Erik tapped his fingers lightly on the mahogany conference table. Sitting there for close to an hour with no information as to why exactly he was there, combined with the fact that his back was to the door, had him on edge. It seemed everyone else in the room had the same idea and those who had arrived earliest took the seats facing the entrance.
The early bird gets the worm. The early assassin gets the door.
Erik had been summoned there with no explanation. But when you receive a message from The Commander, you come when you’re called. It wasn’t the first time that he’d met for a briefing at an extravagant hotel. It was, however, the first time the entire building had been emptied out aside from the presidential suite. Someone extremely important must be inside.
A mousy hotel attendant had met him at his car. She squeaked out her memorized script and kept her head low as she led him to the ten room suite.
Erik looked her up and down as she shuffled quickly in front of him. She was small and completely harmless, a professional smile permanently plastered on to her round, trustworthy face.
People in the hotel industry often handle very elite clients, from celebrities to dictators. She probably signed a non-disclosure agreement. But as Erik entered the conference room and got a look at who was there, he knew they were going to kill her. She’d seen way too much.
Too bad. He’d liked her.
There were some heavy hitters around this table. All of America’s best snipers, spies, ballistics experts in one room spelled nothing but trouble. Directly across from Erik sat a battle worn man known only as El Niño.
El Niño was credited for destabilizing governments all over South America and his means for doing so were notoriously nasty. He was definitely a hands-on, chop-your-hands-off kind of guy. Erik had honestly thought he was a myth.
The muffled sound of men laughing came from another room in the suite, and a few moments later, the door finally opened.
“Gentlemen,” The Commander greeted them curtly. He strode to the top of the conference table and placed a steel briefcase on its surface. He pulled out thickly bound packets, one with each of the killers’ names on them.
Erik reached forward to take the handouts. He noticed The Commander’s cheeks were rosy as if he had been drinking in celebration, but his face remained cold and scowling.
Erik breathed in as he leaned. The Commander smelled lightly of scotch as well. Good scotch. But he did not seem inebriated.
Seems someone had been putting on a show. There must be big money involved.
With a click of a button, the projector above them began to whir, the reason for their meeting finally revealed. The New Founding Fathers of America logo materialized on the screen.
El Niño scoffed and swiveled in his chair a bit.
“I’m sure you’re all well aware of the testing last year on Staten Island,” The Commander began.
Erik thumbed lightly through the pages of his packet, pausing on a page labeled “treatment and control groups.”
“The NFFA deemed it a success. But before we roll it out to the rest of the country, we are in need of the data from one more round of purging. The new testing site is already being barricaded, and residents within that zoning have been promised compensation.”
The Commander clicked again and a map of the city appeared, with a subsection highlighted as the target of the experiment.
Erik couldn’t help but notice that this five star hotel was not within those boundaries, but plenty of poor Black and Brown neighborhoods were. The backs of his ears burned with anger, but he held his tongue. This was not the room to pop off in.
The sound of men laughing somewhere bled through the doors again.
Another click and a page titled “Rules of Engagement” appeared.
“It’s the same game as last time. Some of you were there.”
There was a low hum of acknowledgement around the table. Two oafish looking men clad in leather bumped elbows and smiled. They must have fond memories of their government sanctioned free for all. Fighting dogs off their leashes…
“Starting at 1900 hours tonight, all crime will be legalized for a period of twelve hours. Weapons class four and lower have been authorized for use, and absolutely no emergency services will be made available to the public until the experiment concludes.”
Erik noticed he had balled his fist and made a conscious effort to relax his hand before anyone saw. Who was he really to dissent from the rest? He didn’t think he even had a moral code anymore, nonetheless a soul. He was no better than anyone else sitting at this table, but everything in his being told him this was wrong.
“Currently, there are exemptions,” The Commander continued. “You all are not to engage in any official capacity. Government officials of ranking ten and higher are not to be harmed, and the hospitals are strictly off limits. This may change in the future, but for now, those are the rules of the game.”
“Sir?” a man towards the end of the conference table interjected, raising his hand slightly.
“If we haven’t been sanctioned to participate, may I ask why exactly we’re here?”
“Ah,” The Commander clicked off the projector sharply. “Follow me, men.”
Erik pushed away from the table and stood, packet in hand. He couldn’t help but notice that El Niño left his packet behind.
The Commander led the group of trained killers down the heavily carpeted hallway, the smell of cigar smoke getting stronger with every room they passed. Old white men stared down at Erik from their oil canvases, slightly sinister smiles on their painted faces.
Erik instantly felt a sense of unease as the oak double doors opened to what could only be described as a country club. Sharply dressed men stood in groups drinking and smoking; every now and then taking their turn to shoot in pool. Erik quickly became aware of the fact that he was the only person of color in attendance, save for El Niño and two Asian men at the bar.
