Sunday, 30 October 2016

Chapter 22 - Piano Man (Reprise)

Now that he had my attention, Piano Man led with Yankee Doodle Dandy once more.

'I met a guy with just one eye and fartin' was his humour, he smelled as bad as Satan's dad and sounded like a tuba!'  He spent the next whole minute laughing while I kissed ground and ached.

Just another crazy day in the Sands. A headlong flight into limbo that ended up with me trapped in an underground tunnel and falling through space until I landed once more on the other side of reality. I began to wonder if I was suffering a reaction to the Candy Jacks. You weren't supposed to take so many back-to-back. Or maybe just lately, I'd had one too many blows to the head. Perhaps Waylon Boggs had caught me clean a while ago and everything since had just been a fever dream. Somehow, another kick to my crotch seemed preferable to another discussion with a madman.

Piano Man nodded down towards my cassock and the cross hanging round my neck on its string of beads. 'I see you've taken another step closer to the Almighty. All considered, I find that a curious decision when you're trying everything you can to avoid meeting Him in person.'

'I'm sure He understands my position,' I replied cheerfully. 'Everything in good time.'

'A good time is the one thing you definitely don't have in your future.'

'Oh yeah, more tales from the crystal 8-ball. That's just what I need right now.'

He glanced at me as he played. 'You know, you'd think with everything that's happened so far, you might actually be inclined to trust me a bit. Instead, you come barging in here, dressed up all holy and shooting your mouth off like a dumbass. I can't help thinking I deserve better. If it weren't for me, you'd have died in Grafton Brown's farmhouse.'

Somehow, the passage of time had blurred that memory and I couldn't recall where my mind was when I'd fired through that curtain. For all I could say, I might have made my own mind up what to do, and I couldn't be sure that anything we'd discussed before had played a part in that decision.

I said, 'When you're done with your State of the Union...'

He glared.  'Don't go thinking you're funny, now.'

'What you deserve, what I deserve. Ain't none of that stuff matters,' I said. 'We all get what we get, and we all get the same in the end. Everyone gotta die. It's just about the when and where.'

'What you don't seem to realize is that when and where are malleable concepts.'

'Them's big words,' I said, laying back down on the warm sand and staring up at the yellow sky above. Wisps of cloud moved around slowly, hinting at a wind somewhere up in the heavens that could descend at any time. The air was warm, and there were worse places a man could lie than where he fell. I kind of felt like if I stayed perfectly still, time itself would stop and day might never turn to night.

Piano Man picked out a slow, careful melody and carried on playing through feel even when he looked around again. 'Seems to me like maybe you're suffering some kind of existential crisis. That's okay, I get it. This desert here is a weird old place. It plays with the mind, and you've been under a lot of stress lately.'

'They done away with us,' I said.

'No more bounty hunters, huh.'

'Gregor thinks the world is heating up. He thinks that soon, it's gonna lead to catastrophe.'

'That sucks, for sure.'

'And I'm still no closer,' I said, closing my eyes and spreading my arms, 'to finding out what happened to my mom.'

Piano Man's tune quickened briefly and then stopped abruptly.

'Am I dreaming?' I asked.

Five more seconds passed peacefully, and then my world exploded in pain. I sat bolt upright, wincing and curling in on myself, my hands closing around the fist-sized rock that had hit me full in the stomach.

'What the fuck?!'

Piano Man's glowing tip jar was resting next to the piano on a neat cairn of stones. It balanced improbably above a gap in the pile that was exactly the size of the rock I was holding.  The man himself was staring at me, his coal-black pupils shrinking and expanding furiously within his white irises.

'Phoenix, get your tired, lily-livered, liberal ass out of the dirt and start acting like a man. Your town has fallen to the Yankees, your loved ones are in danger and you're staring at the sky like it's made of goddamn treacle. Now, I can handle you taking a moment when things get tough, but the minute you start making sand angels and talking about dreams, then we gotta have words. You get me?'

'Fuck you.' I pitched the rock back at him. He ducked at just the right moment for it to pass over his head and came back up with that same stupid, ugly lunatic grin that I knew from before.

'There we go, that's the boy! There's that fire. Now, you save that, you're gonna need it. You got a real battle coming up.'

'Is this the point where you tell me something that saves my life?'

'Funny you should say that.' He thumped at the ivories, portending apocalypse. 'Time, as they say, is of the essence. After you came here, your friends headed back home to pack up. They're waiting for you there right now. You're on the clock though, because your other buddy Captain Jensen's coming for you all and he's in no mood for reconciliation. He knows that the Bounty Hunters are the only ones that can stop his boss.'

I pressed down on my bruised belly and looked around desperately at the empty landscape. 'Then maybe you should stop wasting my time and get me back there?'

Piano Man raised a finger. Predictably, the harmony of the tune was unaffected, just sustained briefly with one hand. 'In two shakes of a mule's tail. First, there's more you need to know. The blonde girl from the meet at the the canyon. You remember her, right?'

Sure do. 'Uh, yeah.'

'All that lovely long hair, framing that soft, beautiful face and them big blue eyes. You thought she was pretty, right?'

Sure did. 'I guess.'

'Don't go there. She's your sister.'

What. 'WHAT?'

'You heard me. Now, I'm sure that you're gonna have all sorts of interesting family stories to catch up on round the campfire, but when you next meet, you won't have time. You're gonna have to persuade your sister - her and all her friends - to take you back to Hole Town straightaway. You're gonna have to sneak in under cover of darkness and pick up those other two idiots of yours. Storm's a comin', and there ain't no way they're getting out of town on their own.'

I felt that sinking feeling again, the one I was getting far too familiar with. I couldn't even begin to process anything about my having a sister, and whether that was true or not, it was all going south if it rested on her friends. Somehow, I didn't see Pink Hair taking my side in an argument anytime soon.

'Her friends,' I said. 'What if they won't listen to me?'

Piano Man plinked dexterously away at the keys. 'Only way to keep things on the straight and narrow is for them to go along with you. You're gonna need firepower, see. One chance to persuade 'em is all you're gonna get, so best dial that charm up to eleven.'

I didn't understand what he meant, but above me, I could see the clouds being sucked into the middle of the sky and the hairs on my arms were standing up. I was about to go center stage, and there wasn't going to be a second chance to get this right.

Piano Man began to build his tune into a crescendo. 'Don't you delay now, not even an hour. Everything is finely balanced right this second, but it'll tip on the tiniest things. Use your better judgement, and use it quick.'

'Gotcha,' I said, not all sure that I did.

When Piano Man turned again, his face had become pallid, the skin stretched tightly across his skull. The fullness of his eyes could be seen, and they rolled in his head like billiard balls. 'Pressure, Phoenix. You remember your friend talking about that, right?'


'Here's another example of it in action. When you're faced with a choice between left and right, choose straight ahead.'

'That's it?' I said.  'That's your warning?'

As I watched, I realized that it wasn't that Piano Man's skin was stretching across his frame so much as the frame itself was expanding, his skeleton growing through his flesh.  His lips stretched back across broken teeth, until he was grinning without trying to do so.  The wind became a high-pitched whine and whirled down upon us.

'It's all you have time for! One more thing. You remembered to bring money, right?  Everyone has to pay the toll. You know what happens to people who don't pay the toll.'

His bulging face abruptly split in two, showering me with blood. I just sat there dumb, staring down at my dripping hands. He stood up, and a fat, hungry tongue lolled beneath the ruined bone, beckoning at me.

A cassock doesn't have pockets, I thought, my eyes travelling slowly down my own body with growing dread.  Finally they moved to the space below my still-throbbing belly to the half-buried bag that lay beneath me. I remembered now - Jayci had thrown it to me so that Gregor could fit down the tunnel.  Everything stopped still as I tugged at the drawstring and frantically searched the dark interior, hoping against hope that one of them had thought to pack some chits...

GO TO CHAPTER 23 > > >

Monday, 17 October 2016

Chapter 21 - Cut Adrift

You've probably had that dream, the one where you're being chased.  Perhaps it's dark, confusing, with the light only touching the edges of your vision.  When you look its way, it slides into the corners, bleeding around the edges, seeping back in where you least expect.  Soon, every way you look, you see danger.

Are you alone, in that dream?  Or is it worse somehow to know that your own are with you, and you have to make sure that you don't lose them along with yourself?

