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The Angels Burned Part 2
Check it out here if you have not read the first part
It was gearing up to be a long night.
The place was packed two-deep with thirsty patrons, and our barback was nowhere in sight. I wouldn’t know it until hours later, but he had quit out of the blue, leaving me to manage the tides myself.
The entrance to our pub was tucked away inside a bricked alleyway, marked with a crooked street lamp. Beyond the frontage of oak and stained-glass windows, the inside oozed with old-fashioned character.
A western fireplace fitted with wrought iron pokers, rickety wooden stools, dozens of triple X whiskey water jugs hanging from the ceiling, and old-world goods for display on the dark shelf-lined walls.
The perfect Old West backdrop for tourists.
That’s how all the seasons go in Vail, Colorado.
When visitors weren’t coming to freeze on the slopes, they came rolling in for the summer glamour, the velvety hills, and the smell of fireweed and creek water in the air.
Stressful as it made my shift, and as much as I wanted to wring the barback’s neck for it, I was used to handling things on my own.
It’s how I cut my teeth in the bar trade—my rite of passage, you might call it. Multi-tasking like a maniac, memorizing cocktail recipes, and answering the electrified calls of drunks—maybe a shot or two on the side to take the edge off.
A few of my regulars were perched along the bar—a triad of glossy-lipped girls fresh in their college years. I could never remember their names, but I always remembered which of them tipped the best.
As the three of them laughed noisily and shouted back and forth to each other, I was keeping an eye on the fellow two stools down from them.
He’d strolled in just as they arrived and settled quickly at the bar.
“What are you thinking, boss?” I asked, taking his order.
“Vodka, neat,” he muttered with an inkling of drowsiness. “Keep my tab open.”
His face matched the drink, a hard, marbled expression with nothing else mixed in, straight from the bottle to the glass. He wore a dark coat with a red cap fighting to keep his ruffled hair from poking out. A beard enveloped his mouth and dangled under his chin like that of a billy goat.
He’d been eyeballing the girls for a while, and noticeably, none of them cared for it. As two of the girls went to the restroom and one stayed behind, he took his chance.
Busy as that night was, I couldn’t help but watch him give it his best:
A subtle gesture to her glass followed by a shake of her head.
A little bit of chatter, and another shake of her head.
But Goat Beard would not be swayed, and I heard him asking something along the lines of, “Do you smoke? Want to go out and smoke with me?”
“Sorry, no,” she said, turning her entire body to convey the end of their conversation.
Finally deterred, he left her alone and made his way around the tavern.
Watching him rubber-leg his way over to the dartboards, I wished I had caught how drunk he was before pouring that last drink.
He took a seat near a group of younger guys and watched their darts fly. Whenever one missed its mark or landed clear off the board, the boys—along with their new spectator— erupted with laughter.
He leaned back, teasing the chair on its last two legs, and cackled loudly. Others looked over in curiosity and annoyance until even the jukebox tunes were second to the horsey laughter. The group of guys didn’t seem to mind it. They even welcomed it, with one of them enthusiastically high-fiving him. But eventually, the obnoxious chortling wore out its welcome, and the group made their way elsewhere.
Goat Beard followed and asked one of the boys something—the one that initiated the high-five. Judging by him tapping a V shape against his lips, it seemed like another request to go out and smoke.
The boy shook his head, denying the offer.
Striking out twice, the man stumbled his way back to the bar and reclaimed his seat, hunched over like a brooding Paul Bunyan. He seemed anxious, hands clenched and fingers trembling.
Soon enough, his neck arched back up to me and hollered, “Hey! Another neat, bud.”
“Sorry, man,” I replied bringing him a glass of water, “We’re going to need you to slow down tonight.”
He eyed the water and then blinked bullets at me, “What?!”
“Have to cut you off for now. Just sober up a bit, alright?”
Betrayal crossed his fleecy face like I had spat on a long-lived kinship. “I had one shot, bud. Ain’t even drunk yet. Now pour me another, alright?”
No drunk liked to be 86’d, but such things were necessary in the world of adult baby-sitting. I shook my head at him, “Sorry, you have to sober up a bit.”
“I’m not even drunk,” he challenged me again and then not even a second after, he slammed both palms on the table. “Now take my fuckin’ order!”
He grabbed the glass and doused me with the water I had poured for him.
I signaled for our bouncer who immediately made his way over and locked arms with the disturbance.
“Bastard!” he yelled, digging his heels into the floor, “My money’s good here, my fuckin’ money’s good here!” As he was dragged out and his screams dissipated, onlookers returned to their drinks and conversations.
I wiped off the water as well as I could and went back to work. It wasn’t the first time I’d been swilled by an angry customer, and it most likely wouldn’t be the last.
Ten minutes after the last call, we stopped serving drinks. Thirty minutes after that, we emptied the bar and closed shop.
I counted the money to make sure the checkout was correct, and ran a cursory sweep over the place for any stragglers in the bathroom or under the booths. The last thing we needed was a drunkard waking up to their own alcoholic Wonka factory.
The night air always tasted nicer after a long shift, especially if there wasn’t the residue of vomit in the pavement or cigarettes in the air.
I made the short walk to my car, parked in the space reserved for on-duty bartenders. Half the parking lot was glazed in the fluorescent light of a streetlamp, while the other half was covered in 4 a.m. blackness.
As I fished the keys out of my pocket and opened the door, a ring of icy steel pressed against the nape of my neck.
“Don’t,” a voice breathed from behind me as I reactively tried to move away from it.
From the window, I could make out the orange-dipped reflection of a man with a gun and a tufty beard.
“Okay, okay,” I said quietly, my hands pitifully up in front of me. “Take it easy. I’ll give you whatever you want.”
“Shut up.” Goat Beard grunted, digging the muzzle deeper into the scruff of my neck. “Get in the car.”
I did as he was told and gripped the wheel.
He circled to the passenger door, found that it was locked, and tapped the gun against the glass.
