"Hey, Captain Lau! How are you today, man?" I asked.
Captain Lau -- Edward -- looked up from the freezer case at the Grand Asia Market. He was a young guy, like 35 years old. Up until about a year ago, he'd been a commercial pilot for Northeastern Airlines -- that was before the company "suggested" he might want to take a leave of absence. I doubt Northeastern would have done so, though, if our office hadn't "suggested" the same for every one of their employees of Chinese or Korean extraction.
"Hey, Mark. I'm getting pretty goddamn sick of Chinese food, I can tell you that," Edward said, trying to force a grin and almost succeeding -- but not quite.
"You and me both, man," I said back, shaking my head.
I'm Mark, by the way. Edward Lau and everyone else in this neighborhood knows me as Marcus Tung. My name is actually Agent Marcus Jackson, Department of Homeland Security. Yeah, I know what you're thinking -- and I'm ashamed of myself, too, sometimes.
"You know what I really want?" Edward said, eying the meats on offer with disgust and finally picking up a shrink-wrapped package of chicken gizzards. "Fatburger. A fucking Kingburger, Chili-Cheese Fat Fries, and a Maui-Banana fucking shake. I would murder for that right about now."
I sympathized with him. The Grand Asia Market was one of the few grocery stores in Chinatown, and (as I well knew) it was under heavy DHS surveillance. Just like the rest of this *homologous neighborhood.*
Yeah, I say that with sarcasm, but that's one of the euphemisms that's been floated for these areas. Nomenclature's very important at the DHS. The main thing, though, is to never, ever refer to them as "internment areas." Not even in private conversations. Brother will lose his job for pulling that shit.
Whatever you want to call 'em, though, there are about ten of these areas throughout the country. Chinatown in Los Angeles is just one -- the Chinatown in San Francisco, Redickville in North Florida, Tyson Corner in Colorado -- there are a bunch, and they're all pretty huge.
And the Department of Homeland Security has rats in each and every one of them. Guys like me, mostly -- dad was half-Chinese (that's where the Jackson comes from -- granddad was as white as they get), mom was from Taiwan, so I look pretty much like any other guy in here. Difference is, I've got an ID beacon implanted in my right forearm that allows me to leave anytime I want. No one else in here is so lucky.
Well, that, and I draw a paycheck from the U.S. Government. That's a difference, too.
"You know what I could go for? El Pollo Loco," I told Edward.
"Ooh, yeah, man. That'd be good, too. And a fucking Rockstar or a Red Bull. I used to drink that shit by the gallon back when I was still working."
"Yeah, but look -- tea! Because all us Chinese drink nothing but tea, right?" I groaned, nodding my head at a large rack displaying several types of green tea.
"I heard about a guy -- Mexican dude, some gangbanger. He'll take orders for shit by cell phone and bring it to the outskirts of the neighborhood. It's expensive, but man, I'm considering it more and more every day."
Shit. That was gonna get him arrested for sure -- the "Mexican gangbanger" was a plant. It was a stooge we set up to see if anyone inside the neighborhood was trying to lay hands on anything they shouldn't -- guns, ammo, bombmaking parts, intel. Anyone contacts that guy, they get flagged. They make an exchange, they get thrown in a hole worse than this one and leaned on until they give us something, whether they've got something to give us or not.
I couldn't let Edward get jacked for something like a damn burger. He was a good guy, and he'd been shit on enough in the last year. Bad news was, I was wired. My boss Stan back at the office could hear everything through a mic in my necklace, and see everything through a micro-camera in the bridge of my sunglasses. I couldn't warn him off without my bosses knowing, and then I'd be the one to end up in the hole.
But they wouldn't pull him for some fast food, would they? I'd seen Edward Lau's file. He was disgruntled, sure, but he was clean. Since he'd been moved into Chinatown, he'd kept his head down, mostly. Organized a baseball team with some other folks laid off from the airline. Bitched about the grocery situation -- nothing that should get him flagged. Not until now, anyway.
"Well, anyway, man. Keep your head up, yeah?" Edward said, heading toward the cash register with his basket full of groceries.
"Yeah. You too, man," was all I could think to say as he walked away.
* * *
"So this guy, Lau -- how's he hit you?" my boss, Stan Morrow, asked as he walked into my office that night.
"Quiet. Frustrated at the conditions in Chinatown. My guess is not a threat."
"Yeah, that's my feeling, too. Look, I'm gonna have our plant blow him off -- say that kind of errand isn't what he does. No reason this guy should get yanked for some Fatburger -- though those are some damn tasty burgers," Stan said.
"Hey, I can sell it to the bosses. No reason to waste resources on this guy, right?"
"Right. So, have you seen the new billboard that went up in Chinatown? The one the DoD put there?"
Stan shook his head.
"Oh, man. It's propaganda like you wouldn't believe. Hang on, it should be on my camera feed somewhere."
I clicked the mouse a couple of times and brought up the image on my computer -- I'd looked right at it with my sunglasses on earlier in the day.
The billboard was all digital camo, and showed some half-Chinese Marine Officer -- Captain, I think -- with a Special Forces badge and an M4. The picture didn't look posed, or anything -- it looks like someone snapped it while this guy was in an operational situation. He was looking at the camera, though, and it looked like he was yelling at someone. His M4 was pointed downrange, and the photographer had timed it just perfectly to catch the M4's muzzle flash.
Below this picture, it said: "Thousands of young men just like you are answering the call and serving their country." Then, below that, in even bigger letters: "DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES?" And below that, in smaller letters, was the address of the Armed Forces Recruiting Center in Chinatown, a one-room office in an almost-abandoned block of stores.
"Huh," was all Stan said.
"Yeah," I said, holding in a chuckle. "That poor bastard. You think he knows what they're doing with his likeness over here?"
"He's just doing his part to help this country, Mark. Just like us."
"Oh, come on, Stan. They probably just photoshopped some poor Chinese dude's head onto some Virgina Farm Boy's body for that shot."
"No, they didn't. That's Captain Nick Morrow, 47 Echo SRF. He's my younger brother."
Well, shit. I really managed to step in it there. I backpedaled like mad and apologized for all I was worth, and Stan said it was OK -- anyone could have made the same mistake, blah blah blah. But I could see in his eyes that I'd pissed him off, and that was something I didn't want to do. At all.
I left the office about an hour later, and it was dark out when I started up my car. I was originally planning to just head back to my apartment and get some much-needed sleep -- these 12- to 15-hour shifts were starting to catch up with me.
Instead, I drove to Fatburger. I wasn't hungry -- I actually dig Chinese food, and I'd had dinner in a little place called Ping's in Chinatown before heading back to the office. Instead, I got a Kingburger, Chili-Cheese Fat Fries, and a Maui-Banana shake. I stopped by a Hess station and picked up a couple of Rockstars, then headed back into Chinatown and left them on Captain Lau's doorstep.
* * *
Five months later, Edward Lau was shot and killed during the Chinatown riots, which I'm sure you saw on the news. The same news which called him "one of the instigators of the uprising," which, as near as our data can determine, was true. I guess he'd finally just had enough of the conditions, and helped pull together the riot under our noses.
I was the one who pulled the trigger, and it kills me. Uprising or no, Edward Lau was a hell of a guy, and there's not a day that goes by that I'm not bothered by having to shoot him. That blew my cover, incidentally, so I've been pulled off of human intelligence and moved back into electronic surveillance -- which is good, because if I'd had to stay in Chinatown much longer, I might have started a fucking riot of my own.