The Oasis is Burning

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7.4 - Conquest

I’ve certainly had friendlier armed escorts than Rick and Tyrell. Nastier ones, too, but I still couldn’t give either of them more than two stars out of five. Rick never spoke more than four words without calling me an asshole and liked to jab me in the side with the barrel of his rifle to express his displeasure, but then they couldn’t both be so nice. On the other hand, I’m fairly sure Tyrell was planning to kill me. There was something about the way he stuck his head into every little nook we passed - it was less like a sweep for ambushes and more like he was trying to find just the right place to stash a body for a few days.

Maybe it just seemed more threatening than normal because of the pointlessness of my task. Arcadius found out about Sara’s car, shook her down for the location and then sent me to retrieve the damn thing. It doesn’t exactly take a master auto thief to steal a car when you have the keys in your pocket, and my increasingly paranoid journalistic instinct kept showing me an image of Rick and Tyrell ruefully reporting that I had been killed in an ambush that, through some miracle, they had escaped uninjured.

So then it was irony when I survived the ambush that left Rick and Tyrell riddled with bullets.

“Walk faster, asshole. I don’t want to spend any more time here than I gotta.” Rick gave me another good jab right in the pit of my back. “Come on!”

“Would you like me to walk way out front?” I said. “You could strap me to a skateboard and drag me along on a line.”

“Lay off the wisecracks, asshole,” said Rick. “You’re tempting me.”

Tyrell waved for us to follow. “It’s clear ahead. Will you dicks get in gear? I ain’t getting shot over either of you.”

“Yeah, just have to motivate this one,” said Rick.

“All right, I’m moving,” I said. “No need to get jabby or shooty.”

“I think the boy’s giving you lip,” said Tyrell. “What we gotta do to teach you some respect?”

“It’s gone to his head, being the boss’s pet.” Rick jabbed me in the ribs. “Isn’t that right, asshole?”

“It’s not that I don’t appreciate the attention, but it seems like you two should keep an eye on the area,” I said. “This is Brigg country.”

Tyrell laughed. “We ain’t scared of those hillbillies. Put down three myself, looking forward to upping my score. Ain’t that right, Rick?”

And then Rick was dead. I’m not sure where the gunfire came from, but the mean bastard caught at least a dozen rounds within seconds and went down hard. My experience was limited at the time, but I figured that hitting the ground myself was a sound tactical decision. Halting my momentum with my face wasn’t part of the plan but the pain is just part of survival, or so they tell me. After that, all I had to go on were sounds - gunfire, stomping, Tyrell screaming, grisly wet noises. Then it all stopped and the only sound was hard breathing from the people standing over me.

“Get up.”

I did as I was told and found myself encircled by four of Brigg’s finest, all of them with fresh blood on their black-and-white getups. All of them had their weapons trained on me, though I was growing somewhat accustomed to that. “Can I help you gentlemen?”

One of them stepped towards me. “Your name.”

“Atticus.”

“Gainsborough?”

“Sure.”

The guy pulled out a torn sheet of paper, one that I recognized as the back end of one of those not-quite-bestsellers that my friends in publishing let me produce. “He looks like shit, but it’s definitely him.”

“Thanks for your candor.” I touched my cheek, which was sticky with blood and detritus from my graceless dive. “You think I can get this cleaned up?”

“Later. You have an appointment.”

“Really? Well, I do tend to forget those when I’m on assignment.”

Two of the other goons took me by either arm and walked me over to a side street. There was a haphazardly up-armored pickup there, the bed converted into a nasty metal brick with slots and mounts for their weapons. They tossed me into the cab and seconds later we were off for parts unknown, me sandwiched between two angry-looking grunts (the best position on a long drive) while their buddies eyed the road from their positions in the back.

“Where we headed?” I said to the grunt riding shotgun.

“No questions. No talking.” The grunt pulled out a handgun and a cleaning kit and I knew the conversation was over. I spent the rest of the ride prodding the lumps in the seat, watching the grunt zealously clean his gun, and keeping tabs on my location with as much subtlety as I could manage.

We proceeded up 23rd street, which had probably been a major road when Lawrence was a normal town but had been choked into silence just like all the others. The truck passed without resistance through a red light at a dead intersection and proceeded down a side road leading into an unassuming neighborhood west of campus. The houses here were untouched, their security guaranteed by the militiamen stationed at sporadic intervals along the abandoned walkways. It was an odd place for the central command structure of a fascist paramilitary organization but I was too keyed up to appreciate the irony.

