The Oasis is Burning

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6.4 - Scapegoat

We left the Memorial Union with a small stash of liberated snacks - chocolates, stale pretzels, spicy peanuts, snack crackers, preserved salami sticks, various shapes of gummi, and a few bags of banana chips to give the illusion of health-consciousness. Hardly a meal to most, but it was enough to make my now legendary More-Go Outlaw Journalist Style Trail Mix, the calorie dense meal substitute that kept me going during that endless primary season. I’d have to leave out the benzedrene and mescaline buttons, but you make do with what you have.

The street leading to the Prof’s house was a hell of a lot cleaner than I’d anticipated. There were a few dumpsters overturned and mailboxes smashed up, but I’m sure that the neighborhood gets as much after a close football game. There was no graffiti and nothing had been set on fire. It was almost peaceful, the reports and blasts so distant and muted that they were more like your asshole neighbor playing video games with the sound way up at 3 AM than the proof of faction war.

Then we got to the Prof’s house, and the bullet holes in the show-off window told the tale. The silence was only the peace of the grave, and the one question left was how many bodies we were going to find inside. I drew my knife (a futile move if the attackers were still around, but it gave me some degree of comfort) and approached the door.

The knob turned restlessly in my hand. “It’s open. Jo, you see any movement in there?”

“I don’t think so. Shit, you don’t think the Briggs are still around here?”

“It’s not really their territory. Even so, we should get out of here.” I nudged the door open. “But give me thirty seconds to look for survivors.”

The interior was less chaotic than I thought. There was some damage, but no more than you’d get from reckless movers. The carpets were dirty but not bloody, and there was no sign of the Prof, his son, or the girl. It looked like an illusion set up by someone who didn’t quite know what he was doing.

And I was so caught up in the aesthetics that I didn’t see the assailant charge out of the side hallway, screaming and brandishing a gun. “Drop the fucking weapon and put your hands up! HANDS UP NOW!”

The knife slipped out of my hand and stuck in the carpet about an inch from my foot. “All right, no need to open up, I’m complying.”

“Who’s your friend at the door? You bring backup?”

“Wait, Darius?” I had been so caught up in the thrill of ambush that I hadn’t bothered to look at my potential killer. “Oh good, I was worried for a second. Joanna, come on in. This is the Prof’s son Darius. His gun doesn’t fire.”

Joanna poked her head around the corner. “Um...hello?”

“So now we’re acquainted. Darius, you would not believe what I’ve been through...” That’s when I noticed his shaking hands, his cherry eyes. “...They got him, didn’t they?”

“Goddamn it! Those bastards!” Darius threw his useless gun against the wall.

“What about Shayla? Did they get her, too?”

“I’m here.” Shayla’s voice came out of some room far down the hallway.

“Those butchers are all gone. Left hours ago. Cowardly fuckers.” Darius retrieved his disabled weapon. “I gotta get one that works. Someone’s going to pay for this.”

Joanna stepped into the house. “Shit, I can’t believe that the Briggs left the place so intact. They have two other targets a few blocks away, I’m surprised they didn’t turn the whole neighborhood into a shooting gallery.”

“That’s because they knew where the Professor was,” said Shayla, inching out into the room. “Arcadius baited those animals, led them right here.”

“On purpose?” I said.

“That’s how he shut my father up. He’s too chickenshit to do his own dirty work.” Darius was muttering through gritted teeth, see-sawing between fury and tears. “After you left, dad and me had a talk. We figured the guy we met, whatever he called himself, had to be Arcadius. Next morning, he drops by and we confront him. He says...” He choked back a ball of rage. “...He says that the cause depends on our silence and we should consider keeping this on the down low. Dad says he won’t help a terrorist, and that fucker just smiles. A couple hours later, someone hits the place.”

Shayla rested her hands on Darius’s shoulders. “I heard Arcadius talking to some of his boys. He said that the Professor was soft and he’d probably be more useful as a martyr. You think that’s a coincidence?”

“I’d have been gunned down too if I wasn’t held up on campus,” said Darius. “Had to hide out for two hours while the OSIS pigs were doing one of their sweeps. Came back to a nightmare, but at least I can keep breathing long enough to kill Arcadius and Brigg.”

