Jeopardy in Tights
K. Childs © 2020
All Rights Reserved
Issue 1: Sign the Contract
Errol Mason stood stark naked in front of about twenty people. His cheap suit, seams torn, had partially melted and unraveled like tissue paper around one of the exposed building support struts. The foyer of Stardust Global was a mess. Standing there nude, in the rubble and debris, he recalled a similar nightmare as a teen.
An hour ago, Errol worried that he’d look shabby for this job interview at Stardust Global. His breath smelled like chicken Cup Noodles—his only diet for weeks now—he needed a haircut, and his shaver had broken halfway down his left cheek, leaving him with a three-week shadow on one side. No water in the apartment, clothing smelling of sweat and mold. Going commando had seemed like a good idea to reduce the smell.
He needed this job.
He was broke: stealing spoons and sugar packets from fast food stores broke. Three months behind on rent broke.
“Did you see that?” Someone took a photo of Errol. Like they’d never seen a naked black man before.
He grabbed what was left of his pants, dusty with soot and partially melted. He didn’t have enough fabric here to cover himself. The scrap fell to pieces in his hands as he pulled out his thin wallet and phone. Wallet singed; old shitty phone, still working.
A lady bravely rushed from the crowd of spectators, holding out a floral yellow towel. Though damp and smelling like women’s body spray, it beat flashing his junk to a bunch of strangers. Errol wrapped the towel around his waist with a “Thanks.”
The obsidian dermis covering Errol’s body dried and cracked as he limped down from the wreckage of concrete and mangled van. His coal-black dermis transformed into flakes, revealing Errol’s dark-brown skin, chilled and covered in gooseflesh from adrenaline.
With the immediate danger over, people began to process, and phones came out. Plenty to see.
Errol hardly took the headline in the destruction of the foyer. That belonged to a skinny bald man in a pair of overalls, slumped over the crumpled hood of the totaled van now supported by a pillar of rubble with a very Errol-shaped hole in it.
The short, unimpressive series of events that had led to Errol’s nakedness were a confusing blur. Errol didn’t sit high on anyone’s list of friends, but he’d done nothing to deserve the lunatic who’d crashed through the glass doors and rammed right into him and the concrete pillars.
Errol had ended up crashing into and through the decorative wall behind the reception desk. The car hit Errol and the support pillar, halting its momentum, and the driver, a skinny bald man, had scrambled out, yelled something about inequality, and sprouted flames from his hands in impressive gouts.
Errol, being rather annoyed from getting hit by cars, picked himself up out of the rubble and marched right through the flame. It burned most of his clothing, but Errol’s dermis, a strange liquid metal coating his body under his clothing, was resistant to most midrange temperatures.
Errol had summarily cracked heads with the madman.
The lunatic now lay sprawled on the hood, dazed and probably concussed.
Errol did not feel the least bit sorry.
His last good shirt was nothing but ruined synthetic fabric rags.
The elevator dinged, and the lobby flooded with more of the well-to-do in their fancy unmelted clothing and uncharred shoes.
He was supposed to be interviewing for a security job. The first interview anyone had given him in eight months.
Errol needed a drink.
“You must be Mr. Mason.”
The man who spoke wore a navy-blue suit and smelled faintly of new leather. He extended a hand for shaking. His nails were neat and manicured, and his palm, when Errol took it, was soft. A man who moisturized. The handshake was limp, gentle. Errol followed the arm up to a face. Smokey-green eyes and thin, pale lips schooled into a polite smile. The gentleman’s soft blond hair swept in a curly wave over one side. Clean-shaven, young; he looked like a model for a men’s fashion magazine.
“Hi.” Errol prided himself on being quick with words. He wasn’t eloquent, but then, he didn’t wear fancy suits or moisturize.
“Nice work taking out the trash.” It was a bit familiar of the gentleman, the way he said it.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think we’ve met?” Errol would definitely have remembered this guy.
“Nathan Parkes. Stardust Global General Chief Executive.” There was a lot of title in that introduction.
Errol straightened up, clutching his towel. This was the guy who’d emailed him for the job interview. “Oh, hi. I mean, hello.” He looked down. “Sorry, I’m wearing a towel.”
