Red Cain closed his eyes, gritted his teeth, and pleasantly thanked the
customer for using the particular phone company he worked for. He sighed with
relief and sipped his bottle of Vanilla Coke as he waited for another call
to come in. The room around him was enormous. It buzzed with the sound of
hundreds of collection agents attempting to squeeze overdue blood from the
stones that were the delinquent customers. The beep in his headset indicated
another incoming call.
The previous call had been quite an exasperating one. The customer had made
a payment of the full balance owed right off the bat, but she had then proceeded
to tell him all the reasons the payment was late. For ten minutes. Mute button
firmly pressed, Red explained, "Ma'am… what you don't understand
is that it doesn't matter. You lost your job, your purse was stolen, and you've
been quarantined for the bubonic plague- it doesn't matter. All that matters
to me is the payment. That's what my job is."
Having glimpsed the process even to the limited extent that Red had, he had
come to realize that the customers really didn't matter on an individual level.
It was all about the system. The company had a system that made them money.
As long as you were within the boundaries of that system, you'd be fine. If
your circumstances fell outside of or disrupted that system at all, the company
did not care. You're not important- the system is. You could leave the company,
hell, you could even tell everyone you know not to sign up. Business would
be fine. The system was still there. There were enough people without unique
troubles who were paying their bills on time to make tons of cash. The unemployed,
robbed, bubo covered masses just had to cope with their line being shut off.
That or switch to another carrier- but for every one who swore that they would
never return, another would show up with as much distaste for the other companies.
The system continued on unabated. Red didn't particularly like it, but he
could see it fairly clearly now.
Red had been pleased when the woman had eventually gotten off the line, not
that he really expected much better from the next call. He thanked the new
woman for calling and took her number so he could bring up her account. He
confirmed her name and address as a Miss Ethel Johnson of Philadelphia, PA.
"I see you have a balance with us of three-hundred thirty-six dollars
and fifteen cents," he said.
"That's what I'm calling about," she said. So far, so good.
"Would you like to make a payment with a credit card or check by phone
"No!" she said with disgust. "I'm not paying that ever."
"Um… ok," Red said. He didn't bother to ask why- he knew
that she was going to tell him anyway. Besides, if the issue was anything
other than giving over her money she was talking to the wrong department.
"My long distance was supposed to be shut off."
"Ok…" said Red, clicking through her account information, "I'm
showing it was blocked on October 24th, four days ago."
"Yeah, but it was supposed to be blocked months ago, that's why I'm
not paying this bill. There shouldn't have been any long distance calls, I
told you all to put a block on there!"
"Let me take a look," Red said. He opened his digital copy of the
most recent bill to look at the charges. "Ok, I'm seeing a large number
of long distance calls here... Detroit, New York, Port Sunday, New Britain…"
"I know that, that's what I'm telling you, those shouldn't be on there!
I told you to block the long distance three months ago!"
"So, you didn't make these calls?"
"No, I made those calls," the woman said, "But how are you
gonna charge me for long distance calls when I asked you to put a block on?"
Red blinked. "You made the calls?"
"But I told you to put a block on!"
"So you told us to block your long distance calls… and then you
kept on making long distance calls?"
"You can't be charging me for long distance when I asked you to turn
it off!" she shouted. "That's not right!"
"Ma'am," Red said, "You're going to have to pay for these
"That's bullshit! I called in-"
"Ma'am, you made the calls. You used the service. You have to pay for
it. I mean, when you made these calls, did you expect to get them for free?"
"But I asked you to shut off the long distance!"
"But then you made the calls after that."
"I told you to shut it off," she said, "I'm expecting that
any calls I can make are not long distance!"
"You were calling different states, ma'am."
"But I called in and told you people to turn off my long distance! Now,
what, I am going to be penalized for your mistake?"
"Ma'am, you're not being penalized," Red said, "You're being
charged. Because you made the calls. You reaped the benefits of our service
and we aren't in the habit of giving it away."
"Then you should have blocked my long distance when I asked you to!"
Red took a deep breath and shook his head. "Ok, ma'am… I can put
you through to customer service so you can dispute these charges and find
out why the service was not cancelled properly. Would you like their direct
number before I transfer you?" He clicked the 'Idle' button on his phoning
program as he said his good-byes to Miss Johnson. As soon as he'd transferred
her out of his hair, he began logging out of the various financial systems
that filled his workday. He clocked out and made his way out of the building
to his Sable and made his way home.
Technically, he did not need to work. He and Alison still had the million
dollars or so they had liberated from the overbearing fundamentalists and
pedophiles who'd had it before them. Apartments in this part of New York State
weren't very expensive. Even Alison's college tuition wasn't too bad- the
fake identities they'd bought were New York State residents, and it was a
state school. The truth is, he only worked so they would have a source of
income to put on their tax returns.
