Rule 1: Never break the rules
Thick steel cuffs dig into my wrists, the pressure of the metal against my skin threatening to break through the damaged flesh. The scar tissue that formed there years ago continues to ache, the skin chaffing more and more with each step that I take.
The emotions that linger in the air are the same ones that are ever-present in this place; desperation combined with frustration and hopelessness. The feelings of those locked away behind the doors I pass reach out for me, seeping into my pores as thick as week-old motor oil.
I am weighted down with the burdens of others.
The men here, the ones who think themselves above others because they have been gifted the title of ‘guards’, remain silent as they escort me towards the interrogation rooms located on the higher floors. They are cautious, careful to make sure that there is always at least two feet between me and their bodies. I might be wearing the same skin-tight jumpsuit they refuse to let me change out of but they have done their research; they have seen enough footage of me to know that I am always a threat to them.
Hell, I could be blindfolded and buried in a box six-feet underground and still pose a major threat to them all.
That is just the kind of thing that I am.
Their refusal to speak to me means that no one has bothered to inform me as to why I was ripped from my cell without so much as a warning and, while I don’t expect them to fill me in anytime soon, I know that my being this high above ground is not a good sign. The last time I was allowed to leave my cell was when a judge called on me to inform me that he was going to overlook the suggestions of the jury and sentence me to a life in prison without the possibility of parole.
My mind wanders as we walk, flipping through the various options of who might be waiting for me once we reach our destination.
It has been months since I attacked another person, but that doesn’t mean that someone from my past hasn’t decided to make an appearance. It doesn’t mean that someone has decided to forgo the old motto of ‘forgive and forget’ so that they can exact their form of revenge on me.
Not everyone was pleased to hear that I would die behind bars; some would prefer that my death occur sooner and at the hands of a firing squad.
I am one of those people.
Maybe it is my former cell guard, Douglas, finally released from the ICU where his inappropriate hands landed him five months ago. He was warned of the possible repercussions the first time his fingers slipped between the buttons of my jumpsuit but he was determined, earning himself as many broken bones as it took to make him leave me alone.
Has he returned to teach me a lesson for what I did to his face?
Or is it someone else entirely; a face I’ve never seen before? Is it someone with a wallet thick enough to bribe their way into this place? Someone who has grown bored enough with their life that they are willing to risk it to go a few rounds with a well-known killer?
I am sure that I am nothing but an after-thought to most people these days, but there are some who will never forget what I did.
Once again, I am one of those people.
Either way, being that I am so tightly shackled that walking is proving to be a bit of a chore, the odds of my winning a fight against whoever is waiting for me without breaking one of the many rules I have placed upon myself are slim to none.
The door to interrogation room number seven swings open and I flinch, the harsh light assaulting my eyes.
Having been banned from leaving my cell has forced me to adapt to seeing without much lighting and this sudden blast of it has left my eyes stinging and watering.
I am eased down into a stiff metal chair and I turn my head, wiping my face against the rough fabric of my orange jumpsuit.
I do not struggle as they position my arms behind my back, tightening the gloves that cover my hands before securing the shackles into place. They test each lock repeatedly, checking to make sure none of them have become weak or remain unlatched before leaving the room, and I take this time to shift in my seat.
My body relaxes, adapting to the new way it has become restricted.
“Harper Rickshaw?” the man who was waiting for me when we arrived asks and I turn my head towards the sound of his sandpaper voice, peering up at him through filthy locks of unevenly cut hair.
“It depends on who’s asking.”
My voice comes out deeper than I remember it being; raw and gritty from how long it has been since I last used it.
I don’t like the way it sounds. I sound, well, broken.
He folds his hands together, placing them atop the table that has been placed between us. “I am the one who is asking.”
Even though he is dressed in a crisp blue button-down and a recently purchased pair of black slacks, that fact given away by the half-torn tag still attached to his outer thigh, I can tell that this is not the manner in which he normally dresses.
He seems uncomfortable in his new attire, stiff even.
His face is in need of a good shave, hints of stubble forming along his jawline, and I can see the dirt still wedged under his chewed down fingernails. His auburn hair has been brushed and styled fashionably, brushed away from his sun-kissed faced so that not one strand falls out of place.
