Sunday, June 2, 2013

The oldest novel snippet, for new buddies

Once Curtis was fed, we slept in. That doesn't happen often for me. Then some errands at banks and markets. Some quiet time, listening to the rain. Very nice. Did some wine stuff, ending up with 30 bottles of Italian Nebbiolo. That doesn't often happen; I usually get 29. There is a batch of Brunello started now. BBQ chicken. Very yummy!

I mentioned I'd met up with an old buddy on Friday night. Part of the novel I'm working on was mentioned. Here it is for them. I'm not sure I've ever actually posted this before, though I think a few people have read it via email. Reading this for the first time in a while, I see places that need improvement. That's ok. And I just remembered, there is another death scene too. Maybe I'll post that next week. I think in all the history of crime fiction, nobody has ever died this way. Hmmm, maybe I shouldn't post it.

Bryan adjusted his face mask while dragging the air line and water hose to the other side of the digester sump. This was where the drain pipe entered the digester, and was the only part that couldn't really be hosed clean. He had already dug out several 5 gallon pails of heavy black silt, at the cost of making the mask slide around on his sweat. The euchre game during coffee break couldn’t come soon enough.

One more pail, then I’ll take a breather and move the light so I can see what I'm doing. I swear the light never shines on what you need to look at, and it's always so dark in here. You'd think with the 4 manholes open and over a dozen lights we could see better.

A few shovelfuls later a white stick clung to the side of the shovel and was left poking out of the silt. Even with gloves on he didn't want to touch it without hosing it off first. For good measure he hosed around the sump, then moved the light into the sump with him. He squatted carefully to take a closer look.
It was long and slender with a knob on the end. It came out easily enough, and he gave the rest of it a quick swoosh with the hose before holding it up to the light.

It’s a bone. I’m holding a bone in my hand. What do I do now?

Bryan stumbled out of the sump and waved the bone at the safety man. All he could think was that he was going to miss the euchre game after all.

`Gail, Gail, here, take this, let me out of here!` he cried as his feet scrabbled at the wooden steps placed below the manway.

`What’s the matter, are you ok?` Gail asked. She had been checking the air equipment and had missed Bryan’s discovery. `Here, you’re gonna hurt yourself thrashing around Akkk! What’s that?` She took the bone by her gloved fingertips. `Bryan, what the hell! If this is another of your practical jokes --`

Now that he had torn the mask off, and was pawing at the safety ropes Gail could see his face was pasty white and sweaty. `Stop it!` she yelled, and slapped at his hands. `Sit down, I’ll get this stuff off you. You’re out of there and you’ll be ok now.` She carefully put the bone down on the air tank trolley, and pushed Bryan down onto the nearby upended pail so he couldn’t see the bone. She made soothing noises as she stripped off his safety gear and unzipped his coveralls. `Lean back, and take some deep breaths. Calm down.` She eyed the bone. `Look, I’m going to have to call the management, and they’ll call the police. Think about what you are going to tell them. I’ll just be on the phone over there, don’t go anywhere.`

Bryan’s face was looking a little better, she thought. How would a bone get into a digester? She paged her foreman. `Hey Two Dogs, this is Gail down at number 5 digester. Get your lazy carcass down here, there’s going to be shit happening that you’ll need to know about.` Next she tried the Chief Operator’s phone, and got lucky. `Chief, this is Gail down by number 5 digester. Bryan found a bone in the sump, yes a bone, an honest to God bone. I’ve got it right here!` Silence. `I thought so to at first, but you should have seen his face. Nobody is that good of an actor.` Silence. `How the hell do I know what to do? You get paid the big bucks to make decisions, do something. Probably calling the police is a good idea.`

`Geez, what an idiot,` she said to Bryan as she hunkered down on another pail. `Are you ok now?`

Gail was not surprised to see Mitch and Stu, the Operations Supervisor show up first. Two Dogs never hurried. She handed them the bone and said, `Bryan found it in the sump.` Stu simply looked at Bryan, who was shivering and making hand-washing motions.

