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Chapter two… Countering the Phantom

Preface: Daphne St. James, a new Cycle Counter for Big River Products, is correcting a mysterious cycle count adjustment made the previous day by someone unknown. But someone – something – else is in the old factory basement with her. A gray vapor condenses into the image of an old, angry man and moves menacingly toward her.

Daphne took a fearful step backwards and bumped into the table holding the computer. Instinctively, she put her hand behind her to keep from falling backwards and put her full weight upon the keyboard. The vaporous form stopped, cringed, and emitted a low moan that was a combination of pain and anger. Daffy recovered her balance and ran in terror toward the dirty, grey light coming in the open double doors.

Outside she cried out in pain and surprise as the bright sunlight blinded her. She stopped abruptly and painfully by running headlong into something large and immovable. She was too terrified to move and, as she slowly recovered her vision, she could she nothing but red. “Blood,” she thought. “My blood?” It wasn’t blood. Her eyes focused quickly. It was her red car. She was sprawled face down across the hood of her car with her feet on the ground. The realization of what she had been fleeing returned to her clearing mind and she leaped onto the hood and turned around to face the terror she fully expected to pursue her into the parking lot. There was nothing. For several minutes she sat there, her knees pulled up against her chest, arms pressed tightly to her sides and hands clasped under her chin. The afternoon sun was lower in the sky now and penetrated far into the warehouse through the open doors. There was nothing; just an old warehouse, two wooden doors, a red Dodge LeBaron convertible and her… nothing else. As her pounding heart returned to normal, she became aware she was clutching something in her right hand. It was the cycle count sheet she had left at the warehouse yesterday and the cycle count audit report – the document that brought her to the warehouse today. Daffy slid off her car and walked slowly toward the open doors and looked in fearfully. She peered into the shadows and between the shelves straining to find form where there was none. There was nothing. She swung the doors closed and locked them. Had she really seen a… a ghost? For the first time she put a name to it. It was all too fantastic and now she wondered if she had really seen anything. Perhaps it was her imagination.

As she walked back to her car, Daffy opened the crumpled audit report. The strange part number was there all right. And someone – something – made that adjustment. There was no imagining that! She braced her mind against negative thoughts. “You are an intelligent woman from a sane and normal family in Greenville,” she told herself. “You do not imagine things.” She looked up from the audit report and gazed at the closed doors of the warehouse. “And you will get to the bottom of all this.”

Daphne was waiting for Matt Harris when he arrived at work the next day. He was surprised and delighted to find her in the only visitor chair in his cubicle. “Good morning…what brings you from the grimy, noisy factory to the ivory tower this early?”

She ignored the greeting and playful teasing. “You know the cycle count program I did?” Daffy asked.

“Sure,” Matt replied giving up any hope of small talk. “I programmed the bridge from the inventory system to feed it the on-hand balances.”

“Right, “ Daffy said. “It’s a simple, stand-alone program except for that single interface with the inventory file. That’s why I did it myself instead of asking you IS guys to program it.”

“If you are apologizing, forget it,” Matt replied playfully. “Anytime you want an IS person not to do something, I’m your guy.”

His phrasing distracted Daffy for a moment. “Would you be my guy other times too,” she thought before forcing her attention back to the matter at hand. “The point of my visit is that you are the only one at Big River Products – other than me – who knows anything about my program.” Daffy smoothed out the wrinkled cycle count audit report in front of Matt and pointed to the strange number on the bottom line. “Did you make this adjustment? A joke maybe…”

“Not me,” Matt said looking puzzled. “That’s not even a BRP part number.”

“I didn’t think you did,” Daffy said leaning back. “It’s just all so strange.”

“Well why didn’t you program a pre-edit instead of a post-edit?” Matt asked looking down at the audit report. Daffy did not understand so Matt pressed on. “You see here?” Matt pointed to the strange number. “Beneath the line is your edit message “NO SUCH PART NUMBER.” You could have programmed it so a non-existent part number would be rejected on the entry screen instead of being accepted and later noted on the audit report. Then no one could have done this to you.”

Daffy suddenly realized how a year’s experience and a degree in computer science could provide insights she lacked.

