Every so often, you come across a job that seems too good to be true. The salary, working hours, the benefits package and opportunities for progression all seem to be a little too generous and as you sign the contract you can’t help feeling suspicious. You’re right to be wary. If something seems too good to be true, more often than not it is.
There’s always a price to be paid somewhere. The only dream job that exists is the one that becomes a nightmare. That’s what I found out when I started this job. Nightmare is an understatement. And the price…well, let’s just say that the price is one I will be paying until my dying day. Perhaps even beyond that.
It wasn’t an advert in any local rag or on some recruitment agency’s website. I wasn’t even looking for another job. I’d just been made redundant and was considering my options, ticking away on some agency work, when a letter arrived from my former boss. It contained a written reference and a printout of an online job that he thought I should consider applying for.
Hope you’re doing ok, Mark. Again, I’m sorry about the firm’s decision to let you go. Believe me, I fought tooth and nail to keep you instated but this bloody company’s run by accountants now and the bean counters won. I know you’re considering your options – you told me you might even go travelling when the redundancy money comes through and I don’t blame you. However, someone in the trade passed this vacancy to me and I thought you might be interested. You’ve got the experience and I think they’d be very interested in you. It won’t even mean relocating. This firm’s on your doorstep, just down the road. I must be honest, I don’t know too much about them, they’re either a new set-up or a small concern. But people in the know have good words to say about them. Some real prospects for advancement and promotion. Have a look anyway, see what you think. Stay in touch. Best regards.
I’d thought of travelling. I’m thirty in three months time, and it’s something I never got round to doing. Now the divorce had come through, and Jackie had kindly taken the house and showed me the way to bedsit land, I had no real commitments or any reason to stay in the area. But the redundancy payout was not going to be huge and the divorce lawyers had left me high and dry. Better to find some work, any work and wipe out the debts before starting over. This job looked interesting. Certainly better than the pallet dragging I was doing for the agency at the Tesco Distribution Centre in Didcot, anyway.
The vacancy was for a Storage Supervisor within an archive storage company. Funny timing - my last job had been with an archive storage firm, but not at senior level. Still, they wouldn’t know that. When I applied I lied slightly on the CV, telling them that I was a bit more than an acting supervisor at the previous place. I didn’t think I’d have a cat in hell’s chance of getting it anyway, but figured it was worth a shot. Had nothing to lose, anyway.
The salary was “commensurate with experience”. Open to negotiation, then. Just had to make sure I didn’t put down the real salary from my last job on the application. 33 days annual leave PA (but that would include bank holidays), generous non-contributory pension scheme, profit share, subsidised canteen, childcare vouchers, BUPA membership…for a warehouse job, the benefits were pretty good.
But everything looks good on paper. It would be at the interview that I’d have a better idea of what they were offering, and what they’d expect in turn. Then I could ask them about the strange footnote at the end of the advert, which read: “Adasantsat Storage is committed to personal advancement, a healthy work/life balance and a job for life”. A rare thing in these times. A job for life? Who advertises that these days?
Three days after applying I received a letter inviting me to attend an interview. Two senior managers, Mr Graham O’Neil and Mr Oliver Nigel, would be conducting the interview along with the Personnel Manager, Edith Olgin.
Adasantsat Storage was easy enough to find. It’s on one of the smaller industrial estates on the outskirts of town sharing space with a builders’ merchants, a frozen fish delivery firm, and a furniture restoration company. The warehouse was modern, obviously recently built. A corrugated metal skin painted in white encased a unit that I estimated to be about fifteen metres high. Driving alongside it to the car park at the rear I could see that it extended to about fifty metres.
The reception was spacious, furnished with comfy waiting sofas and a well presented and absolutely drop dead gorgeous blonde secretary. There were welcoming handshakes and smiles from the two managers who came down the stairs to take me to the interview.
