Ancient History, Chapter 1

By Niko

James Maxwell found it hard to sleep with the curtains thrown open. The light was a nuisance even through his closed eyes and the sound of the school chimes, distant as they were, rang far too loudly in his pounding head. A bottle and a half of cheap wine would do that, though. He decided at once to ignore the day entirely, out of necessity if not spite, and remain in bed for the rest of the day--or at least until the hangover passed. It was the hangover he blamed most of all for the length of time it took him to recall that his dormitory room had no outward facing walls.

His eyes popped open. The offending window was on the south wall of a rather spacious room, and the light it let in was just enough to brighten the path from the bed to the door without directly blinding him where he was laying. It was a private suite with it's own bathroom and an attractive floor plan; the kind of room the wealthy parents bought for their precious spoiled brat on his first venture out of the family home. And it was most certainly a male occupant, much to James's displeasure. Everything was far too simple in decor to belong to one of the giggly stupid rich girls he'd seen walking around campus. The fact that a young man was standing in the corner looking at him helped with the diagnosis as well.

"I see you're awake," the stranger said, walking forward towards a set of drawers. "It's eleven o'clock. I've arranged for someone to take notes for you in your morning classes and your absences have been excused. The dining hall is closed until lunch and though that isn't much longer, I collected a plate of eggs and breakfast ham for you this morning that is available should you be hungry. Before that, I advise that you drink this to clear your head."

James listened to him but heard little, head pounding with every syllable that bounced through his ears. The stranger extended a glass of a brownish gray liquid to him with an expression void of emotion. James took the glass but kept it far from his dry lips. "Who are you and what am I doing in your room?"

"Your room, sir," the stranger corrected, standing and waiting for him to drink the concoction with his hands folded into the pouch of his hooded sweatshirt. "I'm not surprised you don't recall much of the events of last night. I shall explain everything once you have finished your tonic and are in more of a mood to listen to anyone speak above a whisper."

Confused as he was, James gave the contents of the glass one final look over then poured it down his throat. Surprisingly, it tasted something along the lines of peppermint and marzipan, which was not all together unpleasant despite the foul taste left over in his mouth from the night before. The liquid, though only then sliding down his throat, seemed to explode into his mind like dynamite clearing obstructing rock, blowing his senses awake and tossing out the fog and pain. The hangover vanished as though it had never been. James stared dumbly at the empty glass at hand. The stranger took it from him and put it aside, replacing it with a tray of breakfast in as much time as it took Maxwell to blink.

"Will you require anything else for the moment before I bore you with last nights details?"

James eyed the slightly smoking ham, the eggs coated in melted cheese and the glass of cold juice sitting off to the side. ", I should be just fine. What was in that drink you just gave me?"

"Sorry, sir, but that is not something I can freely divulge. Family secret." His tone was anything but apologetic, but not quite tainted with annoyance. "If you'll finish your breakfast in the time it takes me to explain matters, there may still be time for you to shower and be ready for the nomination proceedings. I've had a suit pressed for you that should arrive before too long."

"I...think I'd like to know what's going on."

The stranger bowed his head slightly. "Of course, sir. As I explained last night, you have been selected to receive a fellowship through the university's political science college. You have been furnished with an all expenses paid, private dormitory so as to better facilitate your duties, and you are expected to run for and hold office at the student body level. You have been provided with a knowledgeable assistant as to help you acclimate to the position. My name, Mr. Maxwell, is Ashe."

James eyed him suspiciously. "I didn't sign up for any fellowships. I'm not even in the political science college. I'm studying business management."

"I understand this, sir. Assessments of your aptitude have shown that this is the path best suited to your particular talents, however."

"My talents." James could hardly keep the caustic smirk from his face as he let his fork scrape the plate clean of eggs. "The hell do you know about my talents? I'm a junior making average to below average grades in standard classes."

Ashe remained nonplussed. "Despite your lackluster performance, you have proven to have a highly analytical mind and an ability to formulate convincing truths from nonsense. Beyond that, though, I have not been given specifics. This is a strictly experimental program and so I have very little information for you on the matter outside of what I have been provided for my own purposes. I was told simply to assist you in every way possible to ensure your success."

"You going to wipe my ass too?"

"If you require that degree of assistance, perhaps diapers would be more appropriate undergarments."

"Funny. So, you're not just some yuppie moron." James pushed his plate away, lying back on the bed with his arms crossed behind his head. "Well, sorry either way. Kind of nice to get the royal treatment this morning, but I'm going to have to decline the offer."

"You mistake my meaning, sir. You are not being offered this fellowship, you have been granted it. Everything you require to graduate, from tuition to boarding, has been taken care of granted you proceed to study political science and take part in the student council."

