Friday, June 20, 2014

Neutral Ground

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Author's note: this story features characters introduced in Carne Fresco.

I stare at my number. It is printed on a thumb-sized slip of paper in the kind of ink that gets all over your fingers but never wants to wash off. My number today is G106. Yesterday it was H55. I wonder if the guy who replaces the roll of tickets in the take-a-number machine each night is trying to be funny, going backwards through the alphabet while time moves forward. Maybe he just grabs a roll at random. But then I think that can’t be right because the red LED display behind the counters has to read the same thing as the tickets or the system all falls apart. If there’s one thing the DMV values, it’s a system.

A man in a ripped-sleeve denim jacket stares at the ceiling. He’s mouthing words silently, tilting his head this way and that as if weighing them in his head. The words are short, single syllables all, but his head sloshes from side to side as if they weigh tons. The reason the DMV needs its systems are for people like him.

“The word of the day is …” he says out loud.

The younger woman sitting next to him taps at her phone’s screen. That’s what most people do while waiting for their number to be called. It used to be magazines or books, but now it’s all hand-held idiot boxes. Stimulus, response. She pops the gum in her mouth and sighs when she realizes the guy is waiting for a response.

“Is what?” she asks.

The man holds up a finger. “Boobs.”


He nods with a smile. “Ding.”

The woman shakes her head and turns back to her phone.
I’m sitting in a state-approved plastic chair three rows back. The two came in together, but took separate numbers from the ticket machine. I’m betting that they’re either father-daughter, or will be meeting at a motel after they renew their tags.

My knife rattles under my armpit.

“What?” I mutter. In this place, I don’t worry about looking like I’m talking to myself.

“At your 10:30, Angus,” my knife whispers. Balance is what’s known as a sentient magical construct, which is a mouthful way of saying it’s a talking knife. Very few are known to exist, and I believe it’s not only because they are difficult to forge, but also because they never shut up. I look ahead and to the left.

“The guy who’s creasing the spine on his paperback?” I say. Balance knows I hate people who mistreat books, and it never misses a chance to yank my chain.

“No, the guy next row up.”

I look past the abuser to a slight man in cargo shorts and a tank top. He’s got one leg crossed over a knee and an arm draped over the empty chair next to him. He’s smiling, and looks to be nodding to a tune only he can hear.

“So what?” I say.

“Well, doesn’t he seem a bit too happy to be here? You should go check it out.”

“Maybe he’s just on drugs.”

Behind the counters, the sign chimes and a woman calls out G19. Around the room, people check their slips of paper, and either sigh or resettle themselves in uncomfortable chairs.

“G19,” the woman says again, calling out loud enough to make me wince. No one moves.

“G19.” She looks from side to side, then presses a button under the counter. “G20.” A woman in a suit pops up as if prodded and rushes to the open window.

The man in the cargo shorts leans over to the book-abuser and shows him a slip of paper. They huddle in conversation, and a fiver is exchanged for the slip. Cargo shorts goes back to his internal music, and the book-abuser puts his paperback away, but not before turning down a page corner. If there is a tenth circle of hell, it is for people like him, along with people who talk at the movies.

“You see?” says my knife. “You gotta go check that guy out.”

“So he’s scalping numbers at the DMV. It’s not like it’s illegal. Even if it were, I’m not a cop,” I say.

Balance rumbles in its sheath, the knife equivalent of pouting.

The sign chimes.

“G20,” a man calls out.

Book-abuser and some kid in a burger uniform go to the window at the same time. There’s a pause, then both start arguing and shoving their numbers at the DMV guy, who squints at each slip through the thickest set of glasses I’ve ever seen. He looks over his shoulder at the display, and then waves book-abuser forward. Burger kid says something about civil rights and his congressman, looking around for support but no one meets his gaze. I feel sorry for his loss of innocence, but you gotta learn someday that life just ain’t fair.

Cargo shorts guy is still smiling, and starts whistling. There is a touch of fey in the air, and that should not be. There are rules about that kind of thing.

“Angus, come on,” says Balance, sensing it too.

