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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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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Chapter three...The Phantom Revealed

Preface: Daphne St. James has recruited her friend, Matt Harris, to help her counter the phantom. But, before Matt could change the cycle count program to screen part numbers not in the database, the phantom’s activities have captured the attention of Louis Smith the nasty Controller who delights in finding fault in other areas. Daffy has been summoned to his office and is unpleasantly surprised to find her boss, Donna Wright, also waiting for her.

“I attended the University of Michigan myself,” Louis Smith stated as he leaned back in his chair looking pleased with himself. “So I don’t know what they teach in those lesser schools. But I assume that somewhere along the line you learned that this…” he slid the cycle count audit report across the desk toward Daffy, “is far from the level of accuracy required to manage a factory.”

Daffy felt her anger rising at the characterization of her college as a “lesser school” but she refused to give Smith even that much control over her. He would not make her angry. And she would not even look at the audit report he had slid toward her. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of thinking he had made her aware of anything at all.

“Obviously you are referring to those non-existent part numbers on the cycle count audit report,” Daffy replied confidently. “I’m puzzled by them too. I should have left the programming of my cycle count system to the IT people. But Matt Harris is fixing it for me… he knows how important this sort of thing is to you so it is his top priority.”

The Controller was caught off guard by Daffy’s calm admission of responsibility and was visibly disappointed by the lack of verbal confrontation.

“Well, I’m certain Mr. Harris can indeed correct the error. In the future, please be aware that the MIS department does not have people idling about waiting to save the Materials department from its own mistakes. He does have other duties and before I hire someone to clean up after you folks…” he looked over to Donna Wright sitting on the couch against the wall. “I’m certain someone higher up will suggest to Mrs. Wright that she hire people who require less babysitting.”

“Oh, lighten up. Lou.” Donna Wright said calmly as she stood up and walked over to stand beside Daffy. “There’s no cost on those numbers so you aren’t impacted by this at all.”

Smith brightened. Perhaps he would get his fight after all.

“You see…this is why I asked you in here. To confirm my suspicion that you don’t get excited about anything until it’s a problem,” he said accusingly. “Perhaps you aren’t suited to this job. Your predecessor was a man… perhaps more attuned to the realities of the factory…”

Wright cut him off. “Every manager in the history of this company—before me—was a man and you didn’t like any of them either. If Big River Products is not running as smoothly as you would like, and you believe gender is the reason, then its obvious we need more women -- not one less.” Donna Wright had a talent for speaking forcefully without raising her voice. “When we screw up the Accounting department you will be justified in belittling us. Until then lay off. OK?” she ended with a smile.

Smith was enjoying this. “Its like you to assume the problem is limited but you don’t actually know that.” He leaned forward, “Its true those part numbers haven’t held a standard cost in years…”

Daffy reacted visibly. In years! These weren’t crazy part numbers. Of course… why had she not guessed it? They were old part numbers… an old numbering system.

Smith was still talking. “… but if you can make errors with numbers that precede the computer system, who knows what you are capable of with numbers easily accessible. Well you go back to sleep. If you mess things up more, I’ll let you know.”

Daffy and Donna Wright were in Wright’s office a few minutes later.

“In spite of the fact that he’s a shoo-in for the jerk-of-the-year award, Louis may have a point,“ Wright said. “Are you certain the error is limited to the appearance of these old numbers?”

Donna Wright had hired her and, although Daffy was not going to test her boss’s confidence in her by relating the story of the phantom, neither would she lie.

“No. I’m not certain how pervasive the problem is. But this is the only problem I’m aware of and Matt Harris can fix it.”

“That worries me,” her boss said furrowing her brow. “If you don’t know what causes a problem you can never be certain you’ve seen all the symptoms. Anyway…keep at it.”

“Thanks for supporting me, Donna. I’m glad you were there.” Daffy said in an attempt to end the conversation. She was anxious to talk to Sue DeCamp in engineering.

“No problem,” Wright said casually. “Besides, I hated his comment about Michigan and lesser schools.”

“What school did you attend?” Daffy asked wondering why she didn’t already know this.

“I attended Michigan just like Louis. I just hate it when some alumnus spreads the stereotype of U of M grads having a superiority complex.

A few minutes later, Daffy was sitting in front of Sue DeCamp, the sixtyish Engineering Secretary. DeCamp looked at the cycle count audit sheet for several seconds and then spoke with a hint of nostalgia in her voice. “It’s been years since we used that part numbering system. My first job was to assign part numbers to new parts. Now the computer just sequentially assigns them. But in the BC years – before computers – we used these significant part numbers. Every digit meant something.” Her pale blue eyes sparkled beneath her bifocals as she brushed a lock of pure white hair from in front of her lens.