"Well, I don't want to." James moved the tray aside and threw off the covers, ready to get away from Ashe and his odd proposal. The clothes he had worn the night before were no longer on him, though, leaving him in his boxers and a white undershirt. "What the hell did you do with my clothes?"

Ashe sighed, hands still cocooned in the pouch of his hoodie. "I took the liberty of removing them from you last night. They're being washed. You'll find a selection of appropriate attire located in your closet."

James leveled a hard stare on Ashe as he found a pair of pants and threw them on--the undershirt would be fine. He edged towards the door, trying keep as much space as possible between himself and Ashe without it being too obvious, half expecting the stranger to jump him in a frenzied rage and scream at him that he must obey or else. Ashe watched him with the same sort of boredom most men leveled at a movie their girlfriends dragged them to--a look that was littered with resignation but with a hint of superior knowledge. Whatever Ashe believed he knew that James did not, James was not interested in finding out. He opened the door to the room and left down the hall towards the elevator to get as far away as possible from the weird morning he'd had in the presence of the patient man.

The tram had been too crowded for James to work on his homework. On the rare occasions he had a seat to occupy and a lap to serve as his desk, James had managed to get quite a few things done for his classes. Standing and practically hugging the ceiling to floor bar was not nearly as conducive to such studious behavior and so James resigned himself to another overnight cramming session or another zero all together. He had other things to worry about, more pressing matters to think on, and enough work to do to keep school in the back of his mind for as long as necessary. The tram stop he was waiting for was only a few blocks away from what had become his second home and first real job. Thomas Heins demanded his full attention always.

He walked quickly from the tram to the platform and from the platform to the bus station. He was a familiar enough face that a few people smiled and though he found them creepy or disgusting, he smiled back just enough to be sure any knife they might wield didn't wind up in his side. There was no harm in being personable, especially not in the part of town he found himself in. Some of the people on the bus could easily be employees of warring business factions or undercover law enforcement. There was security in a smile, however false it might be. James wore his slight grin like a bullet-proof vest, feeling safer for its presence.

"Hey, Jimmy. Didn't know you were comin' in today."

James cringed slightly, smiling slipping, as he turned his head to see one of Heins's mechanics leaning over the seat behind him on the bus. He was glad he'd dropped his backpack into the seat beside him, so that the other half of the bench was no longer free for the miscreant to slide into. "Hello, Geoff. It's James, by the way. You might want to look into calling me that."

"You were Jimmy when your mama was around."

"Well mom's been dead for a while now, so you can drop the diminutive and stick with James."

"Listen to you. Shit." Geoff ruffled his hair, scratchy fingernails catching on the short strands and pulling. "The fuck you think you're talkin' to, usin' big damn words like that? I'd watch it if I were you."

James winced and moved his head aside. "If you were me, then I wouldn't have to use three words where one is enough. It's not my fault you have a grammar school education so don't fuck with me. You think Heins is going to like it if I tell him one of his dumbass mechanics was giving me shit? I'm the reason you still have a fucking job, so how about you stop treating me like a kid, get your plague-ridden hands off my head, and worry about your own neck. Anyone who wants to start something because I am capable of deviating from the vernacular can kiss my ass or get in line to beat it."

Geoff shook his head and took a small handful of hair, pulling on it as his lips parted to reveal two gaps in his smile where teeth should have been. "Just because you’re the boss's favorite, doesn't mean no one's dumb enough to try shit. Just sayin' you should stop actin' like your better'n everyone else, talkin' the way you do. You don't need to try pickin' a fight with me over it."

James did his best to ignore him. There was no winning against ignorance and any small victory against it was hardly worth celebrating anyway. Geoff, like all the others who worked to keep Heins’s trucks stocked and running, didn't care what the world thought of him so long as he could afford his liquor and whores. Anyone who overheard Geoff would immediately assume he was from bad stock: just another gutter slug with no higher aspirations than to maybe someday rob a convenience store and get away with it. James at least could give people a moment’s pause with the right words used in just the right way. He might still look like some delinquent teen, but at least he could make people think, even if only for a second, that he was somebody underneath.

They both got off the bus a couple blocks from the warehouse and began walking down the back alleys for the rest of the journey. Geoff smoked on a small, hand-rolled joint that produced a gray-yellow smoke and smelled of gym socks and formaldehyde. James stayed several paces in front of him to avoid the putrid stench only a die-hard addict could enjoy.

"You pay for that or did you swipe if off the last shipment?" James asked, looking over his shoulder at the other man. He was well aware that the shipment supervisor turned a blind eye every now and again. He believed feeding their addictions made his employees more motivated and loyal. James just thought of them all as a bunch of idiots stealing openly from the company.

Geoff's only reply was his raised middle finger.

