The Oasis is Burning

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3.5 - Curfew

From my own personal history and my previously described act of idiotic bravery, you might think that I have no fear of the police. You would be wrong. Aside from the beatings and that one protest where I got lost in a cloud of CS while tripping on acid, I’ve been arrested in five states. They were all for minor offenses and I never spend more than a few days in the clink, but I’m in no real hurry to go back for a visit. So with martial law in effect and a state-mandated curfew fast approaching, I concluded that the better part of valor was to quit dicking around and get back to my room. It really shouldn’t be so hard to walk four blocks to a hotel, open the door and step inside, but circumstances are a vindictive bastard.

Joanna was out front of her shop, arguing with a pair of OSIS grunts who were clearly not guarding the place this time. The black marketeer looked like she would’ve started a running gun battle if she was packing, but all she had to deal with these mooks was volume.

“Goddamn it, how many times do I have to spell this out? I don’t deal in weapons!” Joanna’s voice could really carry. I think they heard this bit in Topeka.

The grunt nearest Joanna barely reacted to the tirade. “Then the search will turn up nothing and we’ll leave you be.”

“Yeah, after your friends have helped themselves to a few goodie bags.”

“Ma’am, we don’t appreciate these accusations.”

Joanna sighed. “How long is this going to take?”

“Shouldn’t take more than twenty-four hours.”

“Are you crazy? I’ve been sleeping up there. The curfew’s in what, an hour? You gonna kick me out of my own place and then lock me up for being on the street?”

“Heller would get a kick out of that,” I inserted. “Evening Joanna. Entertaining some customers?”

“Goddamn Goldie, goddamn radicals.” Turns out that Joanna is one of those people who smiles when she’s angry. “The cops have been shaking down all of the marketeers, trying to figure out who supplied those assholes who blew themselves up.”

“Sensible, but it couldn’t take that long to rifle through your personal drawers and find nothing,” I said.

“You’d think.” Joanna turned back to the grunt. “Seriously, can I at least go upstairs so I know if these guys are breaking anything?”

The grunt rubbed his chin knowingly. “Sorry, there are regulations, and also...considerations.”

“Damn it, I’m paid up already,” said Joanna.

“Clearly not to them.” I fished a pair of twenties out of my boot. “Forty for you and your pal for five minutes upstairs.”

The grunt eyed me, glanced back at his partner, then gave me a gentle tip of the head. I pressed the bills into his palm as I stepped past him, opening the door for Joanna like the gentleman I secretly am. Joanna had more to say to the grunts, but she held it in and stepped into the stairwell.

“I guess I owe you,” she said.

“Yes you do. Those guys upstairs going to find your special merchandise?”

Joanna patted the small shoulder bag at her side. “I carry that with me. No sense taking risks.”

“Good. We’ll talk later.”

A long shadow fell over us, cast by the big tall son of a bitch standing atop the stairs. Guy was at least six-eight, sporting a trench coat that was grossly inappropriate for the mild weather but magnified his tremendous frame. I wasn’t sure at the time, but there was something about that stern frying-pan face and salt-and-pepper hair that made me think I’d met him before. My initial assumption was that he’d arrested me at some point.

He tapped a badge affixed to his belt. “Special Agent Flint Mason. This area is off-limits until the search is finished.”

“It’s my shop,” said Joanna. “And where I live. If they’re going to ransack the place, I’d like to be there.”

Agent Mason wagged his finger at Joanna. “You’ve got a lot of brass. This space has been illegally occupied and you’ve been running a unlicensed business trafficking in quite possibly illicit goods. You’re not in a position to make demands.”

“I have an arrangement with the locals,” said Joanna. “Ask around. No one has a problem with my presence and the owners and the city have all given their approval.”

“The fact that you’ve been bribing officials and keeping the local populace happily doped up hardly makes this proper,” said Agent Mason. “That being said, OSIS is not turning you out of this illegal shop. Once I’ve determined that you are not in possession of demolitions equipment, firearms, munitions, hazardous chemicals or other unsafe equipment, I will let you back in.”

“Sound reasoning,” I said. “Not very humane, though. Almost curfew and you’re kicking a girl out and letting a bunch of violence junkies look for bombs in her underwear drawer.”

Agent Mason glared down at me. His expression didn’t budge but there was the tiniest spark of recognition behind those camera lens eyes. “Atticus Gainsborough. You were a reporter on the Missouri River Conqueror killings.”

“That’s right, I met you in KC. Never would have recognized you without the trilby. So the Feebs getting involved in this?”