“The first digit indicated which family of end items the part went into. The second indicated the process… stamping, machine, assemble. I don’t remember the rest except the last digit was the engineering change level.”

Daffy was unsure what significance there was to the fact that these part numbers were once active but she felt she was on the right path if she was ever to understand what was going on. Sure, Matt Harris could probably stop the phantom; but what was its motivation? Did ghosts have motives?

“Why was the old numbering system discarded?” Daffy asked trying to keep the conversation alive.

“Well, a significant part numbering system is unnecessarily complex once you have a computer,” DeCamp answered a bit surprised that Daffy had to ask such a question. “I mean, once you can just look up a part number in the database it tells you much more than any code within the part number itself. You can imagine how many fewer reporting errors we had in the shop when we changed from nine digits to five digits. Of course, we didn’t change the numbers for finished goods, There were too many catalogs out there with the old numbers and we didn’t want to confuse our customers. So we assigned the new numbers to components and new end items. We left the old end items alone so the last of these old numbers died out when those products were eventually discontinued.”

Daffy did not know what more she could learn and she was about to thank Sue DeCamp for the information when the friendly Engineering Secretary was again overcome with nostalgia.

“I remember poor Frank Predum. He was a Cycle Counter back in the early seventies. Frank had such a hard time trying to keep the on-hand balances correct for these old, error prone part numbers. And no one in manufacturing would agree to any transaction discipline at all. Things have improved a lot but it didn’t happen fast enough for old Frank. He died right on the job. We all thought the stress of the job killed him.”

Daffy felt a shiver flow through her. “Where did this Frank die?” she asked already certain of the answer.

“In the stockroom of the old downtown factory. The stockroom was in the basement. Someone found him the following day when the Payroll Clerk asked the Stockroom Supervisor why Frank hadn’t punched out the previous day. It was sad. Lots of folks didn’t care because Frank was a cranky man. But some of us knew he was stressed out because the Plant Manager always held Frank responsible for any on-hand balance error. But this Plant Manager wasn’t about to turn in scrap tickets daily and, if he had a good production day, he would hold some back from his production report and report it when he had a bad day. Lots of stuff like that… but it was always Frank’s fault when the part counts were messed up. You are lucky you don’t have to deal with what he did.”

Now it was coming together. Was Frank Predum’s ghost trying to cycle count the old stockroom as it existed forty years ago? But Predum never saw a computer. Could phantoms learn to hack about in a cycle count program”?

“There’s a picture of Frank Predum behind me,” DeCamp continued.

Daffy was lost in thought and nearly missed the statement. “What? Where?” Daffy asked standing up.

Sue DeCamp had the entire wall behind her covered with neatly framed photographs. “That one,” she said pointing to a black and white picture of a bowling team. “He’s the one to the right of the man holding the trophy.

Daffy put her face close enough to distinguish individual features. When she turned away a few seconds later the color had drained from her face and she looked distant and distracted. Sue DeCamp was startled by Daffy’s sudden change in appearance.

“Why dear,” she said with concern. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Next time --- chapter four: The Phantom Retaliates


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Chapter four...The Phantom Retaliates

Preface: Daphne St. James has learned that the strange part number, which resulted in her meeting the Phantom, was part of a discontinued numbering system. This had led to the identification of the phantom as Frank Predum, a Cycle Counter who died on the job about forty years ago. The Phantom’s activities have captured the attention of Louis Smith, the unpleasant Controller who delights in pointing out problems in other departments.

The next day, Daffy and Matt Harris were in Matt’s cubicle by 7am waiting for that day’s cycle count audit report that was usually available by 7:30. Daffy had related to Matt the series of events that had revealed the identity of the phantom.

“So the phantom is really Frank Predum – or was Frank Predum. Why do you suppose he’s waited “til now to cause trouble?”

Daffy was surprised Matt would ask that. “Because he never had a computer until I installed one in the old warehouse. The real question is how does someone who has been dead since the seventies operate a computer today."

Matt leaned back and put his feet up on the desk. “A more important question is, how will we MIS professionals maintain our mystique and outrageous salaries if it gets out that even dead guys can learn our trade.”

Daffy laughed for the first time since this whole thing began. “I promise never to tell,” she said. Then she added seriously, “I wonder if he is trapped her or something. I mean, if there is some form of life after death, why would someone hang around an old warehouse and count parts… if he had a choice I mean?”

“I’m not religious or philosophical enough to speculate on that,” Matt replied. “But whatever the circumstances, he won’t be entering those old part numbers again.”

