Sitting in the break room, the assistant warden regarded his subordinate coolly through the rising steam from his coffee cup. He slurped loudly and slowly, then lowered the cup. As it thudded just a hair too loudly on the table, the second-in-command of the Janszen Correctional Institution put on his most disarming and collegial smile.
Of course, anyone in the prison could have told him that it was the most annoying and insincere-looking smile they’d ever seen, but with rare exception they didn’t want to run afoul of his notoriously irritable nature.
The correctional officer sitting across from him and drinking a bottle of Snapple lemonade was no different. In fact, he had even more reason than most to want to be on the man’s good side.
“So, Blanchard, I understand you’re looking to get some experience for a transhuman C.O. job one of these years,” the assistant warden noted.
“Yes, sir. I’d like to get some hands-on experience here and there and then go for my special certification and testing in the next few years—maybe get a job as a C.O. at Bellgate Detention Center or the Federal Correctional Institution in Erie—or some state prison that just has a significant trans population. Maybe even the Givens Center, Silveren or Riverton, though I admit that mental illness part of those prisoners wouldn’t make the places my first choices.”
“Why? Why transhumans, Blanchard?”
“Honestly, sir, because the pay grade and career advancement potential is better for those kinds of correctional jobs. Not that I’m unhappy here…”
“No one is happy here,” the warden interrupted, his fake smile melting. “It’s a prison. You don’t need to kiss up because I know it will take you at least two years to get through certifications and all that even if you’re a star student, so I’m not going to be losing you any time soon to a competitor. Well, we don’t have too many freaks among our prisoners, but we have a few. I can give you the chance to get your feet wet, so that you can actually put in an application and increase your chances of getting the training you want. Interested?”
* * *
Six security monitors gave Larry Blanchard a view of each of the transhuman prisoners at Janszen. Three others were dark, as the cells to which they were connected were unoccupied for now.
“So, you can see our special guests,” noted Fred Weiss, who supervised the correctional officers at Janszen, waving one hand at the screens. “We cap it at nine trans prisoners max, and if we find that we have a prisoner in a normal cell who’s hiding any kind of significant transhuman powers, we transfer him to someplace else as quick as we can.”
“Why’s that?” Blanchard asked, feigning ignorance. It always helped to get on someone’s good side to let them share their expertise or opinions.
“This is a fairly small prison, short on resources and short on really good people—no offense, ‘cuz your work record is solid—and we’re just not equipped or willing to deal with prisoners who have powers,” Weiss answered. “Sure, transhuman powers aren’t always anything that poses a threat to us, but we just keep them away on general principles.”
“Why do we have any at all, then?”
“Because this place didn’t start out as a prison. It was a biotech research facility. Then they went belly up just as they were starting a big expansion. The foundations they’d laid down were about the size the state needed for a new prison, and the walls had only just started going up, so it was a good way to save money and have a head-start on the prison. Anyway, the old research place that started off here has got all sorts of systems in place for things like biological containment, so we do a good business taking a handful of specialized prisoners that other places can’t keep locked up as safely. And that’s where you come in, Blanchard.”
“Well, the Transhuman Unit doesn’t require a very big staff, since it’s more secure than the rest of the prison and has niftier automated systems. We don’t have any full-time openings right now, but we need someone who can float through on a filler basis when someone’s sick and as support staff on days like—well, today.”
“What’s today?” Blanchard asked.
“Time for Patient Zero’s three-times-a-week shower,” Weiss responded.
* * *
The job was, if a little strange, pretty simple, Blanchard realized. They couldn’t let a prisoner’s hygiene and health go straight to hell, so at least a few showers a week were part of the routine. Apparently, they had tried giving Patient Zero a bucket, alcohol and sponges at first, but after a few weeks, he just refused to use them. That left the options of letting him use the shower or giving him sponge baths themselves. Problem with the transhuman villain known as Patient Zero, a.k.a. Gustavo Dobbins, was that he could use his powers to pass along viral infections that were potentially highly contagious and lethal if he so desired, and no one wanted to spend extended periods touching him even with protective gear on.
Having seen plenty of news reports when Patient Zero had been on trial a couple years back, Blanchard knew it was a power that allowed him to be a well-paid assassin when someone wanted a whole community wiped out—his specialty being to work for drug lords to take out their rivals’ compounds or towns in remote Mexican or Central American locations. It was also a power that afforded Patient Zero the chance to indulge his desire to be a serial mass killer, since so few people could pull of the combo of serial killer and mass murderer, and Patient Zero liked attention. He’d mostly wiped out six tiny, remote U.S. towns, as well as three backwater swamp communities in unincorporated parts of the Southeastern United States and two trailer parks over a few-year period using viruses that spread fast, killed quickly and burned out before they could spread elsewhere.
It took a rare kind of psycho to be convicted for 3,348 counts of first-degree homicide, Blanchard mused. And that didn’t even count the hundreds or perhaps thousands of people he’d killed as an assassin in other countries.
So, suiting up in serious hazmat gear was a necessity to deal with him and, as Weiss had told Blanchard, it had to be a two-person team taking Patient Zero to the shower room so that each guard could ensure the other was following precautions—particularly since there weren’t any security cameras in that area—and then sterilize the shower area afterward just to be on the safe side.
Other regular activities like meals were easier to manage, thanks to the various receptacles, reverse-pressure systems and other special security features of Patient Zero’s cell—all designed to keep the villain from touching anyone, which Weiss said was the man’s only way to transmit his viruses. For rare occasions when Patient Zero was being especially feisty and guards needed to go into the cell, Blanchard had been told, they were authorized to gas him into unconsciousness or taser him through the door beforehand.
