False Flag: An Average Thursday (Part 2 of 2)
Painting by Demar Douglas
Brown pulled the sedan into a parking structure on Flower behind the restaurant Wokcano. He nimbly pulled the Impala backwards into a parking spot without looking and turned the car off.
"Follow me, please," he said with a smile to the two skeptical teenagers he'd brought from Watts' Verbum Dei high school.
They trailed behind him as he headed into a rear entrance to the restaurant. They were greeted by a smiling Asian man in a suit who showed them to a secluded table in a closed section of the restaurant in back. They took a seat in the booth, both boys on one side and Brown on the other.
"Please, have whatever you want," Brown said, picking up one of the thin menus from the table.
Turner eyed Brown suspiciously as the waitress approached. Payton glanced up at her, a petite Asian woman dressed austerely in a black knee length skirt and a white button shirt.
"I want the most expensive steak on the menu," Payton said to her, putting down the menu and glancing around, "... and a beer. That Asahi stuff."
The woman raises a brow and glances at Brown. He smiled and said, "Daijōbu," in flawless Japanese.
Turner frowned and looked at the menu. "Chicken teriyaki, please. Lemonade, too."
"I'll have lemonade with the salmon, please, arigatōgozaimashita," Brown said, taking the menus and handing them to the waitress. She smirked slightly as she bowed, then stepped away.
"Janice loves messing with people's ideas of stereotypes," Brown smiled. "She's from Bakersfield."
Turner leans forward and says, "What if I ran over there and yelled out that you're with the Union of the Snake?"
From behind Brown's smiling face, a quiet, deep voice said, "You'd never make it three steps from the table."
Brown spoke over his left shoulder and said, "No need for all that, Dragon. Please come greet these young brothers."
A tall, cornrowed man in a black and red pinstriped suit and sunglasses stood up and stepped around the booth towards them. When they first entered, the section seemed empty and the boys recoiled in surprise at seeing this man apparently appear from nowhere.
Payton extended his right hand and said, "I'm ... I'm Micah Payton, are you ..."
"The Onyx Dragon," the tall man said, shaking Payton's hand. "In the flesh ... well, almost."
Dragon waved a hand in front of his face and his notorious black and gray trimmed mask and Afro appeared. He waved again and he was back in cornrows and sunglasses.
"What's your name, young man?" Dragon said as he extended his hand to the gape jawed Turner.
"Dante ... Dante Turner," the boy managed, accepting the handshake.
"You good?" Brown asked, slapping palms with Dragon.
"Just finishing dinner," Dragon smiled at Brown. "Good to see you, Brother Street Sweeper."
Brown leveled a stern glance at Dragon.
"My bad, my bad," the taller man said, holding his hands up with a chuckle. "Brother Shop Steward! Old habits ..."
Brown's expression broke into a smile as he shook his head. "You coming to karaoke this weekend?"
Dragon shrugged and said, "That thing in Warsaw, remember? Next time."
Turning towards the boys, Dragon made a slight bow with his right fist pushed into his open left palm and said, "I hope you brothers have a good night."
Dragon made his way back to his seat as Janice returned with their food. She set the plates and drinks there as Brown grinned.
"That ... that was ..."
"Go look in his booth," Brown chuckled as he dug into his food.
Turner and Payton looked at each other and stood making the three steps to look behind the divider ... to see an empty plate, two chopsticks and a hundred dollar bill under the napkin. They looked at the walls and ceiling, seeing no other way out.
"That's his favorite gag," Brown said after swallowing a big bite of salmon. "C'mon, your food will get cold."
The boys sat down. Turner stopped to say a quick prayer over his meal while Payton took a swig of the Asahi.
As they started eating, Brown said, "You don't have to make a decision tonight, but the Union is interested in you. We'd like ..."
"I'm in," Payton said simply.
Turner gasped, dropping his fork as Payton dug into his steak.
Brown smiled and said, "That's ... I'm very glad to hear that, Mister Payton, but I don't want Mister Turner to feel any pressure."
"Okay. What's next?" Payton managed between bites.
"Well," Brown replied, "you'll 'transfer' from Verbum Dei to our 'academy' in mid-city, complete with a new apartment for you. In a year, you will be equipped to start working as an apprentice project manager on my team, working with logistics out of our San Pedro office but doing a lot of travel around the world, with a starting salary of $90,000 per year, before taxes."
"I still gotta pay taxes?" Payton grumbled.
"On what you are reported to earn, yes," Brown smiled. "Our generous cash bonus system is not trackable by the authorities. That sort of thing is how we avoid additional scrutiny."
Brown pulled out an envelope from inside his jacket and slid it across the table to Payton.
He said, "In there, you will find paperwork for a full scholarship to the Mirman School, a wonderful little extension program we run through their organization for logistical purposes. Full tuition, room and board, covered by us. We only require that you agree to a term of no less than seven years of service, paid at the rate as noted."
