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Alan Cook

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Compute This
By Alan Cook
Posted: Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Last edited: Wednesday, March 11, 2009
This short story is rated "PG13" by the Author.

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Return with us now to those days of big computers in icy rooms with raised floors. But wait--something is terribly wrong...
I arrived at the warehouse at quarter to midnight. Saul, the lone guard on duty, buzzed me through the doorway at the main entrance. I had met Saul the night before when I had left after working with Arturo on the 4 p.m. to midnight shift. Those eight hours constituted the full extent of my training as a computer operator for the Atlas Ice Company.
Ralph, my supervisor, had expressed confidence in my ability to work the graveyard shift alone after one day on the job. His optimism was born of desperation because there weren’t many experienced computer operators in 1962. I didn’t object, even though I barely knew where the restroom was, because I needed the job.
Saul and I exchanged greetings as I signed in. “Everything’s quiet,” Saul said, between bites of a soggy sandwich. “So quiet you can hear a squirrel pee in the woods.”
I laughed, as he expected. He had said the same thing last night. There was a display of different kinds of ice picks in a glass-enclosed case on the wall. Appropriate for an ice company. I looked at the sharp-pointed instruments for a minute and then walked out of the reception area and turned right into the administrative wing of the building. The computer room was at the far end of the hall.
I passed the empty offices and opened the door to the sacred room, automatically stepping up onto the raised floor. I shivered involuntarily as the cold air enveloped me, even though I was used to it. The frigid atmosphere was required to keep the IBM 1401 from becoming cranky. The many cables required to hook the various units of the computer system together were hidden beneath the floor, which was divided into removable squares. This gave the room a clean, uncluttered look, in spite of the large pieces of equipment that filled most of it.
I knew something was wrong as soon as I entered the room. Not with the central processing unit, which looked fine. The lights of its console blinked merrily, showing that a program was being executed. There was nothing wrong with the tape drives, either, or the combination card reader and punch.
The problem was the printer. The continuous-form paper, instead of stacking in a neat pile and folding at the perforations between pages, was spreading all over the floor. Arturo, who I was relieving, was nowhere in sight. And judging by the amount of paper on the floor, the program had been executing for some time. I hit the Stop button on the printer and cleaned up the mess.
Where was Arturo? I knew that he wasn’t in the computer room because there was nowhere to hide. I looked at the operations log to see what program was running. An entry by Arturo, at 10:35 p.m., showed that he had started this program, which tracked sales and inventory—of ice—at that time. I remembered from the night before that it took several hours to run.
I glanced at the lights, tapes, cards and paper, determined that nothing needed to be attended to for the next few minutes and headed out of the computer room to the restroom. I opened the restroom door to darkness. I flipped on the light and called, “Arturo.” Silence. Just to make sure, I looked into all the stalls. Nothing.
What should I do? Don’t panic. Maybe Arturo was somewhere I didn’t know about yet. I would ask Saul if he knew. Controlling my urge to run, I race-walked out to the reception area. Saul sat with his feet up on the receptionist’s desk, listening to Perry Como sing a scratchy rendition of “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes” on a small transistor radio. He must like the oldies.
He had his back to me and jumped when I spoke. “I can’t find Arturo.”
Saul slowly lowered his stumpy legs from the desktop and said, “Valentino is missing, eh? Did you look in the restroom?”
“He didn’t sign out while I was making my rounds. He must still be here. Did you see a Chevrolet when you came in?”
“A green Super Sport was parked near the door.”
“That’s his car.”
Saul checked the sign-in sheet, anyway, but if Arturo had signed out I would have seen it when I had signed in.
 “Where could he be?” I asked. Saul’s deliberate movements made me want to shake him.
“I dunno.” He looked at his watch. “I have to make my rounds of the warehouse floor again. I’ll see if he’s there.”
“Why would he be in the warehouse? That only contains blocks of ice, doesn’t it?”
“I dunno.”
Saul slowly raised his compressed body to a standing position. He didn’t look like a security guard, in spite of his uniform and gun. But then, I guess he didn’t get paid a lot, either. And he wasn’t going to be any help in finding Arturo. Impatiently, I turned and hightailed it back to the computer room.
I went behind the tape drives and got a new box of paper for the printer. One of the floor squares clanked as I stepped on it. It wasn’t seated properly. Maybe I’d try to fix it later. I changed a tape on one of the drives and tried to think what to do next. Should I call Ralph and tell him that Arturo was missing?
My judgment of Saul was that he was on the far side of incompetent. If Arturo was to be found, I would have to do it. I hesitated, because it was after midnight and Ralph might be in bed. Even though he had told me to call him if I had a problem, he might think I was overreacting. Tough. I found Ralph’s home number on the emergency list beside the computer room telephone and spun the digits on the rotary dial.
On the third ring I heard a click and a sleepy voice said, “Hello.”
I identified myself and told him that Arturo was missing. That took a few seconds to sink in. Then he said, “Missing? Or did he just leave early? I’m on to his tricks.”
“He didn’t sign out and his car is still here.”
“I’ll be there in thirty minutes.”
I hung up and breathed a sigh of relief. Ralph would make a good boss. Even though he had put me on the spot by having me work alone after only eight hours with Arturo, he had made sure my army training as a computer operator had prepared me for Atlas.
He had also talked to me about the other shift operators. About Arturo, he had said, “Arturo fancies himself. He thinks he God’s gift to women. But you won’t have any trouble with him.” And about Mary, the day-shift operator, “She looks like a dumb blonde, but she’s actually very sharp. But don’t mess with her because she’s married. And her husband is the jealous type.”