The warehouse was buzzing with conversation and the rumbling clank of boxes rolling over the metal wheels of the loading apparatuses when they entered. James walked past the mass of smelly men towards the back office, his backpack slung over one shoulder so he could see it should anyone desire to take it from him. He was sure most of them knew better than to try it, but there was little to gain in trusting addicts and morons. He opened the door to the office and closed it behind him, the wall dampening the roar of the dock, but too thin to silence it completely.

"You're late."

James turned to the man sitting on his desk. Thomas Heins was in his late forties, but could boast only a single streak of white in his hair that made him look more dangerous than aging. The scar running down his face from his left temple to his jaw further made this point, and though the sunglasses he always wore kept his eyes invisible to the world, James imagined underneath the blank, tinted glass his eyes were fixed in a wrinkled glare. He was intimidating and unpredictable. James imagined it was part of what made him a successful business man.

"Sorry, I slept in. Went to a party last night and got a little stupid." James tossed his backpack down on his own small desk, located in the back corner by the fridge. "Caught Geoff smoking some of the E class bang on the way in. Marksburge is doing a shit job as supervisor and I don't know why you don't get rid of him."

Heins shrugged one shoulder, his lips thin and tight. "That's not your concern anymore. Let Marksburge worry about his crew for now. Your days of managing the loading docks are over. You're supposed to be managing the highways now. Supposed to be." He took a sip from his hip flask, the metal reflecting a stain of light on the far wall. "How much more of my time are you planning to waste at school? I need you here, James, but from what I hear, you've got other things you'd rather be doing."

"Friend of mine got engaged. It's not like I go out and party all the time. One night and a few too many glasses of wine hardly counts as a track record."

"I'm not talking about your activities last night. Nice to know you can loosen up every now and again, honestly. You're what...nineteen, wasn't it? But this school bullshit is starting to piss me off. You're not going to learn shit from any school about managing street trade. Time you reconsider your priorities."

James unpacked his bag, placing his school data pad in the far corner of his desk while he stacked several discs towards the front. "I don't suppose you've ever considered the benefits of understanding legitimate business in as much as it might pertain to all business. You could be making a lot more money if you understood more than just how not to get shot in the back and robbed."

Heins smiled at him just slightly, a similar smile to the one Ashe had worn when he'd ducked out of the room. Everyone seemed to be holding onto a string of knowledge James hadn't quite grasped. His head felt hot with frustration as he took the discs and held them out for Heins. "Here. See, I got it all done. So stop your bitching about me spending too much time at school."

"All of it?" Heins asked, turning a few over in his hands before sliding off his desk and heading for the terminal.

"Don't act like it's hard to believe. Those cops you bought off have a pretty regular schedule so the hours of operation aren't exactly guesswork. Trucks need to leave during the day, though. People are less suspicious of things going on in daylight. Leave the night traffic for your flesh trade and everything should fall back into order." James watched his employer’s back as he looked the data over. "Of course, you could drop the prostitution all together like I keep suggesting and not have to worry about anything anymore. Costs would go down, there's less potential for getting caught, and competing with legal institutions isn't exactly a financially sound idea in the first place."

Heins shook his head. "It's not competition so long as the legals wanna keep legures. I may pay you to think, James, but stick to what I tell you to. What about that issue I pointed out last time you were in?"

"If you want to put pressure on the neighboring suppliers and keep them out of your borders, then I suggest you hold back on a shipment and load a truck with some enforcers instead. Drive it into the gray zone and see what happens. If they're hostile, they'll attack the truck to steal the shipment and get a nasty surprise. If they're just too stupid to know whose streets they're on, then you unload the enforcers at the border and let them demonstrate where the line is."

Heins gave his shoulder a proud pat. "Now that's my boy. Go relay the orders, then I want you on the phones. I've got my own shit to supervise since your sorry ass only pops in a few times a week."

James nodded, knowing there would be no chance to get to that homework now.

The trip back to campus when he left work was no more pleasant than the trip there had been, with no opportunity to do any schoolwork, and the night air was cold as James walked across campus to his dorm room. He was tired, but the day was far from over if he intended to keep up with his class assignments. Heins would get his wish if he flunked out of school and there was no way James was going to let that happen without a fight.

He was tired, though, and feeling the strain of several hours in transit. As he crossed the free speech pavilion, his eye caught what could have been his reflection pinned to the beams. Rather than glass or a mirror, though, it was a sheet of plasti-paper with his picture and a flashing headline: Elect James Maxwell for Student Body President.

He stared at it for a moment, not quite sure what to make of it. He could think of only one person to blame though: Ashe. He grabbed the flier and pulled it from the pavilion, crinkling the sharp edges into a ball before throwing it to the ground.

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