But knocking him out for every shower wasn’t considered humane—not that Blanchard knew why that mattered to anyone. Patient Zero was on a fast-track to execution after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that his appeals process could be truncated, given his danger to society at large. But laws were laws; the man still had rights.
Correctional officer Larry Blanchard put on the first layer of his protective gear, and then went to rendezvous with Hugo Dawes, the other man assigned to Patient Zero shower duty—and one of the few full-time guards in the Transhuman Unit—so they could finish suiting up and make sure their transhuman dead-man-walking could slough off a couple days worth of sweat and grime.
* * *
“Took you long enough,” Dawes growled at Blanchard as he entered the clean room.
“Not like I have the power over hiring; maybe you should have got the other guy to quit sooner.”
“Yeah, well, I guess you did your part fine,” Dawes relented, as he began the final process of suiting up and motioned Blanchard to do the same. “Warden Grisolm isn’t exactly the easiest guy to maneuver to do what you want him to. C’mon. Hurry. This is a dirty job I’ve contracted you for; let’s get it done.”
Once they were suited up, they proceeded to Patient Zero’s cell and shackled him, then led him to the shower area, checking in with the commanding officer via radio once they reached it.
“Welcome to the club, Officer Blanchard,” Patient Zero said, smiling with near-perfect teeth that seemed to shine in contrast to his dark skin. Blanchard couldn’t place his slight accent, but it had what seemed to be Central American undertones to it.
Blanchard frowned. “Must be hard to get people to hench for you, considering what you can do,” he commented.
“Oh, Hugo here has been very loyal, and you seemed eager enough.”
“Hugo won’t be the one taking off his gloves and rolling up his sleeve, though,” Blanchard noted nervously. “Also, I’m betting he’ll be avoiding me the rest of the shift, calling in with an excuse tomorrow, heading off to a tropical island and never coming back.”
“Damn straight,” the other correctional officer admitted.
“Oh, Hugo, must you leave me so soon? I told you he won’t be contagious for at least a couple days.”
“I’ll play it safe, if it’s all the same,” Dawes said. “Never was a gambling man. Stop talking, Blanchard, and get to it. From the moment we checked in, the clock started running. If we’re not out of here in 12 minutes, alarms go off and people will get suspicious.”
“Hugo, Hugo, Hugo,” Patient Zero chided. “Let the man chat with me a bit. My little microscopic friends are all ready and waiting in my fingers and palm, and I shower fast. Tell me, Officer Blanchard, why are you henching for me?”
“I’ve got kids who need a future, and their mother won’t take care of it but the money you’re paying will go into a trust that will. And they’re on the other side of the country, and about as safe from whatever you’ll give me as they can be. Unless you’re planning to wipe out the whole country.”
“Hah!” Hugo snorted. “He likes the finer things in life too much. Nice clothes, cappuccinos and French food and all that. Make a plague like that, and he won’t have anyone to provide those things. Besides, it’s easy to make nasty bugs that aren’t all that lethal or ones that kill fast and hard but burn out quick. Harder to make a long-lasting plague in humans even if he wanted to.”
“So, this is going to help you escape?” Blanchard asked.
“Doubtful that any infection I unleash will give me a chance to slip out of here, but you never know,” Patient Zero answered. “But there is always hope. And if not, it will be my final blow before I am executed in the next few months. Maybe I can take out a good portion of this county and make a dent in the state’s population—scare people for a few months everywhere else. Shall we?”
Blanchard hesitated for a moment.
“Oh, come now. You’ve been paid, and more money will arrive where it is needed once we’re done. Besides, it isn’t just your kids, is it? Cancer? Or something more boring like a failing liver?”
“I’m henching for you—very short-term—I think I’ll keep most of my personal life personal,” Blanchard said as he pulled off the heavy outer glove, rolled up a sleeve, and removed the thinner inner glove. He held out his arm and waited.
Patient Zero gently grasped the man’s forearm, smiling and squeezing lightly; almost stroking. The act bordered on the intimate, and Blanchard shuddered. But he’d made his pact with the devil, and there was no going back now. If he told anyone, his assets would probably be frozen. Dawes’ sudden disappearance to parts unknown would keep suspicion planted there as Blanchard moved in to fill his vacancy here as a full-time guard, probably. For as long as he could continue to function; for the short time he had yet to live.
Patient Zero didn’t let go for a couple minutes, then he smiled and stepped toward the showers. Blanchard swore the man had a spring in his step like he might start skipping at any time.
“Pleasure doing business with you,” Patient Zero said, looking over his shoulder as hot water spilled over him and he began to soap up. “You get my employee of the year award. Which might be good for you. After all, there is the very slim chance we’ll both live through all this nonsense, in which case I’ll be needing a new Hugo.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Just a little bit of trivia and promotion of a friend of mine. While it’s possible it may be used elsewhere, my first and thus far only experience with seeing “hench” and “henching” used as verbs to indicate the act of working as a villain’s henchman (which I do toward the end of this story) is in the graphic novel “Hench.” Which, it should be noted, was written by my college roommate Adam Beechen (seriously lacking Wikipedia entry on him here and incomplete but more up-to-date IMDB entry here). I own a copy of “Hench” (and there are new and used copies right here at Amazon if you’d like to, too) and it’s actually one of my favorite graphic novels, as it takes a pretty realistic look at how heroes and villains might really act, while also exploring one man’s journey as a professional henchman to a series of villains.