Not that they were spending very much of the money. They tried to keep their
lifestyle pretty low profile, sticking to more humble luxuries like digital
cable with all the movie channels. The most expensive thing they'd spent money
on was their new names. Alison being a common name, they had figured it was
safe for her to keep it. She had become Alison Ames. Red had become Alfred,
so he could explain his name as a nickname. Alison's sense of humor had given
him the surname Coates before he'd had time to think about it much.
About ten months had passed since they'd escaped from DI&R International,
Divine Intervention and Retribution, the company that had erased Red's existence
and made him a Saint. They had moved back to their hometown in upstate New
York and made a very quiet, comfortable life together, considering it the
least likely thing they'd be expected to do when on the lam with a million
dollars. Red knew there was no chance he'd be recognized since no one on the
planet remembered him except people who were operatives for DI&R, but
they had been worried about Alison. It turned out to be no big deal, however-
the version of her everyone remembered was a depressive shut-in Goth. After
a few accidental run-ins with old acquaintances who had no idea who she was,
they had ceased worrying altogether.
As for Red's sainthood, there wasn't much to report. It went without saying
that he hadn't been martyred, but neither had he done any miracles, or even
any of the secret-agent type things he had shown the proclivity for over the
holiday season. No, his gun and sword had hung invisibly off his sides, unused
and unnoticed, except when he would bump into them while washing up in the
shower. Were it not for his Holy good luck coming in handy when he was good-naturedly
throwing garbage in the general direction of the trash can, his abilities
would have gone completely unused.
Red pulled the Sable into the parking lot of their apartment building and
parked. He lived about five minutes from work, making the commute nice and
short which helped towards not having to get up too early to get ready. Chaser
was waiting for him at the door, as he did almost every day, in hopes of either
getting cat treats or slipping past to explore the world outside. Kept inside
yet again, he purred nonetheless and rubbed his sides up against the can of
treats Red fed him from.
Alison was curled up in a chair in her office, asleep. On her lap was a book
of literary criticism about the book Beloved. She'd gone back to school- a
bittersweet activity for her. She enjoyed school, but would have far preferred
being in grad school to going through undergrad all over again. She'd been
attempting to minimize her boredom by taking a blend of classes she'd never
gotten to take alongside ones she already knew. It had made keeping her test
scores up a hell of a lot easier this time around.
Alison's second sight had also been inactive this past ten months. Well,
she'd told Red she'd prophesized that "A Beautiful Mind" would beat
out "Lord of the Rings" for best picture, but Red didn't really
think that counted. Many film columnists had had the same vision.
Red grabbed Chaser before he had a chance to hop up onto Alison and wake
her. He pet the cat as he walked into the living room. His relationship with
Alison was, as far as he could tell, fairly perfect. The truth of the matter
was, neither of them really seemed to analyze it much. They had sped off together
as a duo and had set up shop here the same way. They shared an apartment,
they shared responsibilities, and they shared a bed. They hadn't really spoken
of marriage, but mostly because it seemed unnecessary. They had no one to
invite to a ceremony and they didn't need the legal benefits. The only changes
they could think it would make in their life would be the addition of rings
and the changing of her name to Alison Coates, which held little appeal.
Red plopped Chaser down on the couch and went onto his computer. He checked
his email, which mostly consisted of deleting pornographic advertisements.
He then went online to the websites he liked to frequent. Mostly they had
to do with television programs, films, and literature he was a fan of. He
checked for any upcoming films the look intriguing, watched the odd trailer
for this or that. He'd been hoping to see "The Ring," soon, but
he wasn't sure if Alison was interested.
He browsed over to a site of DVD reviews called DVDish.com. For some reason
whenever he would bring up this site it would tie up his computer resources
for a few seconds, causing everything to freeze. After a moment, the site
came up. The lead review was of the DVD of "ET, the Extra Terrestrial," which
had been released the previous Tuesday. At the last minute, the company had
decided to include the original version of the film, instead of just the new
director's cut from which Steven Spielberg had digitally removed all the guns
and offensive language.
Red had thought this was an incredibly stupid and far too Fahrenheit
451 move for his tastes, but all of sudden it struck him that he himself had become
the "Red Cain Special Edition Director's Cut". When he'd first found
out that DI&R had edited his life in order to get him to join them as
a Saint, he had been mad. He was reasonably sure he'd been far more upset
than even the most vehement of film purists, moreso even than a Star Wars
geek seeing Greedo shoot first. Over time, especially with Alison by his side,
he'd gotten over it. The way he figured it, he may not know exactly who he
was or what he's been through, but he knows who he is now and he's got control
over his future. No amount of knowledge about his past was worth giving that
Still, he wished they'd included the original version of his life at the
last minute. Just so he could compare.
