Sunday, 28 February 2016

Chapter 5 - Shit Gets Real

Duguid didn't so much stand up as unfold, one set of joints at a time. He had a casual way about him, like he wasn't gonna hurry for no man, regardless of the circumstances. His legs were long enough that he could have stepped over me without so much as realising I was there. His nose and chin were pointed in a way the photo hadn't captured. The sharp edges they created just made him look all the more dangerous. The handgun holstered on his hip looked powerful enough to punch a hole in a tank.

'Taser is a hunter's weapon,' he said. His voice was rich, echoed around the space above me with all the inherent threat of storm clouds.

'As God is my witness, I'm not here for bounty,' I said. 'I want to talk about someone from your past, someone you knew once a long time ago.'

Muscles rippled under his vest. 'I'm listening,' he said.

'Years ago when I was a kid, you used to come to Twelve. After the services, you used to stay behind sometimes and talk to my mother. Tall woman, long hair, leather boots. Maybe you remember her.'

'Maybe I remember her. Why do you care?'

'She went missing after you left,' I said. 'I want to find her.'

His handsome face twisted then, like one of those demons they tell you about in stories. 'Are you accusing me of something?'

'No. I got no evidence that you were involved. Be honest, I ain't got nothing at all. I want a lead, some new information, something I haven't heard before. I guess...I want to know if you can help me.'

'So you say you want help, but you sneak up on a man while he's praying and point a taser at him.'

'Yeah, well, maybe you'll forgive me for that. I thought if maybe I came in the front door, you might not give me a chance to talk at all.'

Duguid squared onto me but made no attempt to approach. For my part, I lowered the taser maybe an inch, but I wanted something there that at least gave me a fighting chance if he changed his mind.

'This woman...your mother...yes, I remember her. Very pretty girl. The bluest eyes. But she had a troubled mind. She was a hunter, and she was looking out in the desert.'

'For what? What was she was looking for?'

'For who. She'd heard a story about a group of women holed up in an oasis a hundred miles or more out of town. She thought the person she wanted might be with them, and wanted to know if I could verify the stories.'

'And could you?'

'I hear things all the time. But who's to say what's true? The Sands are forever shifting. What's there today ain't always gonna be there tomorrow.'

My hands were trembling now. 'Who was the person, and where was the oasis?'

He scowled at me, and I got a sense that his patience was wearing thin. 'Boy, we're talking conversations that are ten years old. You're lucky your mother was so fine, else I don't reckon I'd remember her at all.'

'Can you give me a direction for this oasis?' I said.

He snorted with laughter. 'A direction. You gonna go out there and pick up her trail?'

I levelled the taser. 'If you give me the direction, I'll go now and get out of your face forever.'

'Ten years it's been and more,' Duguid said, turning away from me. 'Trail is cold, and so is she. Go on. You go runnin', now.'

I was so furious right there to see my mom's life written off in that way that I was all set to drop my taser and pull out my pistol. I never got a chance 'cause at the same time, a dark blur moved across the stained glass windows to my right. Duguid saw it too. A harsh female voice that I recognized only too well rang out from outside.

'Emmanuel Duguid, you're wanted for crimes against the state of Arizona. Get your ass out here now!'

Duguid's gaze flicked back to me, and his face curled into a snarl. 'Oh, I see. Keep me occupied and pen me in. So much for God being your witness.'

I pointed to the blur outside. 'Now, she ain't nothing to do with me.' But he wasn't buying it, and in his shoes, I wouldn't have either.

For a big man, Duguid could move. I fired the taser but he dodged it with ease, and his gun was in his hand in the same movement. I ducked as he stood up and his round shredded the pew to my left, turning it to matchwood.

I rolled, laser tight now in my hands, but if I shot this man, I was risking losing any chance of finding my mom. The cold metal grip was just another reminder of her.

A second round crashed over my head and tore an effigy of Jesus off the wall. A third shattered one of the stained glass windows. I popped a candy jack. Duguid's absolution was going to have to wait a while.

'Taking your time getting out here,' Jayci Clemence called. 'Hurry on up, now.'

For a moment, all was silence and I lay still as the dead, straining my ears to hear movement. From Duguid's direction there was nothing, but from behind me, I heard three soft thumps, like baseballs hitting a glove.

In slow-motion, I looked round to see the small, ball-shaped devices that had followed my route down from the bell tower. Nestled in the dust, they might have been goose eggs, except for the trigger and handle on the top of each that told a different story.

Jayci Clemence most definitely had a plan. She was gonna flush the bad out.

I ran then, and there was only one way to go.

