You’d never notice me.
Sometimes it’s better not to be noticed, though. The trick is to know when to be seen, and when not to be seen. It’s okay. I’m one skinny guy in an army jacket, but I know myself. I know enough to believe in myself.
My name’s Ian, and that’s some of what I’ve learned in 17 years.
I’ve got some interesting friends. This is our story.
So what is C75?
No big mystery, I guess—it’s short for Club 75. Our town sits directly in either Ohio or Michigan (depending on who you’re talking to). That’s all up in the air for now…and maybe for good. All I know is, there’s confusion, and where there’s confusion, there’s opportunity.
That’s where we come in. You don’t have to be especially gifted if you want to make it these days. You just need to be halfway organized and have some kind of plan. You need to move—to have no doubts or fears.
That’s us. That’s C75. We can get anything, from almost anywhere.
We’ve got a clubhouse, for lack of a better word, and it’s as good a place as any to convene, plan or just decompress. It’s about as big as the average classroom, with cement floors and cinderblock walls. Couches (lugged in through great expenditures of energy) and a few chairs are all we’ve got, and all we need, really.
There’s nothing on the walls but band posters (hate them, hate him, loathe them, tolerate, love, love, tolerate). We’ve got a game console, too: we’re not ascetics (look it up).
It’s all low-tech, paper and pens. No electronic signature. That’s been addressed, as I’ll get to shortly. We don’t use encryption or anything like that; it’s just ink on paper. Again, the place suits us.
The best part? It’s all underground.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Here’s how we lucked into the clubhouse in the first place.
There’s a junkyard a couple of miles from my house. Me and my buddy Eliezar would hang out there sometimes if we couldn’t handle school. Eventually, when I dropped out, it was where I spent a lot of my time. (I don’t advocate dropping out of school for anyone but hey, it worked out fine for me).
There was a guy who worked there. They wouldn’t let him run the crane, and I never saw him drive one of the trucks. He just helped out, I guess. We called him $$$$$, but not to his face. He was an okay guy.
One day he sees us digging through stuff and yells at us—then he starts running over. We really had nowhere to run, so we just stood there like idiots.
“Hey,” he panted, “you’re trespassing.” There was nothing we could say to this, so I answered “I guess we are.” He took a look over his shoulder, then walked closer toward us. He was a short guy with graying hair tied back in a ponytail. Glasses with smeared lenses framed his eyes. The cuffs of his overalls fell on boots covered in metal filings.
Dirty, disheveled, a little gross…but not dangerous.
“You’ll get in trouble. The new owner’s a young guy. He doesn’t put up with too much.” He stood there, hands on his hips, with a sort of demanding look on his face. I glanced at Eliezar, who was trying not to smile just as hard as I was. I took a look around the yard, my head cocked at an inquisitive angle.
“Well…I guess we could leave,” I said. I wasn’t sure if we could just go and never come back. Where else would we hang out? There’d be somewhere, though—
“Ahhh, hold on,” said &&&&, his arms now hanging at his sides. He was looking at us with a quizzical expression, maybe re-evaluating us. “Just don’t wanna see no one get hurt, you know?” His head bobbed upward to the left and right, indicating the huge &&& of scrap that flanked us closely. Eliezar nodded.
“We appreciate it,” he said simply. Out acquaintance took another look over his shoulder, then smiled a bit.
“Hey,” he said with a quick flash of a grin, “You want to see something cool?”
He gestured toward the back right-hand corner of the yard, to the right of a long row of junked cars. We walked over, stepping carefully, and arrived at a pile of corrugated sheet metal. Our guide was by now beaming with joy.
“Grab a side,” he said, clutching the stack. We gripped and pulled in unison, and he instructed us to prop up our side with long, rusty iron bar. “Eh?” he asked, excited. We looked down. There was a door with a latch sunk into a concrete slab. He knelt and pulled, and on the second tug the latch came open. He went down…he went down steps! There were steps! And there were two of us so down we went, gingerly, and we watched him reach back into the gloom and flick a light switch.
El and I exchanged looks of utter surprise, but there was more.
“We came out here to near the fence, right?” &&&& asked.
“Well, over that fence is the old auto-parts place…”
“Didn’t used to be an auto parts place…didn’t used to be that fence there, either…” he trailed off. We were waiting. “That was Bill Rogers’ house, and he was scared to death about the Russians, so he built—or put in, rather—well, you’re standing in it.”
“This was a bomb shelter,” said Eliezar in amazement.
That it had been, and there was a tunnel connecting it to the Rogers house.
If you took a roundabout trip toward the dump, and went east a few blocks from my house instead of west, you’d get to the Rogers house. Its back-door lock was broken, so if you were careful about being seen from the street you could slip in, lift the latch in the back bedroom and be in the shelter within minutes. Done and done.
