The Last Handful of Clover

Chapter 3.02 Show Me the Fucking Truth

Book Three — The Stone in the Stream

NOTE: This chapter is available in audiobook format on the TLHOC Podcast.
Access previous chapters of the book on the Table of Contents page.

June 15, 10:06 pm

As darkness deepened across the city, the KUTV newsroom made the reluctant decision to call in all of their field crews.

Earlier in the afternoon, before they knew how bad things were going to get, they had sent more than a dozen teams out into the streets—covering everything from the fires to the riots, and whatever else they stumbled across. But by sundown it had simply become far too dangerous. And after a second reporter was killed in the Sugarhouse riots—on camera this time—station management decided that there was nothing else they could do. Now that night was falling, keeping their people safe had to take precedence, even over the people’s right to know.

Morgan Jensen and her cameraman, Stan Kirshner, arrived at the KUTV studios in the Wells Fargo Building at 10:00 pm—just an hour after they had been called back, and just before the declaration of imminent martial law was being broadcast. They piled into the building past a surprising number of nervous, aggressive, and poorly trained security guards, dropped their equipment in the storage lockers off the lobby, and rushed to the elevators. The newsroom was on the 21st floor, and Morgan thought the elevators had never moved so slowly.

There was a TV monitor in the elevator, but no sound. The piped in audio was typical Utah easy listening, the Mantovani providing an ironic accompaniment to the faces of the anchors on the screen. Phil King and Brenda Weaver looked desperately haggard, but what caught Morgan’s eye weren’t the anchors themselves, as much as the text on the bottom of the screen. She nudged Stan and pointed.

MARTIAL LAW EXPECTED, it read, in bold italics.

The scrolling line beneath was still moving: …curfew in effect. Police authorized to fire upon anyone found out after dark…

“Jesus Christ,” Stan murmured, just as the elevator doors opened.

“Morgan! Stan! Thank god you’re safe!”

The reporter looked down from the screen to see her producer, Rhonda Ferguson, advancing on them down a strangely dark and empty hallway. Rhonda was a squat little forty-something woman with a face that never earned her a shot at the anchor chair, but a newshound’s instincts that were sharper than anyone Morgan had ever met. She’d been her producer for four years now, and nobody at the station knew Morgan’s strengths and weaknesses as a reporter better than Rhonda.

“Come on,” the woman rasped, grabbing Morgan’s wrist. “We’re going to need you on the air, pronto. Phil and Brenda have about exhausted their storehouses of banter and every synonym for ‘shocking’ they know.”

“Wait, you want me on the set?” Morgan stammered. “I’m not dressed to anchor!”

“Do you really think anybody gives a fuck how you’re dressed tonight, Jensen? Come on! We only have a few minutes. Just comb your damn hair, and you’ll be fine.”

Rhonda hustled Morgan and Stan into a conference room just off the set, where the station manager, a half dozen junior producers, and a few station big-wigs were gathered around a whiteboard. It was so full of writing, sticky notes, and arrows that just looking at it made her head hurt. She took a deep breath.

“Okay, tell Morgan where we are,” Rhonda said, sinking into a chair at the conference table.

Larry Wiggins, the station manager, seemed suddenly more interested in her than the big board.

“Morgan! Thank God! The last we heard from you was at the hotel fire, and that’s been,” he checked his watch, “almost two hours ago! We thought… I guess we thought the worst.”

Morgan sighed. “No trouble. At least, not any more than you would have expected to run into in Syria or Afghanistan.”

“What happened?”

Larry pulled out a chair, and Morgan realized how exhausted she was the second her knees bent. She fell the last two inches onto the red cushion. “Well, we got your call to come in. But then, somehow, the radio feed crapped out. It might have been a power surge, or maybe something got wet. Anyway, we tried to call, but the phones have been hit-and-miss all night.”

“It still shouldn’t have taken you an hour! You were only a dozen blocks away.” That was Levi Cannon, a colleague of Rhonda, and the producer for the morning talk hour. He was younger than Rhonda, but looked like he’d been left out in a rainstorm. Morgan didn’t ask why.

“We had to hole up for a bit,” Stan said, seriously underplaying the shit the two of them had just gone through.

“Hole up?” Rhonda asked.

“Somebody put a brick through our windshield about five blocks from here,” Morgan said. “And then we heard gunshots, and military vehicles were blocking the road. A car was on fire in front of us. There was a group of National Guardsmen behind us, and they were shooting at somebody we couldn’t see. We abandoned the car, took what we could carry, and ran into a 7-11, just to get off the street.”

“To be honest, we kept our heads down behind the counter, so we didn’t see much,” Stan added, leaning heavily against the door frame. “They shot out all the windows, so we didn’t dare look up.”

