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 > > >

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Chapter 14 - Finding Our Way

Things worth doing take time. Sure, you know that, you got this far, right? Well, imagine you travelled out into hostile territory, and then some gangbanger blew your trike to Kingdom Come. You'd probably be pissed. Me and Jayci, not so much. There was air that needed clearing, and we had a walk back to town to clear it.

'I ain't gonna lie, Phoe-Phoe. I don't know what your problem is but I know you'll get over it if you want to. I'm all about bringing people together. There's still a place for you in our little posse.' 

'Maybe you should tell Gregor that. He's not so keen on me all up in his space.'

'Maybe you should be the bigger man and let him have more of the space? Ever since you arrived you've been marching round his house, throwing your weight around and generally being a dick. Ain't no surprise you found it hard to make friends.'

'Yeah, well,' I said, wiping sweat off my forehead. 'I ain't never needed any friends before.'

'And yet you'll go to the ends of the earth chasing your one link to family.' Jayci glanced at me. Her cheek turned the colour of rust under the burnished light of Hole Town, glowing in the mid distance. 'We all need people, that ain't a question. It's all just about who you trust.'

'You trust me?' I said.

The silence lengthened just enough. 'Would I be here right now if I didn't?'

Jayci's tread in the sand was absolutely silent.  The way that the world seemed to wrap around her, it was easy to forget that she weighed about a hundred pounds.  Beside her, I was kicking up dust, my every step leaving a mark in the wastes.  Preacher Man would have called that a metaphor.

Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.

There was something in them old verses.  There was something too in Jayci's face, something meaningful, but the light wasn't good enough to see.  Maybe if it had been good enough, I still wouldn't have known what it was.

'Gregor likes you, y'know,' I said.

She turned her face away again, looked to the horizon. 'That boy doesn't know what he likes.  If I was corn, he'd be a farmer right now.'

'He's a learned man,' I said. 'Travelled extensively around the Sands. He knows more than you or I, or maybe both of us put together.'

Jayci just kept on walking, and tested the movement in her shoulder as she did so. There was a cracking sound when she lifted her elbow and circled the joint.

'Normal healthy people don't sound like that,' she said.

'Is this your way of telling me to shut up about Gregor?'

She took aim with her injured arm and hit me hard in the fleshy part of my shoulder.  'This is my way of telling you to shut up forever.'

I reached for my tingling bicep and she was grinning again, like the Jayci I was used to. 'I feel pain, y'know. Just in case you weren't sure.'

'Oh, quit your whining. How else am I supposed to keep you in line?'

Now it was my turn to trudge in silence while she skipped alongside me.   Hole Town crawled ever closer, like a dog that knows it's done wrong but is still afraid of its master's boot.

'You know,' Jayci said, 'a real gentleman would offer to carry me home.'

'I ain't no gentleman.'

'Ain't gonna argue with that,' she giggled. 'But this would be as good a time as any to practise.'

I was damn near to melting and sagged around the midriff.  They didn't even do cool nights in the Sands.  I just wanted to lie down in one of those Old Worlder gardens and have one of them turn the hose on me.

'How in hell d'you have so much energy?' I said.  'You nearly got blown up an hour ago.'

'All the more reason you should carry me.'

'You can whistle,' I said.

'Fine then,' she said. 'I will. Actually, no. I'm gonna sing.'

'Oh, don't do that,' I said, but I was too late. Jayci had a whole repertoire of bawdy campfire songs born of a lifetime in the wastes and bars between, and she went through them one-by-one while I pulled my hat down over my ears and tried my hardest not to laugh.


By the time we got back to the station, the street around was cordoned off.  A spotlight had been hooked up to a portable generator on the corner and the dust billowed through the light in dense clouds.  There was an eerie silence.  People were wandering around aimlessly, freely passing through the taped areas and not meeting one another's eyes.  An attack on the military was an assault of the town's authority.  That made some people anxious, and it made some people brave.  A healthy entrepreneurial spirit ran through Hole Town's finest, and there were faces in the crowd who were looking at chaos, and figuring how it could be turned to their advantage.  You knew who those people were, because they were the ones that skedaddled fastest when Carter looked up and scanned the crowd.

Also there on the fringes of the throng, hunched under his dark hood and pacing back and forth, was Gregor.  It was Jayci that spotted him first and led me over.

