Sunday, 29 January 2017

Chapter 25 - Stealth Mission

Maybe you can't tell much about a person from a single journey, but if that journey was a headlong rush into the dark mouth of Hell with people you have no choice but to trust, I believe that you can learn something.

Rat, my little sister, driving forward, taking point. Adrenaline pumping in her veins, feeling her way through the shadows, dodging around the dark.  I could feel her determination like it was my own.  Cassie, leaning low into the wind as it shaped her for purpose.  I knew she had the speed to take this run up to the next level, but we were here on black ops.  Girl knew subtlety when it was needed.

Finally, there was Mar, the wings of the Triad.  Everywhere I looked, she was there, behind and to the sides.  She glided in and out, never in your sight but always in your mind.  The sweetest nightmare, this avenging angel.

They would die for one another, I knew.  I was just hoping it wouldn't come to that.

We played it low-key, least as far as we could.  The clouds were lined with grey and we went from desert to town, the hum of sand-blown engines the only sound we made.  In our wake, the curfew torches were lit on the corners and we could hear voices calling to one another, echoes on the empty streets.  Hole Town snarled, sweated in the heat and tempted the flame.  The whores lingered on the dark sides of their doorways.  Gangmasters waited for danger to pass and sent their charges, the orphan boys, out in the night to make deliveries and do business.  You never saw a damn thing, but you knew it was there.  The town kept turning over, smooth as a snake on its belly. Weren't no-one gonna tell them what to do.



When I got to the barber shop, I didn't come in the front.  I figured no-one who was a friend would be doing that from now on.  So instead, it was round the back, over the fence and in the courtyard, in the space right up next to the door where we couldn't be seen from the roof.  Cassie was the tallest of us by far, and as far as the fences around allowed, she stood lookout, her rifle poised.


Pressing my face to the cold corner of a window, I couldn't see or hear a thing.  Up to that point, I'd believed that Jayci would wait for me - thought that we'd been through enough together by now that she would stay.  But it was clear that stakes were rising, and that girl was sharp.  Suddenly, it didn't seem so likely that she would have waited for Jensen and his goons to bust in.

I was a little hurt, but also a little proud.  Jayci could take care of herself.  They'd need more than their showy foot soldiers to bring her down.

Still, I had to know for sure.  I left the window and knelt down by the door.  Mar knelt beside of me and whispered, 'Why are we stoppin'?'

'There's a door in the way,' I said.

'I can see that.  I just wasn't bankin' on it bein' an issue.'

'You can pick a lock, right?'

I could hear Mar's scorn, even if I couldn't see it.  'Why would I be able to pick a goddamn lock?  I live in the middle of a desert.  Where in hell you think I'd get the practise?'

'I really thought there'd be more to you than your shooting and your singing.'

'They get me by.  Why don't you have a key?'

'It's not my house.'

I was glaring at her, or at least vaguely where her eyes would be if I could have seen them.  A hot breath and a swaddle of loose clothing on my other side heralded Rat's arrival next to me.  'Stand back.  I can do this.'

A small light clicked on and a dull piece of wire appeared in Rat's hand.  It rattled back and forth in the lock as she cursed and twisted.  I was a little surprised, but also kind of thrilled that my little sis had life skills.  Still, as her older sibling, I felt obliged to make sure that she used them judiciously.

'Say, you wouldn't have learned these skills from carrying out illegal activities, would you?'

Rat carried on looking at the lock and then spat into the mechanism.  It clicked again when she began to turn the wire.  'Sometimes you gotta get into places, brother, and sometimes you gotta get out.'

'Might come a day when we're thankful for that,' Mar said.

'Like today?'  Rat beamed as the lock clicked a final time, and the tiny light turned off, plunging me back into darkness.

'Okay,' I said, gently.  'This one's on me. Be ready, but let me lead the way.'

I tugged gently at the handle and slid through on the dusty floor on my heels, ready to spring up if needed.  Bars of light and colour slanted across the room as the door opened.  At first, a slow creak from the door was all I could hear, and then there was a curious sound from the corridor up front, like a shuffling or snuffling.  I reached for my pistol and -

The air parted with a swipe and crashed down full into my face.  At the same moment, the room was flooded with light and I looked up to see Gregor standing over me, clearly petrified, broom in hand.

'Phoenix?'

'G!'  Jayci seemed to swing in through the door on her lengthy braids, and she brought her own gun round as Mar and Rat did likewise.