Your friend has a hold of you and a hold of your other friend too, but you're moving this way and that, tugging at each other, and any move might be one too far, the one that separates you.  You can't move too slow, because that bad behind you will catch up but you can't move too fast or you'll attract the attention of the bads in front, and they'll scream into life and bring you down.  All around, people are watching.  Starting to run, just because.  Their knees and elbows crash into you, needle-sharp, tearing your skin and scratching at your eyes.
Ignore the pain, keep moving forward and you might just live.

'Which way?'

Jayci was flying beneath the clouds and her voice came out as a furious whisper.  She was pulling me along like a steer dragging a plough, but she didn't have muscles for me and Gregor both.  A liability in a spot this tight, Gregor blundered into the back of a farm girl, sending her sprawling.

'Which way, goddamnit?'

This time she did shout to make herself heard over the apologies and the anger, and her words dragged me along better than she could have done with strength alone.  My mind was torn between Jensen, whose hand I was expecting to land on my shoulder any second, lawman-style, and the blonde girl who I'd seen once and spoken not one word to, and yet shared...something.

'Godsake Phoenix, help me out here!'

'Duck low,' I said, and she let go of my sleeve and glared at me when she realised I was back with her.  Gun in hand, I was myself again.  'Aim back the way we came in.  That's where the crowds are.  We can hide there.'

Bowed forward, like a tree in the wind, we were able to sneak past one of Di Vio's patrols in the confusion.  Turning away from the flow, I looked around for Jensen, but he was lost somewhere behind us.  Anyway, even if I could see him, there'd be too many people for me to take a pop at him.  You're gonna shoot at the Devil, you don't want to go missing, now.

We bore left, jostled through crowds of people who bitched at the way we shoved them aside and then went dead quiet when they saw the guns in our hands.  We were doing okay until the mouth of the canyon came into sight.  There was a high pitched whistle behind us, someone raising the alarm, and instantly four more of Di Vio's armed militia spread out as a band across the exit.  The residents of Hole Town filtered through the gaps, suspicious but unsure what had changed.

Jayci inclined her head towards me.  'Any bright ideas?'

I looked down at my gun.  'No good ones.  I've got a few shots, but if we start a fight in this crowd, innocent people are going to die.'

'We should run,' Gregor said, stumbling around behind us.

'There's troops to the front and Di Vio's bodyguards coming up behind.'

'Pressure,' Gregor replied.

'What?' Jayci said.

'Pressure.   The sum total of the kinetic energies of a substance contained within a vessel.'

'This needs to go somewhere quickly,' I warned.  The soldiers at the mouth of the canyon hadn't seen us yet, but they were radioed up, walking our way, and you can be sure that they knew what they were looking for.

'When you apply pressure to an object, it transfers momentum,' Gregor explained.  'The pressure inside the vessel seeks to normalise with the external pressure through the most direct route possible.'

'What are you saying?'

'If we can't go forward or back, we go sideways.'

'Side passages?  Even if there were any, they're only going to lead away from the city out into the desert.'

Gregor shrugged.  'I'm an ideas man.  This is what I have.'

I could hear Jensen bellowing orders over the crowd.  'Any idea is better than none.  We find a passage, escape first.  We can double back into town later on.'

Jayci made for the far wall; Gregor and I went near.  I could hear him burbling, see the backlit sweat dripping off him as we moved in opposite directions.  I was the only one that went against the flow of people, squeezing my way along the walls.  It was slow, and all I could see was row after row of vacant eyes coming towards me.  Padre Reyes had never told me what hell looked like, but I'm willing to bet it was like that crowd, foreign and forceful, marching on forever.

Every step took three steps worth of effort to fight for, and I'd reached a spot that looked half-promising when one of the grey jackets rolled up alongside me.

'Captain Jensen,' he yelled over his shoulder, 'I've got one of them here!'

He got one for sure, flush on the jaw, and he dropped like wet sand.  As he went down, there was an explosion in the distance that tore a chunk of the rock out of the canyon wall next to my head, and then the world went crazy, all screaming and yelling and falling.  I popped a candy jack and turned away towards Gregor, hopping over, past or through the people in the way.  I was done with home town solidarity now.

I'd covered half the distance when I heard Jayci calling both of us.

'Here!  Over here!'

I elbowed someone aside and saw the girl ducking next to a lip in the rock.  The surface above it was solid, something I confirmed when I slapped my palm into it.
'This is no good!'

Gregor appeared to my left, and then there was another crack and a whine as a rifle round soared past my right shoulder and gouged the wall, leaving an opening that looked like a staring eye.

'Down!  In!'  Jayci tore the bag off Gregor's back and slapped him so hard on the shoulder that she knocked him to his knees.  His chunky ass disappeared into an unseen cleft beneath the lip and only then did I understand.

Jayci threw the bag to me, and then she was gone too, following the big man and his bright idea.  I took one last look behind before I followed.  Jensen's scarred face tore through the screaming crowd, and then he saw me and sneered.  Each of us could have taken a shot at the other, but neither of us did.  I didn't ask myself right then why not.

'Well, you keep on running, boy!  You go in there and bury yourself, it saves me a job!'

I was all out of pithy comebacks.  For all I knew, the space under that rock might be fifteen feet deep, and then soon I'd be coming out backwards, trussed up like a turkey at Thanksgiving.  Better to save my words for when I had some way to back them up.  I gritted my teeth and followed the others.

Ten seconds into perfect darkness and sound ceased to have any meaning.  The outside died away and the space filled with my own echo, disorienting me.  There was just my breath and my knees shuffling urgently through the dust, splayed fingers reaching out to avoid holes or unpleasant surprises.  When I called for Jayci and for Gregor, the closeness of the walls deadened my voice so much that I could barely hear it myself.  I knew they had to be still going forward because I hadn't run into the back of them, but I could no longer tell whether I was headed in a straight line.  In no time at all, my shoulders were pressing on the walls, and I got the sensation that I was digging my own grave.  Still, there weren't no way to go back, or I would have been for certain.

Eventually the rock loosened around me, and then opened outright into empty space.  My fingers pressed through the rough sand, touching crevices and spars.  The skin on my palms was already grazed from the progress I was making.  Keep moving, keep moving forward.

Ignore the pain, and you might just live.

Panic growing in my heart, I leaned into the night and the air began to get cooler, like I was coming into a wider passage or getting close to water.  If I overreached in my flight, I might tip over a ledge and find myself drowning in an underground pool.  What kind of hero drowns in a desert?  Not one who's going to be remembered, or one who'd want to be.

The cool breeze grew suddenly in strength, and then, like that fever dream from earlier, the light bled in from the edges and formed a silent glowing dot in the distance.  I knew it couldn't be daylight, because darkness had already fallen, but I had no idea what else it could be.  I headed towards it, and at the same time it seemed like it headed towards me.  When the two of us met, the glare enveloped me, like I got swallowed by a frozen sun, and then I was falling through clouds, through empty space, through a blazing void, finally landing in a sand dune at the bottom of an immense bowl-shaped depression in the Sands.

I sat upright, brushed off my cassock and turned to see a familiar face.  Impeccably dressed in the same white shirt and long coat as before, Piano Man sat before his keyboard and spread his fingers across the keys.  Rather than play, he raised an eyebrow and grinned at me.

'Ah, Phoenix.  Welcome back.'

GO TO CHAPTER 22  > > >

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Chapter 20 - The Party in the Canyon

Gregor turned up before the sun dipped close to the horizon.  He was sweating like a mule and muttering to himself as he approached.  A dark, wet stain filled the hollow between his shoulders and crystallised white at the edges.

Beside me, Jayci squinted beneath her hat, looking all kinds of hot and irritated.  To her front, a crowd of people a hundred bodies deep stretched from the mouth of the canyon all the way back to the ridings of Hole Town.  Looking around, I could see all the kinds of people that made up a community - the mine workers, with their empty eyes, the bordello girls, who came in stern, no-nonsense packs.  The farm workers tied cloth around their faces and supported one another with calloused hands.  Street-sellers had brought their carts down the rocky path and into the canyon itself.  It might not have been an easy trip, but there was always money to be made from a crowd, and it was better to have your livelihood with you than to trust it to good fortune in an empty town. 

There were even one or two seminary boys close by.  Their hair was too tidy for them to have ever done useful work.  They took one look at my cassock and sidled away as quickly as they could.

Gregor offered us water bottles and then crouched down, gulping for air. 

