The Oasis is Burning

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5.5 - The Hermit

Poetic types love to talk about that ominous moment of silence, the calm before the looming disaster which holds everyone in suspense and is, in its own way, much worse than what’s to come. That’s bullshit. Anyone who’s seen some real shit will readily embrace as many moments of peace as fate sees fit to give him, even if they’re fleeting, even if fate exacts one fucker of a price afterward.

I hadn’t learned this lesson yet. I’d had some bad times, but nothing like the real shit. I’d never had that kind of chaos carted up and presented to me. And maybe it was the mortal terror or the clawing headache that I was convinced was some alien parasite trying to liberate itself from my skull, but I did not appreciate the stillness. As it turns out, neither did Joanna. So we did what anyone does when the air gets too tense - we ran our mouths.

Joanna led me to this hyper-modern structure at the north end of the downtown area, just a long spit from the comfortable hotel room that my bosses loved paying for once they found out how little time I spent in it. The break was a welcome alternative to vomiting all over myself out of exhaustion and terror, and I was pleased that Joanna recommended it, letting me keep up my facade of macho self-assurance.

I spoke first. “What is this place?”

“Library.”

“No, seriously.”

Joanna wasn’t paying attention to my bullshit. “Street looks clear. I wonder where all the OSIS guys went? Shit, this’ll be easy.”

“Unless they’re lying in wait for us.”

“Charming thought.” Joanna threw herself into a tiny patch of shade cast by the building. “Since we’re safe for the moment, do you mind giving me some details on what just happened?”

“It’s like I told you, someone shot Jameson. Must have been some prick with a rifle because it sure as shit wasn’t anyone in the stadium. I was just sitting there...” I had been absentmindedly digging through my bag as though I was going to find something that the grunts had missed. “You got a joint on you?”

“You kidding?”

“Yeah, should have known. Anyway, I’m sitting there, next thing I know there’s a hole in the old man’s chest.”

“That must have been what started the shit on campus,” said Joanna. “It was something else. Someone yells something like ‘The king is dead,’ then there’s an explosion and gunfire. A whole big group of UFJ guys rush out of the hot zone, shooting and throwing these weirdo hillbilly bombs. It was insane.”

“Probably why we’re in the clear. The OSIS guys must have been redirected to campus.”

“So where the hell were you, anyway? I’ve been trying to track down my clients but no luck. I’m sure that a couple of them are in shallow graves, I figured you for the same.”

“No, got pinched by OSIS and taken to some black site bunker they built under one of these buildings. Harmon too. Don’t suppose you’ve seen him? He was getting a little -”

I’ve read that it’s easy to overlook something you’re not expecting to see, even if it’s right in front of you. That’s the only excuse I have to explain how I failed to notice the three shotgun-toting men until after they’d surrounded us.

My first instinct was to defuse the situation. “I’m new here, if you’re looking for directions I can’t help.”

One of the men stepped toward us. “So you’re a clever son of a bitch. I don’t want to kill you, so I’ll make this very simple. Stand up and walk into the library.”

“It’s open this time of day? How convenient.” I rose to my feet in a compliance position that’s become reflex for me.

Joanna joined in a second later. “You guys are with the Union, right?”

“No questions,” said the goon with the gun. “The big man wants to talk to you.”

“The big man? Well, I’m honored. Let’s not waste any time.” Sounds like sarcasm, but when you’re this lost in the plot it helps to speak with the principals.

The Lawrence Public Library was actually one of the nicer public facilities I’ve ever seen - and no war damage, either. Nice big windows without bullet holes. Custom-made shelves not yet reduced to carbon by flames. A set of thoroughly modern checkout kiosks sans crude and violent etchings. Numerous pieces of local art that had yet to be fed into a bonfire. Were it not for the Mossberg barrel jammed between my shoulder blades, I could have spent a nice peaceful afternoon here.

The grunts led us into a closed auditorium just off the entrance. There were more armed men there, most of them packing semi-automatic rifles and wearing crude homemade body armor. There were two people at the center of it all, and I knew both of them. There was “Russell,” the guy I’d met in the Prof’s neighborhood, holding his ridiculous hand cannon by his side. His other hand rested on the slender shoulder of Shayla, the young graffiti artist. She had a look and demeanor that could have suggested either guilt or apprehension - hard to say under those circumstances.

