He stood rigidly to attention in front of the bridge, his helmet wedged firmly on his head, jacket securely fastened. His troops were lined up behind him in two ranks. Some had gashes, scars and grazes from past battles and were having trouble staying upright. He wondered how many of them would still be standing by the end of the day.
Turning for a final troop inspection, his eyes narrowed. Cone number 67 was sticking out of line. Worse, number 92 was already down, lying motionless on the cold, hard ground.
The foreman shook his head in annoyance. Setting up the two rows of cones on the bridge was critical to his ambush plan. He realised it had been a mistake to give the job to the acne-faced youth he’d taken on last week. Placing 112 orange cones in two rows along a 30m stretch of roadway was obviously a task beyond the talents of the hoodie-wearing, tattooed hunchback.
The foreman marched along the bridge. He tapped cone number 67 back into line with the toe of his boot; then gently lifted number 92 upright. He stood back, nodding with satisfaction as his eye traced an imaginary straight line to the horizon. Beyond the cones, stretching far into the distance, were sandbagged signs exactly 10 metres apart along both approaches to the bridge. He’d used every sign he could find at the depot. You couldn’t have too many warning signs on a main road.
Dave, his second-in-command, was holding a walkie-talkie at the far end of the bridge. He was watching a pukeko in the swamp below the bridge. The foreman had a $20 bet with Dave to see who could hold up the biggest queue of traffic for the longest time. Dave currently held the record – 36 vehicles held up for 17 minutes north of Clive, on Waitangi Day 2011. His own personal best was 27 vehicles, including five campervans, two buses and an ambulance.
The others in the gang were standing around the truck discussing an early smoko. They had been on the job since 6am, but the truck with the sandbags, cones and signs had arrived late, putting them under pressure.
The pimply youth was complaining that the cones weighed 1.5 kilos each and even though he was hopeless at maths – his specialty was drawing fantasy action figures – he reckoned he had carried the weight of a small family hatchback in the past quarter of an hour. He wanted to lie down. The tattooing assistant’s job he’d seen advertised at Gothic Graffix while he was getting a dragon tattooed on the back of his head would be better than this.
There was a rumble in the distance. All heads turned to the far end of the straight. A gleaming logging truck, clouds of diesel belching from its exhaust stacks, was thundering towards them.
The foreman was the first to react. His heart pounded as he sprinted to the truck and grabbed a sign on a pole. The truck was closing fast as he ran back to the front line. He waited until it was just 30m away, then raised his STOP sign.
For a second or two nothing happened, then the truck began slowing, its air brakes hissing furiously as it came to a shuddering halt just in front of him. The name Terminator was emblazoned across its bonnet in black lettering, its huge grille baring its chrome teeth in an angry snarl. He flinched as the hot breath of its radiator wafted across his face. The driver leaned out of the cab and looked at the raised STOP sign. Then he looked at the empty bridge ahead.
The foreman swung around and also surveyed the road behind him. He murmured into his walkie-talkie, distracting Dave from the pukeko. Then he reversed his sign. The truck driver said something but his words were drowned by the bellow of the engine. As his heavily laden truck crawled past the cones, he looked down at the workmen. Some were leaning against an empty truck. Two were using a Men At Work sign as a bench seat. A pimply-faced youth with a plastic helmet shielding his face was lying on the grass, apparently asleep. The truck driver checked his rearview mirrors. Six cones lay on the roadway in his wake. Two had been completely flattened by his trailer unit. He gave a satisfied grunt.
The foreman stared grimly at the fallen cones. Four of them might be saved, but nothing could be done for the two crushed bodies lying on the tarseal. Swallowing a lump in his throat, he resumed his position at the head of his orange army just as a silver Falcon, a Toyota ute, an electrician’s van and three hatchbacks roared into view. The charge of the commuters had started. He gripped his STOP sign firmly and began to raise it.
Behind him, the other workers were still staring at the logging truck disappearing down the road, its engine note rising and falling as the driver worked through multiple gear changes. “Man, cushy job driving one of those all day,” murmured the pimply youth. The others nodded.