The phone rang and I answered it quickly.
"Is this Mr. Marshall?" a bored man's voice asked.
"Yes, it is," I replied.
"We've located your employer, Miss Stiglianese. An officer will be bringing her over to your hotel."
"Where did you find her?" I asked. "Is she okay? Does she need medical–"
But he had hung up.
It had been a tense night. I had been supposed to meet her at a cafe after her meeting with her publisher, but she hadn't shown up, and I'd drunk many cups of expresso while I waited, so I was very jumpy by the time the cafe had closed and I'd returned to the hotel. I was up most of the night.
Then, about an hour after the call, the door to the suite opened, and she stumbled in and threw her arms around me.
I restrained any sarcastic comment as she squeezed me, her chin digging into my shoulder. She looked scared and shaken and deperately glad to see me, though we had been together only the afternoon before. I put one arm around her.
"Marshall, how old are you?" she asked quietly, still holding me tight.
I told her.
"Did we just come back from Bellona?" she asked next.
"Yes," I replied. This conversation was becoming rather peculiar, even for her.
There was a pause, then she asked what year it was. I told her, wondering what I would do if she had finally flipped out.
She made a thoughtful sound.
"Do you know why I'm asking you these particular questions?" she asked.
"No, not really."
She pulled away from me a little and said, "I have to get some sleep."
I helped her into her bedroom and we started to get her undressed. I wondered how her clothes had got so dirty. But then, as she was standing in her underwear, reaching for her nightgown, she stopped.
"No," she said firmly, as if chiding herself. "I need to think. A lot."
I knew what that meant. I would find her hours later, the room full of stale pipe smoke, sitting cross-legged on the bed. And she would have figured out something. Which she would almost certainly not share with me.
She put her nightgown on as I fetched her pipe and tobacco.
"Get what sleep you can," she said as I closed her door. She looked at me steadily as she lit her pipe. "We're probably going to be very busy, very soon."
I made the mistake of turning on the radio as I got undressed. Every station was covering the same story. Slum secedes from the United States. Crazy kids take over poor ghetto area. Situation well in hand. Foreign religious fanatics suspected. Situation out of control. Cops shooting cops. Criminals run wild. Terrorism suspected. Drugs involved.
Of course, that was where she was going to take us.
But then, four hours later, as we were heading out the door, as I was wondering how we were going to get into an area apparently surrounded on all sides by police, the phone rang. It was a local radio station, saying that because of the U-town situation, they were canceling her appearance the next day to talk about Bellona.
She took the receiver from me. "That's fine," she said, "and I'll come right over today to talk about U-town. Goodbye."
It took her about ten minutes to get onto the radio program once we got to the studio, and then it took them about an hour and a half to get her off. I don't know the whole story, I was listening to it on the radio in our rental car as I waited for her, double-parked. When she came down and got back into the car, she looked very pleased with herself, but all she said was, "U-town," as if everybody already knew where it was and how to get there.
On the other side of the river, it didn't feel any different. It looked different, though, since it was dark.
I don't mean the lack of man-made illumination, though the power did seem to be out. There was no sun. It wasn't the way the sky gets dark before a sudden storm, the air didn't feel like there was a storm coming. It felt like a pleasant autumn night. But it was only mid-afternoon. And my employer, the ace reporter, didn't seem interested in this phenomenon at all.
Then we rounded a corner and there were barricades across the street. A couple of police officers leaned against them as they watched what was happening on the other side. They didn't react as we parked the car and walked around the barricades. I looked up at the street signs so we'd be able to find the car again, but they were gone. I could hear the rental charges mounting up in my mind.
A column of troop carriers was stopped on the bridge. This was obviously no longer a police matter. Huge pilings had been placed across the base of the bridge, blocking the trucks from coming any further. An officer with many medals pinned on his fatigues stood on one of the pilings, soldiers all around him. He looked to be in his fifties, and his expression was grave.
Facing him was a young woman with short dark hair in a bowl cut, wire rim glasses, dressed in jeans and an army jacket which looked a bit too large for her.
The area at the base of the bridge was full of hundreds of people, mostly (not not all) rather young and shabby, at least as well as I could tell in the dark. They were very quiet, as if straining to hear, and we moved forward. The moon was out.
From what I could see in the gloom, the troops were not like the ones we had seen in Belona. Those soldiers had been grown men, serious, highly trained, implacable as they tried to roll over a whole country.