Thick orange lashes frame his pale eyes, the bags under them dark enough to make his irises appear more gray than blue.
He appears worn down from whatever it is that he does when he is not playing dress up to try and fool inmates.
My senses finally adjust to their new environment and, now that I am no longer being bombarded by the emotions of hundreds of prisoners, I take a moment to feel him out.
I hit a brick wall.
Unlike others, who are a buzz of ever-changing feelings, there is nothing coming from this man. He is quite literally the calmest person I have ever come across; a fact that disturbs me because I can clearly feel that he is as human as they come.
There is something there, however, lingering under the surface of his humanity.
That something makes me feel uneasy.
He reminds me of a broken radio; one where the antennae has been snapped in half so you can hear the music but can’t quite make out the lyrics.
I hate people like him. I don’t come across them frequently but, when I have in the past, the sensation I get from their presence almost drives me to the point of insanity.
The air around him pulsates with power, the kind that only comes from having stared down death more times than he cares to admit, but I know that that is not the things about him that makes him unsettling.
No, this is something else.
My fingers twitch inside my gloves, itching to break free so that I can see what he is hiding behind the brick wall that surrounds him.
I roll my eyes and shake the hair from my face, ignoring the way his pupils dilate and he attempts to pass off his reaction to me by clearing his throat. “Obviously you are currently the one asking the question but, please, don’t pretend that you believe that I am ignorant enough to think that is what I meant. In all the time I have been here, not one person has come to visit me that didn’t do so to lecture me or threaten me and you don’t seem like you’re here to do either. I have never seen you before nor have I recently acquired any new friends, which means you didn’t come here just to chat about the weather. So, in a repetitive answer to your question, it depends on who is asking.”
“My name is Captain Oren Wrathe,” he introduces, his posture going from rigid to relaxed. “And I was sent here by Director Commons, the current director of the Warped Assessment Force, on a time sensitive matter. Now, seeing as my identity has been established, are you or are you not Harper Rickshaw.”
There is a shift in the air around him, something that dances along the lines of annoyance and intrigue, and I brace myself to be hit with whatever he has been hiding.
The air settles and his emotions continue to evade me.
This is getting frustrating.
“Oh, joy, my first visit from WAF since they shoved me into this shit-hole and threw away the keys. Of course, I am Harper Rickshaw, you ginger-haired idiot. Who else do you think they would have brought to you weighted down with enough chains to make even the wildest of animals reconsider trying to escape? Not that it really matters because, if I really wanted to, I could rip these things off and go psycho-killer on every living soul in this place. Don’t worry, that’s not my point but more of a fact. My point is, not everyone here gets this kind of VIP treatment; just the truly special ones, such as myself. A Captain, huh? You look a little young to be carrying such a flashy title. What are you, like barely nineteen?”
“Twenty-three,” he corrects. “Isn’t twenty a little young to be carrying the title of ‘murderer’? Yet, here we both are; titles and all. We both know that age is of little importance these days, so let’s stick to the issue at hand and move forward. It seems that, at this moment, Kolter is experiencing a highly suspicious system malfunction that is preventing my crew from retrieving its inmate files. They are working on fixing this issue but that takes time and time is something I am short on. I have been to six different prisons this week alone and, in each one of them, is someone claiming to be Harper Rickshaw. Now, along with time, I am also running low on patience and that means I am going to have to request some proof that you are who you say you are. I am not going to waste another minute talking to someone who is the per-”
“Inmate number three seventy-four, better known as Harper Rickshaw,” I cut him off, using my legs to push back my chair so that it is now only balancing on two of its own. “Born in San Diego, California on December 9th, 2003 at exactly four fifteen in the morning. Arrested by eight members of the WAF intake team at eleven twenty-one in the morning on September 4th, 2020 after evading law enforcement officials for a total of two weeks, five days, nine hours and fifty-eight minutes. Kept away from the public eye until her trial where she was found guilty of the second-degree murders of six Warped men; sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Is that enough proof for you, Captain?”
“That will suffice for the time being.”
“I bet it will.”
