice clothes and carried purses, but I doubted any of them would come back here. A hard hat would squash their hairdos, and I didn’t know whether anyone in dress shoes would be permitted back here. We all wore steel-toed boots.

I debated looking inside it, but decided it wasn’t my place to do that. I tucked it behind the seat of the forklift, figuring I could give it to Jim, or if I didn’t see him, hand it in to the timekeeper when she arrived at seven o’clock to get paperwork ready for the day shift. She had a lost-and-found box in her office.

I brought supplies for the machine operators from the warehouse and removed full pallets of completed parts. Most of the workers glanced curiously at me as I passed, but we were busy working and the noise level of the shop floor didn’t permit casual conversation. That suited me fine, under the circumstances.

The plating room, though, where I’d worked before I was assigned to be a forklift driver, was relaxed as the operators brought the electroplaters, their rows of tanks stretching into the gloom, up to production speed. The overhead carriers, left empty over the weekend, hovered over the tanks, began their endless lurch and dip dance as they were set in motion. As each empty set of hooks paused in front of the operator, who attached a dull grey piece to them and waited for the next set of hooks. When they were operating at full capacity, keeping up with the loading and unloading the shelves and cabinets from the overhead carriers was a constant challenge for the operators, but now they only had to load the line until the first ones made it all the way through all the plating tanks and back to the front of the squat behemoths. It would take much of the shift before the first gleaming pieces returned to the front.

Hank, the plating room group lead, stood with his clipboard in his beefy hand, checking the work list.

“Jesse,” he shouted over the sound of the lurching machinery. “Come into the office. We got to go over the work orders.”

I eased the forklift to a stop next to the office and followed him in. The office was stifling hot. Hank was pulling dirty papers from equally grimed file folders. “Damn new system,” he muttered. “I can’t figure out what the hell we’re supposed to be doing here.”

Some enthusiastic new junior executive hire had implemented a new computer tracking system for both inventory and work flow. It was supposed to let everyone know exactly what needed to be done when, what parts and supplies were running low and what we had in stock to fill orders. It probably worked perfectly well from the point of view of the office workers, but as far as I could see, it just complicated the work for those of us who actually had to do the work. Instructions that had been scrawled on one sheet of paper were now on five-page printouts. Some of it was almost indecipherable even to reasonably intelligent people who could read well. For years, the only requirements for hiring laborers had been a strong back and a willingness to work hard, regardless of educational level. And the best of the workers, those who understood the jobs and the machinery and could get things done, were promoted. Hank was one of the old-school group leaders.

I owed Hank. He’d been decent to me when I’d first been assigned to operate a plater, showing me how to do the work. I’d been a probationary employee, and he’d given me a chance to learn the ropes. I knew he had trouble reading, so I took the papers and sorted through them.

“Oven shelves are top priority,” I told him, taking his pen to circle the part names and numbers so he could pick them out easily. “And they aren’t fussy, so we should run them until the platers are going good. Then maybe start one of the platers on those big grills—I don’t know what they’re for, really, but they need a fair number of them. If you get far enough along, you could start those breaker boxes, but they don’t ship until Wednesday, so they’re not a rush.”

Hank nodded and rubbed a thick finger against his nose. The tattoos on the backs of his hands glistened with sweat.

BOOK: Buried Biker
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