Feature: Lowcountry Fiction Contest, Project Asylum (3rd Place)
Charleston. For visitors, it means history and beauty. For natives, it represents family and tradition. For Big Brother, it involves something much more sinister
Six decks below the flight deck, Project Director Ludwig Barsk paced his office. He was worried and angry, as the Surgeon General’s oversight committee was threatening to reduce funding for his project—Project Asylum
Aboard the Yorktown:, Patriots Point.
Six decks below the flight deck, Project Director Ludwig Barsk paced his office. He was worried and angry, as the Surgeon General’s oversight committee was threatening to reduce funding for his project—Project Asylum. More than 150 years of continuous research now faced virtual annihilation, all because of the whims of a few bureaucratic nabobs.
Barsk flipped through the PowerPoint slides he was preparing for The President. He marveled at all that had been learned from Project Asylum. Such amazing knowledge—in so many areas! Without the research conducted in Charleston, who would have dreamed that a people whose entire culture and way of life was being destroyed could develop a phrase as useful as “Bless their hearts.” Or that it was possible for a population to not care how things are done in New York? And where else but inside the confines of The Asylum could a group of scientists learn so much about genetic redundancy and the effects of social repetition?
Director Barsk peered out his porthole to The Asylum across the harbor, admiring how it had come to represent both history and progress. Yes, it was expensive—he had thousands of agents on the payroll: bartenders, maids, tour guides, gardeners, vendors, shopkeepers, decorators, caterers, club managers, pedicab drivers, deep-cover agents to pose as recently-moved-to-Charleston trust funders, government employees—thousands! But how else does one monitor and manage an entire city of inmates?
A visitor was escorted into his office by two armed security guards.
“Dr. Barsk?” asked the visitor. “May I have a moment?”
“And you are?”
“Why don’t you just call me The Banker. I’m here to discuss funding.”
“Please, sit,” said The Director. “By all means, say your piece.”
Four Corners of Law: South Sector
Special Agent Maybelle Davis scanned the streetscape, her eyes darting between the people shuffling along in the September sun. Despite her umbrella, sweat had begun to run down her temples and nipped at the edges of her eyes. The involuntary blinking response made it difficult to accurately track the movements of the inmates as they moved among the tourists and her fellow agents.
The afternoon’s twentieth carriage full of guests clopped by, and the smell of horse diapers and sunscreen drifted to her nose. An inmate clad in seersucker scurried by, dropped a letter into what he assumed was a mailbox, then rounded the corner and headed west on Broad. Special Agent Davis looked across the street and smiled as her mirror agent closed the sale on a bunch of daisies to a female inmate. Her mirror agent, code-named “The Flower Lady,” had challenged her to a month-long sales competition with the loser buying the winner a new Glock .45. So far, the numbers were close.
Agent Davis spoke quietly into a microphone woven into the sweetgrass she was sewing. “Hot Dog, this The Basket Lady. Noon hour radio check. All’s quiet for me and The Flower Lady.”
A tourist stopped short in front of her.
“How much is that basket?” the tourist asked.
“Yes’m—dat basket be 55 dollar.”
“It’s quite a work of art.”
“My great-grand taught me dat very design,” said Agent Davis.
Less than 100 yards away stood Sector Supervisor Lynn Johnson, monitoring cell phone traffic among the inmates from her hot dog stand transmitting station. Clad in a tank top and cutoff jeans, she’d been fixing a chili-cheese dog for a tourist when The Basket Lady’s remark funneled into her ear-jack.
“Basket, this is Hot Dog,” said Supervisor Johnson. “I’ve got you loud and clear. Nothing new to report from the South Sector.”
High above the streets in St. Michael’s steeple was The Peninsula Command Center, staffed currently by 14 data analysts, three rapid deployment agents, and the city’s ranking officer, Colonel Thomas Walsh. He’d just received some news he didn’t want to hear.
“Listen to me, Major, and listen carefully. That Rivers girl has 100 years of genetic research embedded in her DNA, and it cannot get smeared by some Guido from New York. I don’t care that he’s good-looking and rich—you have got to break up that relationship before it gets serious. The Gene Chief has slated her to marry either a Huger or a one-M Simons. Period.”