Graham O’Neil was small and slight, with a pale complexion, reddish hair and bright eyes. He was the younger of the two, looked to be in his mid thirties. Oliver Nigel was taller and older, with a neatly trimmed beard that was as black as his thinning hair. Both wore nondescript grey suits, and identical striped ties. Perhaps they belonged to the same cricket team or bowling club, I thought at the time. Dull, corporate suity types, but quite friendly and enthusiastic with it.
O’Neil apologised to me for the absence of Edith Olgin. In a broad Northern Irish accent he informed me that she sent her apologies, couldn’t be here because she was preparing a disciplinary hearing against one of the stores team.
“Very rare occurrence, nothing to be concerned about,” O’Neil smiled reassuringly. “But she’ll spend more time with you – sorry, with the successful candidate – during the induction.”
Ah. He’d given himself away, there. And as the meeting progressed, I felt quite optimistic.
It was one of those interviews where you know the job’s in the bag. They asked me a few questions relating to the CV, mainly previous experience and qualifications. They seemed to be really happy with the fact that I had a scissor lift licence.
“You won’t believe how hard it is trying to find someone with a MEWP ticket”, the older manager said. His accent was cut glass English, a sharp contrast to O’Neil’s Belfast brogue. O’Neil being such an obviously Irish name, and Nigel Oliver sounded so fundamentally English, it seemed strange that their accents – and indeed, their appearance - matched the expectation that their names gave. Made me wonder what this Olgin bird looked like. With a name like that my mind conjured up a picture of a heavy-set, aging Eastern European hag, like the poisoned shoe-wielding Rosa Klebb from the old Bond film.
“Not a major problem if you didn’t of course, we’d have been happy to put the successful candidate through a course. But this makes our lives a lot easier.”
I’d obviously just jumped straight to the top of the list.
The rest of the interview passed quickly. They told me about the benefits, the salary structure and what my duties would be. Then it was my turn to ask questions.
“Adasantsat is a strange name for a company. Is that an acronym?”
The two managers looked at each other. Just for a brief moment I thought I saw the smile freeze on the face of the younger man.
O’Neil took control. “It’s actually a composite, made up of the initials of the founding members.” He gave me the names, strange foreign sounding monikers that I forgot the moment he revealed them. Ah well, I thought at the time. I’d worked for companies with stranger names than that.
“A job for life,” I continued. I gave a cheeky grin. “That’s a big claim. Is it guaranteed in writing?”
They both laughed.
“One of the benefits of working for Adasantsat,” O’Neil answered. “In these turbulent economic times, it is one of the major selling points of our company. And it’s no idle boast. Our staff turnover rate is practically zero. We really do emphasise our commitment to keeping our staff happy and well motivated. And yes, it is a condition of your contract of employment that after your probationary period – and barring any serious breaches of discipline – you are guaranteed lifetime employment within Adasantsat.”
I looked sceptical. “What about branch closures, downturns? If you lose any major clients, doesn’t have an effect on your business? In that case, do you offer relocation to other branches?”
Nigel shook his head. “Firstly, we only have the one client. And that contract is one we have had since the company started. We will never lose it. Our business is secure.” He gestured to the viewing window behind him that opened up onto the warehouse. “And this is our only UK branch. Well, we have one in London but we’ve outgrown that. We are in the process of taking the data from that site and reshelving it here. London will be empty by the end of the third quarter.
“We have branches worldwide, of course, and there are opportunities to transfer if you so desire, but generally we prefer to keep all our team members in the same branch.”
I raised my eyebrows. A worldwide operation, a branch in every country – and yet only one client. One they were convinced they’d never lose. “This client must be a big concern, then. What industry are they in?”
“The client has many areas of operation. Fingers in all sorts of pies, you might say. His business interests are of no concern to us. All we have to concern ourselves with is the safe storage of his data. It’s mainly commercial data, contracts, tenders, receipts and so forth. Lately we’ve been asked to provide digital storage solutions, but that’s only a small element of our business. Our client still prefers the traditional methods of paper contracts.”