Sure, I could have jammed the keys into the ignition and whipped the car into a screeching reverse, but the short seconds to do that felt much slower than a bullet smashing first through the window then through my skull.
I unlocked the door.
He opened the door and seated himself, the snout of a firearm still marked on me. “Start the car.”
The engine rumbled awake. “Good,” he grinned, the light outside casting a grotesquely clear look of his sweaty pores. Something awful lingered in his breath—the foul musk of a rotten tooth. “Now drive.”
The gravity of the situation hit me all at once, a blast of fear obliterating everything else out of my system. My insides shook like the temperature had just plummeted.
I looked up at my own eyes in the rearview mirror. What I saw was undiluted fear and desperation, “Please,” I whimpered, “I’m sorry for what happened. I really am, man. Take the car, it’s yours, I won’t—”
The hand holding the pistol slammed the dash. “DRIVE!” he screamed in an almost forlorn bellow.
I dropped the gearshift into reverse. As the car’s backside turned and faced us toward the road, I shoved it to drive.
“Go west on the interstate,” the man said clicking in his seatbelt and gestured for me as well. How ironic.
We followed the dark slate of road and slid up the ramp of I-70, heading into the gloomy darkness of the westbound highway.
We drove in silence for some time, during which the tight panic in my chest had shifted to a hot anger. All this for a drink. Really? All this for a goddamned drink?
I’d dealt with angry drunks before. Hell, I thought that I’d dealt with the worst of them. But I’d seen nothing like this. This guy was an entirely new level; he was bat-shit insane.
I slipped a glance at him. His eyes were turned vaguely toward the road. I hated everything about him—his shape in my peripheral, the awful smells wafting off him, his oafish breathing through those whiskers.
Where were we going? What was going to happen when we get there?
Wherever it was, I was running out of time.
Hit the barrier, I thought, and grab the gun when it drops out of his hand. I was tempted, even commencing countdowns in my head to swerve off the road and blindly grab at him in the chaos. I eyed the orange needle of the speedometer, fluttering over seventy miles per hour. Bad idea.
This was not about to become a scene in an action flick for the unscathed hero. It was real life. And in real life bodies hesitate, fingers pull triggers, and both people die in a fiery car crash.
“Where are you taking me?” I finally asked, breaking the silence.
Instead of a response, I caught the dim, grubby shape of his profile as he flicked open a lighter.
Cigarette smoke wafted out of the mottled formations of his face, no open window for it to escape.
I guess he’d finally found someone to smoke with.
He instructed me to take the next exit and to merge on Highway 24, to follow the mountainside.
At one point, a set of headlights came from the opposite direction. I pushed on the accelerator, bringing the needle up to an illegal ninety, praying that it happened to be a cop ready to have us pulled over. My passenger didn’t seem to notice our gradual rise in speed.
As the car shot right by us, it was, unfortunately, a sedan, probably heading home to a safe, warm bed—a place I should be right now.
A wet belch sighed out of him, and he sucked it back in. Digested alcohol now joined the smells of cigarette tar and a decaying tooth. I prayed for him to vomit and for the vomit to clog up his throat and turn his face blue.
What did he want? To kill me? To demand a ransom for me? My head ached with the possibilities.
There had to be something I could do to get out of this.
“My son’s birthday is next week,” I lied, hoping some form of that would reach the sliver of humanity floating around him somewhere.
He exhaled out a puff of smoke, and that was all.
I kept pushing. “He wanted one of those small cars, the one you have to build the little plastic track for and everything. We were going to have a surprise party for him.”
“Slow down,” he blurted, signaling to an upcoming side road. “Turn here.”
As the road became a C-shaped flank along the mountain, the turn-off practically came out of nowhere.
Ahead of us, a large metal gate meant to block off the path had been left wide open. Someone had taken a pair of bolt cutters to the padlock securing it. Hanging off its side, a sign read in bold letters: Trespassers will be prosecuted.
The road twisted into an aspen-lined path and became much grittier and less kempt. Loose, rocky debris crunched under the tires, and a stray branch snapped like a femur bone. We maneuvered around a few large stones that had tumbled their way along the track.
Houses clad in deformed shingles and decrepit, sagging porches formed out of the darkness around us. Their walls had either crumbled entirely or were coated in elaborate graffiti. Rundown. Abandoned.
The old neighborhood sat in Terrance-like rows along the mountainside, now left to slump along its incline.
A ghost town, one of the many that littered Colorado’s terrain.
“Do you know this place?” Goat Beard asked, surveying the deserted homes himself.
I shook my head, not interested in doing anything else.
“I’ll give you a clue—silver boom of the 1800s, once at the dead center of all zinc and lead mining productions. Back then anyway…”
I wasn’t interested in answering him, and in response to my silence, he shook his rugged head, “Gilman! Come on bud, you don’t know your own state’s history?”
The sudden shift in his tone irked me greatly, like this kidnapping had become a friendly outing together. Fuck you, my thoughts grunted.
Without being prompted, Goat Beard continued, “In 1899, half the mining town was wiped out. The school, the iron-mask hotel, a shaft house—poof!” He flexed his fingers. “All lost to the fire.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
His drunken eyes found me again. “Do you know what the townsfolk did? They came together and rebuilt what was lost. Made it better. A tragedy made into a communion. Do you know what I mean?”
I didn’t answer.
“Forest fires—those are tragedies, right? Wrong. They clear out the dead litter, make room for new generations of growth. Thriving in the ashes. That is what we need, you know? That is what this cold, fuckin’ world needs.” He was slurring to himself more than to me now, “Men, woman, everyone out there prays to some distant God, crying for the angels to fly down and save us. But he is out of angels to send, so we must abide. We must make them.”
His gaze shifted, a bent smile forming in the scruff. “Thank you.” He almost wept. “Thank you for making me choose you.”
Truly, it was the sudden giddiness in his voice that scared me the most, like the very reason he’d drank himself half to death tonight had finally been resolved.