This was probably the most dangerous place he would be tonight; surrounded by assassins, old money, and privilege.
“Polonium-210?” a pool player guffawed. He took his shot and leaned up against the billiards table. “That’s vintage, Mick! I didn’t think poison was your style.”
“Regular poison? No. Radioactive poison that takes three weeks to kill someone? Hell yeah,” Mick replied, calculating his shot with one eye closed. It went wonky and he scratched.
“SON OF A BITCH!” Mick roared, chucking his pool stick across the room. He ripped his suit jacket off and rolled up his sleeves, blaming the miss on a lack of rotation. His comrade merely continued to laugh.
“Gentlemen,” The Commander announced his presence. “I would like to introduce you to the United States Government’s finest operatives.”
After a round of applause, the killers moved forward in to the room, joining tables and shaking hands with the one percent.
“Alright!” Mick clapped his hands together once. “Let’s get this party started!” He snapped his fingers at the bartender and gestured loosely for him to pour a round of drinks. Simultaneously, a line of girls filed out of the back room. Erik could only describe them as “enhanced.” Definitely the instagram type.
This was Super Bowl style bullshit.
Each girl grabbed a glass and milled around the sea of men, handing out the drinks and perching on some open laps. They smiled and nodded and smiled and nodded, careful to say nothing other than praise for whichever man they were assigned to.
Erik caught snippets of conversations as he moved through the room. Radioactive poison wasn’t the only game the wealthy liked to play to keep themselves on top.
“Yeah, man! We make all the name brand and generic pharmaceuticals in the same factory. We upcharge for the middle class fuckers with insurance and then ship the rest off to Africa or some shit,” a guy in a salmon colored suit jacket bragged. He checked his reflection on his phone and lightly tapped his palm up against his overly pomade covered hair... as if that did anything.
“That’s where the real money is, you know!” he continued. “Small, dirty little towns outside of Nairobi. You shovel cheap antibiotics in there, they don’t know what they’re doing with them, the bacteria starts to become drug resistant, they take more drugs! It’s just a cycle of money. It practically makes itself.”
The conversations only got more colorful from there. A man in the middle of a nasty divorce openly contemplated locking his wife out of their house during The Purge and “leave the bitch to fend for herself.” A friend seated across from him chuckled and squeezed the thigh of the girl on his lap, no doubt leaving a mark from his wedding ring.
Another mimicked swinging a bat in to someone’s head, grunting as he did so.
An older gentleman already had his checkbook out and was eyeing El Niño.
It quickly became apparent to Erik that this was a setup for the rich to buy players for Purge Night. It was essentially an auction by the United States Government. None of these men even lived or owned property within the boundaries of the experiment and had probably never set foot there in their lives. They would be entirely unaffected. This was sport to them.
A new rage began to bubble in Erik’s stomach. He scanned the hall and began to count how many of these fuckers he could take out before any of his peers got to him. He was running through scenarios in his head when a hand landed on his upper arm.
“Care for a drink?” a rouged woman asked him. She sensually dragged her hand down his arm. Erik watched as her face changed ever so slightly from seductive to fearful as she felt the litany of scars through the fabric of his shirt. She pulled her hand back lightly but did not step away. She was definitely a professional, and soon, her face relaxed and the practiced air of false intrigue returned.
“Where’s the one they call Killmonger?” one of the Asian men loudly asked. “I’ll give five hundred thousand for him.” A murmur of interest rippled through the room as they all turned to look for him. But Erik had already slipped out of the double doors and was making his way to the elevator with long and deliberate strides.
“Stevens!” The Commander called.
Erik reluctantly stopped just before the doors and turned to face the officer.
“This could be a huge opportunity for you, Stevens. And the Armed Forces.” The Commander spoke lowly, a vein visibly twitching in his neck. Erik simply stared in response.
“Don’t mess this up for yourself. Don’t mess this up for me, boy.”
“Boy?” Erik lifted an eyebrow and pressed the call button.
The two men continued to stare each other down as Erik backed in to the elevator. The last thing Erik heard as the door close was yet another bid for his services. One and a half million.
The hotel attendant met him in the lobby, taking two steps to his one as she desperately attempted to meet any needs he may have.
“Do you need anything, Mr. Stevens?” she squeaked, waving at the valet outside. “I’ll call your car.”
Erik rounded on her suddenly. Her kitten heels skid a bit on the marble floor.
“What’s your name?” he demanded.
“Uh. Cassidy, Mr. Stevens.”
“Go home, Cassidy.”
She dropped her head a bit and let out a small laugh. His request was utterly ridiculous. She was scheduled for at least four more hours.
“Go home, now, Cassidy,” Erik reiterated.
The valet pulled up with Erik’s car. He took one last pointed look at Cassidy before getting in. She was on her own now. He warned her.
