3.2 - Disintegration
The incident on Massachusetts Street was the third worst beating I’ve ever had on this gig. The second was courtesy of some Arizona cops who didn’t want to talk about their state’s immigration laws anymore. Those guys were clearly holding back - they could have put me in the hospital, but that would have meant having me hang around the state for a few more weeks. The worst I ever got, which did land me in the hospital, I received courtesy of a cokehead source and the 5-iron he was playing with. Two things I learned from that experience; one, never trust someone who does lines in front of you two minutes after your first meeting; and two, oxycodone fixes pretty much every problem you could ever have. What I got from that OSIS thug was a good mid-level beating - lots of pain and maybe some bruises, but no lingering injuries. It’s the kind of beating favored by the professional violence merchant, a high-precision act of battery that sends a clear message - get the hell out or there will be much worse.
Recovery from this kind of low-injury high-agony assault is mostly a matter of relieving stress and getting your nerves back in order. I can think of worse ways to do that than relaxing on a large hotel bed with a bottle of very expensive scotch whiskey obtained at the expense of someone you hate. The screen was on in the background to some local station, where I think everyone was expecting an announcement from Governor Goldie regarding some sort of curfew. The wait gave me a chance to page through Prof. Jagunjagun’s book which I had only remembered after it fell out of my bag during my earlier scramble. For a political manifesto written by a heavy drug user and accused radical/pervert, it was a staid and dry affair, a list of controversies concerning blacks and Hispanics over the past two decades and proposed solutions to redress them. The sole quirk was the Prof’s numerous references to someone he referred to as “the Griot,” a hallucinatory figure who was far more likely to be an artifact of an acid flashback than anyone he had actually met.
I was pouring my fourth glass of Johnnie on the rocks when my Digital Pardner commenced trembling and squawking. Someone out there wanted me, and badly. I grasped for the gadget and clicked on the speaker. “Atticus Gainsborough, world’s greatest investigative journalist.”
“Is that really how you answer your messages?” The voice was not entirely unfamiliar but obviously not from the home office.
“Who the hell is this?”
“Sara. From yesterday?”
“How did you get my contact information?”
“I’m a journalist, it’s not hard. I had to push the ethical limits a little bit, but that’s what you have to do when you’re the only person with convictions in a world of stenographers and social climbers.”
“Yeah.” I really should have hung up the second she launched into her first tirade, but the residual pain from the beating must have clouded my judgment. “What do you want?”
“Where are you?”
“In my room at the Eldridge.”
“Your room? The city is exploding, literally, and you’re just hanging out?”
“Give me a break, I caught a gun butt to the solar plexus last time I stepped outside.”
“Oh, so Mr. ‘outlaw journalist’ runs into a little resistance and he folds, huh? All that rhetoric about the press corps being too lazy to get the real story and he sits out a major unfolding story in his comfy hotel room while people on the ground -”
“Okay, I get it. Now how do you suggest I get out of here? There are security guys all over the place.”
“You’ve probably picked up a Biometric Frequency Scrambler, right? You know, the box that keeps them from tracking you?”
As a matter of fact, I had. I’d obtained one of those gizmos from Joanna, along with a solar battery and a small bag of Adderall. Even up close, the thing was just an ugly gray box of secrets that looked like nothing in particular. I hadn’t even thought twice about it.
“All right Atticus, here’s what you do: Hit the button on the Scrambler and then make sure to keep it within a foot of your body at all times. Any farther and it’ll lose effectiveness, and you don’t want to get detained with one of those, they are quite illegal. Now, snake down the fire escape - no grunts in the alley - and head north. I’ll find you later, I’ve got sources to run down. Sara out.”
The Scrambler didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. Once I clicked in the button, there was nothing to tell me it was functioning - no little lights, no merry little metallic tone, the damn thing didn’t even hum. But having let Sara browbeat me into it, I was obligated to cram the thing into my bag and cross my fingers. I slammed down the two glass of Johnnie (one of them being for Frederick in case he wanted to see what his bosses had just bought for me) and shimmied out of the window. I haven’t done much climbing in my career, so really it wasn’t a matter of whether I would fall as it was whether the fall would break anything critical. Luck was with me, as the eight foot fall onto my ass didn’t shatter anything I was going to miss, and the sound wasn’t enough to get the grunts to turn their backs on the young mothers and old men on the sidewalk.
