Options (30 Stories — 13)

Options

Wind-blown rain tore at Anthony’s jacket, finding the gap left by his missing button, secreting through his shirt and settling uneasily against his skin.  He increased his pace and ducked his head against the rain, curling as far inward as possible.  When he reached the office building, he took a minute to shake himself out, calm his shivering.  There was nothing he could do about his wet head, his sodden clothes, but could see he wasn’t the only one in the waiting area who’d been surprised by the storm.

“Bad day for running around,” the receptionist said, her voice sleepy and thick.  “Even an umbrella wouldn’t help out there.”

Anthony tried to smile, but could feel his face only able to shape a grimace. A girl with a voice like that deserved better.  Not just a smile, but a smile from a man who wasn’t angry and desperate, or smile from a man who could back up a come-on with an offer of dinner and a movie.

He shook his head.  There was no time for any of that, no reason to even think of it.  Besides, she reached for a clipboard and the ring on her third left finger told him any come-on from him would be wasted and unwelcome.

“Fill these out,” she clipped papers onto the board, “and then you’ll go to the second floor and meet with a job specialist.”  She smiled.  “Shake out your jacket, try to warm up.”

He smiled something more like a real smile.  The board held standard forms — his most recent jobs, his skills, what he was looking for.  He shook out his jacket, went to the men’s room and used the hand dryer on his hair, his shirt.  At least from the waist up he wouldn’t look his worst.  He appreciated the receptionist’s suggestions, that she had extended herself in even that small way.

He sat in a small room packed with sullen-faced, damp people waiting his turn.  Everyone was closed off, focused on their struggles, looking up hopefully when counselors appeared in the doorway, dropping their eyes when the name called wasn’t theirs.

The group was mostly men, almost 50-50 black and white, one Asian woman, one Latino man.  The counselors were all black and Latino.  Anthony wondered if they judged him, pitied him, wondered what was wrong with him?  Projecting, he thought, hearing his mother’s voice.  He was projecting.  He judged himself, wondered how he hadn’t been able to avoid being in that room.

“Good afternoon, beautiful people.”

Anthony looked up, to see a small, older black woman smiling in the doorway, leafing through papers.

“I do apologize for the rain,” she said.  “The least we could do when you come in is arrange for better weather, right?”

Mentally, Anthony crossed his fingers, then smiled when she called his name.

“I hope you’ve had a minute to dry out,” the counselor said, leading him to a cubicle.

“I didn’t expect there to be so many people waiting,” he said.  “I know the economy’s bad, but –”

“But there’s always work for assassins?” she asked, smiling.  “That’s been my experience, but something’s shifting.  Everyone’s noticed.  Your last job was in the spring?”

“May,” he said, nodding.

“Yes, that’s when it started.”  She looked over his forms, made notes.  “You have great experience don’t you?  You shouldn’t be out of work.”

“I’m all for world peace, but isn’t there always work for a good killer?”  He tried to sound flippant.

She frowned.  “It really makes no sense.  We’ve had peace before, but this –” she shook her head.  “There’s definitely something going on, something upsetting the normal balance.”

“Five months is my longest dry spell,” he said.  It didn’t explain his pathetic state of affairs, however.  He could have saved money, could have lived less lavishly.  But he was talented, popular.  There’s been no reason to expect it to end.

And then, in a bar, complaining to a mercenary he was friendly with, he’d found out about the office, that he could file for unemployment.

“You’re joking,” he’d said.  “Our work isn’t exactly … above board.”

“Neither are the folks in that office!”

Anthony looked at the counselor.  She had the placid, kindly face of a grandmother, but she hadn’t blinked an eye at his profession, had talked easily about his work.

She handed him a slim folder.  “I wish you’d come sooner,” she said.  “I’ll process your paperwork today, but I can only make benefits retroactive by one month.” She pointed to the folder.  “That’s all the info about your options.  We have a lovely range of services.”  She turned to face him and put her hands in her lap.  He half expected her to tell him a story.  “Now.  I don’t have any jobs in your field at this time, but maybe you’d like to enter a training program?”

“Training? Like learning to type 40 words a minute?”

The counselor laughed, a warm, comforting sound that made Anthony smile.  “My, that would be funny,” she said.  “But 40 words wouldn’t get you very far in any case.”  She laughed again.  “No,” she said after a moment.  “I wouldn’t suggest you for the steno pool.”

She fished a pamphlet from a file beside her desk.  “This,” she said, passing it to him, “is our cross-training program.  I have to say torture is surely the best bet.  I’ve seen no drop-off in the need for coercive intelligence gathering.”

Anthony scanned the glossy, tri-fold brochure, wondering when the work had become so ordered, so open, and how he’d missed the transition.  Maybe it really was time for a career change.

“Coercive Intelligence,” he said, noting that the trainees were called the CIG Corps.  “Let’s talk about that one.”

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