The Oasis is Burning

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5.3 - The Emperor

A short walk from the interrogation room was a heavy mahogany door inexplicably set in the boxy blank white wall. The carved image of a raven in flight peeked out at me from the wood.

“All right, shitheel, five feet back from the door and no sudden movements.” Trent pressed his palm to a plate by the door. “He’s here. Open up.”

The door swung open of its own volition, releasing a hint of stale air from the other side. What waited on the other side was a place of grotesque opulence that I didn’t think still existed, if it ever had at all. The room was decorated in the style of a drawing room in an old estate house and no expense had been spared in its appointments. The crystal in the lighting fixtures probably cost several times more than any car I’ve ever owned. The deep full-grain leather chairs were worth a lifetime of rent. I sank so deep into that thick carpet that I was afraid I might get lost somewhere in the abyss beneath its fibers. At the heart of the beast was a marble fireplace crowned with a painting of Moses that was either the finest reproduction ever made or evidence that a Hollywood-grade heist had gone down in Russia and I managed to miss it.

Seated in one of those chairs was a silver-maned lion, a stately and well-built icon of prestige with a face that spoke to a preternatural calm amid the chaos. “Atticus Gainsborough?”

“Yes?”

“My name is Joshua Jameson.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“Take a seat.” Joshua took an ornate decanter off of a small table and poured something into a glass. “Distilled water. Take as much as you’d like, I’m sure that these last few days have been very rough on you.”

“Thanks. After the grain alcohol, this’ll just hit the spot.” I shouldn’t have been surprised that Joshua was a teetotaler, but I was quietly hoping for a nicely aged port to go along with this nauseating display of class.

“Please take a seat, Atticus. Do you mind if I call you that?”

“Not at all, Josh.” The chair absorbed me almost like it was alive. It was comfort beyond my wildest dreams, which admittedly were not all that wild. “You know, I’ve got some colleagues who would kill for an opportunity to interview you.”

“I’m sure that’s true, but I’d like to discuss you first.” Joshua leaned forward, hands clasped together, the archetypical image of the father figure. “I’m only vaguely familiar with your career, and I want to know more about your gifts and your trials.”

“Okay. Well...I got beaten up a lot when I was a kid, which was very good practice, turns out. And from the time I was about eight or nice, I heard once a day from a teacher or one of my folks that I had a smart mouth and it would get me in trouble. But the big moment had to be when I was kicked off the school paper and suspended for three days after I got the password for main staff computer and snuck in an editorial addressing the many things I thought we should legalize. That was only half my fault, though, because I wouldn’t have had to hack it in like that if they’d added it voluntarily.”

“I see.” Joshua crossed his arms. “Atticus, would you tell me how long you’ve been abusing narcotics?”

“Did you have a particular substance in mind? Because some of the more interesting ones I only discovered recently.”

“Very well. Would you care to discuss your police record?”

“You have a copy? I hear it’s up to three volumes. Thank God for electronic storage, right?”

Joshua ascended from his chair. I hadn’t reckoned his height before - he was probably only a few inches taller than me but he cast a hell of a long shadow. “Atticus, I only ask these questions because I want to help you. Oh, you’ve heard that one before, no doubt - there should be as many stars in the heavens as there are people who spend their idle hours interfering in the lives of others!” He chucked for a moment before returning to his serious posture. “But when I see someone with a calling, a true gift, who has buried his talents beneath alcohol and drugs and petty pursuits, I cannot stand in idleness. It is a tragedy to waste that which God has given to you.”

I wasn’t planning on giving Joshua a hard time. It’s true that I don’t share the slavish respect for the man that my colleagues seem to possess. And it’s a fact that everything I’ve learned about him makes me question his values even more. But believe it or not, even Atticus Gainsborough has some sense of respect. I don’t go into interviews with important people intending to cut them down or make light of their issues or point our their bullshit. That righteous fucker made this personal, and that was the green light to tear him in half.

“True, it is a tragedy to waste what you have. Like spending a billion dollars and change on some tech company whose cutting edge tracking system can be defeated by a gizmo made from the guts of a VCR.”

“You’re speaking of Cybercog.” Joshua sighed while smiling, the second smuggest thing he could have possibly done. “Unfortunately, there was a vulnerability in their communications apparatus and someone leaked it to the world at large. I’m told they’ll have a solution by the end of the month, although truth be told, I’m more concerned about finding the person who felt a need to betray me like that.”

