Advancement: Part 4

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I lunge desperately to the side, just ahead of the machine’s blade.  The sandbags I was carrying scatter and are crushed under the wheels as Carl pivots after me.  I stumble to my feet, trying to regain my balance and stay ahead of him.  The machine whirls around in my direction, but fortunately for me it’s not overly maneuverable.

Carl’s shouting something from the cab, but I can’t make out the words over the engine roar, and I’m not about to stop and ask him to repeat himself.  I can just about guess the gist, anyway.  I suspect it has to do with his disgust for me, and my general failure to deserve to live.  He’s obviously been close to Tanger.  If I can get him out of the machine, I might be able to talk him down, although obviously he’s a lot farther gone than the others have been.  Or maybe he was just more homicidal in the first place.  Either way, separating him from the earthmover is a good first step.

Other people are running towards us now, and I see Christopher waving his arms frantically at me.  Since I’m not sure what set Carl off, I can’t be sure that everyone coming over is intending to help me.  Since Christopher’s the one who warned me, though, he seems like a safe bet.  I change direction to circle back toward him, and behind me, Carl guns the motor and attempts to cut off my path.

As soon as the earthmover turns to intercept me, though, Christopher is barreling at it from out of Carl’s field of vision.  He makes a reckless leap for the door, tearing it open and grabbing Carl by the arm even as he’s falling backwards off of the machine.  The two men tumble to the ground alarmingly close to the earthmover, and the giant tires print down tracks just inches from their heads.

Carl and Christopher are locked in a tangle of punches, and a crowd of construction workers descends on them to pull them apart.  The bulldozer, unattended, is still trundling slowly along, and before I can decide if I should do something about it, Mr. Steele appears from somewhere, vaults inside and brings it to a halt.  He steps back out with a thunderous expression and approaches the mass of men, now split into two groups holding Christopher and Carl back from each other.

“What just happened?” Steele demands.

“Carl tried to run Dan over with the bulldozer,” growls Christopher, pulling his arms free and dusting himself off.  Mr. Steele looks around and gets a general chorus of assent, then glowers down at Carl, still struggling to get the others to let go of him.  No one seems particularly inclined to release him yet.

“You wanna explain yourself right quick, Carl?”

Carl jerks his head at me.  “This isn’t my fault!  He’s been stirring up trouble, causing problems.  Man can’t be expected to just sit there and take that forever!”  When Mr. Steele doesn’t look overly sympathetic, he adds, “He stole my phone!”

“That phone there in your pocket?” asks Mr. Steele, and a look of panic settles over Carl’s face.  The workers behind him finally let go of his arms, and he reaches into the pocket of his jeans and pulls forth his phone.

“I mean…he had it…he, he took it…he must have put it back!”

Mr. Steele looks over at me, still a couple of dozen feet away, then back at Carl, who seems to be shrinking in on himself.  He sighs heavily.  “Carl, to my office.  Everyone else, back to work.  Christopher, you all right?”

Christopher nods, and Steele continues, “Good.  Check out that bulldozer, make sure it’s all right.  Then get it back where it goes and make sure nothing important got run over.  Carl, let’s go.”

He herds Carl over to his trailer, and the crowd slowly disperses.  I get a number of glances my way, and they’re not all sympathetic.  A number of the men seem to be wondering what I did to set Carl off, and I do my best to just look shocked and not guilty.

I’m pretty sure I know what phone Carl’s talking about.  It’s not his phone, but then again, those weren’t his thoughts.  Tanger’s been tipped to the fact that we found his phone.  And the most reasonable way for that to have happened is if the mysterious doctor A, who I emailed this morning, told him that his account had been compromised.  Maybe he only used that throwaway account to talk to Tanger, which is actually sort of the point of a throwaway account, now that I think about it.  Regina was right.  That was a really stupid idea.

I feel like I use the phrase “now that I think about it” a lot in my daily life.  Probably this means I should start thinking about things a little more before I do them.  I swear I do, though!  I just don’t seem to get to the right conclusion as often as I’d like.

I retrieve what I can of the sandbags and try to get back to the task at hand.  Christopher joins me after a few minutes.  He looks worse for wear than I do; all I have is dirty clothes and a few scrapes from sliding on the ground.  Carl landed a few good punches on him, and his shirt got torn somewhere in there, revealing a decent scrape across his belly.

“You all right?” I ask him, and he nods.  “Man, thanks for jumping in there!  You saved my bacon.  I don’t know how you had the guts to jump on there like that.”

