Sunday, 24 April 2016

Chapter 9 - Piano Man

Let's rewind a little, back to a time when grown men were small boys, and small boys were just a glint in grown men's eyes.

Back then, there was a story that was popular in Hole Town, a tale about one of the most famous legends from that magical place they call the Sands.  A place where the sun always shines, where the winds always blow, and where every man ultimately finds what he's looking for.

Out of the town and into the winding lanes where the sandstorms descend, the Piano Man sits by the side of the road and plays. Day after day, a different spot each time. No-one ever sees the piano move, or works out how on earth he survives in this hellish viper pit.  His hat pulled down, suit all nice, but whatever you think, he ain't playing for your pleasure, and that's the truth.

All of those that hang out in border towns laugh at the idea, but it's the truth: Piano Man is out there, right now, picking out his tune, and every lost soul that tours the Sands will know his name.

He's a short, neat man with an immaculate moustache, dressed in a white shirt, braces and coat tails, like he's playing at some goddamn concert hall or something. The song he plays is slow, a refrain, but there's an edge to it, like it's carrying a warning.

He stops; glances over his shoulder. Says to you, 'You look lost, pilgrim.'

'Well, I ain't lost, friend,' you say. 'I just don't know where I'm going yet.'

He plays again for a few seconds, high, mournful-like. 'Some would say that those two states of bein' are not mutually exclusive.'

'Some people'd say a lot of things.'

'And we can agree, can we not, that a man should be measured not by what he says, but by what he listens to?'

He has you there.  Not least because you're listening, right now.  You're listening good.

Sand blows around you, cocooning you from the world. He plays a single note which has all the clarity of a message from heaven itself, and every hair on your body stands upright in the aftermath. 

When he speaks again, his voice has changed. 'Be careful. Be very, very careful.'

You find yourself backing away, but with every step you take, the whirling sand becomes more painful, scratching at your face and hands. You could run, just like you want to, but you feel like maybe moving further away will see the sands tearing at you, stripping your flesh from your bones.

The pain is real now, very real, and you cry out.  'What do you want from me?'

'I want you to pay me,' he says, nodding at the empty jar at his feet.  'That's all.  When you hear the Piano Man's tune, you'd better be ready to pay the toll.'

Of course, maybe this is just a myth, another of those crazy tales that comes back to town in the mouths of madmen. Truth is like that; you can face it down, or turn your back. But whether you're believing this or not, there are two things you can't deny: the storm is definitely closing in, and your pockets are as empty as a blind man's begging bowl.

 * * *

I first heard this tale in a sweat-drenched drinking hole fifteen years ago.  Memory's a funny thing; it gets triggered at the strangest times. I'd asked my mom if it was real. She'd shrugged and said, 'Who knows what's real anymore?'

That cold, cold gun in my hands was reassuring me.  'How d'you know my name?'

Piano Man turned his back once more, felt his way across the keys.  'I know a great many things.  I know your name.  I know what you're looking for.  And I know you need my help.'

I didn't like to entertain crazy notions, and I knew only too well how confidence tricksters pick a rube.  Give 'em rope, let 'em hang 'emselves.

'If you know my name,' I said, 'then you must know what I do.'

'For sure!'  Piano Man grinned over his shoulder, and launched into "Yankee Doodle Dandy".

'Cute,' I said.

'Appropriate for a hick desert crawler,' Piano Man called. 'Back in the day, a real Southern gentleman rode a horse.  I'm not sure Robert E. Lee would approve of the modern world.'

'Well, if whoever that is wants to give me a horse, I'd be mighty appreciative.  It'd save me having to buy dinner, for starters.'

Piano Man was warming to his theme now.  He leered at me and sang along with his tune. 'These southern boys are oh-so-thin, they wouldn't make a trooper, they ain't got teeth, they ain't got balls and they're all dumb as soup, sir!'

'Whatever.'  I was done being the butt of his jokes and turned away.

The village was gone.  In its place was a wide vista of perfectly flat, empty sand, leading out to the horizon.  I blinked twice, expecting that the buildings might reappear, but there was nothing.  Nothing but me and the music.