It was only once he was alone in his car that Erik felt he could finally breathe. He slammed his palm against the steering wheel and swore a few times before peeling off in to the street in the direction of the testing site.
In the direction of home.
Erik had always felt more at home amongst his own people. Poor Black and Brown is what he knew and trusted. Even once he found success, he continued to rent a small, two bedroom in an apartment block in the hood. The sense of community there was unmatched and the only family he’d found after college.
In the last few years, he’d seen the community change exponentially. Old rec centers and corner stores were bulldozed in favor of “luxury” apartments filled with builder’s grade appliances. The rent was going up and a bakery exclusively for dogs opened where the old Payless Shoe Store used to be.
Erik had been saving to buy the block.
He didn’t have access to his inheritance from his father, so he’d been taking on more jobs for this side project. Every other hit went towards his plan to save the hood. The rest funded his plans for taking over Wakanda.
Best case scenario, he’d succeed at his plans to claim the mantle of Black Panther and utilize the country’s resources to liberate Black people all over the globe.
Worst case scenario, he dies and leaves the money to community organizers who would buy the block for him.
The transition from the business district to his neighborhood was marked by the condition of the roads. Erik slowed as he swerved around a minefield of potholes. He had this dance memorized.
Neighbors waved to him from tilted porches as he passed, fanning themselves lazily. It was one of those hot, muggy days where the wind is equally as hot, providing absolutely no relief. If the government ever chose a day to incite violence in the streets, it would be one as miserable as this one.
Erik pulled in to his parking space and stepped out of the car. The wind blew a scrap of wrapping paper in to his leg, momentarily ensnaring his ankle. It was Transformers Birthday wrapping paper.
Tough break, little Timmy. Having your birthday today must suck.
Erik kicked off the offending paper and jogged lightly towards the corner store to pick up some provisions for the night. Yessenia’s was a staple of the community, providing fresh fruits and vegetables at reasonable prices in what was virtually a food desert.
“How’s it going, Hector?” Erik called out as he approached.
“Oh, it’s going,” the old man replied with a half smile. He reached out and offered Erik a piece of the mango he’d been peeling.
Hector was always sitting out front of Yessenia’s peeling a mango or reading the paper. If ever there was a time that Hector was not doing that, Erik would know something was seriously wrong.
Hector was greatly respected as the community patriarch, having owned Yessenia’s for almost forty years. He was a consistent presence which people could count on if they needed a little help or someone to confide in. Young men in the community would stop their cars at a green light to shout out to Hector from across the street just to see how he was doing.
He knew each neighborhood child’s birthday, and would let them pick out their favorite candy from the shop. He had tracked his own children’s heights in little tick marks up the side of the doorway until they both moved away. Erik leaned against the door frame, taking note that he was about two inches taller than Hector’s son Roger when he last checked in 2007.
Despite his benevolence, Hector was not one to be messed with, and he had quite the mouth on him.
“You hear about this test subject stuff?” Hector asked, shaking his head in disgust.
“Yeah, just now,” Erik mumbled through a mouth full of mango.
“Partida de locos que son. Crazy!” He began on one of his rapid tirades. Erik, who’d been practicing his Spanish, only picked up a few words like “joder” and “coño.” But he got the point.
“You should close up shop for the night, Hector. Get out of town. Don’t you want to take a vacation or something? You’ve earned it.”
“¡Claro que sí! Pero, what am I supposed to do? Who would take care of the shop? My insurance doesn’t cover this.” Hector returned to peeling the mango, wielding the knife with a bit more gusto than before. “No. I’m staying right here.”
“Nah. You can’t stay here. It’s too dangerous. You should go visit your daughter,” Erik pushed. The idea of the old man risking his life staying to defend some canned beans and laundry detergent didn’t sit well with him.
“Oh, Luisamaria called. Wants me to stay with her and that man she married,” he scoffed. It was a sore spot for Hector that his daughter married some unknown man and moved to a ranch out in Montana. But in his mind, no man would ever been good enough for his daughter.
“I’ve been here forty years!” Hector spat, shaking his knife. “The shop’s all I have and I’m not going to let some government pendejos take it.”
Erik knew there was nothing he could say to convince an old man with pride to leave if his own daughter couldn’t. He made a mental note to check in on Hector and Yessenia’s periodically throughout the night. He stocked up on snacks and grabbed some toilet paper before saying goodbye to Hector.
“At least close up early, okay? It starts at 7:00.”
Hector nodded curtly and beckoned him closer with a wave. The old man opened Erik’s bag and dropped in some plantains without saying another word.
Erik smiled and headed back to his apartment.
Erik dropped his bag of goodies on the couch and clicked on the TV. The five o’clock news had live Purge coverage, and tables full of “experts” debating the humanity of it all.
He pulled two guns for their holsters under the coffee table and another from the couch and began to clean them. He’d make his way through the house and double check all of his weapons well before this shit show got under way.