Mitch took the bone, and held it in his gloved fingertips, a look of revulsion on his face. Stu peered at it with his usual amiable interest. `You’re right, this is no joke. Lets see, first things first. You,` he pointed at the Chief, `call the police. Tell them we’ve found what looks like a bone, and we’ll need some specialists to look through the silt to see if there are any more remains. Tell them to bring their own self contained breathing gear. Get someone to wait for them at the front gate and bring them here. Get someone else to lock every other gate into the plant; we don’t want the press wandering around. Make sure someone is on the front gate every minute. Log who goes in and out. Got it? And you,` he pointed, as Two Dogs strolled up, `get every explosion proof light and all the extension cord this place has down here. Pull them off any other jobs. Get every portable air pack down here. Do it now! If the cops beat that equipment here you won’t have a job to slack off at. Gail, get some “danger, no entry” tape, and wrap it around every door and across every tunnel into this pump house. We don’t need a bunch of spectators. Don’t do the east doors, but stand there yourself, and don’t let anyone in unless they belong. Go!`

Gail started up the stairs two at a time. The Chief was already on the phone. Two Dogs gawped. ` What,` he started.

Stu cut him off. `Deafness isn’t one of your sins, but you have lots of others. You know what I want, and I want it now. And in a few minutes the cops are going to want it too. If you have to explain to them why it isn’t here, they’ll likely charge you with obstruction of justice.` Stu had found the magic words. Two Dogs hated dealing with cops even when he was innocent. He headed off, if not as briskly as Gail, certainly faster than Stu had ever seen him move before.

Stu turned to Bryan. `Ok,` he said, much more gently, `this is going to be the last few minutes of quiet time you’re going to get for a while. I’m not going to ask what happened; I can hear it when you tell the cops. Get it straight in your mind. I doubt anyone has ever found a bone in a digester before; they’ll have lots of questions.`

`Stu!` The Chief waved the phone. `911 wants us to stay on the line, and I’ve got to get to another phone to deal with the gates!` He let the phone headset drop by it’s cord and jogged up the tunnel leading toward the main control room.

Dwen had never seen so many people in a digester pump house, nor the inside of a digester so well lit up. She watched in admiration as the senior cop got things organized. Once he seen the bone for himself, and where it came from, he realized there wasn’t a fresh body to look at or for. `We’re going to be here for a while. Is there any way to get it quieter in here so we can hear ourselves think?`

`Well, I don’t know, we need all this to keep the process going,` Mitch dithered.

`I’ll have those lagoon pumps off in two minutes,`Dwen said. `The place will be a lot quieter then, and we can review safety procedures. It won’t hurt anything to be a little behind schedule, but Mitch, you might want to phone out to the lagoons to let them know`.

The cop watched as Dwen wound down the variable-speed high pressure pump, turned it off, turned off the low pressure pump, then turned off the seal water pumps. `Better?` she asked.

`Yes, thanks. Chief, don’t you have a phone call to make?` He paused until the Mitch agreed, and left. `City foremen, they’re the same everywhere.` He sighed, then focussed on Dwen. `You looked like you knew what you were doing there. Are you next in charge after numbnuts there?` he asked, waving his eyebrows at the departing chief.

`I’m the senior operator on shift. Even the Chief shouldn’t do anything in my area without running it past me.` She looked him straight in the eyes, and added `and neither should you. You’ve got a job to do here, and I want to help you with it so nobody gets hurt, and the process doesn’t get messed up.`

Stu showed up as Dwen finished. `Exactly right, officer. I’m Stu, the Operation’s Manager here. As far as I’m concerned Dwen Burns is your contact for operational issues. Tell her what you want, and she’ll get it done for you. First safety thing is hard hats. The firemen are ok, but we’ll have some hard hats for your guys in a few minutes. We’d appreciate everyone wearing one while they are inside the building.`

The cop nodded. `Fine. First, I’m going to need a statement from the person who found the bone, and anyone else that was here at that time. Next, we’re going to have to search that tank for more remains.`

Stu took another cop over and introduced him to Bryan. They decided a quieter more private place yet would be better. Stu took them upstairs to collect Gail from the door, and put another of the plant personnel on door duty, then took them up to the administration building.

