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 > > >

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