Ash walked into the White Knights HQ thinking about what Jamal said last night–‘Tomorrow is another day to set things right’. It helped to stop him from panicking when he saw a hefty stack of red flyers on the desk.
Anfernee was watching TV, flipping between the news and early morning cartoons. Squirrel, who had walked in with him, pulled up another chair. Jamal was sitting at the computer with Ivan looking over his shoulder.
“Ash, you came back,” Ivan said with a shit-eating grin.
“Yeah, I came back.”
Ivan approached him for his daily manhandling. “Where’s your uniform? You know we got a patrol today.”
“My uniform? I, uh… I lost it.”
“You lost it? Sometime in the last ten hours, you lost your uniform?”
Ivan sighed, and patted Ash down. Ash stuck his tongue out at him when he wasn’t looking.
“All right, I’ll get you another.” Ivan walked into the back room. “And grab those flyers.”
“Yes, mem-sahib,” Ash said.
“Where’d your uniform go?” Squirrel said. “You had it last night.”
“Must be under all the garbage.”
Ivan emerged with a red sash. “We’re all out of medium uniforms, but we got sashes. So find your other one, and you won’t have to pay for another.”
“Check, boss.” He unfolded the sash and put it on. The sash wasn’t so bad–at least it identified him as an authority. “Where are we headed today?”
“Downtown,” Ivan answered. “You wanted to tackle the criminal element, right? Well, you’ll get your chance today. Think you’re up to it?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’m still burnt out from busting all those beach bunnies yesterday. Maybe I’ll take it easy this patrol.”
“See that you do,” Ivan said, not catching the sarcasm. “In downtown, you could miss a hundred crimes going by. They don’t have a nice set of regulations like the beach. You could get overwhelmed.”
“I’ll pace myself,” Ash said.
Ivan turned back to Jamal. “You got the map?”
“Good, shut it down. We’ve got our route. Hopefully, everything will go smoothly.”
“It’s eight o’clock in the morning,” Ash said. “Everyone’s either going to work or still asleep. Is there really anything happening in the morning?”
“So much the better. Ash, you’re with me. And grab those flyers. Squirrel, Jamal, you go in Anfernee’s car.”
“We can’t all fit into one?” Squirrel asked.
“No. We can’t,” Ivan said.
Squirrel dropped his hands like a pouting kid but said nothing else. Jamal shut down the computer, and everyone filed out of the office. Ivan jingled his keys and locked up. The three headed to the back of the building, while Ivan approached a brown SUV parked in front.
Ash walked to the passenger side, out of Ivan’s view. “Oops,” he said quietly as he accidentally juggled the flyers into the gutter. The morning run-off soaked in immediately.
Ash shrugged and climbed in. They backed out and sped off towards the center of the city.
Ivan turned on the radio. A news/talk station reported about how a pregnant woman had been car-jacked and gang-raped, followed by police corruption in a strip-search, followed by the release of Rachel Dolan, teen pop sensation, from her second stint in rehab.
“You know why this world is doomed, Ash?” Ivan said. “Because it takes hundreds of people years to make a building, but one idiot with a bomb to blow it up.”
“Mm,” Ash said.
“You know that seventy percent of all criminals are repeat offenders? That’s what we’re here for, son. We’re trying to stop that corruption. You ever think about your future?”
“Not really.” How could he think of the future–he didn’t even have a past.
“Let me give you an earful of free advice–don’t join the military. No point to get your balls blown off for someone with a ton of money so they can make more.”
“Did you used to be in the military?”
“Heh, nope. But I knew someone who did. Used to be a White Knight. Marine. Hardass. But he couldn’t shake the programming, you know? Always talking about how we needed harsher penalties for criminals, how we needed to be more active in politics, that we should carry weapons.”
“What happened to him?”
“Oh, I had to bust him out of here. He wasn’t putting the work in, stopped going on patrol. Said that we were wasting our time. So one day I announced, ‘okay, you can forget about Matt coming in here anymore. Time to start looking for a new guy.'”
“Really,” Ash said with mock interest.
“Yeah. He kept on about how we needed to bring guns and clubs, and that was never my vision. I say, the first man to raise his fists is the first man to run out of ideas. We can’t be like them or we fail. We’re talking about the sanctity of life here.”
“Sanctity of life? What does that have to do with anything?”