“We stayed there for about a half hour,” Morgan sighed, gripping the edge of the table. “When the streets were clear, we made a run for it. We um… didn’t try to get back to the car, so we lost a lot of our gear.”

Rhonda finally relaxed. “Fuck the gear, Morgan. We’re just glad to get you here. Don’t worry. You’re not going back out. Nobody is. We’ve locked down the building.”

“Yeah, we noticed. Where in the hell did you get that kind of security? They scared the shit out of us.”

“Maybe you were too scared to notice that only about half were in uniform.”

Morgan had noticed, actually. She’d even noted that one of the “guards” was a guy they called Petey, the janitor who cleaned the newsroom five nights a week. The fact that he didn’t look like he knew what to do with the gun he was holding hadn’t been comforting.

“The guards have shot three people already who tried to storm the building,” Mia Everett said. She was head of the news division and was as tough as nails. Morgan wondered if she wouldn’t rather be down there with a sidearm.

“Morgan, you probably don’t know this,” Rhonda said, her voice suddenly grave. “But at least three of our reporters are dead out there.”

Morgan’s face went pale. “Who died?”

“Jesse, Shane, and Willard Palmer.” the producer replied, her voice somber.

Morgan immediately shot a look at Martha Gillespie. She had been Palmer’s producer, and the rumor was that they were sleeping together. Her eyes were glazed. “Willard died on camera. During a live shot from the riots up in Sugarhouse.”

“Oh my god,” Morgan said, in shock. Willard had been a good friend and colleague. He was one of the station’s most experienced reporters and he had always wanted to stay on the street. He’d turned down the anchor chair more times than she could count.

“How did it happen?” she asked.

“From what we saw, it was a guy with a length of pipe, or maybe it was a black metal bat,” Martha said. “It was hard to tell, it happened so fast. The guy just came out of nowhere.” The producer’s eyes were wet, but her voice was steady.

“Oh, Martha, I’m so sorry…” Morgan whispered.

Rhonda stood up. “Come on, everybody. We need to pull ourselves together. Chances are Willard isn’t going to be the last one we lose before this thing’s over.”

Mia Everett leaned forward, her elbows on the table. “Morgan, did Rhonda tell you? We need you on the air. Phil and Brenda have been carrying the broadcast for hours, and they’re both about ready to drop. I was trying to get Felix here, since he’s the weekend anchor. But it seems he and his family are out of town, and nobody can reach him. So we’re going to have to ask you to step up.”

“But if we don’t have any reporters out there, what are we reporting?” Morgan asked, her head reeling.

“Well, we’re struggling, no doubt about that,” the station manager said. “But we’re getting a lot of call-in reports from the public. The phones are spotty, but you’d be surprised how many people still seem to be able to send e-mails and video. We’re putting some of that on the air as it comes in, if we think it’s credible. And we’ve still got hard lines open with the emergency response center up at the capitol.”

“They have lots of… opinions.” Martha said.

“They just declared martial law.” Rhonda added.

Morgan blanched. “Yeah, I saw that. On the elevator monitor when we were coming up.”

Larry Wiggins circled the table and sat on the hard surface, towering over Morgan. That’s a power move if ever I saw one, she thought.

“Basically, we’re trying to gather information as quickly as possible, and get it out on the air,” he said. “It’s like no kind of journalism I’ve ever experienced. We don’t have time to check anything, so we’re reporting a lot of rumors. We’re basically flying by the seat of our pants here.”

“It’s all we can do,” Rhonda said, sounding suddenly exhausted.

Morgan looked at her watch. It was 10:15. She did some quick math in her head.

“So what has been going on tonight started maybe ten hours ago. If this city could fall apart this much in ten hours, what in the hell is going to happen overnight? Do we have any idea?”

Martha cleared her throat. “Well, I’ve been the point person with the emergency response team at the Capitol. They’re trying to act confident, but I can tell that they’re terrified. Once the sun went down, panic really set in. That’s why they got the governor to declare martial law, and especially why they put in place the curfew. Effective immediately, everybody has to be off the streets. Phil and Brenda are focusing on that right now. The message is that,” she looked at her watch, “starting in about ten minutes, any civilian out on the street risks getting shot.”

“We think that message is working,” Levi said. “At least, it seems like the streets have begun to clear out. We’ve been watching from the roof. At least in downtown, the streets seem clearer.”

“But staying inside isn’t helping. Not really,” Rhonda said, her tone decidedly sharper. “From the calls and messages we’re getting, it sounds like the violence that was happening in the streets is just moving indoors. We’re hearing about people going crazy in their own homes. Killing their families. Killing themselves.”

Morgan couldn’t process that, so she changed the subject.

