Welcome to the new addition to the Scribbler
I love short stories. Hope you do too.
Every Week you will find a new one, and as it suggests in the title – From Around the World.
This week’s story comes from one of my favourite NB Authors. His novels are flying off the shelf. His Thief for Hire series offer international intrigue, a bit of wine-tasting and a good share of bad guys. His cozy mysteries (The Old Manse Series by Alexa Bowie) are as equally enjoyable.
He is also a vibrant contributor to the popular anthology – Autumn Paths (Go HERE.)
I am pleased he is sharing this wonderful story with you readers. I know you’ll enjoy it.
The Power List
I recall writing a poem in Grade two—a Haiku-style thing—called Teachers. It went something like
Teachers are snakes
Slithering from subject to subject
Sometimes they hiss at you.
I was pretty sure I’d get in trouble, but the word count fit, and I overheard the teacher telling another teacher that I didn’t talk much, but to look out when I did. She also mentioned something about ‘…a command over patterns…’ That was the first important compliment I’d ever received, from anyone, so I took note.
As the years went by, I inched my way into and then through high school, generally striking a blow for mediocrity, but every now and then standing out in maths and the sciences. I remember one time attending an assembly in the gym, where the entire school listened to this guest lecturer. He did something in computer science and his job was to persuade girls that this thing called STEM was evolving, and that as a result, there was a place in Computer Science for them. Anyway, at one point he popped up a shot of random letters and asked for someone to locate a specific word. My hand shot up and I literally stared at it, asking myself ‘Why are you up there, waving at this stranger? No one else is being an idiot.’ Anyway, after a bit, two teachers also put up an arm and the man then asked me to locate it. I did and in discussing the exercise, he also employed that phrase I had heard years earlier: ‘The command over patterns.’
Somehow, my not-so-amazing marks in the arts and social sciences failed to prevent me from gaining a spot in Computer Science, where I excelled in algorithms, binary functions and statistical inferences. I interned at Google and after finishing school, I took a term off to find myself. That was around the time my cousin Julia was killed. But I’ll get back to that later.
I found myself at the gym, a cross-fit establishment, where I quickly learned that the pup-pup-pup of the medicine ball off the twelve foot mark married beautifully with the ‘ungh’ of my lungs with each accompanying squat. I loved going to the gym, being at the gym, and how I felt when exiting the gym. Correspondingly, I loved how the weight fell away, and how the former me morphed into the stronger, more confident me. I saw the reps as patterns, the calorie drops complemented them with a synchronous beauty. The whole process became a mesmerizing dance that left me healthy and happy. The members became my friends, so when they went Paleo, I went Paleo. When they flirted with Keto, I flirted with Keto. When they travelled to support a sister gym, I went along to set up and cheered. But eventually I got bored.
When I wasn’t at the gym or the movies, I was on-line. I found the Dark Web, and creeped the sites, searching (and finding!) all manner of awful. Sometimes, I’d spot someone who was obviously a kid—a teen in ‘way over their head, looking for drugs or a gun. But I never once warned them or interfered. What if they were police, posing as teens? What if they were The Bad Guys, posing as teens? Best left alone, I thought. I treated this site as a movie set; everyone was an actor—not real!—so I watched, silent, from my seat in my safe place.
Best not to get involved.
At some point the Dark Web universe no longer amused me, so I moved on. I took a job with a competitor of Google (who shall remain nameless), and learned a lot—a lot!—about buyer habits. I worked for a consortium that built event-based stadiums, and came to understand who frequented them, and why. For instance, I learned who bought popcorn when at the movies, and what type of person needed to sit in the aisle seats. Who sprung for season tickets to arenas, where they wished to sit, and who bought tickets, but didn’t go? Yeah, there’s an algorithm for that.
One day I received a job offer from a head hunter. He represented an organization needing an analyst with my skills, and on behalf of that group, presented me with an interesting proposition. The organization headhunting me would match my pay, a big fistful of money, to return home to Canada and work at a similar kind of employment. I thought about the country I was currently working in. It was beautiful, but they spoke a language other than English, and I had a total of zero friends. I said yes on the spot, and only after I received the papers did I realize I’d be working for Corrections Canada. Hmm. I really didn’t see that coming and, statistically, I couldn’t be blamed. Who gets recruited by some boring Federal Government Department?
