After the evening at Nat and Alan’s place, I go straight to my apartment, eager to check to see if I can find any information on Tracy before I make first contact with her tonight.
When it comes to tracking assignments, the neck chip implantation—called a “throater” in slang terms—makes things easier on us. So far, the United States Overseers organization has been the only group to adopt it, but I know that it won’t be long before the other Overseers see how effective it is. Everyone else overseas is still stuck in the old times of mass, random killings—disease, famine, senseless crimes.
Even the Accidental and Crime Death Leaders are still set on using that antiquated mind control liquid transmitter instead of using the government computer systems to tap into assignments’ throaters. Their liquid transmitter doesn’t seem to be as effective as the transmitter that the Natural Causes and Disease Death Leaders use. At least our transmitter doesn’t make people turn blank and zombie-like. Influencing a series of thoughts is one thing; wiping a person clean and completely interjecting your own thoughts is another. It creates more unnecessary deaths than desired. The US Overseers always like to call the overseas Overseers “Overdoers”—but never to their faces, of course.
I’m lucky to have joined the United States division of the Divine Order of Death in the time period that I did. My father used to tell me pre-technology tales of how Death Leaders like him had to follow their assignments everywhere they went, and how they were difficult to keep track of. In those days, he said, it was easier to just wipe people out by the masses. Problem was, few succeeded in making the deaths look seamless—my father was one of the lucky ones.
Earlier in my career, everyone took to having different members of Franco’s office staff follow our assignments. That worked better for special assignments that we’d have to follow for a longer period of time, but poorly for regular kills. You’d send two or three people out and get totally different information from each person. One person would say something like: “He’s a punk rocker. He went in the guitar store at 12:09pm and came out with five rock guitars five minutes later.” And the other staff member would swear up and down that their account was the right one: “At 12:09pm, he was playing with a neighborhood cat and at 12:10pm, he adopted it.” It was a complete mess.
Thankfully our systems have improved over the last forty years or so. Once the Overseers agreed on the switch to computers in the late 1990s, things got a lot easier. Things got even better in 2020 when the government implanted throaters in every United States citizen. Even non-US citizens who visit have to wear a temporary device until they leave, and from what I’ve read, that procedure is worse than the normal procedure for getting a throater implant.
Throaters are implanted using a vaccination for rhemalitis, the disease that causes obesity—I of all people know that rhemalitis is fictional, but the Regulars, the living, haven’t quite caught on that they are not being cured from the pain of not being able to fit into a size zero swimsuit. Instead, they are being tracked like sheep in a herd. The only way the US Death Leaders and Overseers managed to slip under the radar of having to get one is by inventing our own false throater that the government’s systems detect.
Franco has found a way to tap into the system and get a live location feed of where an assignment is at all times. It’s also what every Death Leader uses in one way or another to carry out his or her assignments. Disease and Natural Causes Death Leaders use it to track health— whether or not a disease has traveled through the blood stream and overtaken an assignment’s body. In the old days, we just had to hope for the best and move on; Accident and Crime Death Leaders use it to influence an assignment’s thoughts and actions.
We also visit an assignment’s home to learn more about them. One mid-day visit for regular kills, and twice a day for special assignments. There’s more to this business than tracking and killing. There’s a whole way to go about operating in the Divine Order of Death.
Before I get on the computer to start my research, I check the number traps in my apartment. They are my version of an alarm system; not because I’m afraid of danger, but to keep tabs on who knows what about me. I try not to stay in one place too long for fear of people noticing that I’m never aging. That elicits curiosity and curiosity elicits fear and investigations. So, I leave things a certain way in my apartment, and if the count looks off on anything when I return, I know that someone somewhere is curious and that it’s time to ask Franco to be assigned to a new location in Chicago.
My cereal boxes are set at 93-degree angles on the counter; there are three paper clips lying across six letters on my computer keyboard; there are three strings of floss placed strategically across certain corners of tile on the floor. These things don’t even include the small traps that I’ve set inside of the kitchen cabinets, in the closets, and by my bedroom door.
Today, all of my number traps are just as I left them.