“That means we’ve got to treat every life as God would want us to.”
“God killed a million people in the bible, and they worship Him.”
“Ash,” Ivan clucked his tongue. “What I’m saying is we’re not cops. We don’t have the right to start in with the guns. We’re about preserving life. But we can’t start judging people. That’s the same reason we don’t guard abortion clinics. We prevent harm, we don’t cause it. See what I’m saying?”
“What does this have to do with guarding abortion clinics?”
“From time to time we get requests to act as security for small events, to keep the peace. It’s a great way to promote too. In fact, we got one scheduled tomorrow. But what I was saying is, we can’t help one side if it’s going to stop another. I’m not gonna let the right hand not know what the left is doing. We can’t judge people. We’re peacekeepers. We observe until we need to intervene. Says so on the flyers. Speaking of which, you bring them?”
“Oh. I couldn’t find them.”
“What? They were right on the desk.”
“I didn’t see them. Sorry, boss.”
Ivan grunted, but they were too far away to go back and get them.
They parked in a ramp with a nine dollar fee and gathered at the street corner. Seeing the group in their glossy outfits, Ash thought, since they were here, they should think about trying out for the Rockettes.
“Good,” Ivan said and looked at his watch. “Post up for search.”
Like domestic dogs, they filed in line.
“What? Again? Are you serious?” Ash said.
“Everyone gets searched before patrol, Ash. You already know that,” Ivan said as he kneaded Anfernee like pizza dough.
“I’ve been with you the entire fucking time. What, do you think I stuck a gun up my ass?”
“Watch your mouth. No cussing on duty,” Ivan pointed and moved onto Ash. “There’s always a search before patrol. It’s policy.”
If Ash rolled his eyes any more today, they’d fall back into his brain.
Finished, Ivan stood in front of his troops like a drill sergeant. “All right men. Ash forgot the flyers,” he said with contempt, “So we’ll just start with patrol. Spiral pattern, enclose on the center. Jamal and Anfernee, you take the north. Squirrel take the south. Ash and I will take the west. Reconnoiter here in two hours.”
They all nodded.
“What? You’re sending Squirrel all alone?” Ash said. “This isn’t like the beach, where we can all generally keep an eye on each other.”
“We don’t have enough people, and he needs to learn some White Knight independence, so I’m sending him out on his own. Don’t worry about him. Right?”
“Y-yeah,” Squirrel said. “No problem. Right, Ivan. I’ve got my cell phone.”
“Are you trying to get him killed?” Ash asked. “For a tight area like this, you need partners. Otherwise, he’s no match against two men. It’s not good promotion if your security force gets beaten up, is it?”
Ivan looked to the sky and groaned again. “Fine. You patrol with him. I’ll go alone. Would you like that?”
“Yes, that would be lovely,” Ash said.
“You are seriously grinding my gears.” Ivan pointed a finger at him. “If you get in trouble, use your cell phone.”
“10-4, big kahuna,” Ash said and saluted. Ivan started walking away down the street. Anfernee and Jamal headed north.
Squirrel ran up to Ash like he was his mommy. “Ash, you didn’t need to do that. You’re pissing him off.”
“Ivan needs to be pissed off, treating you like that. Why aren’t you pissed off?”
“Cause he’s right, I keep messing up. Like yesterday with the music.”
“You didn’t mess up. I know it and you know it. Don’t convince yourself otherwise. Jeez, they love you when you first join up, and then they take the love away, and you’re always bending over backward to get it back. It’s like a cult.”
“Man, you are smart. I never would have thought of that,” Squirrel said.
“It’s this whole distrust of everyone. He searches us every chance he gets. He’s got signs posted all over the office that no one pays attention to. It’s no way to run a civilian defense group.”
“Um,” Squirrel rubbed the back of his head.
“Like yesterday. ‘We don’t take requests’?” Ash said. “What kind of horse shit is that?”
“No, he’s right. I didn’t even notice the noise until the lady told me. She was cute. It… it doesn’t matter. I’m always screwing up like that.”
“That doesn’t mean he has to be so harsh.”
“Aw, that’s just because I’m one of the big boys now. Shouldn’t have made a rookie mistake like that.”
“If I was in charge, I wouldn’t have cared.”
Squirrel put his arm around Ash. “You’re all right, Ash. I think you’re gonna make it with us.”
