Sunday, 19 June 2016

Chapter 13 - All a Hunter Needs

Hole Town is my hometown.  Her people are my people, and I will know no other.  The water beneath her mount sustains me.  Her dusty streets are the arms that enfold me.  The Fallen Cross is our reminder of the grace that we strive for.

This visored, faceless man that stands between us.  His gun, the very wings of the Angel of Death.

I could taste the blood on my lips.  And in the distance, I could hear music play.  It was a simple piano melody.

The thud that followed was the sound of a bullet tearing through a brain.  A head shattered within a helmet, a man slumping forward over his motorbike.  Behind where he'd been standing, a girl with pink hair, holding a smoking pistol.

A crowd was gathering at a safe distance as she walked over to where the gunman lay.  Her step was deliberate, focused.  She picked up the fallen gun, thrust it into a bag on her hip.  Then as people watched and whispered, she went through the dead man's pockets, taking his wallet and personal effects.

Without looking up, she said, 'Gonna sit in the dirt all night?'

I eased myself upright.  'Are you a hunter?'

'Nope, but I think in this instance they'll pay bounty regardless.  Gotta take your money where you find it.'  She looked around.  There were more shots from round the back of the building.

'It's you, isn't it?' I said.  'Girl from the bar.  The singer.'

She looked at me for the first time.  Eyes like ice, just as brilliant, just as cold.  'I don't just sing.  Having a lot of skills keeps me in demand.'

'You have a name?' I said.

'I do,' she replied, turning away.

'Gonna share it?'

'Does it look like it?'

I grinned, popped a candy jack and checked my taser and pistol.  'There's more going on round back.'

The girl grabbed the dead gunman by his collar and began to drag him through the dust towards the front of the post.  The heels of his boots bit furrows into the sand.  'I think I done my bit for today.  You knock yourself out.'

I left her behind and strode down the alleyway.  As I reached the back door, the truck I'd seen pull up earlier roared away, burning oil and firing a cloud of smoke out of the exhaust.  Another helmeted trooper appeared with his back to me.  He ran out of the door, traded rounds with figures in the shadows opposite and vaulted onto a hovertrike leaning against the wall.  Through the door, I could see bloodstains, bullet holes and crumpled drywall.  Right at the very back, the cage containing Carter's armory had been popped with some kind of charge.  All of the weapons had gone.

The trike piked towards me, but the rider was still looking the wrong way.  Jacked up, I had the strength of three.  He never even saw the punch coming.

That boy had barely bounced before Jayci Clemence flew out of the shadows and scooped up both his gun and the hovertrike.

'Turns out you're not as useless as I thought, Phoe-Phoe,' she jibed.  'Now, quick!  Drive this damn thing.'

I wrapped my fingers around the handgrips and she perched on the back.  Her spare arm snaked under mine and across my shoulders.

'What in hell are you doing?' I yelled above the roar of the engine.

She waved the stolen automatic.  'This thing's gonna have one hell of a kick.  I don't want it blowing me straight off the back.'

We were picking up speed now, weaving through the narrow street.  'You didn't bring your own gun?' I said.

'I want something that's gonna stop that van.  These fuckers are tooled to take on military.  No messing around.'

The trike was sleek and fast, and rode smooth over the dirt, but I had to be careful.  The light was poor and the smoky air made it difficult to judge how fast the truck in front was going.  People were looking out of windows, ducking out of passageways on both sides.  Any of them might panic and run in front of the trike, or take pot shots at us thinking we were bads.  To top it all, I had Jayci whooping in my ear and the barrel of her new friend resting on my shoulder.

'Go for it, cowboy!  Chase those fuckers down!  Wooo!'  Jayci fired a wild burst with her handheld, throwing the trike left and right and deafening me all at once.  We were answered at once by a couple of static pops from the driver's side up front.  The bullets sang as they passed by my head.

I still had no idea who the attackers were, but I had that good blood running through my veins now.  Whoever they were, I weren't about to let them shoot up my town and just ride away.  There was the chase, and that's all a hunter needs.

Jayci was practically climbing on my shoulders, roaring in my head.  'Get up closer to them!  C'mon!'

'What you gonna do when we catch up?'