The neighborhood led us to the town area, where we passed by an old workshop, a sun-bleached garage, and two Gilman dump trucks, their sides plastered with ancient mud. From out of the cracks, weeds had pushed their way through the untended turf.
"We’re here. Stop,” Goat Beard snapped as he rolled down the window to flick out his cigarette.
We came to a stop before a large, boxy building. Though it was one of the many paint-flaking fossils surrounding us, this structure looked especially dismal. Its once-white coat was murky with age. The few windows that weren’t clouded with grime were entirely blown out, their bits of glass shimmering like teeth in the moonlight.
More graffiti lined its base in one of which sat the grey outline of a cat. And sprouting atop the structure’s roof sat a single cracked chimney.
“Shut it off,” Goat Beard ordered again, gesturing obnoxiously toward my keys and then grabbing them as I did so.
Out from the building’s dark entryway, a silhouette came.
My insides rippled with fear at the sight.
This was it, the end of our journey together. Of course, this would be the perfect place to make me disappear. Nobody would know, and even if someone found me, they’d only stumble upon my corpse, rotting like everything else in this toxic place.
I was done playing ball. This was going to end my way, not theirs.
As Goat Beard moved to open his side of the car, I snatched at his gun.
My fingers locked around his wrist and jerked to the side to spin the barrel away from me. Its nozzle smacked against the dashboard, but his grip remained locked tight around it.
I yanked again, harder this time, using whatever leverage I could muster in the tight, little space we were in.
The parts of his face still visible to me were screwed with anger.
“Son of a bitch!” he screamed, trying to wrestle my hands off of him, growling like an angry dog.
My thoughts were loud, screaming in a unified chorus: Take it, take it, take it! That is all I cared about, all I wanted in the world. To take it meant the end of this horrible night, to live through it.
I pried desperately at his grubby fingers, feeling them starting to break their hold.
As from out of nowhere, a calloused fist struck my face. Pressure filled the inside of my cheek and made it clench. His free hand struck again, even harder this time. My head flopped back, but my hands only clutched tighter.
The gun was almost out of his grip, almost in mine.
Then there was a sound behind me, and a pair of hands ripped me right out of the driver’s seat.
The underside of my legs scraped painfully across the gravel, and before everything stopped spinning, I was pinned on my stomach.
A broad knee dug between my shoulders. Something looped around my wrists and then bit into them as tight bracelets. Zip ties.
“Easy! Easy, guy,” a new voice spoke, infuriatingly calm.
I heard the passenger side close as Goat Beard bustled over to join whoever had a hold of me.
I spat and cursed at them, feeling sharp bits of grit push into my cheek.
“He’s a troublemaker,” Goat Beard jeered, hawking a gob of mucus on me.
My teeth ached and the blood was rushing to my left cheek, probably swelling like a balloon.
Without warning, the two men yanked me up to my knees, crammed something into my mouth, and slapped a streak of duct tape over my lips.
“That’ll put a muzzle on him,” Goat Beard chuckled, proud of himself.
The man who had just pushed his fingers into my mouth nodded. He was much taller, with a bristled frosty chin and a nose permanently bent to the side.
“Listen,” he spoke with that collected voice, “if you keep causing trouble, I will have to take this…” He held up a knife and pressed it up to my groin, “and unzip your sack. So, behave, huh?”
I stopped struggling at the sight of it.
Whatever they’d just shoved in my mouth rolled along my tongue. It felt like a tablet—some kind of drug, maybe. In no way was I going to swallow it, but that wouldn’t stop it from dissolving anyway.
“We need to hurry,” Goat Beard mumbled, to which Bent-Nose nodded and lead me into the wretched building.
Inside, they walked me down a short, cramped hallway.
The air I had to force in and out of my nostrils was stale and feverishly thick. Mold had built up and crawled down the wall from the ceiling, trailing along the cracks.
The interior of the room we entered resembled a kind of workshop, somewhat lit by a flashlight propped up on a table.
In its beam, someone else had their back to us. A hunching figure with a veiny bald head and a raw-hide coat that hung off his wiry frame.
He was dipping his fingers into what looked like a jar and smearing it in oval strokes on the wall, humming a hymn while he did so.
Piled along the left flank of the wall were heaps of worn medical equipment, pushed aside and left in a dusty pile.
Paper and negatives from an X-ray were littered all over the floor.
This was a hospital—or at least something along the lines of one.
Behind the mound of grimy equipment, a woman was hunched against the wall.
Her dark eyes peered up from the duct tape, cheeks creased with eye shadow, and her face sagging with the weight of hopelessness. As our eyes met, neither found comfort in the other.
I felt the urge to gag as the thing in my mouth melted into a bitter glaze. It tasted horrible.
“Are we ready?” Goat Beard asked from behind me, his gun pressed firmly into my spine.
“Almost,” Skinny replied, turning his pointy face toward us before returning to the thing he was creating. His wide eyes held a fierce intensity behind them.
Bent-Nose joined him, grabbing a jar of his own and streaking the same circled pattern over the next half of the room.
Dozens were on the walls—large red circles filled with six inner rings. Grayish chalky writing had been scribbled into them. Not words at all, but layers upon layers of gibberish all winding toward the sphere’s center.
They seemed like sigils, like ones you might find in a cult.
That explained Goat Beard’s crazy speak, but what was this, really? Our captors didn’t strike me as cultists with robes and hidden, hooded faces. They were more a gang of scruffy misfits showing off their toys.
I looked at the woman. Her eyes had gone elsewhere, swaying and wobbling around the room. Muffled, droning sounds buzzed behind the duct tape. She was on something, probably the same thing they’d forced-fed me. To keep us “muzzled.”
“Alright!” Skinny spoke excitedly, clapping his spattered hands. “Who should we start with?”
“Her,” Bent-Nose spoke, gesturing to the girl who continued to sway and teeter in her corner.
Skinny looked at the woman, and then blinked back at him with irritation, “What are you doing? Where are her restraints?”
Bent-Nose scoffed at him, “She’s high as a kite, wouldn’t even notice a fly on her face right now.”
