9.1 - Storyteller
Lawrence, Kansas did not quite burn to the ground. Although most of the buildings in town - especially those in the area around campus - were damaged by fire, emergency crews worked with admirable speed and most of the structures were eventually salvaged. That analysis exempts a few buildings that were totaled by the enthusiastic and legally questionable entry by armed forces. Most of those owners accepted meager restitution from the federal government, perhaps perceiving that it would be easier to get money out of the Army than the insurance companies. And when the fires were out, the forces that suppressed the Invasion of Lawrence (as the major news networks would eventually label it) marched out a number of men in handcuffs for an all-expenses paid trip to Leavenworth. You’ll be pleased to know that each and every prisoner was a high-ranking member of a anti-American organization. They even captured at least four of Leroy Brigg’s #2 men.
The area around town was a mess for days, partially because of the soldiers but mostly because of the legions of reporters who decided to brave danger and valiantly show up at the site of the insurrection the day after it had ended. The Army, in turn, responded with a platoon of PR flacks, there to confirm the deaths of Brigg and the radical and the apprehension of the criminals who worked for them and to mourn for the loss of Joshua Jameson and Governor Goldie (while downplaying the criminals who worked for them). And I’ll have you know that officially, the fire was caused by the various factions using incendiary weapons that they stole from OSIS. That no one from OSIS could ever name these weapons or explain why they would even have them for such an operation never really bothered anyone. It’s not as though anyone would have believed the actual explanation, even if someone managed to find evidence in the middle of Caleb’s towering funeral pyre.
Speculation about the Invasion of Lawrence started even before the press showed up, and once those clowns arrived on scene the rumor mill kicked into overdrive. It was a good time for it - for once, the United States was not bombing anyone so the talking heads quickly grew bored and went in search of entertainment. In the immediate aftermath, media channels were clogged with encomiums to the great man Joshua Jameson, most of them so generic that they could have been written years ago and kept in storage for an unexpected event. These were countered by hostile commentaries by leftist commentators calling him a theocrat and a robber baron and accusing him of all manner of crimes against the American people, though even the most paranoid of these failed to capture the full scope of what he was trying to do in Kansas. The federal investigators equivocated on who killed Jameson, probably because they didn’t want anyone to know that the deed was done with an Army-developed high-tech rifle that was slipped to OSIS on the down low. The flacks hinted that it was one of the usual suspects and urged the media to ignore specious reports from rogue OSIS agents about a journalist sneaking in to the armory where the weapon was kept.
Then there were the ones who wanted to ignore the facts on the ground and talk about what the havoc said about the culture. The talking heads on the right rested the blame in equal proportions on Professor Jagunjagun and the radical, or even pushed it all onto the Professor - with perhaps an ounce or two on the kids these days, a persistent source of consternation for the professional crank. The one who had already tried to cast the Professor as an anti-white, anti-government radical stuck with that line. The most shameless of those even tried to present Leroy Brigg as some sort of misunderstood hero, though as the list of his crimes grew ever longer and more gruesome this belief retreated to the fringe. Speaking of which, you would think that the connections between the state of Kansas and a man who would have been tried as a war criminal had he survived would have merited some press. The talking heads, grappling with ancestral memories of a time in which they did some good in the world, did their best in pressing the heads of OSIS on their collusion with this butcher. The typical response was the equivalent of “Hey, look over there,” a tactic that the talking heads dutifully fell for every time.
As for me, I spent a while prowling around the perimeter trying to dig a little extra gold out of the wreckage. I’d hoped to run into a friend - “Archie” the friendly OSIS goon, or perhaps Agent Mason, the fed who tried to turn me into a hitman - but the general tenor was pretty hostile. The Army guys weren’t too interested in speaking with a famous junkie journalist, particularly one in a floral print getup concealed beneath soot, dried blood (from myself and others) and a week of stale sweat. Of course, I wasn’t especially eager to deal with them - what with the drug possession and the homicide and the assassination I helped cover up and the fact that I could prove that they were lying about every single aspect of the official account, it wasn’t a great time to deal with the authorities. The journos were a bit more open, which is to say that they were all very glad that I didn’t die, but they were prepared to assume that anything I saw was a byproduct of substance abuse and even if it did check out...well, it wouldn’t be good for their reps to be seen speaking with me.
So I hung around the disaster zone long enough to count for due diligence and then set off down the road. I had no destination in mind, I just needed to be somewhere else - anywhere else, really. The traffic was light but the weather was fair and perfect for rambling.
And then, out of the blue, a car came to a stop next to me and the window rolled down.
“That name sounds familiar. Who is...” I squinted up and caught sight of a familiar portly face. “Billy? From the bus?”
“It is you,” said Billy. “Shit, have you been in there all week? And you’re still alive? I can’t believe it.”
