April 04, 2005

A Canticle For Lieberman (pt 3)

Pacific Views theater presents the continuation of a short work of fiction. Any resemblance of the characters to persons living or dead is purely in the interests of parable, satire, and entertainment. See the fiction archive for previous installments.

"You'll stay in the area, right? I'll call you when I'm ready to go, and you'll call back when you're outside the building?"

"I've got your company credit card here, Ms. Farraday, and there's a security garage nearby. Cab company would take this car away in a heartbeat if it got out I'd left you here. I'll be around, don't worry."

Robin put on the filter mask and got out of the cab. A blast of air accompanied her, the cab's air filtration system busily adjusting to the loss of pressure. Superstrains of tuberculosis were rampant in this part of D.C., and the cab would have to go through decontamination at the checkpoint on the way back. The station would be paying a bundle for this trip.

She was dressed in jeans, sneakers covered in paper footies, and layered shirts under a hooded sweatshirt. She'd traded her usual equipment case for a seedy backpack she'd picked up in a secondhand store. It was important to blend in here, and she had the local look down to the cheap-seeming mask.

She went around to the back of the building, through the gate, and when she heard the cab roll away, down an alley to an apartment building a couple blocks over. Hardly anyone was out this time of day, just a few gardeners, when the police felt safe enough to patrol. Jen answered the intercom promptly. "You're right on time, hurry on up."

The stairs were poorly lit and every surface was dingy, but this building was kept scrupulously clean, for which tenants paid the local equivalent of a premium. Complain as the inhabitants might, it was cheaper than a clean building in the federally mandated Contamination Zones of New York or Los Angeles, and much safer than the ones in Houston and New Orleans. His door creaked on the hinges, but the inside was clean and well-kept.

"Hey, Farraday."

"Hey, Jen. How's business?"

"Pretty good, but I have some bad news for you. My suppliers been getting squeezed lately; it's hard to get the stuff from Canada, and harder to get it into the CZ. I only have four months worth for you 'cause a good friend of mine came here this morning with a serious emergency on her hands. I couldn't say no."

She put her head in her hands, her voice was soft. "Oh, god. Jen, I don't know how often I can come down here. I hope you have some good information to go along with this, or I won't be able to get another trip approved anytime soon."

"Knew you'd say that, and I got a story you can grab today. I'm not losing my favorite customer to one of those uptown creeps, rat you out to the Fed soon as look at you. They want to play, but they want you to pay."

"In just about every sense. Paul just expects this stuff to materialize out of thin, effing air, and he whines like a baby if he has to cover up. The man couldn't find a dealer if his life depended on it, which lucky for him, it doesn't. How much?"

Jen fumbled around behind a grate she'd undone and triumphantly pulled out four round, palm-sized blister packs. "Four months worth of Ortho Tri-Cyclen, still sealed from the factory, that'll be five grand."

"That's an extra $250 a pack!" Five thousand dollars wasn't worth what it used to be, but it wasn't pocket change.

"I told you, it's been harder to get. There was a big bust last week and everybody's tight. I can't do anything about that, but I can offer you a safe source and a quiet dealer." The last part was Jen's professional motto, the sort of thing that would have gone on a business card if people in her line of work had cards. Jen used to be a licensed R.N. working at a Planned Parenthood clinic which had long since closed. Old habits die hard.

"It's just a shock, that's all. You know how much I appreciate this."

"Course I do. Now, I'm stashing this back where it's safe. You can store your money here like usual, and remember to keep $200 for the muggers this time. The police are damn slow, but they'll get there eventually and we should hurry. Got what I told you to bring?" Robin nodded. "Well then, put these over your clothes, and let's go. I don't know all these people, some of them might be sick, and there might be blood."

Jen held out a set of tough, loose, paper overalls and a matching hooded jacket with racing stripes down the sleeves. There was a fresh set of paper footies to replace the ones she'd left in the bin outside.

They scurried out the back, following one of Jen's preferred roundabout paths to wherever she travelled. There was a lot of cover from the street where fights between gang convoys and police patrols made open streets hazardous. Residents facing food shortages and a need for cover had turned at least a third of the streets into gardens loosely closed in by cement barriers and old cars, mostly where the roads were potholed by neglect and mortar fire. On blocks where there were houses with their own yards, many of the streets had been blocked off whether the road was being cultivated or not. You could get almost anywhere without spending much time in the open.

"Now look, we found out there's going to be a police raid on the Garris garden this afternoon. You can get an anonymous interview with one of the gardeners, and pictures of the weapons. They've got a safe place for you to take live footage from, but we need to get inside now. ... Robin, this is Roy. Roy, Robin."

"Hey, Robin. I guess we got a few minutes, guy on the inside ... you better not mention we got a guy on the inside, that's, ah, that's off the record ... he said it'd take them at least half an hour to drag themselves over."

