They sit shoulder to shoulder in the Ford Fiesta police car, sipping cold coffee, staring through a windscreen that is slowly turning opaque from the settling dust that blows across the fence from the adjacent quarry.
The sergeant grunts, “Turn your squirters on, Geoff.”
The younger officer presses a button and soapy water shoots over the windscreen. The wipers smear it around, eventually revealing the huge blank wall of a factory. A deep, ominous rumbling sound can be heard within.
“What is this place?” mutters the constable, checking notes on his clipboard.
“Print works,” replies the sergeant. “It’s the report about a poisoning. Could be a mistake, could be attempted murder. You’ll want to go careful in there, Geoff. Trust me. I’ve been here before.”
The constable looks up. “What job was that?”
“Remember that bloke who was cycling home when a workmate decided to run him over with his Mitsubishi Shogun, then try to beat him to death with a crook lock?”
The constable shudders. “Yeah. Horrible. Is this the place?”
The sergeant nods, unbuckling his seat belt and checking his pepper spray and tazer. “Yep. He only got a suspended sentence. Fuck knows how. Had to pay the lad thousands though.”
“At least we won’t have to face that horrible bastard then.”
The sergeant opens the car door. Quarry dust blows in, settling on their black uniforms, turning them grey. “Don’t be too sure, Geoff. They both still work here.”
The constable looks incredulous. “You mean… you mean one bloke tried to murder another bloke but he kept his job?? How does that work?”
“I’ve no idea. Apparently that’s how it works here. You never leave. Don’t matter what you do, you don’t get sacked. They call it ‘Care In The Community’ round these parts. They reckon it’s an easy way of keeping all the wrong ‘uns in one place.”
The constable looks worried. “So what are we going to find in there then, Sarge?”
The sergeant sighs. “Cunts, Geoff. Lots and lots of cunts. Ignore them, if you can. Let’s just sort the job, find out what the fuck has gone on, then get the fuck out.”
They walk through the factory, Cardboard Supervisor nervously leading the way. All around them, hidden behind deafeningly chattering machines, men are screaming. Animal noises, random gibbering, howls and bellows.
The constable mutters, “If any cunt makes a fucking pig noise I’ll break their fucking…”
“Easy now, Geoff,” says the sergeant. “Remember, these people are cunts. All of them. Twatting one of them would get you nowhere. They’re not worth it.”
Cardboard Supervisor leads them to an office with a hand drawn sign on the door that says, ‘KNOBHED’. He grins sheepishly at the police officers and rips the sign off the door.
They go inside.
Close the door, shut out the worst of the screaming.
“Sorry about the… the noise,” says Cardboard Supervisor, fussing around with a kettle and some chipped mugs. “These men are basically…”
“Cunts?” offers the constable. The sergeant shoots him a warning glance.
Cardboard Supervisor smiles brightly. “Exactly! Tea?”
The two police officers look at the grimy, chipped mugs and remember why they’re here.
“About this alleged poisoning,” says the sergeant.
Cardboard Supervisor’s smile evaporates. He blushes, put the mugs away. “Yes, well, this is all a bit embarrassing. It seems that some… chemical… has found it’s way into a milk bottle in the communal fridge. It was discovered when one of the lads poured it onto his cereal.”
The constable is taking notes. He asks, “What was it?”
“Sugar Puffs, I think,” replies Cardboard Supervisor.
The constable stops writing, looks up. “I meant, what chemical was it.”
Cardboard Supervisor blinks stupidly. “Oh. Right. Well, we think the chemical was Varn. A roller wash. Commonly used in the factory but it’s a bit… aggressive.”
He nudges a bottle on the desk towards the two officers. They snap on rubber gloves, open the bottle.
The constable takes a sniff and recoils, eyes watering. “Fucking Hell…”
The sergeant says, “And how much of this chemical was consumed by the victim?”
“Hard to say,” shrugs Cardboard Supervisor. “He’d necked half the bowl before it started to… burn… but we can’t say how much was put into his milk.”
The sergeant nodded. “Do you know how the victim is doing? Which hospital did he go to? is he stable?”
Cardboard supervisor laughs. “Stable? Christ, he’s not stable! Never has been. He’s a fucking head case! I’ll find out how he’s doing though.”
He gets up, walks to the door and opens it. “Mickey! Oi, Mickey? How are you doing?”
Someone shouts something. Cardboard nods, gives him a thumbs up, closes the door.
“He says he’s fine.”
The two officers look at each other, mouths open.
The sergeant finally speaks. “You mean… you mean he hasn’t gone to hospital?? He’s not under observation?”
Cardboard Supervisor says, “He didn’t want to go to hospital. Says he’s scared of them. Besides, he didn’t want to lose any pay. We’ve got him under observation though. Scorcher is keeping a close eye on him.”
“Is this Scorcher bloke in any way qualified? Is he a first aider?”
