The Oasis is Burning

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3.6 - Arts and Letters

Even with the escalating crisis and the new threat of terrorism, I really didn’t think that the downtown area would turn into a full-on demilitarized zone. The armed presence around the Eldridge had grown to include an armored vehicle and a series of hastily-erected concrete blockades topped with wire. There were checkpoints all over the place, but this was a different beast entirely. There was a crowd in front of the barricade, not bystanders by the looks of them but a pack of poor sods trying to return to their homes in the neighborhoods around the blast zone. The whole pack was a good thirty or forty feet back from the barricade and probably for good reason.

Which is to say that it wasn’t terribly wise for me to walk right up to the barricade for a nice chat with the OSIS grunt at the checkpoint, but I didn’t get shot so it wasn’t the worst decision I made that day.

Joanna wasn’t having any of it. “I don’t think we’re getting in, Atticus.”

“Won’t know if we don’t try.”

“They’re going to shoot you to death. I know you’re not drunk enough to think that’s a worthwhile risk.”

“Worst they’ll do is beat me stupid and then taze me while I’m on the ground.”

“You know, if I took a stray bullet here, that would be a pretty goddamn stupid way to die.”

“Just hit the deck, they’ll be aiming for me.”

For a moment I wondered if these crazy bastards really were going to shoot me, in light of the sensual manner some of those grunts were cradling their MP5s. But the prick at the checkpoint seemed at first like he was a bit more professional than the usual crop. “Excuse me, sir, this area is off limits.”

“We’re staying in the Eldridge,” I said. “Door’s just a couple of feet away.”

“Sorry, I can’t make any exceptions.”

I put my hands behind my head. “Hey, you can slap cuffs on me and lead me in if you want. I promise I won’t tattle to teacher.”

The grunt looked more troubled than angry. “I’m sorry, I can’t make an exception.”

“Can I at least get my bag out of the room?”

“I’ll send someone up to retrieve it.” The grunt flagged down another grunt, a particularly grumpy looking son of a bitch. “Hand him your room card and he’ll be down in a minute.”

I passed over the card. “There’s also a bottle of Johnnie up there. You can have a swig if you bring it down.”

“Fuck you.” The grumpy SOB snatched up the card and disappeared into the building.

It was around that time that another bold soul stepped up to the firing line, a shaved baboon who had the vengeful jingoistic air of a Brigg follower. “Excuse me, I’ve been sent to secure the blast site. I demand passage.”

“I’m sorry sir, we’re not allowing any civilians into the site,” said the grunt.

The Brigg guy puffed out his chest. “I’ve been assigned to this area by my group leader, Cain Lockhart. He was acting on instructions of Leroy Brigg who is a duly authorized peacekeeper in this city. You are interfering in the duties of a peace officer!”

“Piss off, redneck.” The grumpy SOB appeared at the door of the Eldridge with my duffel bag slung over his shoulder. “No one’s getting through, and that includes your little fake army.”

The Brigg guy jabbed his finger wildly in the direction of the OSIS grunts. “Fine. But there will be hell to pay for this. Mr. Brigg is going to hear how you assholes are running things here.”

“What the fuck ever.” The grumpy SOB smashed my duffel bag to the ground just outside of the barricade. “You get lost, too.”

Joanna approached me. “I’m guessing I won’t get to sleep on your floor tonight?”

“Nope.” As I picked up the bag, I heard muffled crunching and clinking sounds. “On the plus side, I think they threw in my scotch.” I only had to unzip the bag by an inch or two to unleash the fine bouquet of malt and grain mixed with synthetic fibers. “Yep. Well, not wearing these for a while. Too much honesty for me.”

“All right, guess it’s on me to find a place to sleep.” Joanna looked up a side street. “You ever slept rough?”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t seem to be such a good idea right now,” I said.

“Not in the open. There are a bunch of old warehouses east of here. They’re close enough to houses that the cops will leave us alone.”

“Fair enough.” I shook the last of the $10-an-ounce whiskey into the gutter and slung the booze-fragranced duffel over my shoulder. “Lead the way.”

The neighborhoods east of Massachusetts were not exactly what I had anticipated. I had pictured row after row of trendy little lofts and party hovels with outsider sculptures in the yard, the kind of place where one might see a group of twentyish trendsetters drinking craft beer and reading bad poetry over plinky guitar accompaniment. What I saw was something more dichotomous, an odd mixture of nostalgia-suffused blue-collar homes and pricey condo complexes. Past that were the promised warehouses, eroded structures of brick and steel, old but well-maintained and decorated with dynamic murals depicting various historical moments.

Joanna led me to one such warehouse, an invisible little prefab building nestled among closed shops. “Used to be a lot more industry here,” she said. “When the industry moved on, the artists moved in. Then the rich people moved in because they wanted to live with the artists. Now the artists can’t afford to live here anymore.”