“That isn’t the point,” Skinny snapped. “Do you want this to end up like the Moselys? Think!”
Musing on that, Bent-Nose fastened the cables over her wrists and yanked her off the ground, her bare feet dragging along the floor.
As she was laid in the center of the room, she rested whimsically on her back, putting up as much fight as a sex doll. He ripped the duct tape from her mouth before leaving her there.
A pause fell over the room, and then the men began to chant in unison. It swelled from their throats, pulling straight from the chest and meshing together into a low, prolonged baritone.
In the poor acoustics of the room, their voices bounced off the stained walls, gaining more volume with an unmistakable deep, powerful devotion.
Between their vocals, Skinny spoke out, straining his lungs into some gravel-throat language.
I was starting to feel clammy and prickly all over the place.
My mind focused on breathing—sucking in the awful fumes around me of body odor and decay.
As my heart pumped frantically, I tried to focus on its rhythm, tried to ignore the sounds of vibrating vocal cords rumbling my ears.
I forced down a swallow and breathed. The drug couldn’t be affecting me now, could it? This quickly?
The walls around us didn’t feel like walls anymore, but massive slabs of canvas coated in waxy circles. Awful art. Horrible, awful art.
The voices rose, heaving out their vocals even louder.
My leg muscles squeezed together, then relaxed, like taffy being rolled and stretched from a machine.
I wanted to sit down—to sit down and breathe. But as I started to drift downward, Goat Beard forcefully hoisted me back up again. I’d forgotten he was there.
“Are you feeling it? Are you feeling the good shit, yet?” His words trickled with them a warm, rotten breath.
Whatever harness keeping my thoughts together was loosening. I wanted to squeeze into one of the cracks around us, to sleep and make the bad world go away.
The walls started to move, puffing in and out in perfect tandem with my wheezing chest. In. Out. In. Out.
Even the sigils moved, shivering their waxy bodies with the dark chorus. Within them, the chalky figures danced and wriggled with such life I almost believed they each had their own pulse.
That was when I saw the fire.
It clawed over her, starting as a bluish ripple that quickly flared into a bright, savage red.
Even as the burst of heat rolled over my face, I didn’t think it was real. The men hadn’t ignited her—or doused her in anything—or even flicked a match. A hallucination, that’s it. I’m hallucinating, my mind pleaded, trying to grip its last fibers of that harness.
But the sound of her screaming was what made it real. She bucked and writhed beneath the flames, crying out for any of us to help her.
Smoke burrowed into my nostrils and bristled the back of my throat. I retched emptily into the duct tape and tried to pull away, only to be forced back toward her.
“Watch,” Goat Beard hissed, only stopping his chants to whisper into my ear, “Watch the angel shine.”
I could smell her hair burning. Her skin roasting.
Faces appeared around her, forming with the blaze and then in the same instant, rippled into the smog.
She screamed until her throat split and her echoes fell to a dry, breathless yowl.
The ties bounding her hands had finally snapped and released them to flail helplessly about.
All the while, the strident chants continued, feeding the inferno as it spat more pieces of her into the air.
They sang, they cheered, and as their shadows throbbed up and down the walls, I could swear those changed as well. Oily shapes with bodies contorted and torturously stretched into things not even remotely human.
Skinny stood the closest to the burning woman, both hands raised in sadistic glee over their living kindle. Just another man outside these walls, but here in the firelight, he looked like the devil.
I fought in Goat Beards grip, jerking my head back to break his nose, kicking my feet backward toward his knees. I couldn’t stomach any more.
Something blunt struck the back of my head. I keeled over onto my knees. Even in a drugged-up daze, the static spreading around my skull told me I’d just been pistol-whipped.
The last of the strained cries finally crept from the woman’s throat as she succumbed to a crackling silence.
I thought she was finally gone, prayed for it even.
However, she convulsed once more, turning her stomach up and letting her head hang downward—now looking at me.
I saw her face clearly. Her skin resurfaced with blisters and curling raw patches. Her nose a mottled stump of white seared tissue. And the last remnants of her hair coiling against a ruined scalp.
Then her lips, which had dried to thin scabs, suddenly parted.
I expected another hellish scream to empty out of her, but it was something else—a warped laugh only possible with a throat full of charcoal. Laughing hysterically in an upside down-grimace.
Though no eyes were left in her sockets, I could feel their gaze swallow me up.
Stop, I whimpered internally, please stop looking at me.
Her suffering had ended, but in its place, something different had taken its place, clawing its way out of the burn.
The laughing seized as she struggled back to her feet, standing tall in the lashing flames. Fragments of clothing hung from her grizzled frame, fused to the skin.
The chorus of the men had stopped as they backed away from her, like lion tamers who had suddenly lost their whips.
She seemed to pay them no mind as her neck slowly swiveled around the room, eyeing up each of the hastily smeared sigils.
Her heels scraped against the floor as she chose one of them and gradually shambled toward it.
Upon reaching the crest, her body collapsed forward. A skull-rending crunch resounded from the impact and left her limply against it. Pieces of her torso—followed by everything else—began to fall away from her, dispersing in blackened particles.
The flames shrank and sputtered as more of her body broke down into fine-grained piles around her. Before long, she had crumbled to nothingness, a vague smear of her existence marred into the wall.
As the last of the embers fizzled in their ashes, the room returned to its heavy darkness.
“Beautiful!” Skinny cheered, looking like he’d just wiped away a tear, though it was probably to rub the sweat off his face. Those wide, intense eyes traveled to me, “One down, one to go.”
I looked once more at the crest on the wall, smothered by the left-over shape of a woman.
Then I was on the ground, staring up at the ceiling.
They’d left me in the same spot, peppered with her ashes. Beneath me, the scorched floor burned against my spine.
Goat Beard smiled as he tore the duct tape from my mouth. Why? So, they could hear me scream next?
My limbs had jellied into uselessness. Maybe from the fear, or maybe from whatever godforsaken substance they’d forced into my system.