“Fine you inanimate psychopath. I’m moving,” I say. It would be just my luck for my wise-ass piece of metal to complain to my boss and have me put on report.

Cargo shorts sees me coming down the aisle, but stays relaxed. I sit down next to him and stare at the arm he still has draped across my chair. His smile freezes for a moment and he stretches both arms above him, trying to make it look like a natural reaction.

“What can I do for you, officer?” he says, settling back in his chair. He wants to seem cool and collected, but he’s leaning away from me.

“I’m not a cop,” I say.

“You work for the Judicar’s Office.”

“But not a cop,” I say, “there’s a difference.”

Cargo shorts shrugs.

“What’d you give that guy just now?” I ask.

“I sold him G19.”

My stomach starts burning, and I wish I hadn’t run out of antacids earlier this morning. My annoyance from the book-abuser is starting to flow and imprint onto this guy. If anything, his smile grows as if he just took a hit of some really high-grade marijuana.

“He gave you five bucks. You need the money that badly?” I ask.

Cargo shorts smiles. “I felt the sudden need for a latte, and I forgot my wallet.”

“What brings you to the DMV?”

“I’m renewing my driver’s license.”

“I thought you forgot your wallet.”

“I’m in no hurry,” he says, and gives me that blissed-out smile.

“Lemme deflate one of his lungs,” Balance says. “Or better yet, even out the length of his fingers.” For the first time, cargo shorts looks a little uneasy. As his smile fades, my stomach settles, and I recognize what cargo shorts actually is.

“What was that?” he says.

“My conscience. Let’s cut the cute act, okay?”

He holds out his hands. “Hey, you can’t do anything to me here. This is neutral territory.”

When light and dark called a truce and decided to co-exist rather than burn Creation, they retreated into strongholds and established territories. There’s a reason vampires can’t go into churches and angels can’t walk down Wall Street. However, there are certain functions of life that transcend philosophies and ideologies, like the IRS, Mc Donald’s, and the DMV. Denizens from either side can walk in to the DMV and enjoy immunity from violence and even name-calling while getting their tags renewed or CDLs stamped. In fact, the building we’re in employs a Seraphim and at least one Death Eater, though on separate shifts. My boss, the Judicar, is responsible for maintaining that neutrality, which is why he sends me here when he’s pissed at me. Sending me to mind the DMV is like sending a SWAT team to read parking meters. So while cargo shorts is right, he is also wrong.

“You know,” I say, “last year an eefreet filed a complaint with the Judicar because it was denied a neutral job. It argued that it was the most qualified applicant, and was discriminated against because it served the dark. Wanna know what the job was?”

He opens his mouth, but I cut him off. “Fire marshal. Wanna know why he was denied?”

“Because –“

“Because even though the Judicar makes sure neutrality is enforced, it’s not an idiot. Eefreets can’t be firemen, vampires can’t work blood drives, Seraphim can’t be marriage counselors, and ,” I say, lowering my head, “a vexing demon can’t loiter around the DMV.”

“But where else can I get my fix?” cargo shorts whines. I lock down my emotions. Vexing demons are little parasites that live on anxiety and annoyance. Related to gremlins, they feed on life’s little frustrations.

“Go sit in front of Walmart and harass people into signing some bullshit petition, or have a loud phone conversation in the park. I don’t care as long as you’re not doing it in neutral territory, or in a movie theater,” I say.

“The movie theater isn’t neutral territory.”

I crack my neck before responding. “Let me put it this way: if I catch you here again, I’ll haul you in to the Judicar and let you plead your case. You’ll lose. If I find you in the theater, I’ll give you to him.”

I pull back my jacket and let him get a look at Balance’s hilt. It starts rattling in its sheath.

“Strip the flesh, salt the wounds!” it says.

The demon swallows and leaves through the front door. I return to my seat behind the guy in the jean jacket and his younger companion.

“Takes all kinds, doesn’t it, Angus?” says Balance.

“And they all come to the DMV,” I say. “This place attracts nothing but boobs.”

“Ding!” says jean jacket.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. That was really good. Does the knife look a little like the on from the Shadow?