"Are you sure about this, Mike?" Turner asked as Payton picked up the envelope.
"I love making people do stuff," Payton responded with a sideways glance, stuffing the envelope in his blazer. "You know that. Now I can do stuff I like to do and I don't gotta worry about paying for college or nothing?"
Brown interjected, "I forgot our scholarship plan, should you decide you do want to pursue traditional collegiate experience. Pick the school, don't worry about applying, we'll take care of you."
Payton smiled at Brown and said, "Hell yeah, I'm sure. Brothers from Watts don't get a deal like this every day, and sure as hell not for no office job out of high school. Doing this ain't no different than ordering missiles at the Pentagon or working for one of those punk a** city councilmen, buying bullets for the cops. Yeah. I'm a Union man now."
Brown beamed. "I couldn't be more pleased, Mister Payton. Again, Mister Turner, there is no pressure and you don't need to have an answer tonight, but should you find this offer intriguing, you in particular would be working on advanced AI code, likely out of our Bangkok office."
"You like all that anime sh**, man, this is perfect for you," Payton whispered.
Turner pursed his lips in thought.
Brown shrugged, pulling food up with his chopsticks. "As I said, no rush, this offer won't expire until the end of the semester. Mister Turner, you can talk to your mother, have her look up the Mirman extension program, tell her as much as you feel comfortable sharing, we'll speak again in a week. Fair?"
Turner nodded slowly, his face clouded with concern.
"In any case, eat up," Brown smiled. "there's nothing quite like a free meal."
Payton raised his Asahi to clink it against Brown's lemonade before the boy took a large swig. Turner quietly started eating his food, saying nothing.
An hour later, Payton, Brown and Turner walked out of the back of Wokcano into the parking garage. Turner walked slightly ahead of the other two, his head down, contemplative.
Payton leaned over to whisper to Brown. "You want me to do him here, or in the car?"
Brown stopped in his tracks and grabbed Payton's arm. "What do you think is going to happen, Mister Payton?"
Turner nervously read his letter near the car and Payton said, "He trippin' so you want me to smoke him, prove my loyalty, right?"
Brown chuckled. "We are not one of the sloppy gangs from 92nd and Hooper, Mister Payton. You lack the skills and experience to perform the task you suggest. We are a professional organization, Mister Payton, and I would not sacrifice a young brother who is still evaluating the opportunity before him. For you, I'll allow that you don't know how to be professional yet, so hear this: you do nothing. Let's go."
As Brown and Payton got closer to the car, Turner looked up and said, "Most of the people in the Union of the Snake are white, at least on TV. Are we helping white people take over the world?"
Brown laughed, first saying, "Well, white people took over the world a long time ago, but I look at it this way: on TV, you can see those white people getting shot at. Nobody shoots at me."
Brown opened the car and the three of them got in, Payton in front again. "Listen," Brown said, "what you see on television, both Union and DangerWatch ... it's like wrestling. It's a show. These two groups have been 'fighting' since 1982. Nobody wins. Nobody loses. Nobody stops. Tanks and helicopters keep on coming, yet you don't see all kinds of dead soldiers, do you? Just civilians. You can be 'on the show' but the money is more steady behind the scenes, and most of the people out there getting shot at have no idea what's really going on. If you two went to Woodland Hills High, a white lady named Nuance would be talking to you instead of me. But whatever. Mister Payton, if you sign the paperwork in the glove box, I can take you to your new apartment now. Mister Turner, I'll take you home afterwards."
As they pulled into traffic, Payton slid the signed document into a scanner in the glove compartment. "Some staffers will go by your old place tonight and bring all of your things," Brown said to Payton. "You'll get your new American Express card tomorrow, connected to your expense account. This duplex you're going to see will be your home for the next two years while you complete your training."
"Damn," Payton muttered, surprised.
Shortly, the sedan pulled up at an unassuming duplex off Rimpau and Dockweiler in Mid-City. A smiling older Black woman wearing glasses and a long white sweater was standing on the porch, waiting.
"That's Miss Carroll," Brown said, pointing. "She has the lease papers for the back duplex. She keeps you out of trouble, but she does not work for you and won't take any mess. She serves dinner on Friday, Saturday and Sunday for all the Union trainees in the neighborhood, about six of y'all. There are brand new consoles and computers in there for you, she'll explain how you can get games and software and give you your schedule. I'll come check on you in two days."
Payton looked at Brown's outstretched hand and shook it, smiling. "I won't let you down, Mister Brown ... or is it Brother Shop Steward?"
"Either one is fine," Brown said. "Orientation is at ten in the morning, go get comfortable."
Taking his backpack, Payton walked up and shook hands with Miss Carroll, who waved at the car as Turner got in the front seat.
"He's gonna have that place smelling like weed with, like, five girls in there by the weekend," Turner said flatly.