A pleading objection came back through the line. Colonel Walsh waited patiently—he did in fact feel badly about the challenges his subordinate was facing.
“I know the East Sector has increased,” he replied, “but it wasn’t my decision to let them migrate off the peninsula. General Streich wanted to observe the inmates in the Old Village and on Sullivan’s Island, so here we are. Not a damn thing you and I can do about it. Now listen: Central Reference tells me there’s a perfectly good, unmarried Huger kid South of Broad you can match the Rivers girl with, so get on it.”
More information poured across the line.
“Ouch,” Colonel Walsh replied. “It was those Hugers that had an Obama sign in the front yard? Well, you’re right—that’ll never work. Okay, listen: The Rivers girl’s roommate from college is still on the payroll. I’ll get her to invite Miss Rivers to spend a ski season with her in Aspen. It’ll buy us some time, and you can use it to terminate the Guido.”
The Colonel rang off. Damn! It was becoming such a nightmare! As he settled into his chair, he thought wistfully of the time when tourists would arrive, spend money, and leave. Then they started staying. An entirely new division of The Project had been created to keep the rogue squatters out, and they’d tried everything. They’d even increased the cost of real estate 400 and 500 percent! It didn’t work. Outsiders wanted into The Asylum.
The Blind Tiger
Agent Nico Garza appeared to be simply washing glasses behind the bar of the Blind Tiger, but in reality he was eavesdropping attentively on the conversation between the two Charlestonians in front of him. Despite the early afternoon hour, the two locals were fairly deep into the beer, and this was the time when his powers of concentration were most needed—all too often beer-thinking would inspire notions of adventure. It didn’t take long before the conversation grew dangerous.
“I say we go to New York, man. Chuck it for a couple of years, go north! Work as a bartender, slum it—it’d be fun.”
“Hell, why not? What’ll we miss here? Two years of cocktail parties with the same people? Let’s do it!”
Agent Garza stepped out of sight and spoke evenly into his mike. “Jailbreak in progress—Blind Tiger needs asset management. These two inmates have talked about flight before, so hit ’em hard.”
“Inbound,” came the response.
Within seconds, the front door to the Blind Tiger banged open, and three rapid deployment agents swept through the door. Dressed in the baggy clothes of suburbanite rappers, they quickly seated themselves, and the largest one bellowed to the bartender, “Yo! Rhett Butler! How ’bout some service ova heah! T’ree Budweisers!”
The two inmates looked at each other, disgusted.
“Yankees,” murmured Agent Garza to the locals. “Can you imagine living amongst them? Like, actually living in New York?”
Before either inmate could respond, a deep-cover trust-funder who’d been inserted into The Asylum a year earlier appeared from the back courtyard. It startled the two, because they’d never seen him arrive.
“Dudes! Too cool I found you—dove hunt, tomorrow. The country place. BBQ, beer, satellite TV to watch the games, spend the night. You in?”
“Hell, yeah,” came the unified response.
“I’m hosting a hunt every weekend thru New Year’s—so mark your calendar,” said the friend as he exited the front door.
“Gotta admit,” said one inmate to the other, “that sounds pretty good. Maybe New York can wait until next year.”
There wasn’t even time for a response before two young ladies came through the door and sidled up to the bar. Both ordered appletinis and turned to face the inmates.
“Do y’all live here?” one asked.
“Oh my gawd—it’s paradise! If I lived here, I wouldn’t even leave for vacation!”
The girls were sitting down with the inmates when Agent Nico Garza made the call to the Asset Management Center.
“Outstanding performance,” he said. “Pure Hollywood. Inmates are locking themselves back in as we speak.”
Aboard the Yorktown:,, Director's Office.
“It is my understanding that you are under some degree of financial strain,” said The Banker, “and I think I may have a way to assist you.”
“There is a little understood federal law concerning the impact fees as they relate to spin-offs from government experiments. For instance, if a government agency develops a better mousetrap, the agency that did the developing is legally entitled to a piece of the take if the federal government deploys it commercially. Do you follow?”
