This my entry to the NYCMidnight 2013 Short Story Competition, Round 1. Here were my given criteria:
-Subject: A Motorcycle Gang
-Character: A Telemarketer
Maximum words, 2,500. I managed to finish this at 2,492 (according to Microsoft Word count).
Brad wasn't getting very far at the insurance agency and he knew it, but times were tough. Times had been tough for six years since he landed the job as a keyer for data entry at MegaCareSurance. The world outside his cubicle seemed to fall and rise and fall again as the NASDAQ continued its roller coaster ride.
To reduce the mundanity every day, Brad maintained a habit of listening to the previous evening’s news each morning. Yesterday’s scoop was the same old media hype; another Right senator coming out of the closet, some corporation getting sued for malpractice, a gang of motorcycle enthusiasts being mass-tried and mass convicted. Brad had flipped off the radio, bored.
The shift began as usual at 5:59am. Whatever morning sunlight that would usually peek between blinders was masked out by gray clouds and stubborn sleet. Christ, it was April already, he thought to himself as he typed at his cubicle. Goddamn El Niño.
Breaktime could not have come a moment sooner. Brad rose from his creaky desk chair with a volcanic lunge and surveyed the sea of honeycomb cubicles around him. In all directions, other keyers rose from their seats about the room, their heads popping into view like an corporate-themed session of whack-a-mole.
He made his way to his locker where he kept his usual lunch, and after that Brad took his usual seat in the breakroom. Brad wasn't much of a socialite; in fact he preferred the company of computers, or at least people who didn’t work at the insurance firm. He sat alone at lunch, as usual.
Then entered the only person in the company whom Brad had any genuine respect. Outwardly, he was always courteous to his co-workers and superiors, but inwardly Brad harbored no love for his company or the people in it. In fact he hated everyone, that is, with the exception of Justin.
Justin was a telemarketer for MegaCareSurance, the kind that everyone believed had a special circle in hell waiting for them. But not only was Justin persistent, he was effective. He was the only person in MegaCareSurance history to hold an unbroken track record for successful calls. As for customer complaints, Justin never failed to calm the fury of an irate caller, and in some cases he had actually convinced them to pay more. Rumor had it that he’d been a big time operator from a rival company that MegaCareSurance had acquired during the corporation's more aggressive days. Other folks simply settled on the theory that the man sold his soul to the devil.
"Afternoon, Brad," said Justin after he had greeted the small crowd of lunchers when he entered the room.
"Justin," Brad replied. That was often the extent of their conversations, and then the extroverted Justin would mingle on towards someone else more important. But to Brad's surprise, the telemarketer sat across from him at his tiny table and took a bite of his BLT.
"I heard you're good with computers,” he said without preamble.
Brad's face warped into a smirk. If by good, you mean able to rewire his apartment complex's cabling to provide free, unlimited internet to himself and anyone else he chose halfway across the planet, then yes. If by good, you mean having established and maintained a series of websites dedicated solely to the minutiae of various pop stars' Twitter accounts, then yes.
"I'm pretty decent," he said instead.
"I heard better than decent. Ever get to see the Ingrid?" Brad froze as the color drained from his face, and it was Justin’s turn to smirk. Realization seemed to form in both their eyes, and Brad supposed that the telemarketer held such an expression whenever he had conned or cornered a customer into submission.
"We ought to hang out sometime," said Justin. "See you round, Brad. Have the rest of my lunch." And with that he left, taking only his sandwich. Brad would've said something but for the paralysis; a cold sweat had formed on his skin and once Justin was out of sight, he let out a breath, realizing he'd been holding it in without knowing.
Brad couldn't finish his lunch. Not now. Brad's mind raced and it was all he could do to keep from panicking and having his other coworkers notice his distress. He sat at his seat, the wheels turning in his mind like one of those French statue-people that so creeped him out. It wasn't until after everyone else had left the lunchroom that Brad saw the clock, and he swore. Without thinking, he grabbed Justin's lunch bag and raced back to his cubicle.
He continued the rest of his day diligently, keying insurance claims like the hundred other meerkats around him. Brad hated it here, surrounded by cubicles and the cacaphonic sea of fingers pressing buttons. If only he were off probation, he might've gotten something better. Especially with his credentials...
