Chapter 3: Meritocracy

Chapter 3 - Meritocracy

Korn – “Counting on Me”

Chapter 3 – Meritocracy
by Rock Kitaro

It’s a brisk morning, just before the auburn glow makes its ascent. I was once told that this is the best part of my day and it goes downhill from here. But that’s just a matter of perspective, one I choose not to entertain. There’s nothing like busting out a 5K at five in the morning. There’s no one around. Barely any traffic. With Korn’s “Take a Look in the Mirror” album blasting through my earbuds, I’m reminded of how far I’ve come. It doesn’t make me proud, it just… it strengthens my resolve. And I need that strength. Else I would have killed myself a long time ago.

For those still scrambling for the pieces, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Cloud Beaudry. Ever since I was a child, I’ve always been able to hear, see, and feel the presence of the dead.

It started with my ancestors during the Salem Witch trials. The family matriarch wasn’t a witch herself, but was hanged for speaking up in their defense. Since then, a wretched curse has been passed down the Beaudry line from generation to generation.

This curse…you can call it a curse, however, I choose to believe it’s just some twisted sick coincidence. For instance, every generation in my family gave birth to just one scion. Every family member died before they reached the age of forty-five. And nearly everyone has been regarded by his or her peers as crazy or delusional. I’m probably the first to embrace the paranormal instead of letting it drive me insane.

To me, the traditional concepts of weird or normal are no longer relevant. I’ve trained this ability to interact with the dead so well that it’s now about as familiar as my sense of sight or sound. I know. It sounds unbelievable. That’s why there’s only one person on Earth I’ve told this to.

I’m only thirty but the atrocities I’ve faced have advanced me well beyond the years of any average Millennial. That might sound like I’m bragging but I’m not. Dread doesn’t even begin to describe my life. When I was growing up, I couldn’t remember a single night that I didn’t hear people screaming for help. Dark twisted faces, weeping dead children, relentless murderers and the toe curling sounds of ripping flesh and wet hacking…I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone.

Dark eye circles of sleep deprivation stayed with me until I was at least twenty-one. It was during that year that something snapped in me. My mother. She was raped for the second time and nearly beaten to death. I’ll never forget sitting by her hospital bed with a permanent scowl lined with crusted dried tears. I never had any best friends. I never had a social life where people sought me out. But paranoia and fear followed me every day of my life almost as constant as the sun and the moon.

It was fear of letting shit like that happen to my mother again, the paranoia of forever being a loser, the butt of the jokes, and everyone’s punching bag. It was fear of failing to make something out of myself. The fear of going mad by watching the rotten assholes move up in the world while decent honest hardworking individuals are stepped on because they lack “ruthless ambition.”

I won’t say I embraced the fear. I only use it as motivation. I turned this negativity into a fuel for production. It’s what prompted me to take my fat ass in the gym and shed 140lbs over the span of four years. I dropped from 320lbs to a healthy, athletic180. Working out and martial arts became a source of therapy for me, an outlet for my frustration. It was fear that prompted me to stay in shape, which is why I’m on this exhilarating jog around my subdivision.

As far as my encounters with dead people, I’ll not go so far as to say I’m no longer terrified, but it’s more like I gradually adopted an air of defiance. I strengthened my mind and stopped worrying about what ghosts could or couldn’t do to me. I laid awake on countless nights watching the blinds rattle and the shadows crawl along the ceilings. Then I’d close my eyes and drift to sleep, fully aware that I may never wake up again. If any demented phantom stared at me from the fog or through some milky reflection or behind that dead tree in the distance, I’d glare right back at them.

If they wanted to kill me, they were more than welcome to try.

After my mother was raped, I switched majors and enrolled into law school. I would’ve preferred to send assholes off to prison as a prosecutor, but defense attorneys made way more money. The idea was to get a good paying job so my mother could quit waitressing and stop sleeping with every flannel-wearing cowboy who just so happens to throw a wink at her.

That plan went up in flames just days before I was about to graduate. After four years of endless studying, of sacrificing the holidays and weekends to climb my way to the top of my class, someone went off and killed my mother. Her body was found floating beneath a bridge on the outskirt of Athens.

The police heard about her promiscuous reputation with men. They also heard from neighbors and co-workers that she believed in aliens and claimed she could speak to ghosts. Eventually, the detectives ruled her death as an accidental suicide. They said she got drunk, bumped her head on the railing, and tumbled over to drown. She was only forty-two.

