Vengeance for All: Chapter Two Excerpt
Tony DeFacto had done a lot of bad things in his life in his quest for success and recognition. It eventually caught up and he paid a heavy price for his sins. The punishment failed to reform him and as he was now speeding up the entrance ramp leading to the road to ruin. He blamed his own bad luck for his current predicament and was determined to get back everything that he’d lost.
The top of the table he was sitting at was made of an unidentified material that he’d seen before. Some kind of vinyl, Formica maybe, that still survived– just like him. It was government-issued, paid for with tax dollars and specified to last forever. A sturdy, functional piece of furniture rendered in olive green with clean simple lines and a top that was now pock-marked, scraped, and scratched but still serving its purpose. He used to sit at tables topped with marble, exotic hardwoods or glass, cutting deals that made him a rich man. Now he was here trying to play two sides against the middle to get back to where he belonged.
The lighting was soft, cool white streaming down from a track of humming fluorescents attached to an acoustical tile, drop ceiling. More unsuspected survivors of the catastrophes that now defined life in the States. He jumped a little as the door to the room opened and the Fed walked in wearing what they all wore these days. White shirt, skinny tie, black jeans, sneakers and retro frame specs. He had an olive complexion, thick dark hair, prominent nose.
Tony resisted the urge to be a smart ass and tell him that he’d seen this same fashion look twice before in history and it now looked sillier than ever, but he kept his mouth shut. This loser across the table from him might have his ticket out of the nightmare.
He had a manila folder in his hand. He pulled the chair out, punched the glasses farther up his nose with a finger jab, sat down and said, “Thanks for waiting, do you want a water? We have some in bottles.”
“No. I’m good, thanks.”
“Okay, so obviously we both know why you’re here, but I still need to go over the parameters.”
“By joining The Program, you essentially become a ward of the Union which means you’ll be processed, evaluated, and assigned a job that is in line with your qualifications and skills. All your expenses will be vouchered including rent, transportation, meals, health care, and entertainment. Poor performance at work or failure to subscribe to social obligations means immediate expulsion from The Program and you’re back to where you are with no way back in. There aren’t any second chances.”
The Fed sat there and looked at him with a neutral expression on his triangular-shaped thirty-or-so face, waiting for a response.
This response wasn’t good enough. “Have any other thoughts or can you tell me why you’ve decided to go this route?”
The question seemed legitimate. He knew there’d be lots of questions. He’d heard about a long list of odd questions designed to figure out what box they were going to put you in. Test your intelligence, judge your allegiances; find out your true intentions. The questions would seem random, but they weren’t. He looked up and noticed a small surveillance camera suspended from a little metal arm looking down from one corner of the room, watching the proceedings. There wasn’t a red light on it but that didn’t mean anything. He assumed the room was bugged. Maybe a hidden microphone under the retro table. Maybe the Fed’s brass tie clip. It could be anywhere.
“Anything at all?”
He came back to the here and now. “I just want out of the rat race,” he said. “I’m tired of living on the edge of the world. I want to get back to the middle and look like a winner again.”
The Fed blinked once, gave quick head nod and said “I’m not sure this will make you a winner but it will help you from falling off the edge. Let’s try some questions.”
He opened the manila folder and pulled out papers stapled together and removed a black Skillcraft pen from his breast pocket. Another survivor checked in, the government-issued ink pen.
“Pen and paper, huh? You’d think they’d give you a better pen at least.”
The Fed gave him a tight smile and held the pen up, twisting it in the bland office space. “It is kind of retro, isn’t it? But in some ways the government is still the government. I like old things. You can learn a lot from history.”
Tony gave him a tight grin to make it look like he was enjoying the trip down memory lane. He assumed there would be an audio recording checked against these written responses and probably whatever the camera was recording. He tilted slightly in the chair trying to cheat the view of the electric eye and hoping the hair dye and beard removal would obscure his true identity.
The Fed punched his glasses and again and said, “First question. Do you believe the world is flat?”
Tony sat up, tilting his head further from the camera. “No, the world is round.”
The Fed checked a box.
“Can human beings control the weather?”
“Do aliens walk amongst us?”
“Do you believe jet airplanes are releasing mind controlling chemicals into the atmosphere?”
“Do you believe in God?”
“Has to be yes or no.”
“Do you belong to a church?”
“Do you own firearms?”
“Are you a member of a political party?”
Are you addicted to any drugs, including alcohol or nicotine?”
The questions weren’t that hard, but they were not what he was expecting. He was feeling anxious and felt a drip of sweat trickle down his back. What was the temperature in here? It probably wasn’t that hot. He needed to stay focused and win this round.
“Do you think gay people should be able to get married and have children?”
“Do you believe women should be paid the same wages as men for doing the same job?”
“Are white people naturally smarter than people of color?”
“Ever been convicted of a felony?”
“Have you ever killed anybody?”
He froze up. The new clean credentials were supposed to have wiped out every trace of his past. Everything was spic and span. Every speck of unflattering data, including credit reports, criminal records, name, past employment, aliases, ties to friends and enemies. And social media posts.
“You realize all these answers are fact checked and if you’re lying, you’re out. Correct?”
“Have you ever killed anybody? “No.”
The Fed cleared his throat, turned the pages over, clicked the pen and put it back in his pocket. The formal questions listed on the form were complete.
“What is your profession?”
This was where the lying would get harder. He’d done the homework, memorized the made-up facts and practiced saying them to himself in front of the mirror. He wondered if the Fed was trained in techniques that would detect lying. Were his pupils dilating? Was he squirming or touching his face? The slightest deviation in eye contact could mean something. Try not look away, he told himself. The cover story was supposed to play to his strengths and get him into The Program. Once he got in, he wouldn’t have to worry about the fairy tale back story.