Tears welled up in my eyes. I thought about my parents’ faces and the last time I’d seen them. I thought about my first bar gig, and how many times I had messed up the mixes.
An angry shout tried to tear out of my throat but was rasped short by how raw it had become.
I didn’t want to die. Not here, not in this demonic place.
When the chanting started again, I squeezed the tears shut, and prayed for my nerves to burn quickly.
Then the sounds stopped.
Silence stilled the room, save for a few scraping feet.
“What was that?” Bent-Nose spoke. “You hear that?”
“Go check it out,” Skinny ordered as a set of shoes pattered out of the room.
A few anxious mumbles passed between him and Goat Beard until a flurry of shouts rang from the hallway.
Both of them beat past me and ran toward the disturbance.
Something surged through my body—an electricity which kicked my limbs from their paralysis and back to working order.
I pulled my upper half from the ground and into a sitting position. Once my feet were under me, I got myself back to standing. Just being vertical again filled me with absolute joy.
The sounds from outside came as incoherent barks from the hall until they were silenced by a loud crack then two more in its place—gunshots.
I pulled my arms below my body and carefully lifted one leg at a time over my wrists, bringing them back to the front of me.
After that, I brought both over my head and threw them down into my stomach. The ties didn’t break. I tried again, raising them as high as I could. Break, you bastards, and slammed them down even harder.
The locking mechanism snapped, finally freeing my hands.
From behind the thin walls shuffling movements registered from the outside. “My ear!” a voice bellowed sounding very much like Goat Beard’s slurred speech, “Shot—my fuckin’ ear!”
Car doors opened and closed as an engine revved to life and an accelerator was depressed. They sped off, retreating from something.
As I twisted myself toward the exit, a man was now standing there, his gun pointed at me. “Stay away!” I screamed haggardly at him. “Stay the hell away from me!”
“Take it easy, I’m not one of them,” the man said lowering his weapon, a whole new face in the fray.
We stood at an impasse inside the acrid, unlit room. I wanted to believe he was my rescue, but my nerves were shot. The fact that things around me hadn’t stopped moving didn’t help.
His eyes scanned the workshop and settled on the human-shaped scar on the wall. A look of familiarity tensed his features. “Do you know where you are right now? Were you forced to come here?”
“Please,” I breathed, “just let me get out of this place.”
He nodded in agreement and led the way through the paint-flaking hallway.
The fresh night air prickled down my throat and coughed back out of me. I bent over and retched into the ground. The ashes were all over me, on my clothes, in my hair.
The stranger retreated from me, almost like he was expecting something to suddenly happen. When nothing did, he cautiously drew closer. “My name’s Tucker, can you tell me yours?”
“Peter,” I responded, blowing the remaining spittle off my lips. “Are you a cop?”
“I used to be.” He itched the back of his neck, then continued “I need you to tell me everything that happened here Peter, everything that you can remember. Can you do that for me?”
I looked up at him and rubbed the imprints dented into my wrists, “You aren’t going to believe any of it.”
The ex-officer then smiled, “Try me.”
Lost in the Sauce: Trump properties reopen while Trump campaign fundraises on lockdowns
TLDR pinned at top of comments
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Oversight slowly getting started
Select CommitteeLast week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appointed the remaining Democratic members to the newly-created House Select Committee on the Coronavirus Crisis. Led by Majority Whip James Clyburn (SC), the panel includes: Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (NY) Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters (CA), Small Business Committee Chairwoman Nydia Velazquez (NY), Jamie Raskin (MD), Bill Foster (IL), and Andy Kim (NJ).
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) can appoint five Republicans to serve on the committee, but it is unclear if he will do so. On Thursday, McCarthy called the panel a political exercise, saying: “I’m not convinced that we even participate in something like this.”
CARES Oversight CommissionThere is a separate committee - the five-person Congressional Oversight Commission - that is also meant to keep tabs on how the CARES Act is implemented. There is significant confusion around how this panel differs from the Select Committee created by Pelosi.
The Oversight Commission still lacks a chair, meant to be chosen jointly by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Pelosi. The other four members: Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), chosen by McConnell; Rep. French Hill (R-AR), chosen by McCarthy; former Elizabeth Warren advisor Bharat Ramamurti, chosen by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer; Rep. Donna Shalala (D-FL), chosen by Pelosi.
Pelosi’s pick, Rep. Shalala, recently came under harsh criticism for failing to disclose stocks that she sold as she was preparing to enter Congress in 2019. Pelosi has no intention of removing her from the commission.
Shalala said she had been in the process of placing her assets into a blind trust when the trades were made. The trust still has not been finalized, the Herald reports, so the disclosures were still required...under the 2012 STOCK Act, regulation meant to prevent congressional insider trading.
IG CommitteeThe Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC) is a panel of 21 inspectors general mandated “to promote transparency and support and conduct oversight of the funds provided to address the pandemic response by the CARES Act, the Paycheck Protection Program,” and other related legislation. The committee exists as part of the Committee of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) and is therefore under the purview of the chair of that committee, DOJ IG Michael Horowitz.
The CIGIE had chosen Pentagon IG Glenn Fine to chair PRAC, but at the beginning of April, Trump replaced Fine with a different acting official within the Pentagon, thereby preventing Fine from leading the coronavirus oversight effort. PRAC pushed forward regardless last week, revealing a new website to keep the public informed on its activities. Horowitz lists himself as the acting-chair, with no replacement for Fine yet appointed.
The CIGIE named its executive director, last week, as well: Robert Westbrooks, the current inspector general of a massive federal retirement benefit program called the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.
Other oversight actionsWatchdog group Accountable US is trying a new tactic to investigate the Trump administration’s failure to provide states with adequate testing and other support to respond to the pandemic, filing nearly 200 public records requests across all 50 states seeking communications between state officials and the federal government.
Since states tend to be faster and more responsive to public records requests, the approach may offer a quicker path toward transparency and accountability than document requests to the federal government — or congressional investigations....