His tone changed, became serious, the cut-glass accent now razor sharp. “One of the most important conditions of our contract with the client is confidentiality. The records are not to be disclosed to anyone. The boxes are sealed and tamper proof. Any attempt to open the boxes or inspect the contents is a gross breach of discipline, and is dealt with accordingly. As Storage Supervisor, it would be one of your duties to ensure that this procedure is rigidly enforced and to undertake the necessary corrective action if the policy is breached.”
I nodded. Fair enough. The last firm I worked for had had the same approach. Who’d want to risk their job to look at some musty old paperwork, anyway? Didn’t like that ‘necessary corrective action’ touch though. Guess that’s what Olgin was involving herself with.
The older man beckoned me over. I stood beside him, staring through the viewing window. We were in the office on the top floor, so this vantage point gave an impressive view of the warehouse, completely racked out with narrow aisle racking.
“This area is significantly more cost-effective than London, and the height of the warehouse facility here means we can utilise higher racking. Each column within the racking contains ten bays, and of course we need access to them via the use of scissor lifts. We take in a shipment of historical data from the London site once a month. It takes our storemen about two days to book it in and put it away, and after that the majority of the time is spent on data retrieval. As we explained earlier, the client will request anything between one to thirty boxes per day, which we will then deliver to a location of his choosing. It could be ordered at any time, which is why we run twenty four-seven. The majority of the stores team are on fixed day shifts, but we do insist on all senior team members to participate in a call-out system, which is decided by rota.
“So the order could come in at any time, and if you’re on the rota it would be up to you to come into the warehouse, pick the box, despatch it and deliver it. Of course, we make it worth your while. We pay a very agreeable shift premium, and if the call takes too much of your time, particularly at night, the firm will give you the next day off without affecting your annual leave entitlement. This week the Managing Director, Peter Tyndall, is on call.”
O’Neil smiled knowingly. “He’s already been out three times this week., but company man that he is he hasn’t taken a day off yet.”
Nigel shrugged. “It’s the luck of the draw. Some weeks you’ll be dead and not called out once, other times…well, it all depends on the client’s requirements. The other thing you need to be aware of is that the drop-off point could be anywhere within the UK.”
I turned around in surprise. “Not one central drop-off point, then? And you don’t use couriers?”
Oliver shook his head gravely. “A condition of the contract. No third parties to be utilised whatsoever. All data is to be handled strictly by Adasantsat employees only.”
I whistled. “You must clock up a fair few miles. What’s the furthest afield you’ve ever gone?”
“Scotland is the furthest. That reminds me – although the box totals are between one and fifty, on extreme occasions it could be any number. For example, about twenty years ago we took over one hundred and sixty boxes to Scotland. That was when Piper Alpha went up in flames. The documents were connected with the incident, and they were required in Aberdeen urgently.”
I nodded thoughtfully. Obviously documents the lawyers needed. The minute there’s a casualty and the threat of liability there’s a company solicitor looking for a loophole to get his firm off the hook. That’s when they need the paperwork urgently.
“The advert mentioned the escalation of a major contract. What’s that all about?”
O’Neil scratched his beard. “To be honest with you, Mark, that’s a bit of a sore point at the moment. The client has informed us that there will be a major escalation in the storage and retrieval of his data in the near future, but he hasn’t given us much to go on. ‘You’ll know when I know’ is the response we get whenever we try to raise it with him. However, we were advised to get some new storemen on board soon to be able to cope with it. We have a couple starting today. All we need now is a new Storage Supervisor.
“Are we able to approach your former employers for a reference?”
“Not a problem,” I replied. “They said they were sorry to see me go, but with the economic downturn…” I shrugged my shoulders. “I wasn’t on my own.”
Both of the interviewers nodded sympathetically. O’Neil lowered my CV onto the desk and looked up.
“And what salary were you on at the last company?”
I made up a figure off the top of my head. Not too much, didn’t want to take the piss.
