Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer
Midnight, the witching hour. I could do with a flying broom, come to think of it. On that topic, I suspect I’ve more chance of getting to know a broom than any witch that might flit about on one. Right, all geared up – or am I?
Phone, keys, medical cards, proof of being me, both permits to carry, handset, mask? No, wait. The evening DAQI was 11 with warnings about it hitting teens before dawn because of smog blowing in from the burning portions of Europe. Best go with the respirator and tuck the mask into the rucksack along with the thermos and food.
Check tonight’s route while riding down to the car park. Oh joy: Bognor. At least I left my box of nitrile gloves in the rucksack. I can double glove before gauntlets without paying company rates for extras. The phone chirps. Good timing! Delly’s outside. Saves me pollution charges from the commute.
Out through the triple doors into the cold.
It fills my view: cross a refuse wagon with a windowless coach, paint it brown, add twin fat black stripes round the cab. The modern dead-cart. No need to bring them out, we’ll take them from where they fell at no extra cost.
I swing up into the changing room and shout through the open door to the cab.
“What you doing bringing a company limo out to fetch staff?”
“In case you missed it, your place is on a B-optimal route to Bognor. As there’s pile-ups or roadworks on the A-optimals, I thought I’d show due diligence, and do you a favour.”
“It’s brass primate castration season out there. Tonight could be a bad one.”
“You need to use bigger words in your fancy slang. I can still make out what you mean.”
“And your sarcasm needs work. I’m not bleeding. So, tonight?”
“You’re not wrong. We’ve got three police call-outs already. Good news is those gave me priority for Arnie.”
I swing open the door to the cadaver processor – which I can only do because it’s not in use yet – and grin at the bulky, four-armed robot.
The bucket-shaped head turns my way. Lenses whine as it focusses on me. Takes a few moments for facial recognition, then it waves.
“Hello, Poppy. Are we playing chess tonight?”
“Don’t think so, Arnie. It looks busy.”
“I like to be busy.”
“See you later.”
I close the door and it goes back to doing whatever it does when no-one is looking.
We take the old road to Bognor. As we traverse the long, curved bridge just before we hit the outskirts, I see blue lights ahead.
An officer flags us down.
“You lot on duty?”
“Cart 68, constable. What you got for us?”
The officer gestures towards the roof of a car just visible in the cutting.
“Whole family. I’d say the car holds everything they owned.”
Delly looks at me. I glance back towards cadaver processing.
“Thank the gods for Arnie. Never thought we’d start the night with another UC failure.”
“A lot of these coastal towns never picked up after the depression of ’21, and UC always causes financial problems. This week’s been the first really cold one. Guess they decided to go as a family rather than wait for winter to take them piecemeal.”
I press the ‘Retrieval’ button. Arnie deploys. We’re all pretending to be blasé until a teddy bear falls from the smallest body as it’s carried in.
Delly chokes out: “Early break?”
I wipe my eyes.
“Yeah. Somewhere bright.”