PART 1 - THE YELLOW MONSTER
the new driver?”
petite young girl scowled behind the desk. Her scowl said she didn’t believe he
was the new applicant—that maybe someone was playing a joke on her.
what they tell me.” Kyle wasn’t getting a warm fuzzy about this place. Too many
negatives. The chick’s attitude, for one thing. The olive drab wall behind her
reminded him of Army film clips. The paint job looked old—peeling in places,
bubbling in others. And the room’s musty smell took him back to the bathroom at
the State Home.
have a sheet?” Her large brown eyes zeroed
in on the thick tan folder he held in the crook of
a bunch of stuff.” At the Employment
Center they’d loaded him down with a
ton of papers, forms and leaflets. The fat man in the rumpled blue suit—“call me Ralph”—crammed even more crap in his folder after the
interview. A necessary evil, Ralph explained with a sly wink. “They live for paperwork. They’ll want your work history,
blood type, I.Q.—everything. It’s the Government
we’re talking about, Sonnet. They can’t function without it.”
girl forced a hand through her short black hair. He caught a whiff of lavender
perfume. At least there was something
positive about this place. The tiny reading glasses hanging by a black elastic
band above her small breasts shifted. She wore a watch with a plain black
leather band on one wrist, a tiny gold bracelet on the other.
sheet you filled out at the Employment Center.” She sounded bored. “I need form
thirty-three seventeen. It’s got all the information we’ll need for your
profile plus the results of your last physical.”
laid the folder on the counter, opened it, glanced at the top sheet and handed it over. She snatched it and squirmed onto
a metal stool, which squeaked like a baby mouse. The glasses were now balanced
on the tip of her small upturned nose. More lavender drifted in his direction.
He wondered if she ever smiled. He tried not to appear obvious studying her
breasts beneath her sleeveless tan shirt, but sometimes a man just had to give
in to his urges.
the report. Without
looking up she said,
“Sonnet. Kyle. Age eighteen. Your last known address was the Children’s Foster
Home of Pleasant Valley.”
know all that,” he said, grinning.
blank expression didn’t waver. “Where are you living now?”
is where the heart is.”
her dark eyes met his, they told him she was not amused.
obviously liked her men reserved and businesslike. He could be that way—at least
until she understood just how complex he was for his tender years. “They told
me I’d be staying here at the Station.”
blinked. “They already gave you the
called here during my interview. Someone here said I could start any time. The
sooner, the better. They said a Mr. Stoner okayed it.”
Stone hired you without an interview?”
stone?” Another not-so-warm fuzzy.
said you were desperate for drivers.”
“We’re desperate, all right. But that’s a real hoot, giving you the job without
references or a formal meeting. They mention salary?”
“They said Mister Stoner
would give me the details.”
the way, he’s a captain. You call him mister,
you might as well get yourself primed for one long, lousy day. The Stone’s a former
Marine. He headed up the
National Guard a few years back. His
unit was recalled during all that trouble with those
medical school closings. You heard
about those, didn’t you?”
recalled something like fifty closings that were covered on CNN. The National
Guard was called in to handle the rioting at the affected locations. The Guard
threw heavy nets at the crowd and used rubber bullets on the rioters. One
elderly woman whose apartment was teargassed fell from a third story window and
landed on a parked car. Two dozen people struck in the face with rubber bullets
were suing the police. Many deaths resulted from others being trampled or run
down by police vehicles.
Home has TVs all over the place,” he said. “Even in the bathrooms. Yeah, we
heard about the riots.”
people who sent you here. They tell you anything else?”
told me Mist—Captain—Stoner would give me the details. But they said it was a
County job, and the County pays top wages.”
it?” She sounded disappointed.
job’s a job. Money’s money, right?”
you’re talking about this job, some think it’s better to sponge off the State.”
wasn’t exactly your basic high-pressure salesman. His feeling that he hadn’t
made the right choice for a career move jumped up another notch.
know what this place is, don’t you?”
