The man they called King sat in the basement of City Hall with his head down. He was waiting. It had been a long series of days and this next push would determine what direction the next chapter of his life took.
His family was in the Cascades waiting for him in their cabin. It was stocked and fully sustainable off the grid with Solar Panels and rain barrels, not to mention the nearby creek which provided a perfect and nearly inexhaustible water supply. He could live up there, hunt elk and bear, fish the streams for trout and salmon, start a little kitchen garden in the side yard, grow his own dope and make love to his wife on the shores of the little lake up there, which by the way was filled with crystalline drinkable water. And Elle could run around the woods and help him to her heart's content. The fresh air and natural surroundings would do the kid some good.
He looked forward to that.
The present was another story altogether. The smell of sweat and stale cigarettes filled the room as the man listened to the competing sounds of fireworks and gunshots. It was hard to tell them apart. The fireworks hit with a soft thump, but the gunshots were crisper, clearer, and usually followed by screams, the screams were the real give away.
They’d taken this section of downtown three weeks ago. It all started with the protests. He had gotten involved almost accidentally and things had just escalated from there.
But today, once again as if by chance, things were taking a very fortuitous turn.
Three weeks ago the man was doing what he had done every Spring since he came back from Iraq in 2008. He was helping his friend clean pools. It wasn’t bad work, it kept him outside, it kept him from staring at a screen all day, and it put food on the table and money in the bank for him and his wife and their six-year old daughter.
That was then…so much had changed…and it had all happened so fast.
Snapshots of the day swirled in the man’s head. He was so tired. He was having a hard time putting things together in a linear timeline that made any sense. He hadn’t slept much in the past month and his mind was paying the price and playing tricks. The only thing he saw with any clarity anymore, was the plan…
That plan had come to him by chance one Tuesday when they were out patrolling the streets of their newly confiscated city blocks. In the "Autonomous Zone" as they called it, or AZ, there were no police, and The Man they called King was the boss. There was a team of pseudo commandos who walked with him and did anything he wished. The thing the Man knew that others ignored and that allowed him to rule these city blocks was that most people want to be told what to do. They pretend like they want freedom, but they don’t want that responsibility. The Man realized then, that he had done the same thing since coming home. He had abstained from responsibility, had shirked his autonomy and freedom of choice, had relinquished control of his life. His wife had been great, but she knew there was something wrong, she knew there was something missing, and so she encouraged the man to "keep on keeping on". Because sometimes that’s all you can do. And she’d seen the way some guys, guys like her husband in almost every way had spiraled without direction, had floundered in a sea of infinite possibility, succumbing to drink, or pills and eventually the business end of a berretta. The thing the man they now called King had that the others didn’t was simple. He had her. She was what saved him from the void and she was the reason for the plan that took shape in the Man’s mind that day.
The plan began to formulate in the man’s mind, almost independent of himself. A source outside of his consciousness was coming up with the details and the strategy using his mind. Something was working through him and using him as a tool, and that was fine with the Man, because the plan this creative spirit was spinning would be of a very specific benefit to him and his family.
Money had been an issue for the Man and his Wife, since... always.
And when he got back from the war things got serious quick when she got pregnant, and after two miscarriages finally had their daughter Eve in early 2014.
Then they really had to scrimp and save. Her family had been moderately helpful in the beginning, but they weren’t in a position to do much for them. They were all old out of work loggers. She just happened to be smart and pretty and had found a way out of the trailer park, but just barely.
And then Eve got sick.
One of the informants that they called "T-Bone" came running up shouting “King, King…they got a banker down on block three.”
“Is he alright?” King asked trying to keep him calm and not let T-Bones borderline neurosis cross over into the realm of unhelpful hysterics.
“They got him tied up and are beating him pretty bad King. I think Emory is gonna kill him if you don’t do something quick.”
Emory was a problem. They needed to nip this in the bud. It wasn't the first time Emory had appeared on their radar. He was the quintessential trouble maker. A beta who wanted to be an alpha. A dog with all bark and no bite and no fight and he knew it. Everyone knew it. Which meant he always had something to prove to them and to himself, because he was living a lie. The Man knew exactly what he was going to do with Emory. Emory was going to make the perfect example.