'Jayci, it's me!' I called.  My voice was muffled as my lip was already starting to swell.  That broom handle in Gregor's meaty fist had all three hundred pounds of his weight behind it.  It felt like I'd run face-first into a wall.

'Phoe-Phoe?  Oh my god!'  Jayci ignored the others and bounded over, no other word for it, and practically leapt into my arms.  'I thought Jensen got you in the tunnel.'

That girl's eyes were swamp-dark, and for a moment, her long nose and crooked teeth were my whole world.  'Did you miss me?' I asked.

'Oh, for sure,' Jayci disengaged with her usual nervous energy.  'Had to make my own coffee, and you know that no-one wins in that situation.  But anyway, you gotta introduce me to your new friends!'

Rat had lowered her gun and smiled as she nudged me.  'Brother, you didn't say you had a girlfriend.'  At the far end of the room, I saw Gregor twitch.

'Brother?' Jayci raised a chaotic eyebrow.

'Long story,' I said.

'Don't worry hun,' Jayci said to Rat.  'He never told me he had a girlfriend either!'

I did the introductions.  'Jayci, Gregor.  She's the looks, he's the brains.  Rat, my sister.  No, don't ask.  Marig...Mar.  She saved my life once.  Girl out back by the wall is Cassie.'

Introductions made, Gregor dumped his broom and went through to the front room where his telescope and other instruments were all bagged up and ready to go.  I wasn't expecting an apology for the broom, and I didn't get one.

'How much longer were you going to wait for me?' I asked Jayci as the others headed outside.

She waited for Gregor to lumber past, turned the light off and vanished into darkness.  'As long as it took,' she said.

'Really?'

'Saying you wouldn't have waited for me?'

I would have waited.  As long as it took.  I knew that now.

'I guess I would have,' I said.

'Well, now Gregor broke your face, you ain't charming anyone new!'  She danced past me, giggling to herself in her manic way, and I let it go, because I was just so damned thrilled that she'd stayed and I was here and so was she.

I was the last person to get outside and when I did, everyone except me and Jayci was pinned to the wall.  Mar hissed at me to take cover.  I was there and Jayci with me, and all was silence.

'What's going on?' I whispered.

It was Cassie, frozen in the far corner of the tiny yard, who answered.  'They're out there.'

'Who is?'

'Bads.'

I pressed my foot down on the vertical side of the wall and lifted myself up so I could snatch a glance over the top of the wall.  It was like staring out across the desert. 'Where?'

Cassie was perfectly motionless, except for a single hand which gestured one direction and then the other.  I found that the longer I stared at her, the harder she became to see.  With that and her eagle eyesight, I was starting to see what Cassie brought to the party.

'Don't doubt Cassie's eyes,' Mar warned.  'If she says there are people out there, there are people out there.'

'Jensen,' Jayci growled.

'Should we go out the front?' Gregor asked.

'The curfew torches are lit,' Jayci replied.  'We'd be lit up like Christmas.'

There was a few seconds of quiet before Mar said, 'No choice then.  Suit up.  We're going to have to go through them.'

I already had my hand on my pistol when I stared down the passageway and Piano Man's words from earlier came back to me.  'When you're faced with a choice between left and right, choose straight ahead.'

I looked directly across the passageway to the two-storey warehouse wall opposite.  'No,' I said.  'There's another way.'

GO TO CHAPTER 26 > > >

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Chapter 24 - The Eyes Have It

'It seems like one hell of a coincidence to me.'

Mama Smokes gave Mar a cold stare.  'You put your gun away, and stop acting up.  If he's the kid from Rat's locket, then he's family.'

'And what if he isn't?'

'Then you can cut his balls off as soon as you find out for sure.  Are you happy now?'

Mar and Cassie backed down.  Rat looked to me, to the picture of a child's face in that locket and back to me.  'Holy Mary.  I found my brother!'

Mar made a motion with her hand, but Rat wasn't of a mind to listen.  Instead, she was gonna stare at me from now till next Christmas.  Straight on, her cheeks sunk in, making her face look long and her eyes huge.  Her smile was warm like summer.  'You're my brother.  You're my actual, actual brother!'

'And you're my sister,' I said.  Just hearing it out loud made it seem that little bit more real.

Her nose wrinkled.  'I'd, uh...I'd hug you, but we should probably clean you off at the oasis first.'

'That's totally fair.'

Mar called the girls together to talk quietly.  Mama Smokes gestured me over, out of earshot of the others, and instructed me to help reorganise the load on her trike.  'You look stunned, boy.'