“So you can beat him like you beat your son?”

“Excuse me?”

“I was suggesting that when you find the culprit that you’ll smack him around just like you smacked around little Ben.”

Joshua didn’t scream or flail his arms, but I could tell that he’d lost his composure. This was not a man who was used to having people present him with his own dirty laundry. “I see that you’ve been doing some investigation into my family, but you should vet your sources a little more carefully. There was a rumor going around that Benjamin left home for that very reason, but this was not the case.”

“True, from what I hear he had a bigger problem with the fact that his mother died and you took no time at all replacing her with a girl just this side of legal.”

“You waste your gift on tabloid trivia.” Now I could hear the anger in Joshua’s voice but he wasn’t going to let some outlaw journalist send him into a rage. “Yes, I did remarry quickly to a woman somewhat my junior, but my son and eldest daughter were still children. Our family needed stability. We all deserved some happiness after the tragedy.”

“Well, if I could pluck a new wife out of the nearest high school any time I wanted, I’d probably be pretty happy, too. But this isn’t about that, or the fact that you’re quick with your fists when the shades are drawn. It’s about the real reason why the kid ran off, the deep dark shit he must have seen growing up. It’s about Integrity -”

“I’ll not listen to this conspiratorial nonsense,” broke in Joshua. “My personal family issues will not be fodder for your sordid speculation.”

“It’s not about your kids. It’s about the Electoral Integrity Center and why you really bankrolled the whole thing.”

“You’ve been speaking with the Mills woman. Don’t you know of her history?”

“Yes, I do. I also know I’m sitting in a state that’s flat broke and yet managed to afford a multi-billion dollar computer complex, another billion or so in cash and in-kind donations for security forces, including a tracking system made by a company you recently acquired. Mills is paranoid beyond belief, but it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to ask why you showed up now, of all times.”

“This was planned months in advance. The crisis was a coincidence.”

“You’d almost think you wanted this to happen. Why else pay those xenophobic cranks in Brigg’s group to supplement your security?”

“That was Governor Goldstreet’s decision. Surely you can’t imagine that I would ever affiliate myself with a criminal like Leroy Brigg? The things his followers believe are disgusting. I have never believed -”

Joshua caught himself a few seconds too late. It’s the oldest trick in the investigative journalist’s handbook - accuse the guy of the worst thing imaginable and watch him resort to the truth to defend himself.

“Let me take a stab at this,” I said. “Integrity is about to go national. You’ll have scaled-down centers in every state linked to the EIC via a special secure network. Boom - nationwide real-time vote suppression. Irrevocable control over the levers of power.”

Joshua leaned heavily on the edge of the fireplace, not quite willing to look me in the eye. “The nation is a house built on sand, trembling in every breeze. I wished to use my wealth to rebuild it on the rock of righteousness, but how do you do that when the people reject what’s necessary? How do you treat a disease when the people set to benefit can vote to stay sick?”

“Nice positive view on democracy you have there.”

“Democracy is an obsolete ideal.” Joshua returned to his seat. “I know that’s not a popular sentiment, but surely you’ve seen enough to recognize it. This nation has become too powerful to leave the execution of that power to people who have no reckoning of what that means. The world is too complex to leave its management to mobs driven by simple passions. We have leaders now that rain death on the many nations simply to satisfy the rage of their constituents. Be honest with me - which is better? To hand that might to a mass of people still caught up in their childish pursuits, or to leave it to people with the moral and intellectual vision to properly handle it?”

“I’d rather that power not go to the prick rich enough to buy it. Josh, you’re forgetting that your money doesn’t impress me. This nation that you’re shitting on handed you the keys to the kingdom because they’re convinced that your wealth proves that you have that ‘moral and intellectual vision’ you’re crowing about. But if it only took me a few days to uncover one of your crimes, then there have to be others. And as far as I’m concerned, you’re just another con artist. You wear nicer suits than Brigg or Brinkley, but that’s about the breadth of the difference.”

“Very well. I had no real illusions of persuading you, but I owed it to Him to try.” Joshua signaled to the guards standing behind me. “There’s going to be an area behind the stage for reporters and special guests. You’ll be joining us there.”

“You’re doing this so you can keep an eye on me, right? So I don’t try anything?”

Joshua never answered, he merely smiled and bowed his head in prayer as the OSIS grunts physically lifted me from the chair and dragged me away to parts unknown.

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