Fly By Night Plumbing, Inc.
NYC Short Story Challenge #2
"Fly By Night Plumbing, Inc."
By: Jenna Dickson
Prompt: Thriller/Identical/A Plumber
“What the hell did you do, Billy?” Vance yelled as soon as I picked up the phone. I immediately started to sweat. Vance owned Creative Construction Incorporated and was well known for his no-nonsense, straightforward attitude when dealing with his contractors. I liked that about him, at first. Turns out, he could get pretty ugly when things didn’t go his way. “What happened?” I asked, my throat dry. “You poisoned them, the people that bought the house! Wife ended up in the hospital, vomiting everywhere. There’s an inspection next week on the plumbing, the blood tests exposed high levels of cadmium.”
“Cadmium?” I asked in sinking horror as my voice quavered. “Vance, I didn’t think about that. I didn’t want to poison anyone! When you asked me to mess with the plumbing, I just installed cheap fittings, you know, outdated pipes, that sort of thing. Something that would break and leak really easy, not kill anyone!”
“You didn’t kill anyone! Settle down. She’s already out of the hospital,” Vance admonished me dismissively, “You’re not listening though. They are going to inspect the plumbing and test everything next week! If anyone finds out what we’ve done… I’m coming over. Wait for me.” The line went dead as Vance hung up the phone. I stared at the blank screen. The empty surface vaguely reflected back my face, pale in fear, and short blonde hair and blue eyes, wide in disbelief.
I was still standing in my garage when Vance pulled up in his white pickup truck. Dark haired and tanned from years building houses, Vance’s solidly built frame emerged and turned to shoulder the truck door shut with a slam. Hands full with rolled prints, he stalked into the garage. “You have to fix this,” he told me as he cleared off my worktable and started unrolling the blueprints. “I never wanted to do any of this in the first place!” I tried to yell, but it came out as a croak. I had poisoned someone. Vance turned steely gray eyes to focus on me. “Billy, I like you, I really do. That’s why I sold you one of my houses for nearly half price. I know you’re young, but what did you expect with agreeing to our deal?”
“If the other builder finds out that I purposefully sabotaged one of his houses,” I began in dread, but Vance cut me off again. “Brian with freaking Elite Home Builders can rot in hell! Our blueprints are identical! All he did was change the front elevation and put his name on the design! He deserves this mess, but if they inspect the plumbing, they will find the impurities in the pipes and solders, and it will come back to you. If it comes back to you, it might come back to me, and that’s not going to happen.”
I swallowed convulsively. “Look,” Vance explained, “I’ve been in court with him multiple times. I already look suspicious, and we work together. We can’t let anything turn up in that inspection.”
“But the pipes are bad. Short of re-soldering all the fittings, there’s no other way to make it pass inspection,” I pointed out, “And that job was months ago, I don’t remember the plumbing plan.”
Vance smiled in a satisfied way and paged through the blueprints. “These are the blueprints to one of my houses–The Bungalow model. I’ve walked through Brian’s houses, recon work, and this plan is identical to his Country Cottage design. Review these plans and tell me what supplies you need. Tomorrow night, I’ll make sure the homeowners are gone.”
“You want me to break into a house and repair all the fittings in one night!” I yelped. “I’ll get you in,” Vance assured me, “The realtor is an old friend of mine. I’m sure she still has the keys. Just get it done. Bring help if you need. I can only guarantee you the one night.”
“I’m not bringing anyone else into this,” I growled low. Vance shrugged and rolled the blueprints up to hand to me. “Well then, I’ll leave you to it.”
With that, Vance strode out the garage without another word. He closed the overhead door on his way out, so I was left watching his truck back down the drive as I was trapped inside. Feet frozen to the floor, my mind raced to think of another option, and came up blank. I was stupid for ever agreeing to work with Vance. All for a half-priced house. I didn’t want to go to jail!
Panic coursed through every fiber of my being. I slowly turned back to my workbench and unrolled the blueprints. Vance was right, his house was nearly identical to the one I had worked on only a few months ago for Brian. I could do this. I had to do this.
When Vance’s truck rolled into my driveway the following evening, the faint orange afterglow of the setting sun still lingered in the darkening sky. My knuckles were white as I gripped my tool bag. A dark, curly haired woman was in the front seat of the truck. She saw me staring and dangled a set of house keys through the window and grinned impishly. I fought a shudder and got into the backseat.
“Billy, right?” the realtor asked, “You doing okay cutie? You look pretty pale.” I swallowed back a mouthful of saliva and fought the urge to vomit. Vance glanced to see my face and laughed. “It’s Billy’s first time,” he told the realtor with a grin. “Virgin, huh?” the realtor laughed, “Don’t worry Billy, Vance always makes sure you get your cut. We banked over forty percent off that house on Main Street last month.”