He absently kicked Justin's lunch bag, realizing for the first time something very unfoodlike within. The end of the day came, and by the time Brad had logged off, Justin was nowhere to be seen. There was a flurry of talking and people rising or taking their seats, as there always was between shifts. Punching out at 2:31pm, Brad left the building and walked to the parking lot, trying his hardest not to run.
Once in the car, he breathed a sigh, but he felt anything but safe. How could Justin of all people know about Ingrid? No one spoke about Ingrid outside the most secretive, encrypted forums. It was the codename of an experimental piece of software that only very enlightened techies would ever know about - Brad should know. He wrote the program.
It had been such a thrill; cracking the source code, reassembling it in his own image. But sadly his joy was short-lived, for he learned shortly afterward that the federal government did not share his amusement. A shame, Brad grimaced to himself. He was an artist, and true artists are never satisfied with their work.
An abrupt digital tone startled him. He looked to the bag, seeing it vibrate. Reaching inside, he produced an old clamshell cell phone. He waited another ring, then flipped it open.
"Took you long enough." The man's voice on the other side was deep with distoration.
"Who is this?" Brad demanded. "Is that you Justin? Tell me why I shouldn't hang up right now."
"One word: Ingrid."
He should've guessed. Brad had named that fatal software after his crush from the second grade. Now he hated the name.
"What do you want?" he said.
"It's not I want, Mr. YodaKiller, but what you want," said the voice. Brad was amazed, they even used his old hacker name. "The way we see it, you want out. But we require your expertise."
"Out of what?"
"You want out of this job, this town, this life. We can help." Brad saw no reason to be evasive. They knew his old alias as well as his magnum opus. What else could they know? Or do?
"I'm listening," he said.
"Perhaps you heard today's news," drawled the voice. "A gang of thirteen motorcyclists was mass-tried and mass-convicted. But my employer knows that one of them carries a natural antibody to Leukemia. My employer would see the man recovered for...medical research, before they are lost to us. You understand the stakes." Brad paused before answering.
"Where do I fit into this?"
"Ah, you made it!" called a familiar voice.
Brad had no difficulty finding the place, though nobody asked. Getting into the warehouse, on the other hand, wasn't easy. The windows were boarded up and most of the doors were bolted shut. The room was largely empty but for a few immaculately setup work tables and whiteboards, and sound carried far into the open space. Even as Brad had entered the warehouse, he heard the men's voices die away long after they had stopped speaking.
There were three other people, and one approached Brad with wide-stretched arms. It was Justin.
"Finally," said a man leaning against a wall with tattooed arms crossed. “We can get on with it.”
“Don’t mind Jackal,” Justin said to Brad as they approached. The one called Jackal, by any Joe's standards, was tall and thickly muscled, but compared to Brad he was enormous. “They haven’t been waiting long.”
“Psh, we’ve been waiting for hours,” said the other crank. Compared to Jackal, this man was short and compact, but radiated an air of confidence that was larger than he actually was. Brad recognized the type; this man was a cop - or at least used to be one. “Wolf, who’s the nerd?” It took a moment for Brad to realize he was speaking to Justin.
"Jackal, Coyote," said the telemarketer to the others before indicating Brad, "This is Dingo, the ‘nerd’ who makes this all possible." Brad whirled on him.
"Are you serious?" he said. The other two exchanged glances. “Dingo?”
"He's no Ozzie," said Jackal, laughing.
"Really-! Dingo, of all the choices-!"
"That's enough," said Justin, and he glared down at Brad with that same lupine gaze from back in the lunchroom. Brad still grimaced, but was compelled to keep it to himself.
"You each know why you're here," said Wolf, staring each of them in turn. Brad noticed that neither of the others could hold his gaze. "But none of you know why you're all here."
"We're here to drive something big," shrugged Jackal.
"We're here to see that no one sees you stealing it," sighed Coyote.
"And you want me to hack into someone's system?" asked Brad.
“You're all correct," said Wolf, smirking his famous smirk. "Tonight you learn the plan. Tomorrow we execute it. I need not remind you that walking away is out of the question." Brad remembered the unspoken threat that Wolf held over his head, and could only imagine what he could possibly have over these other men.