`Ok, Ms. Burns, lets take a look at this tank, and you can tell us what we need to know about it so we can search it.` He put his fingers in his mouth for a quick whistle over the hubbub of people talking and the background plant noise. `Come on over and listen up. Ms Burns here is the operator in charge here, and nobody touches anything without her say so. If you need something, ask her. Ms. Burns,` he gestured.

Dwen stood on the bucket and looked over the attentive faces. Don’t think I’ll much difficulty coping with this lot, she thought. `My name is Dwen. For the fire fighters, the only thing you need to know is that this tank, big as it is, is legally a confined space. The process generates methane, and even with all the venting, the low oxygen level inside requires that supplied air masks be worn at all times.` She paused for second, then said `and besides, it smells really bad.` The small crowd chuckled.

`What we have here is called a digester. It’s called that because it takes the suspended solids that are in wastewater, and through an anaerobic biological process, breaks them down and produces methane. The methane is compressed and piped down to the bottom of the tank through those long silver tubes you see hanging from the roof. That keeps the tank mixing. What settles out is a fine silt, and we have to clean it out periodically. This pail is full of the silt that was shoveled out earlier. The sump in the middle is mostly full, and there’s probably still some in places on the floor. Once inside you can at least get at it. But if you put your head in the manhole and look up, you’ll see some pipes up there that could well have material on top of them. The tank is 110 feet in diameter, and the centre is 6 feet lower than the sidewall. The pipes are about 20 feet above the bottom of the tank. Any questions?` The various people had taken turns shuffling forward to look in the manway.

`Can we get some more of these lights in there?`

`Yes, the maintenance staff will do that. If you want them somewhere special let them know. Please note that you cannot use your own flashlights in there unless they are certified explosion proof. We have some we can lend you.`

`Will the floor be slippery?`

`Not really any more slippery than any other wet concrete, but you will have to be careful of your footing. Some parts of the floor are more smoothly finished than others, and there could be process residue. As well, there will be lots of   electrical cords and air hoses in there. Um, officer, I’m assuming you’ll want to check the top of the pipes?`

`Yes, will it be safe to put ladders in there?` he replied.

`As long as there is a person holding the bottom of the ladder when someone is climbing it. For some reason working against a curved wall in the dim light seems to be somewhat disorienting. We’ll run a safety rope down from one of the roof manways for the person going up the ladder.`

`It’s not like we can’t see everyone that’s in the tank,` one of the fire fighters said, `but the rules call for a person posted at the manway to act as a safety man. Can you supply one, or do we need to use one of our people? And given the number of trained rescue people that will be in the tank, do you think we can dispense with everybody wearing a safety line?`

`I’ll get someone posted here.  I’ll insist on the person on the ladder wearing a safety line. If your professional judgement says we aren’t compromising safety by dispensing with the other people wearing a safety line, I’ll go along with it.`

`Ok, we’ll do it that way,` the firefighter said. `I suppose we should start with the pipes, so anything we knock down can be washed into the sump and checked there.`

One of the police officers frowned. `Wait a minute. I’m a forsenic expert, you mean that I’m not going to be able to look at the evidence in situ first?`

Lori and the boss firefighter shook their heads simultaneously. `Nope, you’ll have to do all your work out here. You can take over the centre of the pumphouse floor if you want, and there’s several pails worth to get you started. We’ll bring you more pails as soon as we can.`

The meeting broke up into a series of procedural discussions. The forsenic technicians only wanted a hose for water and some extra lighting for their work station, and were soon involved in a minute examination of the silt. The fire fighters sent two men up to the roof to handle the ladder safety rope, and a team of five into the digester. One would go up the ladder to search the piping, one would hold the ladder, and three would take turns digging out the sump.

Once things were underway, the officer approached Lori and asked, `I’d like to get more detail about the digester, is there a quieter place we can talk?`

`Sure, lets go up to my control room upstairs. It’s past time I went through the computer anyway.` Lori led the cop upstairs into the control room, and casually tossed her hard hat onto a table. `Have a seat. Give me a minute to look at the essentials here.` Her fingers started dancing over the keyboard.

She finished and said,`Ok, that’s enough for now. What would you like to know?

`Ma’am, could I get your full name, and title please.`

`Ceridwen Burns, I’m an Operator Three.` She spelled Ceridwen. `Call me Dwen.`

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