T-Bone he had been right. They were almost too late.
The Banker was tied up using the cord of a lamp that was lying on its side in the alley and Emory was hitting the man and laughing, his silly laugh, drinking from a tall boy of Ice House and skipping around like some nightmare.
The first thing The Man thought was what the hell was this guy doing down in the "AZ "to begin with. They’d been running these streets for days at this point, nobody needed to be doing business down here at all.
The Man stepped into the alley quickly and hit Emory in the face with the butt of his rifle, knocking him clean off his feet and into the back wall. Emory was up in a flash. He was faster than he looked and mean as a viper and he was mad at the Man, mostly because everyone called him King.
The blade hardly flashed at all, in fact the Man didn't see it, but one of his team put Emory down with a quick succession of shots, ta-tat-tat-tat, and that was all she wrote for Emory. The sad thing was that Emory's death marked the first fatality in the AZ, he would not be the last... a stat The Man they called King hated to think about.
Once the banker came back, he would have enough money to hopefully take care of his wife and Eve without having to clean another pool or worry about funding in any sense of the word ever again. He laughed to himself in the dark then. The heat was getting to him. He was starting to get a little loopy. He could tell because he was starting to think those big philosophical thoughts, the kind that started out and grabbed you by the heart with excitement but then just went in big loping circles around your mind, ending up right back where they started leaving you feverish and dizzy, feeling insignificant and incapable of understanding anything, much less the riddles of the universe or the puzzles of the human heart...what does it all mean? The man laughed to himself, because he was thinking about money and never having to think about money again made him happy.
It was a light feeling. He was old enough to know that money can't buy happiness. In fact, the only boxes that havingmoney checked were the gaping one's that only people who didn't have money worried about, that was it. Those problems, your money problems were solved by having money, it certainly was not a cure all for the existential problems that plagued the majority of people. But for him, it would make a lot of things profoundly easier. And hopefully it would be able to buy Eve a new kidney and get her the best care available, until she was better, until she was the cherubic child she had been before this curse came down on her like a drone strike, without warning, without mercy.
Money, what a funny concept, numbers, dollars, bitcoins, ones and zeroes it was all imaginary horseshit. Ha, he laughed again. He was already starting to think about money the way people with plenty of the stuff did...like it was some abstract construct, which it was. But it was also something he needed...to keep his baby girl alive... to be able to pay the doctors and nurses and hospitals. Before, what that meant was collection agencies, bad credit, and him trying to find second and third jobs and never having any time to spend with his wife or beautiful sweet Eve even as she sat there dying... being eaten alive by a disease that must have been preprogrammed in her from him, it had to of come from him..."Fuck it all!" The Man thought as he hefted himself up from the big chair in the dark. What was taking so long... they should have been back thirty minutes ago.
The banker stayed on the ground, frightened by the sound of the shots and the blood pouring from Emory's leaking sad sack of a body. The knife, now plenty visible, still clutched in Emory's dead hand...The Man looked at his team and nodded his gratitude to each one, not sure who had fired the lethal shots, and pretty sure each had fired at least one. Like a firing squad, the fact that they had all fired gave each of them plausible deniability and shared responsibility. The Man they called King was glad to have these men on his side just as they had been over a decade ago across the sea.
The Banker looked up at the Man expecting him to hit him, but instead he simply held out his hand to help the Banker up. No one knew he was a banker then, but he soon told them what he was doing...apparently he had come down to the bank to check on the vault, to make sure none of the cash being held there had been stolen yet...It hadn't...everyone had left the banks alone. They knew they didn't have the hardware to access the vaults. The security situations at the big banks was much too sophisticated for their capabilities. The Banker was on his way to check on his place, when Emory cut him off and brought him here to...who knows what...The Man was bothered by that, bothered by the presence of evil and the implications such evil held for their little experimental Utopia down here.
The man they called King knew then that this was an exercise in futility, but the Banker gave him hope, gave him an idea, and gave him a reason to stay one more day in the AZ where he just happened to be the King, or at least that's what everyone said...
