Sunday, 18 September 2016

Chapter 19 - Two Idiots Under God

By the time we rolled back into the settlement, people were waking up to another day in Hole Town.  Another day of yelling, praying, smoking, cursing, fighting, mooching, panhandling and generally adding color to what the desert already put there.  

In the worker districts, sad-faced boys with dark eyes and dark skin huddled together in hacienda doorways.  Workers sweated as they shifted boxes of brown fruit and copper ore.  Gangmasters patrolled the corners of their neighborhoods, faces inscrutable, flashing subtle hand signals to one another.  Beaded curtains appeared in bordello archways, moving with the hot breeze to reveal cool darkness behind.  Trike couriers and carts rolled through the dirt.  As the sky grew ever more yellow and shadows got shorter, vendors appeared with hot braziers.  It was bird meat on the skillet, powered by gas from the manure.  What was left over was sold to dustbowl farmers like Orie Boggs, who carted it out to the fields to eke what little they could get from the soil.

What you're probably getting from a city powered by chicken shit is the smell.  It got everywhere, in your clothes, your hair, your food.  After a while you noticed it only when it wasn't there, and that was your cue to ask yourself if you'd wandered too far from home.

Above it all like a promise of salvation waiting, the Fallen Cross stood at the end of the canyon.  As it had been throughout my living memory, the end of the staff and the edge of the crossbar were both resting in the dust.  A carrion bird was perched on the tip.

I hadn't been gone no more than a few hours and I was missing the place already.

'I should go back home,' Gregor said.  'I want to rest, top up my water and check my instruments.'

'Can you pick a few bits up for me when you're there, please?'  Jayci gave him a list and then turned to me.  'I'm going down the station to check out how things are going down there.  You want to come with?'

'Sure thing.'

When we got to the station, the generator that had been set up to light up the scene at night had gone, but the tape sealing off the area remained.  At best, passers-by cocked an eye to the shattered building and moved on quickly.  It was easy to see why.  Under the looming verandah where I'd faced down a gunman only a handful of hours ago, a pair of men in sunglasses and loose grey jackets were guarding the premises.  Sitting across from one another, each had an automatic rifle set across his chest in a three-point sling.

'This ain't looking like good news,' Jayci said.

'I'm not seeing any military uniforms.'

'Reckon the real soldiers got called back to guard the water.  Would you look at the gee-tar straps them boys got on?  When I was little, I used my MawMaw's garter belt for that.'

'They're big guns.'

'MawMaw was a big girl.'  

Gregor turned up a few minutes later with fresh water supplies and a canvas bag.  Jayci reached into it and pulled a few things out.  First was a white sheet, which she folded into triangles within triangles before wrapping it carefully around her scalp and chin.

'Help me get my hair inside this thing.'

I folded up her braids, stacking them under the sheet until only her face could be seen.  'Why do you even grow your hair this long, anyhow?'

She grinned at me as she slipped her jacket off her shoulders.  'I need me a gimmick, right?  Everyone gotta have a gimmick.  That way, when the bads see me coming and they know it's me, they lose hope before I even get close.'

She pulled her top up so only a little of her cleavage showed and wrapped a dark scarf around everything.  Then she took a deep breath, pressed her hands together in prayer and gazed at me with liquid eyes.  'Yes sir, everyone gotta have a gimmick.'

---

'This is literally the worst goddamn idea ever,' I said.

Jayci critically examined the cassock I had on, pulling at seams and shifting it around on my frame.  Gregor stood behind her, shaking his head.  When she was satisfied, she pushed the Bible into my hands and adjusted the cardboard dog collar around my neck.  'Priests don't use language like that.'

'You're forgetting I had a seminary upbringing.  I could tell you a few surprising things about the language priests use.'

'Save it for your confessional,' Jayci said, smiling.  

'Why do you even own these clothes?'

'You never know when you're gonna need a disguise.'

'If you're done here,' Gregor said, taking the bag, 'I need to get back.  I was checking out the sun and it looks even worse than I thought.'

'We'll be back once we know more,' Jayci called as he bumped away on the trike.  Then she licked the palm of her hand and began flattening my hair down.

'Is that necessary?' I asked, shrugging away from her.

