“This is the White Knights?” Ash said.
He was looking at a store in a strip mall. If not for the White Knights flyers taped to the windows, Ash would have thought this was the wrong place. He expected something like an office or a building made of mirrored glass. Not a one-room box sandwiched between an online auction shop and a dollar store.
Inside, the place was spotless except for a large pile of white and brown boxes stacked in the corner and some signs. Three people sat in front of a desk–clients maybe.
Ash pulled the door open and entered. The first thing he saw was a sign reading You Will Be Searched Upon Entering–Any Weapons WILL Be Seized.
The desk held a bulky computer monitor, a few manila folders, and a small TV showing arena football. One big black man in gray sweatpants had his bare feet propped up on the corner. A wiry white kid with spiky blond hair, and another shorter black man sat with him. They didn’t seem too interested in searching him.
“Excuse me?” Ash spoke. The man in sweat pants cranked his head back.
“Oh, hey,” he said.
“Um, is this where I can join the White Knights?”
“Sure thing, kid,” he said. He picked his feet off the table and stood up. “Game ain’t no good anyway.”
By the lazy way he sifted through the desk drawers, Ash knew that he was, in no way, the boss.
“You need a pen?” he asked as he handed Ash a piece of paper.
He held out a blue pen. “Here you go.”
“Thank you.” Ash was doing his utmost to be polite in spite of his revulsion. These slackers were supposed to be the city’s civilian defense initiative?
The man went back to the desk while Ash went to the opposite corner under a sign that said NO SWEARING and set the application on a box.
More meaningless paperwork, but he wanted to make a good impression. Again, he filled out fake information, but made it more plausible–no Wyoming City, Wyoming. For age, he put eighteen, thinking they wouldn’t hire anyone younger.
After the personal information, most of the other questions concerned his disposition. It asked him to list all the fights in which he had participated in the last three months, any prior convictions, any felonies, any misdemeanors, any minor infractions of the law (including parking tickets), any hospitalizations, medications, or recent injuries. And any gang affiliations.
Ash stuck the pen in his mouth. Should he list that he had gotten into a fight? Would that indicate he was a ‘violent person’? Or should he tell the truth and hope that his honesty would be rewarded. Ash left the fields blank, wanting to err on the side of caution.
He was starting the last question–‘why do you want to join’–when the door to the back room opened. A stout man with a chiseled face, wearing a shimmering white track suit, came in. He glanced at the three watching TV.
“Hey, Jamal, you know where the soap is?” He had a slight accent, like Mediterranean Ebonics. He noticed Ash. “Oh, hello. Can I help you?”
This was the boss. Ash stepped up and handed his application to him. “Sir, I’d like to join the White Knights.”
The boss looked surprised as he took his application. “Did anyone search him?” he said angrily.
“Aw, jeez, Ivan. You know you don’t have to-” the big black man said.
“Did you search him?”
“No one likes-” the one white kid said in a squeaky voice.
Ivan rolled his eyes, and muttered “good-for-nothings” loud enough so they could hear. He set the application down and said to Ash, “Stand up straight. Put your arms out.”
Ash did so, confused. Ivan patted his sides and front. “You’re not very good at tickling,” Ash remarked.
Ivan ignored him. “Anything in your shoes?” he asked.
“Just my feet,” Ash said. The white kid chortled.
Ivan grimaced and picked up his application again. “How old are you?”
Ivan arched an eyebrow.
“I’m small for my age,” Ash said. “My parents couldn’t afford much food, growing up.”
“You don’t look good. Your cheek’s purple. You get beat up?”
“Yes. Not badly.” Ash was surprised–he thought his injuries had been worse than Ivan’s reaction.
Ivan shook his head. “Shame. You should learn some self-defense. We teach that here, you know.”
“Good, I look forward to learning.”
Ivan continued reading. Ash expected him to ask some questions about the blank parts of his app. Instead, he stuck out his hand and said, “Ash, I’m Ivan. Leader of this chapter of the White Knights.”
Ash shook his hand. It was rough like stone. “Good to meet you,” Ash said.