The House Foreign Affairs Committee, led by Chairman Eliot Engel, is investigating the Trump administration’s decision to withhold funding to the World Health Organization. “The Administration’s explanation for this decision is inadequate, and the Committee on Foreign Affairs is determined to understand the reasons behind this self-defeating withdrawal from global leadership,” the chairman wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Engel set a May 4 deadline - today - for fulfilling a variety of documents requests. If the administration does not comply, "the Committee will consider all other measures at its disposal to compel their production."
- Semi-related: The president announced the nomination of an inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, who, if confirmed, would replace an acting official whose report embarrassed Mr. Trump.
The never-ending list of problemsFrom the perspective of average Americans, there were a great many problems with the CARES Act passed at the end of March. Individuals and entities who needed assistance the least ended up receiving the most.
- Lobbyists: At least 25 former officials who once worked for the Trump administration, campaign, or transition team are now registered as lobbyists for clients with novel coronavirus needs.
- One firm in particular, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, emerged as the first quarter lobbying winner, receiving more than $11 million from clients. That's a 21% increase over last year’s first quarter revenue. 52% of the firm’s new clients registered with the firm solely for pandemic-related legislation.
- More than a month after the CARES Act was passed, the Treasury Department has yet to disburse $8 billion in coronavirus relief funds to Native tribes. Tribes are suing the department for missing its April 26 deadline to distribute funds.
- More than a dozen Native American tribes have brought a second lawsuit against the Treasury for its plan to give for-profit Native corporations (ANCs) a share of the $8 billion fund. Last week, US District Judge Amit Mehta ruled in favor of the tribes, concluding that there is no evidence that ANCs are actually providing public services during the pandemic. Judge Mehta’s order did not force the Treasury to disburse the funds, however, so it is still not known when tribes will receive the aid.
- In the last four weeks, the billionaire class has added $308bn to its wealth. Eight of those billionaires have seen their net worth surge by over $1bn each, including the Amazon boss, Jeff Bezos, and his ex-wife MacKenzie Bezos; Eric Yuan, founder of Zoom; the former Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer; and Elon Musk, the Tesla and SpaceX technocrat.
- The mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, has alleged that none of the island’s eligible residents have received their expected stimulus payments from the federal government. The direct deposits will be released to some of Puerto Rico’s residents after the U.S. Treasury approves of Puerto Rico’s distribution plan, Francisco Parés, Secretary at the Puerto Rico Treasury Department, said last week.
- Tiny airports rake in big cash after botched stimulus formula: Airports with little or no debt and a decent amount of cash on hand were entitled to receive a relatively large share of the money. But that inherently benefited small airports because they don’t have the huge amounts of debt associated with capital projects at larger airports. For example, a tiny airport in Devils Lake, N.D., scored enough money under the federal stimulus law to cover its expenses for 50 years. JFK International in New York, got barely enough aid to make it through three months of operations.
- Dallas billionaire Monty Bennett - a major Trump donor - became the largest recipient of funds from the Paycheck Protection Program. Last week, his company Ashford Inc. was defiant, saying it would be keeping the $126 million in forgivable loans. Then Saturday, Ashford backtracked, saying it will return all funds “due to the [small business] agency's recently changed rules and inconsistent federal guidance that put the companies at compliance risk.”
- Elite private schools were approved for and accepted small business loans, including schools with endowments exceeding tens of millions of dollars. St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Maryland, attended by Trump’s son Barron, is planning on keeping the small business loan it secured. Sidwell Friends, the alma mater of President Obama’s daughters, also intends to keep its loan, as does Brentwood School in LA, attended by Treasury Secretary Mnuchin’s two children.
- In addition to the Trump-connected companies identified in my previous post, three more have been identified: Capstone Turbine Corp., got $2.6 million in loans; Continental Materials received $5.5 million in loans; Easypost, whose CEO is a Trump donor, obtained an unspecified loan as well.
- The Center for Responsible Lending warned that “Roughly 95% of Black-owned businesses, 91% of Latino-owned businesses, 91% of Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander-owned businesses, and 75% of Asian-owned businesses stand close to no chance of receiving a PPP loan through a mainstream bank or credit union.”
- The first round of coronavirus aid to small businesses was a boon to rural states that backed President Donald Trump but haven’t been hit as hard by the pandemic as Democratic strongholds on the coasts. Of the 10 states that had the largest shares of approved loans as a portion of eligible payrolls in the aid program, eight of them backed President Donald Trump in the last election.
McGahn caseOn Tuesday, the full D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the House’s case to enforce a subpoena for the testimony of former White House Counsel Don McGahn.
Throughout the three-hour teleconference argument, judges raised concerns about whether cutting off the courts to Congress would remove any incentive for future presidents to cooperate or negotiate with lawmakers trying to check executive power.Note: Judges Gregory Katsas and Neomi Rao did not participate Tuesday. Both were nominated by the president and previously held high-level positions in the Trump administration.
Most of the nine judges who joined in the rare en banc session Tuesday seemed receptive to the House’s concerns, with one judge musing the Trump administration was so intent on sidelining the courts that the public would be left only with "revolution" as an alternative.
Border wall caseThe full D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals also heard a case about Trump’s border wall spending:
The House lawsuit claims Trump violated the Constitution by ignoring the spending limits imposed by Congress and diverting more than $6 billion allocated for other purposes to fund the wall… Justice Department lawyers told the appeals court Tuesday a single chamber of Congress cannot sue the administration because the power to appropriate federal funds is assigned to Congress as a whole.
Judge Thomas B. Griffith appeared to embrace that argument, asking the House lawyer: “Isn’t it pretty clear that you need to have the Senate with you right now to bring this suit?”
Mueller grand jury caseThe DC Circuit Court of Appeals gave the Justice Department 10 days - until May 11 - to turn over Mueller’s grand jury materials to the House Judiciary Committee or file for an injunction with the Supreme Court, teeing up yet another dispute at the high court.
