THE WAGON DRIVER by David Berardelli

EXTRACT FOR
THE WAGON DRIVER

(David Berardelli)


THE WAGON DRIVER

PART 1 - THE YELLOW MONSTER

 

Chapter 1

 

“You the new driver?”

The 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.

“That’s 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.

“You have a sheet?” Her large brown eyes zeroed in on the thick tan folder he held in the crook of his arm.

“Got 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.”

The 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.

“The 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.”

He 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.

She skimmed the report. Without looking up she said, “Sonnet. Kyle. Age eighteen. Your last known address was the Children’s Foster Home of Pleasant Valley.”

“I know all that,” he said, grinning.

Her blank expression didn’t waver. “Where are you living now?”

“Home is where the heart is.”

When her dark eyes met his, they told him she was not amused.

She 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.”

She blinked. “They already gave you the job?”

“They called here during my interview. Someone here said I could start any time. The sooner, the better. They said a Mr. Stoner okayed it.”

“The Stone hired you without an interview?”

“The stone?” Another not-so-warm fuzzy.

“Our Chief.”

“They 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.”

“By 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?”

He 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.

“The Home has TVs all over the place,” he said. “Even in the bathrooms. Yeah, we heard about the riots.”

“The people who sent you here. They tell you anything else?”

“They told me Mist—Captain—Stoner would give me the details. But they said it was a County job, and the County pays top wages.”

“That’s it?” She sounded disappointed.

“A job’s a job. Money’s money, right?”

“When you’re talking about this job, some think it’s better to sponge off the State.”

She 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.

“You know what this place is, don’t you?”

“The Department of Refuse Removal.”

“Know what that means?”

“Refuse removal. Bodies. Burial. It’s not exactly rocket science.”

The girl sighed. “You just said you had news access at the State Home. Didn’t you pay attention to the stories about this place?”

She 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.

“Ambulances 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 up.”

“Actually, the process sounds fairly simple.”

“Sonnet, you’ll be driving a meat wagon. Did anyone tell you that?”

None 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.

“I need a job,” he said. “How bad can it be?”

“Take it from me, you’re not gonna be popular. But I’ll let the Stone fill you in.”

“Why do you call him that?”

She 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.

“You’ll 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 System.”

“What’s that?”

“The 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.”

“I thought the County took care of everything. Doesn’t this entitle me to—”

“It 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.”

“What’s your name?”

“Parsons.”

“First name?”

“Allie. Why?”

“I like to know a person’s name while I’m talking to her.”

The 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.

“I’ll fill this out now.”

“That would be nice.”

“I’m almost always nice.”

She made no comment.

“Thanks for your help.”

She’d already slipped through the open doorway.

Beyond 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.

Allie Parsons was nowhere to be seen.

She was probably standing in front of a mirror off to the side, perfecting her vast assortment of scowls.

He sat down at the table in front of the grimy window and opened the pamphlet.

 

The Point System

“Man’s Newest Form of Survival”

 

He skipped the introduction, flipped a page and tried making sense of the Table of Contents:

1.            Your Health and You

2.            Quality of Life

3.            Assessment

4.             County Rankings

5.            Medical Classifications

6.            Promotional Issues

7.            A Brief List of Common Treatments

Reading matter to sleep by…

He stifled a yawn and flipped to Chapter 7.

The “brief” list covered eight pages.

 

Complaint

 

Abdomen pain

Points for Treatment

1

Abrasions

1

Addison’s disease

4

Adenocarcinoma

28

Adenoidectomy

3

Adrenal tumor

10

Aerophagia

2

AIDS

100

Allergies

2

Alopecia

7

Amenorrhea

5

 

And so on…

Outside, 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.

A 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.

Kyle 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.

Not much difference between this place and the school playground.

The 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 his mind.

So why didn’t he feel good about it?

Could it be because the grown-up world didn’t look much better?

He slid the pamphlet into his folder and reached for the form Allie Parsons had given him.

This 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.

No problem. As an orphan you didn’t waste much time filling out information about relatives or beneficiaries.

 


Chapter 2

 

The 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.

Stoner’s 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.

A 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.

The brass 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.

“Kyle no middle name Sonnet.” Stoner’s voice, a series of abrupt barks, substantiated the Rottweiler persona.

“That’s me.”

The 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.

Allie 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…

“That’s me, sir,” Kyle echoed.

“You’re eighteen,” Stoner announced, making Kyle wonder if the statement was supposed to be a question.

“Yes, sir.”

“And this will be your first job.”

“Second.”

The coal-black eyes dropped back to the sheet on the desk blotter. “You delivered laundry for six weeks.”

