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Scatter Box

Being a hero comes down to a couple components: character and timing. Criminals tend to be short on the former. But through sheer volume of opportunity, they do all right on that other part.

And in the Gutter, if you're lucky enough, sometimes you can come up smelling of roses. Even when you are sitting in a pile of shit.

Scatter Box by Joshua Swainston

At Harbor Island, the snow started to fall just after three in the afternoon. Seattle snow is pure and clean for a total of five minutes. After that it gets mixed with diesel runoff and dog shit until it resembles a violated wedding dress. Conrad leaned forward against a Maersk shipping container, unzipped his coveralls and added his own yellow signature.

“Boy, put your pecker back in your pants!” shouted a gruff voice.

The sudden volume surprised Conrad into losing focus. Urine soaked the fabric around his left leg. “Damn it.”

“Got ya,” chuckled Frank.

Conrad fastened his coveralls. “Fuckin’ shit kicker.”

“Hey, hey,” Frank said through a gray mustache. “Let’s keep things civil, alright?”

“Fuck you.”

“That’s more like it.” Frank stepped up to Conrad, careful not to tread on the yellow snow. “So, what do you got for me today?”

“That’s the good part. Customs guy doesn’t even fuckin’ know. It came in last night. Listed to some Mister Wu Shin, whoever that is.” Conrad bent down and uncovered a pair of bolt cutters from under a dusting of snow. “Come on, it’s this way.”

“Not to sound ungrateful but if you don’t know, why the fuck did you call me?” Frank followed as Conrad led the way into an aisle of containers.

“Fuck, man, it’s like one of the shitty storage auction shows. We open it, you like it, awesome. I’ll get my cut. If you don’t like it, we close up. No harm, no foul, right?”

“I’m not normally a gambling man.”

“I’ve gotten you in on some great shit this last year. I wouldn’t fuck with you about this stuff.” Conrad stopped. “Here it is, Ninety-seven Thirty-two.” Rust shucked off the edges of the container like dandruff. Two lengths of steel round stock, secured with padlocks, held down the doors. “What’s the call, shit kicker?”

“Seeing as you dragged my ass down to the docks, I might as well take a look.”

Conrad used the bolt cutters on the locks leaving them to fall. He then lifted the dogs and torqued the round stock to release the door.

Low, guttural moans rose from inside.

The doors forced open and a flood of shoeless Chinese men exploded out. Conrad fell on his ass, nearly impaling himself on the bolt cutters.

“AAAAAA!” the men roared like warriors charging into battle.

In the commotion Frank became pinned between one of the container doors and an adjacent shipping Conex.


The exodus continued, thirty, fifty men. The last refugee staggered out carrying an aluminum bucket, which he tossed at Conrad, showering him with human excrement. Wherever the hoard ran they left barefoot snow tracks.

Six of the Chinese men scurried to conceal themselves in a cluster of Hanjin containers. A few jumped into the Puget Sound attempting to swim to Seattle, a few hundred yards away. One climbed into the cab of a nearby forklift but was unable to operate the machine. The remainder scattered toward whatever looked like salvation.

Frank pushed the door off his chest. “What in God’s name was that?”

Feces fell from Conrad’s hair. He gagged then threw up. “We need … those Asians … we’re fucked.”

“I don’t know what you fuckin’ got me into but I’m gone!”

“You can’t leave me now. It’s not my fault. We got to get those chinks back in the box,” Conrad argued from the ground.

An alarm sounded from speakers mounted on the Harbor Island light towers indicating a breach in security. “They ain’t chinks, they’re human beings.” Frank walked towards the road. “You racist shithead.”

“Fuck, racist. That’s what you’re worried about?”

A white Jeep Cherokee displaying alternating blue and red lights sped towards the two men. Other Jeeps appeared, each with their own destination.

“It’s not my fault,” said Conrad.

“AAAAAAA!” the war cry of the Chinese men echoed in the container yard.

When the Jeep screeched to a stop, Frank could read the bold face decal across the door: Department of Homeland Security. The title took Frank a moment to register, and in that moment an armed official used the butt of his firearm to drop Frank to ground.

“It’s not my fault!” Conrad screamed, his new mantra, before being rolled around to his stomach by unseen muscle. A prick in his ass felt like a bee sting, and then the lights went out.


When Conrad woke he still smelled of shit. Frank sat at a table eating fresh apple slices from a paper plate. They were in a white walled office with a window overlooking the docks.

“It’s not my fault,” was all Conrad could think to say.

“Your stupid ass awake?” Frank grunted.

“Where are we?”

“Homeland office.”

“We’re fucked, aren’t we?”

“Why would you be ‘fucked’, Mr. Bell?”  The man stood in the doorway with a “Homeland” badge hanging from his neck.

“We didn’t know those people were in that container.”

“We know, your partner told us everything.”

“So what’s going on?”

“You and your friend are free to go.”


“From what evidence we have, and what the news media seems to believe, you two clowns broke open the biggest human trafficking ring in state history.” The official gave a half smile at the two men. “That you two may’ve been engaged in something less … upstanding, well, that’s another matter. Who am I to disagree with the news?”

 “You’re Homeland Security, since when do you guys care what the media thinks?” Conrad blurted.

“We’re trying to update our image. Lots of bad press over the last … oh, decade or so.”

Frank stood up from the table, then pushed past the official to make his escape. “We better get a move on, Conrad.” He said “Conrad” like it rhymed with “asshole.”

Frank left the port by the main gate. Conrad walked to the longshoreman’s locker room for a shower and to change out of his coveralls. Taped to his locker hung a business card: “International Importer –Wu Shin, Seattle WA.”

Most of the time Joshua Swainston is a merchant mariner (sailor). When not out to sea, he lives in Tacoma, WA, with his family and writes fiction and editorials for the local arts paper. His work can be found in Wrist, A Twist of Noir, The First Line and Workers Write. Joshua’s first book, The Tacoma Pill Junkies, is available through his website,