Jayci tipped her head slowly and gazed at Gregor like she was waking from a dream.  'You okay, G?'

The big man wiped himself down on a cloth he pulled from a pocket.  'It's too hot, I pretty much had to sprint to get here and I certainly don't like being near this many people.'

Jayci patted him on the back.  'Hang in there.  We're only here to see what they've gotta say, then we can get ourselves back home and come up with a plan.'

Mayor Belasco was a weathered man but he was dignified, and he walked up to the lectern at the end of the valley like one half his age.  His beard was the colour of the wind, and he'd managed to get this far out into the wastes with something approximating a clean shirt and tie.  In his lapel he'd stuffed a clementine blossom, showing how he'd started his days working on the farms hereabouts.  It ain't much, you can say, but these are the little things that matter to people.  He might have been a politician, but he was Hole Town through and through.

No, it wasn't Mayor Belasco that concerned me.  He was just one man, making a decision that was no decision at all.  It was the smirking younger man standing beside his shoulder that concerned me.  Nate Di Vio.

Belasco began.  'Ladies and gentlemen of Hole Town.  Thank you for coming out here to hear about the security arrangements in our fine town.  Now, it can't have escaped anyone's notice that the army have been called out at short notice to deal with operational matters abroad.  In their stead, I've had to decide how we deal with the problem of keeping people safe - and happily, a solution has arrived that also addresses some other problems we've been having.

'As you know, we've been experiencing issues with securing reliable sources of power to develop our industry.  It's not easy to run production lines if you can't find solar tech, or the underground lines are only working four hours a day.  For that reason, I'm delighted to introduce you to the man who'll be taking charge of both our power and security needs.  He's the owner of the Silver Sea, which powers all of the lands north of the Sands, and he has some exciting ideas to help our town grow.  Ladies and gentlemen, Nate Di Vio.'

With his futuristic looking clothing, Nate Di Vio was something of a strange sight.  He had all the time in the world as he stood forward and lifted the copper cloak off his shoulders.  Two of his lackeys stepped along with him to take it from his hands.  He sauntered to the lectern and once there, gripped the edges with his hands.

'Thank you, Mayor Belasco,' he said, his voice strong and clear.  'It's great to see so many people here today, taking an interest in matters of civic importance.  It speaks volumes about your town that you've made the effort.

'Ten years ago, I came out of a tech institute with nothing more than a rapacious interest in engineering and a plan for the future.  Everyone I worked alongside was interested in military applications, building vehicles, munitions, bombs, so that our armies could better fight abroad.  I always had loftier ambitions - I wanted to make the world a better place.  In my first year in industry, I devoted all my time to tracking down Old Tech - things we'd lost, things we'd forgotten after the constant civil wars of the last century.  I found them, reverse-engineered them, learned the stories of our past all over again.  Thanks to the work I carried out in that year, we were able to build the workshops that made it possible to mass-produce self-cleaning solar panels more efficient than the Old Worlders could even dream of.  In the north, we now have power, so much power that we don't know what to do with it.'

He raised his arms.  'Some of you may be asking, why are you here?  Why now?  I'm not just a man who likes to help others, I'm a man who likes to travel.  And so I came south, looking for somewhere new that I could assist.  When I reached the outskirts of Hole Town, I realised that the fields here are drier and emptier than they should be.  This is a harsh land, but it's rich with mineral wealth, and with my help, you could become an industrial heartland.

'I can bring enough juice to power a thousand factories, and you have the space to build them and the people to work them.  Working together, we can generate wealth and create prosperity.  If you're willing to embrace me as a partner, I'll help you to make Hole Town into the new capital city of the South.  From El Paso to Miami, everyone will know you, and everyone will want to come here and make their fortune.  Embrace me, and together, we will build the future!'

There was cheering then, the stunned, stilted kind that you might feel if you ever won a lottery.  Even Jayci and I could have got involved, though we were both brought down when we turned to see Gregor shaking his head.

'What do I need from you?' Di Vio continued.  'Your labour...your patience...your understanding.  This is your town, and as your honoured guest, I'm keen that you're the driving force in building this great new tomorrow.  Something else I need is a reasonable degree of assurance that comes with security, and in the absence of the army being here to keep people safe, I've agreed with Mayor Belasco that my own private security people will take over duties in and around the town.  You might have seen them around - look out for the grey jackets.  We're asking you to respect them in the same way that you'd respect any lawman, and follow their instructions to stay safe.'

Looking around, I could see now that large clutches of Di Vio's security detail were spread out among and around the crowd, meeting stares with firm nods, each of them criss-crossed with bandoliers and weighed down with guns big enough to shoot down the moon.

'Friendly fellas,' Jayci observed.  Gregor grimaced.

Mayor Belasco interjected, sharing a few words with Di Vio, and the latter nodded before turning back to the crowd.  'Mayor Belasco has just pointed out to me that we don't want...what we don't need right now, is to have civilians moving around, doing the work that my security team have agreed to pick up.  Of course, civilians will retain their constitutional right to bear arms, but for now and the foreseeable future, we're standing down the bounty hunters.  Existing bounties will be honoured, but no new ones will be offered.'

A ripple ran through the crowd at that point.  I looked at my feet, and then up at Jayci.  Her lips thinned slightly, oh-so-slightly, but she made no other reaction.

'Finally,' Di Vio said, 'necessity has meant that things here are moving at a fast pace, and it's important that you all have a chance to meet and get to know me - if that's what you want to do.'

There were a few whistles from the crowd, and a woman in front of us yelled, 'Will you marry me?' to general amusement.

Di Vio smiled.  'A century ago, in a desert hundreds of miles to the north, the people used to hold a festival each year to celebrate their identities.  A celebration, the likes of which you've never seen before.  It's a party for the ages, and we're going to bring that spirit to Hole Town.  There'll be a chance for everyone to reconnect with your wild, spiritual side - to celebrate our self-reliance and our self-expression.  I'm going to build you a metropolis in the desert, a new city in the Sands.  That's where we'll get to know one another, and that's where we'll become friends.'

The sun fully set at the precise moment that Nate Di Vio stepped away from the lectern.  In the new darkness in the valley, the applause began slowly at first, building and cresting as even sceptics joined in, and people yelled and hooted to one another.  What had started as a discussion about security had ended with the promise of the biggest party Hole Town, or anywhere south of the Sands, had ever seen.

Torches popped up at the fringes of the crowd, bathing everywhere in dirty yellow light.  I looked around through a sea of clapping, cheering bodies to a small group as motionless as our own.  The pink-haired singer from the drinking hole who saved my life in the gunfight after was just a few yards away to my right, standing with a posse of her own.  A group of women, aged from teens to toothless, gathered in a loose circle.  One in particular caught my eye - perhaps the same age as the singer herself, short hair the colour of the sun and a hollow-cheeked face striking for its intensity.  She saw me staring, and stared back for a few seconds before nudging the singer.

Pink Hair recognised me straightaway, despite the cassock.  Behind her, an impossibly tall woman with narrow limbs and a long rifle strapped over her shoulder gave me the coldest look I think I've ever had from a woman.  She moved protectively around the blonde girl, who continued to meet my eye even as the group ushered her away through the crowd.

'Huh,' I said, turning as Jayci tugged on my sleeve.

'Time to go,' Jayci said, and between her, the rumbling figure of Gregor and a hundred other limbs beside, I could see the sneering face of Captain Jensen as he strode towards us.

GO TO CHAPTER 21 > > >

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Chapter 19 - Two Idiots Under God

By the time we rolled back into the settlement, people were waking up to another day in Hole Town.  Another day of yelling, praying, smoking, cursing, fighting, mooching, panhandling and generally adding color to what the desert already put there.  

In the worker districts, sad-faced boys with dark eyes and dark skin huddled together in hacienda doorways.  Workers sweated as they shifted boxes of brown fruit and copper ore.  Gangmasters patrolled the corners of their neighborhoods, faces inscrutable, flashing subtle hand signals to one another.  Beaded curtains appeared in bordello archways, moving with the hot breeze to reveal cool darkness behind.  Trike couriers and carts rolled through the dirt.  As the sky grew ever more yellow and shadows got shorter, vendors appeared with hot braziers.  It was bird meat on the skillet, powered by gas from the manure.  What was left over was sold to dustbowl farmers like Orie Boggs, who carted it out to the fields to eke what little they could get from the soil.

