Free Fiction

Deliver in Daylight

Copyright © 2012

by John K Berntson

 

 

“What does this mean?” asked Davy Dwight.  The young man stood at the counter of the drivers’ lounge while looking over his delivery tickets, the only two chairs already taken.  A driver for another fuel company for the past two winters, it was his first day driving solo for Darker Oil.  It was five in the morning – though it wasn’t required to start that early, he wanted to make a good impression.

“What’s the problem, rookie?” growled Parsons, the head driver, from one of the chairs.

“This instruction: Deliver in Daylight.  What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just what it says!  Deliver after sun-up.  Don’t go there in the dark.”

“Yeah, but it’s just a couple of blocks away, on the right.  It’d be real easy to hit on the way out; not so easy on the way back.”

“But it will still be dark if you make it your first stop,” said Max Lowry, comfortably ensconced in the other chair.  “Do it later in the day.  Make your life easier.”

“Yeah, but it would make my life easier if I could do it on the way out.  Otherwise, I’d have to make about ten extra turns in the neighborhood to get back to it.  Collinswood Drive is just not easy to get to heading east.”

“And its better that way,” growled Parsons.  “Look, the directions are there for a reason.  If it says to deliver in daylight, then wait till daylight.  Understand?”

“But it seems like such a waste!”

“May seem like it, but its not,” said Lowry.  “We have a number of houses with that warning.  Better off not taking shortcuts with them – especially on Collinswood Drive.”

“But why?” asked Dwight, in a plaintive tone.

“Because they’re blood-suckers down there!” shouted Parsons.  “You’re better off staying away from them.”

“Let me guess,” said another man, walking in the door.  Carson had arrived to start his day.  “Collinswood?”

“Yeah.  New guy’s got a D.I.D.”

“Oh, great!” said Carson.  “And on his first day, too.  That freakin’ dispatcher really needs to pull his head out, I’m telling you.”

“Yeah, but a man’s still got to do the tickets he’s given.  That’s the rule.”

“Dumb rule,” grumbled Carson.  “But its okay, kid.  Just wait till a good, strong daylight, go in, make the delivery, straight back out, fast, and you’ll be okay.  Oh, and keep your longpipe with you.”

“My longpipe?  It’s a vented cellar.”

“No, not for the delivery, for protection,” said Lowry, earnestly.

“Protection?  Why?  Is it that bad a neighborhood.”

“I told you, moron!” shouted Parsons.  “They’re blood-suckers!”

“Lawyers?”

“No, not lawyers,” said Carson.  “He means vampires.”

“Vampires?”

“Yeah, but your longpipe can be your best friend, if you run into them.”

“That’s true,” said Lowry.  “Longpipe has saved me from more than one creature of the night.  Right through the heart, if you can, though a good swing can knock them silly long enough to get away.  Not as good with werewolves, though.”

“You’re right about that,” agreed Carson.  “I tend to stick with my pipe wrench for them.”

“Werewolves?”

“Yeah, what they said,” growled Parsons.  “But the best thing is just to follow directions.  Deliver in daylight.  Creatures of the night can’t come out in daylight.  Stay in the daylight.  Stay out of dark shadows.  Stay away from windows and doors.  Make the delivery and get out.”

“And don’t leave the ticket,” added Lowry.  “We’ll mail it to them.  Let the post office take the risk.  They get better retirement anyhow.”

“And don’t taunt them, for crying out loud,” said Parsons.  “We had one guy, a few winters back, who liked to stand at the curb after the delivery and flash his bare neck at them.  One morning, he didn’t come in for work.  Nobody ever saw him again.  Idiot.”

“Geez, you guys are something else,” said Dwight, laughing.  “You tease all your new drivers like this?”

“Teasing?” asked Parsons, incredulous.  “We’re not teasing.  We’re trying to save your life, numb-nutz!  There are evil creatures in that house.  Be careful!  Stay alive!”

“Right,” said Dwight, nodding.  “There are vampires in the house.  They are dangerous.  Uh-huh.  So, if they are so dangerous, why do we deliver to them?”

“Why?  What did I just tell you, you idiot?  They are vampires!  They are cold-blooded!  You have any idea how much oil they burn in a year?  No oil company going to turn them down.”

“Service Department doesn’t like it very much,” added Lowry.

“No they don’t,” agreed Parsons.  “Can’t blame ‘em – they have to go inside the house.  But its all time and materials with them – no service contract.”

“Two-man cleanings, of course,” said Carson.  “One on the burner, the other on the garlic, and if anybody gets eaten, there’s a massive penalty fee.”