'Damn right it's necessary.  You look like a pig farmer who's been getting too close to the livestock.  Will you just stand still?' 

'Why are we even doing this?' I said.

'We can't just walk up as bondsmen now.  If those are Di Vio's men, the last thing he's going to want is another armed force in the city,' she said.

'Pretty much every single person in Hole Town carries a gun.'

'Yeah, but most of those people are more of a danger to themselves than to someone else.'  Adjustment complete, she tugged me towards her gently and pecked me on the forehead.  'We need information.  Try and look holy, okay?'

---



Head down, Jayci approached the guards nervously and I followed her, clutching my holy book and looking solemn, a few steps behind.  The guards glanced at one another, stood upright and put out hands to block her path

'Stop right there,' one of them ordered.




'Good morning to you, sirs.  My name is Sister Pennyweather, and this here is my associate, Father Felix.  We were told that a bunch of heathens had attacked the station, and one of our key duties is to attend to the spiritual well-being of our brave military personnel.'

One of the guards said, 'This is a restricted area.  You need to go back.'  To his left, the other began to whisper into a radio mike, as though hoping the names he'd heard were going to turn something up.  Even as he did it, his hands had a hold of the stock of his gun.

'In the name of the Good Lord and Lady, there's nothing to worry about, sir,' Jayci continued in her most cheerful voice.  'I'm simply trying to locate the whereabouts of the person we usually meet with.  Her name is Sergeant Carter, US military.  She runs this very station that you're guarding right now, so if you just call in and let her know that we're here, we'll be happy to wait.'
While Jayci was entertaining the guards, I glanced around.  People were moving past slowly and I could see a few craning their necks in our direction.  Others had stopped to have conversations or read the bills that were posted onto the noticeboard in the square.  I also noted the shadows where absolutely nothing was moving at all.  In any crisis situation, those were the ones I tended to fire into first.

'Father.'  Guard number two called me back and nodded to my dusty-looking Bible.  'Where did you say you were from?'

Jayci wide-eyed me from under her wimple.  'Catholic Compound Twelve,' I said, as confidently as I could.

Guard number two pursed his lips.  I could tell he wasn't convinced by our getup.  'And is Compound Twelve the nearest of the churches hereabouts?'

'I believe that the nearest church to here is Compound Ten,' I said, making my best effort not to blink.  'But between you and me, I think that the reverend fathers there have become rather hardened by years of life in the big city.  They don't seem as concerned for the souls of people here as they should be.'

'Is that so?'

I went for broke.  'Our mission is sanctified by Padre Reyes at Twelve.  He's been a serving priest under the Fallen Cross for over fifty years and is the holiest man I have ever known.'  I placed my hand upon my heart in an attempt to convey my sincerity.  If this turned ugly, I was going to have to shoot a man while wearing a cassock, and that would be a first for all of us.

Guard number one balanced his gun where we could see it.  'The military has stood down for now by order of the government.  A local team has had to step in for a short while for your safety and security.  If you turn around to where the crowd is gathered over there,' he pointed, 'you'll see that there's a notice about a public meeting due to take place in the canyon later today.  That will explain everything for you.'

'Thank you, sir,' Jayci said.  She touched both her shoulders, her forehead and her heart.  'Blessings be with you.  If either of you fine gentlemen find yourself in need of spiritual guidance, you can always contact me-'

'Come, sister,' I said, taking her arm and guiding her away.  'Let us not disturb these good men any further.'

When we'd gained a few yards of safe distance, Jayci whispered, 'Why you gotta do that?'

'Because you're the least convincing nun ever, and the sum total of all the information we gathered we could have got just by reading the noticeboard in the first place.'

'I don't know about that.  We got confirmation our guys over there are private security, and ain't no-one else but Di Vio's men could be armed with those sort of guns.  And besides,' she said, twinkling at me, 'dressing up is fun, right?'

'Lord, preserve me,' I replied.

Jayci Hail Mary'd and scattered blessings in her wake as we made our way through the crowd to where the notice had appeared.  It was a simple poster, six feet wide, hand painted.

'CITY-WIDE MEETING ON SECURITY.  ALL INVITED, BY ORDER OF MAYOR BELASCO.  BASE OF CANYON 6PM.'

