6.1 - Morning Ritual
I’ve never had a really good day that started with someone banging on the door with conviction. Sure, I can imagine a situation where there’s something positive and life-changing at the other end, and I can always hope that it’s a lawyer here to deliver the news of my enormous inheritance in person or a J-school groupie who’s decided that she wants my baby right now. In reality, that sound only means that someone with extremely rough manners has come to take me somewhere unpleasant, and my opinion on that matters for shit. And that’s when it happens at my apartment or in some nice hotel. When you hear that sound while hiding out with a bunch of refugees in an abandoned building, it has more of a dark-side-of-humanity feel to it.
The first thing I saw was Caspar kneeling in the center of the room. “Not a noise, no movements.”
The kind folks at the door were obviously more persistent than Caspar had anticipated, because the hammering kept up. Caspar reached for his shotgun, concealing it in a bundle of tarps just within his reach. He made some kind of hand gesture to the shadows in the far corner, then closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable. The signs were all there - shit could go down any time.
A few seconds passed before a trio of angry apes stormed through the door. They were clearly with the Briggs and looking slightly more formal than before, all sporting jackets marked with the weird three-pointed abstract symbol of Leroy Brigg. They were all well-armed, the two at the flanks toting semi-automatic rifles and the lead jackboot brandishing a silvered Colt.
Caspar slowly rose to his feet. “What’s going on?”
The lead jackboot stepped to Caspar, lowering his gun with great reluctance. “Give me a name.”
The jackboot eyeballed Caspar with no small sum of skepticism. “Are you authorized to be here?”
“I’m sure.” The jackboot surveyed the room, his eyes getting harder with each face he spotted. “What exactly are you doing with this group?”
“Excuse me, on whose authority are you here? You’re not with OSIS, and if you’re not with the state then we’re under no obligation to answer your questions.”
The jackboot pressed his handgun against Caspar’s shoulder. “Are you...a professor?”
“No, I’m a learning naturalist.”
“The fuck is that?”
“It’s what we have instead of teachers.”
“Hmph.” The jackboot paced the length of the room, studying each face. “There are a lot of immigrants here.”
“They’re students,” said Caspar.
The jackboot stopped at Shayla, who was scarcely hiding the trembles. “You. Are you one of them?”
“One of who?” whimpered Shayla.
“You know who. Are you with them?”
“I’m not with anyone.”
While the lead jackboot was busying himself interrogating every dusky person in the room, his cronies were keeping Caspar and my own dangerous entourage locked down. I suppose the next part was inevitable. “Hey, Ralph, I know this loser.”
“Which one?” The jackboot shambled over to his crony.
“That one. The one in the dirty Hawaiian getup.” The crony waved his rifle at me. “Yeah, I saw him at the meeting with group leader Lockhart. He’s some kind of journalist.”
“This guy?” Now it was my turn for a quick grilling from the gun-waving jackboot. “You’re a journalist?”
“It’s one of the nicer things I’ve been called.”
“What liberal rag you write for?”
“None. I write for some website.”
“I’ve seen enough.” The jackboot marched back to Caspar. “I don’t know what you’re at in here, so I’m locking the building down. Get against the wall with your little group.”
“What are you talking about?” said Caspar. “No one here has done anything.”
“The group leader will make that decision. Now against the wall.”
“You do not have the authority to do any of this!”
“Leroy Brigg is the only authority in Lawrence as of right now. The only authority that matters. And we are his agents, you understand?” The jackboot gave Caspar a hard shove with his free hand. “Now, against the wall.”
Caspar didn’t budge. “No.”
“Would you prefer a bullet, you son of a bitch?” The jackboot banged the grip of his gun against his chest. “Last time, Leroy Brigg is the authority here and he gave us the power to enforce his dictates by force. We could shoot you all for insubordination right now, and I’m tempted to do just that if you don’t -”
The jackboot’s words faded into a throttled gurgle as he grasped his throat. Blood was oozing through his fingers with each agonized breath. His men readied their own weapons, but not quickly enough to save their own wretched lives. One of them stumbled back as a storm of lead caught him in the chest, ending with a goodbye shot to the cheek. Caspar hit the ground and rolled over to his concealed shotgun, letting off a blind shot through the tarp that caught the second crony in the leg. The dumb bastard didn’t even have the time to scream in pain before a coup de grace hit him just underneath his ear.
