7.1 - The Yawning Beast
There’s nothing like being on a deadline to give you purpose and drive. And that’s when the consequence of missing that deadline is a lecture or a suspension - add the risk of a full jacket round to the skull and you’ve got a high that benzedrene can’t match.
My mission was a straightforward one - steal four cars and bring them back to the safe house so that Caspar can get everyone the hell out of town. Hotwiring the ignition to a car is a skill I’ve never had to use much, more of a party trick I picked up early in my journeys, but I’ve found at least three or four occasions when it was useful. Sometimes you need a ride and the jerks around you won’t oblige, so you have to find your own means of transportation. For those of you who insist on shaking your heads anyway, I’ll have you know that I don’t keep the cars, I never drive them that far, I go at least five under the speed limit and I always bring them back when I’m done. Think of it more as an especially aggressive ride sharing service than a felony.
Ownership was less of an issue in Lawrence given how many motorists had abandoned their cars to run for the hills. The trick was finding a car that hadn’t been shot up and/or blown up and would still run for a few miles. Finding four of those meant going more than a few blocks. Most days there might be something conspicuous about a sketchy guy wandering through back streets with a crowbar in his hand, but whatever pack of paramilitary goons passed for the authority at that time didn’t seem to care much. My task would be less a matter of finesse and more an issue of patience.
Especially because Darius decided to tag along.
“I’m still not sure why you’re here.”
Darius locked his jaw. “I’m here to keep you alive.”
“You have a sword and shield in one of your pockets?”
“Two’s safer than one. Always.”
“Maybe not when the area’s swarming with trigger-happy racists and the second man is the son of someone they just murdered. You’re hoping to find a working gun among the bodies, aren’t you?”
Darius sighed. “Ain’t gonna let you try to talk me out of it. It has to happen.”
“Who’s trying? Brigg and Brinkley are both scumbags, world’ll be better off without them. But what are the odds of you getting close enough to either one to shoot him? Run off the way you are now, you’ll end up dead and the killers at the top can keep going with their little war.”
“I don’t intend...” Darius took a moment to chew over the possibility of his death. “...All right, maybe you’re on to something. But let’s say an opportunity comes up. Let’s say Brinkley is right there in front of me. You saying I shouldn’t take the shot?”
“Hey, it’s your life. If you want...holy fucking shit.”
It’s not an eloquent statement coming from a writer’s mouth, but it was the perfect set of profanities to describe what had happened to the downtown area. The Briggs had pacified Mass Street in less time than anyone had reckoned, and used that free time for a few quick renovations. That weird abstract symbol of theirs was everywhere - on makeshift banners lashed to light poles and painted two stories high on buildings and enormous sheets of plywood. The corpses were gone, replaced by ugly barricades made from sandbags and razor wire that some industrious stormtrooper must have brought with him. And the force that the Briggs had mustered...it made me miss the understated oppression of OSIS. They were all wearing armor hastily painted black with the symbol in white and toting rifles openly as they paced along the sidewalks. Every so often, a light armored vehicle would roll through, militia thugs hanging off the side with pistols in their eager mitts.
There was a knot of people gathered in one of the larger parking lots, all staring up at a stage hastily lashed together from irregular lumber. Raucous social gatherings will endure through the heavy hand of the authoritarian regime, but there was something unwholesome about this meeting of the minds, even from so far away.
Journalistic instinct can look like a suicidal impulse from the outside. That must have been what Darius thought as I crept toward the scene. “What the hell are you doing? Nothing but trouble down there.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “Find a hiding place, I’ll only be a few minutes.”
Up close, the crowd was even more unsavory. Most of the people looked like Briggs and the ones that didn’t had expressions like they had gun barrels in their backs. One of the goons took the stage - a skinny, shrimpy little bastard who lumbered around the stage like a grumpy giant, a handgun shoved down in his waistband such that he was more likely to shoot himself than anyone else.
“Friends, this is a new day! A day when you rule over reality! The sword of the conqueror is in your hands!” The shrimp put every ounce of power into each syllable, leaving tortured silences between each phrase. “Conquest is an endless cycle of creation and destruction is service. Soon, we will build. Soon, we will build your world. But first, we must clear away everything that stops us from building. We must burn the dead wood!”
There was an outburst of applause from the audience, the goons lifting knives and baseball bats to the sky in anticipation of creative destruction. Some of the non-Briggs looked sick but none of them dared raise any objection.
“Today, the sword you wield is the sword of justice. You see, we have been on an elite hunt.” The shrimp smirked for a moment before resuming his tirade. “We have gathered the servants of the so-called powerful ones and brought them here to face the people. Their fates are yours!”
