Messenger 10: Assets
Caper showed up at my door the other evening, dressed in a dark jacket with a black backpack slung over one shoulder, looking uncharacteristically solemn. “You ready to go?” he asked. I nodded and grabbed my coat.
We were almost out the door before I realized Caper had come alone. “Is Poe not coming with us?”
“She has to work. Deadline coming up.”
“Oh. Shouldn’t you be helping her, then? This can wait, you know.”
“She can handle it.”
“You’re just going to dump it on her? With all due respect, Caper, that’s—”
“Her decision, not mine,” he said, cutting me off. “If it were my decision, I wouldn’t be doing this at all. You’ve only been here about a month and I don’t think you’re ready to see this. It was Poe who insisted I show you.”
I frowned. “If that’s the case why isn’t she the one taking me?”
“Because she refuses to go,” he snapped. He was tense. I’d never seen him near that tense before. “Now drop it.”
We took a cab to our destination. I made a remark about how it seemed a bit out of the way, but Caper just ignored me and stared out the window. I figured it was one of those things I shouldn’t press, so I shut up for the rest of the ride. The destination, oddly enough, ended up being a warehouse.
“Time to meet the poor guy with the shittiest job here,” Caper said. “We’re going to say hi to Eddie.”
The first thing that hit me when he opened the door was the smell. I spent an unfortunate few years in dormitories back in college, and the first thing that came to mind was the sort of odor found in all-male dorms. The residual scents of sweat from athletes. The “organic” scent of the stoners. The body odor from the loners who’ve locked themselves in their rooms and neglected their hygiene. All sorts of sour, funky stenches that sort of linger in the air.
That description doesn’t do the smell justice. The smell didn’t linger so much as it sat heavily in the air, and it was exponentially worse. I understood why as soon as I saw the occupants. They were roughly two dozen of them dressed in dirty and torn clothes, looking like they hadn’t showered in weeks, eyes unfocused and staring at nothing. The warehouse was mostly empty, apart from rows of mattresses laid on the floor and piles of clothing doing their best impressions of garbage heaps.
That’s why it smelled so bad. It was the smell of people who don’t have anywhere to wash their clothes. Whose wounds stink and fester because they can’t cover them. Who wallow in their own shit and piss because they don’t have anywhere to go, or they’re incontinent, or because they just don’t have the energy or will to do it any other way anymore. It was the smell of people who had no one to take care of them and were unable to take care of themselves.
They were definitely human, but they looked like they had been stripped of humanity. None of them looked up as we entered. They just milled around listlessly, staring at nothing or muttering to themselves. I saw one writing in a notebook with a pen. I couldn’t see the contents, but he was scrawling so erratically that I could tell even from where I was that if I leafed through the notebook, it would probably look like a four-year-old had scribbled in it.
Only one man even seemed to notice us entering. He was the only one who didn’t have those dead eyes. Quite the contrary, actually: he looked like a man who was barely on this side of being feral. His eyes, bloodshot and baggy, had a wild desperation to them, and his black hair was greasy and long enough that he had to keep brushing it out of his eyes. This was the man Caper addressed.
“Hey, Eddie. I brought you a few supplies.” He pulled the backpack off his shoulder and held it out. “Poe put a few things in too. Some coloring books and cookies.”
Eddie took the bag and unzipped it, rooting around in it for a few seconds. “They’re not supposed to have cookies,” he said. Then, with a pained smile, “I’ll make sure they get them. Be sure to thank her for me. Is this the guy you said you were bringing?”
Caper nodded. “Eddie, this is the Messenger. Messi, Eddie. He’s our caretaker. I think you already have a vague idea of what it is he does.”
I looked around at the others. “You…take care of these people, right?” I did a quick count, excluding Eddie from the final number. I looked back at Caper. “Twenty-five. That’s…that’s the same number as…on the sheets….”
Caper nodded. “Eddie, do you want to tell him what the A stands for or should I?”
“It stands for ‘assets,’ Messenger,” Eddie said. “These are the people who have…gotten lost.”
“What do you mean? What’s wrong with them?”
Eddie glanced at Caper. “You didn’t tell him?”
Caper shook his head. “He’s still really green, Eddie. He still doesn’t even think He’s real. He’s only here because he asks too many questions and Poe wants me to answer this one for him.”
Eddie swore under his breath. “She would, wouldn’t she? Okay, then. He—you know, the Thin Man—doesn’t usually kill people. He doesn’t really need to. His mere presence is enough to mess with your head. And if he’s actually trying to mess with your head, well….” He gestured around him.
“These people don’t even remember who they are anymore. They’ve lost their identity. They’ve lost their will,” Caper said. “Watch.” He turned to one of the assets pointing at him. “Hey, you! Yeah, you! Come here a second.” For the briefest moment, I could catch something almost like confusion on the man’s face before it became a blank mask again. The man stood, trudging over to us obediently. “Incredibly open to suggestion. Give ‘em something to do and they’ll do it because that’s about the only purpose they can manage to find anymore.”
“That’s…horrible,” I said.