Overall, Red felt the simple life suited him. He and Alison were extremely
happy together. He didn't miss being a saint, not that he'd done all that
much, but he couldn't help but believe their little family life here would
only be complicated by clandestine crusades and flashes of future woe.
In the parking lot next to the building a car pulled up blaring "Tainted
Love" out of it's windows before the car came to a complete stop and
was turned off. From the next room Alison shouted "No!"
Red leapt to his feet a rushed into her office. "Alison? Are you all
right? What's going on?"
Alison was standing next to her desk holding an empty glass. Chaser sat on
"You're a bad, bad kitty!" she said.
"What's going on?" Red said again.
"Oh, nothing," Alison said, pushing Chaser's butt until he jumped
down off the desk. "He just knocked over this stupid glass of water onto
my stupid laptop."
"Do you think it will still work?"
"I don't know…" said Red. "I doubt it."
"Stupid Cat," said Alison. Chaser had hopped to the floor and was
licking himself clean of the water that had splashed onto his fur. When he
finished, he came and rubbed up against Alison's leg. "Oh, you cute little
bastard. How can you be mad at such an innocent little poop?"
She picked him up and held him in front of her, face to face.
"You have to learn to behave, little man, you hear me?"
Red had attempted to turn the computer on. A sort of sizzling sound prompted
him to unplug the device and scrap that line of action. "I think it's
"Oh, no!" she said.
"My paper! My paper for Lit Crit! I've been working on it all week!"
"Oh, man," said Red, "I'm sorry… it's not due till Monday,
"Yeah," said Alison.
"Alright. Then we'll hop out right now and pick you up a new laptop
and you'll still have two days to get it done again. It's not like we can't
afford a new one."
"Yeah, I know. But I did a lot of work on it. Twice!"
"It'll be ok," said Red. "Come on, let's get ready, we can
He went to their walk in closet and took out the suitcase that was the farthest
in the back. He laid it on their bed and opened it. He took out bundles of
twenty dollar bills amounting to three thousand dollars, wrote it down on
the notepad in the front pocket of the suitcase, closed the whole thing back
up, and replaced it in the closet.
Alison already had put on her coat and grabbed her purse when Red came out
and threw his coat back on. "All set?" he asked, grabbing his keys.
"Absolutely," said Alison.
He opened their apartment door only to almost get his face knocked on by
"Oh, ah… hello, Red."
It had happened so fast no one there was actually sure how it all started.
The computer pod on campus had been fairly full- it was around the time of
midterms. Lots of papers were due. Almost every computer in the place was
occupied with someone writing about the woman's lib movement, bulimia nervosa,
or Hamlet's inner turmoil. The next thing they knew, a vanful of frat boys
are splashing gasoline all over the place.
They had brought in four waterproof boomboxes, all tuned to the same 'best
of the 80's, 90's, and today' station, which they cranked up as high as they
could. "Hate to Say I Told You So" was playing as they spread out
all over the place, dousing the pod as liberally as possible with gas from
huge red containers. They shouted and whooped as if they had just won some
sort of sporting event, slapping hands as they passed each other in their
dance of spillage.
The fortunate part for the other students was that these Greek arsons did
not seem to be particularly interested in the other people present. Any dousage
of a human being came merely in the process of covering every other surface
in the place. The unfortunate part was that some of those surfaces included,
notably, computers and computer monitors, all still plugged in and powered
up. Fires began breaking out almost immediately, causing the sprinkler system
to kick in.
Those people close enough to the exits made a break for it. Others became
trapped. The four frat boys continued to spread the fire with their canisters.
The radio announced that they were in the midst of another half-hour of nonstop
rock on WAIC and began playing "Break It Down Again".
"Yes!" said one of the frat boys. "We did it!"
"Brothers!" another yelled.
"Brothers!" the others echoed.
"What's that?" one asked, pointing up.
The tip of a blade seemed to have poked down through the ceiling and began
working it's way around in a circle. The frat boys put their hands up to their
faces to try to see through the sprinkler water splashing down on them.
"I can't tell," said the closest one, just before the circle was
completed and a perfectly cut piece of the ceiling above them crashed down
onto his face, knocking him unconscious. The others all jumped back as they
realized that standing on top of that falling hunk of ceiling was a person.
Black boots launched off the disk before it even hit the ground, kicking the
boy with the lump on his head backwards into the nearest computer fire and
sending the figure into a midair flip. Touching down in a splash, the newcomer
spun to face them in a fighting stance, sword ready to strike. "Hi, boys," she
"Who the hell are you?"
She smiled. She had chin length red-hair - Irish red, not the dyed red one
sees frequently these days. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail, except
for a few strands that were being stuck down onto her freckled cheeks by the
sprinkler. She wore clunky looking black boots, tight but worn in blue jeans,
and a black baby-t that said "SAINT" across it in bold white letters.
