The Oasis is Burning

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5.2 - The Devil

This may shake your foundations, but I am not a patient man at all. It’s something I learned early in my career, during that brief and hallucinatory period in which I dabbled in investigative journalism. It was all so romantic, this notion of the lone journalist taking down corporations or the government with nothing but a camera, a notepad, a pair of brass ones and a double shot of the truth. Blame it on inexperience or the hash oil or the overproof rum or the awful education that led me to believe that “double shot of the truth” was quality writing. It only took a couple days of waiting on callbacks from sources and eyeballing endless spreadsheets looking for inconsistencies for the core facts to permeate my skull: Investigative journalism is boring, I’m no good at it, no one really respects it anymore, I should be doing something else.

And that’s the story of how I discovered gonzo, earned three awards for writing, an extensive following among the young and strung-out, an impressive arrest record and no fewer than six good solid beatdowns. But that’s beside the point.

The point is that waiting is a grueling drag even under normal circumstances. I get a little twitchy sitting in my editor’s office with a glass of his comparatively high-quality scotch even when I know he’s only going to be fifteen or twenty minutes. Sitting in a blindingly white room in the bowels of anonymous building for an indefinite period...that was practically torture in and of itself. After a few anonymous stretches of time, I started hoping that the man-boar would come back in and dislocate a few of my fingers and give me a little sensory feedback.

The man-boar did come back in, but not to maim me (not specifically, anyway) and not alone. Accompanying the ugly bastard was a familiar looking son of a bitch - nice suit, square jaw, slimy eyes, sharky grin.

“Good morning, Mr. Gainsborough. I’m Karlyle Augustus. No doubt you’re surprised to see me here.”

“Mostly I’m surprised that your angry friend didn’t slip on the ooze trail.” And then there was a surge of pain as the man-boar smashed my face into the table. I rubbed my nose, which had thankfully avoided yet another break. “Goddamn. Well, not much for manners, but his reflexes are excellent.”

“That would be Trent. He’s here for security and...” Karlyle chucked to himself. “...compliance. But there’s no need for hostility, and no reason that this meeting shouldn’t be beneficial to both of us.”

“I have no doubt.” I eased back into my wobbly chair. “So what’s the deal, Karlyle? Run out of footage of Mexicans being beaten to jerk off to?”

“So terribly witty, I can see why you’re so celebrated.” Karlyle clapped his hands together. “I’m not going to waste any more time, so here’s the deal, straight out. We’re prepared to grant you special dispensation to exit the city immediately. An OSIS caravan will escort you to Kansas City International where we will pay to fly you back home or anywhere else you might desire. Don’t count on an international flight though, with the bombing campaign that’s getting a little tricky.”

“Did we start bombing someone else today?”

“Yes.”

“Egypt?”

“Iraq.”

“Well, that’s ten bucks I’ll never see again.”

“If I may continue,” said Karlyle. “The state of Kansas will not undertake any efforts to stop you or your employers from publishing any stories about what you’ve seen here. I could even offer you a quote, although I doubt you’d have much use for that.”

“Sounds like a pretty sweet deal. Who do I have to stab in the back to get it?”

“Hold on. First, an offer of good faith.” Karlyle nodded to Trent, who set my shoulder bag on the table. “It’s yours, minus the contraband of course. Go ahead, take a look.”

It was clear that many hands had rifled through that bag, but it was undamaged and most of the contents - minus the pot and uppers - were present and similarly unharmed. I suppose it was much too much to hope that they would have refilled the flasks, which remained tragically dry.

“Here’s how this works.” Karlyle leaned across the table. “We’ve been tracking your movements for the last twenty-fours hours or so, and we know that you have had contact with some very interesting people. You tell me what you know about those people, and you’ll earn brownie points that you can cash in for that special dispensation. And we’re going to start with your recent conversations with the radicals.”

“Which radicals would those be?”

Trent gave me another jolt to the back of the skull. “What did I tell you about being a wiseass?”

“Thank you.” Karlyle pulled out a copy of Prof Jagunjagun’s book. “You’ve got one of these with you, one that you’ve been reading. And we know that you were in attendance at one of the Professor’s social gatherings just last night. I know you have a history with him, and I’m positive that he confided in you. You tell me what he told you about the Union’s plans, and we’ll send you on your way.”

I reclined in my rickety chair enough to make the uneven legs do a little jig. Always make them wait when they want something, that’s my creed. “Well, I did see that old libertine for a little bit last night, but what would lead a sterling intellect like you to think that he confided in me?”

