Continued from last week …
Synopsis: While Dancing Fawn considers how to make a living in the hidden area of the Internet and Joshua Weidemeyer catches counterfeiters who work there, another resident of that 'new badlands' continues her clandestine life.
Death in a Camp
Although the lone woman seemed to be sitting in a dark corner of Marty's Pub, the appearance was deceiving. She was not there. She was in the badlands, at the MEET THE BEST chat room, fully engaged in a flirt with David Bowie*, who got his badlands name because he was lucky enough to indenture with the ROCKY ROAD* Crossing House.
She, on the other hand, had originally indentured with DARK CITIES* and so must forever bear the badlands name of Nairobi Bombay*. She had no choice in the matter; DARK CITIES always picked cities for their names. They considered it good publicity. Still, if she had a choice, she might have preferred something more Nordic, as she was tall, lean, athletic, and a natural blond. Unfortunately, nature had also given her a plain face and the bones of a gorilla. One can no more choose one's genes than one's badlands name, so she had long since resigned herself to make the best of both.
The flirt was fun, but all things must come to an end. She had a meeting with her editor that required her physical presence. So, over Bowie's strenuous protests, but with a flutter of her virtual eyelashes, she signed off, packed her things, paid the bill, and headed out to the street.
She had gone a hundred feet down the sidewalk when the first black Humvee squealed around the corner. Two more followed, lights out but moving fast. They sped past her, jerking to stop in front of the entrance she had just left. A dozen helmeted blackjacks jumped out and sprinted into the club.
It wasn't until two more vehicles pulled to a stop in the intersection ahead of her that she came out of her shock. Her first impulse was to run but, turning quickly back away from the club, she saw that the intersection at the other end of the block had also been closed.
To her left was an alley. She ducked into it. Even if they weren't after her, she knew they would welcome an excuse to have a long conversation, one that she didn't want to be part of. She also realized that her computer was that excuse. She began looking for a way to ditch it.
The alley was a dead-end. Before FEMA solved the homeless problem, it would have been an open sewer, stinking of fresh excrement and swarming with flies. But now the rain had washed most of that filth away, leaving only mildewed bedding and decaying cardboard.
Running quickly down it, picking her way past piles of trash, she leaned over a broken shopping cart to try one of the two doors that provided possible escape. It was a blank slab of rusted steel, bolted closed from the inside. She didn't need to check the other one since it didn't even have a handle. There was a window next to it, but that was covered with burglar bars.
She looked back towards the front of the alley and saw the last of the pedestrians pass by. Soon police sweep teams would be moving down the street. She had to do something now and catch up with the end of that crowd if she were to avoid suspicion.
Quickly, stooping down behind an overturned garbage can, she pulled out her laptop. After a quick wipe against her coat to remove fingerprints, she slammed it hard against the alley wall. The first time it only cracked, but the second strike shattered the plastic case. Two more swings and the computer lay in pieces about her feet. Picking through the debris, she found the hard drive and wrenched it loose from its connector. After slipping it into her pocket, she kicked the remaining larger pieces under a pile of sodden clothing. Then, with more than a little fear, she stepped back out onto the sidewalk and moved down the street.
It was occupied only a short distance ahead of her. Catching up with the end of the crowd, she followed the last of the other pedestrians as slowly as she dared, hoping for some inspiration. Then she saw it. Picking her spot, she stepped off the curb as if to cross the street diagonally. As she did so, directly over a storm drain, she slipped the hard drive out of her pocket and let go. It bounced through the grating and splashed in the runoff below.
At the end of the block, she went through a pat-down and wand scan, as well as an inspection of the contents of her purse and pockets. Nothing incriminating was found. With no more than an hour wasted in line, she was again on her way. Hopefully, her editor wouldn't be too angry about her having missed the meeting.
She considered herself lucky to have gotten out of the pub before the raid began, but she didn't know the half of it. She had bought her laptop on Ebay using a money order purchased with cash, and hadn't taken the time to re-register it. So all the information sent by the Windows snitch program that was running on her laptop implicated the original owner, not her. That poor woman would spend an anxious few hours proving that she no longer owned the computer and didn't know where it was. But DHS would not be making calls on Nairobi that night.
Her problem now was how to avoid having this happen again.
* * *
The ambulance arrived quickly, at least by camp standards. This was especially surprising because no one had actually called for it. No dispatcher had sent the vehicle, no record of this visit existed in the system.
The patient lay on the concrete floor of the latrine, not sure which end he should put over the pot, as both were spewing filth. The symptoms implied food poisoning, something that wasn't at all uncommon in the camp. And, of course, it could be nothing more than that, though to anyone who has suffered from the condition, that is quite enough. But food poisoning didn't warrant an ambulance visit. His friends could carry him to the infirmary, just like they would if he had broken his leg.
To understand the reason an ambulance arrived, you have to appreciate the conditions in this camp. It was crowded, packed with dirty, poorly-nourished men. Sanitation was poor at best, awful the rest of the time. While food poisoning is a self-limiting phenomenon, one that might, at worst, carry away one poor soul, gastric flu had the potential to run through the population like a squall line across a wheat field, laying flat forever the weak caught in its path. Those who thought about it considered the fear of this disease to be the cause for the prompt response to a man puking his guts out.
But nothing is as it seems in a FEMA camp, especially this one. Located in the remotest part of northern Wyoming, it was set up to serve as an overflow for camps located near each major city. When the population of one of them got too large, this was where the overflow went.