“So why the hell do you want to join the White Knights?”
“I want to stop people from hurting others. I want to make a difference.” It sounded childish, like something you’d find on a coffee mug, but Ash couldn’t think anything better.
Ivan nodded. “And what makes you think you’ve got what it takes to join us?”
“I can set things on fire with my mind.”
Ivan doubled up, laughing. “I like you, kid,” he said between breaths. “You’re crazy. But I like you. Why don’t you come back here? We can talk privately.”
He led Ash to the room he had just come from. It looked meant for storage, with cheap wire racks bolted into the wall. In the back corner, there was a desk that looked like a piece of plywood on two file cabinets.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Ivan said, “I had to bust two people the other day.”
“Bust their heads open?”
“No, bust them out of here.” He sat down at the desk, and Ash sat opposite in a folding chair.
Ivan folded his hands. “Let me tell you what we are. And let me tell you what we are not,” he said with calm authority. “I give this speech to everyone who walks in here. We are a citizens’ vigilance operation–a neighborhood watch group. All-volunteer. We keep the peace. We keep people in line, so that the streets are safe. Too many crackheads, drug dealers, gang bangers around. Agree?”
“We patrol. We keep them off the streets. We’re the eyes and ears for the police when they can’t be there. We ARE NOT-” Ivan changed his cadence from steady to threatening, making Ash draw back. “-vigilantes. We’re not law enforcers. We’re not cops. We’re not a militia. We don’t carry weapons or guns. A lot of people come in here hoping to bust some skulls like Dirty Harry.”
“Lot of them have fancy ideas about cleaning up the town then puss out because they can’t take it. Can’t take looking at the armpit of society every day. You’re not gonna be like that, right?”
“No intention of that,” Ash said.
“Good. We’re just plain old joes, trying to do a good deed. Sound good?”
“Here are the rules. One–you don’t come in high. If I see you on duty high, or looking like you’re burnt out, I’ll bust your ass.”
Ash thought, Is this such a problem that it has to be the first rule?
“Two, never get in a fight.”
“Huh? I thought that’s what we did.”
Ivan barked a laugh. “You’re young, so I’ll let that slip by. We’re peacekeepers, not fighters. If you get in a fight, then you did something wrong four or five steps ago. Capiche?”
“So… how are we supposed to… do what we do?”
“Hey, you gotta know the rules first. Just like Karate. You ever been in Karate?” Ash shook his head. “First thing they teach you is to block. They never teach you to punch until you learn how to block. The thing I expect all my men to understand is that we are heroes for the people. We’re role models. We’re not the faceless policemen. People know us. They see us. If we get in trouble, that’s like some Hollywood celebrity getting arrested. Always keep your nose clean.” He pointed to Ash’s nose. “Got that? We’re not here for a fight.”
“If we’re not here to fight, and we don’t have weapons, how are we supposed to enforce anything?”
“Hey, if you came here looking for a fight, you’re in the wrong place. And I’ll bust your ass.” Ivan jabbed his finger at him. “Got a problem with that?”
“Nope, fine with me.”
“Good. Rule three, pull your weight. The reason we’re so successful is that we all watch out for each other. We’re like Roman gladiators, everyone’s gotta hold up the shield to guard the person next to ’em. It’s called a phalanx. If you’ve got a problem with someone, you come to me first, not them. Got it?” Ash nodded. “If I catch you fighting with anyone in here, I’ll bust you out. Got it?”
Ash nodded again.
“All right,” Ivan sat back, looking satisfied. “Any questions so far?”
“Do I get paid?”
Again, Ivan belly-laughed. “Yes, we do. We rely on donations, but we pay our members a stipend for hazardous work. Don’t expect to be getting that mansion anytime soon, though. Still sound good to you?”
Ash nodded. “Absolutely.”
“Great. Welcome to the club. Let’s get you a uniform. You’re… what? Medium? Large?” Ivan walked into the storage area and knelt before a cardboard box full of plastic wrapped clothing.
“Er…” Ash pulled the back of his shirt around and craned his neck. “Medium. What do you mean ‘uniform’?”