“Just before I left the Home.”

“You’ve done nothing since.”

“No, sir.”

“Why not?”

Kyle 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.

“Well, sir, when I quit the laundry job—”

“You were fired.”

“Yes, sir.”

“This says you have trouble with authority.”

Good ol’ Harris… 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.

“What is exactly so?”

“The man I worked for—”

“I’ll bet he was a tyrant.”

“Well, he—”

“He picked on you, didn’t  he?” Stoner’s face had tightened.

Kyle 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.

“Well, sir—”

“He didn’t recognize your true potential, did he?”

The 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 should be.

“Let’s get this out in the open right now. Any objections?”

Before Kyle could respond, Stoner said, “You’re young. A punk. Worse, you’re a stupid punk.”

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.

At six-one, Kyle felt small and insignificant in this man’s presence.

“You think the world owes you. You’re young, so you’re smarter than everyone else. You—”

“But sir—”

“Don’t interrupt.”

Kyle 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 ivy.

Stoner 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?”

“It’s a long story—“

“I 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.

“That wasn’t 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.”

The 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.

“This 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?”

“It’s not a question of liking it, sir.”

“Good 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?”

He 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 would disapprove.

“You 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?”

“No, sir.”

“Any objection to long hours?”

“No, sir. Not if I like the job.”

Stoner 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, Sonnet?”

A bevy of large-breasted slave girls would have been the icing on the cake, but Kyle figured that wasn’t an option.

“You 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?”

“No, sir.”

“Wouldn’t have much money for incidentals, would you?”

“No, sir.”

“You know what incidentals are, don’t you? They’re things you don’t need.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Like entertainment.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Or women.”

Kyle considered women essential but didn’t want to cause more trouble.

“You won’t even have enough money for cigarettes. You smoke?”

“No, sir.”

“Good. Filthy, disgusting habit.” Stoner’s face wrinkled up. “But there is something else about this job you should know.” He blinked. “There’s no quitting.”

“Sir?”

“Since 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 frog type?”

It 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.”

“Then I suggest you keep your mouth shut. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

Stoner sat back in his chair. “What do you know about this job?”

“I’ll be a driver.”

“Driving what?”

“An ambulance or a wagon.”

“We have more than enough ambulance drivers. We need wagon drivers. Know what they do?”

“They follow the ambulances around.”

“We’re a cleanup crew. The ambulances can’t handle the volume. They need us for disposal work.”

Disposal work. Cleanup crew. Coming from Stoner, it sounded like they’d be hauling trash.

“Ever seen a body before?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Been close to one? Touch it? Sniff it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Where?”

“At the Home.”

“Tell me about it.”

A couple 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.

“There 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.

“How many of them?”

“Seven.”

“Bother you?”

“Not much, sir.”

Stoner 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?”

They 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.

Kyle 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.”

“Did you know any of them, Sonnet?”

“A couple, but not very well.”

“And it didn’t trouble you to see them crispy-fried.”

“Not really, sir.”

Stoner’s 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.”

The 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.

“Where’s the rendering plant, sir?”

“Why?” Stoner’s thick brows slid upward. “Got a hot date there tonight?”

“Just curious.”

“No 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?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. 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.”

“You mean like a school bus?”

“That’s what I mean.”

“None, sir.”

Stoner 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 call wiry.

“No, sir.”

“How much weight can you lift?”

“I’m pretty strong. The football coach said I have good tendons.”

“You played football?” Stoner looked surprised.

“No, sir. We were all tested the year of the fire because five key members of the team died in the blaze.”

“Why didn’t you play?”

“Never 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.

“No 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 fifty pounds?”

“Won’t know till I try.”

“Another 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?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re 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.”

“Suit up?”

“We dress in airtight yellow vinyl suits. Haven’t you seen us on CNN?”

The 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.

“Problem?” Stoner asked.

“I never paid much attention to the uniforms.”

Stoner 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.”

Kyle shifted uneasily. Shots. Bummer. “Irene?” he asked softly.

“She’s 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.”

At 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.

“Sir, I was immunized a year ago and—”

“You 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?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Irene’s gun takes two seconds. Then get suited up. I’ll meet you in the garage out back.”

Kyle stood rather shakily.

“You okay, boy?”

“Yes, sir,” he said, a little light-headed.

“You’re not gonna faint on me, are you?”

“No, sir.” The urge to dump chowder on the man’s spit-shined shoes was overwhelming.

“Good. Go do it now. That’s an order. Chop! Chop!”

His legs stiff and heavy, Kyle shuffled out of the room.