“Atticus!” Russell let out a booming laugh. “Never expected to see you under these circumstances, but destiny is a crazy bitch, ain’t she?” He glanced over at Joanna. “And who’s this? Another reporter? Working on a side piece?”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t make introductions.” I took a step towards Joanna, who seemed surprisingly unaffected by the display of weaponry. “Everyone, this is Joanna, my dealer. Joanna, this is...do you prefer Russell or Marion, or is there another name you want to use this time?”

Russell laughed again. “You’re a clever one, or did you pick that up from the professor?” He took a few steps toward me. “I have a number of aliases I use, some more legit than others. But my momma calls me Arcadius.”

“Bullshit.”

“All right, dig this. Few years back, big anti-globalism protest on the east coast. There’s a huge police presence there because they’ve been tipped off to some black bloc shit that’s supposed to go down. But then there’s a couple strongarm robberies of storefronts in a neighborhood about ten blocks away. That ties enough police resources to let a couple kids firebomb an Army recruitment center and an investment bank.”

I remembered that case from A.J.’s research. It was his big triumph, as he had managed to find a connection between the politically motivated arson and the seemingly mundane robberies that even the almighty feds hadn’t seen. Now, it was possible that this guy was just very well read, but combined with his identity crisis and this guy’s claims seemed at least plausible. I had found Arcadius Brinkley. A.J. was going to have a fit.

“So maybe you are Arcadius Brinkley,” I said. “In which case the name changes are, what, protection?”

“Precisely,” said Arcadius. “You know that they’ve killed Arcadius Brinkley three times? Not counting that guy who blew himself up a couple days ago. It’s not safe to be me, so sometimes I’m someone else. And when the feds or someone else I’ve fucked with gets wise, I let another person be that someone else.”

“I wasn’t aware that radicals were such chickenshits,” said Joanna.

Arcadius grinned at Joanna. “You’re got an attitude. I like that. Don’t normally go for white women, but maybe a little cream in my coffee would hit the spot.”

“This is all very sexy, but I’m not sure why we’re here.” I took a closer look at the room, which didn’t have so much as a pro-UFJ poster or scrawling on the walls. “Not much of a base you’ve got here.”

“Temporary, strictly temporary. Once the dust has settled and we can see just how much OSIS ass we’ve kicked, then we can find something permanent.” Arcadius walked back over to Shayla, who’d barely moved since we arrived. “I’m such an asshole, neglecting my guest. You doing okay, precious?”

“I’m fine.” Shayla didn’t move a muscle more than was necessary to say that.

“Shayla’s not too happy to be here,” said Arcadius. “Not as big a fan of me as I am of her, unfortunately. But it was either come with us or take her chances with OSIS and the Briggs. It’s not friendly times on these streets for children of the sun. I’d know.”

“Speaking of which, when can we go?” I said.

“You mean after all that talk earlier, you don’t have any questions for me?” said Arcadius.

“One. Did you kill Joshua Jameson?”

“Who, me?” Arcadius wagged his finger at me. “My plan was to mislead the cops with a phony bombing and grab Goldstreet during the confusion. Ransom him back in exchange for shutting down the EIC. Now, it’s possible that one of my compatriots took it upon himself to kill that bastard Jameson, but I didn’t order it.”

“And I’m guessing you have an alternate theory?”

“Yeah, I’d look at that sack of shit Brigg. His people have been pouring into the city this last couple days. Big, angry bastards with lots of guns and no self-control. And word is that OSIS has been rejecting them the last couple days. You ask me? One of them got turned away, climbed to a high place with his favorite sex toy and let the lead fly.”

“Handsome theory.” I looked over at Joanna, who was slyly gesturing at the door. “I’m enough of a magnet for trouble without hanging out here, so we’re going to split for our own safe house.”

“I wanna go with you,” blurted Shayla before catching herself. “...I’ll stay here.”

“Oh precious, you’re not a prisoner!” said Arcadius. “Go with them if you’d like. You’re always welcome back with Arcadius.”

Joanna leaned over to me. “I don’t want her with us,” she whispered. “We don’t need any UFJ types us. We’re marked as is.”

“Exactly, we’re already marked. Things aren’t going to get worse.” I turned back to Arcadius. “All right, let’s get moving. Thanks for the welcome party, Brinkley. I just don’t know what to do with myself when there’s no gun to my head.”

“Anytime.” Arcadius grinned. “Try not to get too many holes in your skull.”

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