“I asked my assistant to find you something to wear. Least I can do,” Parkes said. “Your résumé says you spent time working for Miltech?”
Errol brushed some of the dermis from his hair, feeling about as self-conscious as one might in a situation like this. “Yeah. I mean, yes. As an armored van escort.”
“And you served in the army during the war?”
Errol nodded. He didn’t like recounting the events or his service during the two-year war and alien invasion that had devastated the planet. He’d spent six months fighting aliens in what had once been Florida. “I was on troop transport.”
“So you’ve been through a few combat experiences? How about de-escalations?”
This felt like a job interview.
There were people on the phone to the police, security guards rushing to stop anyone from leaving the building, and one chubby security guard bravely putting cuffs on the unconscious van-driving maniac. It was a hardware van, full of cables and fittings. The logo read, “Larry’s home repairs; We’ll drive the hammer home.”
Errol scratched his chin. An older woman in her sixties came scurrying over with a couple of folded items in her hands. A pair of flip-flops rested on a pile that looked like a spare shirt and someone’s discarded sweatpants.
“Mr. Parkes—some gentleman’s clothing.” She presented the pile to Errol while speaking to her boss. Her steel-gray suit matched her neatly bunned hair perfectly. Her face was weathered with age, and she wore minimal makeup on her lips and eyes. Her perfume was faint, something like lilacs, Errol noted.
Errol put the shirt on immediately; it was too cold to be shirtless. “Is there a john…?”
“The facilities are right over here,” the lady said, directing him to a side corridor.
He excused himself and went to change.
The sweatpants were too short, but they had a pocket he could slide his wallet into. The shirt strained over Errol’s chest—too small and showing a bit too much muscle under a Camp Halito Holiday logo. He brushed more dermis off his arms and turned on the tap to wash soot and more dermis off his face.
Meta-genes like Errol—those born with mutations in DNA—made up a whopping twenty percent of the population these days. The upside was a physique carved out of muscle. The downside was his metabolism and cosmetic mutations. His sclera remained black—the dermis never left his eyes—and his nails were black as well. He’d looked a little like a really buff goth through most of high school. The cosmetic mutations put people off.
The government was in denial about human mutations. Fall into a vat of chemicals, and people were fine with the resulting weirdness. But those born with genetic abnormalities? No one wanted to talk about that. Evolution scared folk.
Errol splashed water on his face and washed his hands and arms. Looking into the mirror, he brushed grit from his unruly swirl of curls. A thin layer of grime still covered him, but at least now he was less obviously covered in plaster and flaking dermis.
Nathan Parkes was waiting in the lobby. “Let’s have a coffee in the conference room.”
It wasn’t a request.
Since there would probably be a long talk and statement-making with the police in Errol’s future, coffee would be lovely. “Sure. Please lead on.”
Part of Errol wanted to slink away before the red tape slithered in, but the place probably had plenty of CCTV coverage.
Parkes led them to a room just past the reception desk. His assistant, already inside, had a trolley with morning tea supplies on it. Not just a pot of coffee, but biscuits and fresh-cut fruit. Cake slices and mini-muffins. “Please help yourself,” she said.
“Are those ham and cheese sandwiches?” Errol closed his mouth before he started drooling.
“Turkey, cranberry, and cress. This one is egg and mayonnaise. Please take as many as you like. Mr. Parkes normally indulges,” she said, indicating her boss. “I am Mr. Parkes’s personal assistant, Mrs. Bennet. Nice work in the lobby.”
Errol took two triangle sandwiches and a sample of everything else that would fit on the little paper plate. He was starving but didn’t want to look the part. He poured milk and sugar into a cup, mixing them in his coffee.
They all sat down, including Mrs. Bennet, whose brew was excellent. Errol felt like he’d seen Mrs. Bennet before, but he couldn’t place where, and he let it go.
After finishing off a muffin in a few quick mouthfuls, Parkes re-posed his question. “What about your experience in resolving conflict?”
“I once had a drunk trying to get into an office. He was going to shoot his ex-girlfriend. Though, at the time, I didn’t know he had a gun. I saw him and intercepted. Just talked with him a bit. Listened mostly. We got going for about twenty minutes. The police arrived, and he went with them, calm, cooperative. He thanked me, said if I hadn’t been there, he would have probably killed a few people.”