“Please,” said Karlyle. “You made a special trip across a restricted area right before curfew. Surely he told you something.”

“Well, let’s see...” The legs scraped the cheap tile as they continued their dance. “...We had a brief discussion about the merits of psilocybin. Not a fan - lysergic’s a much more predictable, manageable ride. Then the Prof and all the other academics compared their hit lists, trying to figure out which politicians they all planned on killing. I left before the exotic prostitutes showed up.”

Trent reached for a green bag which had been tucked away invisibly by the door. “Sounds like he needs a little inducement.”

Karlyle waved Trent away. “My patience is not unlimited, Mr. Gainsborough.”

“There’s nothing to tell you,” I said. “Fact is, the Prof’s not really running things in the UFJ anymore, not since this radical faction took over. The guy you’re looking for is someone who at least claims to be Arcadius Brinkley.”

“Arcadius...” Karlyle laughed. “Trent?”

“I hear that alkies sometimes forget things when they’re sober.” Trent pulled a bottle out of the green bag and unscrewed it. “190 proof. Just the thing.”

“Oh, we’re drinking?” I said. “Haven’t had a mixed drink in a while.”

A cocktail party wasn’t quite what my captors had in mind. Trent grabbed my face and squeezed with unexpected might, forcing open my mouth as he crammed the open bottle down my gullet. I was gagging as the lip of the bottle neared the back of my throat but Trent was forcing me against the table with his arm. I was utterly helpless as the hot death liquid poured, first down my throat, then into my lungs. He’d gotten half the bottle into me when I finally broke free. I caught the briefest glimpse of the repulsive man-boar grinning at me as I collapsed in a spasm of painful coughing. I was helpless, every breath I took a fresh torment.

When the pain passed and I regained control over my lungs, I could sense Karlyle standing over me. “I really don’t enjoy this. Now, Trent despises the media and journalists, so he loves it.”

“I do enjoy it.” Trent picked me up and dropped me back into the chair. “Give me an excuse, asshole.”

“All right.” Karlyle took his seat. “So you don’t want to talk about the UFJ. How about your friend Sara Mills, the one who can’t legally come within 100 yards of any member of the Jameson family? Would you tell us where she is or, perhaps, what she might be planning?”

I felt like there was molten lead slithering around my synapses. “I don’t know. Barely know the girl.”

“Then let’s discuss this.” Karlyle slapped a boxy thing on the table which in my still woozy state I couldn’t quite fathom. “We recovered this...I believe it’s called Biometric Frequency Scrambler from your belongings.”

“You know about those, do you?”

“Yes, Gainsborough, we know about them. You never turned yours off, so the system compensated for it, which is how we found you. Given that you’re too stupid to use this thing properly, I’m assuming you didn’t build it. Which black marketeer sold it to you?”

“I’m a little fuzzy on that part. Why don’t you pour some more of that white lightning into my sinuses, see if that helps.”

Karlyle grimaced and rubbed his neck. “Let me lay this out for you very simply. There’s information in that debauched little brain of yours that is very valuable to us, but only for the next few hours. After Mr. Jameson makes his announcement, all that information becomes useless, as do you. So if you keep dragging your feet, I will let Trent’s friends take custody of you and...well, for legal reasons, I won’t know what they’re doing to you. Clear?”

Even if I had any desire to aid this tinhorn, I knew nothing that could possibly help him. His biggest threats were internal and a man like this would never accept that as the truth, which meant anything I did would result in another beating. But I was too tired to antagonize the man, so I did my best cadaver imitation and waited for the attack.

The blows never landed. The intercom split the silence with a bassy reverberation that I didn’t think was possible on an obviously jury-rigged system. “That’s enough, Mr. Secretary. We’re going to try something else.”

“We don’t have time for another approach. Give me more time.” At this point, I suspected that Karlyle was telling a big fat one when he said that he got nothing out of Trent’s theater of brutality.

“This came from higher up. He wants to speak with the journalist.”

“Are you sure that’s wise?”

“No. But if you want to refuse, then you can tell him.”

“Very well.” With a restrained little sigh, Karlyle rose to his feet. “All right, Mr. Gainsborough, stand up and step to the door.”

I did as I was told. “Where are we going, ace?”

“Don’t speak. And keep your hands visible at all times.” There were already guards waiting at the door when Augustus opened it. “Take him to the consultation room. Put him right if he disobeys an order, but other than that don’t hurt him.”

“Right.” Trent rested a hand on my shoulder. “Let’s go.”

“Who are we meeting?” I said.

Trent gave me a firm shove. “Shut up.”

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