“Dude, be cool,” Ash said. “Just keep your eyes on the street, okay? What kind of crimes are we supposed to be looking for?”
“General haberdashery. At least that’s what my mom calls it.”
“Can you be more specific?”
“Crackheads, people making trouble. Not the gangs, though. Ivan said ‘don’t seek out the gangs’. Said we don’t try to have conflicts with them, unless they’re doing something.”
“Aren’t they a big problem though?”
“I don’t know. I never messed with them. At most, there’s five of us and ten of them. And they’ve got knives and guns. No thank you.”
“It would give us something to do,” Ash muttered. “When was the last time you actually made a bust?” He hated saying that word, but he couldn’t think of a better term.
“Oh, I dunno. Two days ago, I talked to some guy who dropped his butt on the curb. Cigarette butt. By the trash can. I told him about it, said there was possible jail time for littering. He just smiled and picked it back up. He apologized.”
“That was it? What are we, the litter patrol?” Ash punched his fist into his palm. “Why aren’t we somewhere where there’s some real crime? No one makes trouble in the office district at nine in the morning.”
“I dunno. I guess Ivan would say we’re not ready. Hey, there’s something.”
Squirrel pointed to a man with a sign and a coffee can sitting on the curb corner, soliciting passerbys for money. He had a dirty white shirt on and features like hardened play-doh.
“I assume panhandling’s a crime we’re ready for,” Ash asked.
“Uhhhh… seems like it.”
“Finally. Let’s go say hello.” It wasn’t what Ash was hoping for–begging for food wasn’t wrong in his book–but illegal was illegal.
“I’ll take point on this,” Squirrel said, adding a little skip in his step. “He’ll ‘respect mah authoritah’, hee hee.”
Squirrel took the lead and approached the vagrant. Ash could smell his body odor five feet away. “Sir,” Squirrel said in a gruff tone. “Panhandling’s illegal here. You have to leave these premises.”
The tramp ignored the two of them and held out his cup to passerbys.
“Hey, buddy,” Ash said. “Can’t have you begging here. You’re gonna have to take it somewhere else.”
“Aw, lay off. I’m just trying to get something to eat,” the beggar said.
“Something to drink, more like,” Squirrel said.
“Not here, you’re not,” Ash said to the man. He pulled the man up by the arm.
“Hey, hey, let go,” he said. “You’re not cops. You can’t do shit.” He pushed Ash back.
Ash had flashbacks of the Beefy Queen. A hand shoving forward. A fist, floating out of the blurry background. A boot dropping down.
No, control yourself. Stay clean. You’re a White Knight, Ash thought as his fists clenched.
Squirrel, on the other hand, was doing some sort of boxing shuffle with his fists up. “Come on. Come on. You want some?” He gave the homeless man a shove.
He shoved Squirrel back, pushing him to the pavement. Ash stepped in-between the two, and held the beggar’s arms . “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Sparks erupted between the two of them, popping like firecrackers. A bright orange flame licked up from under his cardboard sign. The homeless man stared in dull wonder, until the fire spread to his fingers. He dropped it and yelped, “Ah, ah, get off me. Get off me.”
But Ash clutched tighter. He needed to show who had the power, who was stronger. The man shoved hard enough to loosen Ash’s grip and ran around the corner.
Ash picked up his coffee can. “Come back! Don’t you want your change?”
Squirrel stood up, rubbing a bruised shoulder, “Aw, man.”
“Did you see that?” Ash said, grinning ear to ear.
“Yeah, that was awesome,” Squirrel said. “You were lucky. Those power lines do funny things.”
He pointed up. All along the sidewalk, electric poles were stuck into the pavement like toothpicks, power lines strung between them. Some draped off billboards and streetlights.
“Yeah, they’re failing all the time,” Squirrel said.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s the secondary power grid. First one wasn’t generating enough, so they made another one. But they couldn’t put the lines underground, so they stuck them right next to the buildings. They’re too close together, and they can short out. Cause sparks.”
Ash looked around in disbelief. Was he going to have to burn the whole city to get someone to notice his talent?
“It was still awesome though,” Squirrel said. “Ivan says these bums try to provoke you into a fight so they can get arrested and spent a night in jail with a free meal. Nice job, fighting fire with fire.”
Ash crossed his arms, and grinned. Are you kidding? he thought. That’s my standard operating procedure.