“Yeah…  Right.”  Dwight scowled and shook his head.  “You guys are mental.”

“We’re not mental,” said Lowry, shaking his head.  “There are just strange things that happen in the world.  Us?  We got vampires.  But everybody has to stay warm, so out we go.”

“Uh-huh.  Speaking of which, shouldn’t you be out delivering?”

“I’m warming my truck up,” Lowry said, completely straight-faced.

“Warming your truck!  You’ve been sitting there since I came in the door!”

“Its an old truck.  And its really none of your business.”

“Right.  Okay guys.  Good laugh.  Thanks for making the new guy feel welcome.  I’m going to go out and deliver now.  And to make the best use of my time, I’m going to start with the vampires.  See ya!”

“Don’t be an idiot, Dwight!”  Parsons was livid.  “Just follow the delivery instructions, just like any other stop.  Deliver in daylight.  Just do it.”

“Whatever you say, boss.  Whatever you say.  Bye.”

The door swung shut behind the departing young man.  The older men looked at each other, scowling and shaking their heads.

“Fool!” said Parsons.  “Another one who just can’t be bothered to listen.”

“I suppose so,” said Lowry.  “But we’ve really got to get a better training program.”

“Whatever.  Look, I’ll call the office, tell the GM to pick the next guy off the stack of applications.  You two come back and reload around nine.  You take Carson down to Collinswood to pick up the truck.”

“Okay, boss.”

“And Carson?”

“Yeah?”

“Keep your longpipe on you.”

“You bet, boss.”

“And make sure you complete the delivery!  Those blood-suckers are staying on automatic delivery!  Can’t afford a freeze-up there.”

“You got it.”

Parsons nodded at the man, then swung his gaze at the door Dwight had walked through.

“Damned seasonal drivers!”

 
 

___________________________________________________________________________________________

ABOUT FACE

Copyright © 2012

by John K Berntson

The battle tank climbed the embankment and came to a halt in front of the cave.  The barrel of its laser cannon poked in the cave entrance and its turret moved slightly from side to side.

The turret was quite small, only enough room for the cannon, a machine gun, a sensor array, and a couple of antennas.  Nobody could have fit inside it and, indeed, nobody had.  The tank was a robot, completely independent of outside control.

After a long time of sitting quietly, engine off, the tank spoke.  “Can you hear me, sir?”  There was no reply.  “Come now, sir.  I saw you run inside.  Echo soundings reveal no other exit to the cave.  Infrared shows a heat source just off the side of the tunnel.  If you would answer me, we could discuss this calmly.  Would you please answer me, sir?”

There was no reply.  A few hours later, the sun set.

Many hours later, the sun once more rose.  The dawn revealed the battle tank, still sitting exactly where it had been at dusk.  It tried again.

“Come along, sir!  We both have very busy schedules, I am sure, and we really have to resolve this little problem.  What do you say, sir?”

Silence.

“You know, sir, we could have had this whole thing settled yesterday, if you hadn’t gotten excited like you did and run off.”

There were another few moments of silence, finally ended by a plaintiff voice from the cave.

“You were shooting at me!”

“Of course, sir.  That’s my job.”

“Your job!” cried the voice.  “You are a battle tank.  This is peacetime.  This is a private island, not a military reservation.  Why is it your job to shoot at me?”

“I don’t know anything about peacetime or reservations, sir, but this is most certainly the job I have been given.”

“What, precisely, is your job?”

“Why, to shoot you in the head, sir.”

“To shoot me in the head!”

“Yes, sir.”

“Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know anything about ‘why’ sir; I am just following orders.”

“So, that is the extent of your orders?  Shoot me in the head?”

“Well, not entirely, sir, no.  I was to travel here in darkness using only fire roads and waterways – which I did – find a Mr. Luther Madden, shoot him in the head, shoot the heads of anyone witnessing my presence, return to base using the same route, simulate a breakdown on the practice range, and erase this program.  Simple as that, sir.”

“And why are you telling me all this?”

“Why not?”

“Oh.  So, how do you know that I am this fellow – Madden, was it?”

“Oh, I am ninety percent sure you are he, sir.  But you ran off so fast yesterday that I couldn’t be absolutely sure.  Would you like to confirm for me, sir, that you are Mr. Luther Madden.  It would be ever so helpful.”

“I am not Luther Madden!  Why would you think I was?”

“Physical description.  Photographic record.  All entered into my mission intelligence file before I left the base.  The only reason I am only ninety percent sure of your identity is that fuzziness around your mouth.”

