Working the Program (Chapter 9)
His nose wrinkled at the stench of the locals as he passed by a squatters’ den to his left along the darkened corridor. Walking human filth, he thought, putting a hand over his nose and mouth, which were already obscured by the red bandana tied around his face. The fingerless woolen gloves offered a degree of muffling of the odor when pressed over his nose and mouth that the thin fabric of the bandana didn’t provide, yet still his eyes caught sight of the silhouettes of craven figures huddled together or cavorting wantonly in the derelict building’s chambers.
They’re a goddamned infection on this city, he mused, pausing beside another doorway, eyes fixed dead ahead down the corridor as he leaned slightly to his left, listening to the primal grunts of human fornication. Such depraved filth, carrying on like beasts in the wilds. Why do the police do nothing about these flophouses? Spiral City’s east side, predominantly poor and lowest-middle-class, had been the center of all manner of morbid fascinations over a few decades. The bottomless poverty and depravity of the local denizens was nigh-on legendary amongst the rest of the city’s populace, but instead of giving way to more affluent or stable middle-class suburbs as one got further from the city’s central hub to the east, instead, one could discover it deteriorating.
He had helped a little in that regard recently. The thought of it brought a sliver of a smile to him as he shifted his bulky blue goose-down jacket on his slender frame and shuffled off further down the corridor, making his way toward the basement stairwell access. Like several of the buildings on this city block, the one this man walked within was technically and legally condemned, slated for demolition sometime in the coming calendar year. Of course, it had been scheduled for such destruction for nearly five years before as well, but like many such things, it was tagged as ‘not urgent’ by the city council, and remained standing. Nobody in their right mind or sound mental or physical health or faculties would try to eke out a living in such a place, civilized folk thought, so why not leave it standing for another year?
“Because then these vermin scurry in,” the coated, bandana-masked man said, his voice a husky, gravely snarl like a rake being dragged over a loose stone driveway. “With their diseases and their rot, they fester away and spread their taint through the very air we share with them. No more, though,” he said, smiling toothily under his facial concealment, pushing open the thin metal door that opened upon the staircase leading down to the building’s basement level. “No more.”
With no electricity running through the building, all fell into absolute darkness after only a few steps, but he didn’t worry. He pulled off one of the gloves, pocketed it, and began his descent, a tiny, swirling ball of red and yellow flame blinking into life over the palm of his hand, providing both heat and light to guide him. Down he went, wrist cocked down to cup his flame, his other hand keeping him steady on the handrail.
He carried his Gift all the way down the stairs and through another door, the stench of mold and rotting framework cloying in the air around him. The Gift would take care of it all, as it had already begun to. He made his way along through a large, open space, waiting until he could feel the weight of the building centered directly overhead. Once there, he halted, snuffing the ball of rotating flame in his hand by pressing his palms flat together, as if in prayer.
He called out silently to the Gift, feeling its answer alight in his veins, coursing through his body. Yes, he thought, bring me the cleansing light. Work through me, and beautify my city by wiping clean this blight from its landscape. He pulled his hands slowly apart, a pulsing, crackling stream of flames streaming back and forth from palm to palm. He opened his eyes, tendrils of fire spilling from the rims of his sockets.
“Burn it clean,” he rasped, turning his hands around so that the fire streaked from his hands into the support beams and walls on either side of him, turning in a swift circle so that they lanced into everything in the basement level. “Burn it all,” he howled, throwing back his head as twin tubes of heat lanced into the ceiling above him.
And so the one named Burnout continued his work on behalf of the Gift, as the Gift worked on his.
Warren set his alarm and sat up on the bed, flipping open his laptop and firing up his newsfeed. An alert popped up right away of a live video being streamed from a local news channel, which he opened up right away. On screen, the cameraman had zoomed in on a raging building fire, while firefighters began deploying in the streets around the structure. Warren turned up his speakers quickly.
“-continues to blaze, seemingly out of control. The fire was first reported approximately twelve minutes ago, and there have already been, we’ve been told, several people who have escaped the structure by throwing themselves out of previously boarded-up windows on several floors,” a female on-scene reporter was saying off-camera. “Nobody has given us a statement yet about what caused this fire, but we will bring you more details throughout the night as we learn more. Back to you, Steven.”