I can’t even begin to describe how livid I was. My worst fears had come true. This woman was my life! She was the reason why I toiled so hard, put up with so much shit, why I sacrificed so much. Nothing else mattered. We had come so far! Only for it to end like this!?

No one showed up for her funeral. It was just me and fifty white chairs on a cold rainy day. The rage in my heart, it forced me to ask questions no decent human being should ever need to ask themselves. The police were wrong. I knew it from the get-go but as a mere law-grad I was powerless to do a damn thing about it. The outcry of inner demons demanded an audience and to be honest, I was about ready end the torment once and for all. Perhaps it was hitting rock-bottom that lured me to Maggie.

Margaret “Maggie” Sutherland was a college freshmen who died in 1959. Like my mother, the police cast her death off as an accident, when in fact, she was forced off a balcony by a bunch of jealous sorority girls.

Full of spite and resentment, Maggie tried to scare me to death when I first met her. Her spirit was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Never before had I met a ghost that could shapeshift or manipulate the elements so powerful in her theatrics. If my soul wasn’t already depleted, she might have succeeded in scaring my to death.

Instead, we formed an unlikely alliance. I did some digging to find out her spirit was bound to a buried necklace that fell off when she plummeted. I retrieved that heart-shaped necklace and Maggie’s been with me ever since.

I didn’t ask for her help. But the first time she gave it…I admit I saw an unspeakable potential. Our first victim was a blonde southern belle named Katie Armstrong. For some reason Katie thought I was attractive and asked me to our school’s dance. Out of peer pressure I accepted the invitation even though I struggle with crowds and agoraphobia.

As expected, I had a panic attack right there on the dance floor. I guess Katie took that as a green light to dance with someone else, because when I returned from the bathroom I saw her locking lips with some dude in a shirt two sizes too small.

I left. She followed. She followed me all the way up to the dark 4th floor library where I first met Maggie. And there, her fate was sealed. Maggie enlarged into a black mass of evil manifestation. Possessed and half out of her mind, Katie threw herself through the window and dropped fifty feet to her death.

…I wipe the sweat from my face as I begin my final lap.

Looking back, I do regret Katie’s death. She didn’t deserve it and she was way too young. Not unlike that jerk, Joseph Howard. I received a tip that he was the last one seen with my mother before she died. After conducting my own investigation, I learned that Joe Howard was a womanizer who tended to get violent in his sexual exploits. This was the man who banged my mother’s head against a railing and threw her over a bridge to drown in four feet of water. So yeah…with him I had no regrets.

I remember confronting Joe in his raggedy shoebox of a home. He fled in his pickup truck. Maggie appeared in the middle of the road and haunted him, causing him to crash through rails of a bridge and into a shallow creek.

Joe’s head went smashing through the windshield. With Maggie by my side, I watched as that son of a bitch struggled to get free, only deepening the lacerations into his neck. Water from the creek filled up around him. He bled out and drowned at the same time.

Again, I never asked for Maggie to help me avenge my mother. She did it of her own volition. I’m not sure whether my mother would have appreciated this or not, but I did. The satisfaction of watching the light fade out of Joe’s beer-stained eyes was the greatest triumph of my life. On that night, I created a pact with Maggie. Overwhelmed by a profound debt, I vowed seek out every one of the sorority sisters responsible for Maggie’s death. I take my promises seriously.

That was five years ago.

Since then, I graduated and made up my mind to join the Georgia Bureau of Investigation based out of Atlanta. I worked hard, starting as a junior agent, tasked with processing crime scenes. My conversations with the souls of the dearly departed aided in my quick ascension through the ranks. My superiors were impressed. My deductions were on point. My clearance rate, immaculate.

By 2013, I became the youngest GBI agent to enter in the Special Consultations Unit. The elite SCU was a team of no more than thirty agents assigned to handle cases in which local law enforcement requested assistance. Essentially, we solved the toughest crimes that were bound to make national coverage or genuinely baffled the police.

It was perfect. It was my business to look into cases ignored or given little pertinence by the police. To say I distrusted law enforcement is putting it lightly. I’ll never forget the detectives who wrote off my mother’s homicide. When minorities complain about the police not taking a loved one’s death seriously, I know exactly how it feels. So I took up the badge and decided to do something about it.

Everyone remembers the killers, no one remembers the victims. I stand to change all that.