"I did," Brown chuckled, pulling the car out of the driveway. "Youthful indiscretions are part of the process. Miss Carroll will help him learn to balance play time and work time. Let's get you home."
Hopping on San Vicente, the odd diagonal slash across the northwest of the city, Turner was quiet, a Nipsey Hu$$Le song playing with all the profanity edited out. The Malibu found Venice, then Crenshaw, then confidently powered on to the 10 freeway heading east.
Turner found his voice after they passed the 110 interchange and headed south.
"How do you know I won't tell anybody?" He asked quietly, looking out the window.
"Psychological profiles," Brown answered without missing a beat. "Besides, what could you say? A man you've never seen before took you to dinner? Your classmate moved in with, oh, let's say a distant aunt? What can you prove?"
Turner looked at Brown. "Would I have to do anything illegal?"
"One of my counterparts from DangerWatch works at Northrop Grumman," Brown said, eyes on the road. "Something he coded makes drones work. One of the drones with his kids blew up seventeen children in a school in Afghanistan. Did he do anything 'illegal?' The work you're being recruited to do cannot get you prosecuted or arrested."
The boy fell silent and after a moment of driving, the phone display rang, showing Snakebird's face and codename.
"One moment," Brown said, tapping the button. "Hello, Snakebird. You're on speaker with myself and a potential recruit, Dante Turner."
"Why hello, Mister Turner!" she said cheerily. "I definitely need someone like you coding on my team, so I hope we can work together soon. Malik, did you tell him about the dental benefits? I really think we don't say enough about that, and the comprehensive optical coverage."
Brown chuckled softly and Snakebird continued, "You know what you're doing, never mind. Anyway, never mind me, the presentation for the Saudis got moved up, can you send your slides tonight?"
Brown said, "I believe he now understands how great the dental is and yes, I will send you my slides. I need to drop this young man at his place and run home, so 45 minutes?"
Snakebird made an uncomfortable sound and said, "Okay, I can mess with the transitions a bit, they seem to like that. Thanks, talk soon."
The line went quiet and Turner asked, "Do you have a family? Do they know ... what you do?"
"My fiancee works in marketing for the Union," Brown said. "My mom works in community relations, which is how we found you. Half of my family work for the union and the rest don't know or want in. We're in the Teamsters, SEIU, SAG, DGA, WGA ... oh, and as she said, the dental benefit covers literally everything, it's fantastic."
Dante sank deeper into his seat, thinking.
A little later, Brown pulled in front of a fire hydrant in front of an apartment building on Compton Avenue near El Segundo Boulevard.
"Walk you up?" Brown said.
"No, thank you," Turner said. "I'm ... I'm scared. This is my whole life changing, today. I don't know what to do."
Brown fished out a business card with only a phone number printed on it, handing it to Turner. "You don't have to answer tonight," he said to the boy.
"Okay," Turner said, taking the card. "Thank you for dinner."
Without another word, the boy got out of the car, backpack slung over one shoulder as he considered the card, walking into the building. Brown watched the boy until he disappeared from sight, then waited a few more moments and tapped the dashboard.
"Strangelove," he said quietly, and the phone began to ring.
"Wheeler," a voice on the other end answered.
"What's the verdict, Doctor Strangelove?" Brown asked.
The voice made a disgusted sigh on the other end of the line. "I have never agreed with that ridiculous codename ..."
"... and I didn't want to retire 'Street Sweeper,' but I have a better job now so I'm the Shop Steward," Brown said. "What's the verdict?"
Brown heard the sound of tapping keys and what was likely a moment of consideration.
"While I look this up, Snakebird said Cinematic cleared out and we got the thing from the Mayor's Residence, even though 'in public,' our forces lost the fight. Anyway, with your would-be protege, scans show him doing web searches on the Union and DangerWatch in an incognito window ..." Strangelove said.
"Smart," Brown nodded.
"... and there we go." Strangelove said sadly. "He looked up how to contact DangerWatch. Algorithm says there's a 64% chance he will go against us in the next 45 minutes."
Brown sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
"Malik?" Strangelove asked.
"Yeah, okay," Brown said sadly. "Activate the gas leak. The business card will detonate it. Real shame, but we can't let DangerWatch get another Operator. Collateral damage?"
There was a sound of tapping keys and Strangelove said, "Done. Oh, the damage ... uh ... oh, cool, Snakebird cleared a cube of apartments all around, should be none. Anyway, you heard about the thing with the Saudis? Snakebird has been blowing up the group text about your slides ..."
Brown sighed, eyes locked on the apartment building. "Yeah, okay," he said. "Thank you, Doctor, I need to drive. I'll handle those as soon as I get home. Talk soon."
Brown pulled on to the road and rushed back towards the freeway, heading north.
On the second floor, Dante Payton lay unconscious, face down on the floor, as a gentle hissing sound came from the kitchen. In his pocket, a small flame ignited his pants and the flames began to grow.
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