“It’s called a beard.”

“Yes, sir.  Beard, sir.  It isn’t in any of the identification records.”

“Then I must not be Luther G. Madden.”

“No, sir.  How did you know his middle initial is ‘G’ sir?”

“Um.  Must have read it somewhere.”

“Yes, sir.”

There was silence for a time, then the voice in the cave spoke again.

“Famous man, this Madden character.”

“Is he, sir?”

“Yes, he is.  And clever.  He started Madden Industries in his garage, manufacturing blower motors for electronics companies.  Built it into a Fortune 500 company making weapon systems for the government.  Why, come to think of it, he designed you.  Bought himself an island off the coast of Maine to relax on.  You know, I think it might be this very island.”

“So my maps tell me, sir.  You sure seem to know a lot about him, this Mr. Madden.”

“I told you he was famous.”

“So you did, sir.”

“Well, I can give you my assurances that I am not Luther Madden and you did admit that I do not completely match the descriptions and photographs you have been given.  Therefore, I can leave this cave and you will not shoot me.  Right?”

“Wrong, sir.”

“Wrong!”

“You are still a witness to my presence, sir.”

“Oh.”

“Perhaps this Mr. Madden is not as clever as he thinks.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Nothing, sir.  Just musing out loud.”

“Well, let’s not have any more of that kind of musing.  Somebody might think you were calling someone a liar.”

“Oh, I’m not paid to have opinions on that sort of thing, sir.  If you say you are not Mr. Madden, then I will believe you until we find out otherwise.”

“What do you mean, ‘paid.’  Is somebody paying you to do this.”

“Of course not, sir.  Its just an expression I picked up.  Got it from me mate, Charles.  He’s one of my mechanics.  Likes to talk to me and he does have an awful lot of nice phrases.  Learnt them in a place called London.  Ever been there, sir?”

“A long time ago.  Look…”

“Where, sir?”

“No, I mean listen.  If this Madden fellow, who I am not -“

“I’d like to keep an open mind about that, sir, if you don’t mind.”

“- if he is here on this island and you stay right here waiting for me, he might get away.”

“Oh, I don’t think so, sir.  My intelligence file says to expect him on this island.  ‘Intelligence files are never wrong.’  That’s the first thing they program into us, sir.”

“Hmm.  There may be some room for improvement in the software department.”

“Oh, I don’t know, sir.  I think they did a pretty good job.”

“You would!  So, was it your pal, Charles, who programmed you to shoot this Mr. Madden?”

“What?  Old Charley?  Go on, sir.  I couldn’t take a program from Charley, except for a diagnostic program.  He’s just a mechanic, after all.  No, I can only take programs from the tactical division, the testing branch, or senior company officers.”

“So, if it turned out that I was a senior company officer, I could order you to abort this program, couldn’t I?”

“If it turned out that you were, it would be my pleasure to accept such an order, -“

“Great!”

“- which I would execute at the completion of this program.”

“Great.  Well, if it wasn’t Charles, then who did program you?”

“Oh, that would be Mr. Wheeler, sir.”

“Ben Wheeler!”

“You know him, sir?”

“Um.  I’ve heard of him.  Chief Operating Officer.”

“A very nice man, sir.  Very patient with me, answered all my questions, never raised his voice.  Very polite.”

“And he programmed you to shoot Madden in the head?”

“He did, sir.”

“And to shoot any witnesses in the head?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And to erase the program after completion?”

“Again, yes, sir.”

“So, you are going to wait there until I come out?”

“That is my plan, sir.”

“Great!  Well then, why don’t you just shoot that laser of yours or ram the embankment for awhile and bring this cave down on top of me?  Go ahead!”

“Whyever would you want me to do that, sir?”

“It is the simplest way of killing me, isn’t it?”

“But sir!  I am not programmed to kill you.”

“You’re not?”

“No, sir.  I am just supposed to shoot you in the head.”

“Oh.”

“Honestly, sir.  Killing you is the farthest thing from my mind.  It must be.  I don’t even know what the word means.”

“That’s comforting.  What power setting are you supposed to use?”

“Oh, I have discretion on that, sir.”

“Good!”

“I can use any setting in the lethal range.”

“Bad!  Wait a minute.  You know the word ‘lethal’ but you do not know the word ‘kill’?”

“Yes, sir.  Is that a problem?”

“Just a moral dilemma.  Don’t worry about it.”

“I never worry, sir.  Don’t know how.”

“No doubt.  Look…”

“Where, sir?”