Nathan Parkes looked impressed by the story. He sipped his coffee and flicked a finger down a page of questions. While Errol spoke, the man had finished two more sandwich corners.
Errol took a few quick bites of his food, wolfing it down as fast as he dared.
“You were fired and blacklisted by Extra Mile Security. Would you care to comment?”
That was a loaded question.
Errol had plenty to say about what had happened. But as hurt as he was, in the end, he’d been at fault.
“Not really. I won’t make the same mistakes again.”
Parkes seemed to consider his answer for a moment and then moved on. “Do you have any strong religious beliefs? Any affiliations that you haven’t included on your résumé?”
It felt strange. That huge scar Extra Mile left on Errol’s life being reduced to a single question. He felt as though it should have made more of a fuss with Nathan Parkes. It had with all of his other interviewers.
“Can’t say I do; I’m agnostic.”
“The position I am looking to fill is not a full-time career but a special short-term contract. I don’t know about ongoing employment. You’re suited to the security role I am looking to fill. However, I must caution you…this job will be very dangerous. As Stardust Global is not a company in the habit of placing its employees in highly volatile positions, we have drafted a unique application and legal documents to match. Your employee agreement will look nothing like other employees contracts in our company.
“Sensitive corporate or personal information may be discussed while in your presence. You will be in grave violation of your contract if you discuss such information with outside sources, including during litigation and prison time. Do you think you can be trusted in a job like this?”
Errol frowned. There were a few red flags in that disclaimer. He was being hired for a dangerous job that required him to keep his mouth shut. And he’d heard of human experimentation and evil corporate super-soldier programs.
He rubbed his chin. Nathan Parkes looked like a poster boy for a corporation like this. If he was doing illegal human experimentation, he had a sort of charming smile that probably allowed him to get away with it. Besides, most importantly, Errol needed to eat. Right now, his moral code was more than a little flexible. “I’d like to earn that trust.”
Parkes smiled. It seemed genuine. “Mrs. Bennet.”
She slid a folder in front of Errol and produced a pen for him.
There were sixteen pages of confidentiality agreements. Errol didn’t normally read this sort of thing, but too many red flags and vagaries about the job had been presented.
As he read, an image began to form in his head. He was being hired as a bodyguard for Nathan Parkes. On special assignment. Most of the legal vomit on the page alluded to similar contracts Errol had seen for single-shift security roles. The role outlined asked him to ensure the safety of his employer and those around him while in and out of the office.
The wording allayed most of his fears, which revolved around him being overly paranoid about ulterior motives, or the company growing vats of illegal clones in the basement. “So this means you want to hire me?”
Mrs. Bennet placed another document in front of him. “The official offer.”
He flipped the first page and saw a number.
Errol blinked and rubbed his eyes.
The number remained.
“This will be a dangerous position. I anticipate a fair amount of resistance to my actions over the next few weeks.”
Errol said, “This is awfully vague, Mr. Parkes.”
Parkes placed a hand on the table, as if rubbing at an invisible smudge. “Mr. Mason, my stepmother was recently kidnapped by Equality in Action. Have you heard of them?”
Errol shook his head. It sounded like a band name.
“They are a cult. There’s no disguising it. I am afraid their actions have become…militant, recently. They have come after me on several occasions, and the van in the lobby is indicative of their tactics. I believe my stepmother is in serious danger. They are egalitarian extremists; those who are born with genetic dispensation to ‘superior abilities’ are a clear imbalance of society, in their view. My stepmother has telepathic abilities.”
“That’s something for the police to handle, Mr. Parkes.” While Errol was strong and had a certain resistance to damage, a one-man army he was not.
“Equality in Action is very hard to track down, Mr. Mason. The police do not have enough evidence to convince them that it was EIA that took my stepmother, and their support for my safety and the safety of others in this case has been…shorthanded.”
Parkes waved at the lobby. “It’s been almost twenty minutes since someone committed an act of domestic terrorism on this building, and no uniforms have appeared. I don’t think this is a coincidence, do you? I intend to hunt these madmen down and deliver them on a silver platter to the authorities. But I need your help.”
Errol signed the contract.