They both looked at each other, their expressions giving nothing away. Shit, had I priced myself too high?
“We have a few more candidates to see today. But we’ll be in touch.”
They didn’t hang around. Two days later I received a formal job offer, with a higher salary than I had quoted. My luck was changing after all. When I picked myself up from the ceiling, I sat down to sign the necessary forms. I cleared a space on the bedside table and picked up a pen. I scrawled my signature, printed the name on the line and put the date on. That was when the picture fell on me.
A faded 10”x12” framed print of a Spanish sunset, not my choice of decoration; it had come with the bedsit from the previous tenant. I’d always meant to take the ugly thing down, but had never got round to it. No need to worry about that now, I thought, wincing at the pain in my shoulder. The bottom edge of the frame had caught the top of my shoulder blade before falling on the edge of the table and smashing.
I threw the picture frame onto the bed and carefully scooped up the glass shards. I wrapped them in the C4 envelope that the contract and job offer had arrived in and pushed the bundle to the top edge of the table.
Ouch. One of the glass shards had forced its way through the manila envelope and pressed into the side of my thumb. Blood welled from the cut immediately and ran down my palm. I lifted it and held it to my mouth, sucking most of the blood from the wound before spitting it into a tissue. I grimaced at the salty, metallic taste and groaned when I saw that some had dripped onto the job offer. I hastily wiped it away with the tissue.
Well, I’d managed to get most of it off, but there was a faint smear just above my signature. I sighed heavily. That wouldn’t make a good impression, would it? Still holding the tissue against the wound, I rummaged through the paperwork on the cabinet, found the second copy (the one to be kept for my records) and placed that one in the SAE instead. I picked up the bloodstained copy and filed it in the black expanding file I kept near the bed.
The start date was effective almost immediately. The second of November – three days after my interview. Parking my Toyota in the staff car park, I reflected that now I would see just how good - or bad – the job really was. It’s usually in the meeting of your co-workers that you suss out the new company straight away. Very rare that they’re as smiley-faced and optimistic as the management that interview you!
Paul Maskell met me at reception. A stocky guy in his mid thirties with dark cropped hair, his smile was genuine enough and his handshake welcoming. His jollity seemed a little forced though.
This was the current supervisor, who would be moving up to management within the next few months, and whose role I would be taking over.
“How long’ve you been here?” I asked over coffee in the staff canteen. It was empty apart from two smiling catering workers, their overalls almost too clean and white for their job. They bustled past, clearing away the breakfast dishes. The lingering smell in the air was appetising, an aroma of quality dry cure back bacon, not the normal catering rubbish. It made me wish I’d come in earlier and taken advantage of the £1.99 big breakfast. Still, there was plenty of time for that in the future.
“Four years.” Paul winked at one of the catering staff as she wiped the table. “Started off as a storeman, bumped up to supervisor within nine months…”
“And now set to become a suit,” I chuckled. “The lads ok about you selling out?”
Paul raised his palms and grinned. “A few comments about being a class traitor, yeah. Gotta be honest, though, I’m looking forward to it. That’s one of the good things about this firm, there’s no ‘them and us’ like you get in a lot o’ places. Everyone mucks in; we’re all on the same side. And that’s no corporate bollocks – when Piper Alpha went up and most of our storesmen were in Aberdeen, all the management slogged their guts out in the warehouse, putting the boxes away. OK, I know that was a while back, but hey - not many places where you’ll see the MD in a scissor lift, putting data to shelf.”
Or coming out in the middle of the night to pull a box and hand deliver it. I told myself that was a good thing, the MD leading by example, but something was nagging. It didn’t seem right. And Paul Maskell seemed a bit too anxious to push the ‘we’re all one big happy family’ theme. Let’s see now, I thought. What to ask him…
“You been called out much after hours?”
Paul drained his coffee. “Quite a few. Condition of the contract. After the probationary, everyone is on the call-out rota, but they make it worth your while.”