Suddenly, fanfare blasted from the TV and the “Breaking News” title screen appeared.
“Breaking news from the boundary line of the experiment. We have received word that a school bus carrying children away from the experiment site has been stopped at a checkpoint and raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.”
The screen flipped to cellphone footage of blurred children’s faces and ICE agents dressed in all black tusseling on a bus. The voice of the woman filming could be heard above the crying and the shouting.
“You can’t do this! This is an after school trip! Their parents aren’t here! You can’t do this! Where is your warrant!?”
The announcer returned, stifling a look of shock.
“We have ACLU lawyer Shannah Murphy on the phone with us. Shannah, can you tell us what’s going on?”
“Yes, Greg.” Shannah spoke quickly and got straight to the point.
“We’ve got lawyers filing as many injunctions as possible as we speak. There were easily sixty kids on that bus with their local community center taking a field trip out of the city. They were unlawfully detained and are without parental supervision or legal counsel. We fear that if we cannot get them returned to their parents before The Purge begins and all crime is legal, they will definitely be lost to the system.”
Erik clicked the television set off and pinched the bridge of his nose. The rage in the pit of his stomach began to bubble up again. The experiment hadn’t even started and it was already wreaking havoc on the community.
The sound of crying children continued after he’d turned off his television set, however. It seemed the sound was coming from the hallway. Erik moved towards the door and looked through the peephole.
His neighbor, Kiki was peeling her two young children off of her as her teenage daughter glared at her from the doorway.
“I don’t understand! Why can’t you just stay home?” the teen yelled. “How am I supposed to do this by myself? This isn’t fair.”
“I already told you, Charice. If I don’t go in to work, I will lose my job!” Kiki replied, sounding exasperated. “And if I lose my job, then how am I supposed to take care of you?”
“Not tonight, mom, please!”
Kiki blinked up at the ceiling, whether it was in prayer or just blinking back tears, no one could say.
“You will not be by yourself. Ms. Nadege from 22B will be watching you. You respect her now, you hear?”
The youngest daughter scrunched her nose up.
“Ms. Nadege smells funny and believes in magic. Why can’t you stay?”
As if summoned, the eccentric Ms. Nadege herself came in to view and ushered the children inside the apartment. Charice shot her mother one last scared look before stomping off. With her children out of the way, Kiki began furiously wiping her face of tears.
“Now now dear,” Nadege cooed, grasping Kiki’s hands in her own. “Take this.”
Kiki looked down curiously at the small satchel in her hands.
“It’s a mojo bag. For protection. Keep it on you.”
Kiki thanked the woman and stuffed the tiny bag in her purse.
“I’m going to miss my bus!”
Once Kiki had left, Nadege rummaged in the folds of her dress once more, pulling out two paper bags. She leaned over and dumped the contents in two thin lines in front of the door.
“I see you there behind that door, Erik Stevens!” she suddenly said. Erik jumped back a bit in surprise before opening his door.
“Goofer dust and red brick dust,” Nadege explained turning round to face him. She sprinkled two lines in front of his door too. “Keep whats want to hurt you out, both supernatural and human.”
She stood from her bent position slowly and eyed Erik. She tilted her head as if she was listening to someone who wasn’t talking.
“But I’m afraid it won’t keep something like you in...” Nadege stared at him a little longer before turning suddenly and stepping over the freshly made lines of dust. “Have a good night, Mr. Stevens. Don’t have too much fun.”
Erik shook off the encounter and continued his rounds of weapon cleaning as the sun set. Soon it was a few minutes before 7:00. He had expected an eerie silence to fall on the neighborhood, but instead, people stood on their porches and leaned out their windows. There was a sense of curious anticipation. No one really knew what was going to happen.
Erik clicked the television back on just as the grating emergency tone began and his phone vibrated violently. He glanced out the window. Almost every apartment glowed blue with the Emergency Broadcast System message from the New Founding Fathers of America.
“This is not a test.”
The automated woman’s voice echoed throughout the streets.
“This is your emergency broadcast system announcing the commencement of the Annual Purge sanctioned by the U.S. Government.”
Erik heard laughing from across the street. Some teen boys were leaning out of the window, recording the announcement with their phones, no doubt to make a remix out of it later.
“Weapons of class 4 and lower have been authorized for use during the Purge. All other weapons are restricted. Government officials of ranking 10 have been granted immunity from the Purge and shall not be harmed. Commencing at the siren, any and all crime, including murder, will be legal for 12 continuous hours. Police, fire, and emergency medical services will be unavailable until tomorrow morning until 7 AM., when The Purge concludes. Blessed be our New Founding Fathers and America, a nation reborn. May God be with you all.”
The hair raising thrum of a siren sounded, and Erik’s heart began to beat faster. A crazed smile spread on his face.