I check my file cabinet that sits in the living room next to my computer. Tracy’s file, along with other assignments from the past, are still here. Franco has given all of us fancy memory sticks that only show data when they recognize our specific biometric readout, and ordered us to never keep hard copies of anything longer than we have to. This is one of the few rules that I’m always breaking. Hard copies are always better for me. I can hold an assignment’s information in my hand and feel them—know that they are there and not have to go through a bunch of commands and buttons just to catch a glimpse of their names sitting on a brightly lit screen.
I turn my computer on, the green light pronounced from the dimly lit room.
“Can I help you?” a woman’s voice booms from the computer speakers.
“I need you to give me everything you have on Tracy Wilbourne. Can you help with that?” I ask.
“Of course, Mr. Rush. Is there anything else that you need me to do?” the computer voice asks.
“Not much that you can do besides give me pointless webpages,” I mumble.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Rush. I didn’t quite catch that?”
“Thank you. That will be all,” I say.
“Great! Conducting search…”
An Internet window pops up with a few Tracy Wilbourne leads that I know are false: a neuroscientist from California, a nationally recognized basketball player set to be drafted overseas. None of these women look like the woman’s picture that I am now holding. I scroll through seven more pages of Internet results for “Tracy Wilbourne.” Nothing looks all that promising. There are no Tracy Wilbournes who even live in Illinois. Who was this woman to not turn up one result on an Internet search? Every young person could be searched on the Internet somehow.
A knock on the door interrupts me. Just one knock. Whoever it is knows that I can identify visitors by sound. Somebody knocked just once, on purpose.
I get up from my computer chair as quietly as I can. This person could be a Death Leader; the last thing that I want to do is give them a visual of me walking toward the door. I need to catch whoever it is off guard. I tip toe across the hardwood floors, hoping they don’t creak, and put my hand on the cold, golden doorknob. I yank the door open. There are a couple of teenage boys knocking at the door across the hallway from me. Had anyone even knocked on my door at all? Yes. I had heard the knock clearly. Somebody knocked just once, on purpose.
I look up and down the long empty hallway and then eye the boys suspiciously. None of them look like any of the Death Leaders that I’ve ever seen in Chicago, and none of the Death Leaders are old enough to have sons yet. Were they just knocking once to play an innocent prank on me?
The boys are not shy about eyeing me right back. “Did you knock on this door?” I ask. I am ready to teach them a lesson if they say yes. Maybe not by touching them—I’m not a savage who just walks around taking lives—but there are other ways.
“No,” they say as though they are offended to even be asked the question.
Not good enough. “Who did?”
They look puzzled. “I don’t know. Some guy. He left that,” they say pointing to a grey card-sized envelope at my feet.
“Who left this? What did he look like?” I ask them again.
“You deaf or something?” one of them mumbles. The other two boys laugh. “How should we know?” another one of them says. The door to the apartment that they were knocking on opens and the group walks in, still laughing. I pick up the envelope. My name is written in capital block letters across it.
I step back inside of my apartment where it is secure and open up the envelope. It’s a card, like I thought. I haven’t gotten one of these in years. My name almost looks like a foreign language sprawled across it.
The card is light blue with a picture of a yellowish-brown dog that is laughing. There are words sprawled across the top of the card above the laughing dog:
For your birthday, I thought I’d get you something memorable and worth smiling for…
I open the card and jump back from the sound that comes out of it. Laughter. Hysterical laughter. I nearly drop it. I finish reading the card:
Pretty funny-looking, right? Happy birthday!
Above the writing is a small, thin mirror that I’m now looking directly into. My reflection stares back at me, stern and tense. On the other half of the card is a handwritten note. As I stare at the writing in the card, I feel myself reach a boiling point:
You’re so pitiful, it makes me sick.
This prank has Joseph’s name written all over it.
Things are not always this way, except for the times when Joseph is interested in taking one of my assignments—making me look bad, just because. It couldn’t be that he actually believes that Mortimus will wipe the Earth clean of the Death Leaders that fail—I’m sure Joseph knows that when that happens, he’ll be taken long before I will. Joseph thinks he’s rattling my confidence so that I will take part in messing things up on my own. But my confidence won’t be shaken. When it’s all said and done, I will make sure that Joseph is the one with an insecurity and a busted lip to match.