“I’m a lawyer.”
The Fed’s eyebrows shot up, clearly not expecting this answer. “A lawyer? We shouldn’t have any trouble placing a lawyer.” He gave a short outburst of a laugh. “We use plenty of lawyers. What was your specialty?”
“Real estate. I’m a land use attorney.”
“And you can’t find work doing that now?”
He cleared his throat amazed to learn that there were still people like this. A guy totally insulated in a world that used to exist for everybody. A world of opportunities for the smart guys like him. And for the not-so-smart there were weekly salaries, health insurance, 401ks, two weeks paid vacations and time off at the holidays. It was like the Fed had no understanding of what it is was like for a guy like him to be living like a mortal. But it had been worse.
He shrugged, “Between the economy and the fact that nobody goes to the office anymore, the real estate industry isn’t what it used to be. There’s just not much use for what I do. There’s not enough work to go around and like I say, I’m tired of the struggle.”
“The Program isn’t going to make you a rich man. You understand that, right?”
“No, but at least I might be able to sleep at night.” He was playing along saying the right things, laying bricks onto the phony perception. The first round of interviews was complete and he was dismissed, with the Fed telling him, “We’ll let you know.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of his performance as he was freed to re-enter the shit show of present life. He walked back towards the train past two parks that had been taken over by the homeless. The second one was bigger and seemed to be better organized. A community fire pit had been built at the foot of a statue of a Union general that had been vandalized with stickers and spray paint.
He walked by rows of tents that had taken over all the parks and scraps of green space in the city. Some of the ad hoc communities had names and were ruled by citizen councils who tried to keep things civilized. Abandoned cars, most of them burned and unmovable blocked the streets around the park. For a while, the city tried to keep order but as the ranks of first responders fell there wasn’t enough left with the motivation to risk their lives over disputed patches of public land.
He walked by empty sidewalks and caught his reflection in a plate glass window that somehow hadn’t yet been boarded up or smashed in. His curly dark hair was dyed blonde along with his eyebrows which always caused him to wonder who was looking back at him. He was a shade under six feet tall, a slight belly hanging over his worn jeans belying the effects of no exercise and a lousy diet. He was 55 years old, his double nickel year being spent trying to start over, to get out, to get away, from the land of the lost.
He wondered if his dog and pony show had been convincing enough to fool the Fed. He had the same full cheeks and deep-set brown eyes he had as a kid back in New Jersey. If the camera was rigged for facial recognition, he’d be on an express train back to jail. The political turmoil in the country had knocked him off his perch but the sun still rose, pigeons strutted the sidewalks looking for bits of food, as the natural world went along its merry way. He reckoned the alleged higher life forms were the ones rendered clueless.
Getting into The Program was never his idea, but he had limited options. He’d thrown in with the previous administration because they were pro-business. His real profession was a real estate developer, where he worked with plenty of land use attorneys and lawyers. That was one part of the ruse he thought was clever. He knew how they sounded and acted.
While the other guys help political power he decided to take a few short cuts by making questionable contributions both campaign related, and otherwise. He eventually got caught along with thousands of others. They convicted him of conspiracy, bribery, wire fraud and a bunch of other stuff that ate him alive with fines and legal fees. The vehicular homicide charge was the one that put him over the edge. There was no way to come back from that.
His third wife left when the money stopped rolling in, his kids had stopped speaking to him years ago and there was no way a reputable bank would loan him any money for new ventures. Even the hard money guys stopped returning his calls after he was convicted.
He served thirty months at Camp Fed where he met the guy who put him onto the Colonel. A nameless, faceless voice on the phone that offered him a possibility for getting whole. He didn’t give a rat’s ass about the political dogma, but he could play along and say the right things. Mostly he just wanted his lifestyle back. The voice steered him into a new identity with clean records, his old life scrubbed from the internet.
They wanted him to infiltrate The Program and get a federal ID number, for all the good it was going to do them. In return he was promised some cash and a piece of whatever these bozos were cooking up. Take over the world or whatever it was supposed to be. Seemed like a long shot but he’d played those before and came out ahead.
He headed on foot down to the river and found a park bench that was still standing. There had been a hard rain the day before and the water was the cover of coffee with two creams. Assorted tree limbs and other unidentified lumps of darkness dotted the surface that danced in a light chop.
He pulled out the burner phone and called the memorized number.
“How did it go?” said the Colonel.
“Went fine, I think. Weird questions and the guy’s a total nerd.”
“That’s encouraging. It’s a first step, but an important one. Once we get you in and credentialed, we can move to the next level.”
“They had a camera on me. What happens if they figure out I’m not James Harland?”
“Don’t worry about the camera, our source tells us they aren’t used. Just trying to rattle you. With all this turmoil going on, it’s hard to know for sure who anybody is. Even the Feds are confused. You just stick to your script and keep on keeping on. What’s supposed to happen next?”
“They’re going to fact check today’s pack of lies and let me know.”
“Okay, we need to get off the line. The next meeting is at the regular spot, next Wednesday at seven. Don’t be late this time and you know what to do with the phone.”
“Yeah, I know,” he said, but the line was already dead. He pulled a half-smoked three-dollar cigar and a cheap butane lighter out his jacket pocket. He struggled to get the thing lit in the wind and cursed the acrid taste of a re-lit stogie. He stood up, wrapped his finger around the edge of the phone, reared back and flung it like a skipping stone into the brown, choppy waters. It skipped four times before disappearing beneath the muddy surface. “Go fuck yourself,” he said to the river. These numbskulls were as bad as the rest of them.