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The state police showed up not long after, followed by the National Guard. The national media was interviewing anyone who had a smudge on their face and would stand still long enough.
Turns out, no one saw who or what had started the fires, though a lot of accusations were thrown around. Darrell Horn was interviewed in his office at the Spire, maintaining that he'd flow his helicopters to Centerville to help, and that anything heard to the contrary was a big misunderstanding. Jerry Horn was very saddened by the tragedy, though he was glad that no one had lost their life.
Just in case anyone thought he was going soft, he managed to add that the Centerville coal mine was almost played out anyway.
Back in the smoking remnants of Centerville, Jerry Brant stayed silent.
Sheila was subdued when she saw Freedy again, giving him a long and hard hug and a soft kiss. Freedy could tell she was troubled, but that it wasn't anything he had done or hadn't done, so he stayed silent. She excused herself a few moments later.
Freedy saw Garland grab the backpack out of the Miata and go off to the diner -- still standing with the blackened earth only feet away -- with Charlie and Brant. When they emerged from their meeting, Charlie looked triumphant and Brant looked grim.
Charlie went over to his friends, and there was a restrained celebration amongst the gold miners. Jay and Jim came over and gave Freedy a big hug, and Steve and Sam gave him a slap on the back. Billy nodded to him in respect, and Bob gave him thumbs up.
The mine foreman meanwhile stomped off down the street. Freedy noticed Brant had the ledger in his hands.
Garland came over. "Well, Freedy. Your job is done. You can go home anytime, and your share of the goldmine will be sent to you."
"Just like that?' Freedy said. He was feeling unexpectedly let down.
"You did the job you were contracted for, and you did it magnificently, I might add. Aunt Tessie would be very proud of you."
"What's going to happen now?" Freedy asked.
"I thought all you ever wanted was to go home and relax?" Garland said. He was teasing, Freedy recognized, where once he wouldn't have.
Freedy jiggled the jewels in his pocket. Home? Independently wealthy?
Sheila walked up at the moment and gave Garland a greeting and stuck her arm around Freedy. Home was going to be wherever she was assigned, he thought. Still...it would be nice to get back to Filk's End for a visit at least. Show it off to her, if she was game.
"You could probably hitch a ride with one of the media types if you were willing to give them an interview," Garland said.
Freedy shuddered. He had avoided all the cameras and microphones, going so far as to turn his head and change directions whenever he saw a lens pointed anywhere near him.
"Well, Freedy, if you're going to stick around," Garland said. "You might want to attend the news conference this afternoon in the public park. I think you'll find it interesting. Sheila will be there, won't you my dear?"
"I wouldn't miss it for the world," Sheila said. Freedy looked down at her in curiosity but she wouldn't meet his eyes.
Well, she had her secrets, and he had his. Freedy finally tracked down Charlie an hour later, and took him off to the side.
He pulled the bag of jewels out of his pocket.
That afternoon, a single Horn helicopter flew in and landed in the park. Darrell Horn emerged to the sullen mutters of the crowd. He was surrounded by bodyguards, but waved at everyone as unaware of just how unpopular was. Rumor was, he'd started the fire. Enough of them had heard his rants to be sure of it. But no one had made a recording of his words, and in all the fire and brimstone and chaos of the disaster, Horn was explaining it all away as a big misunderstanding.
He clambered up the steps of the old bandstand at the center of the park, joining Brant and Garland and some of the other town leaders, all of who gave the tycoon a wide berth.
The national media managed to shove their way to the front of the crowd surrounding the bandstand. There was still a pall in the air, and the Freedy could hear a constant low level coughing in the crowd.
Jerry Brant stood up first. He wasn't mayor, he wasn't the owner of the mine, but he was the town's acknowledged leader.
"Thank you all for coming. This will be the last meeting held in this town. Ever."
There were protestations from the some of the townspeople. "To hell with that. We'll rebuild."
"No -- you won't. I'm sorry to say that this town is no longer habitable."
"Says who?" someone cried from the crowd.
"Cameron? That you? I know you're family has been here from the beginning, but there is no choice. Even if you wanted to stay, the state has declared Eminent Domain over the whole valley."