I had met Mary the day before. She had just been finishing her shift. She had been sitting at the table in the computer room writing in the operations log. When Ralph had introduced us she had swiveled her chair around to face me. Her skirt rode up and exposed the fasteners on her garter belt that held up her stockings. When she realized what I was staring at she gave me an indefinable look and shrugged her skirt back over her knees.
As a horny guy just out of the army, that got to me, but I figured I’d better take Ralph’s advice. Arturo came in a few minutes later to work the next shift with me. I was over behind the tape drives, checking on whether we had three-part paper for the printer, but I could hear him talking to Mary. I couldn’t catch his actual words, but I could tell from the tone of Mary’s answer that she was upset at what he said.
And then I heard her say very clearly, “So help me God, Arturo, if you ever touch me there again I’ll kill you.”
I figured it was time for me to make my appearance. I came around the tape drives lugging a box of paper, but by that time they were ignoring each other.
I didn’t have any problems working with Arturo. He was dressed sharp, with a white shirt, tie and cufflinks, even though we were working the evening shift. His black hair was slicked back and I understood why Saul had referred to him as Valentino. But he knew his job.
*          *          *
Ralph came into the computer room about thirty minutes after I talked to him, just as he said he would. After the briefest hello he said, “Did Arturo ever show up?”
“I haven’t seen him.”
“Saul must be making his rounds. I had to use my key to get in. After you get through your probationary period I’ll get you a key to the main entrance. Then you don’t have to depend on Saul to let you in. Arturo and Mary both have keys.”
“Arturo’s car is gone. Didn’t you say it was here when you came in?”
“Yes, if he drives a green Super Sport.”
“Yeah, but it’s not here. Wherever he was hiding, he’s gone now. But I’m going to ream his butt for not signing out and for not staying to help you get started.”
“Things seem to be running pretty smoothly.” I didn’t want Arturo to get into trouble because of me.
“Good. I knew you could handle it. But I’m glad I came. I felt guilty about having you work a shift by yourself on your second day here.”
We spent the next few minutes going over the jobs and I used the opportunity to ask Ralph some questions, now that I had gotten my feet wet and knew what to ask.
The printer was making so much noise that neither of us heard the computer room door open, but then we heard Mary’s voice say, “Well, if it isn’t Ralph. I guess we had the same idea.”
I looked up and saw that Mary was wearing blue jeans. Ralph was as startled as I was. He said, “What are you doing here…?” and then stopped as we both saw a man behind Mary. He continued, “I see you brought your hubby with you. Hi, Mike.”
“He didn’t want me to come in alone at night,” Mary said. “And he just got off work so he’s wide awake.” Then to me, “Thad, this is my husband, Mike.”
We shook hands and Ralph asked Mary again what she was doing here.
“Since it’s Thad’s first day alone on the job I figured I’d come in and see if he needed any help.”
“That’s big of you,” Ralph said, dryly. “I don’t recall that you’ve ever come in on the graveyard shift before.”
“There’s always a first time. And I didn’t expect to find you here. Well, now that I’m here, Thad, why don’t you go out and get a bite to eat. I’ll spell you for an hour.”
“I don’t have a car,” I said. I had walked the two miles from my apartment.
“Ralph does. Take him to Tony’s, Ralph. It’s open 24 hours. I bet you could use a bite, yourself.”
To my surprise, Ralph agreed. He filled Mary in on what was running while I went behind the tape drives to retrieve a box of printer paper. I saw a dark stain on the off-white floor I hadn’t noticed before. The room was so clean that I looked more closely. I stifled a yell. I was positive it was a bloodstain.
As I carried the paper back to the printer I knew that Ralph and I couldn’t leave the building. I said, “Mary, you and Arturo don’t get along very well, do you?”
Surprised, she shrugged her shoulders. “So what? Lots of people who work together don’t get along.”
“But this is more than that. He harassed you. He touched you inappropriately.”
Mike stiffened. Ralph said, “I told him to leave you alone.”
“But he didn’t think you meant it,” Mary said.
“And he didn’t leave you alone,” I said. “He continued to harass and touch you. It made you so mad you wanted to kill him.”
“No!” Mary exclaimed.
“What are you talking about?” Ralph asked, and Mike glowered at me.
I was in up to my eyeballs. “Tonight, sometime after 10:30, you let yourself into the building with your key while Saul was making his rounds. Arturo was so surprised and happy to see you that you had no problem getting close to him. Close enough to kill him.”
“You’re crazy,” Mary said. “How could I kill him? I don’t have a gun.”
“And besides, Saul might have heard a gunshot. But you had something better—an ice pick that you got from the display out front.” Ralph looked shocked and the others kept silent, so I continued. “The one problem you had was getting the body out of the building. For that you needed Mike’s help. And that’s why you brought him back with you. You were going to send me off to lunch and then take the body out while Saul was on his rounds.”
“But Arturo’s car,” Ralph said. “It was here and now it’s gone.”
“A small oversight by Mary. But when she brought Mike here the first time, one of them drove Arturo’s car away, probably to his apartment, so his disappearance wouldn’t be connected with this place. And then they returned. And here they are.”
Mary found her voice. “There’s one problem with all this, Sherlock. There’s no body.”
“Get Saul in here,” I said to Ralph. I wanted somebody with a gun beside me.
Whatever Ralph was thinking, he did what I asked.
Then I said to all of them, “Come with me.” I walked behind the tape drives and stepped on several of the floor squares until I found the one that clanked. Earlier, I had seen the handle used to lift the squares, nearby; I retrieved it now.
I placed the suction cups attached to the handle on the clanking square and lifted it. There was a collective gasp. The reason the square clanked was Arturo. Part of him lay there, part beneath adjacent squares. It was a tight fit. His shoulder stuck up a little and had been interfering with the square. Breathing hard, I removed the square next to it. I stared down at Arturo’s contorted face. A pool of clotted blood covered one of his eyes. Mary had found an effective place to stab him.
Nobody spoke. Everybody looked dazed. Somebody had to do something. After I got my breathing under control I forced myself to walk to the phone and call the police.