Matt had added a pre-adjustment edit to Daffy’s program. No part number not in the database could be processed. He had activated this new feature moments after wiping out the phantom’s cycle count adjustments from the previous day.

“I suppose so,” Daffy replied. “But if we are so confident we’ve stopped him, why are we here early waiting for the audit report?”

The phone rang. It was Bernice in IT Operations informing Matt that the daily reports were available. This time, instead of bringing a whole stack of reports, Matt sorted through them in the computer room and returned with just the one they both anxious to see. His expression betrayed the fact that he had already looked at it.

“Oh no. Now what?” Daffy asked taking the report Matt handed her. All the old part numbers were adjusted to zero – Matt had done that. And there were no positive adjustments. The pre-entry edit had worked. But her joy was fleeting. At the bottom of the page were three other numbers – active part numbers – followed by negative adjustments. “Oh my God,” Daffy said. Her voice was flat, emotionless and stunned. “The phantom is now counting active part numbers.”

“Yes,” Matt added in the same expressionless tone. “And that means he is messing with the dollars.”

Daffy’s mind was desperately searching for a way out of this. “Well, he only adjusted three part numbers so Louis Smith won’t be alerted today anyway.” She was grasping for any control at all over the situation. “We have at least on full day to react.”

“And we can always remove the PC from the warehouse,” Matt added with hope creeping into his voice. “Of course, the phantom may reside in the program itself. Then we would have to disconnect the whole program.” The discouragement returned to his voice. “Maybe it resides in the computer instead of the program. If that’s the case, even making cycle count adjustments via the miscellaneous inventory adjustment feature would not stop him.”

“There must be a way around this, “Daffy said. “We are two computer literate people of the twenty first century and he is… was… a computer illiterate of the 1970s. I know we can beat him!” She was trying to pump some enthusiasm into both of them.

“Illiterate of computers?” Matt asked. “Hardly; this guy is a natural hacker. We can probably beat him but can we do it in time to save our jobs?”

“Our jobs?” Daffy thought. Hers was the only job in jeopardy yet Matt embraced the problem as if it were his own. What a wonderful guy. She wondered if he liked children and then forced herself to concentrate on the current predicament. And that brief distraction cleared her mind just enough for a new idea to come forward. It hit her with such impact that Daffy stood straight up, staring forward, with a look of delight on her face.

“What?” Matt asked realizing that Daffy was onto something. ”What is it?”

“Come by my cubicle at two this afternoon, “she said with a smile. “We’re going to the warehouse.”

Daffy worked through lunch doing some simple programming and making a single trip to the shop floor. She finished at 1:40, made a trip to the vending machine, and was happily finishing her lunch of M&Ms when Matt arrived at 2:00. He sat in her visitor’s chair looking apprehensive.

“Look,” he began uneasily. “If this trip is to prove you are braver than me… I acknowledge it right now. I don’t want to go to the warehouse.”

“Daffy leaned over the desk toward him. “If I’m right, we have nothing to fear,” she relied with a smile.

“And if you are wrong?”

“”Oh, a hideous death… damned for eternity to haunt an old warehouse… no possible hope for salvation.” Her smile was broad and confident and Matt found comfort in it.

“Well, as long as it’s nothing serious, I guess its OK.” Matt smiled weakly struggling to find some courage.

Daffy realized Matt was genuinely terrified yet he was going with her anyway. Was he, perhaps, afraid she might think less of him if he refused? Did he, perhaps, feel a desire to protect her? Daffy was independent and self-confident. She would never need a man to protect her but it would be purely wonderful if Matt Harris felt some male instinct along those lines… purely wonderful indeed.

A short time later, Daffy swung open the warehouse’s wooden doors that responded with their familiar creak. The afternoon light illuminated the area near the door. The rest of the warehouse was in shadows only partially dispelled when she turned on the inadequate overhead lights. Daffy and Matt stepped inside cautiously and Daffy felt it immediately. Something was waiting for her.

Convinced a brave demeanor would not impress the phantom, she nevertheless fought her rising fear for Matt’s sake. She walked purposefully to the computer and called up the cycle count adjustment screen.

“I’ll just correct the three part numbers the phantom adjusted yesterday,” she said to both Matt and her unseen observer. Daffy tapped away at the keyboard and again felt it subtly respond as if a living thing… an unhappy thing. She looked around quickly. There was nothing. Was Matt’s presence hindering it?

“Now I’ll go count these same three parts myself since our friend, the Phantom, apparently doesn’t know we keep a four-wall inventory.”