Whatever made the sound was just a few blocks away from the Eldridge, though the mass of OSIS personnel meant that it would require me to exercise my evasive skills. Avoiding attention is a fine art, one of the most important for any journalist who works near the frontlines of disaster. Evasion is less a matter of ducking behind objects and squirming through patches of shadow than it is about giving the appearance that you belong wherever you’ve ended up, becoming such a mundane part of the scenery that prying eyes drift past you without further note. Of course, that’s not so easily done when you’re wearing the uniform of a colorblind tourist and the local authorities have just recently given you a blunt reminder that your presence is not desired. So the alternate is to take the most circuitous route possible, safe in the knowledge that the grunts will be busy busting the journos and gawkers who took the more direct route.
I could barely make out the blast zone through the crowd of first responders and security grunts but what I did see was sufficient to get the bile moving again. The house at the center of the action was a split-apart shell, a few aging timbers and patches of drywall making a noble effort to stay upright without the benefit of walls or a roof. The goddamn thing had been totally blown apart, and all the nearby buildings were sporting shattered windows and facades peppered with scorch marks and fragments of splintered wood. The occupants of those buildings were being carried off in ambulances, but the bastards at the heart of the explosion weren’t nearly as lucky. There were four of them, stretched out on the lawn in a row without even the courtesy of a blanket to conceal their shredded remains. Just four mutilated corpses - two black, two white or Hispanic (hard to tell in their state), none of them over thirty.
The explosion had scattered the contents of the house to the winds. There were some kind of fliers riding on the breeze, most of which were burnt and ruined but which revealed the occasional word or date or fragment of an image. My hand fell on a large-ish comparatively intact scrap just as one of the OSIS men spotted me. I hastily slid the thing into my pocket and clasped both hands behind my head - you’d be surprised how often that posture fails to induce any mercy but it was all I could think of.
“No reporters on scene. Return to your hotel or...wait, I remember you. Atticus...Gainsborough?”
I recognized him as well, the friendly thug who’d given me the lay of the land on my first day in town. “That’s right. And you’re the one who told me to watch my ass.”
“Keep it down.” The friendly thug pushed me out of sight behind another building. “Don’t you know you’re not supposed to be hanging around here?”
“And you’re not supposed to talk with scumbag journalists.”
“Yeah.” The friendly thug scanned the area for his not-so-friendly buddies. “Look, I don’t agree with everything that’s going on here, so I’ll talk to you for just a minute if you promise not to use my name, okay?”
“Sure.” I pulled out a notebook. “And what is that name that I’m not supposed to use?”
“Archie.” That isn’t the name he gave me.
“All right. So what the hell happened here? We talking a gas leak, act of God, or something deliberate?”
“It’s too early to tell...” Archie hesitated. “...they say they’ve got evidence of ammonium nitrate. A lot of it.”
“And I’m guessing they weren’t farmers.”
“We haven’t found any bomb-making equipment yet, and it was probably all blown to bit anyway, but that’s what it looks like. It looks like they were stockpiling the stuff along with some other chemicals and then accidentally set it off. That’s shit’s volatile if you don’t store it right.”
“Clearly. They trying to pin it on UFJ?”
“I don’t know. This place was way outside of our investigations. I probably shouldn’t talk about that part on account of it being so early.”
“Probably wise.” I took a step back. “All right, that’s good. If I don’t get shot to death on my way back, maybe we can have a drink and laugh about this once the fires are all out.”
As I left Archie to slouch back to his duty, I studied the scrap of paper I’d recovered. The damn thing was so delicate that I was ready for it to crumble in my hands, but it held together long enough for me to take a few pictures. There was the scant edge of a fuzzy low-rez image along with one word and part of a second - ARCADIUS B.
They were definitely going to find bomb-making equipment in that house.