'I met a guy with just one eye and fartin' was his humour, he smelled as bad as Satan's dad and sounded like a tuba!' He spent the next whole minute laughing while I kissed ground and ached.
Just another crazy day in the Sands. A headlong flight into limbo that ended up with me trapped in an underground tunnel and falling through space until I landed once more on the other side of reality. I began to wonder if I was suffering a reaction to the Candy Jacks. You weren't supposed to take so many back-to-back. Or maybe just lately, I'd had one too many blows to the head. Perhaps Waylon Boggs had caught me clean a while ago and everything since had just been a fever dream. Somehow, another kick to my crotch seemed preferable to another discussion with a madman.
Piano Man nodded down towards my cassock and the cross hanging round my neck on its string of beads. 'I see you've taken another step closer to the Almighty. All considered, I find that a curious decision when you're trying everything you can to avoid meeting Him in person.'
'I'm sure He understands my position,' I replied cheerfully. 'Everything in good time.'
'A good time is the one thing you definitely don't have in your future.'
'Oh yeah, more tales from the crystal 8-ball. That's just what I need right now.'
He glanced at me as he played. 'You know, you'd think with everything that's happened so far, you might actually be inclined to trust me a bit. Instead, you come barging in here, dressed up all holy and shooting your mouth off like a dumbass. I can't help thinking I deserve better. If it weren't for me, you'd have died in Grafton Brown's farmhouse.'
Somehow, the passage of time had blurred that memory and I couldn't recall where my mind was when I'd fired through that curtain. For all I could say, I might have made my own mind up what to do, and I couldn't be sure that anything we'd discussed before had played a part in that decision.
I said, 'When you're done with your State of the Union...'
He glared. 'Don't go thinking you're funny, now.'
'What you deserve, what I deserve. Ain't none of that stuff matters,' I said. 'We all get what we get, and we all get the same in the end. Everyone gotta die. It's just about the when and where.'
'What you don't seem to realize is that when and where are malleable concepts.'
'Them's big words,' I said, laying back down on the warm sand and staring up at the yellow sky above. Wisps of cloud moved around slowly, hinting at a wind somewhere up in the heavens that could descend at any time. The air was warm, and there were worse places a man could lie than where he fell. I kind of felt like if I stayed perfectly still, time itself would stop and day might never turn to night.
Piano Man picked out a slow, careful melody and carried on playing through feel even when he looked around again. 'Seems to me like maybe you're suffering some kind of existential crisis. That's okay, I get it. This desert here is a weird old place. It plays with the mind, and you've been under a lot of stress lately.'
'They done away with us,' I said.
'No more bounty hunters, huh.'
'Gregor thinks the world is heating up. He thinks that soon, it's gonna lead to catastrophe.'
'That sucks, for sure.'
'And I'm still no closer,' I said, closing my eyes and spreading my arms, 'to finding out what happened to my mom.'
Piano Man's tune quickened briefly and then stopped abruptly.
'Am I dreaming?' I asked.
Five more seconds passed peacefully, and then my world exploded in pain. I sat bolt upright, wincing and curling in on myself, my hands closing around the fist-sized rock that had hit me full in the stomach.
'What the fuck?!'
Piano Man's glowing tip jar was resting next to the piano on a neat cairn of stones. It balanced improbably above a gap in the pile that was exactly the size of the rock I was holding. The man himself was staring at me, his coal-black pupils shrinking and expanding furiously within his white irises.
'Phoenix, get your tired, lily-livered, liberal ass out of the dirt and start acting like a man. Your town has fallen to the Yankees, your loved ones are in danger and you're staring at the sky like it's made of goddamn treacle. Now, I can handle you taking a moment when things get tough, but the minute you start making sand angels and talking about dreams, then we gotta have words. You get me?'
'Fuck you.' I pitched the rock back at him. He ducked at just the right moment for it to pass over his head and came back up with that same stupid, ugly lunatic grin that I knew from before.