“That makes two of us.”
“Wow. Yeah, I heard that the whole thing finally blew over, so I figured it was safe to head home.” Billy opened the passenger side door. “You need a ride?”
“Sure. Any place that’s civilized would be just fine.” I climbed into Billy’s rental car and eased back into the seat. “I can probably chip in a few bucks for gas.”
“Shit no, this is like a celebration. I figured they’d be picking chunks of you out of a pile of ash and it was so depressing. I’m really very happy that you lived.” Billy put the car into drive and took off. “Hey, I was about to stop for lunch. Care for a bite on my tab?”
“Sounds great, Billy.”
“You know, that’s not my name.”
“Suits you well, though.”
Billy leaned in the slightest bit. “I bet you saw some shit, huh?”
“I saw shit you wouldn’t believe. Seriously, you’d doubt every word if I told you.”
“You think your boss will believe you?”
“One can only hope.”
We pulled over at a little stop somewhere down the road. Billy, I gathered, lived in the area and was familiar with the roads, though he seldom found the opportunity to do much driving. Under similar circumstances, I probably would have hopped a bus out of town myself. Sometimes I have to remind myself that most people are the kind of nutjobs who prefer to avoid mortal peril.
“I’ll get us a couple burgers,” said Billy. “Care for a beer?”
“Five or six would be nice, but that’s on me.” I reached into my boot. “Must have a little money left after all of that.”
“You have enough to get back home?”
“My editor will take care of that, assuming he doesn’t have me buried already.” My fingers brushed against my cash, still surprisingly crisp after all the running and fire and death. “Yeah, this ought to do it.”
Billy wrinkled his nose. “What, a wallet too conventional?”
“Too easy to steal. No one reaches in your shoe. Is there a convenience store around here?”
I looked out the window in hopes of spotting a vendor who might offer me a six-pack or, better yet, a bottle of the mid-range stuff. Parked over by the gas station was a boring-looking car out of which several boring-looking men in boring-looking suits emerged. Any other day I wouldn’t have noticed, but between the lingering tension and the uncomfortable sobriety I found my mind racing off down every unmarked street it could find. Were they feds? Agents from some Jameson subsidiary? I slouched down in my seat and tried to avoid there gaze, hoping that they wouldn’t come in. The ding at the door nearly made me jump but it wasn’t the men in suits. It was a kid, an awkward reed a well-traveled notebook. He came right up to the table and stared with apprehension in his timid eyes.
There was something familiar about this kid. “Did I see you in Lawrence?”
“Atticus, I’m sorry,” said the kid.
“I never told you -”
“I’m sorry. I tried to save them but I couldn’t. They had to die, it was the only way that any of it could work.” The kid twisted the notebook nervously in his slender hands. “I wanted more of them to make it out but it wouldn’t have been plausible. I tried to fix it but this is all I could do with what you gave me.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“I have to go. Again, I’m sorry.” And with that the kid darted through the door.
“Wait, hold on!” I was out of the seat and through the door in seconds, but the kid was gone, faded into the clear air. And as I tried to figure out what the hell just happened, I heard the familiar squawk of my Digital Pardner scrabbling for my attention. I whipped out the earpiece and silenced the computerized bastard. “Who’s this?”
“Holy fucking shit, Atticus, you’re alive.”
“Sean?” It was my editor, and at the perfect time, too. “Yeah, I’m still breathing.”
“What do you know, I won the dead pool after all.”
“I should have figured. Big odds, were they?”
“About fifty to one, so drinks on me when you get back. So, you dig up any shit?”
“Yeah, but the Army and the state of Kansas will deny all of it.”
“Like that shit’s ever stopped me. Hey, did you hear that the unrest is spreading? Now some asshole’s trying to raise an army in Cleveland of all places.”
“I’m not going, Sean.”
“Didn’t expect you would. Actually, I have another assignment. Very safe, nice soft touch gig up in Illinois. Practically a vacation.”
“I left most of my luggage back in the firestorm.”
“Buy new clothes and charge me. Hell, buy some new luggage! After the story you’re about to send me, I’m ready to foot the bill for just about everything. Grab yourself a hotel, charge the office, hammer out a first draft so I can get a feel for this atrocity, and then I’ll book your trip to Illinois.”
“Sounds like a plan. So what’s in Illinois, anyway?”
“Well, let’s put it this way...are you familiar with trivia competitions?”
“Illinois has the grand motherfucker of all trivia competitions.”
“And you want me to write about this.”
“Sure. It’s a huge deal, and it ought to be an easy assignment after what you’ve been through. Shit, Atticus, they’re teenagers. What’s the worst they could possibly do?”
ATTICUS GAINSBOROUGH WILL RETURN IN:
-A PROPHECY IN PIXELS-
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