Naked City is a monthly live literary event held at the Goat Farm in Atlanta. Each month, the hosts reveal the theme for the next month and people sign up for the privelege of getting five minutes to speak, sing, or do whatever on the subject of the theme. Go over your five minutes? Then you must spin the Wheel of Consequences!
Starting in February, I began a writing challenge for myself: A crowd-influenced serial called Noir in the Naked City where, at the end of each episode, the protagonist would be faced with a choice. The audience would make the decision for the character, and then the next episode would be written with that choice in mind AND on the next month’s theme.
Episode Five: Oppression
They say the book of life hasn’t been completely written yet. I see that every day, as new decisions get put in front of me and the consequences of those decisions loom out of the darkness. It’s just one damn thing after another. And the latest one was this new dame who had come to tell me that she had a case for me and that it involved my brother.
“You gonna get up and come with me, or are you going to sit on the floor like a jerk?” the dame said. I sat there like a jerk for another minute, then I got up.
“I need a minute to get dressed,” I said. I was still wearing just my coat and was dripping slightly onto my hardwood floors. If I hadn’t lost the deposit on this place by now, this was probably going to be the clincher.
“Hurry,” she said, glancing at her watch.
“Why don’t you tell me a bit more about yourself and why you’re here while I put something on?”
“My name’s Abigail and I don’t want to distract you. From what I hear, you don’t have the greatest attention span. But I will tell you that your brother has gotten mixed up with the Masked Shadow”.
Now there was a name I hadn’t heard in a while.
A few years ago this city had been a real hellhole that had been run by a syndicate that called itself The Masked Shadow. A melodramatic name if there ever was one, but they made the trains run on time, as it were. The trouble was that they did it by ruling the city with an iron fist and suppressing any thoughts or actions that went against the grain. Of course we’d gotten there by being ruled up to that point by a delightful combination of corruption and chaos, a cocktail of ignorance and apathy that made it really easy for the politicians to masquerade total control as total freedom.
Bread and circuses had been just the beginning. Soon enough they had created a situation with two allegedly opposing sides preaching diametrically opposite viewpoints that were really just two heads on the same dragon. Which side was in power depended entirely on which way they needed the pendulum to swing to keep the masses off balance and distracted from the fact that, when all was said and done, they were going to say and do whatever they damn well pleased. It was some of the most brilliant marketing the world had seen since New Coke.
So when the Masked Shadow stepped up, it was a breath of fresh air to a lot of folks. Instead of tricking you into thinking you wanted something, they just beat you over the head with a spiked club until you really did want it. Literally. And for some folks that was better than the alternative.
Since then things had mellowed out a little. The Masked Shadow got usurped by religion, as often happens, and people sort of went through an enlightened phase where they realized that if they could just tolerate each other a little better then they wouldn’t need protection in the form of elected officials or spiked clubs to come to terms with their neighbors.
That’s what this damn cat and his bizarro Neo Nazis were out to change. Nobody had seen anything like me before. The chances of a positive reaction were, frankly, slim. Nobody is that enlightened. The potential for complete chaos was high, and there was an excellent chance that both the politicians and the Masked Shadow were sharpening their knives. So their plan was to create a situation where everybody would get along because all the differences were erased, not just tolerated. And they’d be sure to slip in a little extra just to make sure they stayed in charge.
“And what’s this got to do with my brother?”
“I’ll tell you in the car, let’s go.”
When we got downstairs the car’s engine was running, and had some big galoot behind the wheel who looked like he must have gotten his license from a Cracker Jack box, because there was no way he was going to pass the written part of the exam. I could tell, though, that he could drive like a demon. Guys like that always could.
“I hate cars,” I said.
“Shut up,” Abigail replied turning to look out the window. I had to admit. The dame was growing on me. The car pulled away from the curb and accelerated quickly. My insides lurched. I really do hate cars. Unless it was the company that caused that lurch.
“How do you know my brother?” I asked, trying to take my mind off of it.
“I don’t,” she said curtly, whipping her head around to glare at me, her red hair flashing in the headlights of a passing car. “But I know of him through a mutual friend. That’s where we’re going now. Just as soon as we lose this damn tail.”
I glanced back through the rear window and saw a lone car about a block behind us. I didn’t question how she knew we were being followed – I could tell she knew what she was doing. Just then the galoot driving the car swerved sharply, sending me careening into her. She shoved me away roughly and said “Hit it, Gus. Cover’s blown anyway, might as well go all in.”
Gus grunted and shifted gears, accelerating again. “Where are we going, exactly?” I asked.
“Fifth and main,” she replied. “We’re meeting someone there.”
“Bad idea,” I said. “I just came from a murder scene there this morning.” My mind cast itself back to the grisly scene, the number of cops that were bound to be in the viscinity, and the unlikely coincidence that this should be our meeting place. It stank of a trap.
“You got a better idea?” she snapped?
“I know a safe house on the west side of town.”
“It’s not run by that creep Murray, is it?”
“As a matter of fact, it is. The Empire Nightclub.”
“Could you two make up your minds?” Gus asked. “I can’t go in two directions at once.”
Choice: Go to fifth and main for the meetup or go to the safehouse at the Empire Night Club?