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The Phantom Cycle Counter

Chapter one… The Phantom Strikes

Daphne St. James wheeled her brand new, bright red Dodge LeBaron convertible into the gravel parking lot of the ancient brick factory north of downtown Grand Rapids. Just one month out of Ferris State University where she served on the board of the APICS student chapter, she had a new car, a new apartment on the west side, all new furniture, new clothes, and, best of all, a new job to help her pay for it all. Her father, observing her quick descent into debt, had labeled her “true American middle-class” and the backbone of the economy. He had, however, questioned her seeming determination to improve the local economy all by herself. But Daffy, her nickname since she was three, didn’t worry about her debts. She had been a good student, which helped her land an entry-level job at Big River Products at a salary higher than the prevailing pay for entry-level jobs. She realized that being a Cycle Counter did not require a college degree but that just added to her optimism. They could have hired or promoted someone for considerably less money -- but they didn’t. She figured this meant Big River Products viewed her as having long-term growth potential. So as the bright July sun warmed her, Daffy St. James was happy and contented. The economy was good, she had a promising job with a fast growing company and, of course, she was young. She viewed the future as an inevitable progression of personal and professional success as only someone twenty-two years old can. Her naïve outlook was about to be shattered in a way she could not possibly imagine.

The small, gravel parking lot served only a single double door that swung outward and opened into the basement of the multi-story brick building. All the other floors were accessible from the front of the building but, because of the lay of the land, the basement was accessible only from this back door. Big River Products owned the entire building until they built a new factory in Kentwood years ago. When they sold the old, downtown building to a furniture manufacturer in 1955, they leased back the awkward basement as an off-site warehouse. A slowdown in business in 1957 allowed all inventories to be brought into the new factory but, somehow, the lease on the old basement kept being renewed. By 1993, business growth made the old basement necessary again after 37 years. And, in 1994, Daffy St. James first laid eyes on it when she had to cycle count parts for which the factory had no storage space.

Recent prosperity had loosened discretionary spending but even the company’s old timers raised their eyebrows when Daffy received approval for a personal computer installed in the off-site basement and linked to the factory network. More than one person observed that the computer and phone link were nearly as valuable as the two thousand part numbers stored there. The parts were not of great value. Because the company did not want to store a forklift on site, all the parts were physically small – fittings, hardware, decals, etc. They were stored and removed by Daffy herself – two or three trips a week. She volunteered to do so when the Stockroom Supervisor had no available manpower to work an off-site location. These were low volume parts, seldom required urgently, and Daffy could stock and pick them when she made the trip for cycle counting. Everything could be carried by hand and easily fit in her backseat. Matt Harris, in Data Processing, had dubbed Daffy “Queen of the Warehouse” because she was responsible for everything that went on there. She didn’t mind the title. And she definitely liked the attention from young, single Matt Harris who had joined the company a year earlier after graduating from Michigan State.

As Daffy swung open the creaky wooden doors, the afternoon sun poured into the musty smelling basement. She turned on the lights because, besides the door, only two small windows, high up on the wall, let in light and they had not been washed in decades. She left the doors open so she could observe her car at all times. This was an isolated area and a car-thief ran little risk of being observed. The open door, however, put her personally at greater risk but, at twenty-two, Daffy was more concerned about her car.

The last cycle count sheet was lying beside the computer where she had accidentally left it last trip. She opened the double green audit printout she brought with her and began to compare it to the count sheet. She was confident she would find the problem quickly. The audit report waiting on her desk that morning was routine except for one line. At the end of the report, following all the five-digit part numbers, was a nine-digit monstrosity that included letters and dashes as well as numbers. She assumed that line was the result of sticky keys and her being fumble-fingered when entering the adjustments from yesterday’s cycle count. A previous on-hand balance of zero had been adjusted to 234 pieces. Obviously, she had intended to adjust something but she couldn’t determine what the number should have been without referring to her count sheet. Daffy scanned the adjustment column for the number 234 but found nothing. She scanned the pre-count column for the number zero and found just one – a brass cotter pin adjusted from zero to twenty. But that adjustment was found on the audit report so it couldn’t have been the cotter pin that resulted in that strange number. Daffy stood there looking at the strange number on the audit report and then it dawned on her. From the count sheet, she counted the number of parts she had adjusted – twelve. Then she counted the lines on the audit report – thirteen. The strange number was not the result of her messing up an adjustment; it was an extra adjustment made by someone else. But who has access to her program? Who would play a joke on her? Matt Harris? She hoped so – and he would know how. Daffy welcomed the chance to talk to him but first she would adjust the monster number out of the inventory system. She called up the adjustment program and entered the nine-digit number: A23724-5G; quantity was: 234; quantity is: 0. Instantly the program filled the adjustment column with -234.

Daffy froze. Beneath her fingers the keyboard changed subtly. It was nothing she could see but something she could definitely sense. It reminded her of putting a hand gently on a sleeping cat and feeling the ever so faint tensing of muscle. The lights dimmed to a yellow glow and even the outside sunshine appeared as through a dark filter. She pulled her hand away. Behind her a light was flickering and she turned toward it. A startled cry caught in her throat. Several paces away a gray vapor was condensing into a vaguely human form. It had a face! An angry face; and the entire form moved menacingly toward her.

Next time --- chapter two: Countering the Phantom

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