"Why can't we stay?" the man Brant had addressed as Cameron didn't look convinced.
"The fires aren't out," Brant said bluntly.
The murmuring in the crowd died off, and Brant repeated into the silence, the words seeming to hang in the air.
"The fires are still burning. From what they tell me, they may never go out, at least not in our lifetimes. There are going to be unhealthy levels of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide from now until the earth stops burning."
"Why don't you let us decide that, dammit! It's our lives."
"Hey, Jasper. I understand how you feel, but think about it. Do you want your kid falling into a burning hole in the ground? Because that can and will happen if we stay here. Now, the state and federal government are going to try to make reasonable settlement for the value of our land and properties. I'd suggest you all take them up on the offer."
"But what will we do?"
"I can answer that!" Darrell Horn stood up and nearly pushed Brant out of the way. Brant looked ready to punch him, but turned his back. A few boos came from the crowd, but others shouted to give him a chance to speak.
"As you know, Horn Mining as extensive holdings. I have other coal mines, in West Virginia and North Carolina. I will offer anyone a job in those mines at the same pay they received here. I'll even pay moving costs."
This wasn't met with cheers, as Horn probably expected, but with silence. Everyone knew that as soon as the cameras were turned off, the terms would magically transform. Still, it was a small hope in a disaster.
"I can do better than that!" Charlie Emmit got up. Standing next to Brant and Horn, he looked liked like a child. But no one was laughing. Something in his manner was completely serious.
"As you know, the Lorn Mountain mine will be opening up soon. I'd like to offer anyone here a job at our operations in New Mexico!"
"Yeah, right," somebody scoffed loud enough for everyone to hear. "A gold mine."
Charlie ignored him. "We'll more than match the non-union wages here, as well as offer health and benefit plans. We own both the property and the mineral rights and have we have secured solid financial backing."
Charlies eyes sought out Freedy in the crowd. Freedy looked down at the ground, blushing. When he looked up again, Sheila was looking at him with a bemused expression.
"I for one will be taking up Mr. Emmit's extremely generous offer." Brant said, loudly.
Charlie grinned at him. "It's a union job, Jerry."
Brant didn't blink an eye. "I can live with that."
Horn didn't look fazed in the slightest. "Just how much gold have you extracted yet?" he asked.
Charlie scowled. "None -- yet. But it's there."
"What did you dowse for it?" Horn mocked. There were a few titters in the audience.
"Shut up, Mr. Horn," Brant said. He didn't raise his voice but somehow it reached to the edge of the park, and every microphone picked up every word.
"How dare you," Horn started to say, but Brant walked up to him and stared him in the eyes. Horn was big and tall and broad in the chest. Brant was bigger and taller and broad all the way down his body.
"You started the fires. I saw you."
It was over at the moment. Everyone heard the truth in his voice. The cameras and the microphones seemed to transform his simple sentence into one of those national moments, when everyone suddenly understands exactly what has happened, and who the good guy is and who the bad guy is.
On his part, Horn's face also told it all, and everyone in the audience could see it, and the camera picked up the twitch on his cheek and the hunted look in his eyes.
"I'll sue you for that!" Horn shouted. "You have no proof!"
"Sue me all you want, Mr. Horn. I don't really care. But as far as truth is concerned, I have proof enough of your crimes." He raised the ledger that Freedy had stolen from the tycoon's safe over his head.
"In this book are the names of the safety inspectors you have bribed and for how much. The state police have already interviewed some of these men, and they have confessed.
"You, sir, have put my men's lives in danger for the last time!"
It was as if Horn had an arrow shot into his heart -- something had finally penetrated his rich man's armor. He staggered and blushed, and his eyes went over to the helicopter and everyone could see what he was thinking.
"I believe we have a F.B.I. Agent here?" Brant said. "Agent Moller?"
Sheila gave Freedy a big squeeze on his arm and went forward to the bandstand. She pulled out an old fashioned set of handcuffs and arrested Darrell Horn on the spot. The cameras whirled and the flashbulbs froze that moment in a strobe light still of time.
Freedy couldn't believe it. She was so hot when she was arresting someone.
2 hours ago