“No,” admits Cardboard supervisor. “He’s just got nothing to do at the moment, so I told him to watch Mickey and to let me know if he collapses or anything.”
“Wait a minute,” interrupts the constable. “The victim didn’t want to lose pay? How would he have lost pay when he’s been poisoned at work?”
Cardboard Supervisor shrugs. “He’d have had to clock out. It’s the rules. You’re not here, you have to clock out. If you’re clocked out you don’t get paid. It’s the rules.”
Again, the police officers look at each other.
The sergeant says, “Well, as the victim is here, we’d better have a word.”
Cardboard Supervisor calls Mickey into the office.
He comes in, grinning inanely, red blisters all around his mouth, wheezing.
The police officers check him over.
The sergeant shakes his head. “You’re going to hospital, Mickey, wether you want to or not. Constable, call an ambulance.”
The sergeant talks to Mickey while the younger officer makes the call. He tries to find out if Mickey has any enemies at work who might do such a thing – he comes up with a dozen names.
The ambulance arrives and carts Mickey off to A&E.
The sergeant asks Cardboard Supervisor if he has any idea who might be capable of doing something like this.
Cardboard Supervisor takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes. “Honestly? All of ‘em. Everybody hates someone else here. Proper hates them. Dance-on-their-grave hate. It’s for petty shit too, like over-time allocations or which shift they’re on. Fuck me, we’ve almost had stabbings over nicked yoghurts and mental breakdowns over too many spoons. I’ll tell you something – I’m worried that one day we will have a murder, a proper killing. Know why? Because you’d never find the culprit ‘cause every fucker is a suspect! It’s like an Agatha bastard Christie book here, but instead of a posh house on the French fucking Riviera it’s this shit hole, a knackered factory in the arse end of Leeds, and no fucker wants to read about that. If they did, they wouldn’t believe it.”
“What about CCTV?”
The sergeant and Cardboard Supervisor look at the constable, who is scribbling notes diligently onto his clipboard.
The sergeant says, “What was that, Geoff, I mean, constable?”
The police officer looks up, points at a camera with his pen. “CCTV. There’s cameras everywhere in this place, I notice. Maybe they picked up the culprit going about his dastardly business?”
The sergeant glowers at Cardboard Supervisor. “Did you think to check the CCTV? Didn’t it occur to you to point them out to us?”
Cardboard Supervisor grins weakly. “Sorry. I forgot.”
The three of them crowd around a little black and white monitor whilst Speccy Malc from I.T. spools through hours of grainy VHS tapes. Jerky factory workers hurtle across the screen under a fog of fuzzy static. A digital clock in the corner turns minutes into seconds.
“Stop there!” says the sergeant, gripping Speccy Malc’s shoulder. Speccy Malc screams and has a small nosebleed. He stumbles to the toilets and Cardboard Supervisor takes over the controls.
He rewinds the tape, hits the PLAY button.
The time says 5.07am. The camera is focused on an area in front of the store rooms. Nothing moves.
They watch, hardly blinking.
“There!” The constable points at a figure slowly lurching into view.
“Oh Christ…” says the sergeant.
“F..f…fucking Hell!!” says the constable.
A long shadow slides across the wall, followed by a hunched, shuffling figure that creeps twitchily across the screen. It’s bald head gleams in the darkness. Huge, bulging eyes blink owlishly in a wizened, gaunt skull and it’s mouth hangs open in a monstrous, idiot gape.
“What the fuck is that thing??” whispers the constable. He has gone white and sweat springs out across his brow.
“It’s… hideous,” says the sergeant.
Cardboard Supervisor leans closer. “It’s… Pete Crippen. He works nights as a machine setter. He’s been here for thirty years or so. He’s fairly normal, for a night shift.”
The police officers exchange yet another glance.
They watch as the figure unlocks the stores and slides inside. He emerges a moment later with a bottle.
They switch tapes to the one from the camera in the locker room where the fridge is stored.
They whizz through to 5.10am.
Crippen appears, glancing nervously about. He creeps into the room, opens the fridge, pours something into one of the milk cartons. He appears to laugh crazily, rubbing his hands and hunching his shoulders, before leaving the room and switching off the lights.
They stop the tape.
They exchange yet another glance.
“You’d better give this here Pete Crippen a bell, Mr Cardboard Supervisor,” says the sergeant gravely. “Tell him to hop out of his coffin and return to work – we’d like a word with him.”
Cardboard Supervisor picks up the phone, then pauses. “Pete doesn’t really like to be disturbed during the day. He says that waking during daylight hours fucks up his sleep pattern.”
“Probably turns him to dust too,” mutters the constable.
The sergeant pretends not to hear. “Pass on my apologies to Mr Crippen for interrupting his beauty sleep, but we are investigating what might be an attempted murder here.”