The explosion took out the wall, the tower, half the roof and it also forced me through all of the pews left in the building. When I came to, I was looking up at the sky, turned crazy grey by the dust, and then when my eyes refocused, I was staring down the barrel of my own gun. Duguid's weapon might have been lost to him, but it was clear he wasn't a man to turn down an opportunity.

I said, 'Wait a minute here. You don't want to be doing that.'

'No trigger on this chigger. I'm guessing you just squeeze this little plastic bit here?'

'Emmanuel, believe me, you don't wanna go pressing that.'

'I don't think you can go telling me to do anything,' he snarled.

'Tell me which direction the oasis was,' I begged. 'I need to know.'

'Oh, enough of that shit.' He pulled me up only as a precursor to throwing me down again, and then kicked me in the midriff.

Doubled up, I looked past him at the crumbling masonry overhead, and then glanced to the side where the wall had been five minutes before.

'You can still get out of here,' I said. 'We can still get out of here. I'll come with you. We can talk. But do not, do not squeeze that trigger.'

'You got a funny way of begging for your life.'

'This isn't about me.'

'Not for much longer, anyhow.'  Duguid slammed me down again and again.  Fury set his eyes hard, like cut gems from the heart of the earth. I could see him now, the man that could slaughter an entire family, kids and dogs and all, just for breaking a promise.

'Please.' One last try.

'Any last words, momma's boy?'

It was hopeless. 'Ain't none you're gonna listen to, are there?'

'True, that.'

Duguid squeezed the panel that released the laser bolt. Green lights ran the length of the barrel, and something in the gun began to sizzle, like meat on a skillet. His head jerked upwards, and his limbs spasmed out, like he was dancing to music only he could hear. The gun fell from his grip, and he dropped to the floor beside it.  He lay there, perfectly still, smoke rising from his hair, mouth and eyes.

The candy jack must have kicked in at some point, but I wasn't feeling it.  Instead, I laid back down, my eyes watering, and willed the whole damn place to fall in on me.


Sunday, 14 February 2016

Chapter 4 - God in the Sands

Carter definitely knew about Emmanuel Duguid.

'That man's a giant. He's got the build of a longhorn steer and about a tenth of the charm.'

'I've brought in big men before,' I said.

'You be careful,' Carter said to me. 'This one gets the red mists.  When he's cold, he's stone cold.'

She showed me the file they kept on Duguid.  There had been a business deal, a family willing to sell Duguid a ranch at a knockdown price. When they unexpectedly came into some money, the deal was off. It's fair to say that it didn't go down too well for anyone concerned.

'He figures they lied to him.  He can't stand it, so he shoots the owner's wife, their three children and all of their dogs. Then when he's done with the rest of the family, he strangles the owner, right there, at the head of his own table.'

Carter took her time flicking through the file.  Finally, she came across a single photo and passed it across to me.

Emmanuel Duguid was maybe forty years old. In the picture Carter gave me, he was standing on decking next to one of those old-style rocking chairs, reaching out with an arm to grab some child's toy that was stuck on the roof.

'You weren't kidding when you said he was a giant,' I said.

Carter sipped her coffee. 'I got reports saying he's all of seven feet tall. Now, I know some of those good ol' boys get a bit free and easy with the details when they've had a few, but make no mistake, this guy is huge. You ain't going toe-to-toe with him, that's for sure.'

The bounty was significant, enough to live on comfortably for six months. The government had put it up. That only happened for people they really, really wanted out of the Sands. A crime like this wasn't bread and butter for every hunter. Some people preferred to paddle in the pool rather than swim in the sea.

Carter said, 'I wouldn't blame you if you walked away from this one, Phoenix. I don't think anyone would.'

Honest truth, I didn't want anything to do with Emmanuel Duguid. It was probably a miracle that the Deacons had got him out of Twelve without him gutting half the clergy. But he was maybe the only chance I had of finding my mom.

'It's fine,' I said.

'Give me your tag for the peg,' Carter said, in her most procedural voice.

Dog-tags got hung on a peg till hunters got back to claim them. After two weeks, the tags went from the pegs to the lost property drawer, at which point they got claimed by your next of kin.

As I watched, Carter hung my tag on a peg that was already occupied. That only happened when multiple people were looking for the same bad. It shouldn't have been so surprising, what with the sum of the bounty and all, but most tags were military style, plain and engraved with a name. The tag I was sharing a peg with this time was different. It was perfectly black, with the face and whiskers of a little cat at the top.

'Who's tag is that?' I asked?

'Clemence,' Carter said.

'I don't think I know Clemence.'

