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Project Red Iron

Chapter Text

The bright spring day brought forth blossom breezes. Flat-capped boiler-suited men broke the silence of the empty idyll, their hammering echoed around the complex. The cold wind blew across the lawn and onto the faces of the five children, who were singing ‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush,’ as they held hands in a round. They were the sons and daughters of high-ranking officials; some of them were children of former Village inmates, others the offspring of missing diplomats outside the Village. The sound of a small helicopter overhead made the children look up and shield their worried eyes. Number Twenty Eight, Supervisor of the Village, watched the children with disinterest and then strolled along the path to the Old People’s Home. He stood atop the small wall that overlooked a solitary stone boat.

Number Twenty-Eight was a slight, balding man of about fifty, who stood in his Supervisor uniform of black jacket (with the circular number badge neatly-pinned), khaki polo neck and dark trousers. He was unremarkable in every way, except that he paid attention to small details and had almost a slavish devotion to his administration job. His gimlet gaze scanned every nook or cranny, daily noting the villagers’ every movement. Before his assignment to the Village, he had been a senior bureaucrat, but his posting to the Village was a surprise for his fellow work colleagues and whispers speculated about his ‘suitability’. He had taken the position voluntarily and solemnly and he quickly found that position here would be far different. As Main Supervisor, he had been in charge of coordinating security.  His posting had given him higher level clearance and therefore access to some of the Top Secret files in admin. His pen-pushers pride had been sorely tested, though; Number Twenty-Eight was used to deadlines and bosses breathing down his neck. With the Village depleted, he had resorted to peering through the long range telescope that overlooked the lawns and out to sea. He had observed the increase of surveillance ships on the horizon. There had not been this amount of boats since the war, he thought. Number Twenty-Eight continued to watch the horizon from the wall and considered the vast stretch of sea, the waves as curls of silver against the weakening sun. Who was it that wrote “We may sink and settle on the waves…the white petals will be darkened with sea water”?* He could not remember; these days he wasn’t sure if it had been an old access code. He was further lost in thought, until footsteps broke the solitude.

He turned to see a petite, androgynous figure behind him. He recognised her as the Peter Pan figure from the Grand Ball. His previous dealings with her had been limited as she was had been a comparative fleeting visitor. She had the natural air that denoted her as one of his superiors, though the differences between who were the prisoners and who were the warders had been blurred of late. “They told me that I’d find you here,” she said, with some amusement. They briefly held eye contact, and when he did not answer, her eyes flickered over his shoulder to the sea, “No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow,”^ she said, the clipped vowels and smoker’s voice had a mocking tone to them.

The Supervisor squared his shoulders and turned his back to her to resume his watch of the horizon. “I am not sure whether that is a welcome or a warning,” he said which was met with a rueful chuckle from Number Two. He continued “I imagine that you are used to much colder climes. I trust you had a pleasant journey?”

“If by this you mean uneventful, then yes” she answered. She removed her gloves and sat at a table by the wall, gesturing to one of the waiting maids for table service. Number Twenty-Eight let the silence envelop them, the warm sun countered by the coarse spring wind. Her pixie cut was greying and ruffled by the breeze,  her cream woollen jacket sealed tighter against the cold, her Village scarf drawn close around her neck. “We hadn’t expected to be back quite so soon,” she continued, crossing her legs, “Most of the matters had been dealt with, even if the clear up operation took far longer than our masters had imagined.”

Much longer, he thought. When ‘Operation Aftermath’ had been implemented, the Village had been in emergency lockdown and at first, it was buzzing with helicopters and sharp-suited men, who had meetings inside secluded board rooms; while outside, plain-uniformed army medics conducted their gruesome clear up operation around the complex. Since then, there had been silence, punctuated with flurries of building activity, then standstill once more. For a while, it had been worryingly quiet from those in charge. Number Twenty-Eight had found it both most unsettling and isolating. He was secretly relieved to see the workmen resume the project two weeks ago, though he had not recognised any of them as previous residents of the Village.

“We can’t take much longer; we’re three months behind as it is….”he said, exasperation rising in his voice.

“Patience, my dear fellow,” she interrupted, dismissively waving her hand, “It is an ongoing process. We couldn’t dispose of the bodies in the usual way.”

Number Twenty-Eight clambered down from the wall and sat heavily on the small white seat across the table from Number Two. His shoulders were hunched, arms folded. “I know,” he said, bleakly, not meeting her gaze, “I’ve already seen the report.”

“Then you know that this has to be seen to be handled sensitively.” She sniffed and continued, “Our friends are waiting, watching our every move. It is more important to get the job done correctly than on time. It’s all being taken care of," she added, “You needn’t worry yourself on that score.” She paused as the maid served tea on a silver tray. You can’t beat the English and their formalities, he thought. If indeed she was English.

“Thank you, my dear, “said Number Two, stirring her tea and watched the maid depart before bringing the cup to her lips. The seagulls circled and wheeled, a cacophony of screeching chorus, the Village flags and other pennants were flapping noisily. There was a still a distant sound of hammering and scaffold poles being moved. The sun dipped behind the clouds as they watched a succession of black Mariahs silently steal up the beach. Some green boiler-suited men with white safety helmets marched across the beach to the vans and installed a protective tent, forming a barrier against obtrusive onlookers. “Now,” Number Two said, “for the matter in hand.”

”What will happen to the new bodies?” asked Number Twenty-Eight, looking down and drawing his arms even closer to his body.

“They will be removed and, of course amended. They will be buried near the woods in unmarked graves. It was unfortunate, but I am sure the children will recover.  Girls, particularly, are remarkably resilient.” Number Two’s face remained emotionless as she sipped her tea.