“White track suit and a red sash. If you’re out of uniform on patrol day, you get a reprimand.” Ivan pawed through the box’s contents. “Hmm… ah, here’s one.”
He pulled out what looked like a street magician’s costume and handed it to Ash.
“This one too.” Ivan pulled a blood red sash off the shelf. The words “WHITE KNIGHT” were written across it in black lettering too dark to see, and a bronze sheriff’s badge was sewn in the top. It looked like something an eight-year-old would wear in a school play.
“Thanks,” Ash mumbled.
“Wear it proud. Now, a White Knight needs four essential things when going on patrol. First, a positive attitude.”
Ash suppressed the urge to roll his eyes.
“Two, the uniform. This lets you be seen, and that’s what we want. We want people to know that we’re out there, watching them, and we’ll crack down on anyone breaking the law. Third thing, do you have a cell phone?”
Ash shook his head. If he had one, he wouldn’t be here trying to scrounge up money.
“All right, then you’ll have to use one of the old ones.” He grabbed a black brick with a wiggly orange stem from a top shelf and handed it to Ash. “They can double as walkie-talkies too. Push to talk. Release to listen.”
Ash clipped it to his belt, but it was so heavy it threatened to drop his pants. It fit in his pocket, but made his pants jut out in a rectangle.
“Fourth thing, you got to have decent shoes.” He pointed at Ash’s feet. “I can’t tell you how many rookies I get complaining about blisters their first day on patrol. I can’t stand it.”
Ash said, “Well, I’ve been walking around in these for half a day straight and my feet feel fine.”
“Good, good. Let’s go meet the boys.” Ash followed him out. “Guys!” he snapped.
The three folding-chair quarterbacks looked at them.
“Post up,” Ivan commanded.
They sauntered up from the TV and stood before him, while Ivan muttered ‘lazy’ to himself. “Guys, this is Ash…” he glanced at the application, “Mulrooney. He’s your newest recruit. Ash, this is Anfernee Jenkins,” he pointed to the guy in the sweatpants. “Jamal Peterson,” the short, black guy. “And Squirrel.”
Squirrel waved like he was trying to flag down a cop.
“Squirrel?” Ash asked.
“Yeah, his real name’s Jamie, but we get that confused with Jamal. Besides, he’s kinda squirrely. Ain’t ya?”
“Squirrely like a fox!” he boasted.
Ash wanted to ask if he had a mental condition, but bit his lip.
“Is this everyone?” Ash asked.
“Got some rotators that come in when we need to beef up. These yutzes just got nothing better to do on a rainy Friday. Go back to your game, boys.” They did, and Ivan turned to Ash. “Well, that’s about it. Any questions?”
“When’s my first patrol?”
“You ready tomorrow? We got a patrol at ten by the beach, if the weather’s good. Know how to get there?”
Before Ash responded, Ivan pointed to a large map of the city attached to the wall with brightly colored thumbtacks. “If you take Freemont Street, and then go down to Fifth Avenue…”
Ash tuned him out. He knew how to read a map. He looked for a police station or a hospital, but they weren’t marked.
Ivan said, “We’ll meet at the Frosty Freeze. Can you be there?”
“No problem,” Ash said.
“Good. The beach is a good place for on-the-job training. Any other questions?”
“Is there a way I could get an advance on my pay?”
Ivan laughed. “You want an advance and you’re already in the hole?”
“In the hole?”
“You gotta pay for your uniform, son. Your sash. Money doesn’t grow on trees.” He clapped a hand on Ash’s shoulder. “Tell you what. You show up tomorrow, you do a good job, I’ll see if I can’t get you your day’s pay. Just cause I like you.”
“Sounds good. I’ll see you there.” He hefted his new clothes and opened the door.
“Hey, Ash,” Ivan whispered as Ash stood in the doorway. “Just between you and me, I think you have a lot of potential. You remind me of me, when I was your age. Same ferocity, same ambition. You’ve got fire in your eyes.”
Ash smirked. “You have no idea.”
Ivan nodded. “Keep it up.”
“Thanks.” Ash smiled, and left.