Warren exited the window, but not before tagging the story to alert him to further updates via his email feed. Next, he headed over to GovTrack, where his notification tag showed a ‘3’ in a red circle. He clicked on the icon, which revealed that all three of his notices centered on the same tag; the Senate Bill he’d been tracking.
The first notice he opened informed him that the bill had been opened up to the general Senate assembly for discussion earlier that day, at approximately ten after three in the afternoon. The second notification informed him that at six o’clock in the evening, the bill had been tabled by request of one Senator Jacob Lattimore, who wished to take some time to draft an amendment to the bill. The final notification in his feed informed him that five minutes later, a vote was called upon by Lattimore, and he was unanimously given time to draft said amendment.
The bill had been stalled for the time being, and by something he hadn’t quite expected; everyday politics. He could almost feel good about it, but he’d never heard of Lattimore before. A swift bit of clicking brought him to Lattimore’s website. He was a junior Senator out of Colorado, only two years into his first term. Warren read off his bio quickly. “Thirty-nine years old, married, one daughter. No sponsored bills, no co-sponsored bills. Member of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, Homeland Security Council. Independent.”
Added to the bottom of his simple bio was a single line that sent a warning signal through Warren’s brain; Lattimer was also on the Senate’s Hero Action Committee Advisory Panel. He clicked on a hyperlink to an associated page, and began reading. After a few pages, he copied and e-mailed himself a number of excerpts from the Senator’s site, shut the laptop, and settled in to sleep.
He had to warn the group about Lattimer.
Warren had managed to make it through yet another mindless day of patrolling the mall, keeping an eye out for mischief makers and shoplifters, without much of note happening. His mind wasn’t entirely on his duties, truth be told; he was conserving his energies, mental and physical, for group later in the evening. Specifically, he was holding himself back in order to mentally prepare for how to approach the Doc with his concerns regarding Lattimer.
He practically ran home to get changed and make himself an easy but carb-heavy meal of spaghetti and meat sauce, which he shared with his father, eating like a starving predator in the wild. Conversation was minimal; neither Voss seemed to have much to say to the other for the time being. For Warren, this was ideal, and got him out of the house all the quicker to head to the high school.
He walked down to the corner and waited fifteen minutes for the next bus to come along, climbing aboard with a sense of urgency. He swiped his metro pass card through the reader, took a seat near the front, and kept his eyes locked on the floor between his feet. When he debarked twenty minutes later, he headed directly into a café, ordered himself a large coffee, and used it to down two more pills as he once more reviewed the e-mail he’d sent to himself.
The delay on the Senate bill vote had not been a mercy; it only meant the Colorado Senator was going to make it all that much worse in the interim.
Warren marched toward the school with a determination and stride that could and was easily mistaken by his fellow citizens as the stride of a soldier or Marine, a single-minded fixation on getting to where he was going that he might carry out some God-given duty. They weren’t far off, sofar as he was concerned. The others had to get themselves educated, and the Doc wasn’t helping.
When he arrived at the school, Warren found the rear entry doors into the gymnasium thankfully unlocked, and he ushered himself inside quickly. There was no sign of the tables or chairs having been brought out of the storage room, also good. It meant the Doc hadn’t shown up yet. Opting to keep himself busy, Warren headed to the storage room off to one side of the gym. He dragged the tables out and started setting them up against the wall, then retrieved the coffeemaker and plugged it in, preparing a pot. It was halfway through its roast cycle when he heard a throat clear behind him.
“Well, this is a pleasant surprise, Warren,” Doctor O’Donnell said, holding his file folio bag by its sling strap. “What brings you here ahead of schedule?” Warren pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and swiped it open to his e-mail before speaking.
“Doc, do you keep up much with politics,” he asked as an opening salvo, already knowing the answer.
“Yes, of course I do, Warren. It’s a bit of a hobby of mine, actually.”
“Then I’m sure you’ve heard about this bill that they brought up yesterday in the Senate? The Henchmen International Registration Act?” O’Donnell folded his hands together, the bag slipping down until it dangled in his grip. He looked away from Warren at the table, but nodded.
“Yes, I’ve been following it. It just came to the floor out of subcommittee last night.”
“Right. Well, they tabled it for now, so that amendments can be drafted. Specifically, a Senator called Lattimer asked that it be tabled. You read about that?”
“Oh, no, I watched it live on C-Span,” said the Doc with a cheerful smile, finally looking Warren in the eye again. “As I said, politics are a hobby of mine. I follow them very closely.”