Flynn caseOn Wednesday, Michael Flynn’s attorneys made public FBI investigation notes related to the probe that led to Flynn’s indictment, guilty plea, and recent attempt to take back his plea. Trump supporters seized on a handwritten note from then-FBI counterintelligence director Bill Priestap, discussing how agents should approach a critical 2017 interview with Flynn about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the United States before Trump took office.
Flynn & Trump supporters argue the documents show that Flynn was railroaded into pleading guilty, with his lawyers saying it is “stunning” evidence that their client was “set up and framed by corrupt agents at the top of the FBI.”
"What's our goal? Truth/Admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?" Priestap wrote. "If we get him to admit to breaking the Logan Act, give facts to DOJ & have them decide. Or, if he initially lies, then we present him [redacted] & he admits it, document for DOJ, & let them decide how to address it."Chuck Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney who also served as Comey’s chief of staff, said the notes do not make a case for entrapment.
“It is not a close call,” said Rosenberg. “In this situation, Flynn had three options: tell the truth, lie or refuse to talk. The FBI did not plant a lie, urge him to repeat the lie, record him in the lie, and then prosecute him for lying. That might be entrapment. Here, Flynn was predisposed to lie, chose to talk, and then lied. That’s not entrapment.”It is very unlikely that the courts will dismiss Flynn’s case because of these documents. Instead, it is more likely that the documents provide cover for Trump to issue a pardon to Flynn. Since the release, Trump has tweeted about Flynn’s case numerous times, saying in one instance: “What happened to General Michael Flynn, a war hero, should never be allowed to happen to a citizen of the United States again!”
“Even if the government knows you’re lying, lying to the government is a crime,” Harry Sandick, a defense attorney who previously worked in the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office, said. False statements, even if the government knows they’re false, are still criminal as long as their material to the investigation.
- Fox News also took up Flynn’s case, with Hannity saying the FBI forced Flynn to lie and Lindsey Graham saying that Michael Flynn was railroaded.
- Further reading: “White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany promised at her first press briefing Friday that she will "never lie" but she did mislead in an answer about fired national security adviser Michael Flynn.”
A Flynn connectionScott Stedman has done some great reporting on Circles Bulgaria - a hacking/surveillance firm under the control of the infamous Israeli spyware company NSO Group. Circles has tools to hack civilians and track their location, read their messages, emails, and listen in to their calls covertly. Their tech has been sold to Ecuador, Mexico, UAE, and elsewhere.
Circles is owned by a firm that worked with Michael Flynn. In other words, a US Lieutenant General and former National Security Advisor to Trump works with firms using spyware on citizens.
Former Trump adviser Michael Flynn, who pled guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian Ambassador before withdrawing his guilty plea in January by claiming entrapment, advised Circles’ parent company OSY Technologies in 2016 and 2017, receiving just over $40,000.Full disclosure: I write for Forensic News, so I'm a bit biased when I say we do great work
Roger Stone disclosuresNewly-released documents from the FBI reveal that Roger Stone had extensive contact with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange during Trump’s 2016 campaign.
In the missives, Stone and Assange discussed the origin of damaging information on Hillary Clinton that U.S. officials believe was hacked by Russians and handed to WikiLeaks. In a direct message on Twitter cited by the FBI, Stone told Assange “as a journalist it doesn’t matter where you get information only that it is accurate and authentic,” adding, “If the US government moves on you I will bring down the entire house of cards.”
After Stone congratulated Assange on “the trumped-up sexual assault charges” being “dropped,” an apparent reference to a sexual-assault investigation by Swedish authorities, Assange replied: “Between CIA and DoJ they’re doing quite a lot. On the DoJ side that’s coming most strongly from those obsessed with taking down Trump trying to squeeze us into a deal.” Stone wrote back that he was doing everything possible to “address the issues at the highest level of Government.” (DB)
- Trump tweeted: Does anybody really believe that Roger Stone, a man whose house was raided early in the morning by 29 gun toting FBI Agents (with Fake News @CNN closely in toe), was treated fairly. How about the jury forewoman with her unannounced hatred & bias. Same scammers as General Flynn!
- WaPo: The Secret Service rented a room at President Trump’s Washington hotel for 137 consecutive nights in 2017 — paying Trump’s company more than $33,000 — so it could guard Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin while he lived in one of the hotel’s luxury suites
- During a phone call with governors, Trump - who owns a hotel on the Las Vegas Strip - asked Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, whether he had made a decision on opening his state "and the Strip, etc., etc., with all your hotels." A Las Vegas re-opening, Trump said, "will be a big thing."
- CNN: Several Trump Organization golf properties previously closed to comply with various business restrictions related to the coronavirus outbreak have reopened... Trump National Doral Miami Golf Club reopened for members on Friday and as of Saturday, guests of the hotel are also able to golf… Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Florida, has been open only to members since Wednesday. And Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, reopened Saturday, also to members only. Trump National Golf Club Washington, DC, in Potomac Falls VA, is open Saturday.
- Salon: On the same day that President Donald Trump ordered a temporary halt on some green cards, his second son promoted Trump-branded "quarantine wine" on social media. Though he initially vowed to "temporarily suspend" all immigration to the country, the president ultimately signed a more limited order. The ban did not suspend the visas for agricultural workers from which Trump Vineyards benefits.
- WSJ: President Trump’s reelection campaign has placed an order for “red, Trump-branded face masks for supporters… Campaign officials have discussed giving away the masks at events or in return for donations.” ...Along with selling the masks, the campaign is planning a TV blitz and several events focused on older voters.
- The Trump administration initially intended to manufacture millions of cloth face masks to give to Americans to survive the coronavirus pandemic. The idea was ultimately scrapped over worries about logistics.
- NPR: From Puzzles To Plastic Straws: Merch Plays A Key Role In Trump's Fundraising. At a time when jigsaw puzzles may be harder to come by than toilet paper, the hot new item in the Trump campaign online store is a 200-piece puzzle, featuring a faintly smiling President Trump standing in front of an American flag, giving two thumbs up. The $35 puzzle is just the latest example of the campaign capitalizing on in-the-moment merchandise.
