The Oasis is Burning

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5.1 - The Fool

In retrospect, I made it pretty far into my career without ever having a bag over my head. It could have been a lot worse - the bag was very roomy, I certainly didn’t feel any claustrophobic anxiety during our lengthy drive. On the other hand, I could have done without the smell. It wasn’t a strong earthy odor like you’d get in one of those big mascot heads. It was more like the musk of an old house, mothballs and dander and dead mites and stale smoke all haphazardly concealed with some kind of freshener. That’s a more pernicious smell, one that gets caught in your sinuses and adds a special flavor to your food for a while.

When the head bag and the cuffs finally came off I was too disoriented to even guess where I’d ended up. It was a white room, white walls and a white bench and overpowered fluorescent lights that made the white seem even whiter. There was a faint hum from somewhere deep in the walls that mingled nicely with the footsteps outside of the door. That was the sum total of what I knew of the outside world. There was a lot of activity going on out there for as late as it was. It must have been around ten when they brought me in, but they ignored me for a good hour or two - or maybe it was just fifteen minutes, time gets a little decompressed when you’re in a cell. Some anonymous stretch of time passed before I could hear muffled conversation through the door. It had to be about me.

Two more anonymous stretches of time passed before the intercom crackled to life. “Back of the cell, asshole, we’re bringing you a friend.” The door flew open and a goon in OSIS colors stomped in, dragging Harmon by his arm. He actually looked worse than he had the night before although that might have just been the lighting. The goon gave Harmon a good shove and stormed out. “Sit tight, idiots. We’ll be back.”

Some small fragment of an anonymous stretch passed before Harmon spoke up, meekly. “I thought you got away.”

“You never get away, you just make them work for it. Speaking of which, it’s a shame that they found out about your project. They probably destroyed all of that stuff.”

Harmon giggled. “Oh, that wasn’t all of it. I’ve got a half-dozen little caches hidden around town. Caleb told me to be prepared.”

“Caleb?”

“I guess I forgot to mention Caleb. He gave me a lot of help.”

I didn’t push the question. I didn’t even have time because the intercom clicked on again. “Okay Gainsborough. Step to the door, keep your hands in front of you where we can see them.”

It’s bad form to fight with the authorities over protocol, especially when you’re being held in a detention facility of questionable legality. I did exactly what the talking box ordered, and the door opened for me immediately. The other side was a broad hallway positively packed with officials - some armed grunts, some willowy guys in business casual fiddling with their Pardners. One of the business guys nodded to me. “Mr. Gainsborough? Please come with me.”

And then we were walking, just him and me and the two grunts marching at my flank, steering me with gentle shoves like I was a lost sheep. That was the longest damn hallway I’ve ever encountered - either that or these pricks were leading me in circles to further disorient me. It’s not like I could memorize the route, not with all the corridors being identically oversaturated white boxes. Hell, maybe the business guy was lost - a few times he started to turn into a doorway only to catch himself and start walking again.

We finally ended up in yet another scorching white room, this one with a single table and a few uncomfortable chairs and a towering steel-faced fed. “Take a seat, Gainsborough.”

Not surprisingly, the seat tottered clumsily on its misaligned legs. “Special Agent Mason. It’s nice to see you too, but coffee is more conventional. Drinks, maybe. Speaking of which, I don’t suppose you’ve got a hip flask tucked away in that getup?”

“Enough of your wise cracks, Gainsborough, this is deadly serious. Let me lay out the consequences for you.” Agent Mason heaved my shoulder bag onto the table. “Found on your person at the time of detainment: Multiple Schedule I substances and illegal scripts, a Digital Pardner personal communications device containing restricted information, literature associated with a militant radical movement and an electronic device used to illegally interfere with government tracking systems. Additionally, an analysis of surveillance logs suggests that in the last four days, you have had personal contact with known radical agitators, individuals with serious histories of violence, an arsonist with probable terroristic intent and a woman under a restraining order from Joshua Jameson.”

I didn’t respond immediately - interrupting anyone as business-first as Mason is never wise. “So you’re saying that this looks bad, right?”

“I’m going to make this really simple for you, Gainsborough.” Agent Mason pressed a button on his watch and a invisible projector came to life, casting an image on one of the empty walls. The angle was unfamiliar but I could recognize two things - myself and Cain’s clown car. “This was recorded yesterday at approximately twelve noon. Do you recognize this?”

“Sure. That would be me hitching a ride with one of the scariest bastards I’ve ever met.”

“Cain Lockhart, known affiliate of Leroy Brigg. Lieutenant in his paramilitary force. Extensive criminal background including no fewer than three arrests for serious acts of violence. Only escaped a life sentence because of Brigg’s interference. Carries a small arsenal with him at all times, but prefers to mete out ‘correction,’ as he calls it, with blunt weapons.” Agent Mason rotated to face me. “And there you are, out for a pleasant ride with him.”

“Well, it wasn’t all that pleasant.”

“Goddamn it, Gainsborough! I want answers! How long have you been affiliated with Brigg, and in what capacity? Have you met him in person? Do you have any concept of his operational structure, if any? Tell me now!” Agent Mason ready to blow his last good fuse.

“There’s nothing to tell you, Mason. I ran into Cain, he decided he wanted a journalist on his side, so he gave me a ride across campus to make nice. Oh, he also brutalized some immigrants, if that counts for anything with you.”

“Do you honestly expect me to believe that, Gainsborough?”

“No, feds never believe anything. I expected that you made up your mind in advance and called me in here so that you could yell at me for a while.”

Agent Mason, having vented some of the steam he’d built up, managed to loosen his springs just a bit. “You know Gainsborough, this isn’t about you or me. It’s about dealing with a looming menace, a menace that you are in a position to stop. A menace that’s never been far from my mind, not while I’m on assignment, not when I’m dealing with my contentious relationship with my stepchildren, not even when I’m dealing with my own past.”

“I thought you said it wasn’t about you?”

“Gainsborough, you’re trying me.”

“Rather than wasting time with me, maybe you should take up your problems with Goldie and Augustus. They’re the ones who made the Briggs legal and probably armed them to boot. Shit, I bet you could find Leroy’s direct line in Goldie’s contact list.”

That was enough to throw Agent Mason off his guard. He was reaching for a response when the intercom clicked open. “All right Agent, that’s enough. You’re excused.”

Anyone else would have raised a stink with the obvious voice, but Agent Mason wasn’t one to quarrel with the chain of command, even when it was just an anonymous voice. He vanished through the door and was swiftly replaced by a boar-like OSIS grunt. I figured him for an escort but was proven wrong when he walked over to me, grabbed me by the throat and shoved me back to the floor, sending the chair clattering off in another direction.

“That was on general principal, motherfucker,” said the man-boar. “Keep it up with that wiseass attitude and see what happens. Now, stay right here and keep your speed-hole shut.”

I did what anyone would do under the circumstances: I picked up the chair and sat in it like a good boy who wasn’t eager for another spanking.

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