Why does Corrections Canada want a patterns specialist inside their department anyway? It turns out they had quite a straightforward and practical objective. In Federal prison—any prison, really—there are a few groupings of people. (Actually, there are tons of groupings: race, those seeking self-betterment through prison libraries or work out rooms, those who receive visitors, those who don’t... In this case, I’m referring to four plus one specific clusters: the damaged ones (who, it can be argued are out of their minds and shouldn’t be there), there are the lambs, I call them; people who made a single, innocent mistake and wound up on the wrong side of those gates. There are the petty crimes criminals, who just can’t stay out of trouble, and there are the hardened criminals. But at the top of the last category are the worst of the worst, a few hundred, who you never want to meet.
It transpires that these three hundred of the worst need to be managed, and there is one way it can be accomplished.
After the obligatory three weeks of reading manuals, I was given a two-day lecture on what can happen when baking soda meets vinegar. Or impact meets a blasting cap.
Or when two versions of Satan meet.
I was challenged to be part of a project that would reduce circumstances where the very worst no longer banged heads in this particular penal system. This project, if it worked out, would accomplish two goals. It would reduce the violence within the prison walls, and it would reduce the absolutely dark possibilities of these characters collaborating on evil.
The director reiterated all this as we walked to my office, and stopped just before entering. He pointed to a stack of three hundred files and offered up a ‘call me if you need me’ slap on the back. (But really: don’t call me, because I don’t know what you do or how you’re going to accomplish it.)
Corrections Canada relied on me to determine what exceptions, priorities, algorithms, determinants and approaches I wished to take, but at the end of the day my job was clear. I was to learn about the worst three hundred criminals in the country, and spread them across fifteen national penitentiaries in such a way as to minimize the mayhem. One of the questions I was asked—rhetorically, I presume—was ‘How do we keep them from killing each other or, worse, forming uncontrollable gangs? “I could try,” I said. That got me a blank look.
* * * *
In the beginning they were just names on files. On occasion, I’d happen across one that rang a bell, right from the news headlines. These were very bad people, after all. By the time I’d scanned all three hundred the first, most glaring statistic I noted was the proportion of very bad men to very bad women. There were just nine women in my stack of files. Nine out of three hundred. I need more women in my life, I thought, but not these nine. Of the men, however, I was even more confident I didn’t want to meet them.
Something else jumped out at me. Colin Atwaddar. I knew that name. I returned to the file, flipping over to the seventh page. Murder of seven year old Julia Aruhu. Body disassembled, stuffed into a garbage bag, and then thrown out with the trash. ‘She was in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ he’d said at the time.
I went home early that day, and for the first time realized I needed a shower. Why? I never showered in the evening, so it must have been something to do with my preoccupations of the day. And I thought about good and evil. Maybe I thought a bit about the abuse of power. Regardless, sleep didn’t come easy to me that night.
I jumped into my project with a feverish energy that surprised me. I accomplished the three-week timeline for Phase One by Friday. I began with lists, which descended into lists of lists. Atwaddar became just another file to me as I turned lists into matrices, adding equations to the matrices columns and rows, and began making sense of the exposition found within each folder. The qualitative elements of the files melded into the quantitative charts and tables generated from my head. Gradually, I was able to create a list of people who were the same personality type, and people whose personalities were antagonistic to one another.
It shocked me, really, how easy it was to find areas of commonality within the despicable acts of these criminals. Who committed murder? First degree or less? (And why was how one was murdered valuated differently across a spectrum of wilfulness?) Did they plead guilty? Was the murder exacerbated by cruelty prior to the death, or desecration after? How many crimes, over their lifetime? How early did they start?