A block further west was an old newsstand. Probably there since…I don’t know, but it had a bank of booths beside it that had once held pay phones. This info I got from my mom: I didn’t see the reason for a row of booths just standing there. Anyway, a large sign sat at the rear of all this shelving, and in faded letters it said SLOGAN. So happy. The newsstand was so happy. If it only knew.
In the dead center of it were four newspaper display boxes that had long since ceased to have a newspaper to fill them. Behind these we dropped all devices—no electronic trail back to the clubhouse, like I said. Mostly we use little beater flip-phones, we wipe the histories and all. If they’re found, it’s no big deal. If someone leaves something nicer back there and loses it, it’s on them. Gotta have a protocol.
Concluding observation about clubhouse.
Weko was named—we’ve been taught—after a Shawnee chief whose military successes led him to control quite a lot of land in this region. Growing up we had to make up stories for the chief and his men—savage stuff…tribal wars, all that. But no. Once they got some land they settled down to farm it.
Weko grew up big, huge. That’s mostly gone now, but my parents talk about the clothing factory, the huge tool-and-die works and everything else that was there when they were young.
What do we have now? On the south end we’ve got Weko Plaza, a mall that must’ve been something in 1978 but is now just a shabby eyesore, a concrete-and-glass gateway to the cornfields. After you get through the middle of the city there’s a hospital where most of us were born and a _________. On the north end is the “business” district, and if you’ve got some kind of business to conduct here I guess this is it. There are roads to connect you to Vinedale (Crimedale, I should say), and you can even get to _____ or _______.
Interstate 75 plucked old Weko up and deposited it somewhere. What we’re left with is this. City blocks with the same signs over and over again—nail salons, donut shops, endless wireless providers, Chinese buffets. The new signs right over the old. Orange, purple, red, neon blue…over the old Weko.
My friend Eliezar amuses himself at West Weko, the newer of the two high schools here. He made his way up here a couple of years ago from Honduras, on his own. At a little under six feet tall, he’s a good guy to have around, especially for a guy like me—small, but with a big mouth. If there are “charter” members of C75, we’re it.
The rest of us come from plain old Weko high, two blocks from downtown.
Jen gets attention at school mostly due to her bright yellow Camaro, which be heard each day at 2:30 as it exits the parking lot with a quick screech of the tires as she downshifts into second. Where’d she get the car? That’s…a bit of a story.
Silke cracks me up. She’s either Austrian or German (I can’t remember which), but she will slice you to ribbons with a well-placed observation or two, then there you are…mouth hanging wide open, wondering what just happened.
What would I do without tech guys? Soo Kyong makes my life easier. Backstory. Seriously, though, this guy could hack the Pentagon if he wasn’t scared to death of being nailed. Darnell, now—he’s a nerd’s nerd. He was talking to SK one day about some game hacks, next thing you know he’s asking about getting into the C.
“Meet Soo Kyong Friday night with two pizzas,” I said. Fine. We sat in the clubhouse hammering pizza while I filled him in.
We keep it low-key, and watch each other’s back. No one (except &&&, obviously), knows about the clubhouse’s existence. Darnell was good with all that, so I guess he made six. Good enough number of members for a club, right?
And I don’t need to hear any cracks about us being a mini-UN or anything. The hospital where SK’s folks met used to have a huge research lab. There were people from all over the world. As for any stuff about being just an “average bunch of kids?” Speak for yourself. If you want to be average, knock yourself out.
Yes, we still go through some sort of daily routine like everything’s normal, but it’s getting harder to maintain that illusion. Whatever we get up to—the club—is to try to take care of ourselves, and not get caught out if things get really weird, where we have no way to _____.
We’ve pulled a couple of “operations” (ho ho!) just to see if we had the guts. (Briefly desc two). Which brings me to our current one.
At the beginning of every semester the school board uploads its current test modules, complete with answer keys. We’re going to appropriate the current _____. I have, at some personal risk, made the acquaintance of a guy named Wade. He’s a “fence,” to use the old term: that is to say, he’ll take the testing stuff off my hands, and for a decent bit of cash.
Is this wrong? Yes. I could get into some stuff here about everything being relative, and re-stress the need to take care of ourselves, but I won’t. It’s wrong. I could talk about leveling the playing field, but hey—there really is no such stuff anymore. Thus my thoughts about us needing to provide for ourselves, blah blah blah.
We’re…proactive. Yes, that’s it.
Moral digressions aside, we’ve still got the physical job to consider.
The schools know better than to have their servers anywhere onsite, even though their campuses are covered with tons of those blue-domed cameras. The servers are all in a county building downtown, where we can at least have a crack at them after hours.
That’s how Silke, Soo Kyong and I found ourselves prepping a few Friday nights ago. Jen insisted upon driving. “It doesn’t have to be in the Camaro, come on, Ian!” she’d pleaded, but I felt like I needed to keep it lean. We’d give the janitors time to finish up, then try to get in around midnight. Soo Kyong could scan the building’s old Blackwell system and override it fairly easily. The system would be active the entire time, thinking that everything was normal.