“On our way back here we saw a lot of cops in the streets. And soldiers. Both Army and National Guard.”

“Yeah, that’s right. The Guard was deployed about three or four hours ago, by order of the governor.”

“It was because the cops were shooting each other,” Larry said, his head in his hands.

Morgan wasn’t sure she heard that correctly. She turned to the station manager. “Excuse me? What did you just say?”

“That’s right. The cops were shooting each other. Still are, probably.”

“How is that possible?”

He looked up at her and spoke slowly. “Possible? Possible? I don’t know! How is any of this possible? It seems that every once in a while a cop just… goes crazy. They open fire on either the crowds, or more often, on other officers. The only thing that seems to stop them is when the other cops turn their guns on them. I know, it sounds crazy, but we’ve heard from the chief of police that it has happened at least a dozen times.”

“That we know of,” Rhonda added.

“Yeah, that we know of. Probably a lot more. Same thing seems to be happening with the firefighters, who’ve more than once turned their hoses on the crowds, and away from the fires. Several of them have been shot too.”

“But it’s not just the cops,” Rhonda said. “Now it’s happening to the Army and Reserve guys too. And they have a lot more firepower than the cops. Calling them in may have just made everything worse.”

Morgan was stunned. “Do we have any idea how many… casualties there are?”

Wiggins snorted. “We have no idea. Thousands, certainly. Maybe tens of thousands. There just isn’t any way to know.”

Mia Everett was looking at her notes. “I have an inside source that says the cops and the military are considering disarming completely, and trying to quell the violence without any lethal weapons. I understand that the fight about it among the brass is epic. But in the meantime, they have pulled a lot of the units out of the streets, and especially away from the riots.”

“Are they still saying it is some kind of chemical attack?”

“Psht. Who the fuck knows,” Mia said. “The CDC thinks it isn’t acting like a virus or any known agent. But nobody from the emergency management center is even trying to guess any more. They told us to stop asking.”

Morgan scanned the board, and the dozens of arrows of various colors that were linking all the notes the news staff had been making all evening. She couldn’t shake the feeling that, although it all appeared to be totally random, that there was some kind of pattern behind it all. And it was obvious from the board that everyone else in the newsroom had been looking for those connections too.

The news director was still talking. “…I guess our only good news is that the curfew seems to be helping. The streets are clearing out, and so many people were being attacked during the riots that the crowds have mostly scattered. That has to be some kind of good news.”

“The only really good news would be that this nightmare ended as suddenly as it began,” Morgan said, rubbing her eyes. “But without fire crews out there, this entire city could burn to the ground before that happens.”

Levi pointed to one corner of the board. “There are now close to two hundred fires, mostly burning out of control because there are nowhere near enough fire crews to address them. And like the soldiers, there are lots of reports of fire fighters disappearing from their trucks.”

“Disappearing?”

“Yeah. Maybe deserting is a better word. Just walking away. Probably leaving to go home and protect their families. That’s what everybody thinks is going on. It’s hard to see this happening and not want to be home to protect your kids. We’ve lost more than half of our folks here too.”

“That makes sense,” Morgan said, thoughtfully. “Go home. Or maybe, get out of the city completely.”

“Oh, people have been trying. The roads are jammed in all directions. They’ve pretty much shut down traffic out of the city. I guess they’re trying to prevent panic.”

“No, fuck that,” Mia said, slapping her hand against the table. “That’s not why they shut down the fucking roads. They’re scared. They’re worried this is something viral. They’re saying it’s a public safety thing, but I think they’ve been ordered to close the roads by CDC or maybe even the fucking president. I think we’re quarantined.”

“Mia, stop it! You don’t have any proof of that!” the station manager barked.

“You don’t need proof, you just need to use your fucking brains!” she spat back.

Rhonda shot to her feet and used an empty coffee cup as a gavel against the table. “Okay, everybody stop. This isn’t helping anybody!”

So, this is how fragile we are, Morgan thought. The social order. It only takes a few hours to snap it completely.

She looked around the room and saw it in their weary, panicked faces. When society operated smoothly, it was designed to handle chaos and disorder, but that ability was limited. Once a critical mass of chaos was reached and the social contract snapped, the violence would just spin out of control, unrestrained.

She had to suppress a sense of hopelessness—a feeling that Salt Lake City was now well past that tipping point, and no force in the universe could halt their slide into chaos and oblivion.

“Is it just us?” she asked, her voice sounding pathetic even to her. “It’s not happening anywhere else?”

“Yeah. Mostly, just the city,” Wiggins said, his voice calmer now. “There are a few reports from Provo. But Ogden seems fine. And the cities in the mountains like Park City and Heber seem totally unaffected.”

“And nobody from outside is coming to help?”