What you're probably getting from a city powered by chicken shit is the smell.  It got everywhere, in your clothes, your hair, your food.  After a while you noticed it only when it wasn't there, and that was your cue to ask yourself if you'd wandered too far from home.

Above it all like a promise of salvation waiting, the Fallen Cross stood at the end of the canyon.  As it had been throughout my living memory, the end of the staff and the edge of the crossbar were both resting in the dust.  A carrion bird was perched on the tip.

I hadn't been gone no more than a few hours and I was missing the place already.

'I should go back home,' Gregor said.  'I want to rest, top up my water and check my instruments.'

'Can you pick a few bits up for me when you're there, please?'  Jayci gave him a list and then turned to me.  'I'm going down the station to check out how things are going down there.  You want to come with?'

'Sure thing.'

When we got to the station, the generator that had been set up to light up the scene at night had gone, but the tape sealing off the area remained.  At best, passers-by cocked an eye to the shattered building and moved on quickly.  It was easy to see why.  Under the looming verandah where I'd faced down a gunman only a handful of hours ago, a pair of men in sunglasses and loose grey jackets were guarding the premises.  Sitting across from one another, each had an automatic rifle set across his chest in a three-point sling.

'This ain't looking like good news,' Jayci said.

'I'm not seeing any military uniforms.'

'Reckon the real soldiers got called back to guard the water.  Would you look at the gee-tar straps them boys got on?  When I was little, I used my MawMaw's garter belt for that.'

'They're big guns.'

'MawMaw was a big girl.'  

Gregor turned up a few minutes later with fresh water supplies and a canvas bag.  Jayci reached into it and pulled a few things out.  First was a white sheet, which she folded into triangles within triangles before wrapping it carefully around her scalp and chin.

'Help me get my hair inside this thing.'

I folded up her braids, stacking them under the sheet until only her face could be seen.  'Why do you even grow your hair this long, anyhow?'

She grinned at me as she slipped her jacket off her shoulders.  'I need me a gimmick, right?  Everyone gotta have a gimmick.  That way, when the bads see me coming and they know it's me, they lose hope before I even get close.'

She pulled her top up so only a little of her cleavage showed and wrapped a dark scarf around everything.  Then she took a deep breath, pressed her hands together in prayer and gazed at me with liquid eyes.  'Yes sir, everyone gotta have a gimmick.'


'This is literally the worst goddamn idea ever,' I said.

Jayci critically examined the cassock I had on, pulling at seams and shifting it around on my frame.  Gregor stood behind her, shaking his head.  When she was satisfied, she pushed the Bible into my hands and adjusted the cardboard dog collar around my neck.  'Priests don't use language like that.'

'You're forgetting I had a seminary upbringing.  I could tell you a few surprising things about the language priests use.'

'Save it for your confessional,' Jayci said, smiling.  

'Why do you even own these clothes?'

'You never know when you're gonna need a disguise.'

'If you're done here,' Gregor said, taking the bag, 'I need to get back.  I was checking out the sun and it looks even worse than I thought.'

'We'll be back once we know more,' Jayci called as he bumped away on the trike.  Then she licked the palm of her hand and began flattening my hair down.

'Is that necessary?' I asked, shrugging away from her.

'Damn right it's necessary.  You look like a pig farmer who's been getting too close to the livestock.  Will you just stand still?' 

'Why are we even doing this?' I said.

'We can't just walk up as bondsmen now.  If those are Di Vio's men, the last thing he's going to want is another armed force in the city,' she said.

'Pretty much every single person in Hole Town carries a gun.'

'Yeah, but most of those people are more of a danger to themselves than to someone else.'  Adjustment complete, she tugged me towards her gently and pecked me on the forehead.  'We need information.  Try and look holy, okay?'


Head down, Jayci approached the guards nervously and I followed her, clutching my holy book and looking solemn, a few steps behind.  The guards glanced at one another, stood upright and put out hands to block her path

'Stop right there,' one of them ordered.

'Good morning to you, sirs.  My name is Sister Pennyweather, and this here is my associate, Father Felix.  We were told that a bunch of heathens had attacked the station, and one of our key duties is to attend to the spiritual well-being of our brave military personnel.'

One of the guards said, 'This is a restricted area.  You need to go back.'  To his left, the other began to whisper into a radio mike, as though hoping the names he'd heard were going to turn something up.  Even as he did it, his hands had a hold of the stock of his gun.

'In the name of the Good Lord and Lady, there's nothing to worry about, sir,' Jayci continued in her most cheerful voice.  'I'm simply trying to locate the whereabouts of the person we usually meet with.  Her name is Sergeant Carter, US military.  She runs this very station that you're guarding right now, so if you just call in and let her know that we're here, we'll be happy to wait.'
While Jayci was entertaining the guards, I glanced around.  People were moving past slowly and I could see a few craning their necks in our direction.  Others had stopped to have conversations or read the bills that were posted onto the noticeboard in the square.  I also noted the shadows where absolutely nothing was moving at all.  In any crisis situation, those were the ones I tended to fire into first.

'Father.'  Guard number two called me back and nodded to my dusty-looking Bible.  'Where did you say you were from?'

Jayci wide-eyed me from under her wimple.  'Catholic Compound Twelve,' I said, as confidently as I could.

Guard number two pursed his lips.  I could tell he wasn't convinced by our getup.  'And is Compound Twelve the nearest of the churches hereabouts?'

'I believe that the nearest church to here is Compound Ten,' I said, making my best effort not to blink.  'But between you and me, I think that the reverend fathers there have become rather hardened by years of life in the big city.  They don't seem as concerned for the souls of people here as they should be.'

'Is that so?'

I went for broke.  'Our mission is sanctified by Padre Reyes at Twelve.  He's been a serving priest under the Fallen Cross for over fifty years and is the holiest man I have ever known.'  I placed my hand upon my heart in an attempt to convey my sincerity.  If this turned ugly, I was going to have to shoot a man while wearing a cassock, and that would be a first for all of us.

Guard number one balanced his gun where we could see it.  'The military has stood down for now by order of the government.  A local team has had to step in for a short while for your safety and security.  If you turn around to where the crowd is gathered over there,' he pointed, 'you'll see that there's a notice about a public meeting due to take place in the canyon later today.  That will explain everything for you.'

'Thank you, sir,' Jayci said.  She touched both her shoulders, her forehead and her heart.  'Blessings be with you.  If either of you fine gentlemen find yourself in need of spiritual guidance, you can always contact me-'

'Come, sister,' I said, taking her arm and guiding her away.  'Let us not disturb these good men any further.'

When we'd gained a few yards of safe distance, Jayci whispered, 'Why you gotta do that?'

'Because you're the least convincing nun ever, and the sum total of all the information we gathered we could have got just by reading the noticeboard in the first place.'

'I don't know about that.  We got confirmation our guys over there are private security, and ain't no-one else but Di Vio's men could be armed with those sort of guns.  And besides,' she said, twinkling at me, 'dressing up is fun, right?'

'Lord, preserve me,' I replied.

Jayci Hail Mary'd and scattered blessings in her wake as we made our way through the crowd to where the notice had appeared.  It was a simple poster, six feet wide, hand painted.


'That's when they're going to make the handover official,' I said.

Jayci pulled off the scarf and the sheet, letting her braids tumble loose.  'Then we should thank the Good Lord that we've got some time to prepare, shouldn't we?'

GO TO CHAPTER 20 > > >

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Chapter 18 - A Dim Bulb Brightens

It was going to be a long, hot day.

Assuming that is, we survived the dawn.

There wasn't even time for a prayer.  Jayci had their number; girl had been paying attention all the way, and her candy jack stole a march on my own.  Jensen's first man took a jaw-breaking punch full on, and the second got a knee in the crotch.  He must have had some steel in his breeches, because he was still upright when Gregor came roaring in like a steam train and flattened him out with a body slam.

I walked over to Broken Jaw and pulled him upright.  Maybe he should have stayed down, played dead, but he had some fight left too.  In a flash, I had a palm in my face and a finger in my eye, and all I could do was hold onto his other wrist so the all-important barrel of his automatic pistol didn't swing my way.

'Gregor!' I called.  Our engineer was still flailing at the man he was sitting on.  'Little help?'

Jayci looked around for a moment, and then relaxed.  'Oh, it's okay, you're doin' fine.'

I punched my new friend twice, but he was a chigger and there was no way he was letting go.