As a full-fledge agent with jurisdiction over the entire state, I now have the resources and authority to exact my own brand of justice. I just have to be careful, of course. There’s only so many times a suspect can die under “mysterious circumstances” not long after I’ve paid them a visit.

My office is the same as every office. There’s always the cliques, the gossipers, the go-getters, try-hards, and the dedicated. From what I understand, people seem to think I’m two-faced, the type to throw others under the bus to advance my own career. They thought I was grandstanding with my respectful manners deemed too pious. As if I was trying too hard to please everyone when, honestly, all I wanted was as little attention as possible.

A college professor described me perfectly. “Just tell Cloud what you need him to do and get the hell out of his way.” It’s that simple.

It’s a forty-minute drive from my townhouse in Lawrenceville to headquarters in Decatur. Employees didn’t have to arrive until 8:30, but I was always there by seven to avoid heavy traffic on the beltway. I’m clean-shaven, having taken a shower after my run. My short blonde hair is spiked at the top with an urban fade around the edges. I’m modest in my cologne and other than my black wristwatch and Maggie’s necklace tucked under my crisp white shirt, I’m not adorned in any jewelry. My black slacks are pressed and the matching suit jacket is without a single speck of lent or dust.

On the 4th floor, my desk is posted along the west wall of an open bullpen consisting of 25 cubicle workstations. Unlike my coworkers, my desk is devoid of personal effects such as family photos and holiday trinkets. Even the awards I won from the bureau are kept in the drawer under my pistol-case. All I had on my desk were the office essentials, a dual monitor setup, a phone, clock radio, a pack of mint gum, and a small toy football I sometimes squeezed as a stress reliever.

The silence is golden. I have three stacks of manila folders, thirteen cases in total. It’s not too bad. Some agents still had over forty. With a French vanilla coffee in hand, I peruse the e-mails sent to my inbox over of the weekend. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing unexpected.

Around eight, the clacking boots, ringing phones, and loading computers begin to permeate as agents arrive one by one. It’s a rat race as soon as they clock in. They gripe and groan about how it’s Monday. Then they go from zero to a hundred in coordinating with other agencies and bickering with techies to set up conference calls ASAP as if they didn’t have plenty of time to plan ahead.

Meanwhile, my attention is centered on a prosecutor’s “Notice to Appear”. I’m supposed to testify in court tomorrow so I mentally block out everyone’s weekend revelations and refresh my memory with details about the case.

One can always tell when the boss arrived. The voice of Inspector Nelson Chomsky is high-pitched, deceptive of his large linebacker frame. He was always carrying an oversized mug in one hand, a briefcase in the other. Anyone wishing him a good morning usually received a grunting reply of “did you turn in your report?” or, “times a wastin’.”

Chomsky was a nice enough man but you had to have thick skin. He issued threats of demotion way too loosely for me to ever take him seriously. And once I figured out his jokes came from a place ignorance instead of straight-up malice, I found it easier to smirk as opposed to my usual unabashed self-righteous gaze.

Agents Tyson and Greene welcome me back from vacation. Swiveling in my chair, I smile politely, honestly taken by surprise. Then I remember the story I fed them about visiting an aunt in Macon and mentally race to pull lies together.

“How was the weather there? Can’t believe it’s still hot out here in November.” Greene says.

“It was alright. Pleasant. Good to see cows again.” I tell him.

“Well it’s good to have you back.” Tyson says.

They walk away, letting me linger in skepticism. I’ve only been gone for four days. Most assignments keep me away for weeks and this is the first time in a while that they’ve actually welcomed me back. In fact, it may be the first. Either they were in a good mood or something happened while I was away. Tyson and Greene were partners nearing retirement age. If anyone harbored resentment towards my ascension in the bureau it would be these two relics. Yet, here they are. Smirking in the quick glances like a couple of kids.

“This is bullshit!”

Heads pop up from their workstations. The complaint echoes from the hallway. Tyson and Greene wheeze in their chuckles as I fume through the nose. It was highly unprofessional yet she’s managed to get away with the outbursts time and time again. In stormed the vivacious Leanne Donaldson, a fellow junior agent and the second youngest in the unit after me.

The way I’d describe Leanne…It’s like every time I saw her for, some reason I’d hear the guitar intro of Van Halen’s “You Really Got Me”. The kind of song I’d expect to hear at a biker rally. Her appearance is like a former porn star and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Leanne’s tall, full-figured, with hourglass hips that could hypnotize. She has brown eyes, almost matching the color of her reddish brown shoulder length hair. The skin around her face is thin and she always has a default expression as if she’s mildly concerned about everything.