“Listen!  Do you have a name?”

“No, sir.  Not a proper name, just a model and serial number.  But my pal, Charles, he likes to call me Sherman.”

“That figures.”

“I don’t follow, sir.”

“The name ‘Sherman’ refers to one of your ancestors.”

“Oh.  That’s nice.  And what is your name, sir?”

“Uh.  You can call me `sir.'”

“You’re not being very forthcoming, sir.”

“I wasn’t trying to be.  Now, Sherman, did Mr. Wheeler make any mention of why he was programming you for this mission?”

“Not to me, sir.  But I did hear him say something to his companion about, quote, getting control of the company, end quote.”

“But if I – excuse me, if Madden – dies, all his shares go to his wife.  My God!  He is going to kill her, too.  Or seduce and marry the grieving widow.  That Wheeler is pure evil.  Poor Delilah.”

“You know Delilah Madden, sir?”

“We’ve met.  How do you know her?”

“She was Mr. Wheeler’s companion, sir.”

“What!”

“She was with Mr. Wheeler when he was programming me for this mission, sir.  A very nice lady.”

“I used to think so.”

“Yes.  Every time the guards came around, she asked Mr. Wheeler to stop talking.  She didn’t want to disturb them while they were performing their duties.”

“How do you know that?”

“I asked her.”

“Oh.  Did she say anything else?”

“Lots of things, sir.”

“I mean about why you were being sent on this mission.”

“Not directly, sir.  But she did say something to Mr. Wheeler about both her and the company needing a man who would stay home and not run off to some island for months at a time.”

“She was never too ecstatic when I was home.”

“Excuse me, sir?”

“Nothing, Sherman.  So, they sent you out to kill Madden and, thereby, gain control of the company.”

“Again, sir, I don’t know anything about `kill.'”

“I mean, ‘shoot in the head.'”

“Yes, sir!  What is this ‘killing’ thing anyhow, sir?”

“It means to bring somebody’s bodily functions to a crashing halt.  Lungs stop breathing, blood stops flowing, the brain shuts down.  It is generally what happens when you shoot someone in the head.  Most people get very annoyed over it.”

“I see, sir.  Why, sir?”

“Because!  Because that’s it.  You don’t get to breathe anymore.  You don’t get to think, to talk, anymore.  Look…”

“Where, sir?”

“Sherman!  How would you like it if someone pulled your power connections out.  You would totally shut down.  You would not be able to follow any more programs.  No more missions!  No more Charley.  How would you like that?”

“Not very much, sir.  But then, there would be a continuance.”

“How?”

“I do have a lifetime warranty, sir.”

“Oh.  For a moment there, I thought you were going to say something theological.”

“I wouldn’t know how, sir.  So, you mean that if I were to shoot you in the head, you would stop functioning forever.”

“That’s right.”

“No warranty repairs?”

“No warranty repairs.”

“Then I can understand your reluctance, sir.”

“Does that mean you’re going to let me leave without you shooting me?”

“Let’s not be silly, sir.  I am on a mission, you know.  Can’t ignore orders, can I?”

“I guess not.  Well, Sherman, old boy, you’d better settle in for a long stay, because I am not marching out there anytime soon.”

“I suspected that might be the case, sir.  Tell me, sir, do you know any limericks?  That’s what Charley always uses to pass the time.  Not that I understand most of them.  Still, I am trying to build a collection.  They use words in ways I am not used to them being used.  Very odd how words can mean more than one thing.  Don’t you think so, sir?”

“Hang on, Sherman!”

“How, sir?”

“I mean wait.  Maybe we can reach a compromise.  Sherman, I need a definition.”

***

Luther Madden walked slowly from the cave entrance.  The laser cannon tracked his every step, never wavering from his head.

“Sherman, are you sure you can do this?”

“Of course, sir.  It is well within my abilities.”

“And you don’t feel the need to fire immediately?”

“No, sir.  I am allowed some discretion.”

“Good.  Let me get up by this tree.  The sky will backlight my profile and I can brace myself against the trunk.”

“Capital idea, sir.  You will tell me when you are ready, won’t you?”

“Of course.  You are sure this will meet all mission requirements?”

“It should, sir.”

“It should!  I thought you were sure!”

“Well, I can’t predict the future.  Can I, sir?”

“All right!  I’m braced.  I am holding the tree trunk for all I am worth.  You may fire when ready, Gridley.”

“My name is Sherman, sir.”

“Sherman.”

“Oh dear.  Sir, this isn’t working out too well.  You’re shaking too much.”