“This Project Asylum has developed a human community best described as a buttoned-down wrecking ball. For example: the rogue outsiders who relocate to Charleston. Within a few years, most are in alcohol rehab for trying to keep up. Or they are in therapy for their inability to get into the various clubs. Or they are broke from trying to restore the termite-infested mansion they purchased.”
“Well, Doctor, all these afflictions result in dollars changing hands, and taxes levied, and professional fees being paid. I daresay you are entitled to a percentage of the collateral damage your inmates cause. And don’t forget the dollars your experiment has inspired in the arts—how does a 30 percent impact fee on all the tax dollars The Lords of Discipline and Prince of Tides has generated sound? And I’m the man who can get it for you—backdated 70 years to when the law was passed.”
“Name your price, Sir.”
“I wish to become an inmate.”
“Impossible. Inmates are born. You can’t migrate into inmate status. The best I could do is to insert you as a deep-cover trust-funder. In fact, we need a trust-funder from New Jersey in the next couple of months.”
“I’ve been studying that issue, and I believe you have 150 years of data and research from which to draw. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume you can find a, uh, missing second cousin, train me on that family history, and allow me to become him.”
“It’s never been done.”
“The Asylum has never been this close to shut down before.”
“You make a good point,” admitted The Director reluctantly. He studied his visitor, looking for anything that might give away an ulterior motive. Finally, he spoke.
“You deliver a plan for collecting on those impact fees, and I’ll get Central Reference to see if they can work up a profile for a Huger Legare Maybank Simons. Hell, every inmate in the city would just assume you were related.”
One Year Later
The newly created Huger Simons mixed himself a gin and tonic and plopped down into the wicker chair. A cool, humid
breeze blew off the harbor and bathed him in the glorious smell of salt air and aristocracy. It had been a fine six months: his impact fee concept had bulldozed all Federal opposition, and Project Asylum was flush with money. He loved the identity he’d assumed and was having the time of his life mingling with the inmates—not as a trust-fund plant or a trained agent, but as an insider! It was the life he’d always dreamed of.
His gin and tonic vanished quickly, and he glanced at his watch. No time for another; he was due to meet Bubba Vanderhorst at the Blind Tiger. He poured a toter and scurried out the front door. Five minutes later he was sitting at the bar with his sailing buddy Bubba. Agent Nico Garza
was at his post behind the bar, and the pair was served their usual.
Ten minutes into the conversation, Agent Garza’s ears perked up. At first he thought he was misunderstanding, then there was no doubt.
“Bubba, we been sailin’ together for three months,” said Huger Simons, “and I never asked you: What do you do?”
“Do? You mean other than sail? Hell, I don’t know—shoot doves, deer hunt…”
“No, I mean what do you do for a living?”
“Oh. I work for the family bid’ness.”
“What do you do there?”
“Work, Bo! You know the drill! Taxman is callin’.”
“Right…but how do you get paid?”
“By direct deposit.”
“Bubba, I must not be making sense,” replied Huger. “When you go into work, you have to do something to get paid. What do you do?”
“Do?” replied Bubba, puzzled. “What are you talking about? I, uh, work.”
Agent Garza reacted purely on instinct, flipping the Mayday Extraction button that connected directly to The Asylum’s main communications circuit.
“Fire!” he screamed. “The gas stove is on fire, and it’s gonna blow—get out! Get out!”
Ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars were already out front when the three men exited. The unthinkable conversation vanished in the excitement.
Director Barsk sat in a stony silence, knowing his four training officers were growing more panicked as the minutes ticked by. They’d been standing in front of his
desk for seven minutes, and he considered leaving them there for another 10. Finally, he spoke.
“Gentlemen, we’ve expended great resources creating and training inmate-
plant Huger Simons. No stone was left unturned. And yet! And yet, he discussed finances today, with none other than seventh-generation inmate Thomas Whitmarsh “Bubba” Vanderhorst III. Finances. He discussed work. And by work,
I mean employment. Making a living. Put another way, we inserted into the mind of Bubba Vanderhorst confusion, doubt, perhaps even curiosity about how his paycheck is generated. Which of you soon-to-be-fired idiots is responsible for this?”