'He's...more persistent than I was banking on,' I called.

Jayci recovered her hat and stood up at a leisurely pace.  'Hang in there.  You ain't dead yet.'

The pistol lurched, gaining an inch and losing it again.  Sweaty fingers pressed down on sweaty fingers, and the barrel discharged into air.

'Seriously now,' I said.  Broken Jaw had a height advantage, and was starting to climb up my shoulder.

'Be there in five.'  Jayci stopped to brush sand out of her bust.

Enough of this shit.  I kicked the legs out from under Broken Jaw and flipped him over onto the sand with the same movement.  The gun spiralled away, and with it, any hope that he had of winning the fight.  He offered his palms in surrender, which was a nice touch, and meant that I knocked him out with one punch rather than making a morning of it.

There was a moment to catch breath, make some peace.  When Jayci's impish smile appeared in my field of vision, she looked impeccably groomed for someone who'd spent a night fighting bads in the desert.

'We done here?' she asked.

'Yeah, no thanks to you.'

'Now what?' Gregor said.

Jayci rolled down her top the tiniest fraction of an inch for my benefit, which was enough that I could see the chit pouch resting against her breast.  'Now nothing,' she said with a wink in my direction.  'We're rich.  We have a ride.  We don't need anything now.'

'Cool your jets.  We might have money and a ride, but our freaky friends are riding to Hole Town to do who knows what.'

Jayci wasn't listening.  She spun between Gregor and I, dancing to music in her head.

'Jayci,' I said.

'First,' the girl whispered, to nobody in particular, 'I'm going to get me a whole new wardrobe.  Something with actual lace, something that looks pretty.  And then I'm going to have a bath.  I'm gonna buy enough water that I can sink completely under the surface.'


'And then...a custom set of wheels.  And a rifle the length of two men.  I won't even need to be in the same county when I'm taking bads down.'

'Jayci,' Gregor said.  She spun round to face him.


'What are we going to do?'

'Well,' she replied, 'you heard that asshole.  Go north, he said, where it's civilised.  Travel out of these Sands.  There's enough money here to live on for years.  Maybe forever, who knows?  Either way, it's a new adventure.'

'That doesn't help us with the big problem,' Gregor said, scratching his shoulders with his big, beefy arms.

Girl rolled her eyes.  'Which is what?'

'The heat.  It's getting hotter, every day.  The perihelion's coming.'

'All the more reason for us not to stand here all day and argue.'

I was getting a bit pissed just now.  The two of them were talking like I wasn't there. 

'You're both missing the real problem,' I said.  The two of them turned to me like they were noticing me for the first time.

'What,' I said, 'are we going to do about Hole Town?'

'The place is a rat-hole,' Jayci said.  'That's probably where the name comes from.  Why do you even care?'

'Uh, my mother?  You forget about her?'

Jayci shifted her hat down low on her brow so she could stare at me without the rising sun blinding her.  'Someone needs to forget about her, I reckon.'

'Says you.'

'She's gone!  Ten years gone.  To an oasis in the North.  Get that?  The North!'

'Nice try,' I said.  'But I know the oasis is a myth, remember.'

'Are you so sure?' Jayci said.  Her voice was like velvet, and for a moment, I remembered what Orie Boggs had said.  Cleft Rock, two hundred miles out...

'There's an easy way to sort this,' Gregor said.  'We vote which way to go.'

'What?' Jayci practically screeched.  'What in hell kind of shit are you talking?  This ain't no goddamn democracy.'

Gregor looked genuinely hurt.  'I thought we were a posse.  That we'd stick together.'

'Are you serious?'  Jayci paced, throwing up sand as she did so.  'You actually want to go after a man with an army at his disposal?'

'It's my town,' I said.  'I'm not going to let him just shoot the place up.'

'He has.  An army.'

'You heard me.  My vote is back.'

Jayci tipped her chin upwards and looked at the sky.  'Fuck.  Fuck.  Okay.  I vote north.  Gregor.  It's up to you.'

Gregor looked like a man who'd been asked to drown a puppy.  He took ages over the decision, and by the time he opened his mouth, I could feel the sun burning the back of my neck.


'Fuck!'  Jayci kicked a curtain of sand that fell across Gregor's arm and half-turned back, but rather than respond, he shrank away.

'I'm sorry, Jayci.'

'Why the fuck?  Why would you even want to go back?  Are you looking for a fight with Di Vio?  Is this some macho male bullshit that I have to end here and now?'

Gregor shook his head.  'This isn't about a fight.  The perihelion is real.  No, don't argue.  I know what I've seen.  Now, Nate Di Vio runs the Silver Sea.  He spends his whole life looking at the sun, right?  If I can see that there's a problem, believe me, he's seen it too.  He has more money than any man could spend.  He could live a palatial life north of the Sands, but instead he's here.  That says something to me.'

Jayci shook her head.  'I don't care why he's here and I don't care about your damn perihelion!  With the money we have here, we could buy enough water-'

'Water,' Gregor said, staring into the middle distance.

'What now?'

'It's the water,' Gregor said.

'He can buy all the water he wants!'

'Right now he can.  But when the world is dying, no-one will trade water for money.  At that point, his resources are useless.  He needs supplies and he needs somewhere to hide, out of the light, to wait it out until the perihelion subsides.'

'Like the cave network where Hole Town stores its water,' I said.  Gregor nodded.

For the first time, Jayci glanced at me and I saw something like doubt in her eyes.  Jensen had said that they were going to make Hole Town an offer that they couldn't refuse.  If Gregor was right, it was an offer that would cost them everything.

We had nothing to add, and Gregor knew it.  He dragged the unconscious soldiers into shade and then set off in the direction of the trikes.  'I'll bring the transport round.'

When he'd moved out of earshot, Jayci glared at me.  'I'm carrying enough money right now to live comfortably for the rest of my natural life, or entirely too comfortably for six extremely entertaining months.  Give me one good reason why I shouldn't leave you two here to deal with your own damn problems.'

'Your love for Gregor?  Your love for me?'  If it was possible, her expression grew even more sour.  'For real.  If Gregor is right, we have to stop Nate Di Vio before he takes control of Hole Town.  This could be the end of the world we're talking about.  First Thessalonians.  The goddamn Bible!  If this shit is really happening, we want to be on that ride!'

Jayci reached up and took my face in her hands.  'My sweet, dumb friend, there ain't gonna be no rapture.  But the minute that Captain Jensen or one of his army of the righteous sees you, he's gonna send you back to God via the direct route.'

'Not,' I said, 'if I see him first.'

'So basically I have to come along to save you from yourself.'

'It's what you do best,' I said.  I swear she nearly smiled.

I patted Jayci's shoulders and she let go of my cheeks just as Gregor rolled up on the trike.  Jayci loosened her top, adjusted her hat and I could see the sweat beading on her brow.

'Let's get out of the sun,' she said.

It was set to be a long, hot day indeed.  And it was getting longer and hotter all the time.

GO TO CHAPTER 19 > > >

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Chapter 17 - The Good, The Bad and The Oh-So Ugly

The three of us stood there like we were dumb while a whole battalion of men in black leather lifted visors and stepped off of motorbikes or leaned out of trucks and pointed weapons at us.  The whole scene was silhouetted against the backdrop of a light bright enough to blind a man, brighter even than the sun.

Slowly, the three of us raised our hands.  Jayci was close enough to me that when she whispered in my ear, her breath tickled.  'If you had any plans saved up for what to do if an army invaded the desert, now would be a good time to share them.'

'Me?' I said.  'I thought you were the one with ideas of global domination.'

'Gregor?  You got anything?'

'My usual forte is running.  And I don't think that's going to work here.'

So, we still had a ways to go before we were big league.  But then it's not every day that an army strolls over the horizon and faces you down.  What would you do?

I stepped forward and called out, 'What do you want?'

'You to shut up.'  The man who responded walked towards us awkwardly, as though his clothes were maybe a size too small for him, but the rifle he was carrying was as tall as he himself, and he wasn't a short man.  He waved an arm and with a distant slam, the light level dropped considerably.  Now I could pick out faces in the gloom, and none of them were friendly.

The man who'd approached us had a jaw so square it might have been panel beat.  His hair was grey and the rest of his face was scarred, like he'd been chewed up and spat out by something.  If I'd seen this guy's face on a wanted poster, I'd have been tempted to look around for something a bit easier to deal with.  For his part, he looked about as impressed with us as I was by him.  He stood the rifle upright in one hand, pulled out a pistol with the other and pointed it at my head.