Cardboard Supervisor blinks furiously. “Yes. Yes, of course.”
He makes the call.
An hour later Pete Crippen sits at the desk, blinking painfully under the fluorescent lights. Cardboard supervisor fidgets by the door. The sergeant is seated on the other side of the desk, staring hard at the suspect. The constable waits, pen poised, glancing uneasily at the hunched man in front of them.
“I didn’t do nowt,” hisses Pete Crippen defensively.
“Who says you did?” asks the sergeant.
The suspect licks his thin, blue lips. The constable stares with grim curiosity at his grey, papery complexion.
“Fuckers, ‘ere always try say you done summat when you’ve not done nowt!” Pete snaps in reply.
The sergeant sighs. “What do you know about someone putting Varn in Mickey’s milk, Pete? You have anything to do with it?”
Pete Crippen’s long nails scratch nervously at the desk. “AS I say, I didn’t do nowt. I’ve never done nuffink an’ you got no proof that says otherwise!!”
The sergeant reaches across to the tape machine they’ve set up on the desk and hits PLAY. Pete Crippen appears on the monitor, takes the Varn, pours it into the milk, cackles maniacally…
The sergeant presses pause.
Pete Crippen grins guiltily, showing little teeth like a child’s teeth, only deeply stained.
“I were only messin’, ‘onest! I didn’t mean no ‘arm!”
The sergeant smiles humorlessly. “Let’s start from the beginning, Mr Crippen…”
The factory door bangs open and the sergeant storms out, face like thunder, with the constable on his heels. He pulls open the door of the Fiesta and crams himself inside, slamming the door hard. The constable climbs behind the wheel and they sit in silence for a moment.
Dust settles on the windscreen. The rumble of heavy machinery permeates the little car.
The constable says, “You can’t win ‘em all, sarge.”
The sergeant says nothing.
The constable says, “I suppose it saves paperwork, Mickey deciding not to press charges and all that. I mean, attempted murder is a lot of paperwork. An awful lot.”
The constable says, “Funny thing though, what Cardboard Supervisor said. ‘You can’t blame ‘em for being a bit strange’, he said. ‘The job is them and they are the job. The job gets strange, they get stranger’ he said. What you reckon he meant by that?”
The sergeant sighs and finally speaks. “It means they’re fucked up. All of ‘em. Institutionalized. I mean, why would Mickey come back to work like that? He never went to A&E, he just climbed out of that ambulance and got straight on a bus back to work. And that soft headed cunt Cardboard Supervisor – as soon as Mickey dropped the charges he’s offering him over time! The daft sod should have been in a hospital bed but instead he’s doing a twelve hour shift bagging up junk mail at the end of a machine!! And did you hear Cardboard Supervisor talking to that creepy bastard Crippen? He says that they got a rush job on, can he put a few hours in to help out while he’s there! The fucker tried to murder a workmate and they put him on time and a half with call-in pay!!”
The sergeant punches the steering wheel.
They sit in silence for a while.
Then the constable slowly says, “It’s funny though… Cardboard Supervisor talking about murder. It got me thinking.”
The sergeant looks at him. “In what way, Geoff?”
“Well, remember that bloke in the Shogun twatting the other bloke on the bike? It seems like they’d prefer to settle scores themselves, in house, so to speak.”
The sergeant frowns. “What are you getting at?”
The constable presses a button. Soapy water squirts across the glass.
“What I mean is, if there ever was a murder in this place, a proper murder, would we hear about it? Would they involve us, the law, or would they sort shit out themselves? I mean, there’s a couple of hundred blokes here, together they’d be able to hide something like that, dispose of a body, that kind of thing. They got a big incinerator out back. It wouldn’t be too difficult…”
The sergeant says, “Someone would talk. You can’t keep that sort of thing quiet.”
“Care in the Community,” says the constable. “That’s what they call it. It’s a community in there, albeit a fucked up, inbred sort of community. They keep to themselves, they have their own ways and methods of dealing with things. That Crippen, he’ll end up getting done over in one way or another. He’ll be punished, just like prison. They don’t grass, they sort it out… internally.”
They sit in silence, listen to the deep rumblings.
Eventually the sergeant says, “You reckon they’ve done it then? Actually… you know?”
The constable shrugs. “If they have, well, there’s no way of finding out, is there?”
Through the grimy windscreen they see the factory door open. A huge man steps out. He is around six feet ten, nearly thirty stone. He is holding a pint mug that says SEX MACHINE on the side. He stares at the policemen. He takes a big drink from the SEX MACHINE mug. He leaves a wide ring of bright red around his mouth that drips onto his shirt.
The sergeant says, “Reckon that’s a tomato Cuppa Soup?”
The constable starts the car. “That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
They drive away, fast.
The huge man finishes empties his SEX MACHINE mug.
Goes back inside.
Slams the door.
The rumbling gets louder.