The Oasis is Burning

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1.4 - Joanna

If you should ever find yourself in a police state, and you have a chance to go out for a night on the town, I say seize that opportunity. Ignore the naysayers - the omnipresent eye of the authority is an enormous boon to debauchery. You don’t have to worry about thieves, there’s always someone to take you back to the hotel if you have five or six too many, and the chance of a good beating can add spice to even the slowest of nights.

For a city under martial law, Lawrence is a pretty lively place after hours. Maybe it’s due to the way the siege has disrupted normal life. Most of campus is on lockdown, and there are armed men doing routine patrols even in areas of the city not technically under their control. Plus there were all those high-profile hijacking cases, so a lot of companies are afraid to send trucks here and that has to have put people out of work. The sum total of all that is a lot of people with nowhere to go in the morning and nothing to do with their evenings. So the calm and sober-minded citizens fill their hours with beer pong, whiskey races, shooter roulette or, my personal favorite, a spirited game of checkers with vodka shots.

There’s music, too, and a remarkable variety. In a ten-minute walk, you can pass by joints with folk, hip-hop and just about every iteration of rock there is. You could probably find a place hosting throat singing if you were willing to put in the legwork. It was the doo-wop that drew me in, or at least the fantastic contrast - when you’ve got a good reefer buzz going, nothing throws you quite like 60′s throwback music and machine guns.

The Replay Lounge is a nice little joint with a pinball theme and an impressively large patio. You wouldn’t expect the place to be so lively in the middle of the week, but it wasn’t just the size of the crowd that surprised me but the diversity. You had your usual suspects, your twentysomething knuckleheads aching to destroy their bodies, but there were also rough-looking older guys, people in conservative attire, wallflowers skulking off in the corner - people here despite their obvious discomfort with everyone else - and even a few genuine old timers. Only a few of them were obviously drunk or high, and some of them looked like strong coffee was too much of a vice.

There was a big knot of people around the center bench, waiting their turn by the looks of it. I could just make out a woman seated in the midst of it, a rail-thin and morbidly pale creature with boyish hair and the devil’s green eyes, eyes that were right on me.

“You know, you look a hell of a lot like Atticus Gainsborough.”

“Good to hear, because I am Atticus Gainsborough.”

“I’ll be goddamned. All right folks, give us five, you’ll all get to place your orders. Harmon, you can stay.” There was no shortage of grumbling within the crowd but one authoritative glance and they all departed as one. “Take a seat. Care for a drink? A local brew?”

“Sure.” I took a seat across from the woman and her companion. “You got a name?”

“Joanna. And this is Harmon.”

The guy barely responded to my presence or to the sound of his own name. He was slouched over, almost melting into the bench, barely visible through his mesh hat and oversized band t-shirt for some act that broke up ten years before he was born, taking drags off a bulky vaporizer filled with some dodgy herb.

Joanna smirked at her scruffy friend. “Harmon’s not much for chatting, but he is my best customer.”

“Yeah? You only deal in pot, or do you have a supplier for the more serious stuff?”

“Who, me?” Joanna flashed an impish smile. “Actually, decent-quality cannabis is hard to come by these days. Anything you buy inside the perimeter is either old or else from some amateur’s malnourished plants. I do fill the void with a few herbal blends of my own, but I’m always on the lookout for quality goods.”

“I like her Ghost Vision better anyway,” said Harmon in between puffs of nauseating violet-tinged smoke. “Marijuana is way too mainstream.”

“And that’s why Harmon is our favorite,” said Joanna. “But there’s still healthy demand for cannabis. Hell, a joint’s as good as cash if it’s real. We might need to make a deal later, I’m sure you put in a healthy private stock for your trip.”

“I appreciate your business sense, but I don’t think I’m gonna need any more narcotics,” I said.

“You know, I don’t deal as much in recreational substances as you might think,” said Joanna. “There are a lot of things you can’t really get here right now, the little niceties that people got used to. High-quality coffee and tea blends, for example. Beauty products. Shisha. Fancy olive oil - I have two or three couples who are willing to pay a lot for quality oil. Spices. Yeast for cooking or homebrewing. Gadget accessories - couldn’t tell you how much I appreciate how often people lose or break their earbuds. And I have a pretty healthy trade in incense. People have everything they need right now, but only a fraction of what they want.”

“Hell of a business, running the black market,” I said.

“One of the black markets, the biggest one. The others are trying to peel off my customers by offering premiums. Special services, deliveries, things like that. I’ve heard there’s even a place or two where you can buy tail, but this ass isn’t for sale.” Joanna floated gingerly to her feet. “I’ll go grab us a couple beers. It’s a good night.”

The spell Joanna was working on Harmon must have faded when she was out of sight, because a few stray sparks began stirring under the bill of that cap. “You got beat up in Arizona on that immigration thing, right?”

“It was more like a really aggressive warning to leave the state, but yeah.”

“Yeah, I thought I knew you.” Harmon took a few more drags. “So you’re here to blow the whistle on that shit the governor’s been doing?”

“That’s right, raking up some mud.”

“Like it’ll matter.” Another drag. “The whole system is corrupt. You can’t stop what they want to happen.”

“If the people in this state hadn’t reelected Goldie and Augustus, it would have been a different game.”

“Oh please. It doesn’t matter what corporate stooge is in charge. Voting is a scam. I never do it.”

“I’m sure that talk goes over great with the UFJ guys who can’t vote anymore.”

Harmon dropped the vaporizer, destroying my theory that it was grafted to his hand. “What? I did my part. I have my blog explaining to everyone that the system is a scam, and I talk about it with everyone. All my friends know not to bother voting.”

“You’re quite the crusader for justice.”

“Well what am I supposed to do? I did my part, didn’t I?”

Then there was a fracas at the door, OSIS security team members racing into the bar and fanning through the crowd. These ones weren’t wearing armor but each had a weapon ready, along with the expression of a man itching for shit to go down. Most of the patrons froze in place or backed up to the wall. Harmon somehow sank further into the bench until he looked like a stray pile of vintage clothes. For me, I put every ounce of will into suppressing a reflex I’ve had since high school, this impulse on encountering the police to throw up my hands and say “I don’t have anything” - and this time I really didn’t. But Joanna, coming back from the bar with a few bottles, took the whole thing in admirable good graces.

“Evening, Dan,” she said to the head officer. “What’s the danger tonight?”

“We’re looking for a UFJ smuggler, brought in 6,000 vest-penetrating handgun rounds.”

“You know I don’t deal in deal in that kind of dangerous merchandise.”

“Granted, but we suspect he’s hiding out on Mass.” He produced a grainy photo print. “Twitchy bastard, dark skin, about five-four.”

Joanna shrugged. “Haven’t seen him tonight, but I’ll keep an eye out if he tries to buy or sell anything.”

“Fine. As you were.”

Joanna returned to her seat on the bench and passed me a bottle of oatmeal stout. “Cost of doing business in a city under siege.”

“They’re fine with your extracurriculars?”

“Fine? Hell...” Joanna took a swig. “...they’re steady customers.”

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