'You ain't Bennett Brown,' he said.

'Bennett's back inside,' I said.  Hey, he might have been chained to a radiator, but it wasn't a lie.

The man walked around me at a safe distance, careful to have one eye spare for Jayci and Gregor.  It was clear he wasn't taking us lightly.

'You in charge here?' he said.

'Girl here is the smart one and Fat Boy back there does the navigating,' I said.  If I could get him to focus on me, that might leave a window for one of the others to do...something.  'I'm the one with the gun.' 

He tipped his head to look at the laser and whistled through his teeth.

'Very nice gun that is too.  A classic model.  They hand-built all them lasers, none of this production line shit.  Real craftsmanship.  You just don't get stuff like that any more.  Take Betsy, here.'  He tipped the rifle towards me.  'I built her myself after I dropped out of the military.  You know, they spend all their time, chasing round the desert in sandy environments that fuck up their weapons in hours.  Hey, it don't matter none.  It's all about the bombs these days.  'Course, every one they drop breeds a hundred more men that stand and fight...but then, no-one getting rich from war is interested in war coming to an end, are they?'

Jayci was leaning into me and I could feel her body stiffening.  I could tell she was thinking the same as me - this guy knew too much.  He wasn't going to be someone you could fool with a cheap trick.

Grey Hair pointed his rifle at the horizon across from us and sighted her.  'Betsy and me, we've killed fifty men.  And of course, there was more before I made her, but I didn't ever keep a count of those.  You probably killed a few yourself...' and here, he allowed the sentence to dangle like a baited hook.  When I didn't reply, he shrugged.  'If I'm right, in your line of work, you prefer to take 'em alive.'

He saw me sideglance at Jayci.  'Your guild badge is a dead giveaway, son.  Now, for a moment, I was thinking you were just some mud-dweller...but that laser is something serious.  You're way too young to have been around when they was made, so I'm guessing you either looted that or inherited it.  If it's the latter, my commiserations. If it's the former, I suggest you don't try to fire it.'  He even knew about the laser.

A different, younger voice drifted down from on high.  'Captain Jensen, how long is this going to take?'

We looked upwards, to where a younger man was sitting on an improvised throne atop the Monster Truck that had been leading the fleet.  He was wearing strange, light clothes under a leather cloak the same colour as the tight copper curls on his head.  As we watched, his legs swung out and rested on the dashboard.  The boots he was wearing stopped at the ankle, and looked like they were made out of some futuristic material, the like of which I'd never seen before.

The man we now knew to be Captain Jensen said, 'Sir, I'm just doing a little recon work right here, find out what we're dealing with.  See, I was expecting to meet with one man, and I get a little itchy when every man and his dog turns up instead of them.'

'Who's the dog in this story?' Jayci asked.

Before anyone else could reply, Gregor lifted his telescope to his eye and looked upwards.  He adjusted the lens while I watched, and then he let it hang loose in his hands, a troubled look on his face.  'Is that...Nate Di Vio?'

'Who the hell is Nate Di Vio?' I asked.

'He's the man who owns the Silver Sea,' Gregor exclaimed.  'It's the solar farm where the panels cover the entire county.  It's the reason why the North hasn't collapsed completely.  It powers everything from the far side of the Sands to the northern point of the continent.'

'Oh,' I said.

'He's rich beyond our imagination,' Gregor replied with a sigh.  'And he's a genius.'

Jensen looked at Gregor for a moment with the sour expression of the long-serving and underappreciated underling who hears someone else praising his boss.  Then he called up again, 'See, I'm just a little bit unsure about handing over a large sum of money to these guys when I don't even know who they are.'

'Give them the money or shoot them,' Di Vio said.  'I don't care which.  Just get it done before we die of old age.'

Jensen smiled unpleasantly.  'You heard the man.  Let's take a little walk!'

His men fell in behind us and began looting the crate that Bennett and his brothers had filled before we arrived.  Jensen and a couple of his underlings rolled along behind us and instructed us to walk out toward the ridge that Jayci had been using as cover when she'd been sharpshooting earlier.

Jayci sighed.  'There goes my plan to rule the Sands.'

'Yeah, well, I'm just concerned that we get out of this alive.'

She gave me a small smile, and her eyes were luminous.  'Something'll come along, Phoe.  Something always does.'

'I guess I want something a bit more certain than that,' I said.

'Oh, come on.  What are you now, Mr Man-With-A-Plan?  Let it flow, boy.  Have a little faith!'  I was about to argue with her about how I was the religious one and could tell her some things about faith, but she slipped her hand into mind as we were walking, and suddenly, with her warmth, all words escaped me.

I was only a little disappointed when I noticed her holding Gregor's hand on the other side.

Still, a little is something.

Jensen was slow-riding a massive Goldwing over the firm sand, Betsy strapped over his back.  His boys were carrying the T-shaped pistols I'd seen in town before.  They were piloting trikes built for three, with all of the heavy inertia you got with those things.  Before we reached the ridge, the sun started to peer over the horizon.  I popped a candy jack and glanced back at the girl.  Jayci's face was set now, going to that place where you needed the focus, where focus was all there was.

'Got one of those for me?' she whispered.  I placed one on the tip of her tongue, brushed my fingers over her cracked lips.  Wondered if she noticed.  Wondered if she cared.

When we reached the ridge, Jensen turned his bike around.  In the distance, the rest of his boss's cavalcade was already moving on in the direction of Hole Town.  We'd been dust motes in Di Vio's universe, brushed away with the same sort of ease.

What I hadn't expected was for Jensen to hand over a pouch that was weighed down with enough chits to damn near double my weight.

'What's this?' I said.

'Payment for the guns we're taking.  Mr Di Vio said payment or shoot you.  I'm assuming you prefer this arrangement?'

'Damn right,' Jayci said, taking it out of my hands with practised ease and slipping it under her coat.

 'Is Bennett still alive?' Jensen said.

'He is, and one of his brothers.  We tied 'em up in the house.  The others got a little crazy.'

He nodded. 'That'll happen. We'll take them into town with us, find somewhere to drop them off.  My boys here will take you north, as far as you want to go.  I suggest out of the Sands altogether.  A man'll make a better fortune up where things are still civilised.'

'And what's to stop your boys shooting us and stealing our chits the minute you turn your back?'

'You tell me, son.  Are you really as good as you think you are?'  Jensen grinned, just one more tear in a face already shredded.  The faces of his underlings were mostly hidden by cloth, but they didn't exactly look like moral souls.

'What are you planning when you get to Hole Town?' I asked.  In this poor world, a man shouldn't get too sentimental about the place he lives but Hole Town, with Preacher Man and the Fallen Cross and memories of my mom, well, it was everything I knew, and the thought of that falling to a hostile army bothered me more than the thought that I was going to die.

Jensen said, 'We have a proposition for them they can't refuse.  Don't worry, the sun will be rising here for a while yet.  And if you take my advice, you'll be taking shelter from it before it does.  From the looks of things, it's gonna be a long, hot day.'

He roared off, throwing up a thin dust trail that soon faded into the wider cloud that travelled around Di Vio's convoy.  I felt sweat dripping down my arms.  As he disappeared into the yellow void, I thought to myself, hot is right.

'Phoenix,' Jayci said.

When I looked around, Jensen's men were pointing their pistols at me.  All considered, it was a good time for the candy jack to kick in.  The sun was up for real now, and like the girl said, something always comes along.

GO TO CHAPTER 18 > > >

Monday, 1 August 2016

Chapter 16 - Hesitation Lives

Hesitation is a live one.  No cautious man ever fell from the sky, or rushed into fire in a damn fool mission to save a loved one.  Hesitation waits, hesitation thinks, hesitation plans.  Hesitation lives.

Course, you'd best believe that I took out my mom's laser and I shredded that curtain and everything behind it before any of those thoughts grew wings.

Gregor came sprinting round the corner and ran chest-first into my outstretched arm.

'Back,' I commanded.  'Whatever happens, don't come round here.  If you hear any more gunfire, you run. You run quick, and you run far.  Pick up Jayci, physically if you have to.  Ignore anything she says.  Take her with you and keep going south until morning.'   I felt him melt away.