These looked like kids, trying to look determined, but not quite sure of themselves. Which had something to do with the fact that the unnatural darkness and situation were obviously making them uneasy.
The police who were there looked older and more competent, but they didn't move, they just stood and watched.
"All these people will resist you taking us away," the woman said. "What would the charges be?" I wondered how we were able to hear her so clearly.
"This is not a police matter. This is United States territory–"
"Not anymore. Nobody here recognizes your authority."
"We don't want anybody to get hurt."
"You're the ones with the guns." She waved a hand. "Are you prepared to kill everybody you see here today? Because that's what it will take. We're not going into custody, and we're not giving up. Your country has nothing to offer us, nothing that we want or need."
"If you have all forgone your United States citizenships, then you are enemy combatants." This got the attention of some people in the crowd, and I wondered if they had thought about all the implications of this.
"We are not your enemies, unless you make us that. We are not combatants, because we don't combat."
She raised her voice. "A week ago, American tanks rolled into Enyo, the capital city of Bellona. They rolled over whatever was in their path, on their way to 'restore order.' They rolled over people's homes, their few possessions, over their pets and even in some cases over their children. There are tanks on the other side of this bridge here, ready to move into U-town. Are these the same tanks, now prepared to roll over us, to 'restore order' here, because we are no longer citizens of their country? The people of Bellona stopped those tanks, and we can stop these trucks. And the tanks, too, if we have to."
There was a rustle among the soldiers at the mention of the massacre at Enyo, as there had been in the crowd at the mention of citizenship. I didn't like the Enyo situation being dragged into this one. I felt somewhat possessive about that event, since we had been there, and I was pretty sure that this mystery woman had not.
The officer made a gesture and a troop of men surged forward and lifted the piling, pivoting it out of the way. The first truck drove forward and, as soon as it passed where the piling had been and moved into the crowd, the motor died and it rolled to a stop. The second truck plowed into the back of the first truck, and the third truck barely stopped before there was a second collision. I couldn't tell if anybody had been run over.
As the crowd surged forward, Jan Sleet stepped forward also, but I grabbed her arm and pulled her back. "Reporters are supposed to observe," I commented.
She grinned. "I want to observe what it's like to be in the middle of that," she said with a grin, though she didn't try to pull away from me. We watched as the people crowded forward and blocked the ramp from the bridge.
"You have no authority here, you are not wanted and you are not needed," the woman said as various soldiers talked into various kinds of radios, none of which seemed to be working.
The police continued to stand impassive, watching.
The fourth truck had already stopped on the bridge, well back before the end of the ramp. The driver got out and stood, arms folded. At first I thought he was trying to avoid whatever had happened to the other trucks, but from the reactions around him and the evident arguments as soldiers poured off the back of the truck, it became obvious that he had simply refused to go any farther.
After that, surprisingly, the protestors were better organized than the soldiers. For one thing, nobody from the protestors was running over to enlist in the military, but several soldiers and police had come over and joined the ragged group blocking the bridge.
"That's Jack," my employer said, pointing at a tall man who was standing on the hood of a derelict car. He was yelling and using hand gestures to direct the crowd. I could tell that he had people scattered throughout who were following his instructions and trying to steer things in the direction he wanted.
The soldiers seemed disoriented and disorganized without their radio communications, whereas hand signals and shouting were obviously working fine. The soldier who had refused to drive the fourth truck ripped the insignia from his uniform as he ran down the bridge and joined the mob.
Then my employer's fingers clamped onto my arm and she said, "Oh, my god." I turned to follow her gaze, and saw the army commander, who, frustrated by the chaos, was drawing his sidearm. The woman he had been arguing with was gone, but he had his eyes on the man Jan Sleet had identified as Jack.
"Vicki!!" Jan Sleet shrieked, pointing at the officer. A second later, as he raised his arm to fire, there was a rustle in the crowd hear him and then there was something I couldn't really see, sort of a dark blur, and he lost his balance and fell off the piling onto one of his men.
Eventually, amid a lot of confusion, the soldiers retreated. The trucks which were still on the bridge worked. The two which had crashed were left behind. Some people in the crowd started to throw things at the retreating force, but Jack motioned, directing his people to put a stop to this. Apparently, yelling was okay (and much yelling was going on), but I guess he thought that throwing things wasn't going to accomplish anything at that point.