Grief is another of those essential human truths I’ve never learned how to handle. The people I deal with are mostly scumbags who will be missed by few when death rudely runs them down. The death of a sympathetic figure, someone who will be missed, even someone I’ve met, becomes a challenge. When it happens I play the part that’s given me, usually the stoic and silent one who knows enough to step aside.

“We should pay the Professor our last respects,” I said. “Take a minute. When you’re ready, we can head out, try to find a safe place to plan the next few days.”

“I’ll stay here with Darius,” said Shayla. That was to give him comfort, but I think she was also trying to stop Darius from charging into the battle zone with his bare fists.

Joanna obviously wasn’t eager, but out of respect for Darius (if not respect for the dead) she followed me back to the Professor’s office. Jesus, what a mess. The Professor was tied to a chair in the center of the room with at least two neat bullet wounds in his chest. It was an execution, and an oddly clinical one for a pack of blood-crazed dingoes. The room had been ransacked, all of the Professor’s carefully arranged and categorized books spilling onto the floor. The desk was covered in notebooks and letters and at first I figured that the Professor had been hard at work when the devils caught him, but there was something awry about the whole scene.

Joanna knelt by the late Professor. “I never got a chance to meet him when he was alive. Never even saw him speak. Who’d have thought it would have ended like this?”

“He was a colorful bird. The Briggs just claimed one of the last great iconoclasts.”

“Why would they tie him up before killing him? You think they were trying to get something out of him?”

“Could be.” I prodded through the papers on the Professor’s desk - mostly personal notes and correspondence of a recent vintage. “Looks like he had a lot of scientist friends.”

“That’s not a surprise, is it?”

“No, just running commentary.” There was an open folder full of handwritten letters, all on the same custom stationery. “You’re from Illinois, right?”

“That’s relevant now?”

“The Prof got a lot of letters from a Dr. Richter based out of Illinois. Name sounds familiar but I can’t place him. I was hoping you could clue me in.”

“Familiar to me, too.” Joanna walked over to the desk. “You think that’s why they killed him? It’s not like the Briggs needed any additional reasons to kill someone attached to the UFJ.”

“True.” I nudged aside the last few letters. There was something written on the inside of the file:

HE IS ONLY AS YOU SEE HIM

A BLANK SLATE SHAPED BY PRECONCEPTION

I pulled out my Pardner to make a few recordings. “They didn’t kill him over this, but someone wanted to see it real bad.”

I only caught a few images before the damn device started squawking. It nearly slipped free of my hands before I could answer it. “Atticus.”

“Goddamn it, Jaeger, no real names!”

Sara’s subterfuge, drawn as it was straight out of some journalist’s espionage novel, was charming enough that I decided to keep playing along. “Sorry, Everclear. What’s the scoop?”

“Where are you?”

“I’m with Sha - ‘Fireball.’ I’m with Fireball. The Prof is dead.”

“Damn...the Briggs are moving quick. Don’t give me a location.”

“Wasn’t going to, but I’m really hoping you have a safe house because this is not a place to be.”

“That’s one stroke of luck for us, I found a place and it’s a step up from that converted warehouse. I don’t think you’ll like it much, though. I’ll send you the coordinates.”

“Roger, Everclear. We’ll be right up. Jaeger out.”

Joanna and I looked at the Professor, seated peacefully in the morbid silence of the room. “Should we just leave him like this?” she said.

“You wanna say a prayer?”

“I’m not sure that I know one.”

“I know some Irish curses, that wouldn’t be so appropriate.”

Joanna took a breath. “All right, let’s go.”

Darius was up and primed for action when the two of us entered the living room. “You have a place?” said Darius with more composure that I would have reckoned.

“Sara provides,” I said, scooping up my knife from the floor. “She’s sending the directions now.”

“We check the street for anyone suspicious, then we bounce,” said Darius.

“What about your dad?” said Shayla.

“I’ll be back for him,” said Darius. “But not until I’ve put his killers in the ground.”

That was the second time I left a room containing human remains. It wasn’t any more pleasant than the first.

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