In spite her capricious nature, I can’t help but respect the woman. She was thirty-nine with an eighteen-year-old son. Instead of being the primary caregiver, she opted to let him live with the father in favor of pursuing a career. Her prior history of drug abuse is widely known and sadly she’s received little credit for staying clean. After bouncing from job to job in her mid-twenties, Leanne found her calling as an intelligence analyst. She’s an encyclopedia of criminology and even surpassed my own wits when it came to reciting case law.

However, while Leanne is brilliant investigator, she seems clueless about social cues. She’s oblivious to scorn and genuinely thinks everyone’s her friend who has her best interests at heart. Somehow, I became that one person she depends on to keep it real.

She must have been checking her phone as she entered the building and got the same message everyone else received. I only glossed over it, but if there was a message to get in her crawl, it would likely be the announcement that she’d have a new partner. Every agent in the SCU has an official partner except Leanne and myself.

“Inspector!” Leanne shouts as she slams her coat and bag into the chair next to me.

“This is bullshit!” She adds.

“Calm.” I whisper.

“Oh shut up. Everyone knows you’re his favorite pet.” She snaps before storming into Chomsky’s office.

Leanne slams the door shut but I can see through the blinds into Chomsky’s office. Leanne unleashes a tirade that muffles out in the form of high-pitch whiny blobs. Chomsky’s face is priceless and I have to raise my to cover a smirk.

A full minute passes before Chomsky’s patience is depleted. He shoots up from his chair, points his stubby fingers, and barks back as good as he got. Leanne’s hands are all over the place with her theatrics. I know when Chomsky’s making good points because that’s when Leanne suddenly loses interest in the debate. He’s still shouting at her when she storms out. He follows.

“And let me tell you something else! And let everyone hear this!” Chomsky shouts.

Everyone was already watching.

“There’s a reason why Cloud Beaudry doesn’t have a partner. Which of you can raise your hand and say that Cloud’s never helped you solve a case? Hmm? Don’t worry. I’ll wait. Who can say that Mr. Beaudry’s ever denied a request, turned down additional support, turned down research, or failed to provide backup? Raise your hand!

“Agent Varten! When you were backed up for weeks on the Moultrie murders. Who handed you the witness that led to a conviction?”

“Cloud Beaudry.” Varten answers.

“Franzoni! Who furnished you with concrete evidence to throw Edward Martin behind bars?”

“Cloud Beaudry, sir.” Amanda Franzoni answers.

“And for the love of God, who was the one who came up with that stupid sealed room theory that ended a three month circus of a trial when one of our own was left out to dry? Everyone. Say it with me.” He says, ending with a chorus of nearly thirty agents saying my name.

At this point I’m mortified. With a stiff neck, I slowly turn around to face my computer screen and pretend to read this subpoena. Leanne plops down in the chair next to me like a skulking child. I don’t want to look at her but I can sense her staring a hole into the side of my neck.

Chomsky continues. “Not once has he asked for a raise or award. He turns in his expense reports on time, his motions don’t look like a fucking six-year-old scribbled on it, and by some miracle he’s managed get here on time every day for the past four years. Now, I don’t give a damn if he gives you the heebeegeebees. Hell, he gives me the creeps too. But he does his job and he does it well! We practice meritocracy around these parts, goddamnit! I don’t care how long you’ve been here. You close cases; you’ll have more leisure. On top of all that, he is a sterling representation of this department wherever we send him. Unlike some of you! Ms. Donaldson! Word to the wise, not every sheriff who offers to walk you to your door is asking to come in.”

“Then they should stop staring at my rack!” Leanne snaps back.

No one is shy about snickering at the morning’s entertainment. It isn’t the first time Leanne and Chomsky got into it, but it was rare that Chomsky let it spill outside the office. Laughter and applause gets Chomsky to simmer down but not before he snarls at Leanne with the following:

“You’re to treat your new partner with the utmost respect or so help me God…”

Out of ammunition, Leanne directs her wrath at me. I lean forward, massaging my forehead with both palms. As soon as Chomsky slams his door shut, she attacks.

“Scoundrel!”

“Leanne… What were you thinking?”

“He basically told the whole office that I’m a thirsty slut.”

“It was retaliation. You basically told the whole office that you think you know better than him.”