The fracas took about five seconds, and when it was over there were three fascists grunts lying dead on the floor. The whole thing was so frantic that I couldn’t fathom it at first, and when good sense and the ability to move finally returned to me, I could see out savior: Liang Qiang, a pistol in each hand, her icy expression just visible in the morning shadow.
Joanna broke the silence with applause and an incongruous grin. “Goddamn girl, that’s what we’ve been waiting for! Shanghai Oakley pulls it out!”
“What the fuck just happened?” Sara stepped gingerly around the bodies. “What did you do?”
“The little Chinese girl just saved your ass, that’s what happened,” said Joanna.
“Liang Qiang comes from a part of the country with a serious Triad problem,” said Caspar, ejecting the spent shells from his own weapon. “Her father taught her how to defend herself.”
“Lesson learned,” I said.
“What’s wrong with you people?” Sara paced around the room, taking a moment to address everyone there, even the folks she didn’t know. “There are three dead men lying in the middle of your safe house! Do you have any concept of what that means?”
“Calm down,” said Joanna.
“Calm down? Has anyone in this room ever disposed of a body? Do you think it’s like taking out the trash?” Sara dug out a cigarette and fumbled for a lighter. “We’ve got to get away from this building before their people get suspicious.”
Caspar marched over to Sara. “I told you -”
“There are three bullet-riddled corpses in the middle of this room. I realize that you people are all terminally health conscious and mortified over the prospect that a trace of smoke from a legal plant might cross your baby-pink lungs, but given that rigor mortis is impending for some of the people in this room, this is not the time. Now back off, I gotta figure this out.” Sara lit the cigarette and took the longest, most strained drag I’ve ever personally witnessed. “Okay, first thing we do is clear out. Leave no sign that we were here.”
“Fine by me,” said Shayla. “This is too much. I have to find Darius and the Professor before the Briggs get to them.”
“We’ve got to find another safe house,” said Caspar. “I guarantee you that either OSIS or the National Guard have a perimeter up, and it’ll be a few days before I can find a way around that.”
“That’s okay. In fact, the last thing we should do is stay in one big group right now. We need to split up.” Sara took another drag, wincing in pleasure as she let the smoke back into the air. “We all go our separate ways and do our own shit, but we also need to keep an eye out for a new safe house. Anyone finds a place that’s suitable, he or she sends a signal to everyone else so we can find the place. Oh, no real names, though. You always assume that someone’s listening in.”
“How’d you learn that lesson?” I said.
“I didn’t - never mind,” said Sara. “The point is, aliases. Plausible deniability, that’s the key here.”
Caspar shook his head. “We don’t have time for this cloak and dagger bullshit.”
“Oh no, let’s just run out on the crime scene without a plan. Sterling advice from a guy who was just involved in a triple homicide.” Sara pressed the lit end of his cigarette against a fresh one before grinding out the old one and pocketing the butt. “All right, we leave no trace. Anything you don’t want to carry, you walk a few blocks and dump it.”
“I’m splitting my people between me and Qiang,” said Caspar. “The rest of you can do whatever you want.”
I dry swallowed a few tabs of Adderall, wincing as the pills crawled down my gullet. The chemical breakfast is well short of my ideal morning but it was enough to send the headaches into retreat. Really, I’ve done some of my best work on uppers, no sleep and no food, but those were not life-and-death situations. When your day starts with an armed wakeup call it’s usually a safe bet that the day is not on an upward trajectory.
“Did you catch that?”
“If it doesn’t come out of a bottle, then it’s just not interesting to you, is it?” Sara was an artist with impatience.
“Sorry, I figured it was another biting quip.”
“That’s all right, because I’ve come up with a set of names that you ought to be able to remember. Alcoholic beverages.”
“I hate Jaeger.”
“Stuff it, Gainsborough. What are your plans?”
“Wander around, try not to get shot.”
Joanna appeared over my shoulder. “Maybe the gentlemen would like to accompany me to the shop? Could be a hideout, at the very least there might be something there to salvage.”
“Stellar plan,” I said. “Anything else to add?”
Sara gaped at me. “Just that I’m not going to cry when they kill you.”