Matt was still standing by the computer as Daffy walked away into an aisle deep in shadows. She could observe him through spaces between the boxes. He was peering fearfully into the surrounding shadows… searching for form… searching for movement. Daffy admitted to herself that she was able to carry-on bravely only because Matt was there with her. She was brave both for him and because of him and she now understood what it meant to draw courage from another person.

“You see, Matt,” she continued loudly. “Any count taken at this warehouse must be added to the quantity on the factory floor. The total is what we compare to the computer’s on-hand balance. And we backflush from that total. That’s how a four-wall inventory system works.”

She saw Matt was now leaning on the computer table with both hands – barely able to stand – numb with fear. Daffy knew that he too could sense the nearing of something. The sense of it was growing steadily.             

“Just as I though!” Daffy said triumphantly as she finished counting the first of the three parts. “Our phantom made the adjustments based on the quantity on hand in just this warehouse. He doesn’t know we keep a four-wall inventory.” She paused. This was the pivotal moment.

“He always was responsible for screwing up the inventory records!” Daffy shouted.

Instantly there was a flicker of light several paces behind Matt. He saw the reflection in the computer screen and whirled around. The form of the Phantom did not consolidate slowly as it had previously. The image of an angry old man snapped into place and moved toward Matt.

“Oh my God,” Daffy blurted out breaking into a full run down the aisle. The aisle was at an angle to Matt’s position so she had to run away from him before she could turn the corner and run toward him.

Matt cried out in terror as the Phantom raised a grey fist and smashed it into his chest. He went down hard to the wooden floor.

“I’m going to be too late,” Daffy said to herself as she ran headlong toward Matt. The Phantom raised his fist to strike Matt again.

Next time --- chapter five: Daffy triumphs

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Chapter five: Daffy Triumphs

Preface… Daffy has brought Matt Harris to the warehouse where she hopes to confront the Phantom. She has an idea she has not shared with him. Daffy succeeds in bringing forth the Phantom that reacted violently by striking down Matt and, as Daffy rushes to help, the Phantom prepares to strike him again.

The Phantom smashed a grey fist into Matt a second time but, this time, the young man made no sound.

“Stop it! You’re killing him!” Daffy shouted. She had reached the table and, in a moment of inspiration, picked up the PC monitor and lifted it over her head. “Stop or I’ll smash the computer to pieces,” she said with icy calmness. Daffy stared at the grey form all fear drained out of her.

The Phantom took a step toward her its eyes full of hatred. Daffy lifted the monitor higher. “Stop it, Frank. If I destroy this you will be stuck here forever.”

The Phantom hesitated. Its enraged demeanor changed to resignation and it stared at Daffy waiting for her to make the next move. Matt Harris struggled to his feet all signs of fear gone. He stepped directly in front of the Phantom and looked it up and down before walking over to Daffy.

“You can put the monitor down. He can’t hurt us,” Matt said calmly taking it from Daffy and setting it back onto the table.

“I thought he had hurt you,” Daffy said relieved. “Maybe even killed you.”

“No. And it’s a good thing for him because, if I were suddenly part of his spirit world, I’d kick his vaporous ass ‘til he’d think he had been reincarnated as a soccer ball”. Matt was calm but angry. “When he hit me it was like being stabbed with an icicle… cold and frightening… until I realized that’s all it was. He can’t hurt us.”

Daffy returned her attention to the Phantom standing in front of her beaten and defeated. “You’re stuck here aren’t you?” she asked. Her tone was now compassionate. “You have an unresolved conflict. You never received any respect or had any success as a Cycle Counter and can’t move on until this is resolved.”

The Phantom’s expression changed to desperate hopefulness as if there was a thread of hope where none had existed.

Daffy pressed on. “When I installed the computer you watched, learned and began to hack your way to knowledge of my program. You saw an opportunity to become an excellent Cycle Counter and, perhaps, escape this fate. But you did not understand that we used a four-wall inventory system. When you were counting old part numbers you were a puzzle and an inconvenience but, when you began counting active parts, you became dangerous.”

The Phantom’s expression was openly hopeful and Daffy knew she was correct on every point.

“I can help you,” Daffy said with a smile.

“Huh?” Matt was surprised that the goal had changed from stopping the Phantom to helping him.

“Earlier today I set all these part numbers up…” she motioned to the entire warehouse with the wave of her arm, “as a separate location called WRHS… for “warehouse.” When I deliver parts to the factory, I will issue them to a backflush location called FCTY… for “factory.” By maintaining a separate on-hand balance for this warehouse and separating it from the backflush location, you can cycle count this warehouse as often - and as long - as you wish as long as you adjust only the WRHS location.”