“That’s right. Terrorism always attracts the Bureau’s attention.” Agent Mason’s gaze clicked over to Joanna. “I’ll let you in to collect a few things, but after that you’ll have to go. We stay here until I’m satisfied.”

That elephant herd in red and blue had really done a number on Joanna’s place. All the crates had been upended and their contents dumped into haphazard piles through which the OSIS thugs dug with fervor. Most of it they just tossed aside, creating a dizzying sweet aroma as the incense and tobacco and perfume and confections all comingled into a fume that haunted every surface of the room. Whatever was deemed suspicious, usually the most expensive of Joanna’s offerings, ended up in either a series of carry-alls or in the bulging pockets of the grunts.

Joanna was an inch or two away from a fit. “You don’t have to tear everything down! Damn it, I’ve gotta get to my stuff before they destroy it all.”

Agent Mason wasn’t paying attention to Joanna or the OSIS grunts ostensibly acting under his direction. His head pivoted as though he were trying to triangulate some sound barely audible over the din of the grunts. And then I heard it too - a voice, a broadcast that I’d heard before:

“Friends, listeners...I’m not going to waste your time and mine by preaching about the breakdown of society or the erosion of our personal safety. All of that is intuitive and I don’t need to tell you that the world is not a safe place. No, instead I will offer you a question, a question that no one is asking: Why? Why is it that in a society that has at its disposal the means and the knowledge to bring stability that they opt for chaos? Why is it that they allow terrorists and thugs and killers to act as they please - and make no mistake, it is an allowance, we all know how to stop this. So why don’t the leaders of this great land do what they must? I think all of you know.”

“Turn that garbage off!” Emotion spiked in Agent Mason’s voice as he muscled his way through the room in search of the source. “I will not have anyone listening to that criminal on my investigation. I hope that was clear because there will be no more warnings.”

Leroy’s voice went silent and the grunts quietly returned to their looting. “Got a sore spot for the chatty fascist?” I said.

“Leroy Brigg, the Missouri River Conqueror. The only case I never finished. The only criminal that ever escaped from me.” Agent Mason took a deep breath. “You left Kansas City before they arrested Brigg, didn’t you?”

“That’s right.”

“I’ve seen evil in many forms, but Leroy Brigg is a special breed. Smarter than most. More patient. More ruthless. More savage.” The light shifted as though responding to Agent Mason’s voice, throwing daggers of shadow across his face. “How much do you know about Brigg?”

“He’s an absolute monster with a wonderful speaking voice. Not much past that.”

Agent Mason shut his eyes as he accessed the file on his quarry. “Leroy Timugen Brigg. Caucasian. Six feet one inches in height. Approximate age, forty-five. Location and exact date of birth unknown. No known surviving family members. Graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a double major in architecture and philosophy. Relocated to Kansas City, Missouri, where he was temporarily employed as a high school teacher.”

“Gotta wonder what that did for the dropout rate.”

“Involved in what police ruled was a justifiable homicide. Having had his first taste of blood, he left teaching to operate a series of legally questionable businesses. A number of his business rivals and whistleblowers disappeared without a trace. Used the money from his illegal activities to mount a run for governor. Polling showed him winning the election by twenty points when the remains of two of Brigg’s rivals, last seen in his personal company, washed up on the banks of the Missouri River.”

“I’m surprised a double homicide was enough to derail his campaign.”

“That bastard got off, probably through some combination of bribery and threats. It wasn’t the evidence, I had him dead to rights. So the truth, Gainsborough? Officially I’m here investigating that explosion, but I’ve really come to Lawrence to find something that will stick to that criminal. It’s the only way I can reconcile with my...dark and troubled past.”

“Well, good luck with that.” I glanced back at Joanna, who was busy cramming what she could salvage into a duffel bag. “We’ve gotta find a place to crash before the curfew, so -”

“Hold it.” A business card leaped into Agent Mason’s fingers. “A journalist can go places I can’t. You find something tying Brigg to any crime, I want to hear about it first.”

“I’m sure he’ll make an illegal left turn eventually.”

Joanna and I booked it back down the stairs. “Those assholes are going to pick me clean,” she said. “I don’t suppose you have some sort of in with that fed?”

“No such luck, but I do still have a room at the Eldridge. If I can get in, you can stay the night.”

“And a gentleman like you won’t try anything, I’m sure.”

“That would be hard to do, since you’ll be sleeping on the floor.”

Joanna laughed. They always think I’m kidding.

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