EXCERPT FROM CRY CHAOS

 

Chapter One

 

WHERE IS AMERICA?

    Someone had painted those words on a sheet of plywood. The plywood was nailed to the front of a now-defunct bookstore, an opaque replacement for a now-defunct window. It had been quite a remarkable little store, operating at the same downtown location for decades. Victoria had always enjoyed browsing the shelves and hearing what new titles Helen and Jane were promoting. Operating an independent bookstore at a profit was a challenging proposition under any circumstances. The riots had rendered it impossible. Still, Helen had hung on as long as she could, often proclaiming that, if her beloved Jane were still alive, Jane would know just what to do.

     Victoria knew that Helen had replaced the front display window at least twice, at enormous sacrifice, out of her personal savings—the bookstore’s insurance policy specifically excluding damage caused by rioting. In the end, Helen, elderly and alone, saw that she had only one remaining option, surrender. She discounted everything in a last desperate effort to recover some value from her remaining stock, but, ultimately, most of her precious books were simply stolen. Thieves just walked in, grabbed as much as they could carry, then sauntered out, often with a smirk for Helen. Based on her many years in the book business, Helen said, she was suspicious that those people were not avid readers. The police said that the thieves would try to sell the books for whatever they could get. In the absence of ready buyers, the books would simply be abandoned to rot in some back alley. Naturally, no arrests were made.

    Victoria glanced one last time at the sign.

WHERE IS AMERICA?

    The words would soon be painted over. This was not a sentiment that was approved of by the authorities. Other graffiti, principally the work of rioters, was assiduously preserved on the surfaces of streets and on the sides of public buildings. Defacing these creations could result in serious repercussions—either at the hands of the law or the rioters, whichever happened to catch up with you first.

    The once bustling downtown area was now desolate, its streets lined with derelict buildings—some still largely intact but long-since boarded up and abandoned; others simply reduced to charred rubble. The burned-out buildings reminded Victoria of the heavily bombed Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin. For decades, the blackened remains of the church’s spire had been carefully preserved, a stark reminder of the horrors of war.

    Even those few businesses still fighting the good fight and struggling to remain open had followed Helen’s lead and refitted their windows with plywood. Now though, with the riots returning, Victoria no longer held any hope for the survival of the downtown area. Why did the government not care? Where is America?

    Victoria returned her attention to the sidewalk, navigating as best she could around the denizens who slept there, keeping a sharp eye out to avoid stepping on anything unpleasant or dangerous. Hard experience had taught her not to make eye contact and not to respond to anyone who accosted her verbally. Victoria had parked her car in what she believed to be a relatively safe location, deciding that it was marginally safer to walk the last few blocks. She did not have a fancy car, but carjacking had become a constant worry, and she had been warned that her particular model was highly prized because it was so easy to sell. Victoria had decided that, on balance, if her car were to be stolen, she would prefer not to be in it. For most people, these kinds of considerations had become the fabric of everyday life, but Victoria was confident that no such concerns had entered her father’s mind when he casually asked her to drop by the clinic for lunch.

    Dad was a bit of a head-in-the-clouds type. A professor at the medical school, he had been a brilliant researcher, but his first loves were clinical practice and teaching. With students, he had the patience of Job; with faculty, he did not. Dad had a rigid sense of right and wrong and did not suffer fools lightly. There were constant battles with the administration over laboratory space, clinical trials that he regarded as unwarranted or unethical, the promotion of faculty he saw as unworthy, and on and on. The battles were interminable. In short, the medical students and residents loved him, the administration, not so much.

    Fortunately, a solution was found and peace declared. The medical school would fund the downtown clinic that her father had been calling for, and her father would run it. The clinic would serve the economically disadvantaged and medically underserved. House staff and students would rotate through the clinic and get a taste of real medicine and real people. It was perfect. He had made it clear that he would love for Victoria to join him at the clinic, but she reminded him that she was still only an associate professor and had far too many pressing commitments at the medical school to even think of moving.

And then the riots came.