My employer moved to where the woman was talking to Jack and another man and a little girl in a leather jacket. The woman was Doc Morse, the head of U-town, who my employer had mentioned many times on the radio. The two men were Jack Longstreet and Ray Stone, Doc Morse's cohorts. Jan Sleet had described them to me in the car, and I recognized them, though I thought she had exaggerated how handsome Jack Longstreet was.
They greeted her warmly, and she introduced them to me, which was unusual. The little girl's name was Vicki, and she gave me a strange smile when we were introduced. She had a very strong grip.
She seemed to be wearing pointed elf ears, like some sort of Halloween gag.
"We heard you on the radio," Jack said. "How did you manage to get on?"
My employer simpered and fluttered her eyes at him. I've told her how silly that makes her look, but she doesn't pay any attention.
"It seemed like the way I could help the most," she murmured.
"What happened today? What was wrong with their trucks and radios?" Doc asked.
Ray lit a cigarette. "I have no idea."
Doc smiled. "I hate to sound like a movie, but I thought that was too easy."
Ray shrugged. "Are there a lot of precedents for this situation?"
"Not that I'm aware of," Doc admitted.
Ray made a face as he pulled on his cigarette. "I do agree that something is screwy here, though, even apart from whatever happened to their engines and radios and so on."
"They have an idea," Doc said slowly. "Some kind of idea."
"And we need to have a better one," Jack added. He turned to Vicki. "Well, here's my idea. I'd like to have you stick as close to Doc as possible for the next few days, at least until we have some idea if I'm right."
"Right about what?" Jan Sleet asked.
Jack turned to Doc, who hesitated for a second, then she said, "that they'll move to take me out. Kill me, probably, or at least make me vanish." She made a face. "I suspect you're right. Rumor is that's what Uncle Mike did to Ben Stein, and they were friends."
Jack smiled, and I realized he had been braced for Doc's protests at this idea, and now he was relaxed because she'd agreed with him. I didn't see how Vicki was going to help, though.
The crowd wasn't really ready to disperse. They were still feeling celebratory, and Jack made sure some of his people stayed there to keep a eye on things. Then the six of us walked down one of the streets and around a corner, and suddenly I saw how things really were.
Very few people, very few cars, and most of both looked in pretty bad shape. The streets were dirty, buildings were covered in graffitti, windows were mostly boarded up or broken. And then, in the next block, there was a huge crater in the middle of the street, and several of the buildings were damaged or nearly destroyed.
It was like going around a corner in the United States and walking into Enyo. I heard my employer draw in her breath, and our eyes met. The others noted our reaction, but I thought there was no way they could understand it.
Ray said, "Looked at objectively, it's obviously still a city in the United States. An American city, even bombed to crap, is still nicer than cities in many other countries like Bellona, since they were mostly crappier and more bombed out to begin with."
We walked a few blocks to a very decrepit hotel. Doc led us through the lobby and into a meeting room with a long table in the middle of it. The room looked as though they had left it suddenly earlier in the day, and now they were just sitting down again in the same seats. Jack Longstreet's chair had a pad of paper and a pen in front of it, and a half-empty cup of coffee. Ray Stone's chair had an ashtray in front of it, and several pads of paper. Doc Morse's chair had a stack of papers in front of it, and an empty mug.
Vicki hopped up and sat cross-legged at the end of the table. There was a mug there also, so I guessed that was her usual spot.
Jan Sleet chose an empty chair and sat down, with one empty chair between her and Jack (I saw her hesitate for a minute, considering whether she could sit right beside him). I sat beside her, feeling like I didn't belong there at all.
There was a moment of silence, and I could tell that they were all waiting for Doc to say something. Finally, Vicki grinned and said, "now the work really starts."
Doc laughed. "I was trying to think of some way to say that without actually saying it."
There was a hesitant knock on the door, and Vicki called, "Come in, Pat."
A young girl in a backwards baseball cap poked her head in. She was grinning, but looking very hesitant. "I'm sorry to interrupt," she said quickly, "but I just wanted to say that I thought that was incredible." She raised a fist timidly and said, "yay!" in a very quiet voice, then quickly ducked her head back out and closed the door again.
My employer took out a small notebook and laid it on the table. "Can I ask you some questions?" she asked. "I want to write about this."
"Absolutely," Doc said. "Though we may get interrupted at any time, as you can imagine."
