“Close it up.”
The sharp grate of metal against stone followed the yardman’s order. The last of the late afternoon sun was dipping towards the horizon but still held enough vigour to throw deep, elongated shadows on to the bleached concrete from each of the evenly spaced containers. To a distant watcher the yardman would have given the impression of navigating the keys of a giant, distended piano as he strode from dark to light and back to dark again.
Not that anyone was watching.
“CX4868.” The statement from the squat individual now a pace ahead of the yardman held the hint of a question. He paused to sniff at a finger that until recently had been scratching at an angry looking patch of skin on one of his ample chins. Sensing that a response would not be forthcoming he continued, “This one’s got the…”
“I know what’s in it.”
The yardman lifted his left hand as if to wave at the container. He remained in this greeting pose until a chime from the display mod on the inside of his wrist confirmed the transfer. Rotating his hand towards his face he studied the pale blue lines of data as they scrolled up towards his palm.
“Shall I open her up?”
The yardman signalled his assent with an impatient flick of his right hand, eyes never leaving the display.
“Right you are then,” said his companion stepping heavily towards the corrugated steel container. Two small flashing red lights indicated that the pressure lock was still engaged. After tracing a well-practiced if somewhat smeared shape on to the adjacent screen with his index finger the man watched as the first light turned green. The black featureless screen panel was replaced with a standard numeric keypad and after another brief scratch he raised his hand to enter the required code.
The command was softly spoken but carried a depth of anger that brought an involuntary flinch from the man at the keypad.
“Minus twelve and fifty eight,” said the yardman lifting his eyes to the man for the first time before adding “what does that say to you?”
The fat man shifted his considerable weight to his heels and back, tongue flicking nervously across a fleshy top lip. “Sorry, what was the first number again, it sounds within parameters…”
“What the fuck happened Karlo?”
“Look, they assured me there were no problems, in fact…”
“Shut up. Shut. Up. Right. Now.” The yardman closed his eyes for a moment and inclined his head to rub at his temples with the calloused fingertips of his left hand. “Within parameters? Have you any idea how much this cargo is worth?”
“Rhylus, I promise you there’s…”
“Three times this month!” The venomous response drew another flinch from Karlo. Rhylus paused to compose himself and when he spoke again it was in his earlier soft, measured and menacing tone. “The average temperature on this trip was forty four degrees, with a daily peak of fifty eight and seven nights below freezing. Does that still sound within parameters to you?”
Karlo opened his mouth to speak but was immediately cut off. “Your people assured me these containers had state of the art climate control routines to keep the ambient temperature at twenty three degrees. Fully redundant disk arrays and fail-safes to ensure at worst a three degree tolerance either way – it’s in the brochure Karlo, shall I dig it out to refresh your memory?”
The fat man gave a helpless gesture and this time didn’t bother to open his mouth. The yardman, pacing now and struggling to keep his voice under control continued on. “This container was repeatedly dropped from heights of over four metres on an almost daily basis. Come look!” Karlo stared at his shoes as the yardman waved his wrist mounted display in his direction. “It’s all in the data, and data never lies!”
“Look, why don’t I just open it up and we can…”
“We can what Karlo? What the fuck do you expect me to do with this?” the yardman gestured furiously at the container, “I’ve cleaned up your shit twice this month and I’m not doing it again. Send it back, and tell them they’re not getting a cent out of me”
Karlo paled visibly at this, beads of sweat standing out on his pockmarked brow. “Please,” he whispered, “Don’t do this. It will only end badly.”
“How it ends for you is none of my concern. I’m not going to…” He stopped mid-sentence as a series of chimes from the container keypad came to his ears.
“Oh no you don’t you devious fat…Close it up, right now”. Rhylus stormed towards the container as the airy sigh of the pressure lock disengaging signalled the opening of the container door. It had released no more than six inches before Rhylus, in a single balletic motion, shoved Karlo to the ground with his right hand and kicked the door closed with his left. The yardman grunted as something blocked the door from closing entirely and it started to re-open. Before it could open any further he threw his left shoulder at it to shut it tightly once more.
The fat man cut a picture of abject misery looking up at the yardman from the floor. “Please Rhylus. I’m begging you. Don’t make me go back to them empty handed”.
“Not my problem Karlo” said the yardman as he bent to retrieve the objects that had prevented the door from closing cleanly. “But you do have a point,” he continued as he walked back towards his prone companion. Squatting down on to his haunches he opened Karlo’s hand and pressed the items firmly in to his palm before closing the fat man’s meaty fingers around them. “See you in hell Karlo.”
By the time the fat man plucked up the courage to open his hand to reveal a row of fingers neatly severed at the middle knuckle the yardman was out of sight.
This piece was written in June 2013 and inspired by a radio interview I heard with Cambridge Consultants promoting a new product initiative called droptag. The idea is that it uses existing technology to provide insights into how goods have been treated in transit. Throw in some kind of futuristic dystopian setting and a bit of old school human trafficking and Bob’s your Uncle.
Just watch out for his brother Rhylus…
Header image: Line3174 – Shipping Containers at the terminal at Port Elizabeth, New Jersey – NOAA”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Line3174_-_Shipping_Containers_at_the_terminal_at_Port_Elizabeth,_New_Jersey_-_NOAA.jpg