"Sure, I'm ready, let's go. So do you know why the police are coming today?"

"They're coming to take down this garden, why else would they come down here? And they won't even tell you the truth about why we have it. Goddam. When the D.C. beat could afford the heavy equipment, they busted up the streets firing at us, mortars, artillery shells, all the buildings got holes in them and no one would come fix anything. Then the fed shut this whole part of the city down, and the only food they send us is military rations. They claim it's," Roy began to recite, "'3 MREs, per person, per day, and a weekly ration of flour, milk and eggs per household.' But I'm here to tell you that's not all you can get at those stations. You look healthy enough, you got a ticket, you got a collection against you, they give you your MREs in a holding cell. They give you a trip, and you get your MREs on the way to the Ee-rahn. We're not cleared to live outside a CZ, but we're healthy enough to join up and fight.

"And man, you can't live every single day on that stuff anyway. We started gardens where they already turned up the ground, not like you could drive on this street anyhow, then they made it a crime to sell mail order gardening supplies to people living in a CZ. Gardening supplies! They said it encouraged the destruction of public property. Man, look at the collapsed buildings, the apartments with holes in the walls, the craters in the streets, and damn, the cops did most all of that. The National Guard did some of it before they sent all them to the Ee-rahn. And they say we're the ones destroying public effing property. Hell.

"Now they want to take this, too. They think they can get away with it, hide snipers in our buildings ... "

She took interview notes on her tablet computer, a notebook wouldn't survive decontamination. It would have been hard to see well enough to write without the light of the screen anyway. On this side of the building, there was just enough sunlight coming in to illuminate the swarming dust that made her eyes water. The smells of cooked food, sweat, and many kinds of smoke competed for her attention. Here on the first floor, the smells of the garden also drifted in with every breeze, crushed leaves, compost, turned earth and chicken waste. There was quarrelous clucking and squawking moving closer and then receding. Come on, Robin, focus.

At the end, she offered the scruffy young man the packs of seed and some mycorrhizal soil supplements. Jen had told her what to buy to get a leg up with the gardeners, and the fruit and heirloom vegetable seeds she brought would give them some welcome variety in their diets. No one would touch her now, that was for sure. It was difficult to store up for the next planting when everyone was hungry, and they knew better than to burn a contact who could get them seeds.

A few minutes later, she and Jen had squeezed into a crawlspace near the roof of a tall building overlooking the garden, and her recorder was pointed out the grate over the garden while she checked her angles. Robin leaned over and offered a black cylinder to the dealer.

"Jen, I brought two cameras in case one gave out, paranoid like that. Get over in front of that grate there and point this at the other side of the barricade, press this button when I give you the thumbs up. Don't say anything while it's recording, we can't have our voices on these tapes. Hold the camera steady and do me proud." She got a nod in response.

Robin heard the police convoy coming even before she could see them. They came into view a couple blocks away, three cars and a bulldozer. Swinging around, there were another three cars coming the opposite way. She gave Jen the signal, and heard the little whirring noise from the other camera. Wouldn't be quiet enough to hear that for long, but at the moment, all the residents in the area had either cleared out for the day or were sitting very still somewhere, like her and Jen. Even the chickens must have been put somewhere they could no longer be heard.

The police intended to make an example of this garden. There had been several short shootouts there over the past month, more raids from rival gardeners than usual, then nothing for a week, and then the Garris gardeners had gotten the tip. The police had been testing them directly and through informants, looking for the best time of day to attack.

A couple people were out weeding even now to preserve the illusion, but they were armed and armored under their bulky clothes. On closer inspection, though, the chicken coops were now empty. The animals couldn't be risked, it was a felony to try smuggling livestock in through a checkpoint.

The patrol cars pulled up on both sides of the wide, green plot. One of the officers had a bullhorn, and his hazmat gear was padded under by bulky armor. "Stop where you are and put your hands up. We have a warrant for the arrest of anyone involved in unauthorized land appropriation, and an order to return this public street to its intended use. We are authorized to use force if we encounter any resistance." Two officers started to move in from either side, going along the edges of the buildings to secure the area.

A body fell from a nearby window and landed in the path of one of the officers. It was wearing police gear, and had fallen like a stone, without crying out on the way down. Another one fell from somewhere else, now the police were all yelling, and the two gardeners dropped to the dirt between another line of barriers just before they opened fire. A third body fell out of a window, making no more protest than the other two. The camera had by chance been trained in the right direction, and it caught a bright, brief flash of red staining its hazmat suit.

The two decoy gardeners started shooting towards the advancing police, but ended up just firing over their heads. Fire from overlooking windows chipped the cement walls of the complexes, one of the officers took a shot in the foot. His boots were armored, but it was a weak point, and he'd probably get a broken bone out of it.