Web Site: Alan Cook, Mystery and walking writer  

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Books by
Alan Cook

Hit that Blot: A Carol Golden Novel

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Pictureland: A Matthew and Mason Adventure

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Dancing with Bulls: A Matthew and Mason Adventure

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Forget to Remember: A Carol Golden Novel

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Relatively Dead: A Carol Golden Novel

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Kindle, Nook, Smashwords, Amazon, more..

Dangerous Wind: A Carol Golden Novel

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Aces and Knaves

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Nook, Smashwords, more..

Mystery/Suspense Stories
1. Mengele's Double, Chapter 9
2. Honest Thief, Tender Murderer, Chapter Eig
3. Mengele's Double, Chapter Eight
4. Hidden in the Shadows Chapters Six and Sev
5. The Underside of Ice
6. What A Daughter Learns Chapter Eight: An A
7. Edge of Ruin Chapters 4-6
8. Soldier's Gap, Chapter Three
9. Fred's Friends
10. Hidden in the Shadows Chapters Four and Fi
11. The Ghosts of Yesterday
12. Honest Thief, Tender Murderer, Chapter Nin
13. The Sticky
14. One Dark Night Part Six
15. Secrets of Stonehenge
16. Hidden in the Shadows (Ana Alexei Mysterie
17. The Mark Twain Robbery, Part II
18. It Happened One Dark Night Part Two
19. The Dream of Foggy Creek
20. If Tomorrow Comes (A Mystery Novel) Chapte

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