"Of course. So, let's start with this. Why 'u-town'?" Jan Sleet asked. "What does the name mean?"
"It's short for 'undertown.'" Doc explained. "A century ago, that was the nickname for this area. Because it was the lowest area of the city, the closest to sea level, the most southern and the most characterized by crime and poverty."
"And it suggested 'utopia,'" Ray added.
Doc sat motionless for a moment. "Shit," she said finally, with great feeling. "I never thought of that." She laughed. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Ray smiled. "I thought it was kind of obvious."
Doc shook her head, smiling.
"You think this is a utopia?" Jan Sleet asked.
"It's more of a statement of intent," Ray said, lighting another cigarette. He leaned back. "We are part of a long and honorable tradition. It's part of human nature, I believe, to think that things can be improved, and to look for, or at least to imagine, ways they could be improved for a lot of people, and fairly quickly, not just for me alone, and a little bit.
"Of course, any person's 'utopia' will depend on who they are. For many people, of course, it's tied up with their religion. Their utopia is a paradise, either that humanity once had and lost, or that it can attain under the right circumstances. For a long time, people thought the Garden of Eden was a geographical location, somewhere you could walk to or sail to.
"The garden idea has many secular forms, too. Many people, for various reasons, have the idea that cities are machines designed to alienate people and make them unhappy. They want to move out of the city, or at least they imagine this will help.
"For many people, it has meant wanting to get rid of private property. The urge to get rid of private property dates back pretty much to the day after it was invented."
"This is very interesting," Jan Sleet interrupted, "but it's very general. What's your idea of utopia?"
"Well, it doesn't involve nature and gardens," Ray said with a chuckle. "I'm phobic about bugs. And it doesn't involve private property. I haven't had much in my life, and when I have had it, it didn't make me any happier, even when I was convinced that it would. And it doesn't involve god, because I don't think there is one, and I think that's fine.
"I don't think there was a paradise sometime in the past. I think things in human history have been getting very slightly better. Very slowly. And occasionally very quickly."
"Where is the food coming from?" Jan Sleet asked.
"We have a short-term solution," Ray said, smiling faintly. "It's called stealing."
"Oh," she said, apparently surprised.
"And we're pooling our money. Whatever people have–"
"I have some money," Jan Sleet said happily.
I looked at her.
"Well, you have the actual money," she said, "but it's mine, some of it. Some of it's mine."
I gave her a look.
"Yes," she said. "Our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor. Fork it over."
I was glad I'd left some of our money locked up in the hotel safe.
"For the long term," Doc continued, "I suppose we need ... industry. Some way to bring money in."
Jack smiled. "People will support us if we're witty and charming and clever and insightful."
"You make us sound like a nation of gigolos," Ray said
"And that would be bad?"
Doc smiled. "So, we'll–"
"Provide art and entertainment," Jack said happily.
"You think people will want to come here for that?" Jan Sleet asked.
Jack laughed. "You think they won't?"
People were just staying wherever they wanted to in the hotel, including a lot of people who had been left homeless by the bombing. Pat, who seemed to be everybody's assistant, found us two nice adjoining rooms (after the usual awkward questions about whether we needed one room or two). I knew that my employer was dead on her feet, she had been awake for about thirty-six hours at that point, and I went with her to help her get ready for bed.
I thought of waiting to talk to her about what was on my mind, but I wanted her to be thinking about it. As I helped her undress, I said, "I have to say that I don't understand why you came back here, and I don't understand why we're staying."
She shrugged her bony shoulders. "The same reason we went to Bellona."
"The situation isn't the same. That was a good story, people struggling to throw off a military dictatorship that was murdering people right and left. But this is the USA. It's a whole different situation."
She sat on the bed and I helped her swing her long legs around until they were under the covers. "Then why can't I get my book published?" she asked.
I made a face. I sat down next to her. "You want to know why?" I asked. "Because you lost your objectivity. It's a biased book; it's not good reporting."
"What did I say that was wrong?" she asked quietly.
I shook my head. "Nothing is factually wrong, you know that. But as good as writer as you are can shade what you write and add all sorts of implications."
She snuffed out her cigarette and reached to turn off the light as I stood up. "So, it wasn't published because it was a bad book? Well, most of it was serialized in the magazine, that was why they contracted for the book in the first place. If it was bad, it was bad then, too. Why did they want it three months ago and not now?" She smiled suddenly. "You really think I'm a good writer?"