Number Twenty-Eight sighed, “Let’s hope so.”

Along with the first signs of spring, were fresh blooms of new, unaccounted bodies.  Number Twenty-Eight had supervised the emergency excavation and immediately recognised one of the corpses as the Howling Number Two, whose breakdown during Number Six’s ‘game’ had been well documented; the incident had caused serious ripples further up the chain of command. There was another body who was unrecognisable, save for the thin square gold-rimmed spectacles still attached to his head. No longer needing his midnight milk, reflected Number Twenty-Eight and had shivered a little. Noble men in simple shrouds, buried in sand, with their hands neatly folded. The Supervisor had little love or respect for the former Number Twos, but felt that something respectable should be said. “They were said to be two great men …” He began, but again was cut short.

“Hardly,” she scoffed, “they were both on their last warning. They should have been dispensed with years ago. Both were flounderers who had lost their way.” Number Twenty-Eight began to object, but Number Two quickly intervened, “We don’t tolerate failure here. Some did it for the power, for the glory – hoping it would grant them "precious prestige". Some were coerced, knowing that they weren’t fit for office, but thinking that they could cast a gloss over their tarnished reputations. Of course, they were set up for a fall. "We play, as so we are played", as the Admiral used to say.”

The afternoon shadows began to creep in, bringing warmer salty winds. The curlews called to each other and behind them, the dead hydrangea heads whispered in their cold, earthen beds. The bodies of the rank and file Number Twos were quickly dealt with, ahead of the tidal change. Two of the Mariahs trundled across the sands to the mortuary, leaving the final van; the tent still evident. Number Twenty-Eight gestured towards the beach and made reference to the remaining body, “What about him?”

Number Two’s eyes darted. “It’s a shame. Some people would say that he was one of our most promising innovators,” she said, topping up her tea.

“Indeed.” The last man must have had the most recent death, the Supervisor reflected. Compared to the tidy, decomposing bodies of his immediate superiors, this man's departure looked hasty, executed in a hurry. "The man had been buried at sea, the March storms bringing him to shore," were the assuring words of a previous Number Two, who had avoided the Supervisor’s eyes as he said that. He too, had noted the obvious lack of decomposition.

Number Two sighed, “We were sure that once we convinced him of his placement within the Village, he would happily continue his good works,” she said, “A pity, really. He showed promise, but ultimately such a small fish. His death…was regrettable, but he had outgrown his initial usefulness and had become expendable. Flounderers, each and every one. And we can’t allow that to happen – can we?”

Flounders. Number Twenty-Eight considered the face of the last corpse, who unlike his deceased superiors, was found face down, mouth choked with sand, his pearled eyes like a fish on a monger’s slab. Number Two seemed to read his mind. “Don’t look like that. There are always plenty more 'fish' in the sea, old chap.” Her voice changed tone, “Anyway, we must move on.  Every town needs its sheriff,” she said, with a playful smile, “You are it.”

Number Twenty-Eight gave a start. Number Two gave another rueful chuckle. “I thought you would be surprised. You are a modest man, by all accounts. It appears our masters have noticed your wonderful work over the last few months and have decided to reward you handsomely.”

Number Twenty-Eight’s heart plummeted at this sinister proclamation. During the inquiry, he had been 'rewarded' within an inch of his life. He had given evidence about the timeline of events, but had been seen as either being in collusion with Number Six, or as a coward who mysteriously escaped the chamber when the rocket had been prematurely discharged. They implied that he had also been in collusion with the Resurrected Number Two, Number Forty-Eight and the diminutive Butler. He had been released without charge, but he was being set up, he knew it. Just like most of the hapless Number Twos before him, he would be a powerless pawn in their games.  Number Twenty-Eight somehow managed to keep his voice steady. “I would be Number Two?” he asked, watching the tent being packed away and the last van leaving the beach.

Number Two threw her head back, mirthlessly laughing, her gapped front teeth adding to the gaiety of her outburst. Number Twenty-Eight registered this as a slight, but was slightly relieved at her incredulity, “Modest men don’t usually make such assumptions. No, my dear fellow, you will the primary overseer until order has been restored. Just think of it as having your old job back, but with added responsibility. When we resume business, you will be each incumbent Number Two’s right hand man.”

“More or less as I did before.” The note in Number Twenty-Eight’s voice suggested that he did not relish the prospect.

“This time, you will have special dispensation. You will follow each Number Two’s orders, but will be reporting straight to us at HQ. You will be our eyes and ears, our fingers on the pulse.” Number Two finished her tea, “Don’t worry; your lovely Village will soon be populated with others in no time.”

“More spies to find.” He watched her drain the last drops from her cup. He had not touch his tea, leaving it to turn as cold as Number Two’s sentiments.

“More vacancies to fill. As it always places like this,” assured Number Two.  She stood up and straightens her top. “We will be ready for their funeral tomorrow. We will mark it as a rebirth for the Village and then we will talk about your new position. No, don’t get up.” Her gesture suggested that their meeting was at an end, “You have plenty to do, I'm sure.”

He swallowed, but kept his tone even, “What will happen to Number Six?”

She stopped short, but recovered her composure quickly. “I would be surprised if he is alive twelve months from now, “ she said dismissively, her expression blank, “As for Number Two and Number Forty-Eight, they don’t know that they are already dead.”

Number Twenty Eight looked despondent, the late afternoon breeze colder than he had felt before, “They say that April is the cruelest month...”

“You must remember to take your Stetson** with you,” she mocked and turned her back, walking away at speed, “Be seeing you...old chap.”