“It doesn’t look like it,” Mia said. “We’re the pariah now. If it’s viral, nobody wants to catch it. If it’s a chemical in the air, nobody wants to be exposed to it. It looks like the federal government has just decided to wait it out, and then try to pick up the pieces later. If there are any.”

Morgan took a deep breath and turned to the newsroom staff.

“So, you want me to go out there and relieve the anchors, and keep us broadcasting. And what, exactly, am I supposed to say?”

The silence was deafening as everybody in the room looked at each other. It was clear they were going to throw her to the wolves, and they looked almost embarrassed.

Rhonda finally broke the silence.

“I know this is difficult, Morgan. And we’ll feed you information—as much and as quickly as we can. All we can do is tell people what we know.”

“Which is basically nothing.”

“Well, not completely. We’ve stopped reporting on individual crimes and attacks, for the most part, since… Well, since there are so many. But we’re still trying to put out word about the fires and the riots, and anywhere that seems especially dangerous, telling people to steer clear, or evacuate if the fires are spreading. New hot spots are cropping up all the time. We try to get information about those on the air as quickly as we can, as soon as we find out about them.”

“We can still do a lot of good,” someone said, but Morgan couldn’t tell who.

“And there is one more thing.” The station manager looked embarrassed. “The governor, mayor, and the chief of police have all told us the same thing. They have asked us to be,” he cleared his throat, “as reassuring as we can.”

Morgan couldn’t help herself. She barked out a laugh before it registered that nobody else in the room thought it was funny. She realized they had probably been arguing about this directive for some time.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!”

“Panic doesn’t serve anybody,” Rhonda said.

 “Look,” Wiggins said, exasperated. “We only have a few simple messages at this point that can do any good at all.” He counted them off on his fingers. “One, stay in your homes. Two, we’re under martial law. Three, if you go out, you may get shot. Four, the authorities are getting things under control. And five, you’ll be safe in your homes.”

“Even though we know that the last two are bullshit?”

“What do you want from me, Morgan?” Wiggins asked, his hands open and pleading. “Do you want me to tell people to panic? Do you want us to throw up our hands and tell our viewers that they’re all going to die?”

“Maybe we could just tell them the truth!” Morgan spat, shooting to her feet.

“Do you know the fucking truth, Morgan? Because I sure as hell don’t! Tell you what, you show me the fucking truth and I’ll tell them myself!” Wiggins looked like the veins in his neck were about to explode. “Jesus Christ, this city is falling apart! Nobody knows what the hell is going on! But we still have power, and people still have televisions, and for now, they still think we know what the fuck we’re doing here! We’ve got to keep our goddamn heads on our goddamn shoulders!”

In the silence that followed, one of the runners who had been manning the switchboard burst into the room.

“Sorry to interrupt, but we have a situation out at the prison,” he said, breathless.

“What is it?” Rhonda shot back, moving to make a fresh note on the board.

“A guy got a call through. He said he is a guard at Point of the Mountain. Or was, at least. He told me that the guards began killing each other about an hour ago, and then somebody opened all the cells and just released all the prisoners.”

“Jesus Christ,” Rhonda said, under her breath.

“He said that he barely got out alive. I only got one quote before the line cut out.”

“What is it?” Morgan asked. The man looked at his notes and read. “He said, ‘They’re out now. Every single inmate, and every guard that isn’t already dead. I think the prison is totally empty, except for all the bodies…’”

The Last Handful of Clover is a supernatural thriller by Wess Mongo Jolley. Thanks for reading! If you are enjoying this story, please consider supporting the author on Patreon.

For more information (including maps of the story’s world and a contact form) visit the author’s website.

To read previous chapters of this book, go to the Table of Contents page.

If you’re interested in listening to the book, rather than reading it, the audiobook is available at the Patreon link above, and also as a podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Anchor, and all other podcast platforms. Visit the podcast page for more details.

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Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.

Wess Mongo Jolley

Wess Mongo Jolley is Utah native, who is now an expatriate American novelist, editor, poet and poetry promoter, living in Montreal. He is Founder and Director of the Performance Poetry Preservation Project, and is most well known for hosting the IndieFeed Performance Poetry Channel podcast for more than ten years. His poems and short stories have appeared or journals such as Off The Coast, PANK, The New Verse News, and Danse Macabre, Apparition Literary Journal, Grain, and in collections such as the Write Bloody Press book The Good Things About America. He loves hearing from readers, and can be contacted through his website, at https://wessmongojolley.com. If you are enjoying this story, please drop him a line, and consider supporting his work as a novelist at http://patreon.com/wessmongojolley. All of the trilogy's over 207 chapters are available there for subscribers, and new poems, short stories, and other content is posted there every Friday.

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