“Well, maybe you should have a look at some of the things Lattimer’s had to say since he took office three years ago,” Warren said, offering the doctor his cell phone. The Doc adjusted his glasses, set his bag down, and took the phone, looking at the screen closely. “Those are just the quotes that sprang out at me the most from his website,” Warren said. After a minute, O’Donnell cleared his throat.
“Oh my,” he whispered.
“It doesn’t get any better. Lattimer’s a menace, and nobody seems to really understand just how dangerous he is. If he had his druthers, he’d see everybody in this program locked up or shot on sight. And he’s not big on second chances. That’s part of what he campaigned on in Colorado three years back, a ‘hard on crime’ line that played pretty big with the voters.” O’Donnell offered the phone back, and Warren pocketed it.
“That may be so, but what makes you bring it up, Warren? Are you having some issues with one of the steps? Are you worried they’ll end the program?”
“I’m worried they’re going to use it as a fishing net if they get the chance,” Warren snapped. “We all come here twice a week, like clockwork, Doc. And in case you didn’t notice, a lot of us are having problems dealing with this stuff. This gym could wind up becoming a barrel with a bunch of little fish swimming around, just waiting to be caught.”
“Now Warren, I assure you, I’ve had some good discussions with the administrators of this city’s HAC office,” the Doc said, trying to go for a placating tone. “They would never listen in on these meetings. That would violate certain rights and privileges you all still enjoy as private citizens.”
“Yeah, well, what if that’s exactly what Lattimer wants to change with whatever amendment he writes up,” Warren spat. “What if he wants to redefine our citizenship, or our rights if we get pinched? Everyday felons get a whole world of headache when they get released; you think it’s going to be any better for us? And don’t forget, Doc, you’re one of us.”
O’Donnell’s mouth pulled into a hard, thin straight line, locking eyes with the larger man. “I understand your concerns, Warren,” he said, his words unusually clipped. “But it’s beyond our control.”
“It doesn’t have to be,” Warren said. “You said you have an interest in politics. Any chance you have connections there too?” The Doc said nothing, but faintly nodded. “Reach out to them, then, see if they can find out what Lattimer is up to with this amendment business. Whatever it is he wants, I guarantee it’ll make a bad bill even worse.”
“I’ll make a few inquiries,” the Doc said, setting his bag down beside the table on which sat the coffeemaker. “Do us a favor and start bringing in the chairs. I have to go back out to my car to get the donuts.” Warren ducked back into the storage room and grabbed a couple of armloads of folding chairs, carrying them out and starting to set them up in the mid-sized circle for group.
The two men carefully avoided further exchanges until the first few early arrivals made their way into the gym, members who’d been among O’Donnell’s first foundational group. Roger showed up a few minutes after them, beckoning Warren over away from the others. Warren slipped over to him and cleared his throat.
“What’s up, Rog,” he whispered.
“Not much, War. Hey, my guy in the local HAC office, he says you and Zoey were chumming around together yesterday for a while. What’s going on with you and her? I thought you were putting distance between yourselves.”
“We were,” Warren said quietly, which was true enough in recent weeks. “But we’ve both been having a rough time of it. I needed someone else to talk to, someone who’d worked with the Zapper like I had, you know? Zoey and I, we’ve hung onto certain things.”
“How dangerous we talking here, Warren,” Roger asked.
“No weapons or anything like that,” Warren said. “Zoey’s been holding onto some jewelry and purses, high end stuff. And me,” Warren said, rubbing the back of his head awkwardly. “I’ve got a car in my dad’s garage that I haven’t gotten rid of yet. I bought it on the level, but with money I was paid out by command while I was working for Lesinski.”
Roger made a low noise in his throat, tugging at his short goatee thoughtfully. “The car’s something that you can’t easily offload. Truth be told, you should go ahead and put it on the road. As for the purses and whatnot for Zoey, if she bought them, I’d say the same thing. But if she stole them while pulling jobs, she should get rid of them. That’s my take on it, anyway,” Roger said.
“Seems like a weird distinction to make, but I’ll pass it along,” Warren said. He started setting up a few more chairs, and within twenty minutes, the group had come together, Zoey included. There was one absence, though, and it didn’t escape Warren’s notice; the kid who’d been so furious in the last meeting.