It wasn't ten yards but that corridor was the longest one I've ever taken.  I wanted reassurance, wanted to wait, but maybe I'd already waited too long.  If I stayed there 'til Jayci arrived, I could be condemning us all to death.  I strained my ears for noises, for piano music in the distance.  There was nothing at all to guide me.  I was totally alone.

Is this what happened to her, to my mom?  Did she die sitting still, crouched like a prey animal?  Was she straining her ears for sounds when the moment came?  Was her skin prickling like mine in the darkness, like she could feel the bad, like she could taste it?  Would her way be my way, the words of a spirit enough to send her to her death?

The sound of another set of footsteps began behind me.  Bird-light but with the purpose of a man twice her size, Jayci rounded the corner.  There was no way I was letting her put herself in danger.

'Back,' I snarled, before she could even open her mouth.  Her eyes widened as she subsided.  That might be the only time ever that that girl listened to something I said.

The failing light meant that I had to get right on up in the cubbyhole before I could see what was there.  It might have been storage once, a cupboard or an airing space or who knows what.  What was sure was that it was filled now with the corpse of a man, an unseen brother who was sitting jammed in the hole with a shotgun resting on his knees.  General Lee had been right all along.

I stood there for a few seconds more, taking in the silence, revelling in the absolute stillness in the whole scene.  It wasn't that one man's life had ended, but that for the three of us there, ours could begin again.

'Is it done?' Gregor called.

'Yes,' I said quietly, my mind filled with distant flames.  'It's done.'

* * *

'So the question you're asking,' Jayci said slowly, 'is what makes a bunch of two-bit, no-goods fresh from the Pen into hardened criminals.'

'I said, what makes a bunch of guys with a petty history suddenly decide to go all scorched earth on us,' I replied.

'Desperate men,' Jayci said with a shrug.  She was chewing on a toothpick and as she was thinking, she was moving it from side to side in her mouth.  'I got more important things on my mind.  Like, if these guys took all of Carter's weapons, where did they stash them?'

'Why don't we ask one of these guys when they wake up?' Gregor said.  He gestured at the surviving brothers, who we'd cuffed unconscious to a radiator and stacked up against the wall.

'Could be hours before they wake up.  I'm not keen on spending the night out in the Sands.  Reckon we'll just load 'em up and deliver them to Carter.'  I nudged one of the unconscious men with the toe of my boot.  'She'll be all keen to speak to them.'

'And then they go back to the Pen?'

'Not these guys,' I said, shaking my head.  'These guys are looking at a long uncomfortable talk followed by a short-and-even-less-comfortable rope.'

'And you guys are looking at enough cash to cover the bills for a few more weeks,' Gregor said.

'Hey, one of those live ones is yours,' I replied.  'Turns out you're a handyman in more ways than one.'

Gregor looked pained.  'If someone has to die, I don't think I want the money.'

I shrugged.  'They made their choice, and you will too.  If you're still bothered, give it to Jayci.  She'll find something to do with it.'

Gregor looked around.  'Speaking of Jayci...'

The girl had crept out of the room.  We followed her trail outside, where she was a hard shadow kneeling in the dust underneath the spotlight in the yard.

'Jayci?  Is everything okay?' Gregor asked.

'Everything's fine,' she said.  It was hard to see in the light, but the girl seemed to be shifting the sand with her hands, like a child in a playpit.

'You sure?'

'Fine and dandy.  You can come over here, join in if you want.  And you're gonna want.'

Gregor scampered past me.  I was all ready to walk down with him until another detail caught my eye.  In addition to the shadow Jayci was casting from the spotlight on the farmhouse, another weaker shadow was cutting across the first.  I looked up past her, where the horizon was glowing yellow.  At the same time, I became aware of a humming on the edge of my hearing, distant, but growing louder.

Gregor knelt down next to Jayci, shared a few words that I didn't hear and scuffed up the sand next to her.

'Gregor,' I said, looking back out to the horizon, 'what in hell is causing that light?'

'Forget about the light,' Jayci ordered.  'Get your ass down here and help us search.'

'What are you even looking for?'

Jayci gestured with the toothpick to a space back below the porch, where a chain was hanging from the timbers.  Heavy links snaked down from the rotting timbers and disappeared beneath the surface.  'I think this might be our lead.  But first, we gotta dig that fucker out.'

I went down on my knees with the the pair of them, tracing the path of the chain in the sand.  It went deeper as it went out, meaning we had to dig more the longer we stayed with it.  As I did, the light got brighter and the hum got louder.  I kept looking up, hoping I might see something, but there was nothing beyond the light.

'Is that not bothering you?' I asked.  'Whatever that is?'

Jayci wiped her forehead and squinted into the distance.  Gregor glanced only at her.  'Keep working,' she said.

Finally, Gregor let out a little shriek and his hands scrubbed sand off the lid of a buried metal crate.  With another few minutes of work, we shook the top of the crate completely free of sand.  The crate was fifteen feet long and twice as wide.  Deepness, I could only guess at.  It was Jayci, grinning eerily in the chequered light, who took it upon herself to pop the lid.  

Inside, there was an immense host of weaponry, the likes of which I'd never even seen.  There were handguns, automatic rifles, military shotguns, grenades.  Some things I didn't even recognise.  No-one outside of the military could ever have afforded this amount of armaments.  It was an arsenal that could take a city.  Hell, maybe even a country.

Jayci swept her braids behind her and leered at me.  'I told ya, didn't I?  I told ya!  The fucking motherlode.'

'There's more here than Carter's guns.  They must have been raiding, stockpiling for...ages.'  I couldn't even guess how long it had taken to build up this stash.

'The fucking motherlode,' Jayci repeated.

'This has to go back to Carter.  All of it.'  

'We could do that,' Jayci said.

I stared at her.  'What are you thinking?'

'Well, we could give most of it back, sure.  But there's enough here that they won't notice a few items, carefully hidden away...and then we'd be better armed than any goddamn bad we ever ran into again.  You and I, Phoe-Phoe.  Think about it.  We could be the baddest hunters in the whole of Hole Town history.'

'Guys,' Gregor said

I looked up.  The light was now as bright as day, the hum a roar, and I'd been staring into the crate, distracted and not looking at what was coming.  The three of us got to our feet in time to see an armada of vehicles, trucks, motorbikes and jeeps approaching.  Their headlights crested the horizon, their engines roared, and they bathed us in light.  The other vehicles were flanking a giant armoured monster truck that was surely the single biggest vehicle in Christendom.  You could have stood me on Gregor's shoulders and Jayci on mine, and I'm not sure we could have climbed one of the wheels.

Jayci's mouth opened so wide that she dropped the toothpick.  It dropped to the sand, where it was swept away by a breeze on the grainy surface.  'The fucking motherlode,' she said again.

Go to Chapter 17 > > >

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Chapter 15 - Hole Town Justice

The late Grafton Brown had four brothers.  Witnesses said five men in the attack on Carter's station, but bystanders' lives don't rest on double-checking their headcounts.

'We can't take the chance that they might have bought friends.'

Men in the Pen get to talking, because besides busting their asses in the copper mines or breaking up the salt rocks on the roads leading out of the state, there ain't much they're gonna do until the bondsman gets paid.  Grafton was the youngest of the bunch, not too bright, easily led.  He befriended Gregor, told him a few things.  His older siblings were more circumspect.  The whole damn family were grunts, pulling small jobs in the night and then returning to their long-barren hidey-hole in the Sands when sun came up.

Finally, a hunter posse had nailed them all in one place, and Grafton and his boys looked set for the long haul until a mystery donor put up their bond.  That man's name?  No-one remembered, and all of Carter's  paperwork had gone up in smoke.  Right then and there the trail went cold - until they turned up again at the same station they left from, ready to set the world on fire.

Whatever their reasons to for stepping up, them boys had had their fun.  Now they were about to get a taste of Hole Town justice.  Bring 'em in alive, Carter had said.  If you can.

Gregor had offered to program the location of their farmstead into the GPS, but Jayci was having none of it.  We needed more than just his handy gadgets for this particular sting - we needed numbers, and we needed a plan.  The latter was left to Jayci herself.  Before we set out, she'd stopped into the shop and come out with a bag nearly as big as herself strung across her back.

'Little insurance policy,' she explained.  'Now, let's do this.'

It was no short journey, and twilight was settling in when we settled in beside a ridge half a mile from the farmhouse.  Gregor fished into his toolbelt.  Among the handy-dandy things he'd found on his travels through the old world were lenses, and cut down and inserted into copper tubing, they made a serviceable telescope.

