Steve hefted the last bag of flour onto the shelf and adjusted it to line up with the others. When he was satisfied he stretched and tried to work the kink out of his back. His spine popped a few times and he sighed.
The stock cart was empty, so he pushed it out of the aisle and into the back room. The store wasn’t very large, just a few aisles of groceries, a small back room, and one cash register. The two owners were the only full time employees. Steve was one of two part time workers. The pay was mediocre, the work was easy, and the location was secluded. Exactly what he needed, nothing flashy, nothing that would attract too much attention.
“Mary, mind if I take my lunch?”
The woman at the register nodded and waved him out, so he grabbed his bag and went out the back door.
He had just bit into a sandwich when he noticed someone approaching down the alleyway. An older man, athletic, maybe fifty, hair shaved to stubble, well fitted clean black suit and well worn boots. Groundpounder with a promotion, or big wig slumming it? He triggered every cop detection instinct that Steve had. His right arm was held slightly further away from his body than natural, reflex left over from wearing a holster? Each step he took was measured, efficient, and balanced.
A last quick bite of the sandwich to conceal a series of covert glances in all other directions. An unremarkable car was parked on the other side of the alley, directly underneath the ‘No Parking’ sign. The windows were tinted but he could see the faint outline of the occupants. What a coincidence. The door back into the store was an option, but Steve suspected there would be someone waiting in there as well. Better to deal with the one out here than a potential group in the store.
“Evening.” The man said as he stopped about fifteen feet away.
“Something I can do for you?” Steve set the sandwich aside, something told him that he would not be able to enjoy the rest of it.
“As a matter of fact, yes. I have a proposition for you.”
“My name is Blaithe Baggwell, and I want to hire you.”
“I have a job, speaking of which my break is almost over.”
“Not this,” he waved towards the store. “I’m talking about a real job. I’ve got work for you.”
“What work? I’m qualified for a surprising variety of menial tasks.”
“Let’s not play these games. Are you available to discuss terms, or not?”
“Sure, why not? Some other time, I’ve got to get back inside.”
Blaithe’s hand reached into his jacket, and Steve’s blood rocketed through his veins like lightning. The man held out a white business card.
“If you want the job, come to this location and we can formalize the agreement.” Blaithe smiled, and it was grim sight. “I think you’ll appreciate what I have in mind.”
Steve accepted the card, wary for the classic bait and switch that would leave him wearing a handcuff. It never came. He pocketed the card without looking at it and tossed the remnants of his sandwich into the garbage.
On the way back into the store Steve saw an imposing man, wearing a similar suit that did very little to conceal his physique, leaving through the front. The doorway was built for mortal men, so he had to turn sideways to fit his massive shoulders through the door. He spared a glance at Steve, dead eyes that saw nothing worthy of concern. Definitely not cop eyes.
“What the hell is with these people?” Even as he said it, a grin was forming. He’d go to this meeting, he could use a little fun.
Saint Street had once been known for its churches and funeral homes and museums. These days the churches had turned to working full time to support the homeless and transient, who in turn kept the funeral homes busy. The circle of life in all its wretched glory.
The downward spiral of the economy had resulted in many vacant buildings. Blaithe had arranged his meeting in the husk of an old video store. The side door was unlocked, as his card had mentioned.
Steve approached the door cautiously, heart beating quickly with anticipation. In the distance dark shadows slumped in doorways and awnings. Possible watchers, but it was unclear if that would be a good thing. He resisted the urge to check his knife.
The door opened with only a faint creak, revealing the dim light shining from an interior room. Steve chuckled a bit as he walked into the room marked ‘Adult Only’. A few old posters for adult movies remained on the walls. Blaithe was leaning against the wall, examining an old VHS dust cover. A black briefcase stood on the floor next to him.
“I like your office.”
“I try to keep things informal. Shall we talk?”
“I am in need of trustworthy employees, of which you would be first. If you accept, you will oversee the other members of the team. I will supply you with the necessary equipment and training.”
“I’m…not much of a leader. I don’t really do the whole human resources thing.”
“I don’t need bureaucrats, I need warriors. Leading from the front, not tied to a desk. Your strength will do quite well in that capacity.”
“How many in this team, what backgrounds, what duration for the job, and what pay?”
