Sunday serialisation – Rory (ret’d) 10.5

Rory Rogerson is 67; an overweight, unfit, retired ‘protection officer’ (that’s PC for hired muscle). He is also a prolific and, by his own reckoning, successful author of crime fiction.

Penny (60) is his headmistress wife and Charlie Watkiss is the bloke next door.

Together, they make a formidable team!

 

Rory (ret’d). Chapter ten, part five.

Penny seemed agitated about something when we woke up, but when I asked, she assured me everything was fine so I left it.

After a silent breakfast, Charlie and I attacked the cylinder with renewed vigour. We wrapped the two parts tightly in rubber, first spraying the joint with a bolt releasing spray, warmed it gently, attached to each end one of those tools you use for undoing a car’s oil filter and tugged. Nothing. We spoke to the hotel manager, explained that we had been trying to open the cylinder – without, obviously, divulging the provenance of the thing – and he suggested, rather cleverly I thought, that we take it to the machinist in the town and have the end fine-machined off until the opening appeared.

At his shop, the machinist looked at the cylinder, felt it, weighed it in his hands and declared it to be made of an extremely durable alloy.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means that we will need to be very careful how we approach it,” he said, “I shall treat it the same as I would if you asked me to de-pit a cylinder-head; respecting the curvature and skimming the tiniest amount on each pass. I will stop as soon as it looks like we are reaching the limit of the material.”

“Why stop then?”

“It may be a time-capsule. A lot of them were buried back in the 60s and 70s. Sometimes these old containers build up gas inside. It could be the pressure of gas that makes it impossible to open in the conventional way. Also, there’s no telling what gas could be inside it. It often depends on where it has been. The material itself isn’t porous, but the screw thread to an extent is. If you could tell me in what environment you found it I could possibly guess at what gas might be inside it.”

“Methane,” Charlie said.

“Why methane. Where was it, in a sewer?”

“Can’t tell you that.” I looked quizzically at Charlie. “National security.”

“Oh, I understand, Sir,” the machine-shop owner said, “Here is what I’ll do. When I’m close to breaching the material, I’ll stop, as I said, but I will take the cylinder into the enclosure I use for hazardous materials. I can then manipulate it from outside the container with rubber gloves, a bit like you see nuclear scientists doing in the movies. In there, I can make a small puncture in the material then evacuate the air from the enclosure, which should suck most of whatever gas is in the cylinder. Then we will be able to finish it off in here safely. Do you want to stay while I do it?”

“How long will it take?” Penny asked.

“One hour, maybe two.”

“Do you guys mind if I don’t wait?” she asked, “I’d rather go and do a bit of shopping.”

“Is it safe on your own?” I asked.

“I’ll keep her company and look after her,” Charlie said, perhaps a little too eagerly. I let it pass.

“Okay,” I said, “you two go off and have fun – not too much, mind – and I’ll stay here and keep an eye on things.”

I spent the next two hours mostly twiddling my thumbs whilst the machine-shop owner did his work. He slowly and carefully machined the top of the cylinder until his equipment told him that he was close to breaching. He then carefully carried the cylinder through to the back of his workshop and placed it in his hazmat container. Manipulating it from outside, he carefully drilled into the top using what looked like a countersink bit, until it had created a clear hole. He then activated the pumps to evacuate the chamber and left the cylinder in a partial vacuum for five minutes to give any gas in the cylinder time to escape. Then it was back to the machining section to complete the removal of the top. On my insistence, as soon as the top was open, he handed it back to me without looking inside it. I covered the top with cling-film and returned the cylinder to the rucksack in which we’d brought it. Obviously, the man needed to be paid for his work. Equally obviously, the price was, shall we say enhanced due to the security aspects of the operation.

When I returned to the waiting area, I found Charlie and Penny deep in conversation. The shopping trip had obviously done her a lot of good, she was looking happy and relaxed, a far cry from the tetchy, frazzled appearance she was displaying when we came into the machine shop only a couple of hours earlier.

“Good shop?” I asked. Charlie looked away – I couldn’t quite make out the expression on his face, but that’s hardly surprising, I’d only really known him for a few weeks.

“The best,” Penny said, “I didn’t actually buy anything – it was more for the experience than anything else. It’s such a change from what I’ve been used to – it’s hard to describe, but it felt completely different to doing it at home, in the usual same-old-same-old shops, if you see what I mean – more exciting, more satisfying. Maybe it was just because it was new. Or maybe it was actually better.” She case a sideways look at Charlie. I was confused. She was looking excited like I hadn’t seen for ages, and he looked – well, I suppose sheepish would be the best way I could describe it.

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