It was over quickly once the bodies dropped, when it was clear that there was only unfriendly fire coming from the overhanging windows. The officers retreated to their armored squad cars and peeled out of the neighborhood. The bulldozer had already retreated, and she panned the camera down to the garden where the residents were gathering up the bodies of the snipers. She turned the camera off, reaching over to do the same to the one Jen held.

"Thanks, Jen. This was worth every penny."

"We're not done, let's get down from here."

Jen led the way out and down to the garden. "Now get your camera ready, and pan across as we're walking out. Everyone's expecting you, and they're all pretty covered up so they won't mind being filmed. Make sure and get footage of the bodies." Robin could swear that Jen was smiling under her mask, but she'd never figured that the soft-spoken woman was so bloodthirsty.

Roy was waving her over, pointing to the ground. The camera caught other residents picking up spent casings and stripping the gear off the bodies, only to reveal that they were weighted dummies. Someone's old rubber sex dolls had been drafted to a serious purpose, and she almost laughed out loud imagining that part of the neighborhood planning meeting.

Robin was directed to point the lens toward the door of another building, where four groggy police officers wearing only boots, filter masks and underclothes were led out gagged and handcuffed. Robin didn't need to be told to follow as the four were chased down the street with pebbles and catcalls.

One of the gardeners, most of her face hidden behind a stolen police face plate and biohazard mask, looked directly at the camera. She made a slightly muffled, but not garbled, statement. "We don't want to kill anyone, we just want some decent food. Open up some grocery stores in here and you can have the damn street back." She turned away and ducked down an alley.

When she switched it off, Roy talked with her a little more. "You tell them out there," hope and anger struggling in his voice, "you tell them we're not animals in the CZ. You tell them they are being lied to about this place, and they better get some facts out of the Fed. We're not all sick, we're not all criminals, and we don't deserve to get shipped off to some hell thousands of miles away. Goddam."

Their paper overclothes had held up well, considering, but she and Jen looked pretty grungy as they headed back. Outside Jen's apartment, they put the jackets and overalls in the bin before walking inside. Robin added her footies to the bin, Jen set her regular overshoes near the pile with everyone else's.

"You're not mad about the extra grand now?" Jen was pulling off the grate again.

"I think I'll be able to convince my editor to sign off on the cash expenses, and I know it won't be hard to wrangle a trip back now. Of course, these tapes were taken by persons unknown in order to brag about their exploits, and I only got that interview at a pre-arranged drop-off after it was all over." She winked. "You see, I had no idea what I was going to be handed." She was snapping the mini-discs out of the cameras and replacing them with blanks. "Now I call my cab and go the hell back." The call was quick, but the driver said it would be about ten minutes, so she'd wait here for a bit before heading out.

"You know, I've always meant to ask how you get the pills through decontamination. Not that you have to tell me, though."

Robin opened up another compartment in the back of the camera, and she slid the blister packs in. She opened up the other, placed the two recordings of the shootout inside, and padded the space with some tissue. The circle had modified these cameras so she could carry things for them, with airtight compartments that just looked to the security monitors like an extension of the electronic paneling that surrounded the central lens apparatus. She'd discovered their fortuitous size one day and never looked back.


"Yeah. They're for, ah, extra camera gear. I got something for you, too, by the way. Here, you said you liked these."

Jen looked at the little box of truffles and put her hand over her mouth. She'd been reminiscing about them last time Robin came by. "My favorites. I swear, I wasn't trying to shake you down for this. You didn't ..."

"It's alright. I wanted to. Don't worry about it, it isn't a big deal out there."

"Well, thanks. Now get going, I don't want you giving away my apartment to some cabbie. You never know who they're snitching for."

"Yeah, yeah. I'll see you next time. You know how to reach me if there's anything big going down."

"Be sure to. Something's bound to come up in the next couple months."

Robin flashed a last wave and a smile on her way out, then booked down to the alley and back behind the building where she'd been dropped off. When she thought she heard the cab, she called his cell to make sure it was him, and headed on out.

She managed not to doze off on the way back to the office, not easy, but it had been a good day. Paul would be happy, her editor would be happy, and this footage was exactly what Holy Joe and the circle wanted. Chaos in the CZ, complete disrespect for authority, residents trying to gain sympathy by lying about the government, all live on the six o'clock news.

It was more interesting to cover than press conferences, anyway. Too bad they didn't allow correspondents in war zones anymore, she was getting better at this.

To be continued.

Part 2 < > Part 4

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Posted by natasha at April 4, 2005 02:18 AM | Fiction | Technorati links |


Posted by: paradox at April 4, 2005 01:12 PM

It was more interesting to cover than press conferences, anyway.

With less lies, too.

Great story, natasha.

Posted by: Mary at April 4, 2005 10:26 PM