“Client’s request,” I muttered, thinking hard. “Surely, a box can’t be that urgent? What’s in those boxes?”
“Just data. Don’t know what type.”
“You never asked?”
“Why should I?” His tone was slightly defensive.
I sat back in the chair. “Curiosity. Surely, if you’re called out in the middle of the night to deliver a box you’d want to know why it’s so damn urgent.”
He smiled, a little too quickly. A nervous grin. “I used to. After a while it’s just not important. You’ll find that as well.”
I wasn’t convinced, but I decided not to push the issue. Guess I’d find out myself eventually.
Paul gave me the full tour, starting with the important places – the canteen, restroom and toilets – then the mandatory Fire Exits and evacuation assembly points.
“The offices you’ve already seen,” he said as he handed me a hi-vis. “O’Neil and Nigel aren’t here today – in fact, you’ll hardly see them. They’re usually out liasing with the client and trying to get some new work in. As if we haven’t got enough to do… Now, the place where the real work is done.”
From the observation window in the management office the warehouse looked big. At ground level it was huge.
The narrow aisle racking stretched to approximately nine metres in height. In the middle aisle I could see a Genie GS-2632 scissor lift extended to its full height of 7.9 metres, its operator busily scanning in the barcodes on the data boxes he’d just put to an empty shelf with a handheld scanning machine. Another one was at the far end, its operator loading it with larger size archive storage boxes
The operator at the far end did a quick count on the number of boxes in his machine, realised he’d put too many in, and started pulling some out, placing them carefully on the pallet as he did so. I could see that these guys were working within tolerance. The last thing you want to do is put too much weight in one of these machines. I nodded in approval.
Paul caught my eye. “Health and Safety conscious, are we? No need to worry. We’re well looked after, not had an accident in over six years. Not even a paper cut. I tell you, mate, you couldn’t be safer if you were wrapped up in cotton wool!”
Again, too forced. This didn’t ring true. Again, I said nothing.
“Well, you can see they’re busy. I’ll introduce you to ‘em later.”
We moved to the small office situated at the left side of the main roller shutter doors. Inside was a pair of desks with a PC and monitor on each.
“Grab a pew, mate,” Paul pointed to a swivel chair as he sat down to the PC underneath the Pirelli calendar. Miss November’s tits looked very inviting.
“Gotta show you the database.” He tapped in his username and password. “This is a piece of piss to use. Some of our stores guys aren’t the sharpest tools in the set, and even they were up and running on it within an hour. Here we go.”
A yellow and black screen flashed up.
“You can see this is web-based. The idea is that the client can log into it as well, any time, any place in the world. Keeps a track on his data, can work out where it is, where it was…”
“And where it isn’t. Do you get many boxes going astray?”
Paul scratched his chin. “Never happens. Training and rigid procedure sees to that.”
“But human error, surely? When you get a returned box that is put back in an incorrect location? With the best procedures in the world, anyone can make a mistake.”
Paul turned from the screen and stared at me, a strange expression on his face. “Mistakes are not made here,” he said in a defensive, slightly angry tone. “Not since…well, that was a long time ago. All in the past. Nothing for you to worry about.”
“Well, I’m not worried but now I am curious. Spill the beans, Paul.”
“You don’t. Need. To. Know.” A harsher tone, his face turning red. As if in anger. Or…fear?
“For fuck’s sake, man! If I’m going to be running this place I do need to know. Why the secrecy?”
I could see that I was going to make myself unpopular. I like asking questions, and I don’t like being fobbed off or kept in the dark. I press for answers if they’re not forthcoming, regardless of what rank I have in the company or whose managerial toes I’m treading on. Guess that’s one of the unofficial reasons I was “selected” for redundancy in my last job.
Paul opened his mouth to speak, but the phone got there first. Saved by the bell, I thought.
“Hello, warehouse. Oh, hello Pete. Right, right…oh yeah, I see it, it’s on the screen now.”