“The Warped Assessment Force has sent me here to recruit you for a mission that will save hundreds of lives, if not more.”
I let out a laugh, the sound bouncing off the cement walls around us. “Oh, have they? That is what you drove all the way out into the middle of the desert for? Well, Captain, I am sorry that you wasted time because I have no interest in anything that WAF has to offer me.”
“As you know,” he continues, ignoring the refusal of an offer he hasn’t fully made yet. “WAF, as it is more commonly referred to, has been successful when it comes to integrating all branches of law enforcement and government structures into our own. Due to our tireless efforts to rebuild what was once broken, WAF has managed to assimilate the Warped that were once of issue back into human society where they now interact and work peacefully with those around them. However, as it tends to go when things begin to grow more progressive, there are some who wish to move backward. Groups of rogue Warped have begun to pop up in less monitored areas, banding together in hopes of taking down WAF. A few years ago, a group of them managed to break into one of our armories and take command, but they were sloppy and poorly organized. We were able to subdue them before bringing them to justice in accordance with the law. We t-”
“Murdered,” I once again interrupted, scowling deeply at the words he uses to downplay the massacre that was gory enough that news of it managed to make its way here. “When you say ‘brought them to justice in accordance with the law’, what you really mean is that whoever was in charge of the operation sent the order down to pump them full of bullets the moment the transport van was out of public view. I don’t know why you are trying to sugarcoat shit but, if you expect me to truly listen to a word you have to say to me, then I would suggest you cut the bullshit and focus on being honest.”
He nods and I know that we have reached somewhat of an understanding. “The end result was their deaths. We did attempt to engage in negotiations with them but they refused to take part in it. They fired a few shots into a crowd of unarmed civilians and, once we had taken them into custody, word was given to execute them in accordance with the Warped Terrorist Laws.”
“Oh, you mean the law that makes anyone who is Warped in non-compliant an instant terrorist? So, let me make sure we are on the same page. A supposed group of ‘rogue Warped’ said no to having a friendly little chat with a bunch of armed WAF soldiers who would more than likely hold a gun to their head until they ratted out their friends and, in return, they were tricked into believing they would get a fair trial before being hauled off and shot multiple times in the head? Sounds about right when it comes to WAF standards. Why even offer them a chance to negotiate? Why not just be honest with them and let them known that none of them had a chance of surviving the day? Tell me, Captain, did they even attempt to send someone who was Warped in to speak to them or was their refusal to believe your lies enough to sign their death certificates? They knew what they were doing; they knew that making a move against WAF would be seen as treason and, yet, they did it anyway. They wouldn’t have trusted anyone who wasn’t like themselves and you all knew that. I mean, why would they? Just take a quick look back at history and you can clearly see that WAF and the Warped have never been able to settle a disagreement without WAF feeling the need to kill a few people. Interactions between your kind and mine have never gone well, I can vouch for that myself.”
“What exactly is that supposed to mean? Are you insinuating that WAF unfairly arrested, charged, and then incarcerated you for a crime you did not commit? Are you insinuating that you were forced to give the confession you gave? Oh, and seeing as this conversation surpassed the boundaries that most would consider as professional, formalities are no longer needed and you may call me ‘Oren’.”
Bringing the chair back so that all of its legs are touching the ground, I lean and lock my eyes with his, making sure to capture all of his attention. “I am simply stating that, when it comes to interacting with those who are Warped, WAF tends to cut more corners than they turn. They have a long-standing history of brushing their own wrongdoings under the rug so that they come out looking clean and my kind come out looking like feral animals. Also, Oren, I more than killed those men; I drained the very life from them and I did it so slowly that they had no choice but to feel every single ounce of pain I had to offer them. I stared directly into their eyes as they began to fade away, letting up just enough that they believed there was some hope that they would survive and, once I saw that little glimmer, I snuffed it out. Some of them didn’t even get that lucky. Some of them I ripped limb from limb while they were still breathing, leaving them in pieces so small that even your well-paid coroner had issued identifying them via their dental records. I want you to know that I am guilty of each count of murder and that I don’t regret a single one of them.”