Department of Refuse Removal.”
what that means?”
removal. Bodies. Burial. It’s not exactly rocket science.”
girl sighed. “You just said you had news access at the State Home. Didn’t you
pay attention to the stories about this place?”
was probably referring to clips of the attendants slipping bodies into the
wagon at fires and traffic accidents. But since he didn’t know what she was
getting at, he just shrugged.
are equipped to handle only two bodies at a time,” she said patiently. “Wagons
follow them, collecting and transporting corpses for burial. It’s necessary—especially
when you find yourself in a situation where a dozen bodies need to be picked
the process sounds fairly simple.”
you’ll be driving a meat wagon. Did anyone tell you that?”
of this mattered much. He had virtually no work experience to his credit. He
was just starting out and he knew he had to accept whatever came his way. Up till now he’d relied on the state for his meals, lodging, and what little spending money the Government entitled
him to. The system was all right when he was a kid, but the last couple
of years had been rough.
Accounting for your whereabouts and actions is much more
aggravating at eighteen than when you’re younger.
need a job,” he said. “How bad can it be?”
it from me, you’re not gonna be popular. But I’ll let
the Stone fill you in.”
do you call him that?”
barked out a short laugh, causing jagged cracks to fan out from the corners of
her eyes. He had the impression she didn’t enjoy laughing at all. That it
probably hurt. The cracks surprised him because he didn’t think she was much
older than he was.
see.” She produced a yellow card almost magically.
“Fill this out, bring it back and leave it on the counter when you’re finished.
You can sit at that table over there. The Stone’ll
buzz when he wants to talk.” She snatched up a pamphlet from underneath the
desk top and handed it to him. “Read this. It tells you all about the Point
Department offers medical coverage, but
you need to accumulate a certain number of points to
qualify. It gives you an idea what’s
covered and what’s not.”
thought the County took care of everything. Doesn’t this entitle me to—”
doesn’t entitle you to squat.” She flashed yet another scowl. She probably had
a batch of them ready for all occasions. “You’ll see once you read this.”
like to know a person’s name while I’m talking to her.”
trace of a smile flickered across her lips, softening her eyes
and almost making the sharp vertical line between her brows disappear. He
figured he’d just hit pay dirt.
fill this out now.”
would be nice.”
almost always nice.”
made no comment.
for your help.”
already slipped through the open doorway.
it, a big room done in the same plain olive drab flickered beneath the overhead
fluorescent. Covering the far wall, a huge computer screen displayed a map, where glittering colored dots jumped around
like fireflies. In front of the screen, a long slanted table extended the
length of the wall. A row of stools was lined up in front of the table. On each
stool sat a female wearing a headset. Kyle counted twelve. Most had long hair
tied in back, probably to stay clear of the headsets.
Parsons was nowhere to be seen.
was probably standing in front of a mirror off to the side, perfecting her vast
assortment of scowls.
sat down at the table in front of the grimy window and opened the pamphlet.
The Point System
“Man’s Newest Form
skipped the introduction, flipped a page and tried
making sense of the Table of Contents:
Health and You
A Brief List of Common Treatments
matter to sleep by…
stifled a yawn and flipped to Chapter 7.
“brief” list covered eight pages.
And so on…
gray clouds covered the tops of the super structures like tufts of smoke.
Across the street, six lanes of creeping vehicles sent tendrils of exhaust
vapors spiraling upward.
sloppy-dressed black man rushing through the crowd
yanked the purse from a middle-aged woman burdened with packages. He was
tripped at the corner by a black-haired leather-clad female and sent rolling to
the curb. The purse flew out of his hand and was picked up by one of the
tough’s two female partners. The thief scrambled to get up. The trio surrounded
him and kicked him repeatedly with their leather boots. Then, growing bored, they turned and walked away.
sighed. I’m part of the grown-up world
now. Here people were loud and abrasive, pushed you around and stomped on you
if you resisted. They took what they wanted and didn’t care who liked it.
much difference between this place and the school playground.
State Home suddenly seemed a million miles away, its crammed classrooms a part
of someone else’s past, the daily pandemonium in the lunchroom a dark, distant
memory, the rowdiness in its dormitories some- thing he constantly forced from
why didn’t he feel good about it?
it be because the grown-up world didn’t look much better?
slid the pamphlet into his folder and reached for the form Allie Parsons had
one didn’t call for much concentration at all. His cup of tea. He could do it
with his eyes closed. It required detailed contact information about relatives
and designated beneficiaries.
problem. As an orphan you didn’t waste much time filling out information about
relatives or beneficiaries.
man behind the desk had a face that could have been carved by a sculptor who
really went apeshit for cracks and slashes. His small
square head sat snugly on a corded, columnar neck. His cheekbones and jawline
were razor-sharp, the skin covering them pulled Spandex-tight.