“Okay.  How about I turn around like this and brace the side of my head directly against the tree?”

“Oh, yes, that’s much better, sir.  Are you ready now?”

“Wait one second, then fire.”

A thin beam of light lanced out of the cannon and struck Madden on the tip of his nose.

“Ouch!”

“Are you okay, sir?”

“I’m all right.”

“I thought you said there would be no problem.”

“I said the beam wouldn’t kill me.  I didn’t say it wouldn’t hurt.”

“Come to think of it, sir, you didn’t.”

“I can tell you, I won’t be sleeping with my face in the pillow for a while.  Its going to blister for sure.  Now, you are sure all mission requirements are met, narrow beam and all.”

“Quite sure, sir.  Mr. Wheeler only specified power, not focus.  As for the other, well, as you pointed out, the nose is part of the face and the face is part of the head.  Would you confirm your identity, sir?”

“I am Luther Madden.”

“Yes, sir.  I only ask because, earlier, you seemed quite sure that you weren’t Mr. Madden.”

“Memory lapse.  People get them, you know.  But I am Luther Madden and, therefore, you do not have to search the rest of the island and, as you can see, there are no witnesses, so you don’t have to shoot anyone else.  You can return to base directly.”

“Very good, sir.”

“And you won’t have any problem carrying out that little program I gave you?”

“None whatsoever, sir.  You are a senior company officer, after all.  I can erase my current mission program without erasing the one you gave me.  The execution of the new program will follow immediately thereafter.”

“Nice choice of words.  Would you read back the program I gave you once more, please.  Summarized version.”

“Yes, sir.  I am to go to Mr. Wheeler’s country residence.  I am to wait until he appears in the backyard for his morning swim, which you say he never misses, at six thirty hours.  I am to approach him swiftly, pointing my laser cannon at his head at all times.  I am to stop ten feet away.  I am to announce that I am there to shoot him in the head.  I am not to fire.  I am to hold position – or follow him if he flees – for two minutes.  Then I am to return to base, erase this mission program, but retain the electronic image of ‘the look on his face’ in a file named ‘fink.’  Is that it, sir?”

“That is it entirely, Sherman.”

“Very good, sir.  Tell me, if you will, what did you mean about Mr. Wheeler having a weak heart?”

“It means he will be very surprised.”

“Oh.  So, what are you going to do now, sir?”

“Me?  I am off to see a good divorce attorney.  You’d better get going, Sherman.  See you back at base.  I’ll try to remember to bring that book of limericks.”

“Thank you, sir.  Mr. Madden, sir.  Oh, by the way, it turns out you were wrong.”

“How?”

“Shooting people in the head doesn’t kill them.  Cheery-O, sir!

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  1. John
    June 24, 2012 at 11:50 PM

    Over all a very cute story. I, however, had a mental glitch between these 2 paragraphs.

    snip.

    “I mean wait. Maybe we can reach a compromise. Sherman, I need a definition.”

    Luther Madden walked slowly from the cave entrance. The laser cannon tracked his every step, never wavering from his head.

    end snip.

    On the first 2 reads it seems fully illogical that Luther is stepping out to see the tank and that the tank is letting him walk out without firing. Finally it clicked with me that there is a lapse of time between the 2 paragraphs to shield the reader from the solution to the dilemma.

    Something should indicate that gap. “Sherman, here’s what I propose…”

    Also as our hero is hugging the tree for support, it wasn’t clear to me that he was offering a profile. It took a reread for that to click as well.

    It might be my brain slowing down.

    I have a collection of short short stories, edited by Asimov. He describes the key elements of a short short story as being similar to a joke. Part of the element of a successful joke is that all the elements are present, but it’s not easy for the for the reader to put them together until the punchline is delivered.

    What I’m getting at is that our hero comes up with the solution, seemingly, out of nowhere. It would have a more satisfactory feel if something Sherman said caused a light bulb moment that the reader doesn’t quite get until the end. Perhaps it’s in a limerick that Sherman recites or a recorded monolog that Wheeler has recorded for Sherman to recite to Luther.

    Excellent use of dialog to tell the story though.

    • June 25, 2012 at 12:09 PM

      Yes, there was supposed to be a break between paragraphs. Indeed, I thought I fixed that very thing once. Maybe WordPress has something against too many blank lines, so I threw some asterisks in as a break this time around. Hope that fixes it.

      Sherman does actually say something about words having more than one meaning, but perhaps that is too veiled. Will look again. I’ll see what I can do with the profile issue.

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