“Hey, I did much stupider stuff as a kid.  It’s all good.  Couldn’t exactly let him run you down.”

“Still, though!  You put yourself on the line there.  I really appreciate that.”

“Yeah, no problem.”  His expression turns troubled.  “Hey, so — you didn’t steal his phone, though, right?”

“No!  Absolutely not.  I wouldn’t do that.”  To him, my brain wants to add, but I cut the sentence short.  See?  I think about stuff ahead of time!

“Yeah, good.  I mean, I knew you didn’t.  I just wanted to hear it, I guess.  Thank you.”

“No, seriously man, thank you.  I’m buying you beers sometime.”

Christopher laughs.  “Now that’s how you say thank you!  You’re on.”

About half an hour after the bulldozer incident, we all see Carl collecting his stuff and leaving without a word.  It’s pretty clear that he’s been fired, but really, I don’t think there’s another possible response to trying to run a coworker over.  Hopefully he was just fired, and they’re not bringing any kind of charges against him.  It wasn’t his fault, although there’s no reasonable way I could explain that to anyone.

And seriously.  If Tanger Construction ends up bringing charges against him because he was poisoned by Tanger’s thoughts — that’s just screwed up.  I can understand manipulating someone into doing your dirty work and then pretending you didn’t know about it.  That’s not pleasant, but it’s human nature.  We do it so often that we’ve got a dozen different words to describe all of the variations.  Blackmail.  Coercion.  Leverage.  Heck, politics.

But actively blaming someone who was doing the very thing you sent them to do?  That seems above and beyond, and if Tanger thinks he can get away with that, he’d better think again.

“Hey, uh, you need a hand with that?” asks Christopher, and I suddenly realize two things.  One: I’m really, intensely angry about a scenario that has not happened yet, and may not happen at all.  Two: in my irritation, I haven’t really been paying attention to what I’m moving, and I’m currently walking with a stack of rebar that’s designed for two guys to carry.  It might be close to two hundred pounds, and I’ve got it up on one shoulder.

“Oh!  Sure.  Yeah, gimme a hand before the adrenaline wears off, would you?”  I don’t know if he’ll buy that dodge, but it’s the best explanation I could come up with on the spot.

“Been bulking up to impress your lady, huh?” asks Christopher as we carry the rebar.

“Who, Regina?  Nah, she’s got a thing for a friend of mine.”

“Yeah?  Huh.  I woulda bet she had her eye on you.”

“Nah, she likes the brainy guys.  I’m more the strong, silent type,” I tell him.

“Strong, sure, but you talk way too much to be the silent type.”

“Harsh, man.”

“Hey, I call ’em like I see ’em.”

The rest of the day passes without incident, and eventually Regina arrives to pick me up.  “So how’d your day go?” she asks.

“Prepare for an atypical answer!” I say, and give her the whole rundown.

She shakes her head in disbelief.  “So you think Mr. Tanger just straight up had someone try to murder you?”

“Yeah, basically.  I mean, how many times have you thought something along the lines of ‘I’d like to kill that guy’ over something innocuous like getting cut off in traffic?  Now you figure that Tanger is afraid that I’m onto him, plus he’s got the nano-loathing of me — how could he not be thinking that?  And if he lays that thought on someone less stable, then bam, here we are.

“Also, hey!  I just realized that I’m not excited about the idea of him running the city anymore.  Apparently ‘tried to murder me’ is good enough to bump him out of the good-guy role he assigned himself in my brain.  So that’s a silver lining.”

“Yeah, I’m glad you’re finding the bright side here,” says Regina, checking her rearview mirror.  “Continuing on that positive note, I think I’m joining you in the reassessment of Tanger.”

I crane my neck around to see what she’s looking at.  “What’s up?”

“See that green car, and the black one behind it?  They’ve both been following us since we left the site.  These are pretty major roads, so maybe it’s a coincidence.  But they’re staying right on me.”

“Yeah, um,”  I say.  “Maybe let’s not go home just yet.  Take some turns at random, see if they follow us.”

Regina takes the next left, then a right after that, taking us onto side streets.  Both cars follow us, one speeding up to run a light turning red.

“Right,” says Regina.  “What do we do now?”

Suddenly, the black car roars forward, pulling up beside us.  The driver waves wildly at us from inside the car, and it takes me a second to realize that he’s not just waving his hand.  He’s holding a gun.

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