“Four other permanent members, a few temporary additions as the situation requires. I will allow you to oversee the selection of the others from my recommendations to ensure a functional group. “Depending on how several factors play out this job could last up to five years, minimum of two. All living expenses will be covered by myself, transportation will be provided, and forty percent of all gains will be distributed among your team. Fifty thousand starting wage.”
“It’s a start.” Steve pondered it, it was a lucrative offer. Almost too good, considering the potential gains depending on the jobs they would be doing. “Why two to five years?”
“My estimations are based on the relative experience of the others and how long it will train them to a suitable level. A maximum timeframe of five years because if we aren’t successful by then we’ll all be dead.”
Steve blinked, “Care to elaborate? Dead how?”
“The exact methods are unknown, and ultimately don’t really matter. Dead is dead. The Harbingers have arrived.”
“Let me get this straight; the Harbingers of the Apocalypse? The same ones conspiracy theorists have been losing their shit about for the last fifty years? The same ones who have never had a confirmed sighting or any definite proof of their existence?”
“Yes, them. I cannot reveal my source, I hope you understand.”
‘Great, another end times nutjob’, Steve thought. Damn would the old man be disappointed when the world kept spinning, like it had after the countless other doomsday prophecies. Still, in the mean time Steve would be happy to take his money. It might even be fun.
“Sixty thousand annually, ten thousand up front.”
“Acceptable.” Blaithe opened his briefcase, withdrawing a handful of file folders. “These are my other possible candidates, for your appraisal.
Steve took the folders and quickly glanced through them. The initial impression was the complete lack of established powers, no big names for anything important. Amateur hour. Nonetheless, good choices aside from the fact that they were just as likely to kill him as anyone else. One caught his eye, because he knew her personally.
“Wait a fucking minute. You want Katherine Red on the team? You do realize she’s completely crazy, right?”
“I feel that with the right leadership she can be controlled. We will need powerful combatants.”
“Have you heard about our past together? She almost ripped out my eye with her fingers!” Steve pointed at the scars around his right eye.
“I am aware, and my observation has led me to believe that Ms. Red will be manageable under a leader she respects.”
“Respect? You think she respects me? She beat my ass into the ground. I was in the hospital for a month, I was dead for like two hours.”
“You’re alive now, and that’s what is important. Ms. Red is, as you said, lacking control, and I have a feeling that you were holding back. Were you not?”
“Of course I was holding back, it’s a pit fight not a fight to the the death. Not like that changed anything for her.”
Katherine Red was a formidable fighter, biting and clawing her way around the lower ranks of the pit fighting circuit. Sometimes literally, as Steve’s face had experienced first hand. She had the raw power to make it big, but she was a loose cannon. The more she was hurt the faster she healed. The stronger she became the more uncontrollable she was. It became a vicious cycle of rage and violence. She was a liability, a major one.
Blaithe crossed his arms, “If you do not think she’s a good choice, there are others we can choose.”
“Hell, I’d rather be behind her than in front of her. Maybe this whole Harbinger thing will appeal to her sense of crazy.”
Steve recognized one of the other recruits, but only through rumours.
“Ghoul is in the game? I’ll be honest here, no way I’m going into the dead zone to pull his creepy ass out.” Word had been circulating for years about a boy who lived in the dead zone, the poisonous and toxic and radioactive wasteland left over in the charred rubble of the neighbouring city. The zone was all that was left of the old city, which had been a thriving metropolis until one of the Forerunners appeared and tore through it. The world had fought back, winning the battle but losing the city in the process. Some parts still burned almost twenty years later. If the stories were true, Ghoul had grown up in there, where even heroes feared to go. A child running around naked and eating rotting corpses and garbage, not even paying attention to the fact that the entire place was one big deathtrap designed to kill a monster that could destroy cities. If the stories were true, the kid was as close to immortal as could be found, the downside was that no one could get to him in the dead zone. About fifteen years ago he had come out, been adopted by some Chinese folk. The family was dead by the end of the week, poisoned by some toxin he had brought with him, and Ghoul ran back into the dead zone. No one really wanted to go in and get him out. After all, you wouldn’t want someone like him angry at you, not if you had to live on the same planet. Powers on the scale of his tended to come in packages, though he had only displayed supreme resistance, no one really wanted to find out if he could also create radiation by rubbing his hands together. For all that he wasn’t a credible threat to most people since he spent all his time living in his own private city, he was a tourist attraction.