He wasn’t big, but his compactness suggested strength and calculated power. The
short sleeves of his starched khaki shirt stretched over a pair of
well-developed biceps and triceps.
seated rigidity was similar to that of a Rottweiler
protecting its property—the spine perfectly straight, the head held high. It looked
like someone had shoved a three-foot length of rebar up the man’s ass.
large white mug sat beside a corded forearm. An intercom and pencil sharpener took
over the opposite corner. The sparsely decorated room, partially lit by slivers
of early afternoon sun poking through the parted
blinds, gave the atmosphere a solid bleakness.
nameplate on the desk said Captain William
Francis Stoner. “The Stone,” as Allie Parsons referred to him. Kyle could
tell how the dude had earned the nickname. Nothing soft or yielding about him
at all. Probably shaved with a blowtorch and did his nails with a rasp file
he’d bought at the local hardware store.
no middle name Sonnet.” Stoner’s voice, a series of abrupt barks, substantiated
the Rottweiler persona.
close-cropped salt-and-pepper dome shifted as Stoner raised his face. His
steamy gaze sliced into Kyle. “That’s me…sir.”
Something tells me
this dude ain’t kidding.
Parsons should have said Stoner was one tight asshole.
The Marine thing, no doubt. He’d always heard Marines were a very select breed
of sociopathic killers.
Or maybe there actually
was a length of rebar shoved up that ass…
me, sir,” Kyle echoed.
eighteen,” Stoner announced, making Kyle wonder if the statement was supposed
to be a question.
this will be your first job.”
The coal-black eyes dropped back to the sheet on the
desk blotter. “You delivered laundry for six weeks.”
before I left the Home.”
done nothing since.”
wanted to say he was waiting for the right management position to present itself
but suspected this man wouldn’t appreciate such humor. Stoner’s DNA undoubtedly lacked a humor gene.
sir, when I quit the laundry job—”
says you have trouble with authority.”
Kyle figured the sorry dude would put out the word. The man was barely
five-four and had a problem with taller people. It was no doubt a serious pain,
looking up at nostril hairs all day long.
Harris, well over forty, also had an age phobia as demonstrated by his abrupt
treatment of the younger
workers. But Kyle knew better than to voice these opinions. Stoner seemed about
the same age. “That’s not exactly so,” he said.
is exactly so?”
man I worked for—”
bet he was a tyrant.”
picked on you, didn’t he?” Stoner’s face
could sense the bitterness in the air. Grownups stuck together but seldom
shared their hang-ups. Harris wouldn’t likely confide in Stoner about his
nostril-hair complex and probably fabricated things about Kyle so it wouldn’t
reflect on him.
didn’t recognize your true potential, did he?”
heavy dark vibes oozing from the other man were like waves of black smoke. The
“stone” definitely said it all. Kyle wondered if an
X-ray would reveal a knotty rock wedged inside the man’s skull where his brain
get this out in the open right now. Any objections?”
Kyle could respond, Stoner said, “You’re young. A punk. Worse, you’re a stupid
Stoner stood sharply—with a definite
snap!—and circled the
desk. Much smaller than Kyle guessed.
Around five-eight and probably one-fifty, every bit of it muscle,
gristle, and sinew. He
moved like a caged tiger in a zoo,
giving the impression
he could easily maneuver his way through
a herd of stampeding elephants.
six-one, Kyle felt small and insignificant in this man’s presence.
think the world owes you. You’re young, so you’re smarter than everyone else.
sank into his chair. Oh, to be back in those woods… No stones out there, just
some antsy squirrels, a few feisty chipmunks, snakes, ants, spiders, and poison
put his hands behind his back, interlaced his fingers and slowly circled Kyle’s
chair. “You figure you’re better than anyone else. That’s why you couldn’t make
it at Laundry World. Isn’t that why you were fired?”
a long story—“
don’t want to hear it.” Stoner resumed pacing. Kyle decided
a riding crop would complete the picture. That and a pair of those funny
trousers the Nazis wore.
a job. You drove a truck, picked
up laundry and listened to people bitch about
how long it took you to get
there. Then you took the stuff back when it was clean and you were done for the day.”
job also included driving to bad neighborhoods and getting hit with rocks,
bottles, toilet lids, bullets, and other equally messy debris. Other times kids
would dash across the street to see how close they could come without being
hit. But this dude probably didn’t want to hear about that.
is a job.” Stoner put his face within
six inches of Kyle’s face, sending over a warm, sour bubble of onions and a
hint of whiskey. “You like working, Sonnet?”
not a question of liking it, sir.”
answer. Any objections to taking orders?”