“He’s always trying to push my buttons because he secretly has a thing for me.” She whispers.

“Inspector Chomsky is happily married, Leanne. Remember? We met his family as the Christmas party.”

“Right, Cloud. Because husbands don’t cheat on their wives. Ever.” She says as if she just won the argument.

“Dude…” I exhale. Why I indulge in these conversations is beyond me.

“Looks like all your sucking up paid off. You can move about unfettered while I have to drag someone along and show em’ the ropes. As if I don’t have enough on my plate. I’m backed up, Cloud! I don’t have time for this! I didn’t even get home till eleven because my cat was throwing up. And then my doctors switched my medication again. I looked into the new pills they gave me and I saw that it only received four out of the five checks from the FDA. So I’m like, why is my doctor giving this to me? Haha! Doesn’t sound right, does it. Sounds stupid.”

I try to be polite. Even if I was rude and blatantly stared at her like a deer in the headlights, it still wouldn’t register that I could care less. Not to mention, part of me feels bad for her. She went from angry to complacent to lackadaisical in the span of two minutes. But she has a good heart. I feel responsible, like a sibling. I can’t explain it.

“Seriously, Cloud. Why don’t you go talk to Chomsky and say that you want a partner?”

“I’m not going to do that, Leanne. Besides, a partner will be good for you.”

“A partner will be good for you, Cloud! You know it’s a girl, right? It could take care of that forever-bachelor status of yours. Everyone knows you haven’t been laid since Myspace was cool.”

“Interoffice relationships is a folly one should refrain from…”

Leanne cuts me off to say, “Jessica Arroyo? What kind of name is that?”

My head whips in shock. “What’s her name?”

“What? You didn’t read your e-mail? See! And you’re supposed to be the responsible one.”

“Oh my God,” I whisper.

Leanne’s still rambling on but I don’t hear her. I just caught sight of Leanne’s new partner walking into Chomsky’s office. Jessica Arroyo. Leanne turns to see her as well. Right away, envy floods over as Leanne acknowledges she’s no longer the hottest woman in the office.

Standing at a stunning five foot nine, Jessica Arroyo is exactly the kind of woman one would expect on the arm of a professional athlete. Smooth caramel tone. Silky brown hair. A firm model posture with that arch in her back, keeping her shoulders even. There wasn’t a single flaw in her visage. But wait. There’s more.

It’s not just her firm video vixen body that gets my blood heated. It’s the sparkle in those cheerful brown eyes and that childish alluring smile. It’s a visual assault that attacks and activates every nerve cell in your cheeks. One glance into Jessica’s eyes could stop hearts and reduce any swagger to that of a clumsy baby struggling to keep its head up. It doesn’t make any sense. How could God create only one of her? How did she end up in law enforcement of all professions? This woman’s beauty is simply ridiculous.

My heart throbs as if I’m being prodded closer to the edge of a windy skyscraper. Heat scathes in my chest and steam escapes from my collar. I want to loosen my tie but I don’t. I keep it together, unlike some of the other gentlemen in the office, men who aren’t too ashamed or embarrassed to gawk with hungry eyes. At once, I gather my belongings. My laptop is in the car. I need to get the hell out of here.

“Wait. Where are you going? I’ll come with you.” Leanne offers.

“Oh no. It’s okay. I have an early lunch meeting anyway. Besides. You’ll need to show your new partner around.”

“Well at least stay and meet her before you go. Mr. Rude!”

With a gentle smile I tell her, “I’ll meet her when I get back. I promise.”

“Well yeah. Obviously!” She chuckles.

What Leanne doesn’t know is that Jessica and I have already met.

Jessica Arroyo is the only person on Earth I’ve truly respected as my equal. I’ve loved her since I was fifteen and watched her date Chad after Chad. When we graduated from high school she was the valedictorian while I had to settle for salutatorian. We both attended UGA and graduated from the same law program. It’s been five years since I’ve seen her. Five years free from the lovesick paralysis where I’d lie awake and wonder if she’s the one or should I move on. Five years free from jealousy after taking too long to decide and watching someone else slip in to where I want to be.

Why have you come back to torment me? It’s like standing on a pier as a storm moves in over the beach. I haven’t the stomach to face you just yet. Not yet. Give me a few hours to prepare myself. Let me fortify the wall around my heart. Let me remind myself why you’re no good for me. This isn’t love. No. Not love. Love doesn’t exist in my world.