'There's definitely four of them,' he said.

He passed the tube over to Jayci, who checked and said, 'Are you sure for certain? They're moving around a lot.'

'I told you what I saw.'

Jayci tossed the tube to me, causing Gregor to chastise her for mistreating the scope. Fortunately I caught it, saving myself from a dose of our resident engineer's bad mood.

That girl hadn't been wrong about movement.  The windows were already mostly boarded up from outside, and it was no easy job to tell just how many men were in there.  Those we could see were all wearing dark trousers and shirts, and moving from room to room.  I couldn't tell if they were expecting us, or maybe someone else entirely.

'Can't be sure about numbers,' I said,

Jayci unhooked the bag from her shoulders.  'Here's where our insurance comes in handy.  We need to split up.'

'Sounds good,' I said.  'What's your plan?'

Jayci knelt behind the ridge and pulled an assortment of tubes and mechanisms from the bag.  With Gregor's help, the various components slotted into place until we finally had a fully-functional sniper rifle complete with tripod, set up on the brow of the ridge.  I had to admire this skillful piece of planning.

'First aim is to get their attention,' Jayci said.  'And then draw their fire.  I'll break a few windows and rustle a few skirts.  I won't be taking kill shots unless I have no choice.  Remember, though, these guys have gone full bandito.  They're not gonna hold back.  So watch yourselves.'

Kill or be killed was a rule I could deal with, but this was something else.  Taking bads alive was the business I was in, but bringing in a single gangbanger wasn't the same as bringing in a whole gang.  Jayci had lost her taser at the building site, meaning I had the group's only one, and Gregor still refused point-blank to carry a gun.  Instead, he'd procured a sizable piece of lead piping that would leave any would-be assailant with a serious headache.

We made the wide circle round the farmstead and I took a deep breath as Jayci was lost to the distance.  Gregor was silent, and I was happy with that.  We had to focus now, like sportsmen in the zone.  I took position directly opposite Jayci's ridge and began to crawl slowly through the dust towards the farmhouse.  Gregor disappeared out to the right hand side, where the ancient outhouse stood. I had the bad luck of being downwind, which meant I could smell the outhouse from where I was. Being over there would have been safer, but being short and fast, I could move from shadow to shadow the easiest.  Gregor was large, and not nimble or a fast mover.  His orders were to stay close to the back door and the outhouse, and take down anyone who came out.

It started.  A handful of shots came out of the dusk, thudded into the far side of the house.  If we were lucky, this would distract the Brown brothers while I attacked from the rear.  If they hankered up, it could be difficult, but hopefully they'd make a run for it, and I could zap them as they went past.

There was a slam up ahead of me, but it wasn't one of the screen doors. Four unseen spotlights went on at the corners of the building, flooding the space with light.  I was too far back to get caught in a cone and Gregor had hidden on the far side of the outhouse, which meant he'd be in shadow.  I took a breath and got my prayer out of the way right there.

Most of the side nearest to me was stucco, meaning I could see precious little of what was going on around Jayci's side, but these good ol' boys weren't making a run for it.  They ducked their heads, pulled in their tails and returned fire with interest.  As I listened, I saw a face pass across the sole window at the back, checking for anyone coming round the other way.  Precautionary, pretty smart.  I could admire that.

I was less keen when the face disappeared and the light nearest me began sweeping the desert in my direction. I hadn't realised that the lights could move, and I had to be upright more quickly than I'd hoped, spreading the dust around and making me cough. I took a wide angle, leaving Gregor to fend for himself and using the quickest route towards the front door.  At the same time, I had my mom's gun out – if more than one of them came out there at once, the taser wasn't going to cut it.  I'd have to kill them instead.

The light swivelled in my direction and I hit full sprint.  They'd seen me, I was sure of it, but I was level with the wall before anyone could take a pot shot.  If the guy I'd seen already came out the back door, he'd have a clear shot at me, and while Gregor would be lingering in those shadows somewhere, I wasn't so keen on relying on him.  I reached up with the butt of my gun and smashed the light with a single blow that turned my quarter dark. That done, I crouched down and waited to see if anyone would come out.  There was nothing.  I imagined one of the brothers, waiting behind the screen, sweating, trying to keep one eye each on the window and door to see which I popped up in first.

I couldn't safely watch left and right both myself, and I knew I had to move.  Round the north side, the firing had intensified, and I wondered what had spooked Jayci.  I could hear yelling and smashing glass, and I stooped low and went for the front door.

As I put my hand on in, Bennett Brown, oldest of the brothers, tried to come out the other way. With no time to reach for my taser and no chance to fire my pistol, I charged at him with my shoulder, hitting him full in the midriff and forcing him down onto the porch.

I don't weigh a damn sight, and this man was the size of a grizzly bear.  That hillbilly fella shoved me away and came up swinging, using his rifle like a club.  I was able to block his first swing and dodge the second, but he kicked me in the belly and then grabbed me round the throat with his long brawny arms.  When his grip was set, he proceeded to try and choke the life right outta me.

He was well into that plan when a loose round from the north caused him to flinch and gave me a split-second window of opportunity.  I reached my own hand down, grabbed that big old fucker by the balls and squeezed.

Fella went hog crazy.  He pulled himself out of my grip and lunged at me, but I'd bought myself just enough time to pull out my taser and I gave it to him, full in the chest.  He done jerked like a man possessed, but he went down, and that was good enough.  When I felt he'd had enough of a dose, I pulled out the barbs, clicked them back into the base and snuck up to the door.

Firing had stopped now, and the air was charged.  Jayci could be reloading, or she could have abandoned the rifle and be heading my way.  That left me with a dilemma.  I'd been banking on her being able to see me entering the house and take a long shot to save me if I overcommitted.

The second of the brothers was slumped on the floor by the shattered side window.  A large section of the floor behind him was painted red.  No-one alive can be still like he was still, so I mentally scratched another one off the list.  Two down, two to go.  The other side of the room led to a dark corridor that went off toward the back room I'd come past.  The first guy I'd seen had to be in there, but he might come out again at any moment.

There was the slightest of movements from past the doorway to my left and I rocked back on my heels, taser up.

'Phoenix,' Gregory said, offering me a raised palm.  His other hand was dragging a dead weight behind him by the collar.  'Caught him trying to go out a back window.  Don't think he even saw me.'

Three down.  'If you went round that way, that would explain why Jayci's stopped firing.  She wouldn't have wanted to risk hitting you.'

Gregor shook his head and let his captive slump face first onto the wooden floor.  'She'd already stopped firing by then.'

I stared past him, into the empty space where the dirty light just made the blackness beyond even emptier and more tempting.  'Okay.  Keep watch here and back the way you came.  There's one more, but he might have gone and run for it.'

I tiptoed over towards the hallway, trying to ignore the general devastation around me. This room was a living room with a sofa and a radio in the corner.   The dial on the box was shattered and the back hissed.  Damn shame, I thought.  We could have taken that back to Gregor's.

There was a bang at the end of the corridor and I ducked back, but it was followed by a creak, and I could see the screen door I'd approached earlier, albeit from the other side, slamming to and fro on its hinges.  I stepped forward, cobra-quick and quiet as a mouse, expecting to see the final brother either hiding in the blind corner on the other side or fleeing into the darkness past the outhouse.  Too late I saw him in the bedroom opposite, seated against the wall, eyes staring, gun resting in his lap.

I rolled and flicked the taser up in one movement, hitting him, but he made no reaction and I figured the charge must have burned itself out.  I clambered gracelessly behind the bed, had my mom's gun out and pointed before I realised that he hadn't moved.  Still training the gun on him carefully, I got close enough in the darkness to see the tiny red hole in the centre of his forehead.  Suddenly weary, I reached down and closed his eyes for the last time.  Jayci was a good shot.

Gregor called from the front.  'Did you get him?'

'We got two alive out here, and two dead in there.  Four down.  That's the lot.'

I was all ready to follow him out when I glanced at the end of the corridor.  Right there, where I hadn't been looking, was another doorway.  The door itself was missing, but the curtain across the space was light blue, the colour of ice.

For just a moment, I was seeing myself through Piano Man's eyes.  He'd done a better job of counting numbers than the rest of us.

Them Southern boys are oh-so-dim...

GO TO CHAPTER 16 > > >