The shrimp snapped his fingers and two goons led a bound man to the stage, dropping him to his knees. He resembled one of the guests at the Prof’s house party, one of those intellectuals talking about benevolent tyranny.
“This man is a professor. An academic. An expert. And a professor in what, you ask? Literature. Fiction. Useless words on a page describing things that never happened. But his crime is not that he wastes the time of your children. It’s how he wastes their time.” The shrimp held up a book, but all I could make out was some unfamiliar script on its scuffed cover. “Foreign literature! The words and thought of our enemy! He fills your children’s heads with barbarian propaganda and tells them it is the equal to our great heritage!”
“It’s not propaganda!” said the bound man. “It’s One Thousand and One Nights. You can’t hate such a beautiful thing just because you hate the people who live where it was written.”
“Listen! He’s defending it!” The shrimp tossed the book to the stage and stomped on it. “Here’s what your ‘beautiful thing’ is worth! It’s worth nothing!”
“You can’t just hedge out the world! Everything changes, you can’t make the world stand still by burning books and killing people! You’ve already lost!”
Without an utterance, the shrimp drew his gun and shot the bound man in the temple. A roar went out from the crowd, though I could swear I heard an anguished shriek that was nearly lost for the roars of the victorious primates. There was no ceremony, no respect for the victim. A pair of Briggs dragged his corpse off the stage while two others brought up the next victim - a tall, plump man in a dusty suit.
“Now this man is an economist, a most vile form of elitist. This man has given himself the power to control money. Your money! He decides how much of your pay you will be privileged to keep. He decides whether you get to work at all! His kind has even claimed the power to decide whether you will live to old age! He uses his tables and figures to make slaves of all of you!”
The audience was already getting tests and they weren’t ready to wait for any formal judgment. An object - probably a chunk of cement - flew out of the crowd and struck the man just over his eye. The blow didn’t knock him flat but it did send a crimson streak running down his face. The crowd roared again, screaming profanities at their latest nemesis.
“I’m not like that at all!” screamed the poor bastard, wincing from the wound but still in strong voice. “I’ve spent years standing up for the rights of ordinary Americans! It’s those bastards in the World Bank you want! I can prove to you that I’m not your enemy! Please, give me a chance, just one chance!”
“Well, it seems as if this one desires mercy!” The shrimp knelt by the edge of the stage. “What do you think? The decision is yours. Should we see if this one can be redeemed?”
The reaction from the crowd was mixed. Some of them were impressed by his pathetic groveling, others just wanted to see blood. The shrimp took his time, pondering each dissonant grunt in turn.
“Well, it seems that the people are conflicted! Today, I will...let you live. We’ll let Leroy Brigg make the final decision on your fate.” A pair of Briggs appeared to lead the still-breathing enemy of the people away, and the third victim was dragged to the front. This one had a familiar paunch, but the bag over his head made identification a little tricky. “Our next elitist is special. You’ve all heard his name. He’s a celebrity.”
The second I heard “celebrity” I flashed back on a dream I once had about Frederick Tomasson. When they pulled off the hood and I saw that mighty moustache, droopier than normal, emerge into the daylight, I wondered if maybe I’d breathed in some kind of spore back at the Prof’s place and it was only then taking effect.
“Tomasson, happy servant of the powerful.” The shrimp spit in Fred’s face. “There is no other man who speaks for the elites of the world like this man. This man, who makes money telling the wealthy to embrace globalism and destroy your livelihood and then turns around and charges you for the right to read his justifications. This is the man who has told you that your suffering is part of the greater good, that your heartbreak is the future.”
“I just wrote about...I mean, I’m just a chronicler, I...don’t you see?” Fred was in a panic. I don’t think he ever expected the war zone to get quite this hot. “I just describe things, I don’t...I talk to people in positions of power, but I don’t tell them to do anything!”
“This man fills his bank account with the blood and tears of true Americans! A thousand American jobs lost is a million American dollars in his hands!”
“I didn’t make the world wide! And it’s not my fault if economists listen to me! You can’t blame...you can’t put all the blame on...there are other people who are at fault!”
The shrimp glanced lovingly at his gun. “I think I already know the decision that this assembled body will make.”
That’s when Fred made his desperation move. He lunged at the shrimp’s abdomen, stunning him and forcing him back a step. Before anyone could react, the doughy bloviator was off in the other direction. The shrimp fired wildly but none of his shots connected. And then the chase was on, the Briggs on stage joined by the ones in the crowd as the mob flowed down the boulevard in pursuit of the dancing moustache.
Darius signaled to me. “You done putting us in danger?”
“Sure. Let’s go steal some cars.”