'There we go, that's the boy! There's that fire. Now, you save that, you're gonna need it. You got a real battle coming up.'
'Is this the point where you tell me something that saves my life?'
'Funny you should say that.' He thumped at the ivories, portending apocalypse. 'Time, as they say, is of the essence. After you came here, your friends headed back home to pack up. They're waiting for you there right now. You're on the clock though, because your other buddy Captain Jensen's coming for you all and he's in no mood for reconciliation. He knows that the Bounty Hunters are the only ones that can stop his boss.'
I pressed down on my bruised belly and looked around desperately at the empty landscape. 'Then maybe you should stop wasting my time and get me back there?'
Piano Man raised a finger. Predictably, the harmony of the tune was unaffected, just sustained briefly with one hand. 'In two shakes of a mule's tail. First, there's more you need to know. The blonde girl from the meet at the the canyon. You remember her, right?'
Sure do. 'Uh, yeah.'
'All that lovely long hair, framing that soft, beautiful face and them big blue eyes. You thought she was pretty, right?'
Sure did. 'I guess.'
'Don't go there. She's your sister.'
'You heard me. Now, I'm sure that you're gonna have all sorts of interesting family stories to catch up on round the campfire, but when you next meet, you won't have time. You're gonna have to persuade your sister - her and all her friends - to take you back to Hole Town straightaway. You're gonna have to sneak in under cover of darkness and pick up those other two idiots of yours. Storm's a comin', and there ain't no way they're getting out of town on their own.'
I felt that sinking feeling again, the one I was getting far too familiar with. I couldn't even begin to process anything about my having a sister, and whether that was true or not, it was all going south if it rested on her friends. Somehow, I didn't see Pink Hair taking my side in an argument anytime soon.
'Her friends,' I said. 'What if they won't listen to me?'
Piano Man plinked dexterously away at the keys. 'Only way to keep things on the straight and narrow is for them to go along with you. You're gonna need firepower, see. One chance to persuade 'em is all you're gonna get, so best dial that charm up to eleven.'
I didn't understand what he meant, but above me, I could see the clouds being sucked into the middle of the sky and the hairs on my arms were standing up. I was about to go center stage, and there wasn't going to be a second chance to get this right.
Piano Man began to build his tune into a crescendo. 'Don't you delay now, not even an hour. Everything is finely balanced right this second, but it'll tip on the tiniest things. Use your better judgement, and use it quick.'
'Gotcha,' I said, not all sure that I did.
When Piano Man turned again, his face had become pallid, the skin stretched tightly across his skull. The fullness of his eyes could be seen, and they rolled in his head like billiard balls. 'Pressure, Phoenix. You remember your friend talking about that, right?'
'Here's another example of it in action. When you're faced with a choice between left and right, choose straight ahead.'
'That's it?' I said. 'That's your warning?'
As I watched, I realized that it wasn't that Piano Man's skin was stretching across his frame so much as the frame itself was expanding, his skeleton growing through his flesh. His lips stretched back across broken teeth, until he was grinning without trying to do so. The wind became a high-pitched whine and whirled down upon us.
'It's all you have time for! One more thing. You remembered to bring money, right? Everyone has to pay the toll. You know what happens to people who don't pay the toll.'
His bulging face abruptly split in two, showering me with blood. I just sat there dumb, staring down at my dripping hands. He stood up, and a fat, hungry tongue lolled beneath the ruined bone, beckoning at me.
A cassock doesn't have pockets, I thought, my eyes travelling slowly down my own body with growing dread. Finally they moved to the space below my still-throbbing belly to the half-buried bag that lay beneath me. I remembered now - Jayci had thrown it to me so that Gregor could fit down the tunnel. Everything stopped still as I tugged at the drawstring and frantically searched the dark interior, hoping against hope that one of them had thought to pack some chits...
GO TO CHAPTER 23 > > >