"The prisoners will be transported along this route," said Wolf. The men huddled around an immense map splayed over a table. "Once the vehicle is ours, we'll take them to the load zone, here. The operation should take less than 32 minutes."
"I can mask communications for up to 35," said Coyote. “Using this equipment, anyway.”
“And the gas’ll knock ‘em out in seconds, and last for at least an hour,” said Jackal.
"Doable. Questions so far?"
"Just one," said Brad. "Why now? What's the rush? Can't your ‘employer' work to spring them from prison somehow?" Jackal and Coyote exchanged unimpressed glances.
"Not that easy, Dingo. They'll have left the courthouse - after that, they're as good as lost because that's where the escort personnel are waiting. We'll lose any chance of catching them if they meet up with security."
“They’re wanted alive,” said Coyote. “Fat chance they’ll live if they make it to _that_ prison.”
“I knew the gang,” Jackal sniffed. “They’re tough, but not that tough.”
“We’re saving lives is all,” said Wolf, and again he smiled his hypnotizing grin.
Stopping the prison bus was not difficult; a simple blockade at a bridge was all it took to halt the vehicle. The moment the bus and its occupants were sedate, three black-clad men approached from behind the van, another from under the bridge.
“The gas certainly did the trick,” said Coyote.
"Input the video loop into the camera feeds," said Wolf, and Coyote worked his magic with his gadgets.
“Already done, chief. Like I said, I’m betting the brass’ll catch on in half an hour.”
The came upon the armored door of the bus, and Brad saw a computerized locking mechanism on the outside. It looked like something between a safelock and a credit card reader.
"All you, Dingo," Wolf said.
Brad carefully unscrewed the terminal and wired a handheld device to it. With a few dialed keys on a separate pad, the program booted, sifted and fell into place. A minute later the door of the van opened like a bank vault.
"That didn't look so hard," Jackal remarked.
"Try opening that without triggering the bus’s alarm or three GPS trackers, and we'll talk. Ingrid can open anything."
"We've got fifteen minutes," Coyote said, consulting his watch. "The scrambler-beacon will lead them to the van as a decoy. Let's go!” They quickly boarded the bus full of unconscious passengers and left the officers in their van. Wolf saw no need to kill the guards, and so they were left to awaken in utter confusion at the wheel of a strange vehicle.
With Jackal at the wheel, the team raced across the desert, following a path only Jackal could see. After a while, they could see the grounded chopper in the distance ahead. Coyote held a headset to his ear.
"The cops found the bus, boss," he said. "And they're coming after us. They see our dust trail."
"They're too late," Wolf grinned. And he was right. No sooner had they approached the giant cargo chopper than police cars in pursuit could be seen in the dusty horizon behind.
"Flying Fox, come in," said Coyote into his headset.
"This is Flying Fox,” buzzed the radio in his hand. “The Wolf Pack with you? Over.”
"Seriously?!" Brad exclaimed. "I could have been Fox! Flying Fox isn't even a dog, it's a goddamn bat--"
"Shut it, Dingo," Coyote shouted over the roar of the wind outside. Then into the mic he said, "Ready for pickup, over."
"Acknowledged,” crackled Flying Fox. “Welcome aboard, Wolf Pack.”
The bus sped over rocks and featureless desert, then slowed to crawl up the ramp and into the back of the chopper. The next minute Brad felt the lift of the bird, and the last thing he saw as the doors shut were the flashing lights of squad cars being left far, far behind.
“On behalf of PHeart Labs I thank you," said a suited man at his desk. Four black-clad men stood in a row before him, patiently. "You've done a great service in bringing those bikers to us."
“It was no trouble at all,” said the one called Wolf. The other dogs were still, as commanded.
“And on behalf of the company,” said the suited man, “I have been instructed to reward you. Truly, you did the job well.” He reached into a desk drawer.
Four quick, silenced gunshots, four fallen dogs. Blood soaked the tiled floor of the room in widening pools. The suited man rounded the desk and approached their bodies. The youngest cur, whose name the suited man did not care to remember, required a second shot, to the head. Then, the suited man left the room. Another man in a suit awaited him in the hallway.
"What became of the prisoners?" said the shooter, adjusting his tie.
"I'm told they were all killed."
"Pity. So there is no hope for a cure?"
"I'm afraid not, sir."