“He came out a few years ago, with proper decontamination protocols this time. He lives over in Greenshire.”
“Huh? Bit posh for a dumpster diving naked kid.”
“I’m told he wears pants these days.”
“How do you plan to get him to join up?”
“I know who his father is. His birth parents.”
“Yeah, that’d do it. Care to share?”
“You can ask him after he joins. He is our first priority, others have learned of him and are after him. We need to find him first.”
“When do you want to get him?”
“Just the two of us?”
“My associates will be accompanying us, they will meet us at the car.” Blaithe looked at his watch, “We should get moving. I want to show you the office tonight.”
The two left the video store, parked outside was a nondescript sedan. An elderly looking black man in the driver’s seat, and a young Asian man in the passenger’s seat. Blaithe and Steve got into the back.
“This is Oak driving, and that is Yew. They will be accompanying us tomorrow.” The two men looked back and nodded. Yew smiled in a friendly manner. Oak started to drive.
“The gentle giant who was in the store yesterday, he one of yours?”
“Ah, that would be Mahogany. I would have brought him along for an introduction but he disagrees with vehicles, and keeps a busy schedule.”
“I can imagine. So where is this office?”
“It’s on Wood Street, we’ll be there shortly.”
“I’m sensing a trend.”
“It was outside my control.” Blaithe sighed.
“So, why delay on picking up Ghoul? You have a pretty solid hook.”
“Ah. His exact location right now is unknown, however I know where he will be tomorrow. That’s our only opportunity. Going door to door in Greenshire is not really a viable plan.”
A few minutes later the car stopped in front of an old three storey office building. It was built in a utilitarian style, grey cement with only a few narrow windows covered with metal grilles. Oak used a remote on the rear view mirror to open a bay door and reveal a ramp leading down into an underground parking lot.
The interior was a testament to paranoid Cold War architecture, barren concrete laid thick and reinforced with steel rebar.
The parking garage was empty other than a white panel van occupying one parking stall near the stairs in the southeast corner, and a collection of cardboard boxes beside it.
“How many people in this operation of yours?”
“At the moment, you and I. Oak, Yew, and Mahogany are only helping out until we get more members on the team.”
“Do you own the building?”
“Yes, bought and paid for long ago. The vehicles are mine as well. I–” Blaithe was cut off as his phone rang, he swore quietly and got out of the car before it stopped completely. “Excuse me, I need to take this call. Yew will be able to show you around.” With that he went over to the far corner of the garage to talk in privacy.
The rest of them got out of the car, with Yew motioning towards the stairs.
“Welcome to Yew Scenic tours, I will be your guide this evening. It’s nice to meet you, the old man was starting to get grouchy all by himself.”
“Yeah, good to be here. Steve, though I suppose you already know who I am.”
“A bit, mostly just what we heard around town. Still, it’s good to have an introduction. This lovely area is the parking garage. First floor is mostly storage right now, going to be setting up the kitchen and some meeting rooms soon. Second floor is being set up as a gym and armoury.
Third floor is living quarters: five bedrooms, washrooms, and showers as well.
“Pretty big place for a team of five and the boss. Anyone else going to be living here?”
“Maybe. B’s got a lot of plans, too many for me to keep track of. Oak and I will be in and out for a few weeks until we get the renovations done.
“Right. So what’s your take on this whole Harbinger thing?”
“Well, it sounds crazy, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He may be a little strange, but he’s right more often than he’s wrong. All I can say is that something’s going to happen. Maybe the Harbingers, maybe something else, but if the old man think’s it’s coming then the smart bet is to get ready.”
“Can’t argue with that. How do you guys know each other?”
Yew grimaced, “Co-workers, of a sort. Oak knows him best, I only caught the tail end of it. They worked together a lot ’bout ten years ago, doing some swashbuckling off the map.”
“The tree names, those assigned?”
“Yeah, non-disclosure, confidentiality, et cetera. No carry on baggage allowed on company time, in-flight peanuts will be provided.”
