The Oasis is Burning

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3.3 - Moment of Clarity

No one who’s ever seen me work a whole day on a bag of trail mix would ever imagine this, but I am a great lover of the luxuriant meal and a respectable, if limited, cook. Contrary to most people’s assumption, I don’t celebrate the end of an assignment with a bender, but rather with brunch. I’ll usually get up around 10:30, turn on some vintage sitcoms, and fill a pipe with two grams of high-potency cannabis. I then prepare the meal, and I spare no expense and no detail. A typical meal might include poached eggs dressed in pepper sauce, lamb sausage, sourdough toast with apple butter, grilled sardines with olive oil, asparagus, fried potatoes, fresh fruit salad, and a double screwdriver with an alprazolam chaser. That leads nicely into a midmorning nap, after which I’m ready for the next assignment.

On a normal assignment, that’s what I would have done as soon as that name showed up. Once the environment around a story goes from merely insane to well and truly suicidal, I haul ass out of town by the fastest means my meager expense account will let me. I should have been tearing out of Lawrence like the place was burning down around me, back to my nook of an apartment with its healthy stock of good food, hard liquor and life-destroying drugs. I definitely shouldn’t have been at a pizza place waiting to meet that crank of a reporter. There was the image of one of Goldie’s deputies on the monitor over the door mouthing the announcement of a curfew, telling me that my doorway of escape was closing fast, while my Pardner dictated the CV of this Sara person who was stopping me from fleeing through it.

I don’t know why the hell I stayed. Maybe I got ahold of some rotten uppers. Maybe the expensive hooch was playing hell on my brain in a way that I hadn’t imagined. Maybe there was some part of me that wanted to watch the whole thing burn even if it was the last sight my earthly eyes ever beheld. Maybe there’s some odd dignity in being killed by a infamous terrorist while investigating the birth of a fascist city-state. Maybe I was just too damn crocked to appreciate the situation. Maybe it doesn’t really matter.

Sara turned up just as the large pepperoni came out of the oven. “Nice that you thought of me, Atticus.”

“The pizza’s for me. You can get your own lunch.” I poured a covert shot into my soda.

“It’s barely noon. You can’t at least pretend to have some dignity?”

“The ethanol doesn’t know the time.” I swallowed a dose of Adderall and cut myself a slice.

“Jesus, you take all of that shit together? How are you still alive?”

“Good breeding.”

“Let’s cut the banter, all right? There’s important stuff to do.” Sara pulled an old and ragged notebook out of, as far as I could tell, thin air. “What did you find out at the blast site? I got pinched a block away.”

“I found out that leaving the hotel was a mistake. There’s now a small army around the building and there’s no way in hell I get back in.”

“Big deal. I’ll get you another place.”

“I left a really expensive bottle of whiskey in there.”

“Who’d you scam that one out of?”

“Frederick Tomasson.”

“Nice.” Sara fished a pack of cigarettes and a lighter out of the same mystery space that held the notebook. “I’ll make it up to you, but you gotta cut me in on what’s happening down there.”

“Pretty sure you can’t smoke in here.”

“Then we’ll finish this on the patio. It’s a nice day.”

“I’m not going anywhere with you, Ms. Mills.”

“How do -” Sara let out an exaggerated cough. “How do you have what you think is my real name?”

“I hit up a few sources in Illinois, asked them if there were any twitchy brats fixated on Joshua Jameson running around the area. You’ve got quite a reputation up there. And while I dig your whole ‘woman who knew too much’ angle, I know it’s a crock of shit. That bit where you got too close to the truth about Jameson and he had you kicked out? Was that before or after you were caught hacking into a contact’s email account?”

Sara snapped an unlit cigarette in half. “That was blown way out of proportion. That guy was talking really funny and then he just stopped responding to me least a month. I was worried for his safety because I care too goddamn much, all right?”

“Your advisor thought Joshua Jameson had something to do with his ‘disappearance.’”

“It was a possibility. Guy was working for one of Jameson’s gangland buddies. Again, I was concerned.”

“And whose life were you saving when you got one of your friends to break into a laboratory?”

“That never happened!” Sara, that model of journalistic integrity and quiet dignity, was now banging both fists on the table. “First, there was no goddamn break-in, that guy talked to someone who worked in the lab who gave him some old minitapes which he passed along to me - I never asked for it or requested it or anything like that. There was no collusion.”

“And this break-in that never happened that you had nothing to do with, it was to prove your belief that Joshua Jameson was building a doomsday device in southern Illinois?”

“That is a complete...misrepresentation of what I was investigating!” Sara hopped up, trying and failing to knock the table aside. “I will not be subject to a lecture on journalistic practice from a man who gets publically juiced up right in front of a contact. If you have nothing to show me, I’m leaving.”

“Calm down, I do have something for you.” The tattered edge of the burned flyer left particles of char as I eased it out of my bag. “From around the site of the blast.”