On the screen a message flashed:
ONE ORDER FOR DESPATCH. STATUS: PRIORITY.
Paul moved the mouse cursor over it and clicked once. The screen changed to a different layout. Leaning forward I could see a few tables of information – barcode of item required, shelf location, due date, and delivery address.
“Wantage Road, Harwell. Well, don’t get more local than that! No probs, Pete, we’ll get that out now for him. Cheers, mate.” He replaced the phone and turned to me.
“Well, best way to learn.” Another click of the mouse button and the laser printer whirred into life behind me.
Grabbing the printed screenshot he moved out into the warehouse.
“Phil!” he bellowed. “Urgent order!”
Phil Ross was young, early twenties, with a sullen expression. The only time he opened his mouth to give what passed as a “welcome to Adasantsat” smile I saw one of his front teeth was heavily discoloured. He held open the access gate of the scissor-lift for me, frowning at the printed screenshot.
“Fuckin’ hell,” he muttered. “Thought we’d picked this one last week. Right, hands within the guide rails at all times, scream if you wanna go faster.”
Pushing the joystick forward the machine hummed into life and sped down the narrow aisle. The full shelves scrolled by, mostly large size archive storage boxes stacked three high, two deep and six across in each bay. Each facing side displayed a distinctive label with the firm’s name on the top and the barcode at the bottom. Below the label was an older, handwritten one. Phil moved the machine too quickly down the aisle for me to examine them closely, and at ground level the orange hued light from the high pressure sodium lamps wasn’t strong enough to see them properly. Dust gently shifted from the tops of the boxes as we passed.
“Here we go. Aisle six, column twelve, bay nine. Right at the top. Not scared of heights, are we?” Pressing the horizontal movement button he pushed the joystick forward again. This time the basket of the machine began to ascend.
As we moved upward, the sodium light grew stronger and I could see the older labels on some of the boxes more clearly. We ascended too quickly for me to focus on a particular label, but the impression I got was that whoever had written on them must’ve used some kind of code. It was all handwritten, in either black or red marker pen. There were dates, some recent, others going back years, the latter ones peeling away and almost falling away from the boxes. There were some strange drawings as well, like whoever had been labelling up the boxes had got bored and started doodling. Not your normal squiggles, though; these reminded me of the old astrological symbols, signs of the zodiac. Similar, but distinctly different – and also, strangely familiar.
And on the top of each label, a name.
In spite of the heat from the 250w lamps, now close to our heads as we neared the topmost shelf, I shivered.
The box ordered was a standard Fellows 725 R-kive storage box. Phil dragged it from the shelf, grunted at the returns label on it.
“Yeah, remember this one now. Client ordered it last week. Christ, that’s heavy. God knows what he added to it.
“Let’s ask Paul who’s got the honour of taking it.”
Both of us had the honour. Paul looked reluctant to send me out, but he’d had his orders from the Man Upstairs.
“You’re doubly honoured, mate,” he said to me as he put the phone down. “We don’t normally send new guys out until they’ve been here a while, learnt the ropes, and…well, it’s unusual.”
He was clearly uncomfortable with this. What could go wrong? Phil would be driving until the HR department had all my licence details, so they were covered there.
“Don’t worry about it. Phil will do all the necessary. Just…watch and learn.”
Phil handed me the despatch note as he got behind the wheel of the Transit.
Standard delivery note, with the date, order number, item number and delivery location. A box at the bottom for the recipient to sign and print as confirmation of delivery. There should have been two boxes, though. I thought we’d only picked one.
The address was a small post office off the Wantage Road. We got there in less than half an hour. Conversation was not exactly flowing along the way - I had to force it out of him.
“Watch and learn, eh? What’s there to be taught?”
Phil said nothing, kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead. He looked uncomfortable with this as well. Finally he spoke.
“Look, chap, Paul’s right. We don’t send newbies out on a run – not even with another driver – until they’re…well, established. There’s certain procedures to follow that are easy to balls up unless you’re fully genned up on the firm’s procedures.”