'Gregor,' she said.  He jumped a clear foot off the ground.  'Relax, G, it's us.'

'Jayci!  Thank god you're alive.  I went home in case you'd gone there, but when you never turned up, I came back.  I was so worried.  The whole neighbourhood is in uproar.  I've seen looters out on the streets, people setting fires.  The sergeant has pulled some of the other hunters in to do crowd control.'  He pointed into the distance, where Carter was in discussion with a couple of other dog-tag faces I vaguely recognised.  Behind them, in the doorway where the raiders had gained entry to the armoury, two bodies were covered by bloody sheets.

We walked over, stepped under the tape, got a few wary glances for our trouble.  Carter looked up, had a finger ready to reproach us, but I already had my hat off and she relaxed a little.  The sergeant had watery eyes at the best of times, but now they were ringed with red thanks to unspent adrenaline and lack of sleep.

'I have only one question,' Carter said as we approached.  'Did you get 'em?'

'Not yet,' Jayci said.  'But we're gonna.  Don't you worry about that.'

'Bring 'em in alive if you can,' Carter replied.  We nodded.  There was no talk of bounties; there didn't need to be.  This was partly civic duty, in a time when you could only really rely on your gun, and partly because we knew Carter would see us okay - she took a pretty dim view to people gunning down her people.  I wouldn't want to be them when we brought 'em in.

'One thing,' I asked as we all headed back towards the shredded back end of the quartermaster's station.  'A pink-haired girl was in here earlier, shot one of the bikers down.  She must have brought him in.  Can we have a look?'

'He's right there.'  Carter pointed to the farthest sheet and headed back out for talks with her other hunters.  I rolled the sheet back just as Jayci fell into step beside me.

Biker was dressed as I'd remembered, all in black combat gear, vest under dyed leathers.  If I'd needed any further confirmation that this was a professional job, I had it right there.  No amateur was buying gear like that.

When they'd peeled away the biker's helmet, the top of his head had come away with it.  What was left behind was a matted mass of hair, blood and brain tissue.  His face below the forehead was untouched, almost peaceful.  His eyes were clear blue, slightly open, staring past me into the Hole Town night.

'You know him?' Jayci asked.

'No,' I said, cursing silently.  I'd been studying the quartermaster's walls for weeks, cherry picking the value, and I'd been hoping that our bads were going to be men who were already wanted and known to us.  Of course, if they were strangers, then we were done out of leads.

'Hey, hey!'  Carter reappeared, following behind the shadow of Gregor as he stumbled over to us.

'It's okay,' Jayci called hurriedly.  'He's with us.'

Carter turned back as Gregor came up close.  'Damn military are jumpy as anything,' he said.

'So would you be if you were getting shot at,' I replied.

Gregor twisted his lip as if to reply, and then bit it back and took a deep breath.  'I got you this,' he said to me, thrusting a book in my direction.  'As a peace offering.'

'What's this?' I said.  The book was slim, hard-covered.  It weighed practically nothing in my hand.

Gregor balanced it in my palm and flicked at the pages, stopping at one with a black-and-white picture of a man in late-middle age.  He was wearing an old military overcoat and had a short, light beard.  'You asked about Robert E. Lee, the general?  This is him.'

For a moment, I stared at General Lee.  He had a full nose and dark, serious eyes.  You could see the brilliance behind them, the tactician that was there.  You could see the cold too.  The necessary cold of a man who sent other men to die.

The last time I'd looked into those eyes, the face had been different.  Maybe younger.  The hair had been darker, longer, combed into a different style.  The beard was absent.  The military coat had been swapped for braces and coat tails.  But for all the superficial differences, everything important was the same.

When I'd last seen General Lee, he'd been sitting in front of a piano in the Sands.

'Is everything okay?' Jayci asked.  For a moment, I was lost for a reply.

It was Gregor who broke the spell.  He leaned across me and looked down at the biker's corpse.  'Wow.  Grafton Brown.  He's the last guy I'd have been expecting to be involved in this.'

Jayci and I both looked at him.  'What?'

Gregor nodded in the direction of the biker.  'That's Grafton Brown.  I was in the Pen with him and his brothers.  They used to own a farm in the far north-east.'

He looked from me to Jayci and back again.  'What?'

Go to Chapter 15 > > >