Sara lost her outrage and stared intently at the scrap. “Arcadius B? As in Arcadius Brinkley?”

“That’s the one.”

“Arcadius Brinkley the terrorist? The one that no one has ever proved to actually exist?”

“And one of my colleagues spent a year trying to prove that he did. If you’ll take a seat and ratchet back the crusading fervor, I’ll give you the rundown.”

“...Okay.” Sara returned gingerly. “But I’m reserving the right to storm out if this is a put-on.”

I set my flask on the table, just within Sara’s reach. “According to the FBI, Arcadius Brinkley is an African-American male in his mid- to late-thirties. But he’s also been a white out-of-work machinist from Michigan, a young black woman from Louisiana, an angry old nutjob in his sixties, an angry young nutjob just out of his teens. I understand there’s a gang in the Bronx whose members are all Arcadius Brinkley.”

“That much I know, that a lot of people claim his identity or claim to be working for him or with him.” Sara’s hand was creeping toward the flask, mechanically, guided by journalistic instinct.

“My colleague found 28 crimes that were connected to Arcadius Brinkley. About a dozen bank heists and armored car jobs, a number of arsons, threats of violence, and at least one bombing. All of which were tied to various radical leftist causes - anti-globalism, black seperatism, anarchism, militant hard green environmentalism. A lot of times the politics was clearly a pretext, and most of the crimes were sloppy. My colleague thought that if he focused on the better organized and more obviously ideological acts, he could find the true Arcadius Brinkley.”

“Clearly he never found the man.” That was when Sara noticed that she was holding the flask and tossed it back across the table to me. “Damn it, I don’t even drink on the job.”

“You should start.” I caught the flask and crammed it back into my bag. “That flyer was about all that was left after a storehouse filled with volatile fertilizer was blown to shit, if you’ll excuse the expression. Your conspiracy theories are a lot of fun, but I don’t see how you can connect a billionaire power broker to a bunch of radicals with a hillbilly bomb.”

“Provocation in service of a false flag. Jameson’s contacts in state government create an antagonistic environment that attracts militants, therefore justifying further crackdowns.”

“I’m impressed that you just came up with that on the spot. You should really write novels. But I’m more interested in how this connects back to the UFJ. Prof. Jagunjagun might not be their intellectual leader after all.”

And then the woman at the next table, a well-built matronly type in stately horn-rims and a hairstyle older than me, approached our table. My assumption was that she was irate over Sara’s outburst and her subtle smile an artifact of politeness. “Excuse me, I don’t mean to interrupt, but you were talking about Theo Jagunjagun, correct?”

“That’s right,” I said.

“And if I’m not mistaken, you are Atticus Gainsborough, correct?”

“That’s the name on one of my driver’s licenses.”

The woman nearly collapsed into a room-filling laugh. “Incredible! It’s a real honor to meet you. My name is Annelise Trumbull. I’m a colleague of Theo’s, although we’re not terribly close. I normally teach modern literature. In fact, I’ve used some of your work in a course I used to do on contemporary journalism.”

“Used to?” said Sara.

Annelise clicked her tongue. “Well, there were some complaints. A few of the students were offended by the piece you wrote about that rich fella in New York, the one with the speed problem.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “They were uncomfortable with the part about his predilection for African-American sex workers.”

“He did like black prostitutes, but I don’t recall writing anything derogatory,” I said. “It was more a statement of fact.”

“Well, I edited that bit out, and the next class complained too,” said Annelise. “Some of them said that the part where the rich fella put the gun to your head was traumatizing.”

“Funny, because having the gun to my head was a transcendent experience,” I said.

Sara pulled out another cigarette and chewed vigorously at the end. “Hell of a crop of journalists you’ve got. They’ll report on anything that doesn’t make them queasy.”

“Yes, well, me must mind the sensibilities of the students. It can be stifling, but it’s nothing compared to what poor Theo has been going through.” A long, low groan of commiseration sprang from somewhere deep in Annelise’s lungs. “They’ve already been monitoring his communications, all his classes have been suspended, and now with this curfew the scuttlebutt is that they’re putting him under house arrest! Can you imagine?”

“Just awful,” I said.

“Some of us who knew him are thinking about hosting a little shindig at his place, a kind of salon like he used to do. Anything to cheer him up.” Annelise leaned in over me. “I’d be honored if you could make an appearance. It’s tomorrow evening, not too late.”

It was an interesting proposition, no question. “The Prof does throw some really trippy parties, but it seems like the curfew might put the damper on it.”

“We’ll be there,” cut in Sara. “Come hell or high water.”

“I’m sorry, dear, you’re not invited,” said Annelise.

Sara snatched up her belongings and stormed out. “Goddamn it! I’m going to go have a smoke. Better use of my time than messing around with either of you.”

Annelise frowned and bowed her shoulders. “Oh, I hope I didn’t upset your girlfriend.”

“She’s not with me. I don’t chase crazy tail.”

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