'That's when they're going to make the handover official,' I said.

Jayci pulled off the scarf and the sheet, letting her braids tumble loose.  'Then we should thank the Good Lord that we've got some time to prepare, shouldn't we?'

GO TO CHAPTER 20 > > >

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Chapter 18 - A Dim Bulb Brightens

It was going to be a long, hot day.

Assuming that is, we survived the dawn.

There wasn't even time for a prayer.  Jayci had their number; girl had been paying attention all the way, and her candy jack stole a march on my own.  Jensen's first man took a jaw-breaking punch full on, and the second got a knee in the crotch.  He must have had some steel in his breeches, because he was still upright when Gregor came roaring in like a steam train and flattened him out with a body slam.

I walked over to Broken Jaw and pulled him upright.  Maybe he should have stayed down, played dead, but he had some fight left too.  In a flash, I had a palm in my face and a finger in my eye, and all I could do was hold onto his other wrist so the all-important barrel of his automatic pistol didn't swing my way.

'Gregor!' I called.  Our engineer was still flailing at the man he was sitting on.  'Little help?'

Jayci looked around for a moment, and then relaxed.  'Oh, it's okay, you're doin' fine.'

I punched my new friend twice, but he was a chigger and there was no way he was letting go.

'He's...more persistent than I was banking on,' I called.

Jayci recovered her hat and stood up at a leisurely pace.  'Hang in there.  You ain't dead yet.'

The pistol lurched, gaining an inch and losing it again.  Sweaty fingers pressed down on sweaty fingers, and the barrel discharged into air.

'Seriously now,' I said.  Broken Jaw had a height advantage, and was starting to climb up my shoulder.

'Be there in five.'  Jayci stopped to brush sand out of her bust.

Enough of this shit.  I kicked the legs out from under Broken Jaw and flipped him over onto the sand with the same movement.  The gun spiralled away, and with it, any hope that he had of winning the fight.  He offered his palms in surrender, which was a nice touch, and meant that I knocked him out with one punch rather than making a morning of it.

There was a moment to catch breath, make some peace.  When Jayci's impish smile appeared in my field of vision, she looked impeccably groomed for someone who'd spent a night fighting bads in the desert.

'We done here?' she asked.

'Yeah, no thanks to you.'

'Now what?' Gregor said.

Jayci rolled down her top the tiniest fraction of an inch for my benefit, which was enough that I could see the chit pouch resting against her breast.  'Now nothing,' she said with a wink in my direction.  'We're rich.  We have a ride.  We don't need anything now.'

'Cool your jets.  We might have money and a ride, but our freaky friends are riding to Hole Town to do who knows what.'

Jayci wasn't listening.  She spun between Gregor and I, dancing to music in her head.

'Jayci,' I said.

'First,' the girl whispered, to nobody in particular, 'I'm going to get me a whole new wardrobe.  Something with actual lace, something that looks pretty.  And then I'm going to have a bath.  I'm gonna buy enough water that I can sink completely under the surface.'

'Jayci.'

'And then...a custom set of wheels.  And a rifle the length of two men.  I won't even need to be in the same county when I'm taking bads down.'

'Jayci,' Gregor said.  She spun round to face him.

'Hmm?'

'What are we going to do?'

'Well,' she replied, 'you heard that asshole.  Go north, he said, where it's civilised.  Travel out of these Sands.  There's enough money here to live on for years.  Maybe forever, who knows?  Either way, it's a new adventure.'

'That doesn't help us with the big problem,' Gregor said, scratching his shoulders with his big, beefy arms.

Girl rolled her eyes.  'Which is what?'

'The heat.  It's getting hotter, every day.  The perihelion's coming.'

'All the more reason for us not to stand here all day and argue.'

I was getting a bit pissed just now.  The two of them were talking like I wasn't there. 

'You're both missing the real problem,' I said.  The two of them turned to me like they were noticing me for the first time.

'What,' I said, 'are we going to do about Hole Town?'

'The place is a rat-hole,' Jayci said.  'That's probably where the name comes from.  Why do you even care?'

'Uh, my mother?  You forget about her?'

Jayci shifted her hat down low on her brow so she could stare at me without the rising sun blinding her.  'Someone needs to forget about her, I reckon.'

