Iphana waited until her ride was two hours late before she made the call on the radio. The hawler had a long way to come and a myriad of things might have delayed it. This much of a delay meant that they were going to run into trouble beating the winter storm front into the settlement and no-one wanted to be out in that with only a hawler for shelter.
Sawyl was surprised when he heard her voice on the radio in his office. The way station mechanic should have been halfway back to the settlement by now. If there was a problem with the hawler he would have expected the driver to be making the call. He was still annoyed that all the drivers who’d come in from the mines yesterday had avowed that they couldn’t pick her up on their way. This trip to collect her was a special one and too close to the seasonal storm movement to make him happy. His reaction to her news was, “What do you mean the hawler hasn’t arrived?”
“It’s neither here nor in sight.” The girl had been swapped in for a popular local boy at the beginning of the spring and her welcome had been less warm than Sawyl had expected.
It was with a sense of dread he headed to the hawler hanger.
All the hawlers were in their bays, stripped for the winter lay off. Lanzo, who he’d picked to go collect the mechanic because he’d thought the two of them might hit it off if they actually talked, was with a group of the other drivers by the coffee point.
“Lanzo, why aren’t you on the road?” Calm, he had to stay calm.
“Co-ordinator Sawyl,” great, he was back to being an outsider after twenty years, “I came in and my hawler was stripped. I thought the plans had changed.”
“And you didn’t check with me?” Lanzo was reliable, hell he’d been trying to match-make for him. “Pig’s arse! Anyone would think you wanted to strand her out there!” He looked at their faces, “And you did. What did she ever do to you that you want to commit murder?”
“It’s not murder,” Kenned, another of the drivers, refuted. “A winter in a way station won’t kill her but it might make her leave.”
“A winter in a fully supplied way station won’t kill her,” retorted Sawyl, “but her supply deliveries have been short all season from pilferage – she’s got enough food for a month, six weeks if she hard rations herself. If you can all sleep well tonight, gentlemen, then you’re lesser men than I think you are.”
“What?” That had gotten their attention and jerked them erect out of their comfortable slouches.
“If everyone from the warehouse storemen who make up the load to the driver who delivers it takes a box of whatever they fancy for themselves or friends, what does that leave the person the load is for, eh? Not enough is the answer.” He glared at them.
“She could have given up and let Terrack have his job back.” The mutterer was Jarmann, one of Terrack’s brothers.
“That’s what this is about?” Sawyl rounded on the big driver. “All these months? Has the entire settlement been trying to drive her away?”
The men all shifted uncomfortably and Jarmann muttered, “Mam said-.”
“Did your Mam tell you that Iphana’s brother married the mechanic from the next settlement and that neither place is big enough for two mechanics? Did she tell you that Central put Terrack in the sister-in-law’s spot and then sent Iphana here?” Sawyl poked Jarmann in centre of his chest with one finger, “Terrack took her job, not the other way around.”
“Perhaps the cargo haulers can still get a drop to her before the weather closes in,” offered Lanzo offered quietly, “If you check the weather window while we rouse the pilots and get the loads put together…”
“An excellent suggestion,” the new voice was completely unknown to all of them and they turned to see a tall, thin man with a severe expression who was resting his hands on the head of a walking stick in front of him. He was flanked by two security drones, the first any of them had seen other than on a broadcast screen. “I’m Auditor Carvell, from Central. We held a desktop audit of this settlement’s transactions and now I’m here to look at the paperwork. I’m interested in pilferage, mail non-delivery and possible dereliction of duty.” He let his words sink in.
“We’ll be stormed in for winter by midnight,” pointed out Sawyl. “You hardly have time to look at anything before you need to leave to avoid being trapped here.”
“Oh, I intend this to be my winter project, Co-ordinator,” Auditor Carvell smiled. “I’ve brought along extra supplies. Come spring, everything here should be all sorted out. By the way, gentlemen,” he turned his attention to the drivers, “while you’re getting those cargo drops loaded, you might like to include fresh lemons. I know that they’re a luxury but they grow in her home settlement so they’ll be a taste of home comfort. You are trying to apologise for almost abandoning her to starve, aren’t you?”