Summer fiction: Perfect cover
This is part three and four of a six-part fiction by Christchurch author MARK McGINN . Instalments run daily in the Summer Press this week. Concludes on Monday. Read the first two parts here.
"Mrs Sissons," said Jim Maxwell, "you can see how dangerous this site is. I know you're desperate to get your daughter out. We all are. But if she's fallen into the basement then she'll come to no more harm than she already has. We are not going to imperil the lives of anyone else here."
"Please, someone tell me what's happening!"
Wilbur said, "We're planning a way in through drains connecting with the basement. We think that's the best chance of a rescue without anyone else getting hurt."
She heard only the word "planning". Arms wide in frustration, she asked, "How long will it take?"
"Depends on how much of the basement walls have remained intact." In a matter-of-fact tone he added, "If the damage still permits an entry point, it will be as long as it takes for us to crawl in and out. If there's no entry point, it might take us another hour or so to create one."
Rachael searched Wilbur's face for signs of hope, signs of relief from her anguish. Seeing nothing, her own face crumbled and she stumbled away.
No sooner had Henry, Jim Maxwell and Wilbur Dalton agreed a rescue strategy when Rachael Sissons reappeared, this time accompanied by de Vito in a set of green overalls and wearing a full builder's belt. He carried an orange hard hat with a light attached and what looked like a swag of tools. There was an obvious urgency in their arm in arm stride.
"I want this man on the case," Rachael demanded.
Maxwell said, "You need to know that Wilbur Dalton, as chief of the urban search . . ."
"It's OK, Jim," Wilbur interrupted. "Arnie and I know each another well." He smiled at de Vito, who nodded and the two men shook hands. "I believe you two blokes are acquainted," Wilbur said to Henry.
"For our sins," Henry replied, with no hint of a smile. Seeing de Vito and Rachael holding hands was a reminder that de Vito had once brought the woman to a work function. He hadn't bothered to introduce her to him.
"Henry, before Arnie took up teaching," Wilbur said with enthusiasm, "he was one of the top dogs in mines rescue in Australia. Matter of fact, trained up some of our boys in search and rescue at National Civil Defence HQ. Reckon we could do with his expertise."
"Too right we could," said Rachael, looking over at the building.
"He has mentioned his previous work experience from time to time," said Henry, his sneering tone obvious.
De Vito looked at Henry.
"Wilbur, one might add that I'm deputy chief executive of Bosco College, just in case there's any issue of delegated authority arising."
"To be fair, Arnie, Henry knows this building better than anyone in Christchurch. We've planned an entry in here." He pointed at a plan of the drains.
"Waste of time," de Vito said with a dismissive wave.
"If the walls haven't already caved with the ground movement they could go at any moment. Fart down there, you never know what you could bring down. Fool's errand."
Wilbur's raised eyebrow was an invitation to Henry to respond.
Henry folded his arms. "As Wilbur's said, I know this place better than anyone."
His eyes flicked to de Vito. "And I can be an objective decision-maker since I have no personal relationships at stake. Also, I'm here for Donna Bosco, who's asked me to attend. Just mentioning that in case there's any issue of delegated authority arising."
De Vito gave Wilbur a look that said, "Take no notice of this idiot", then said, "If you're so knowledgeable, you'd know Wilbur has complete authority here. Your chance for a useful contribution has long since passed. If you'd been doing your health and safety job properly, the place would have been better sealed and poor Abby wouldn't be in that bloody death trap." He pointed to the plan. "We all know it's your call, Wilbur, but I say this sump here, the one they put in when they laid the foundation stone for the building. It's the perfect cover from more trouble. Your boys got the chemical readings yet?"
Wilbur, frowning at Henry's map, said, "Nothing abnormal, Arnie."
"Well, for my money, it's the safest and quickest strategy."
A tall slim woman enveloped in a long coat had arrived and stood within listening distance.
"Is there something I can do for you?" Wilbur asked.
"I assume from the info at the end of your lanyard, you're in charge?" She spoke with a confident sense of authority and Wilbur simply nodded his reply. The breeze caught the woman's blonde hair and she brushed it away from an eye. "I'm Sasha Stace, legal adviser to the board of Bosco College.
"I don't wish to interfere with your urgent work. Suffice to say, that the building owner expects a safe and efficient rescue, if a rescue is possible."
She looked sternly at Wilbur.
"If you believe both these men can get the young woman out, then, in my view, both of them should have the opportunity." She faced de Vito. "But I expect collaboration, not competition. Nothing that adds to the risks of anyone, including my board."