He knew better than reply. He suspected Stoner
was probably the biggest order-giver in the civilized world. “If you do, you might as well pick your pitiful ass right up and haul it out of
Dodge. I give the orders. In
fact, I give lots of orders. And when I give
an order, it’s obeyed. If it isn’t obeyed, I get upset.
When I’m upset, I’m nasty.” He aimed his smoldering eyes at Kyle.
“You know what I do when I’m nasty?”
couldn’t see Stoner slipping into the confessional booth for some quick penance,
or listening to a tape of ocean sounds. But he could visualize him munching on
a handful of carpet tacks fresh from the box.
“No, sir.” Sweat gathered
on his brow. He knew better than wipe it off. Stoner
don’t want to.” Stoner returned to his desk. “This job pays well, but you’ll
put in a lot of hours. Any objection to good money?”
objection to long hours?”
sir. Not if I like the job.”
crossed his arms. Veins swelled across columns of muscle running from his
elbows to his wrists. “I see a definite problem cropping up. We’ve got to make
this job likeable for you. We’ve got
to give orders in such a way that you consider them requests. What else have we got
to do to make things easy for you,
bevy of large-breasted slave girls would have been the icing on the cake, but
Kyle figured that wasn’t an option.
can either work here or try living on that so-called
shared allotment program the Government hands out to the shiftless users
taking over this country. If you don’t have a certified profession they’ll make
you sign up for the program—which will last for six months maximum. If you
don’t find a suitable job in that time they’ll stick you in a relief barracks.
There you’ll shack up with sixty other losers. You’ll share a shower stall with
four shower heads, six urinals, and six toilets. You’ll have breakfast, lunch,
and dinner with three hundred others from the compound
and you’ll be trucked
all over God’s creation to mow grass, clean up trash, wash out dumpsters
or empty holding tanks for the airlines. You’ll work side-by-side with convicts
and other useless dregs for twelve hours a day, and most of your pay will go
for your board. Would you prefer that?”
have much money for incidentals, would you?”
know what incidentals are, don’t you? They’re things you don’t need.”
considered women essential but didn’t want to cause more trouble.
won’t even have enough money for cigarettes. You smoke?”
“Good. Filthy, disgusting habit.” Stoner’s
up. “But there is something else
about this job you should know.” He blinked. “There’s no quitting.”
you were referred here by the State, you’re required to fulfill your contract
with them and work here for six months. In a nutshell, if you quit before that
time, the State people will think we’re not
doing something right. Inspectors will come down from the State Capital and
look for reasons to close us down. They’d enjoy that because they don’t think
too highly of us. We remind them of their own mortality. We’re a department of
the State, and subject to the State’s regulations and standards. And when something happens to draw attention to
us, those assholes hightail it down here with
their cameras and technological equipment to dissect us all like a bunch of
stupid laboratory frogs.” Stoner’s face flushed. “Do I appear the laboratory
was difficult holding back a laugh. Fear of being sent to a relief barracks
helped greatly. From what he’d heard, they were no better than the World
War II prison camps he’d learned about
in history class. “No, sir.”
I suggest you keep your mouth
sat back in his chair. “What do you know about this job?”
be a driver.”
ambulance or a wagon.”
have more than enough ambulance drivers. We need wagon drivers. Know what they
follow the ambulances around.”
a cleanup crew. The ambulances can’t handle the volume. They need us for
work. Cleanup crew. Coming from Stoner, it sounded like they’d be hauling trash.
seen a body before?”
close to one? Touch it? Sniff it?”
me about it.”
of years ago, some of the older guys had been
drinking and smoking
pot. When they fell asleep, a smoldering joint dropped out of
the ashtray and rolled onto a pile of
test papers, torching the floor.
was a fire, and some kids were trapped on the second floor.” Kyle didn’t think
Stoner would want to hear about the drinking and the pot-smoking.
many of them?”
squinted. “They were your classmates, your friends. You studied with them,
shared rooms with them. Didn’t it bother you to see them sizzling like T-bones
on a grill?”
were big, dumb jocks with attitudes. A year before the fire, they’d stuffed
Kyle in a trash can behind the cafeteria and tossed in the uneaten contents of
their lunches before stacking sacks of potatoes onto the lid.
had never cared for the preferential treatment the athletes were given or how
the teachers turned the other way whenever one of their “star players” cheated
on exams. He’d experienced a strange sense of relief the night the firefighters
carted out the bodies. A sense of relief coupled with the elation of justice
being served. “I wasn’t close to any of them,” he said diplomatically. “None were good friends.”
you know any of them, Sonnet?”
couple, but not very well.”
it didn’t trouble you to see them crispy-fried.”
features relaxed. “Good. You might do well here.