When I turned back, Piano Man was just where I'd left him.  

'What in hell happened to the village?' I said.  All around us now, the terrain was the same - empty, flat.  The sandstorm still howled just above our heads.  'What about my friend?  Where are we even?'

He said, 'You know, for a man whose feet are so firmly planted on the ground, you don't seem to have much of a head for the gravity of your situation.'

By way of answer, I levelled my gun at his back.  'Okay, I'm bored with this now.  Whatever trick you're pulling, it ends here.  One way or another.'

The tune changed, without him so much as skipping a key.  'Oh, come on now.  There's no need for rudeness.  Besides which, if you shoot me, you ain't going to know what happens next.'

'And what would that be?' I said.

'You die,' he replied.

My fingertip brushed across the trigger and I stepped slowly away to the side.  'Say that again.'

'Here's how it happens.  Tomorrow evening, you're gonna be in a house you don't recognize.  Don't worry about the where or why, that don't matter.  At the wrong moment, you hesitate when you know you should act.  You probably get...distracted by your thoughts, or whatever.'  He grinned evilly and carried on playing his sombre tune.  'You get shot down by a man in a doorway.  A doorway covered by a blue curtain.'

I laughed.  It was an instinctive reaction before the words even registered.  'So you know the future now?'

Piano Man's grin faded.  His face took on a look of intense concentration, like he was straining to see something in the mid-distance.  His hands pounded the keys, but his words drowned out all other sounds.  ''Course, you don't die straight away.  You take a round in the stomach, and you're lying there, bleeding out.  Slowly.  Painfully.  You get to see everything that comes after.  Your new friends burst in to try to save you. Their deaths are quicker than yours...bang,'s all done...'

My gun wasn't reassuring me any more.  'Are you for real?'

He said, 'Best believe it.'

My mind was whirling.  If this was a confidence trick, it was a real pro job.  No candy jack or idle prayer was going to get me through this.

Bad juju.

'Of course,' Piano Man said quietly, 'if you just shoot straight through that blue curtain soon as you see it, well then, events take a quite different path.'

There was an impossibly loaded silence, where I didn't trust myself to say a word.  As I watched, he turned, pointed a finger at me like he was pointing a gun.  The other hand continued to play.  'Bang, bang.'

'I don't believe you,' I said.

'Yes, you do,' he replied, facing forwards once again and shaking himself like a man coming out of a daze.  'But anyway.  It don't matter what you believe right now.  It's time.'

If I'd been a cat, my fur would have been bristling.  'Time for what?'

Piano Man snapped his head around violently with a cracking noise that sounded like the breaking of a neck. His face was a bleached skull around milky pupils.

He said, 'It's time for you to pay the toll.'

I'd already taken two steps back when the walls of the storm dropped in around me.  My face and shoulders were scoured instantly.  'But I don't have no money with me,' I yelled.

'That's sad for you, Phoenix.  If it was up to me, well, I wouldn't charge you, but everybody has to pay the toll, don't you see?'

Piano Man played a dirge, one that was punctuated with sporadic flats and sharps. Every note was carefully timed to strike the nerves. I wanted to shout, to scream, to run away, but there was nowhere to go.

A last strike of the keys, and the devil hisself was playing the storm as it descended upon me.  I was forced down onto my knees by the scorching, abrasive air, and was all set to give up when the coin case fell out of my open bag.  On inspiration, I pulled it open, grabbed one of the five cent pieces and dropped it in Piano Man's tip jar.

It tinkled merrily around the glass, and for a moment, nothing happened.  Then I closed my eyes and the world breathed out.

When I opened them again, the storm had died away and the sun was warm on my face.  Both Piano Man and his piano had vanished.  I was lying at the bottom of a sandbank behind the village.  The screen door of the house I'd come through slapped repeatedly on its own rotten timbers.

With a soft thump, Jayci Clemence landed in the sand beside me.  Her trailing onyx braids tumbled around us.  