"Wouldn't have it any other way," de Vito said. Henry sensed his opportunity slipping away but agreed.
"Right!" said Wilbur rubbing his hands. "We all know the safety issues, yes?"
"God knows we've spent long enough talking about them," said Rachael Sissons, "while my daughter could be drawing her last breaths."
They felt the ground move under their feet and heard the eastern facade finally peel away, crumbling as it fell. For several seconds, seemingly paralysed, they watched the destruction. When Henry refocused he saw de Vito organising machinery to lower him through the sump.
"I'm sticking to our plan, Wilbur."
With a look of determination he fastened an orange helmet under the loose skin below his chin.
Wilbur Dalton was concerned. "You should have someone with you, Henry."
"You think that cowboy's taking anyone with him?"
Henry paused, noting that the reference to de Vito had no impact. "Look, I won't be taking any risks." He softened his tone. "There's only enough room for one person in that maze of underground drains. There's nothing en route to trap me. The only problem I'll face is whether I can get into the basement at all."
Wilbur nodded a reluctant agreement and put his hand on Henry's shoulder.
"You know the place, Henry, but take this radio telephone. I want an update every few minutes."
"Five minutes," said Henry, smiling. "Don't want to be too distracted."
Henry and Eva Peters clasped hands a discreet distance away from all the frenetic activity around the Hanlon building, which looked worse with every minute of the day's new light. People clutching transistor radios to their ears reported that there'd been minor injuries across the city but no loss of life. More than three hours had elapsed since the big one and everywhere the power was still off.
Henry had climbed into green overalls and someone had found him a pair of work boots that were snug but would do the job. Eva's slim build was camouflaged by the navy blue puffer jacket she loved. It contrasted with canvas shoes the colour of candy floss.
"You might look rugged in that hard hat and orange vest, Henry Peters, but I know the real man."
Henry's heart lurched as she pulled him towards her. There was warmth and worry in her eyes as he pecked her on the cheek.
She looked solemn. "You don't have to prove you're a good man. I know you are, Henry. This is about that awful man de Vito, isn't it?"
Henry's jaw tightened. "You saying that means a lot to me after . . . you know, events in the last couple of weeks. I know I haven't been flavour of the month."
Scuffing the fragile ground beneath his feet, he said: "De Vito's part of it, I'll admit."
He looked up into his wife's eyes. "But I'm doing it for Abby Sissons. I really need to find her."
Eva looked around. Trying to suppress the shrillness in her voice, she said: "You don't even know her, Henry. She's just some uni student who's got drunk in a pub after an argument with that horrible woman who's making people, good people like you, put their lives at risk."
She grabbed his hand. "Don't go, Henry. Walk away. Let Mr Big Shot put his neck on the line. He's used to being a bloody glory hunter by the sound of it. That's not you, Henry."
"For God's sake, Eva," he shouted. "And you, a church goer. That could be our girl in that basement."
She dropped her head.
After an awkward silence Henry lifted her chin, saw that the tears had burst their dam.
"I'm sorry," he said in a softer tone. "I shouldn't have said that. I know you're worried about me. I'll be fine, honestly."
Eva nodded, unconvinced.
"Look. Don't wait around here feeling anxious. You could help me by checking on Mother. If I knew you were seeing to her, I'd have two fewer distractions." He forced a smile. "There's really nothing you can do here except get in the way of people who are busy. They don't need that."
On hands and knees in a drain on the south side of the basement, adrenalin had got rid of the tension in Henry's back and shoulders. By the time he'd found the entrance he wanted, he'd made three radio telephone calls to Wilbur Dalton and scared off as many rats. He wished the man would just let him get on with it but accepted Eva wasn't the only one worried about him.
Hearing nothing of the outside world, he inched forward with determination, all senses vigilant. The drain was free of water but an unmistakable smell of wet dirt remained. He was satisfied with progress until he heard a scratching sound. The narrow light beam thrusting from his helmet detected something grey. He took a sudden gasp of breath, then froze.
A water rat, the size of a small cat, glared at Henry from red eyes. Its bristly back was hunched menacingly, its teeth bared ready to defend something dead or dying. Henry crept forward again, crowbar gripped tightly in one hand. No rat would make him turn back. He eyed a rock partially submerged in the dirt floor tunnel. Applying the crowbar, he released some of the clay's grip. But it held fast. The sound of claws again, active on the drain surface. The rat was getting closer. Henry could feel his heart thumping against his chest wall, a frantic request to be let out. He gave up on the excavation and swivelled his head in a desperate attempt to locate the one creature in the world that terrified him more than anything else.