They got The Banker cleaned up and brought him a bottle of cold water. After he drank a few gulps and seemed to recover at least a little bit The Man had a few questions.
"What were you doing down here?"
"I'm the Branch Manager at the Chase Bank around the corner. I was coming down to see for myself how much damage had been done to our store and if there was even the slightest possibility of us opening up sometime this week. I realize now how silly that was. You guys saved my life."
"Don't mention it. I apologize for Emory...at least we know he won't be pulling any shit like that ever again...
"Just, you know hypothetically...how much money, in cash do you all usually keep in your branch?"
The Banker froze, scared again, thinking he had jumped out of the frying pan and gotten straight into the fire. The Man saw his reticence and tried to comfort and persuade him all in one blow.
"Hey, it's alright, you don't have to tell us, I mean that whole building will probably be burned down by the end of the week anyway, so what does it matter if the cash goes up in flames or happens to disappear before the fire gets to it? Doesn't matter to me." The man said nonchalantly.
"Because if it's a fire no one will blame me." said The Banker.
"No one's gonna blame you anyway...you came down here with the best of intentions like the stellar manager that you are. You found yourself way out of your depths, got kidnapped, tortured and finally gave up your ID pass, Key Card and Codes...We could skip the rest of the torture part if you want...but we don't have to." The Man half-jokingly, but only half, as a way to let the Banker know who held all the cards in this game, and that his choices were pretty limited in this situation. He could choose to get physically abused or not, that was about the extent of his decision making power at this point...and so
"Ha, you guys don't give a man many options do you?"
"Quite the contrary, the choice is all yours. Now would you like to give us all of your credentials and take us to the bank where we will withdrawal absolutely everything that is not tagged or traceable. Or would you prefer us to try some of our more persuasive techniques."
"Let's go then...you'll need me for the fingerprint scan, and I'd prefer to keep my fingerprints connected to the rest of my body."
The Man looked at his team and selected the commando they called Badger to escort the Banker to the vault and back...
"Take Bruiser with you too for cover and to lend a hand carting all the cash back, we'll bring it back here and split it up...grab a few of the duffel bags from the closet, don't take anything you can't reasonably carry, and don't get greedy...remember some of a little bitis way better than none of a lot."
The team left, and The Man slumped into the chair to wait. And closed his eyes for a second, just a millisecond.
He hadn't told any of them his plan to leave, or where his wife and daughter were holed up...he hoped to God they were still there and that Eve was alright...his phone died this morning and his last text from his wife was last night just before she and Eve went to sleep. The Cabin was apocalypse ready. If shit really hit the fan they could live up there for years without ever having to report back to civilization...except for Eve, she was going to need some care soon. From what his wife had said in her text she was still doing good but they would be running out of her medication by the end of the week...so time was of the essence.
The Man they called King, planned to divvy up the take from the bank evenly amongst his men and then leave them to hold down the fort, quite literally, while he made a break for it. It was crazy to think that outside these few city blocks everything was still pretty much normal in the rest of the world at large. There had been the riots and the virus was still out there, but here, inside the AZ it was like a fucking Cormac McCarthy novel; all dirty faces and trash can fires, fear and debauchery on a level he had never even imagined except in his most vivid nightmares. This must have been what Gomora was like The Man had thought two nights before when he stumbled into an orgy in the middle of a back alley. All black lights and low thumping music, the smell of wine and weed thick in the air along with the smell of sex....it was so primal, the Man had thought of partaking, but he put the idea far from his head and kept walking, looking to his men to see if any of them would be seduced by the scene, but not a one succumbed... the men plugged their ears to the moans and kept walking...
But ten blocks away it was just another Thursday night, pizza deliveries, sitcoms, Netflix.
So he would take his cut of the proceeds, grab a Toyota Truck he had seen on the perimeter of the barricade in one of the big drive off into the sunset, literally...take the money and run. He didn't understand why more people didn't do that...greed was the downfall of so many...silly The Man thought just as the door to the basement burst open and before The Man who was called King had time to raise his rifle, the entering SWAT team put a bullet right between his eyes, as if he were Osama Bin Laden...The Man they used to call King was deader than a doornail.