The Oasis is Burning

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4.5 - Run Til It's Dark

The Prof’s home office was a place out of time. Over the years, a lot of people have made the tactical error of inviting me into their workspace, and most of those offices fall into one of two types: The trend chasing gadget freak space filled with wall-sized smart displays and eight-monitor arrays and other power sinks that the occupant will never use, and the deliberately informal broom closet with walls plastered in the occupant’s causes and piles of handwritten notes meant to show everyone that the occupant is not a trend chaser. But I’ve never actually seen a real Ward Cleaver study with its heavy oak and brass executive desk that you’d need a small elephant to move, the floor to ceiling bookshelves creaking with antique tomes, the elegant chairs that must have originally retailed for more than everything in my apartment combined. The only things in that room from this decade were a few recent popular books on racial and economic justice, all by authors with strong opinions of the UFJ - some for, some very much against.

“Good evening, Mr. Gainsborough.” The Prof rose from his chair to greet me as I entered. He was a bit more lean than he was when I first met him, his hair a bit more sparse, but he had always looked like a wise old man even when he was much younger. “Make yourself at home. I have a decanter of scotch if you’d like another drink.”

“No thinks, Mexico and Scotland don’t get along so well in my opinion.” An all too true statement that took me about five rough nights to learn. “So, what’s the plan this time? You seal the office, then flood the room with DMT vapors?”

“Show some respect,” growled Darius.

“It’s all right. Just a bit of humor between old friends.” The Prof glanced at my bag. “Would you like to answer that?”

My Pardner was screaming at me again, an angry edge in its electronic screech. “Probably just my editor drunk calling me. So, any particular reason the kid didn’t mention he was your son?”

“You knew that?” said Darius.

“It wasn’t exactly the riddle of the sphinx,” I said. “Maybe something to do with all those assholes harassing you back in the day.”

“Indeed.” The Prof returned to his seat. “When one is a lightning rod, it behooves him to keep some distance from those he loves. Darius used his mother’s name.”

“Fair enough. So I’ve been flipping through your book, and I have to wonder why a peace-loving guy like you has a bunch of assault rifle-toting militants in his organization.”

“Watch your mouth!” Darius stepped towards me. “What did I tell you? Those guys are OSIS plants or fed plants, there to make the movement look dangerous.”

“I might be more inclined to believe that if it wasn’t for the piece,” I said.

“You want to know about this gun?” Darius drew the pistol and handed it over by the barrel. “Check it yourself.”

The pistol was lighter than I anticipated, and when I ejected the magazine I could see why. “No cartridges. An empty gun.”

“Plus the firing pin’s disabled.” Darius snatched the gun back and shoved it into his holster. “Fucker’s a paperweight.”

“Interesting twist,” I said. “So the folks on campus, are they shooting blanks too?”

“I’m afraid not.” The Prof leaned forward, hands interlocked. “There has been a split within this branch of the Union for Justice. My own influence has waned as this more militant philosophy spread through the movement.”

“Good place to start,” I said. “Any chance it started with a guy named Arcadius?”

The Prof threw his head back and laughed. “Ah, a man of great faith who believes in fairy tales! No, Mr. Gainsborough, it started with a man named Marion Wallace. You see, in our discussions of tactics, someone proposed that we could address our nation’s love of firearms if we marched around the campus perimeter carrying unloaded, disabled weapons. He proposed that the existing power structure had no fear of firearms unless they were in black or brown hands.”

“Like the Panthers in Cali back in the day,” I said. “A couple groups of brothas march around with rifles and suddenly the loyal conservatives see the merit in gun control.”

The Prof eased back in his chair. “Precisely. But this proposal became the wedge that drove us apart. I always felt that this tactic was an unacceptable risk, not only to those marching who might encounter forcible resistance but also to the movement as a whole. But Mr. Wallace had a very different perspective. He said that it wasn’t enough to put on a false show of power. He said that black Americans needed to take advantage of the nation’s laws and arm ourselves as white Americans had. And this was when the Union split and the militant side began to build an arsenal.”

“Interesting,” I said. “But I have to wonder how the militants are holding together without their psycho strongman leader to guide them.”

“I don’t understand,” said the Prof. “Mr. Wallace hasn’t gone anywhere.”