* * * *
There were times I had to stop reading in order to weep. But I eventually became inured to the acts, the consequences, the implications imposed on the victims’ families. By virtue—what a choice of words!—of the sheer volume of the carnage, I began to develop a thicker skin. As the worst of the worst, I noted an early pattern of having committed more than one big mistake for each of the three hundred targeted criminals. Each individual had the Multiple Hard Crimes box ticked. Eventually, I stopped feeling. I was a rock; I was an island. I began to listen to music, nineties stuff at first, because that’s what I listened to in the car. But. I felt like, by listening to it in here I had tainted that music and so I sought other genres. I finally settled on post-metal punk, the more aggressive the better.
Once I’d divided and categorized the crimes, I assigned values to each. I had the luxury of making the rows as detailed as I felt were required. Without advising Corrections Canada, I supplemented my file folder stats with information I garnered from the web: social media and from the press. You want to get this right, with no exaggerations and nothing overlooked. Once the files had been crafted into something quantifiable, I began to add the more esoteric categories I’d gathered: who’d been in fights in prison? Were they with anyone else on the list of three hundred? Who’s been sent up together? Were they still pally with one another? At some point I had to stop, the amount of data was getting weighty, even for me.
I was also beginning to become worried. There would be times, points during the exercise where I’d put a specific song on repeat. It would be one of those songs where twin guitars chugged away at me, the drummer’s twin kicks becoming a tattoo pressing against my chest (the place where my heart used to sit.) And the singer would be screaming throat chants straight at me. I’d play that song over and over, and the music became a salve, a compress to my wounds. Or was it more of a cast that encased my wounds, hiding them? I’d convince myself I’d be fine, because I never once brought a related file home, or glanced at the programs on my laptop when outside of the office.
Except for that music. I soon got into the habit of bringing that music home with me, in the car, on my docking station, on my headphones. And yes, later in the hours after midnight, I’d play that song on repeat. When I was supposed to be sleeping.
Once the program was completed, at least in beta, I honed in on Atwaddar. Did he have any pals from the list? Any collaborators? Any clear enemies or conflicts? I found it on page nine of his file. One of his victims, a drive-by shooting, happened to be the sister of someone else on the list. I registered that in my mental files, but didn’t include that little fact in any reports or recommendations.
I kept searching for correlations, and found two other events where people from the list fell on the wrong side of Adwaddar; these were more tenuous connections (an advantage, really) but still worth consigning to my brain, so I did.
My three-week deadline came and went, and my project coordinator had no time to see me. Soon, he said. Soon.
I formalized the presentation. Programming took a bit of work, but a month’s refinements gave me something worth presenting. In the first meeting which included my director and his colleagues: the head of HR, the Director for Assignment Management, and the Minister’s Executive Assistant, I was given a half-day to defend my project. If the recommendations were put into place, would it keep the worst from the worst? Would it prevent, or at least mitigate the creation of super gangs within the prison system?
I said yes, noting there would always be factions outside of these three hundred cons who would attempt empire building. Hell, even within this worst-of-the-worst group, the very act of putting evil heads together could cause partnerships or conflicts to coalesce. Did we have three hundred prisons to segregate these people in? No? Well, then, mistakes might be made. The director nodded, a sober look on his face. “But the objective is to minimize such instances.” It was a statement, not a question, so I nodded. The presentation went without further comment or criticism, since none of them understood how I made the process work. Prisoners were re-deployed to their appropriate prisons within a week of formal approval of the program.
I returned to work and began refining the algorithms, and started Phase Two, which was the program that accepted three hundred new subjects, re-profiled parole dates, things like that. Of course, I flagged any automatic changes to the content. Like, for example, the death of any of the subjects.
Adwaddar’s name came up just three weeks after the first moves of the prisoners, coincidentally, over the Easter holiday. In the showers he received nine wounds from three differently crafted shivs, all targeting the kidneys. On Good Friday. I felt a pang, of course, but couldn’t be certain I’d had a hand in it, so to speak.
On the Tuesday after Easter, I showed up for work as usual. And I cranked up that song, my song. And I stared at the Power List, wondering, studying the patterns.
And I looked for familiar names.
Thank you, Chuck, for this wonderful and entertaining story.
Thank you Readers and Visitors for joining us.
Feel free to leave a comment!