As I said, we’re cleanup. When we’re full we
make a trip to the rendering plant. We dump our load, come back, and follow the
ambulance till the shift’s over.”
rendering plant. The news had mentioned it briefly but did very few in-depth
stories. He’d seen a shot of it one time from the lens of a CNN helicopter. A
huge concrete building out in the
middle of nowhere, the
land surrounding it stripped bare.
the rendering plant, sir?”
Stoner’s thick brows slid upward. “Got a hot date there tonight?”
need. I give you orders and you follow them.
You follow them and I’m happy. I’m happy
and you’re paid. You’re paid and you’re happy. Understand how the process works?”
Now…how much experience do you have driving something the size of a bus? Your
records say you’ve got a commercial license but it doesn’t go into detail.”
mean like a school bus?”
what I mean.”
shrugged. “It’s not difficult. They’re all automatic. Power steering,
brakes—the works.” His eyes lowered. “You’re kind of skinny. You’ve got
shoulders, but not much meat there to speak of.”
I’m what you’d
much weight can you lift?”
pretty strong. The football coach said I have good tendons.”
played football?” Stoner looked surprised.
sir. We were all tested the year of the fire because five key members of the
team died in the blaze.”
didn’t you play?”
cared much for the game, sir,” he said flatly. Or spending his time with jerks
who liked stuffing skinny kids into garbage cans for entertainment.
matter. We’re talking dead weight here. You might be strong enough. We’ll see.
Think you’ll have trouble moving something that might weigh two hundred and
know till I try.”
good answer.” Stoner raised his left arm and, holding his forearm horizontally
in front of his face, read his watch. “Next run’s in about thirty minutes.” He
lowered his arm. “Ready to start?”
already on the clock, so you’ll need a locker. Take one without a label on it.
You can have any suit hanging in the locker room. Find a marker, print your
name legibly on one of the self-stick labels in the box, and slap a label on an
empty locker. Suit up and I’ll pick you up.”
dress in airtight yellow vinyl suits. Haven’t you seen us on CNN?”
news reports focused on the bodies being wheeled by gurneys. The uniforms—Fire
Department, police, wagon drivers, ambulance attendants, county workers—meshed
into a single entity. A flurry of colors. Yellow, blue, orange, and black. They
all seemed to stand for something seriously bad.
never paid much attention to the uniforms.”
sighed impatiently. “We wear the same type of outfits the astronauts wore
before the space program went belly-up. Suits are comfortable and really work.”
He scanned Kyle’s sheet. “You’re not inoculated. Go see Irene. She’s down the hall in the room marked Infirmary.”
shifted uneasily. Shots. Bummer. “Irene?” he asked softly.
got the inoculation gun. One jolt gives you more than a hundred immunizations.
Fixes you right up. You never know what we’re going to
find out there. This way we don’t
have to worry about you suddenly foaming at the
mouth, or shitting your drawers.”
the Home, several older kids were selected to administer the shots. Their “training” amounted to a
single demonstration. They were usually clumsy and had trouble finding veins. Kyle’s were
almost impossible to locate. Being stuck over and over was not his fondest memory.
I was immunized a year ago and—”
were immunized two years ago, this
report says. There’s everything under the sun out there. I’ll be damned if I let
one of my men make himself susceptible because he was too chickenshit to let
Irene juice him up. Besides, the State requires
it. Get it?”
gun takes two seconds. Then get suited up. I’ll meet you in the garage out
stood rather shakily.
sir,” he said, a little light-headed.
not gonna faint on me, are you?”
sir.” The urge to dump chowder on the man’s spit-shined shoes was overwhelming.
Go do it now. That’s an order. Chop! Chop!”
legs stiff and heavy, Kyle shuffled out of the room.