'You know Jayci Clemence.'

It took me a moment. 'Clemence the emo girl? All five-feet-nothing of her? You're shitting me, right?'

Carter raised an eyebrow. 'Do I frequently shit you, Phoenix?'

There were all the mental images I didn't need. 'No, ma'am.'

'Well then.'

'So you let Jayci Clemence go after our stone-cold killer?'

'Let her?'  Oh my, was that wording a mistake on my part. 'Now pardon me, Mister, but my job involves giving you all the facts and letting you make your own mind up about what you can and can't do.  Clemence knows what you know, and all evidence points to the fact that she's got a smarter head on her shoulders than you do.  If you think that she needs a helping hand just because she's a woman-'

I whipped my hat off my head and held it across my chest. 'No ma'am, I would never think that.'

'Damn right you wouldn't.' Carter settled down behind her desk and opened one of the technical manuals that were sitting there. 'Get your ass outta here.'

I did just that while I still had an ass worth saving.


Don't get me wrong. It wasn't that female bounty hunters weren't a thing. My mom was one, don't forget. It's just that Jayci Clemence didn't exactly fit the mold. I could have reached my thumb and forefinger round her arm at the widest point. She had this pinched face and a temper that always seemed like you dragged her out of bed before sunrise. Her braids hung down so far it was a wonder she didn't trip over'em when walking. From her eyebrows, you could see her hair was naturally light, but the braids were black as midnight. Rumour was she dipped 'em in tar.

That said, I didn't know Clemence so well. Maybe she had a partner out there. Some of the most famous bounty hunters were those that hunted in pairs – when you had someone watching your back, it was all the more likely you'd come home. Even so, economies and human natures being what they are, it was no real surprise that it wasn't really that common. Trust took time to build, and when you were scraping by, you didn't want to share your bounties with someone else – especially when that someone else was soon as likely to cut your throat in the night and steal your water chit.

Basic hunter gear wasn't so hard to come by. I could believe that Clemence could rustle up a cattle-prod big enough to take down a drunken rancher, but I was struggling to imagine her rolling up alone at the depot with Duguid hogtied on the back of her trailer. I figured that maybe she was playing Bonnie to someone else's Clyde.

Carter wasn't about to tell me any more about what Clemence had planned, so I figured I was good to just go ahead and chase down the bad myself. I had that advantage of knowing where to look. After what had happened at Twelve, it didn't seem likely that Duguid was gonna be welcome at any other compound, so my rough plan was to head out north and check out all the premises on the road. Men looking for God often found Him, so I had to make sure I caught up with him before that happened.

I checked out a few places along the road itself, all of which turned out to be empty. When the obvious places were checked, I moved on to those that were a bit more off the beaten track. Ten miles outside of Hole Town, I took a left down a narrow path behind a sandstone outcrop. Out here in the middle of nowhere, I knew of an abandoned church with a sharply-sloped roof. The community it supported had long since headed for the shelter of the big town, and just the stark, whitewashed walls of this lost house of the Lord remained. This was a shady place indeed, one where a man concerned about his mortal soul could seek absolution undisturbed.

I pulled the motorbike up where the path gave way to dunes and laid it down in a dip in the sand. There was no movement in or outside that I could see, but circling around slowly, I could see a Chevy parked among the dunes out back. That had to be Duguid's car.

There was just the main doors that I could see from the ground level, but if I trapped him in the space, there was every chance he was gonna try to shoot his way out. I wasn't concerned about the bounty; I needed to have the conversation.

It's a well-worn observation that man cannot live by bread alone; so it is that a hunter can't get by with just his gun and his taser – he's gotta have his wits and one or two other tools that'll help him out too. One of those tools is rope, and mine was tagged onto a grappling hook that went up over the top of the building. I tugged on it, and judged it good to hold my skinny ass up as far as the bell tower.

Nimble as a cat, I was through the tiny window and crouched on the platform just inside. Below, I could hear a man praying in a language I only vaguely recognized. Spanish, maybe, or Creole. I had no ear for that sorta thing.

I leaned down as low as I could. Duguid had his back to me, kneeling down in front of the altar. Slipping down the bellrope silently, I assumed a position behind a pew at the back of the room and breathed a prayer of my own.

For a short while, there were my words, and there were his words, and it was like the Lord hisself was stood between us, counting steps before the duel.

When the whispering had stopped and the silence got to lengthen, I slipped my taser out of my pocket and pointed it at his back. 'Emmanuel Duguid. I need to talk to you about Catholic Compound Twelve.'

(GO TO CHAPTER 5) > > >