The Doc got things rolling, moving quickly through the Steps, then passing to his left. Roger stood up, cracked his neck, and grinned. “I’m Roger, and I was a command level henchman for Cyclonus back in the day,” he began, as he always did. “I’ve had a pretty decent job the last year, working construction for the Ryan Group. It was one of the only places that would take me on that paid worth a damn, so I jumped on it quick.” He looked around the group, hands in the pockets of his jeans. “But I was informed earlier today that I’m going to be one of about two dozen guys laid off at the end of next month. We’re going to be finishing up a couple of new houses on the north side of the city, then get cut loose. We’ve been told it’s going to be a temporary layoff, but I know a couple of the other guys being let go used to be in this group.”
“You think they’re targeting former henchmen,” one of the other women in the circle asked, her tone on the verge of terrified.
“I can’t say for sure. I don’t know all of the guys being let go, but I can ask around, take some notes,” Roger said. Warren, sensing an opening, shifted forward in his seat a little.
“If you couple that with the recently tabled Henchmen Registration Act in the Senate, you start to see a pretty grim picture. We can’t go back to that life, not any of us, especially with the HAC keeping tabs,” he said, sitting up straighter. “But we can definitely start keeping a record of events like this.”
“I’ve got plenty of time to build a document file for reference,” said Zoey. The group’s collective eyes turned to her, and she pulled out her cell phone. “Roger, do you mind typing what you just told us about into a blank note here on my phone? I can transfer it onto my laptop when I get home tonight after group.” Roger nodded, taking the offered phone and retaking his seat next to the Doc.
The next member of the group stood up, and shared his own update since the previous group meeting. He didn’t have much to add to Zoey’s new project, but did end up mentioning that he had been practically laughed out of an Army recruiter’s office just a couple of days earlier when he attempted to enlist. “I don’t get it,” the young man said. “I mean, I was just a foot soldier for Blue Bolt, the Chicago DA’s office barely slapped me with a couple of assault charges, and even those got dropped to criminal mischief with my signing up for the program. They cleared me to move out here, two states and then some away. How the hell come I can’t enlist?”
Zoey made a note of this, to Warren’s pleasure, and the ball got rolling.
Later that night, shortly after getting home from group, Warren hopped on his laptop. He was following a lead brought up by one of the guys at group, an observation that there didn’t seem to be many resources available to them all for new career training or opportunities. “Even hookers can find work online,” the fellow had said.
Warren headed to Craigslist, one of the Internet’s oldest and surest ways of getting access to less-than-reputable employment. Numerous lawsuits, criminal cases, and unsavory studies and reports had pummeled the site over the years, yet it endured, a veritable cyber-cockroach that would always be able to scurry just out of sight when the lights came on.
Warren clicked on the ‘Gigs’ section, then into the ‘Talent’ category. Most of the initial listings were barely concealed calls for prostitutes or amateur porn actresses, and a handful seemed to be looking for people who were, quote, ‘Good at identifying undercover types’. He scrolled past these, less and less hopeful as he went three pages deep.
However, on the fourth page, he came across a listing title that piqued his interest. ‘Capable men and women, able-bodied fighters preferred’. He clicked the hyperlink, which brought him to the full text listing. On the right side of the page was a photo of a man he instantly recognized from Fellowship; Raz.
‘Tired of barely scraping by? Want to contribute to something larger than yourself and get paid big bucks while doing it? Email me for details! Current or former ‘subordinates’ to the front of the line,’ the listing read, followed by a Craigslist proxy server email address for contact. Warren eased back into the pillows propped against his lower back in the bed.
“Son of a bitch,” he grumbled. The listing was nearly a month old, but he figured Raz would still be responding to anybody inquiring. He copied the page address, pasted it into an e-mail, and sent it off to Zoey with a quick note- ‘Our boy’s been busy’. He exited out of the listing, but kept trolling through the category. There were a couple of other suspiciously worded posts in this same vein, though none of them had a photo to boast a recruiter’s mug.
When all was said and done, Warren had a handwritten list of six email addresses to reach out to, possible recruiters looking to bring people into the hunching life. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with this information just yet, but he figured there was one way to reach a conclusion. “Time to reach out,” he mused aloud. “But not tonight.” He shut the laptop, set it under the bed, and slid down under the covers.
He still had to be up in the morning for his day job.