“Billy’s already gotten his cut, in the form of one of my houses,” Vance replied grimly, cutting off the realtor’s laughter, “He’s just fixing what he shouldn’t have messed up in the first place.” Even the realtor sobered at that. We drove through the growing darkness in tense silence.
The dark windows that greeted us as we pulled into the drive had me fighting panic again.
Breaking into a construction site was one thing, breaking into someone’s home was a whole other matter. The recently installed front door stood out imposingly as I got out of the truck. I focused instead on pulling out the new materials from the back of Vance’s pickup.
I had to replace my defective work as quickly and cleanly as possible. Using Vance’s blueprints, I had pinpointed the areas in which the faulty fittings and galvanized pipe would impact the drinking water. Although the front elevation of the two designs was different, Vance had been right, the plumbing schematics were identical. Part of me quailed at the scope of work, but the other part of me was efficiently preparing tools just like any other day on the job.
The realtor jangled the keys as she skipped to the front door and left it ajar. “I’ll pick you up at dawn, make sure to lock the front door when you leave,” was all Vance said as he drove away. I stared up at the house waiting for me. I swallowed once, squared my shoulders, and marched inside with bag in tow. Walking through the front door cautiously, I padded down the dark hall straight to the kitchen. I reviewed the floor plan in my head as I turned left and found the light switch.
Unpacking my bag near the sink, I methodically began the arduous process of refitting pipe. Sweat was already dripping from my brow as I strained to listen over the noise for any sounds of the homeowners returning early. What if Vance had set me up to take all the blame? My hands spasmed in fear. Roughly, I shook my head to focus on the job at hand. Kitchen sink first, then the lines to the refrigerator and water filter. I would do the bathroom sinks for good measure before heading downstairs to find the main water line.
The main water line! Leaping to my feet and dropping my tools just as the first spray of water started to leak out of the pipe, I rushed to the basement. Where was it? Frantically, I found the valve and slammed it off. Panting, I surveyed all the piping in the basement. An impossible task. Chest tight, I rushed back to the kitchen to finish the first repair.
Soldering the fittings was an agonizingly slow process. The clock ticked by as the night deepened. Three fittings in the kitchen done. Guest bath done. There was unexpected extra work in the master bath. My shirt was soaked in sweat as I worked the fastest I’d ever done in my life, while compulsively searching every few seconds for signs of anyone at the doors or windows. I tried to block out what would happen if someone came home before I was done.
The piping in the basement was extensive and I knew I was running out of time. Picking the locations I knew would be key in an inspection, I went to work. Outside, the sky was starting to lighten in predawn. Blood roared in my ears as I frantically cut and soldered fittings to the pipes. My eyes burned with exhaustion and despite my best efforts, I knew I was slowing down. Three more fittings to mend. Suddenly, the roar of the electric garage door thundered through the house. Raised voices floated in from upstairs.
The muffled tread of footsteps on the floorboards broke the last of my nerves. Frantically, I gathered my tools. Up above, a woman’s voice exclaimed about the kitchen light being on. I rushed to clean up signs of my work as I scanned the basement for a way out. The window well! Cracking the small window open, I hauled my tool bag through the opening when I realized the water line was still shut off. Hands shaking, I scampered back to the switch just as the basement door creaked open.
Shadows filtered down the stairs and the first fateful footstep on the tread sounded as I turned the valve and dashed back towards my only exit. I didn’t pause, but launched through the small opening and scrabbled up the ribbed metal of the well. The sky above was light blue and gaining clarity with each moment. A man’s voice yelled as he entered the basement and caught a glimpse of my fleeing feet. I rolled onto the grass clutching my tools and shot to my feet running.
Vance pulled up when I was a mile down the street. “Get in kid,” he told me. I glared at him as I opened the passenger door. Leaning back against the headrest and sagging into the seat, I kept my eyes closed as I told him, “I’m never working for you again.”
Vance was quiet for several minutes as he continued to drive. “Guess you’re not keeping that house either then,” was all he finally replied. “Guess not,” I agreed.
We never spoke again. The strange breaking and entering case that made the local newspaper was never solved. The homeowners reported nothing stolen and admitted they must have forgotten to lock the front door. The wife had been sick with cadmium poisoning from cigarette smoke, so they must have been distracted.
Months later, from the comfort of my new Country Cottage, I watched the local news unfold. “An anonymous tip has led police to uncover a sensational case,” the newscaster informed the audience, “A local real estate agent was arrested yesterday for working with Creative Construction Incorporated, who has been found guilty of stealing blueprints from another area home builder.” I grinned at the television and clicked it off as the phone rang. “Hey Billy! Got a job that needs a quick turnaround, you up for it?” Brian asked, “You’re the fastest plumber around!”