- Those of us keeping track of Trump campaign emails have noticed an uptick in the promotion of other lockdown-friendly merch like “Trump-Pence Pint Glasses” and “Trump-Pence 2020 Playing Cards.”
- Daily Beast: Trump Victory, a joint fundraising committee between the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, and the RNC itself, have paid the Pluvious Group, a GOP consultancy in Los Angeles, nearly $2 million since Trump became the nominee in 2016...Pluvious [was] part of a federal criminal investigation in late 2018 into “whether foreigners contributed money to the Trump inaugural fund and PAC by possibly using American intermediaries.”... [and] was part of a money laundering scheme in California that allowed donors to hide their identities in filings to work around contribution limits
- Dallas News: Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton said that election officials in Texas who offer mail ballots to people who normally wouldn't qualify but are afraid of catching the coronavirus could be subjected to criminal punishment. Paxton’s guidance to county election officials comes two weeks after a state judge in Travis County ruled that Texas voters who fear catching the coronavirus could vote by mail.
- Texas voters sue over age restrictions for mail-in ballots: The voters — all between the ages of 18 and 28 — want the courts to rule that the state's age restriction for voting by mail, which limits eligibility to those 65 and older, violates constitutional protections.
- A federal judge has ruled against a conservative group’s lawsuit that sought to block [Nevada’s] planned all-mail primary election in June.
- Louisiana lawmakers remotely voted by mail to roll back an expansion of vote by mail for voters concerned about the coronavirus.
- AP: A federal appeals court panel ruled Wednesday that Kansas can’t require voters to show proof of citizenship when they register, dealing a blow to efforts by Republicans in several states who have pursued restrictive voting laws as a way of combating voter fraud.
- “California Republicans Sue to Stop Collection of Ballots Amid Pandemic,” Courthouse News
- Kansas City Star: In a Capitol hearing room that was nearly empty because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Missouri Republicans took another step Thursday evening toward repealing redistricting changes enacted by voters in 2018.
- Bloomberg: The Federal Reserve revamped its Main Street Lending Program in ways that will allow battered oil companies to qualify for the aid after industry allies lobbied the Trump administration for changes… Environmentalists blasted the shifts they said rewarded oil companies that took on too much debt and were overproducing crude even before the coronavirus pandemic caused demand to plunge.
- The 12 member energy panel on Trump’s so-called “Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups” panel, advising how to reopen the economy, includes 8 oil and gas executives who have collectively made more than $4.2 million in political contributions since Trump launched his presidential bid in June 2015. The energy group includes no one from the renewable energy world.
- Guardian: US fossil fuel companies have taken at least $50m in taxpayer money they probably won’t have to pay back, according to a review of coronavirus aid meant for struggling small businesses...A total of $28m is going to three coal mining companies, all with ties to Trump officials…
- Reuters: As the United States pressed Saudi Arabia to end its oil price war with Russia, President Donald Trump gave Saudi leaders an ultimatum: Cut oil supply or lose U.S. military support.
- “Trump renews threats to withhold federal funds from sanctuary cities amid pandemic,” CNN
- Chicago Tribune: President Donald Trump’s Justice Department can’t withhold federal grants from sanctuary cities such as Chicago that extend protections to undocumented immigrants, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.
- Kera News (local Texas news): The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t stopped the Trump administration from building miles of border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Advocates say the administration is ramping up lawsuits against South Texas landowners to take their land for border wall construction and is accelerating the approval of construction contracts.
- Federal judges in Ohio and Florida have ordered ICE to release some additional detainees due to the risk of contracting COVID-19. While the Ohio order only applied to a couple of detainees with medical conditions, the Miami judge ordered hundreds to be released, citing conditions that amount to ”cruel and unusual punishment.”
- “Internal ICE Reviews Of Two Immigrant Deaths Stoke Fears About COVID-19 Care,” NPR
- Miami Herald: At least 60% of immigration detainees who have been tested nationwide have the virus that causes COVID-19… [however] the numbers from ICE reveal that only 1.38% of its detainees have been tested.
Jails, nursing homes, and meat plantsI didn't have time to add this to the coronavirus response post on Friday - I'm going to tack it on here because I think it is important: jails/prisons, nursing homes, and meat-packing plants make up the top 10 biggest coronavirus clusters in the U.S. This fact illustrates who America (as a nation) believes is expendable in society: prisoners, the elderly, and low-wage workers (this is an oversimplification, but you get my point).
- The number of reported coronavirus cases at a Tyson Food plant in Indiana soared to nearly 900 last week. The plant has since suspended production while allowing for additional cleaning services, but will reopen under Trump’s executive order.
- WaPo op-ed: I work at Smithfield Foods. I’m suing them over putting our lives at risk for your dinner. Meat processing plants can do more to protect us from the coronavirus
- The Bureau of Prisons is releasing hundreds of inmates to home confinement in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But the process is murky. Wealthy inmates are walking out the door, while the poor remain behind bars.
- Note: sparking concerns of political interference, Michael Cohen’s release from jail was postponed without explanation
- A medical expert alleges that a federal jail in Brooklyn, New York, [Metropolitan Detention Center] that houses roughly 1,700 people is destroying medical records as part of a deliberate effort to obscure the number of incarcerated people infected with the coronavirus and to avoid providing them adequate care
- CBS: More than 1,300 people in the New York City jail system have tested positive for the virus, according to the city's Department of Corrections. Three inmates have died, along with 10 staffers.
- "Florida prison operator with worst COVID-19 safety record [GEO Group] is money tree for politicians," Miami Herald
- USA Today: More than 16,000 residents and staff of nursing homes and long-term care facilities have died in the U.S., roughly a quarter of the nation’s overall deaths… In New Jersey, where the virus has reached 86% of the state’s 575 long-term care facilities, outbreaks at two veterans’ homes have left 97 dead. In multiple states, including Kentucky, Colorado and Pennsylvania, more than half of the state’s fatalities are from nursing homes.