Warren sat patiently, listening as Gary stood to his left, addressing the circle. “So I figured, you know, why not? It makes sense,” Gary said, bringing Warren fully back to the Now, his memories of dealing with ADA Anderson slipping back to the rear of his mind. Gary was a younger fellow, only twenty-two years old, but unlike the majority of the group’s members, he didn’t look the part of a henchman. Wispy and sunken-chested, dressed in a dingy white muscle shirt under a blue-and-white checked shirt and baggy olive green pants, he looked more like a needle freak than a reliable trooper. “I had done the list thing, Step 3, you know? And when I looked at it, I thought, dude, this is perfect.”
“That’s admirable, Gary,” said Doc O’Donnell, taking notes on his clipboard. “How did it go?”
“How the fuck do you think it went, man,” Gary snarled, yanking a small, pocket-sized composition notebook out of his pants and flipping it like a shuriken at the psychiatrist. “The recruiter told me I’m not eligible to enlist in any branch of the military, at all, in any capacity! It was totally fucked, man,” he said, folding his arms over his chest. O’Donnell set his clipboard down and opened the notebook that had landed on his chest, flipping through its pages.
“How far along the process did you get,” O’Donnell asked, eyeballing Gary’s notes.
“Background check,” Gary replied. “I was sitting out in the waiting room, waiting for the sergeant to call me back in. There were these other people all sitting out there with me, every one of them there for the same thing as me, and it got me feeling pretty good, you know? Like, I was gonna be part of something bigger than myself again.
“And the recruiter, he steps out, calls me into his office, has me shut the door. I sit down, and he’s looking at me with this real Grinch-y look, you know? Tells me the background check has me red-flagged, code NE, Never Eligible. Says I need to leave, all with one hand on the butt of his sidearm. I says okay, I’m leaving, you know,” he said, hands up defensively to demonstrate how he’d carried himself in the moment.
“That must have been difficult, Gary,” O’Donnell said. “I’m sorry to hear about it. Sometimes the program is more difficult to deal with than others, but in the long run, it does work.” Gary snorted, lowering and shaking his head. “You disagree, Gary?”
“You know what it’s like, being around normal people now,” he hissed, hands on his narrow hips. “They look at us and have no idea who we were, what we did. They have no clue how many times we probably wrecked their neighborhood, destroyed their property, blasted their city. But we know,” he said, spreading his arms wide to indicate the entire group. “We know, and every time one of them gets shitty with us, we have to bite back the urge to laugh in their face and tell them what’s what. We have to swallow the incontrovertible fact that most of us here could kill them with whatever’s in arm’s reach. We have to work the fucking program, and it’s killing us all a little inside, every day. So no, Doc,” he said, flopping down into his chair and folding his arms over his chest once again. “I don’t think it’s working for all of us the way it should.”

**

Warren kept his head down, shoulders naturally shrugged up as the rain pelted down out of the night sky, pasting his hooded sweatshirt and tee to his skin. The smell of it all around him filled his senses, a refreshing sense of renewal accompanying it. He only wished it could signal a real renewal, a clean slate for himself. But in the five months since his acceptance of the deal, Warren Voss hadn’t once felt like that was a genuine possibility.
As he approached another curb, he looked up, checked for traffic in both directions, and half-jogged across the intersection, hands kept in the pockets of his sweater. His ears twitched on the sides of his head, and he slowed his pace as he reached the other side, catching the telltale sounds behind him. Warren pulled his hands from his pockets, letting them swing loosely at his sides, fingers flexing closed and open, closed and open, in preparation.
He was still two blocks from his father’s house when the hoodlum made his move. It was a minor thing, a sudden, rapid wet slapping of sneaker soles on the sidewalk behind him that gave away the would-be mugger’s position. Warren took a lunging stride forward and wheeled around, bringing his left arm up at a slanted angle to intercept the mugger’s own swinging hand, a thick, short truncheon in his hand. The force of the impact jarred Warren’s arm all the way to his shoulder, but the mugger’s grunt of pain and alarm told him that the other fellow was feeling much worse.
Given that Warren had a good half a foot on him and probably about forty to fifty pounds, this seemed fitting. The former henchman snapped his blocking arm down, hooking his wrist down to scoop the assailant’s arm in the direction of the pavement, wheeling the man and causing him to lose his balance, stumbling forward with his head dipping. Warren followed the motion through and stepped up, pressing his chest against the back of the man’s head as his own right arm looped out and around, catching the mugger in a rear naked choke. Warren reached his left hand across the man’s forehead and grabbed his own bicep, enhancing his squeeze on the mugger’s windpipe.
“I could snap your fucking neck right now, friend,” Warren growled into the man’s ear as the truncheon hit the ground, thin fingers feebly grasping at his massive forearm and bicep for purchase. “Or collapse your throat, cut off your air supply until your brain shuts down. Believe it or not, I’ve done both to people way more dangerous than you.”
“P-please,” the mugger gasped, trying to push back against Warren to get himself to a better angle. He could just as well have tried pushing against a tree.
“I don’t need this shit,” Warren said, staring off into the darkened city streets around them. “Street thug like you, who’s going to miss you, hmm?” Warren gave it only a moment’s genuine thought, relaxing his grip and shoving the dolt away, throwing a fading kick into the back of the mugger’s left leg. The guy proved to have no balance, falling over himself to the slick concrete, flopping onto his back and gasping in the downfall.
“Fuck, man,” the mugger groaned, rolling back and forth on the ground. Warren stood at the ready, keeping his distance. After a few moments passed, the former henchman snatched up the truncheon and gave it a quick once-over in the dim street lamp light. It had the ribbed grip of a police baton, but unlike those wielded by the Spiral City Police Department, this weapon was painted a flat black, better to blend with the darkness of the benighted city. The local law enforcement preferred a striking crimson hue for their own blunt weaponry.
“Get up,” Warren barked at the man, who had managed to get to his knees. The mugger looked up at him, a pale, grungy guy who looked like he’d be right at home as an extra in an episode of Law and Order.
“Whaddaya gonna do to me, man,” the mugger asked, his voice barely audible against the patter of rain.
“Nothing yet,” Warren said, flipping the baton end-over-end, catching it with a smack on his wet palm as it rotated. “But if you’re still in reach when I count to ten, I’m going to beat you to death with your own stick. One,” he said, and the mugger took flight back the way they’d come, not once pausing to look back at Warren.
Warren looked around the empty intersection area, stepped toward the curb, and dropped the truncheon through the slats of a storm drain set into the gutter. It was tempting to hold onto the weapon, but he knew it would be a bad idea.
As the rain tapered off, Warren continued on his way home.

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