'I'll think of something!'  The girl took aim and squealed as kickback from the gun nearly threw us off the side.  Her braids swung around like trail ropes.

'Thinking's not your strong suit,' I yelled back.

'On that subject, don't think you're forgiven for being rude earlier.  We're gonna have a conversation, you and me.'

The truck took a corner hard, tilted on two wheels.  The passenger side window shattered from Jayci's next burst and they replied in kind with something heavy, a military rifle.  I was in the zone and my reactions were faster than the light.  I steered around the hail of bullets and closed in, taking away any angle of fire.  Still, they blazed away anyhow, and I could hear the rounds as they screeched off the road around us.

Within a minute, the truck turned out onto hard dirt and pointed straight out to the Sands.  They were headed north, away from the city.  I gave it maximum throttle.  As we drew alongside, the driver tried to steer into us.  I braked hard.  Jayci bounced around on the back and her arm gripped around my neck so tight that she damn near throttled me.

'Godsake, Phoenix!  Pick a speed and point the damn thing straight!'

'I will if you stop choking me!  And I told you not to take His name in vain.'

The truck found another burst of juice and zipped ahead.  Immediately, something small rumbled past the bike.  At first I thought it was a rock, but the light glinted off the surface for just a moment, and I hit the accelerator hard.  Two seconds later, the grenade exploded.  The road we'd just been driving on cratered and the concussion wave threatened to throw us into the air.  The dust blinded me and dried my mouth out.  My tongue just flapped there, like the sole on a dead shoe.

'Don't let 'em get away!'  Jayci was far from done.  She fired at the van's rear tires, which exploded and exposed the wheelbase on each side.  The truck swerved violently and slowed.  The passenger started shooting again but it was wild, desperation stuff.  Jayci unloaded the rest of the magazine, keeping her finger pressed down on the trigger until the heat from the barrel was burning my face.  The truck rolled across our path and headed for a building site off the road.

Preacher Man had told me that once, back when the states were still united and people travelled for fun, they'd tried to market the desert as a tourist place.  Rich men were gonna build hundred-floor hotels out here in the wastes, and the good people of of the world were going to stump up their life savings for the chance to live a few weeks of luxury in the sweltering Arizona heat.

Like all things that man conceives, that dream had died.  Penniless and called to war, workers had abandoned sites in droves, leaving everything where they'd dropped it.  Now, smoking, wheezing and filled with more lead than a pencil, the truck rumbled towards one of those abandoned building sites, ready for one last show of resistance.

At the edge of the site, the van turned through ninety on a sixpence, spiralling to a halt and knocking a whole pile of wood and pipes over and spilling them into the street.

Jayci said, 'They're done, we can take them!'  And then, 'Oh, shit.'

The driver swung round in his seat.  On his shoulder, he was balancing a fat tube about as wide as his arm.  A metal bulb poked out the end.


I didn't need Jayci's warning.  I didn't need to hear the thump-hiss of the rocket, or see the trail of smoke as it streaked towards us.  All I could do was aim the front of the trike at the big pile of debris that had fallen directly in front of us and give the throttle everything I had left.


About twenty feet up I lost the trike, and it fell away.  Jayci let go of me, and then she was gone too.  Somewhere below and behind, the world erupted in a ball of black flame and then everything was air and panic and watching the earth welcome you back all too quickly...

I landed in a patch of dark, damp sand somewhere below a garbage chute.  All the wind got done knocked out of me.  In the distance, I could hear metal protesting as the truck limped away from the scene.  When that sound had faded away into the desert night, I could hear a familiar voice cursing.  I looked sideways to see Jayci spreadeagled upside-down in some netting hanging from a gantry.

'Fuck!  Motherfuckers!  They had a fucking rocket launcher!  That's how badly they wanted to stop us!'

I rolled over, every bit of me aching.  'Probably one they took from Carter.  Reckon that's why they were there, the weapons.  Military is the only place you get that kinda kit these days.'

She might have been blown fifty feet through the air and hung upside-down in a plain undignified way, but it was gonna take more than that to quench Jayci's fire.  'They don't scare me, and I ain't done.  We're gonna find those assholes.  But gotta get me out of here.'

