This is chapter 6 of a serialized novella appearing on Ars Gratia Libertatis every two weeks. Read from the beginning here.
Chapter Six: Thomas King
Never doubt what small men will do for great power. –Paolo Bacigalupi
Thomas King had been ten the moment he first decided he wanted to be a bureaucrat. It had not been a conscious decision; he still said he wanted to be an astronaut, but deep down, where it counts, he didn’t. The young boy with the mousy brown hair, his midsection always a little too doughy, wanted to be a bureaucrat when he grew up.
It had happened the day Thomas was awarded the title of Recess Monitor for going a whole month without being tardy once. That recess was one of the least fun half hours the children at Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary School would ever have to endure. But for Thomas King, it was a blast.
While before no one listened to what he said or did what he told them, now he had authority: he had the power of the teacher to back him up. Say what you would about how the other kids viewed Thomas himself, to the threatened power of the teacher they gave utter deference. And Thomas wielded that power like a sledgehammer, delighting in the control it gave him over his fellow students. He gave demerits, admonished the eight year olds to not run so fast, and outlawed screaming and other “loud voice noises.” He sent Bobby Scott to time out for going down the slide more times than he was allowed to. He gave Ellie Marris a frowny face sticker on her daily report for failing to address him as “Mister King” (like grown ups are called). His rules were arbitrary, capricious, and, in many cases, retroactive. He knew it wasn’t himself the other students were obeying, but he didn’t care. For a short, sweet while he could pretend he had actually earned the fear and respect they showed him.
He was never made Recess Monitor again (his teacher knew better, even though her boyfriend worked at the Office of Compliance for Corporate Regulation) but that didn’t matter. His feelings during that short experience stuck with him, explicitly at first, and then, over time, fading into a general background sentiment. That sentiment, though faded, propelled him into a role as a student proctor in middle school and, later, into a position as a Dormitory Resident Assistant at his boarding school, and a council member on the Student Activities Funding Commission at his university, Yale.
In fact, he applied, and was often accepted into, all those pre-defined leadership roles that adults dole out to young people to allow them to feel as if they are making a difference and are in control within their limited communities. Student Council, Student Senate, The Diversity Board. Never once did he seek to create a position, or start a club or organize an enterprise. Never once did he question the prevailing wisdom or the way things were done. Thomas King took what was given to him by the establishment and he was grateful for it.
Thus it was natural, after graduating, for Thomas to seek a job in the public sector. His faculty advisor on the Student Activities Funding Council, a native of Colorado who had several friends working at the newly created Health Resources Allocation Board, suggested Thomas apply for a job there and promised he would have a rewarding experience as a public servant on the cutting edge of implementing the president’s new healthcare policies. Thomas did so enthusiastically and was soon working his way up through the many layers of Denver’s political class.
He now headed up healthcare resource allocation for all of south Denver’s hospitals and managed care practices. It kept him busy, dealing with the constantly whining doctors and impatient hospital procurement staff, but there were occasional moments of respite, times for him to rest his feet up on his desk and reflect, as he had been doing the last 10 minutes.
He had just returned from an awards ceremony, one of the myriad empty public functions his position required of him. This particular ceremony, presided over by the mayor himself, was to recognize the contributions of the many government employees who had helped out in the recent court case the Health Board had won against the greedy pharmaceutical companies. Thomas himself had testified on the stand about the difficulty his office had in obtaining drugs for hospitals at a fair price, and how the price gouging of Big Pharma, especially during the current healthcare crisis, was antisocial behavior, and not in keeping with the social contract.
The judge had been a sympathetic one, appointed by the current administration. And so, the pharmaceutical companies had been penalized with price controls, and Thomas King had been awarded a plaque and a nice stipend. A week after the ruling, 1,000 people, working at various drug companies, had been laid off. No one present at the awards ceremony had thought to connect the two events.
But Thomas was not thinking about the awards ceremony, as he slowly shifted and recrossed his legs, resting them again on the edge of his desk. He was thinking about John Morales. The doctor had been unsettling the bureaucrat ever since he had refused to help Thomas game the medical appointment system for his friend. Each subsequent visit to that hospital had left him with a vague feeling of hostility from the doctor. It wasn’t something he could immediately put his finger on, but was instead a combination of the looks he sensed Morales giving him out of the corner of his eye, and certain out of place comments the doctor had made in his presence.
“Don’t you think it’s odd that we’ve never had a TV shortage? Even with all those private electronics companies out there?” The doctor had asked, interrupting Thomas during an explanation of his failure, once again, to procure certain rare drugs for the hospital.
“What on earth does that mean? Where did you hear that?” the perturbed public servant had demanded.
“Never mind, it’s not important.” Morales had, in fact, been asked the very same question by Lysandra Fremont the previous night.
Thomas did not like Morales’ newfound (though admittedly furtive) combativeness. He wondered if there was a way to teach the surgeon a lesson short of having him fired. Usually having a doctor fired would not be hard to do; a trumped up charge of him violating his government oath, a meeting with the hospital board to convince them he was exhibiting anti-social behavior and was a threat to the morale of the other medical staff and voila, just one more “retired” medical professional. But Morales was the last certified neurosurgeon on the Front Range, he couldn’t be fired short of some gross violation of the law.
Plus his father was the mayor. That fact was more of a deterrent to Thomas and his nascent plans for demonstrating authority than all the social good that Morales exhibited as a rare and in-demand medical specialist.
An electronic warble interrupted Thomas King’s reverie. The phone in front of him lit up and displayed an incoming call from extension 121, the front desk. His face twisted slightly in annoyance and he considered briefly ignoring the damn thing, but it warbled again insistently, and he snatched up the receiver.
“Yes?” A pause. “She’s here now? Yes, fine. Send her up.”
He replaced the phones’s receiver back in its cradle thoughtfully, pursing his lips. Of course he knew who Shelly Reyes was. Curiosity, and easy access to the myriad government databases on civilians, had led him to John Morales’ file one day a few weeks prior. Morales had registered his current house with one Shelly de la Luz Reyes, though the two didn’t show up as married when Thomas queried the state marriage license database. Thomas knew she worked at the Office of Energy Regulation, so in all likelihood her visit was on business.
Shortly there was a soft knock on his door. “Come in.”
The door opened hesitantly, and a youngish Hispanic woman stepped through. She was a bit on the soft side, just beginning that long slide into sweatpants-wearing middle age that most women are content to undergo. She compensated for this with a low-cut blouse and tighter than normal suit pants. Thomas didn’t mind.
“Hi Shelly,” Thomas began as way of introduction, “Enoch told me you’d be stopping by. I don’t usually get to work with people from Energy, how can I help you?”
“Actually, Mr. King, this isn’t for my department officially. I’ve become concerned recently with a possible violation of the Patient Care Laws. Do you handle those directly?” The only indication Shelly Reyes was bothered by her actions was a slight hesitation when she spoke. It was more of a catch, as if she had something in her throat, that manifested as a minor stress on her first syllable.
“Usually I pass those off to our internal security division, but maybe I can point you in the right direction.” Thomas still had his feet on the desk, and Shelly had not sat down in the chair he had indicated when she walked in.
“It’s something I noticed at the Sky Ridge Medical Center, in the neurosurgery clinic specifically. I heard that’s one of the hospitals you cover?”
Thomas’ feet came off his desk and he leaned forward. This conversation had suddenly gotten interesting.