“Look, something happened yesterday I don’t understand,” she said leaning forward. “And I could use an ally if you have the time.”

Daffy related the entire incident to Matt who grew increasingly disturbed hearing it. “… and this thing seemed to control the whole environment. Even the sunlight coming through the door was dimmed. And it was somehow tied into the computer but I don’t know how.”

Matt’s eyes were wide and he was staring at her visibly shaken. “What’s the matter, Matt? Haven’t you ever seen a ghost?” Daffy asked smiling. She felt better having told someone.

“I’ve seen lots of ghosts,” Matt replied. “But urgent business elsewhere always prevented me from conducting a thorough, scientific investigation.”

“Pat McManus…” Daffy said with surprise. “You read Pat McManus. That line is from one of his stories.”

“You read Pat McManus too?” Matt asked with equal surprise. Then, answering his own question, “Of course you do… you’re a bright person.”

The last comment subtly elevated the conversation from professional to personal and Daffy, encouraged by Matt’s comment, leaped at this opportunity. “Will you go out with me Friday night?” she asked before she lost her courage.

“On a date?” Matt asked awkwardly. “Are you asking me out on a date?”

“Yes, unless you are involved with someone. But you have never mentioned…”

“Oh, no. It’s not that. It’s… are you so liberated that you ask men out on dates?”

I guess so,“ Daffy replied. She was annoyed at Matt for making her more uncomfortable than she was already. “Or maybe not or I would be better at this. Just give me a yes or no.” She softened her tone. “But please say yes.”

Matt smiled broadly. “Oh yes… definitely yes!” He stood up. “Let me get today’s cycle count audit report. I want to see where you adjusted that strange number back to zero.” Daffy was brought back to the business at hand.

A few minutes later Matt returned with a stack of double green printouts and sorted through them until he found the cycle count audit. “We ought to find just that one entry today,” he said handing it to Daffy.

Daffy tore off the front sheet, which contained nothing but the title and library number, and stared at the second page a few moments before handing it to Matt. He looked at it briefly. “Your friend has been a busy little… phantom.”

The audit report was filled with numbers all as strange as the one that started everything. They were all positive adjustments from zero. And Daffy’s adjustment of A23724-5G was there too… from 234 to 0. And the next line adjusted it back to 234. She counted 43 separate part number adjustments and heard herself paged as she finished. She answered the page. It was Louis Smith’s secretary. He was the Controller and wanted to see her immediately. He was the only other person, besides her boss, Donna Wright, who received the daily cycle count audit report. Daffy knew she was in trouble. Louis Smith had a reputation for making quick judgements about people and spreading them like a cancer throughout the organization. He was a harsh, humorless man in his early sixties who had twice been passed over for the company presidency and was determined to show that he was a superior manager by uncovering deficiencies in other departments and waving them, like a flag, for all to see.

“This is going to be bad,” Matt said when Daffy told him where she was summoned. “Be aware that these crazy numbers aren’t in our database so there is no standard cost associated with them. No dollars have been messed up. It’s purely a materials department problem… so far.”

“Do you think that will help? Daffy asked.

Matt shrugged. “It can’t hurt. Meanwhile, I’ll modify the program so only numbers in our database can be processed… a pre-edit. That ought to stop the phantom in his tracks. Do phantoms have tracks?”

“Yes,” Daffy thought as she walked up the second floor executive offices. “That ought to stop him.” But she had a foreboding.

When she entered Louis Smith’s outer office she had already decided not to tell him about the phantom. It was too fantastic and, even if he did believe her, there was too much political benefit for him if he claimed not to. He could attack Donna Wright, the Materials Manager… needling her about hiring people who hallucinate. No, Daffy would plead guilty to misprogramming and tell him that Matt Harris was fixing it for her. The IS group fell under the Controller so he could gloat that his department had to rescue the materials department from their own incompetence. That ought to please him.

The outer office was Carol Johnson’s work area. She was Louis Smith’s Secretary but held him in the same low regard as everyone else. Her middle-aged, black face was usually cheerful but not now. “Donna Wright is in there too,” Carol warned her. “Girl, you are in trouble now.”

Next time --- chapter three: The Phantom Revealed

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