It took some climbing and some cutting, but eventually Jayci and I fell down next to one another in the sand.  By now, she'd moved back from angry to exhilarated.  Me?  I was just plumb exhausted.

'Hoowee!  Phoe-Phoe, we have the best adventures!'  Jayci began to laugh, high-pitched, infectious.  As I listened, I even found myself smiling, something I didn't do much.

'Got time for that serious conversation?' I said.

'Why not?  I ain't going nowhere.'  She laughed again and coughed.  'Oh, man, I think I broke a rib.'

GO TO CHAPTER 14 > > >

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Chapter 12 - One Out, One Down

'You mind if I stay?' I asked.

'Suit yourself,' Carter shrugged.  'But I can't go through no paperwork right now.  Radio's buzzing.  We've got a whole lot of activity going on in towns around.  I'm hearing reports of bandit attacks.  They moved all my spare men down to the Mount to protect the water.'

'It's okay.  I don't want no jobs right now anyhow.'

'What do you want?' she asked.

I was still mulling the question, sitting in the corner of the Quartermaster's office and picking my teeth with my knife when a short, fat man came through the door and dumped a cloth bag and a revolver onto the counter.  His shirt was open at the waist, showing off a pale pot belly.

'I'm looking for the no-good two-bit that took my kid brother,' the man said.

I tipped the corner of my hat in time to see Carter glance over at me.  'Who's your brother?' she said.

'Waylon Boggs.'

'Boggs is all set to move down to the Pen.  Court is done running the numbers on him if you're here to pay bail.'

'Pay bail.  I want words with the man that bought him in.  This is fucking bullshit.'

'Might want to show a bit of respect if you want help,' I said

Waylon's brother looked round and saw me in my spot behind the door.  He opened his body up in my direction.  'And who might you be?'

'Who wants to know?' I said.

'Name is Orie.  Orie Boggs.  I run a farmstead out in the Sands.  Or I used to, anyhow.'

'Well, Orie, my name is Phoenix.  I'm the bondsman that brought in your brother.'

Orie smirked under his jowly moustache.  'Phoenix?  What kind of dumbass name is that?'

I flipped the knife and started cleaning under my fingernails.  'The kind my Mom gave me.'

'Phoenix what?'

'Phoenix mind your own damn business.'

The man stared at me for a good long time, and then shook his head and turned away. 

'How's my brother?' he said.

'He got a shock,' I replied.

'He badly hurt?'

Carter leaned across the counter and handed Orie a form covered in scribbles.  'Judging by his language when they took him down there, he'll live.'

Orie went through the pretense of reading the form, even though he clearly had fewer words in his mind than in his mouth.  He signed the bottom with a wide 'X' and slid it back the way it had come.

'How much he owe?' Orie said.

'Five hundred for the offence, two-fifty for the bondsman.'

Orie counted out the money and glanced at me.  'Bondsman can suck my dick.'

'Just another service we offer,' I said.  Carter smiled and leaned back in her chair.  She'd perfected that look of being unprepared, but if some goon came in looking for trouble, Carter could deal.  I'd seen that happen first hand.

Orie sulked while she weighed his chit, walking to and fro, looking everywhere but at me.

'Hundred short,' Carter said.  If I hadn't been looking for it, I might not have seen her hand move to her holster.  Precaution only, but necessary.  People died for less.

Boggs Sr. ran his hands through his hair and slammed them on the counter.  'Seriously?  Are you fucking with me?'

'Check it,' Carter said, pushing the chit back across the table with her left hand.

Orie did so, and then shook his head.  'This isn't the one I gave you.'  He looked around at me and Carter and then back at the chit again.  Fear, comprehension, acknowledgement.  Watching his mind turn over was like watching an old man die.

'Hundred short,' Carter said again.  She wasn't looking at me now.  Every nerve was ready, in case it needed to be.

'You're fucking with me,' Orie said.  He glanced suspiciously at each of us in turn, even though I was fifteen feet away at least, and hadn't been nowhere near the counter while he was here.  'This is bullshit.'

I ran my fingers across the taser.  'Maybe you should calm down,' I said.

Orie turned to me and gave me the benefit of a roar not too different from his brother's.  'Don't you fucking tell me what to do.  No-good fucking bounty tripper, whoring your asses to rich men.'