“Gentrification’s a bitch.”

“Good for us, though. This place used to be a gallery, but it was abandoned months ago, so...” Joanna tried a side door, which swung open without resistance. “Well, aren’t I lucky. I was afraid that I might have to try and jimmy the lock.”

“Ask me if I’m shocked that you know how to do that.”

“I learned it from a friend. I’m not a thief, honest.” She held the door open for me. “After you.”

A beam of fading light streaming through the open door was all I had to make out the inside of the building, not that there was much to see. What furnishings were left had been concealed beneath paint-splattered tarps. But there were some signs of more recent occupancy, grocery bags and half-empty jugs of water and an odd assortment of small personal effects.

“There someone else crashing here?” I said.

“Could be some homeless people or UFJ runaways, or maybe one of my rivals in the smuggling game. Lot of people trying to hide these days” Joanna paused. “...Actually, do you hear something?”

There was movement to my right, and suddenly I was face to face with an over-under shotgun. “Move and you both die.”

“Not a problem, chief.” My arms shot up almost by reflex. “We’re both unarmed. Let us back out of here with our heads intact, you’ll never see us again.”

The shotgun dropped slightly. “...Joanna?”

“Caspar, is that you?” Joanna tapped me on the shoulder. “You can relax, it’s the guy you met in the shop yesterday.”

“I think I’m comfortable like this, thanks,” I said.

Caspar stepped out of the shadows and rested the shotgun against the wall. “I’m not going to shoot you. It’s dangerous to just walk into a building like that.”

“It’s dangerous to be on the street, too,” said Joanna.

There was more movement in the shadows, followed by a chorus of faint clicks as the unseen figures turned on flashlights and electric lamps. There were at least a dozen of them, mostly students by the looks of them and representing an impressive coalition of nations. All of them looked tired and terrified, save the one I recognized - Liang Qiang, the girl from the shop, sporting the same icy soul-destroying stare.

Joanna smirked at the girl. “Lucky that one wasn’t toting the shotgun. We’d both have holes where our brains used to be.”

“I don’t have time for jokes,” said Caspar.

“Neither do I, really.” Joanna studied the room, dimly lit by the lamps. “Doesn’t look like much of a place to live.”

Caspar scowled. “Well, it’s all I could find after you left us hanging.”

“What was I supposed to do? All I had was the shop, and not even that now. I haven’t been here long enough to have those kinds of connections.” Joanna pointed at me. “Ask him. I was hitting him up for a place to stay.”

“It’s true,” I said. “She was going to sleep at the foot of my bed like a dog.”

Caspar rubbed his face, then glanced back at the group. “...I guess I can lend you a corner. For now. It’s not comfortable or convenient, but this place is safe. OSIS doesn’t bother with the neighborhoods where the rich people live and the Briggs don’t have any reason to come here since all the artists left. Keep the noise down after dark and you’ll be fine, but don’t expect us to feed you.”

Caspar directed us to a windowless corner nestled among scaffolds which, admittedly, was probably only about the third worst place I’ve ever spent the night. Joanna began pulling down the cleaner tarps to provide some cushioning on the ground. I flipped open a well-used memo book and clicked on my Pardner to send a message out to the home office. It was far too late to receive a response (my editor is usually in a vodka hole by 7:00) but I needed that operational support as soon as possible.

“Sean? Atticus. I need some research to round out the story. First thing tomorrow, hit up A.J. and get him to put together a brief on anyone who’s claimed a connection to Arcadius Brinkley, especially anyone who might have been in the area, say...seven this morning. I’m also going to need some background on Jameson Research. Find out if there are any material ties between the company and any of Goldstreet’s campaigns, especially the Integrity thing. I’ll send you the first draft as soon as I can get to a proper workstation, and be ready to fact check the hell out of this thing because it is very confusing here on the ground. A.G. out.”

“You never struck me as the type to work late,” said Joanna, reclining in a bundle of tarps. “No wonder you need the drugs, you’ve got to be up and ready all day.”

“It’s mostly my coworkers, don’t get too impressed.”

“You think Joshua Jameson has some hand in all of this?”

“Don’t know, but I’d like to find out.” I pulled out a stumpy joint and a lighter.

Joanna inched closer to me. “You know, I knew the Jamesons.”

“Yeah?”

“Used to live in central Illinois, right around their base of power. I grew up in a little town called Patmos, even went to high school with Joshua’s runaway son.”

“How much do you know?”

“I don’t know how useful any of it would be.”

“Probably not, but I’ll make that call.” I passed the joint over to Joanna. “Background material. Always useful.”

Joanna took a long drag and sent fuzzy smoke rings dancing through the air. “All right, but remember to get my name right. I’d hate to be misattributed.”

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