The camp authorities worried constantly about disease, using all their meager resources to maximize public health, but those resources were stretched very thin. Gastric flu might take the old, weak, and infirm, but most would survive it unaided. The same could not be said for cholera. That disease has been a scourge of mankind from the dawn of the written word. If left untreated, it can literally make a person shit and vomit himself to death in hours. The only treatment for strains resistant to antibiotics is intravenous replacement of lost fluids, something that the camp infirmary could do for no more than 500 patients. The rest of the 30,000-man population would simply have to take their chances with a disease whose untreated mortality rate for healthy men was over 50%. And the men in this camp were anything but healthy. Those in the know realized that the real fear, the real reason the ambulance came, was not the risk of flu, but of cholera.
Whatever the reason for their prompt visit, the two attendants picked up the sick man, dumped him onto the gurney, and wheeled it to the ambulance, leaving the hut wardens to clean up the filth their patient had left behind. After the gurney was secured inside the vehicle, one attendant got in to drive while the other climbed in back. With little fanfare or hurry, just as they had arrived, they drove slowly off towards the Detention compound gate.
For this illness had occurred, not in a FEMA Shelter camp proper, but the smaller attached Detention camp. To get to the infirmary, the vehicle would have to pass through the guarded gates of that smaller camp into the larger one, and then make its way through several miles of packed huts, plowing through muddy roads that had never seen a load of gravel.
In the back, the patient leaned over the edge of his gurney and vomited into a bucket on the floor. As he did so, the attendant sitting next to him swung an improvised sap in a quick whipping motion, striking the retching man on the back of his head with an almost-silent thump.
A manufactured sap consists of a short flat spring with a pad of lead shot attached to one end. The entire assembly is encased in several layers of leather, sewn flat so as to look like an amputated beaver tail. It's held by the narrow part of the tail, the portion, if you will, that would have been attached to the animal, and swung so the spring flexes through the arc. If timed correctly, its unflexing near the end of the swing and the rotation of the wrist combine at the instant of impact to drive the flat of the weighted end against its target with devastating speed. A determined blow to the head could easily cause a concussion, skull fracture, or death from bleeding in the brain.
The beauty of this weapon is that a blow by the flat, though causing considerable internal damage, will leave no mark on the surface. The softness of the leather, backed by the loose shot that conforms to the surface of the head, will spread the blow over a large area, thus avoiding trauma to the skin or, in this instance, scalp.
The ambulance attendant did not, however, have a manufactured sap. He did not want one because, if it were found on his person, he would be questioned uncomfortably about it. Instead, he had nested several heavy athletic socks, one inside the other, to make a single strong padded sheath. The toe of this sheath was filled with two pounds of pennies. True, he did not have the advantage a spring would have provided when he delivered the blow, but he was very good at his job and made up for that detail with skill. The net result was the same. The patient slumped into an instant coma, possibly mortal, without a mark showing on his head or scalp. An MRI could reveal the injury, but this man would never get one.
The attendant pushed the limp body back onto the gurney, then emptied the coins into a drawer and threw the nested socks into the trash. Rolling the patient onto his back, the attendant tied a gauze mask over the man's nose and mouth.
Because of the threat of flu, not to mention drug-resistant TB, spreading through the camp, the use of gauze masks was common and encouraged by the authorities for those who showed symptoms of any upper-respiratory infection. Should someone see a mask on this patient, they would not consider it unusual. And, given the threat of contagion that such a mask implied, they would not make an effort to examine it. That was fine with the attendant as, unlike other masks, this one had an airtight plastic film sandwiched between the gauze sheets. The patient now wearing it could easily breathe out, as the mask moved away from his face with the force of an exhaled breath, but he could not recover that breath, as, when he tried to breathe in, the mask would settle over his mouth and nose, blocking them.
As the patient's subconscious mind fought its struggle for breath against the mask, the attendant frisked him, removing everything from his pockets, including his identification. Then he pulled out an opaque black body bag and slid it under his charge, beginning at his feet. After he had secured the hood around his head, the attendant reached into the bag and clipped a new ID badge to the man's pocket, one that displayed the correct picture but a different name.
Fifteen minutes later, after an unhurried drive through the camp, the ambulance pulled up to an unused side door of the infirmary. The attendant removed the mask from the now-cooling body. After placing an envelope on the corpse's chest, he zipped the bag closed. The driver came around to help him pull the gurney out of the ambulance and held the door as he pushed it into the building. As soon as he cleared the entrance, the attendant turned to the right, towards the camp's small morgue, rather than left towards the emergency room. After all, why bother the doctors? The patient was obviously dead. For anyone who doubted that, the envelope on his chest contained a completed death certificate to prove it.
This body would go to Cody tomorrow, to a small crematorium there, along with the other six that had accumulated in the morgue this day. By tomorrow night, all that would remain of this patient would be a FEMA database record under the name on his false ID. It would show he had arrived at the camp about two weeks ago, ill at the time, and died today from a heart attack.
Should his friends ever ask about the man taken from the Detention latrine, the same FEMA database would show that he had recovered and had managed to contact a relative by phone. That good soul had come and picked him up, taking him back to a fresh new life on the outside, something that everyone in the camps hoped to personally experience.
* See Appendices for a list of characters and crossing houses.
Thieves Emporium is available from Amazon in both paperback and Kindle and in epub format from Smashwords or Nook. Max Hernandez welcomes comments and feedback and can be reached at MaxHernandez@protonmail.ch.
© 2012-2015 Max Hernandez. Reprinted with permission.