'If I'd known you were gonna take a break and sunbathe, I'd have got done quicker and joined you.'  When she saw my expression, she punched me playfully in the shoulder.  'What in hell's wrong, Phoe-Phoe?  You look like you've seen a ghost.'

GO TO CHAPTER 10 > > >

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Chapter 8 - Back to School

'So what's the deal with you two anyway?' I said, meaning her and Gregor.

'Deal?' Jayci replied. 'Why does there need to be a deal?'

It could have been my imagination, but it kind of looked a bit like Jayci had a spring in her step this morning. She'd been smiling as she'd been checking and loading her kit, and I swear I heard her humming as she parked up the hovertrike.

'C'mon now,' I said. 'Don't bullshit me.'

'What? You saw how it is. Gregor has his ways. He has a skillset. He knows about interesting places. You might say he's highly-strung. He gets spooked real easy, he's not exactly a fast mover and he refuses to carry a gun. So when I'm travelling this far out, it's handy to have someone else there.'

'So after all your fine words about being able to look after yourself...'

'Oh, can it, laser boy. I don't need you there looking over my shoulder. I might need those measly muscles of yours to help me load some of the loot onto the hovertrike, though.'

'So I'm the muscle?'

Jayci stuck out her tongue at me. 'Dumb muscle, at that.'

'Touche. So do we even know where we are?' I said.

'Sixty miles west-northwest,' she replied. In the distance, we could see the top of a rusting water tower. 'Less about a hundred yards or so.'

'How can you be sure?'

The girl raised an eyebrow and span round quick enough that her braids trailed like drag ropes. She grinned at me, and flashed a piece of paper in my direction. 'Gregor's map is precise.'

I reached for it, only for her to pull it back at the last moment. 'Can I see?' I asked.

'Nope,' she said, smiling smugly, before folding the paper up small and sliding it down her top.

'This ain't an equitable arrangement.'

'Did Gregor teach you them words?' When she saw my expression, she rolled her eyes. 'Oh, c'mon. Lighten up, Phoe-phoe. This is a proper adventure, right? Chance to make a little money, have a little fun.'

'Chance to get shot up by random strangers in the middle of nowhere.'

'Yeah, well, better that than go missing in the night.' Our eyes met for a moment, and hers looked down. 'Sorry, I didn't mean that. Just weren't thinking.'

Jayci was many things, but I figured that malice for the sake of it wasn't something she'd shown, so I let it go. I watched her park up the hovertrike between two low dunes and mark it with a long piece of petrified wood that she found wedged in some rocks.

She stepped back to admire her handywork, glanced around for high places and movement. This far out, the sand moved with the air, and it was hard to see anything at all beyond the whistling grit.

'Reckon that's good?' she asked.

'Good as anything,' I said.

'C'mon then.' She slipped her jacket off her shoulders and dropped her water canister in the sand beneath the trike.

'You're leaving your water?'

She shrugged. Her shoulders were narrow, and you could see the blades poking out her back like broken kites. 'It’s heavy to carry.  If someone runs off with the trike, you ain't walking home on one can.' It was a fair point, but old habits are hard to break.

We pulled scarves across our faces to keep out as much of the sand as we could and scuffed our way across the heavy dust path into town. As villages went, it weren't much. Half a dozen buildings that were pretty much shells, half a dozen more that were just piles of rubble. We walked up to the nearest one. Yellow buffelgrass was bunched up beneath the decay. Drywall was peeling away from the timbers. The wood itself was scorched and wedged into right angles. It looked like ribs exposed under torn flesh.

'I'm not seeing my fortune here,' I said.

'You gotta look a little closer,' she whispered, pointing at the largest of the intact buildings. 'School house has gotta be that one over there. That's my baby.'

She peeled away from me, and pointed at the next house along. 'Go that way. Be careful. Sometimes people left traps if they was planning on coming back. It's good to find them before they find you, if you know what I mean.'