It was enough for me.  I was on my feet and in his face.  I'd had a real bad day and I was fed up with this lame-ass bullshit.  I knew I was okay.  Orie might have had the same strong, wiry arms as his brother, but the real deep fire that'll pull a trigger or bash a man's head in had burned itself out in him a long time ago.

'Fuck this,' I said.  'You put the money on the counter or you don't, and best believe it when I say I don't care which.  I'm not about to sit here and listen to you shout your mouth off for another hour before you do what you're gonna do anyway.  Here's how it is.  Your brother was a wanted man, and I bring in wanted men.  I get paid well because I'm damn good at it.  Waylon Boggs threatened my life, and as far as I can see, that means I could have pretty much snapped him in two, or set a price for you at ten big ones, and you should damn well pay it and get your sorry asses out of here with your tails between your legs.  You hear me?'

Orie was all wild hair and bad teeth but there weren't no real fight there.  He made a show of fronting before pulling another pair of small chits out of his wallet and placing them down on the counter.  When the last of the money had finally changed hands, Carter added her own signature to the paper and gave Orie a copy.  A quick exchange on the radio confirmed that Boggs Jr. would be out for bailing in five.

'You know,' Orie said, when I'd retaken my seat, 'you should get yourself out to Cleft Rock.  Got a whole gaggle of farm girls and crazies, formed a little gang out there, stealing supplies from anyone nearby.  Soon there'll be no way for an honest man to make a living.  'Course, you don't care about that though, 'cause all you care about is money.'

'Put a bounty down,' I said.  'Watch me care.'

'I don't have no damn money no more,' Orie said.  'Two hundred miles I had to come, two hundred miles of dust storms, devil magic and psychopaths.  That's all the damn Sands is these days.'

Waylon came through with Carter's deputy, whooping and laughing as they undid the cuffs around his wrists.  He saw me as he made for the door and gave me his best shit-eating grin.  'Blondie!  How's it goin'?  Them kids of yours still hurtin'?'  I was done yelling for the night, so I let him get away with one.

Carter gave the departing backs a stiff warning.  When they'd gone, she counted out my two-fifty, which she did no faster for me than she'd done for Orie.  When I collected and counted it for the last time, Carter said, 'Fifty bucks says he'll be back in here for something by the weekend.'

'Let me know if he comes up on the list.  I owe him one,' I said.

'Will do.'

I stashed the chit inside my vest and had already turned away when a thought struck me.

'You hear anything about that gang he was talking about?'

'Cleft Rock?  Rumours, now and then.  Ain't no interest though.  Two hundred miles is a lifetime in the Sands.  Ain't no-one here gonna travel that far when there's easy meat close to home.'

Carter's deputy opened the armoured back door to the Quartermasters just as the truck pulled up there.  I didn't think nothing of it for starters - military vehicles came and went all the time.  The driver didn't look like one of Carter's grunts, though.  He was dressed all in black, with goggles over his eyes and a helmet, rather than a hat.  He was also carrying a T-shaped automatic pistol - a weapon you never saw in military hands.

I may have mentioned that my feet and mouth were quicker than my brain - sometimes, that'll save your life.  I yelled, 'Get down!' and I was already diving for the front door as the driver raised his gun and fired a burst through the doorway out back that pretty much cut the room in half.

Carter's deputy was down, taking the brunt point blank.  Carter was out of the field of fire, and she was reaching for her gun and screaming into the radio.  I slid down the steps that led up to the building and took a spot on my knees behind them, but before I could fire back the driver had kicked the armoured door closed in front of him.

It had all happened so goddamn quick.  The truck's engine was revving.  Carter waved her pistol over her shoulder.  'Round the back!'

I was on my feet and made for the alleyway but only in time for a motorcyclist dressed in the same black gear and helmet to come roaring round the building the other way.  The alleyway was narrow and he had the speed - no chance I was getting out of the way.

He lifted the front wheel at the last minute and I was thrown onto the frame, carried into the street and left there sprawling in the dust when he braked.  Rolling over, I looked up at my death - another of those T-shaped pistols pointing right down into my face.  I stared past the barrel to the empty dark space where a face should have been, and all I could think was, damn it all, you're a whole day early.

GO TO CHAPTER 13 > > >