"Can't you read?" she said. She lunged forward at the nearest of
the boys and swung her sword at him. It passed through his body without harming
him. His clothes were another matter, as was the gas can he held front of
him. The gasoline sloshed down the front of his body and to the floor, where
tendrils of the splash made contact with one of the nearby fires which raced
back along the newly spilled gas and immolated the young man. He screamed
and dropped to the floor, rolling around to put out the fire, but since the
floor around him had been covered in flaming gasoline, it didn't help much.
After a moment he stopped screaming.
"Jesus Christ!" said the bigger of the two left.
She tossed her sword into her left hand and reached towards her ribs with
her right and a handgun appeared in it. She took aim at the big one and fired
at his canister, which exploded in flames. While he wailed in pain, the other
looked down at his own gas can and then hastily threw it directly at the girl.
She flung herself downward onto her back and extended her foot upwards. She
planted the flying can on the sole of her boot and added to its natural momentum,
carrying it over her where it landed in an already burning fire. She leapt
back up and away as the fire behind her burst forth much larger than before.
She looked up to find the final frat boy was gone.
A cry of "Help!" made it's way over the crackle of the fire and
spray of the water. She holstered her weapons and ran in the direction it
seemed to be coming from. She found fifteen to twenty students still in the
"The exits are blocked," said one young man.
"I know," she said. "I made my own way in. Don't worry. I'll
get you out."
"Who are you?" asked a girl.
"I'm Chelsea. Nice to meet you. Come on!"
They followed as she led them towards one of the outside walls, finding safe
routes through the blaze. "There's no way out this way!" one of
her followers called.
"There is now," she said. They stood in front of a concrete wall.
She pulled her sword back out, much to everyone's amazement, and sliced them
an escape hatch directly through the wall. "Move out!" she yelled
and waited by the hole as they filed through, one by one.
"Are you coming?" the last person out asked her.
"Not yet," said Chelsea. "I need to do one more thing."
She turned back towards the main part of the room. Going back into it, for
any reason, didn't really do wonders for a person's life expectancy. Still,
she had a job to do.
The water was helping to spread the fire around more. Maneuvering was getting
more difficult. She inched along the concrete wall, the fires being, for the
most part, centralized near the furniture. After a moment, the sprinklers
were turned off, likely due to word of the fire's cause.
Movement caught Chelsea's eye far across the room. She leapt over the fire
directly in front of her, dove under a flaming table and rolled up to her
feet to see the final frat boy cowering in a corner, trapped by the blaze.
"Oh, sweet irony," she called to him. "So, are you going to
tell me why you guys decided to torch this place, or what?"
"You keep away from me, you crazy bitch!" he spat back.
"Oh, come on, I'm your only possible hope of surviving this."
"You killed George, Tiny, and Sam!"
"Yeah, I know," she said, "I just figured you didn't look
too bright, you might buy it. I'll tell you what, you tell me why you did
it, I'll turn you over to the police."
"I don't know," he said. "We were just… we were just
hanging out at the frat house and… it just seemed like it would be a
good idea… I don't know, oh God, I don't know what we thinking…"
"You can't be serious," she said. "You expect me to believe
that you and your idiot brothers were just sitting around and figured it would
be a kick to go blow shit up and ruin your lives? Come on!"
"I don't know why!" he said, tears running down his face. "It
just… it just seemed important…"
"This is getting me nowhere. As much as I love the idea of leaving you
here to have burned yourself to death with your own stupidity, I don't want
to risk the fire department accidentally saving you. So…" Chelsea
pulled out her holy gun, flipped off the safety, and shot him in the head,
blowing blood and brains all over the corner behind him. His body tottered
forward, landing his newly opened head into the fire.
"Eugh…" said Chelsea, "That smells rank."
She made her way to the closest wall and cut herself her own exit from the
building. Her sprinkler soaked body shivered in the cold October air. She
clicked her safety back on, slipped her weapons back out of visibility, and
hurried off in the opposite direction of the sirens wailing towards the scene
of the fire. Behind her, in the building, she could hear "Break It Down
Again" coming to it's close.
She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket, tried it. The water hadn't agreed
with it. She spotted a payphone off near the student union. She threw her
cell out on the way over and dialed one of the phone numbers from those hideously
annoying collect call commercials.
"Argento?" she said, a moment later. "Yeah, all set. No one
was hurt… except the four bastards who did it, of course. I need you
to come pick me up. Yes, right now, unless you want me to get hypothermia.
My car is parked illegally in the fire lane, it's going to be towed, probably
impounded. I needed to buy a little time, make sure the emergency crew didn't
get in before I was done. Great. Ok, I'll be right next to the big green sign
that says 'Student Union'. See you there."