“Yeah, well, the highers don’t think so,” said Eddie. “They love ‘em.” He grabbed the man’s right arm, turning it to me so that I could see the bicep. Tattooed there in black ink was the inverted triangle with a stripe down the middle. He had been branded with our logo like he was livestock. “Easiest form of recruitment, plus they’re expendable. That’s all they see them as,” he said. “They’re just….”
“Assets,” I finished.
“Yeah. Thing is, assets are expendable but they’re still valuable. The highers prefer not to lose them. They’re like this most of the time, but sometimes they snap and have brief moments of aggression. They need someone to stop them from killing each other or themselves. Someone to keep them fed and reasonably sanitary. That’s where I come in.”
“So how did you get stuck with a job like this?”
He shook his head. “I didn’t get stuck with it, Messenger. I chose it.”
That bit surprised me. “Why?”
“I had a friend,” he said. “He….” Eddie paused. He seemed reluctant to continue.
“It’s fine,” I said. “I think I might know roughly how this one goes.”
He nodded. Caper put a hand on my shoulder. “I want to talk to Eddie a little longer. You want to wait outside?”
“Maybe. Is there…anything I can do to help? You know, with them?”
“Take them the coloring books if you want,” Caper said. “They like those.”
I grabbed the books and the crayons from the bag and took them over to where the assets were. I stopped in front of a middle-aged woman hugging her knees to her chest on a mattress. Her hair was cut short, but the cut was a bit uneven. There was a large tear in the left arm of her shirt that revealed the bra beneath. She looked up at me, her expression blank. I awkwardly held the coloring book and crayons out to her.
Her smile was small, but it was there.
As I watched her scribble colors over each other, not even bothering to stay in the lines as colors blurred into dark waxy blotches, I felt someone grip my shoulder. I spun away, arms already raised defensively. A man stood there, eyes frantic and wide and boring into me. “Hi,” he said, as if he were telling me the most important thing in the world.
The man looked back and forth before looking back at me. “My name’s William,” he said.
“Um…hi, William.” In the back of my mind I heard Caper telling me that the assets don’t know who they were anymore.
“I’m 33 years old,” he told me. He couldn’t be more than 25, though. “I grew up in [REDACTED].” He kept babbling about random things like that. Like he was giving me answers to security questions for recovering his passwords. Things didn’t line up, though. It was like he was describing someone else instead of himself.
On a whim, I tried a question. “What are you—how…how did you end up here, William?”
The random and incoherent rambling stopped instantly. His eyes lit up and he got an eager grin on his face. “Ah, now that’s an interesting story. My father and I were stunt motorcyclists, right? We had a pretty good life, until I found out that my dad had cancer. The Big Guy offered to heal my dad if I came and worked for him.” There was something familiar about his demeanor and the way he was talking. It took me until I heard him say “the Big Guy” that I was able to place my finger on it. Caper was the only one I’ve ever heard use that name for the Boss. “My dad actually did recover,” William continued. “The doctors said it was a miracle. And then, his first big show after getting out of the hospital, he had a terrible crash.” He snapped his fingers. “Dead. Just like that. And now I’m stuck here.”
I just stared.
“Messi!” Caper called from the door. “Come on, we should get going.”
I followed him out and noticed that the cloud that had been hanging over Caper the entire day had started to dissipate. He stretched and let out a yawn. “Glad that’s done with,” he said. I whirled on him and grabbed him by the jacket.
“Who the hell is William?” I demanded.
“What are you talking about, Messi?”
“Don’t give me that shit. That was one of your stories that asset was telling.”
He calmly removed my hands from his jacket. A physical confrontation maybe hadn’t been a good idea. Caper’s quite a bit bigger than me and I’d never be able to take him in a fight. “You really want to know who William is, huh?”
“Fine. Messi, it’s…it’s tough seeing them like that, okay? I just wanted to give them something they could claim as their own. Just little bits of information they could pretend were true to give them comfort.”
“So you fed this William guy some fake stories?”
“I never fed him shit,” he said. “I told different people different things. The one I named William? He’s dead. The name keeps floating around, though. You tell one person they’re William and suddenly that’s who they all want to be. Eddie says he’s had five different assets tell them their name is William. One of them was a woman. He told me to stop what I was doing because it was just confusing them. So that’s who William is. He’s just one of many ideas floating around. A failed experiment that doesn’t mean anything anymore.”
“Oh.” We began walking back to where the cab was waiting for us. “So…about the name….”
“What of it?”
“Did that used to be your name?”
He opened the cab door. “It’s a good name,” he said.
“Yeah, but was it your name?”
He just chuckled. “Come on. It’s time for therapy. The doctor is in. Let’s not make her wait.”
 I’ve been silently editing around locations a bit, but this redaction is one of Mr. Messenger’s own doing. The Messenger never made any notes regarding looking into this location. Maybe Mr. Messenger never brought it up because the address was inconsequential. It probably was. However, I suspect the redaction has less to do with privacy and more to do with Mr. Messenger simply not committing it to memory. ~T