Matt Harris’ jaw dropped at the brilliance of Daffy’s solution. “Of course,” he said with surprise and pleasure. “Old Frank gets to work out his hang-ups, you get a dedicated, full time Cycle Counter for this warehouse, the overall inventory is unaffected and the only downside is that you have to generate issue transactions for parts you deliver to the factory.”

Daffy was impressed with Matt’s quick assessment of the situation. “And, since I won’t have to cycle count this warehouse any more, I’ll have time to spare even with the addition of those issue transactions.

Matt nodded. “Wow,” he said admiringly. “And none of this will provide ammunition for Louis Smith.”

The Phantom reacted to the name Louis Smith with an expression that revealed both fear and anger.

“Oh, you know him do you?” Matt asked as the realization of the facts slowly dawned on him. “Of course you do. Smith was probably my age when you died. I can imagine the delight he took rubbing your nose in variances over which you had no control.”

“He’s still with the company… he’s the Controller now”, Daffy added. “And he is as just nasty as you remember him. He’s in charge of IT too.”

“That means he’s my boss’ boss,” Matt said realizing the phantom was unlikely to recognize the term IT. “He is in charge of computer operations.”

The Phantom’s expression was now one of gratitude toward Daffy and, with Matt’s last statement, it turned to a triumphant smile. The grey form began to shift, features became indistinct and, shortly, there was only a grey mist that condensed into a narrow band. Matt and Daffy stepped apart as the grey mist flowed between them and settled into the slotted heat vents in the top of the PC monitor.

Daffy and Matt looked at each other. “I don’t like this,” Daffy said.

Matt smiled. “But it ought to be interesting.” He paused. “How about the Golden Dragon? Assuming you like Chinese food.” Matt could tell Daffy wasn’t following him. “It’s Friday. Remember asking me out for tonight?”

“Oh, yes,” Daffy said now remembering. “I love Chinese food.”

“So how does this work when the woman asks the man?” Matt asked teasingly. “Does the woman pay or does the guy always pay no matter what?”

“I asked so I’ll pay,” Daffy replied with a smile. She knew Matt was teasing her and she was enjoying it immensely.

She closed the creaky wooden doors and turned toward her car. Matt stopped her and without a word pulled her to him and enveloped her in his arms. They stood there embracing for a few moments. It was an embrace of affection mixed with the bonding that occurs naturally when two people have overcome an emotional trial. They held hands as they slowly walked toward the car.

For the next several months Daffy’s inventory system for the warehouse worked flawlessly. She received parts into the warehouse and issued them to the factory when removing them. In between, the Phantom cycle counted. And how he counted. Each day Daffy would check the audit sheet and be amazed at the quantity of counts performed… the “A” items every week, the “B” items every month, and the “C” items every quarter. When Louis Smith asked about the apparent obsessive focus on the warehouse inventory, Daffy explained she was just giving her new disciplines, and Matt’s programming, a meaningful test. Normally, Smith would not allow someone to get away with such a feeble answer but he was preoccupied with his own problem. A few weeks after Daffy’s deal with the Phantom, the paychecks of the company’s top people began to suffer serious errors. One time the decimal point was printed two spaces to the left. The next time, each check was for ten million dollars. Big River Products operated a “payroll A”. The salaries of the President, Vice- Presidents, department heads and key technical personnel were held in such confidence that only Louis Smith had access to the data and only he could instruct the computer to print these checks. At least in the past he had exclusive access. But for the past few paydays he had to write all the checks by hand because he could not figure out what had happened to his program. At the end of the year, he had to tell the President that, apparently through a computer error, too little tax had been withheld from these paychecks for the past several months and everyone on payroll A should expect to pay come tax time. A few days later, a terse announcement informed everyone that Louis Smith had retired. His replacement came from within and the ripples were felt at lower levels as Matt Harris was promoted to Systems Analyst.

Daffy’s abilities were also recognized as Donna Wright promoted her to the new position of Engineering Change Coordinator. Daffy asked to keep responsibility for the warehouse for awhile explaining that she was not yet prepared to teach it all to a new person. Donna Wright thought it strange that Daffy should worry about giving up responsibility for such a simple system but agreed anyway. She sensed that there was something going on that was better left alone.

In February, Daffy and Matt Harris were engaged to be married. The wedding was set for July… one year from the day of their first date.

After Louis Smith’s retirement, the quantity of cycle counts from the warehouse began to decrease. Then one day in March the daily audit sheet had no numbers just a brief message on the bottom. “Thank you and goodbye.”

Frank Predum, the Phantom, had found peace.  

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