'Says you.'

'She's gone!  Ten years gone.  To an oasis in the North.  Get that?  The North!'

'Nice try,' I said.  'But I know the oasis is a myth, remember.'

'Are you so sure?' Jayci said.  Her voice was like velvet, and for a moment, I remembered what Orie Boggs had said.  Cleft Rock, two hundred miles out...

'There's an easy way to sort this,' Gregor said.  'We vote which way to go.'

'What?' Jayci practically screeched.  'What in hell kind of shit are you talking?  This ain't no goddamn democracy.'

Gregor looked genuinely hurt.  'I thought we were a posse.  That we'd stick together.'

'Are you serious?'  Jayci paced, throwing up sand as she did so.  'You actually want to go after a man with an army at his disposal?'

'It's my town,' I said.  'I'm not going to let him just shoot the place up.'

'He has.  An army.'

'You heard me.  My vote is back.'



Jayci tipped her chin upwards and looked at the sky.  'Fuck.  Fuck.  Okay.  I vote north.  Gregor.  It's up to you.'

Gregor looked like a man who'd been asked to drown a puppy.  He took ages over the decision, and by the time he opened his mouth, I could feel the sun burning the back of my neck.

'Back.'



'Fuck!'  Jayci kicked a curtain of sand that fell across Gregor's arm and half-turned back, but rather than respond, he shrank away.

'I'm sorry, Jayci.'

'Why the fuck?  Why would you even want to go back?  Are you looking for a fight with Di Vio?  Is this some macho male bullshit that I have to end here and now?'

Gregor shook his head.  'This isn't about a fight.  The perihelion is real.  No, don't argue.  I know what I've seen.  Now, Nate Di Vio runs the Silver Sea.  He spends his whole life looking at the sun, right?  If I can see that there's a problem, believe me, he's seen it too.  He has more money than any man could spend.  He could live a palatial life north of the Sands, but instead he's here.  That says something to me.'

Jayci shook her head.  'I don't care why he's here and I don't care about your damn perihelion!  With the money we have here, we could buy enough water-'

'Water,' Gregor said, staring into the middle distance.

'What now?'

'It's the water,' Gregor said.

'He can buy all the water he wants!'

'Right now he can.  But when the world is dying, no-one will trade water for money.  At that point, his resources are useless.  He needs supplies and he needs somewhere to hide, out of the light, to wait it out until the perihelion subsides.'

'Like the cave network where Hole Town stores its water,' I said.  Gregor nodded.

For the first time, Jayci glanced at me and I saw something like doubt in her eyes.  Jensen had said that they were going to make Hole Town an offer that they couldn't refuse.  If Gregor was right, it was an offer that would cost them everything.

We had nothing to add, and Gregor knew it.  He dragged the unconscious soldiers into shade and then set off in the direction of the trikes.  'I'll bring the transport round.'

When he'd moved out of earshot, Jayci glared at me.  'I'm carrying enough money right now to live comfortably for the rest of my natural life, or entirely too comfortably for six extremely entertaining months.  Give me one good reason why I shouldn't leave you two here to deal with your own damn problems.'

'Your love for Gregor?  Your love for me?'  If it was possible, her expression grew even more sour.  'For real.  If Gregor is right, we have to stop Nate Di Vio before he takes control of Hole Town.  This could be the end of the world we're talking about.  First Thessalonians.  The goddamn Bible!  If this shit is really happening, we want to be on that ride!'

Jayci reached up and took my face in her hands.  'My sweet, dumb friend, there ain't gonna be no rapture.  But the minute that Captain Jensen or one of his army of the righteous sees you, he's gonna send you back to God via the direct route.'

'Not,' I said, 'if I see him first.'

'So basically I have to come along to save you from yourself.'

'It's what you do best,' I said.  I swear she nearly smiled.

I patted Jayci's shoulders and she let go of my cheeks just as Gregor rolled up on the trike.  Jayci loosened her top, adjusted her hat and I could see the sweat beading on her brow.

'Let's get out of the sun,' she said.

It was set to be a long, hot day indeed.  And it was getting longer and hotter all the time.

GO TO CHAPTER 19 > > >