“Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m being handed a bulletin as we’re coming near the end here tonight.”
Through an open window the radio crackled and popped with static from the pirate station coming over the speakers of the parked car. The driver sat with his eyes closed and his hands folded across his lap. “From the American Press Association: It appears that yet another terrorist bomb attack has claimed thirty-seven lives in the Well located in Omaha, Nebraska, including toddlers and single mothers. The governor in Lincoln is denying survivors food, water, shelter and medical attention.
“We here all need to be on the lookout for these crazies,” the voice went on, not reading any more but the man in the car paid no attention. “This is the fifth attack on a Well in three weeks, and they keep getting closer to us. We may be prisoners because of an imposed, outmoded morality but we do have rights.
“However, It’s time for us to break camp so that we can move our operation for tomorrow’s broadcast.” The pirate radio DJ’s signoff was heard elsewhere but the car and the alley it was parked in disappeared in a thunderclap of exploding fire.
Black Bettie’s, the pre-eminent entertainment hotspot in the Well, was only three blocks from the explosion. At four in the afternoon, it was busier than its competitors at their peak times. Patrons enthralled by the dancers on stage barely noticed the frantic man rushing in followed closely by the two gorillas he’d slipped at the door. He shouted at the bartender over the music, repeated himself slowly and then ran out. The bartender turned down the music.
“What the hell, Danny?” Tanya shouted from the stage.
“Boss,” Danny said from the open door to the manager’s office. “There’s a fire on Jameson. All hands on deck.”
On the phone, Frank waved at the bartender and stood up. “I’ve got to go. There’s a fire, all hands on deck.” He walked around to the front of the desk. “I’ll call you as soon as I can.” Frank replaced the handset in its cradle and ran out of the room.
The gorillas were back on the door and Frank stopped, signed to them that the place was closed until he could come back. They nodded. He went out into the fall chill that seemed more pervasive in the Well than it had when he was a free man.
The fire threatened to spread and there were teams working in the alley to keep the damage contained. Trucks were pumping water into hoses and a heavy spray fought the fire. There were hundreds of people ready to help the inhabitants who narrowly escaped. The Miller building and its neighbor the Anderson building were total losses.
Frank cornered the fire chief. “Bill. What happened? Any idea?”
“Witnesses say there was an explosion, Frank ---“ Chief Burleigh said but was interrupted. “GET BACK! EVERYONE GET! BACK!” His crew were trying to move onlookers across the street. “THESE BUILDINGS ARE GOING TO COLLAPSE! GET BACK! BACK!”
Frank ran over and helped work crowd control. It took a lot to scare the prisoners of the Well, and they took pride in that but they did what they were asked. Old and young, male and female, they were all in it together.
The Miller building went down in a fiery heap: spewing ash, dust and debris, lighting up the afternoon sky like a terrible firework. The crowd only a block away gasped and moved as one further backward from the carnage. There were sobs and shouts and words of comfort for the now homeless families. Frank did what he could for those around him and watched the fire crew work.
“Burleigh!” Frank said as the fire chief walked by. “Did everyone get out?”
The fireman, his face smeared with ash, shook his head.
Several hours into the night and thousands of gallons of water later, the fire was under control and the gorillas were lining patrons up to re-enter Black Bettie’s. “Danny,” Frank said as walked in. “Can you get me a ham sandwich sent back?” The bartender nodded and Frank made his way back to his office. Three of the Well’s notable citizens were waiting for him.
“Oh, good,” Frank said. “I was wondering when you all were going to show up again. Get you a drink? Something to eat?”
Noah Barnes jumped right in. “Where’ve you been, Frank?”
“Helping with the fire, Noah, where were you? As a matter of fact, I didn’t see any of you there.” Frank sat behind the desk. “Aren’t we all supposed to pull together when these sorts of things happen? Sharon? Sonny?”
Sonny Mason was the most diplomatic of the group. “Where’s Bettie, Frank? We’re worried. Ever since that thing last year ---“
“I don’t know where she is Mr. Mayor. I wish I did.”
“The boards are full of conspiracies and accusations.” Sharon Haney owned the news feeds in the Well. “Can you just tell us if she’s even alive?”
“Last I knew. I haven’t heard from her in months. You can quote me if that helps.” There was a knock on the door and Tanya came in wearing a red silk robe and carrying a plate with a sandwich and chips. “Nothing’s changed since you were here last week or the week before that. Something does, I promise I will notify you three personally.” He took the plate from Tanya, who smiled at him.
“As the nominal law enforcer in the Well, Frank,” Noah Barnes stood, “I’ll have to pursue charges if Bettie isn’t heard from or doesn’t reappear in forty-eight hours. People need to know they’re safe here.”
“You do what you have to, Noah,” Frank said. “I’ll be right here when you need to feel good about doing your job. You know the way out?”
Sharon lingered after the two men left. “Frank,” she said. “We’re just concerned. She’s been gone… It’s just that we’re concerned. She was a friend to us all.”
“And you think I’m not,” Frank said. He dismissed her with a wave and picked up his sandwich in silence.
The cleanup from the fire was going slowly. Bricks were being piled, ash was being swept; salvage efforts were in full force despite some heat and some smoke. The hole in the block where three buildings used to stand was enormous to the residents, a pit that sat heavy in their minds in the midday sun.
“Bad enough they’ve got us in prison,” Hans said, throwing burnt chair legs into a pile. “Now some bastard wants to blow up our homes. You hear the radio yesterday?”
Another man was sifting through the rubble. “Yeah,” Bobby said.
“They take advantage of us, that we’re all in one place ---“ Hans said.
A young man was on the edge of the rubble of the Miller building. “Sorry to interrupt, but I wondered what I could do to help.”
Hans stood up, brushed off his hands and put them on his hips. “All this has to be moved. Salvage what’s usable for re-building, pile the other stuff over here.”
Bobby picked up a shovel and held it out. “Street sweepers’ll pick up all the ash if we move it over there. That’ll help us a lot if you’ll do that.”
The young man smiled and took the shovel. “Be glad to,” he said. “I’m Donovan Grasp.”
“Hans Dirksen. You new here?”
“Here, yes,” Donovan said. “But I’m from the Well in Portland. Got bombed out there and transferred.” The young man shifted from one foot to another.
“You’ll be welcome here, Don,” Bobby said. “We all do our parts.”
“Are you living here now, Frank?”
“Only on days that end in ‘y’, Hansen,” Frank said from behind the desk and smiled. “It’s been a while.”
Marly Hansen put her hand out to Frank. “I’m all right. Heard Bettie went missing. Need any help with that?”
“That the only reason you showed up?” Frank came out from behind the desk, offered Hansen a chair, and sat next to her when she took it.
“Actually, no,” she said. “I’m working the bombing. I came here first because I know you’re not reactionary like Barnes or Mason. I wanted to touch base with you first.”
“Because I was police?”
Frank sighed. “All right, then. What’ve you got?”
“You’ve heard about the attacks on the other Wells? Portland, Salt Lake, Fargo, Omaha? The bombs?”
“FBI says it’s all the same guy. He’s got skills, training, and he’s out to hurt people. Uses remotes, probably so he can watch the explosions from a safe distance. Could be some kind of crusader given all the rhetoric out there.” Hansen waved her hands wide. “Could be some kind of nutjob, too. No one knows. The pattern’s simply eastward movement, but beyond that there’s really nothing to grab on to.”
Frank sat impassive and unimpressed.
“He’s here, Frank. He’s in the Well.”
©2010 By Jason Arnett.
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