It was an ordinary mid-morning, beginning to chill down into winter but no snow sticking yet. X sat in her office squinting at the spreadsheet on her computer screen, wondering whether it was time to get her eyes checked again. But she liked her familiar frames and Indian Health Service was always a hassle. Maybe she was looking at too much data at one time, so she should simply enlarge the font, but she liked to see a lot of data at once because of the complexity of interacting forces. They were always like that when you were dealing with government money. Someone somewhere had built in stipulations, exceptions, thresholds, and a million other threads that held down innovation. The people in her office just did their best and usually it was okay. No one wanted to come this far north this time of year to check facts and figures.
Someone knocked on the door though it was standing wide open. She left it that way even when she was gone in case someone needed to borrow her stapler or something. Three people were standing there, two men and a woman so they probably were neither FBI nor Mormons, but they had that strange formal tense look of people on a reservation who weren’t used to Indians.
“We’d like to have a little talk,” one of them said, and the woman closed the door.
The other man said, “Maybe you’d like to close out your computer so you can give us your full attention.”
“What is all this?” she asked, thinking, “Wow, maybe this is a Hollywood scouting team planning a movie!”
“We are investigating fraud and corruption,” said the older man, and all three produced credentials, none of which she recognized or understood except that these were clearly not movie scouts. “The Designated Division for the Closing Down of Crime and Corruption in Outlying Regional Territories.” DDCDCCORT. Garble.
Her first thought was not for herself but for her program. It served kids and they would suffer without it. Who was cheesing in on their money and what was their angle? But they were grilling HER, about her personal life which they evidently found shocking. Obviously they were from a superior class that — like I said — knew nothing about life on a reservation: the poverty, the incarcerations, the families jammed together without even really being genetically related, the frayed relationships, the unappeased hunger for some kind of control or stability that often gave way to substance and behavior abuse. These people appeared to be modern versions of Procrustes who wished to force conformity to their standards, no matter the collateral damage.
Why had she dropped out of college in 1988? Why did her grades suddenly improve at a certain point — was she getting help of some kind? How much money did she make in 1995 and how was she able at that income level to buy a new pickup? What relation was she to Y and did she know what prison he was in right now? Who gave her the job she was in right now?
The rest of the building was strangely quiet. No one rattled the doorknob, meaning to enter, nor did anyone seem to be passing in the hall. The entire staff had put themselves in lock-down as though a shooter were in the building and in a way, there was.
Her mind was fogged with guilt and shame, always her default emotion. She couldn’t think properly. But after a few hours of repetitious and intrusive grillings about things she had thought of as innocent until then, and flashes of scenes from old television shows, she began to remember a conversation she had overheard on a seminar in Denver, not part of the official program but talk between men in a booth behind hers.
“This is the long-game of taking down the reservations,” said one. “We’ve learned it from the sociology of war in the Middle East but it works very well here, especially in a place with Third World conditions. First we begin to raise “concerns” about something everyone can agree is bad, for instance a health threat or an environmental problem or maybe something that deprives kids. When the media has begun to get interested and is actually finding documentation that supports this ‘issue’, we can move.”
“Always make the other guy do the leg work,” remarked the second man, his mouth muffled by his hamburger. She heard his beer mug go back down on the table.
“Right. Then we go into the situation, target someone at the center of the ‘problem’ . . .”
“Manager. Tribal councilman. Someone with a few enemies. Anyone effective will have enemies.”
“Right. Someone is always waiting to capture control of assets. Then we surprise that person on their own territory. Rock them back on their heels. Convince them that they are in grave danger, facing years of incarceration. That’s the way we get them to give us names.”
“Get them to squeal, rat out their co-workers! Brilliant!”
“It gets better. We withdraw, write a lot of paper indictments, and then wait. Schedule trials. Suggest we might make deals. Revisit the situation to keep it alive. Wait for them to react.”
“And the info comes in, stuff you never even suspected.”
“Yeah, the pockets get turned out. Eventually, we have enough to drop the small fry and take down our real targets, the ones who constantly oppose what we’re trying to do.”
“How long do you figure it will take?”
“Oh, we can wait years. We’re patient. The final rewards justify it. Anyway, politically, a quick jerk to our dragnet can often bring people into line with our goals.”
She never found out who these guys were, never dreamed that they’d be interested in her little pocket of the world. But she should have thought about the big picture — not just regional or national, but about planetary forces like resource development. Who had time to reflect about it when it took so much energy just to drive the ten miles to the office through a blizzard, or figure out what to do when all the toner in the whole town had been used up and it could only be gotten by driving to the county seat which would take hours, but an application to a trust fund that would only accept paper (fossils!) had to be put in the mail today?
“Why is it you don’t always answer your cell phone?” (Someone didn’t pay the bill.) “Why are you paying your relative to assist you? (She was the only qualified person available.) “Do you call personal friends from work?” (My co-workers ARE my personal friends!) “Do you rob Peter to pay Paul?” (Who doesn’t?)
It was like the movies, which was not reassuring. She did not have the superpowers of the heroines in movies. For a rez person she had a lot of experience, but she was essentially a country person who operated by reputations and families.
Back in the office, there were more questions: “What about Z? Do you think he’s really qualified? Does he come to work on time? Does he drink? Does he party when he’s out of town?”
When the little trio left, they had a page of names with notes attached. They took X’s computer, cell phone, pager, tape recorder and spread sheets along with them in storage boxes. The team woman would be assigned to sift through them, boring work the men didn’t want to do. “It’s like netting fish,” said one man to the other, as they drove off, both in the front seat. “You never know what will come up from the bottom.”
The team woman slumped in the back along with the boxes. She was cold and wondered whose phone X would borrow to call people this very minute. Of course she was. Would she warn the people she had named? What would happen if she knew a reporter well enough to be honest and the reporter was clued in enough to get the big picture? A movie plot. But an old one. Probably only a TV show.