I had my stripes in staking out these kinda places.  Watching the ground all the way, I held my breath as I stepped away from the broken down house in front of me. Without the shade, the air was baking and it felt like you needed two breaths to get air for one. Out back, behind the house, a concrete cylinder that once held water or petrol was crumbling away in the wind. The metal cords that ran through the structure poked out and turned in on one another like army bootlaces.

Behind that, in a toolbox, I found a leaking battery and a shattered solar cell, neither of which was usable. The next house looked little better than the first, with stark red initials painted onto the sides. Whether it was graffiti or a warning to looters, I couldn't tell. Most of the front wall was missing, with the door hanging on a single hinge and creaking away.

Stepping inside, I used one of the broken timbers to prod at the floor, testing to see if it would hold my weight. There was an open fridge in the back, lying on its side. The contents had long since gone rotten and been smeared across the insides. I wondered whether the scavengers were human or animal.

I walked through the house, prodding away with the timber as I went, avoiding the places where the floor or the ceiling sagged.  The windows across the back of the house – probably a kitchen, I figured – had long since been smashed, and now even the frames were crumbling.  I opened the drawers one by one, finding nothing but nests of desert creatures that fled for cover from the sudden light.

I’d pretty much given up hope of finding anything valuable by the time I opened the final cupboard.  There was a collection of pipes here from a sink or something.  Squeezed in the back behind them was a small dark box that could have been missed by people leaving in a hurry. 

It was rectangular, about the size of a bullet box you might pick up at the market, but the contents were  more interestin'.  Squeezing it open with sweaty palms, I could see that the back of the box was wadded with a soft material, like it was some kind of display case.  When I flipped the lid, two small silver coins were nestled in the wadding.  The one on the left had the profile of a man with a stooping brow and long hair tied down at the side.  The other bore a picture of a long, bull-like creature with wide shoulders tapering down to a narrow ass.  Around it were written the words, ‘United States of America’ and ‘Five cents’.

Chits had replaced coins years ago because these days they needed all the metal they could get.  I wasn’t the sentimental type, but it was still strange for me to think that what I was holding in my hand was probably a hundred and fifty years older or more.  Some collector would surely be interested in it, and it weren’t like it was heavy to carry.  I wasn’t expecting Jayci to share anything she found with me, so I saw nothing wrong with sliding the coin case into my bag.

I was all set to head back the way I’d come when I first heard the music.  It drifted in and out, on the fringes of my hearing, but the notes were clear and well-defined.  I guessed it had to be some kind of music box, but it seemed to be coming from outside the house.  I looked around, senses on alert, but nothing seemed to be moving or have changed inside the house.  A little bit against my better judgement, I went onward.

By the time I had eased open the screen door at the back of the house, my gun was in my hand.  I glanced left and right, but the sand was blowing again, and I couldn’t see a damn thing.  I thought about going back to look for Jayci, but if I told her that I was hearing music from out of the air, she’d just take it as a sign that God was messing with me.  Anyway, outside the house, the music was clear, too clear to be a recording. 

I slid down a low bank behind the house, following the music all the time.  The sandstorm continued to rage overhead, but down here the air was clearer.  To my limited brain, that didn’t seem like good physics, but I was just pleased to be able to see at least a few feet and pull the scarf away from my face.

When the scarf dropped away, what I saw kind of made sense and no sense at the same time.

In the middle of this sunken dustbowl, a single man in a black jacket and tails sat with his back to me at one of them Old Worlder saloon pianos.  It was sunk into the sand, with no suggestion of how it got there.  There were no vehicles around, no water bottles, nothing at all except an empty tip jar resting by the pedals.  The man himself was furiously animated.  His fingers flew across the keys, picking out high and low notes that conveyed a frenzy of agitation, undercut by a deep, mournful melody.  His long, jerky arms splayed around, causing his parted hair to bounce around as he played.

Out of nowhere, Piano Man stopped playing and kicked his chair around to face me. His eyes and his grin were both far too wide, pitching well into the rocky terrain on the far side of sanity.

‘Phoenix!’ he announced.  ‘I’m so pleased you could make it!'

Go to Chapter 9 > > >