    Dad was a lifelong liberal of the FDR variety, and Victoria had inherited the gene. Her father had marched for civil rights and equal opportunity, and Victoria doubted that he had ever voted for a Republican. But he simply did not accept that the riots were somehow the next step in the struggle for universal human rights. He regarded the riots as counterproductive and unlawful and could not understand how the government could encourage and support such lawlessness while turning its back on the victims, the most vulnerable of which were the financially destitute population that he was trying to care for. Defund the police? Who was that going to help? As it was, the devastation of the downtown corridor and the unremitting street crime had slowed to a trickle the formerly generous flow of donations from merchants that the clinic had depended on to augment its spare medical school funding.

    Dad knew that leadership truly came from the top, and he had placed his hope in the idea that a new president, with a more liberal bent, would have the respect of the Left and therefore be able to lead it in a more productive direction. He had been desperately disappointed.

    Victoria looked up, and, as though bidden by her own thoughts, new graffiti came into view on a building now just in front of her.

GRANDPA SHOULDN’T BE DRIVING THE CAR

    And beside it, another, even more disconcerting.

IF GRANDPA ISN’T DRIVING, WHO IS?

    Victoria turned a corner and suddenly found herself at the fringe of a swarm of police activity. There were twenty-five or thirty law enforcement officers of various stripes, most outfitted in what she would call SWAT gear. A dozen or more wore bulletproof vests imprinted with the initials FBI. Helmeted and heavily armed, most carried what appeared to Victoria to be automatic weapons. In addition to a large number of generic-appearing police cars, there were two large armored, military-type vehicles. There was every appearance of well-armed troops prepared for battle. In the current climate, in which authorities refused to pursue all but the most extreme and egregious crimes, Victoria could hardly imagine what manner of criminal atrocity had prompted a response of this magnitude.

    She needed to figure a way to circle around the horde of spectators blocking her route so that she could get to the clinic. She signaled a nearby policeman who appeared more dressed to help control the crowd than to engage in mortal combat, but as she did, she felt a tug on her shoulder. Turning, she saw a small man walking away, a vicious-looking box cutter in one hand and her shoulder bag in the other. He opened the bag, then, suddenly furious, threw it on the ground and began to walk back toward Victoria.

    “Don’t even think about it, Miguel.” It was the cop, who had clearly witnessed the theft.

    Miguel hesitated, then slowly turned and walked away.

   The policeman retrieved Victoria’s bag and handed it to her. “It’s smart not to have much in your purse,” he said, “but it’s also a good idea to leave ten or twenty dollars in it. People like Miguel expect to get paid, and when they don’t, things can get ugly. We’ve had some pretty brutal assaults.”

Victoria was incredulous. “You know who he is?”

    “We think so. When he first came to our attention, he had an arrest warrant that he’d been handed when he was apprehended crossing the border. As an arrest warrant, it was meaningless. The feds had no intention of ever enforcing it. Miguel used it for identification, which was precisely the purpose that the government had in mind when they gave it to him. He presented it like it was an American Express Platinum Card. And why not? It gave him free travel to our fair city. It provides him food and healthcare and even a roof over his head.”

    “So, he doesn’t need to steal.”

    “It’s what he does, and, besides, he probably owes a lot of money to whichever cartel got him across the border. You hear about some family of six coming across and paying a cartel three or four thousand dollars apiece. They don’t have that kind of money. They’re indentured to the cartel until it’s paid off. My guess, for most, it never gets paid off.”

    “Can’t he be deported?” Victoria asked. But she knew better.

    “Not once he’s made it to our lovely sanctuary…”

    A sudden burst of activity among the FBI agents drew their attention. The cop went back to supervising the abruptly energized crowd. Victoria studied the scene.

    It looked like the FBI had got their man. He was mostly obscured from her view. A tall man; hands cuffed behind him. They had dressed him in a bulletproof vest, presumably out of fear that some vengeful victim of their prisoner might take a shot at him.

    Then she could see the back of his head. White hair. That was a surprise. He appeared to be scanning the crowd. Then he turned, and she saw his face. Their eyes locked. He offered a faint smile and winked.

    Oh, Dad, what have you done?

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