That’s how it went. We got inside, being careful not to leave any tracks on some of the still-damp floors. There were a few cameras to contend with, so we flipped for masks. Silke was SpongeBob, and Soo got Thomas the Tank Engine. That left me as the green Power Ranger.
“All the IT is down the first hallway to the left,” said Soo.
I froze. The beam of a flashlight was searching the hallway.
“Hello?” came a shaky voice, then just as quickly, the beam was gone. We stared at each other.
“Where’d he go?” mouthed Soo.
“He’s trained to not approach—he’s trained to get the police,” whispered Silke. “Get everything packed.
Somehow we got everything back into our cases without cramming it all in, and entered the hallway. We headed slowly back to the right, toward the hallway crossing, and peered around the corner toward the entrance. The guard was indeed speaking animatedly with an officer. I gestured toward the rear door. Silke and Soo both shook their heads in disagreement.
“It’s dim,” I whispered. “We can make it. It’s all we have.” We stepped around the corner. The rear doors stood about 30 feet away. We crept slowly toward them, silently, we were almost there, it was going to work.
The cop who threw open the doors thought otherwise.
The District 4 sub-station was freezing cold. Whether or not this was being addressed by the officers was unknown. In any case, we were led to a small wire cage where we surrendered the contents of our pockets. Wallets and keys we gave up, but we had no devices on us—some pre-planning that now _______.
I think I gasped a little when I saw the holding area. Two long bays, one on either side of the hallway, both already full. We were put into the one on the right. There was a bench against the back wall that, incredibly, was unoccupied. We took it.
“What happens now?” wondered Soo, then “We’ve gotta call our parents. At least.” I nodded, looking around all the while. Shouldn’t I know some of these kids? I saw maybe one face I knew…two…okay, a third. That was it. Where were all these people from? Silke looked over at Soo.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, watching him fussing with his fingers.
“The fingerprint ink. I got some of it on my pants.” He frowned, unable to find anywhere to wipe his fingers.
“That’s life in the underworld,” she said, nodding slowly. One of the faces I’d picked out made his way over to me. Skinny like me, red hair, glasses. I couldn’t place his name. Thankfully, he introduced himself.
“Jeff Lambing,” he said, extending a hand.
“Ian Keller.” We shook. Neither one of us apparently cared too much about why the other was being held.
“What’s up?’ I asked simply.
“Pre-election roundup.” My expression indicated utter ignorance. “The election. The mayor’s race. Next month. Speakers, campaigning—there’s still plenty scheduled, including two big rallies tomorrow—well, later today, to be precise—and Sunday. Pullen County will be full to the brim: the governor, all kinds of people. He indicated the holding bays with a sweep of his hand. “No mischief…no damage, pranks, disruption, you get the picture.”
Suddenly I had a great interest in the reason for my acquaintance’s detention. He smiled…sort of. The question clearly made him uneasy.
“It was a blog post of mine,” he said. “I discussed something that’s not really been made public yet.” He had all our attention. “The Youth Initiative. In a nutshell, it’s a simple tactic to control kids until they can figure out some sort of solution for skipping school, vandalism, gangs, whatever.”
“The Youth Initiative,” I repeated. “There are some pretty young kids in here. How is this even legal?”
“You’re still thinking in the quaint old terms of ‘legality’,” said Silke. “This is about power.” I nodded. “And the most incredible thing is—“ but then Soo nudged me. A deputy was standing at the bay door.
“Janssen! Keller! Pak!” ha barked. By the time our names sunk in he’d turned again and was walking back down the hall. The clerk who was holding the door wasn’t much older than us, but he clearly intended for us to hustle up and follow his colleague. I meant to say something to Lambing, but Soo had already grabbed my arm and prepared to haul me through the crowd.
“Be well,” he said simply, and all I could do was nod over my shoulder.
The man who greeted us in the detective’s office seemed ill-tempered, distracted, or scared, or maybe all three. The officer put a clipboard in front of him, then another, and then handed him a small sheaf of papers.
“You’re free to go,” he said, taking us in with a quiet glance, then he himself was gone. This left our benefactor.
“Let’s go,” he said. He was an older guy. Decent suit. We followed him out of the office, toward the exit for the parking garage.
“I guess…we should thank you?” I queried, still unsure about any of this. He gave a slight shrug.
“Not me,” he answered. “You can thank Mr. Mayfield.”
“Mayfield?” I don’t follow politics, at least not regularly, but Soo Kyong had the save.
“Mr. Mayfield, the City Commissioner.” Our friend nodded. “Yeah,” he said as we stepped out into mild pre-dawn. “You work for him now.” His remote chirped as he unlocked his car, then he turned to face us.
“Be careful. We’ll be in touch.”
We stood, stunned, as he got in and drove away.