“No shit!” snapped Darius. “He was talking to Marion when I found him!”

“Okay, someone...” I’m used to being wrong, but much more unsettling is that circumstance in which it’s not clear which party just tripped on his shoelaces. “...I see two problems here. First, that man gave me a different name. Second, someone carrying ID in the name of Marion Wallace was blown to shit two days ago.”

“Oh, dear.” The Prof slumped over, his exasperated appearance half-concealed behind his hands. “Darius, please get me a neat glass of scotch.”

Once again, my Pardner started shrieking, this time with a desperate fervor that I didn’t think a piece of electronics could manage. “Might as well answer that,” said Darius. “He’s not giving up.”

I fished out the Pardner and earpiece. “Atticus.”

“Are you still in town?”

“Sara?”

“Goddamn it, answer the question.”

“Yeah, I’m still here. Why -”

“Get out of town now. Don’t make an early start tomorrow, don’t go and get your things, just leave. Security’s on the roads is a little looser than normal because everyone’s locking things down for Jameson. Get on the road to KC, or to Topeka, whichever’s closer. Don’t drive, walk out of town and hitch a ride. Then put at much space as you can between you and Lawrence. It’s a long shot, but it’s all you’ve got.”

“I’m going to need more of an explanation than that, Sara.”

“Augustus is having the city sweeped of anyone the state considers a threat. You just made the list and based on the grunts searching my hotel room, I did too.”

“I’m not leaving.”

“Goddamn it, I know you think I’m crazy, but I’m dead fucking serious this time.”

There was silence on the other end. “Sara? You still with me?”

“Look, I know this is my fault. I went overboard. Back when I was writing about the Jamesons, I talked to some people about the estranged son. It didn’t add up for me, those reasons why he ran off.”

“He did have a shitty childhood.”

“He had a deeply shitty childhood, but he was also an heir to billions of dollars. Wouldn’t you have stuck it out? I knew that there had to be something darker, so I tried to find it. And yes, I jumped the gun. I really thought Jameson’s friend had done something to that teacher I was interviewing, which is why I had someone break into his email. Turned out it was a hell of a lot more banal than I thought. And yes, I believed that Jameson’s Illinois lab was conducting dangerous research because I didn’t vet my sources well enough. I finally find something genuinely shady, and no one has any reason to believe me. It’s my own damn fault.”

“You’ll get him next time.”

“No...no, it’s much too late. I needed to stop Jameson back before he dreamed any of this up. Maybe nothing can stop Integrity at this point, but goddamn it, I have to try. And you have to get the hell out of the city. These guys aren’t dicking around.”

“Noted. Try not to get shot.” I returned the gadget to my bag. “Well, one of my contacts just informed me that OSIS is looking for me. As much as I’d like to stay and drink up all your liquor and eat your food, I should get out of here?”

“Do you have a safe place for the night?” said the Prof.

“Yeah, it’s on the other side of campus, though,” I said. “My room at the Eldridge is closer, but that place is swarming.”

“They’ve been moving the cops away from the downtown area,” said Darius. “You can probably sneak in there, it’s dark enough.”

“OSIS is usually watching this house,” said the Prof. “It isn’t too dignified, but you might wish to leave via the window.”

“Not a big deal, I’ve left more buildings through windows than doors.” I slammed down the last of the mescal and gathered my things. “One more thing about the book. What is this ‘Griot’ thing about?”

“That’s not such a simple question to answer,” said the Prof. “I once had a dream of an alternate world that had fallen to a crisis of progress. There was one man who kept the culture and spirit of the old world alive. Something about his manner, his way of speaking, reminded me of a young oral historian I had met in Ghana, so I named him accordingly. And every night since, I’ve had another strange dream, always different except for that one man. His appearance is never uniform, his race, his stature, those change, but his majestic demeanor always reveals the truth. Just last night, I saw him running through an endless flowering field, oblivious to the death machines that tore the beauty asunder all around him.”

I slid open the office window with all due caution and peeked through. “Well, I don’t get it, but maybe it means something to someone. Take care, professor.”

It was dark enough on the street to conceal the insanity that still roamed the streets, which was just what I needed. The Eldridge was less than ten blocks away.

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