“Then you of all people understand that not everyone can be reasoned with. We believed that the manner in which we handled that situation set the precedent that WAF would not bend to terrorism and veer others thinking of trying off of that path. That has worked for some time now but, over the past five months, members of WAF and the Warped they work beside have gone missing. We believed them to be routine kidnappings and that, within days of their disappearances, we would receive a ransom letter. We were wrong. Instead, their bodies were placed methodically in locations where WAF frequently patrolled. We have been waiting but, so far, no one has stepped forward to take credit for those bodies. The main cause of their deaths remains a mystery to us but our medical examiner has informed us that, prior to passing, all of the victims were deprived of food, water, were severely beaten, and then experimented on. We realized at that point that WAF had a new enemy but we didn’t realize how much of a threat they were until a letter arrived at the compound last month. It was addressed to Director Commons and described in great detail his day to day activities and personal information that only he was privy to. With that information was a threat; one that stated that the Director and all members of WAF would meet the same manner of death if WAF did not disband within the next year. Our experts have been able to trace the letter’s origins back to the Warped community located in Riverside but, due to an inconvenient court order, WAF pulled its men out over a year ago and has been hesitant to re-enter.”
“Hold the hell up.” I take the momentary break in his talking to jump in, not sure when he will shut up again long enough for me to get this chance. “What Warped community in Riverside? Last I saw, that place was tent city; chock full of rundown buildings, failing businesses and a large group of very territorial squatters. Sure, it was mainly inhabited by a dozen or so Warped, but nowhere near enough to be considered a ‘Warped Community’. When did anyone in that place find enough time or sobriety become organized enough to be considered anything other than a huge waste of taxpayer money?”
“Shortly after you were incarcerated there was a rise in violent attacks in Riverside and WAF made the decision to sanction off the area with a large concrete wall so that the entire town could be used as a rehabilitation location. The original plan was to form a community where those troubled Warped could come together and live peacefully until they felt ready to rejoin society. Sadly, that plan went awry. WAF moved in and attempted to remove all humans from the area but there were some who refused to leave. A few more have managed to find their way into the community, especially once it was ruled that WAF had no ruling over the area inside the walls or those who lived inside of it, but those humans enter at their own risks. Once the ruling was set in place and Riverside was no longer a viable WAF project, our men left the area and have been patrolling the area surrounding the wall to prevent those inside from leaving.”
I remain silent for a few moments as I let his words settle in but, once they do, I can’t help but burst into hysterical laughter. “You guys took a bunch of Warped that had been labeled as ‘troubled and violent’, removed them from their homes and potentially their families, threw them into a walled community filled without other ‘troubled and violent’ Warped, and then cut them off from society when things didn’t go the way ya’ll planned? Seriously? You guys did all of that and at no point did one person stop and say ‘hey everyone, this might not be the best idea’? Look, Oren, I am not sure who is in charge of making those kinds of decisions over at that eye-sore you call home but I would one hundred percent suggest firing them immediately because they are obviously under-damn-qualified for their job. Riverside has always been a magnet for those who felt shunned by the world but you guys fucked up and made it a bonafide safe haven. Oh, and just to set the record straight, that wall is doing nothing but keeping people from getting into Riverside because there are more than enough Warped in that place to send that wall crumbling to the ground if they felt like it; so be glad that they are content for the time being. Now, as hilarious as I find this little story of yours to be, I fail to see what any of it has to do with me.”
“As I previously stated, the letter contained a direct threat to all members of WAF and contained personal information about the Director himself, which has led us to believe that of the members of this new group of enemies has managed to infiltrate our ranks. Their ability to do so, gather the intel needed and then report it back to their superiors without ever raising suspicion also leads us to believe that this person is Warped and passing themselves off as human. I have received information from a highly credible source that you would be a valuable asset in our hunt for this person and the group that they belong to, given your many talents and familiarity with Riverside.”
I arch a brow, wondering who on this Earth would ever be careless enough with their own life to speak my name to a WAF Captain. “A highly credible source, eh? And who might this idiot with a death wish be?”
And, just like that, the floor drops out from underneath me and I don’t know if I am even capable of breathing anymore.