An Excerpt from ‘TITLE 13,’ by Michael A. Ferro

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Thirty-seven pages of highly classified TITLE 13 material were reported missing at the Chicago Regional Census Center on Wednesday morning.

At five p.m. on Tuesday, after the employees of the Windy City’s RCC had packed their sensitive data into large, regulated heavyweight folders and filed them neatly away into their sturdy desks under lock and key, and after the keys had been put away into delicate key-sized numbered lock boxes and secured deep within the office behind squinting eyes peering over simple shoulders, and sometime after the government-issued identification badges had been scanned by beeping units fastened to the wall near the single exit, not long before security personnel with no known names and scrupulously molded foreheads had disabled access to the floor, something had gone terribly wrong without anyone in the office seeming to notice a thing.

It was troubling that thirty-seven pages of TITLE 13 information could go missing from the CRCC with no one knowing how or why. Then again, troubling concerns have helped to keep our government funded throughout a number of domestic and international security incidents.

Once even a single page of TITLE 13 paperwork is lost, it is not long before a ripple effect spreads among the populace, targeting the lives of a select poor few and ushering in an enhanced form of absurd chaos only known within the likes of the United States federal government.

*   *   *

Coincidentally, Heald Brown had been discussing TITLE 13 information with a few of his co-workers before they left the office on Tuesday. Though he did not possess an imposing figure, Heald often let his sarcastic and disputatious nature create a larger image for himself—something that many of his fellow civil servant clerks at the Chicago Regional Census Center had grown accustomed to, or simply ignored for the most part.

Miłosz Pavlenko was a nervous young man who had immigrated to the United States from the Ukraine a few years prior. He had come in search of a better life and a good education; instead he found himself working for the US government alongside Heald. Still, Miłosz poured himself into his work, becoming a source of encyclopedic knowledge on all things relating to the census. Heald rapped his fingers on Miłosz’s desk.

“One of the reasons that so many people loathe the United States government is that it is a massive hoarder of personal information—like some jaded recluse stockpiling damning evidence on the world at large,” Heald said to Miłosz while he packed away his paperwork for the day. “Every single embarrassing love letter that you’ve ever written or received, every horrifying account statement or profession of greed, every damning secret you’ve buried in a shoebox and tucked away in some forgotten closet at home—that is what the federal government embodies to your average cynical tax-paying member of the American public. Too much is known by too many, and our paranoia is enhanced by the simple fact that we can never know just who knows what.”

Miłosz scratched his head. “I do not know about this, Heald. The government created some of the most stringent rules and regulations for censuses concerning the protection of privacy for the public at large. They keep sensitive information in the hands of those who are in the need-to-know category and made one all-encompassing regulation: TITLE 13.”

Heald exhaled as if he’d just stepped into a warm sunbeam.

“Ah, good ol’ TITLE 13. Like a vigilant nun ready to crack a metaphorical ruler across our hairy knuckles for any malfeasance. ”

“Erm, I do not know about that, Heald. TITLE 13 contains the type of information that all civil servants employed by the Department of Commerce are sworn to protect under the penalty of incarceration, though no one has ever actually been tried or convicted for dispelling or misplacing such classified information.” Miłosz smiled.

“You mean, at least not according to any public record,” Heald added with a wink.

Miłosz looked at Heald with a note of consternation and gulped hard, as if he’d just swallowed a small water chestnut.

It was then that Janice Torres, another clerk in their department, overheard them and walked over. She was short and slender and about the same age as both Heald and Miłosz—mid-twenties—and, also like them, had settled into a mediocre low-level government career after being out of options during a difficult recession. She casually leaned onto Miłosz’s desk.

“It’s great when Milo starts reciting rules and regulations like this,” she said. “So much better than reading it out of an enormous manual. Perhaps it’s your accent, Milo? Like an interesting audiobook. Either way, please go on.”

“The United States Code is the codification by subject matter of the general and permanent laws of the United States,” Miłosz began. “It is divided by various broad subjects into fifty-one titles and was first published by the Office of the Law Revision Council of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1926. The next main edition was published in 1934, and subsequent main editions have been published every six years since. In the five years between main editions, annual cumulative supplements are published in order to present the most current information.”

“Jesus, how did you memorize all that?” asked Heald. He leaned in close to Miłosz. “Tell me the truth: you’re a computer, aren’t you. You’re an android built by the Department of Commerce.”

Miłosz was too focused to comment, his eyes now closed in peaceful reassurance as he continued recalling the detailed information.

“Of the fifty-one titles, twenty-six have been enacted into positive statutory law, including TITLE 13. When a title of the code has been enacted into positive law, the very text of the title becomes evidence of the law. Sections 9 and 214 of TITLE 13 look at ‘information as confidential; exception’ and ‘wrongful disclosure of information,’ respectively. Government employees handling this sensitive information must take an oath of office never to disclose any of the Personally Identifiable Information, or PII, that they are knowledgeable to while in the service of the government.”

“I’m going home, but tomorrow morning I’m looking up how to administer a Turing test for our little foreign friend here,” said Heald, beginning to walk away.

Janice looked at Miłosz and grinned. “So what are you getting at, Milo?”

“I guess what I am saying is that the TITLE 13 information should be safe. TITLE 13 means we are bound to secrecy… all of us.” Miłosz looked around with a cautious eye and began to chew on his fingernail. “Perhaps I should be going home, too. All this secret paperwork is very much making me nervous now.”

“Probably a good idea,” said Heald from his nearby desk. He was packing away papers and clearing his workstation like much of the rest of the staff preparing to leave. “I hear the deputy director of this office has the many eyes of Argus.”

Not long after that, the thirty-seven pages of TITLE 13 information disappeared.

Michael A. Ferro is the author of TITLE 13: A Novel (Harvard Square Editions, 2018), which is now available. Additional publications and hooey can be found at www.michaelaferro.com.

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