“What jobs do you do?”
“Sightseeing tours. Birdwatching. Babysitting. The Forest does it all.”
“Don’t think I’ve ever heard of any Forest before.”
“It’s a bit of an old boys club, friends of friends and all that. Don’t do much domestic work, but Blaithe pulled some favours.”
The two had reached the second floor, and Yew indicated a metal door with a biometric hand scanner mounted on the wall beside it.
“This is the armoury.” He scanned his hand and opened the door. Steve whistled appreciatively. The room was the size of his apartment, currently empty gun racks lined one wall, a stack of a dozen ammo cans huddled in the corner, and workbenches occupied the other two walls. A group of eight lockers stood in the middle of the room with benches beside them. Ammunition components, not even opened yet, were stacked against the walls.
Overall the room was still fairly barren, but Steve knew enough to recognize multiple thousands of dollars of equipment was already inside.
“I thought you might like it. Now, if you come this way I’ll show you the rest of the place.” Yew had to drag Steve from the room.
The third floor was almost completely empty, with only one room furnished. While Steve was eyeing premium room choices, Yew’s cellphone beeped. He glanced at it, the nodded towards the stairs.
“That’s all for now, boss wants you in the garage. I need to get back to work and turn this house into a home.”
Blaithe’s briefcase was opened on the hood of the car, papers spread around. Steve glanced at them and shuddered.
“Indeed. This is your contract. Starting here is your terms of employment, there is your compensation package, including the ten thousand dollar advance. This is a list of horrible ways you will suffer if you break the contract. Standard stuff.”
The process of reading through the contract, signing and dating each part, and then digitizing it for transfer to the Corporation was a tedious but necessary one. Verbal promises were good and all, but when you were putting your life on the line it certainly helped to have written documentation with a third party to verify that your boss did actually agree to pay you, rather than merely stating you would get paid without specifying how or what or when.
The Corporation handled the storage and security of contracts, collecting a fee for their services, and acting as arbitrators for incidents of contract disputes. They take their duties very seriously.
When the paperwork was completed and both men had transferred their copies, the two traded contact information. Blaithe used his phone to send Steve the ten thousand dollars. In seconds the money had changed hands and transferred from one bank to the other. The days of trading briefcases of cash were long gone. Too many contractors had been robbed, or claimed to have been robbed, during the early days. Steve knew that quite well, it had been a good way to make a quick buck if you were desperate enough.
“That is all our business for today. Oak can give you a ride home if you require. We will be leaving to acquire Ghoul tomorrow at eighteen-hundred, be here at fourteen-hundred.”
“I’ll find my own way, thanks.”
Steve left the office and started walking down the sidewalk. After perhaps twenty minutes his phone chimed and he stopped to check it. A new email had just arrived, confirming his status as a Contractor, along with a copy of his Contract, and links to information pages about contractor conduct.
Excited, he pulled out his wallet to check his ID card. Underneath his name, in bottom left corner, was the word that he loved and hated so much. CONTRACTOR, in blood red capitals. Those desk jockeys in the corporation did good work, and the ability to wirelessly update ID cards had significantly reduced wait times. Unable to hide his grin, he pocketed his wallet again and set off with a bounce in his step. It was time to go shopping.
Looking around his small apartment, he saw his few possessions with new eyes. Bags of clothes and a few boxes, lying in the same spots they’d been in since he moved in over a year ago. The dust fallen thick on top of most of the furniture. Could he even say he lived here, or was this just a place between jobs? Clothes he unpacked only to set aside and repack because he always ended up wearing one of two duplicate outfits each week.
“What happened to my life? I got out, I had plans. Why did I think I could do this?” He asked the room. His reflection stared at him from the computer screen, it didn’t know either. “Guess it’s too late for that now. We’re back in the game.” As he turned away he spotted the reflection in the screen crack a sly grin.
Finally, on the last day he would be here, he opened one of his boxes. Dust danced into the air, swirling in time with their ceiling fan. Even beneath the scent of dust he could smell the sour old sweat and the earthy mud. Underneath it all was the old synthetic smell of lubricant and solvent and the fleeting stench of old blood that lingered even after being scrubbed away. He brought a bundle of cloth to his nose and inhaled,
“Smells like home.”