“You what? It’s just a delivery, for God’s sake. Apart from spanking the van or getting the delivery address wrong, how can it be ballsed up?”
Phil shot me a warning look from the corner of his eye. “Just watch, learn and keep yer mouth shut. I’m not being a cunt about this, honest, but you’ll see what I mean when we make the drop. No questions.”
I opened my mouth. No questions? That’s like a red flag to a bull.
“Ok, Phil, I’ll bow to your experience on this one. Just tell me a bit more about the firm. How long have you been here? And what’s it like to work for them? Truth, mate. I can see you’re not happy here.”
Phil flicked another scowl at me as he came off the mini roundabout.
“Just a job, that’s all. No better or worse than any other. Been here two years now. Had to relocate from London when they started the switch over to here. Didn’t mind that, they gave a good relocation package. And they put me through the MEWP course. You don’t exactly sweat in this job, that’s why there’s only two of us…” A pained expression passed over his already sour visage.
“Two? Where’s the other one, then?”
“Got two newbies started today…pair o’ fucking wankers…you’ll be taking over Paul’s job.”
“The other storeman, then? Who’s he? Where is he?”
“Jim Doyle. Nice old boy. Suspended subject to a disciplinary hearing. Poor fucker.”
The tone of this answer surprised me. Sounded like Jim was going in front of a firing line rather than being given a written warning.
“What’s he done, then? Knock off the MD’s wife?”
“Accidentally opened a storage box a coupla days ago.. Client weren’t happy, demanded a full investigation and…” he raised his eyes skyward as he quoted the company mantra “…the necessary corrective action. Cunts.”
I pondered this. I knew how strict the firm was on this, but the way Phil was speaking it sounded like Jim would be out the door for what was really a minor – and accidental – indiscretion.
“Hang on, if he accidentally opened it – in the warehouse, yeah?”
Phil nodded grimly.
“How did the client find out about it? Did Jim…disclose any of the contents to anyone?”
Phil shook his head and pulled the vehicle to a halt
“Someone in the warehouse grass him up, then?”
A silence. Pregnant with guilt.
“So you saw the contents too. What was in them?”
“We’re here, ” Phil muttered. “Get the box, chap.”
Conversation over. Obviously a sore point. I made a mental note to ask Paul more about this when I got back.
I stepped out of the Transit and opened the rear doors, blowing into my hands to warm them. It had turned chilly; only to be expected at this time of year.
Pulling the box towards me I glanced at the post office. Bright sunlight was reflecting off the plate glass windows, dazzling me. That was why I didn’t see the police patrol car and the ambulance at first.
They were parked at the side of the post office, both vehicles occupied, but the drivers inside didn’t seem to be moving much. Something not quite right there…
I shrugged and hefted the box, moving towards the entrance.
“Just leave it there, chap,” Phil ordered. “The client will be here in a minute. By the pillar box, that’ll do.”
I dropped it as requested, frowning. This was bloody weird.
“Thought the drop-off point was the post office?”
“It is. But not inside.”
I opened my mouth to speak when a thought struck me. I turned back to the ambulance and patrol car.
Now I knew what had troubled me. The two cops inside the car were still immobile, as were the two paramedics in the ambulance. Completely still, motionless. The near side door of the ambulance was ajar, and the passenger was in the process of stepping out of the vehicle. His booted foot hovered a few inches off the ground. Completely still.
The beacons on the tops of the vehicles were illuminated, but they weren’t turning.
I turned back to the road. I thought the traffic was unusually quiet for such a busy road. But in the far distance, back towards Didcot, I could see a small vehicle approaching.
Or rather, it would have been approaching if it were moving. It had stopped still. The plumes of white smoke from the power station’s cooling towers, normally belching out into the Oxfordshire skyline night and day, had stopped moving. The cooling towers hadn’t stopped working, smoke was still being emitted.
But like everything around us, the smoke had stopped moving. Frozen in time.