“In 10 seconds, I am going to open the training record in front of me, and one of you will have signed off on that little nugget. Speak now, and I’ll spare your three colleagues. Stay silent, and I’ll fire you all.”
“It was me, sir,” said the small man on the left. “His training on the Financial Silence Policies was scheduled for the Friday of Rockville Regatta, and I…we…inmate-plant Simons and I went to Rockville together, and—you know. We got into the beer and never got around to discussing it.”
“Well, damn, son—why didn’t you say so? That I can understand. But this is a big problem. If we get the inmates questioning their income, the next thing you know they’re asking about the increase in walking tour patrols. From there, they’ll want information on local government. And then, who knows? This is a big deal.”
Director Barsk picked up the phone and spoke abruptly.
“Is Colonel Walsh the Duty Officer today for the Peninsula?”
“Patch me through, secure line.”
All that could be heard was the hum of the air-conditioner.
“Colonel? Director Barsk. We have a takedown to do.”
1:45 a.m., South Sector
Sector Supervisor Lynn Johnson slipped quietly from the bed. Huger Simons lay snoring, sleeping off his scotch and a significant tumble with an agent specially trained in the love arts. She knew he wouldn’t wake up from the slight movements she was making, but her training simply wouldn’t allow her to be sloppy.
Like a shadow, she moved down the hall to the front door, which she carefully unlocked. From there, she silently cleaned each and every object she’d touched.
Ten years earlier, such details wouldn’t have been necessary, but now there
were inmates serving on the Charleston Police Department. One could never be sure that one of them wouldn’t arrive on the scene.
Next, she emptied the contents of Huger Simon’s liquor cabinet down the kitchen drain and placed the bottles in various places around the kitchen, living room, and television area—Colonel Walsh had decided to label the takedown as acute alcohol poisoning, so it wouldn’t hurt to leave the scene looking like a place where a severe alcoholic spent his final days.
She turned to inspect her work, and her heart leapt. There in front of her stood The Basket Lady! Supervisor Johnson never ceased marveling at the training and discipline of field operatives like The Basket Lady. Her ability to appear and disappear was unnerving, even though they served on the same team.
Not a word was exchanged. Supervisor Johnson exited the front door, and The Basket Lady moved down the hall, carrying her sweetgrass satchel of takedown tools.
Big John's Tavern
Hewitt and Whit sat on the ragged barstools, a pile of Miller Lite bottles gathering in front of them on the bar top.
“Man, that was sad news about Huger.”
“When’s the funeral?”
“Today. Three. St. Michael’s.”
“You know, I got a funny feeling about what they said about his drinking in the paper.”
“Yeah—alcohol poisoning? Everyone knows alcohol can’t poison you.”
“I asked Dr. Prioleau if he’d seen the autopsy report, and he said the coroner claimed it was sent to Columbia.”
“Columbia…Columbia…. Lemme ask you: you ever heard of anything coming back to Charleston after it’s been sent to Columbia? Anything?”
“Nope. And it damn sure makes me think.”
Whit looked around for the bartender. He was nowhere to be seen.
“You know, speaking of Columbia. Have you ever noticed that people who move here are always…”
Just then, two stunning brunettes materialized.
“Are you two from here?” one asked.
“Yup,” replied Hewitt.
“Oh my gawd,” the other replied. “It’s paradise! Does one of you have a boat? We brought our bikinis!”
The quick-thinking agent-bartender silently reappeared and smiled as the inmates locked themselves back in. For the moment, all was well.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Prioleau’s inspiration for “Project Asylum” emerged from an 1860 quote by James L. Petigru, who stated, “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for a lunatic asylum.” “The reality of the quote struck me when I was sitting in the stands of a Charleston Day basketball game,” says Prioleau. “It occurred to me that nothing had changed since I was on that court—not even the kids’ first names. I’m still friends with people from kindergarten, and I can attend a 500-person wedding and trace 400 of them to my family tree.” A 15-year veteran of the advertising business and the author of You Want Fries With That? A White-Collar Burnout Experiences Life at Minimum Wage, Prioleau lives with his wife, Heidi, in Huger, South Carolina.