The truck pulled to a stop outside of a large house with an unreasonably huge statue out front. It was some sort of warrior, an overbuilt mesomorph in spiked armor and a billowing cape, wielding a revolver in one hand and a spear that had to be at least nine feet long in the other. It was a recent installation and a hasty one, with mounds of dirt still piled around its foundation where someone had tried to set it into the earth.

There was something about this that seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place it until the goons pulled me out of the truck. I’d seen that statue, or at least a sketch of it. It was on Harmon’s map, the secret location of one of his caches. Sure enough, I could spot a small bag tucked away in the warrior’s cape, the wick of a Molotov cocktail poking through the zipper. I had to wonder if the crazy bastard knew that he was stashing incendiary devices at the home of a modern-day warlord or if it was just a cosmic coincidence.

“Mr. Brigg is waiting for you,” said one of the goons. “Only guests allowed inside, but don’t think for a second that this gives you the right to wander. You’re on your honor to obey all rules. Do you know what happens if you lose that honor?”

“Not explicitly, but I could fake it.”

“Don’t be so glib. A man with no honor is a man with no power, and a man with no power is fair game.”

“Got it, follow the rules or die. I will remember that.”

“Very well. Mr. Brigg has other guests, so make sure he knows you’re here.”

Over the course of my career, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a number of very scary individuals. It always comes with a stew of mixed emotions - the thrill of interviewing an influential figure, the giddy anticipation of future accolades, the tension over what might happen if shit goes south. But an experienced journalist can pick up on little hints that suggest that fear is appropriate. If you are standing at the doorstep of a neo-fascist warlord, and the door is ajar enough that you can spot a corpse in the foyer? That’s a hint. And if you recognize that corpse as the Secretary of State, a man whom that warlord intimated that he wanted dead? That’s a bigger hint.

Defying every impulse toward self-preservation I’ve ever had, I nudged open the door and stepped inside. After the foyer there was an unexpectedly massive entrance hall with two people having a very animated conversation. One of them I’d met before - Governor Goldie, looking weepy as always. The other was a big broad ropey bastard with a weather-worn face, looking especially grisly and terrible in his business casual shirtsleeves, a .45 tucked into a fine leather holster at his side. I didn’t need a name tag to identify this one.

Goldie was a sweaty mess. “Mr. Brigg, dismissing your people was never my call. I mean, I’m the one that gave you police powers in the first place, why would I just take those back after all that effort? It was Mr. Jameson’s idea, he’s the one who didn’t like your...um...your image. Please believe me, it wasn’t my idea!”

“It’s never been an issue of belief.” Leroy’s voice was blunt with edges of menace, like a 5-iron with maroon spots on its shaft. “I do believe you, Governor. However, your argument that you were too weak a leader to command the loyalty of your own forces is hardly a compelling defense.” He turned at the sound of the door and smiled. “Ah, more guests. Atticus Gainsborough, correct?”

“That’s what they call me,” I said.

“Excellent.” Leroy gestured to a small sitting area at the side of the hall. “Please wait over to the side, if you would. I’m very nearly finished.”

I did as Leroy asked, less out of fear of offending him and more because I could guess what was about to happen. The small bench was uncomfortable but it gave me a perfect angle.

Leroy drew his sidearm and clicked off the safety. “Governor, I’m going to be brutally honest. For your betrayal, I’m obliged to kill you. However, I am sympathetic to your situation and the difficult decision you had to make. So I’m going to give you a chance to make it out of town alive. I will give you a head start before I send my men to hunt you down. If you can get to safety, then I will wipe your slate clean.”

“Mr. Brigg, for the love of God, can’t you see how this will make things worse?”

“You’re wasting your head start, Governor.”

Even Goldie wasn’t dumb enough to see mercy in his future. He sprinted for the door, skidding on the tile and tripping all over himself. As he ran, Leroy casually raised his sidearm and took careful aim. Goldie had just reached the door when the bullet caught him between the shoulder blades and he went down just ahead of his old comrade Karlyle. Leroy marched over to the fallen Goldie and put two more rounds straight into his skull. In this act of violence I saw neither hesitation or pleasure. It was more like a chore, as though killing Goldie was another item on his to-do list.

“They always run in a straight line.” Leroy holstered his weapon and turned to me. “Apologies for that, but it had to be done.”

“No problem. Sometimes I make my guests wait while I take out the garbage.”

“The invincible sense of humor, a remarkable trait,” said Leroy. “My name is Leroy Brigg. Welcome to my base of operations, my local estate, my home. There are a few things we must discuss later, but I’d like to begin with a tour of my domicile. I’d like to get your opinion on a few things.”

“Sounds good, but are you just going to leave the dead guys in your foyer?”

“My men will dispose of them in time. No need to do so just yet, not when there might be more articles to be eliminated later.”

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