'I didn't even know about my sister until a little while ago.  I'm racking my brains, thinking back.  I should remember her.'

'Your mama was a brave woman with a lot on her plate.  She was a proper hunter - none of this bringing in patsies for rich men that you see now.  Them was scary days, weren't no-one messing around.  Bounties were slim, and your mama went for the real bads, the gangsters, the rapists, the killers.  But she had her problems, and there weren't nowhere she could call home.  She had to keep you split up.  The church wouldn't look after her daughter, and the girls at the Oasis weren't keen on having a boy there.  You gotta understand,' she said, squinting at me, 'a lot of them were there because they'd been mistreated by men.  They'd damn near lost everything, and they all knew people that had.  Having a boy around the place would have unsettled them, bought back memories.  But a young girl like Rat, she was different.  They could bring her up as one of their own.'

Mama Smokes then turned her back to the drifting sand and lit a cigarette.  'So when your mama went, that's what we did.'

'Mama,' I said, 'can you tell me what happened to her?  I need to know.'

Mama Smokes held out her cigarette 'til the end was done charred.  There was a story there, I knew it.  'I heard what you said about your friends.  Time's a tickin' and Hole Town's new leader is gonna be bad news for everyone.  Go with the girls and when you get back, we'll talk about your mama.'

'If they didn't want me there as boy,' I said, 'what's gonna be different if me and another man come rollin' up now?'

'Times have moved on, to an extent,' Mama said cryptically.  'But as long as you do what you're told and are right respectful, we can make this work for a short time, which should be all we need.'

'You'll let us stay at the Oasis?' I said.

'We'll sort something out - come to an arrangement.  But let me worry about that.  You heard what I said.  Get out there, get your friends, and then we'll talk.' 

I walked alongside Mama Smokes as she punted the trike forward with one wide, flat foot.  Ahead of us, Rat had moved away and Mar and Cassie were still whispering to one another, Cassie bent down twelve whole inches so that her lips were on a level with Mar's ears.  When we approached, they separated and stood next to one another, arms folded.

'We ain't going,' Mar said.

'Excuse me?' Mama Smokes replied.  The girl might as well have spat at her.  Mar looked away.  This was the first time I'd ever seen her looking downright uncomfortable.

'Mama,' Cassie began, holding her hands out all conciliatory.  'We know how you feel, but there ain't no leader up at the Oasis.  No-one tells anyone to do anything.  We choose by consensus.  That's how it is.  How you taught us.'

'And this is your consensus?' Mama replied, scorning the word and all its bastard children.  'Not helping someone who came right out and asked you for help.'

Mar said, 'This guy and his friends are bounty hunters, you know that, right?  There's a bounty out there, on us.'

'Age ain't struck me dumb yet, Marigold.'  I knew right then and there that we both had to live just so I could call Pink Hair that to her face, at least one time.  'But the army's done, and the bounty hunters are too.  We all know it.  You think this new man from the North is going to leave us alone?  Besides.  We need to get inside, find out more about what they're planning.  The more of us there are that can carry a gun and help with that, the more likely we are to be able to save ourselves.'

Cassie sagged.  Mar set her jaw and refused to back down.  'You wanna go, you go.  I'm out.'

Rat, momentarily forgotten in the showdown before me, stood up from where she'd been sitting in the sand.  'I'm in,' she said.

Mar and Cassie both turned to Rat and begged her to change her mind, but the girl filled all five-feet-nothing of her frame and wouldn't be persuaded.  'I'm helping my brother, and I'm bringing him and his friends home.  You just try to stop me.'

'You don't know that he's your brother!  You'd never even met him an hour ago!'

'True, I hadn't,' and Rat turned to me.  There were my eyes again, staring right back.  'But I have now.  And I'm going to help out.  If you guys are my friends, I mean, truly my friends, you'll help out too.'

'Rat, he's gonna get you killed,' Mar said, glaring at me.

In a moment, it was over.  Cassie turned to Mar.  'I'm not going to let Rat go alone.'

Mar's face screwed up in disgust and she threw her arms up in the air.  'My lord!  You're all losing your goddamn minds!'

Cassie said, 'Mar, let's just do it.  It's one job, help out one time.  We'll do it and head back.'

The girls were still arguing as Mama Smokes' scooter buzzed into life.  They looked up, as I did, to see her putting away to the North, her sandy groove marking her trail.

'Get out there,' she called, 'Get it done.  Watch yourselves, don't be sloppy.  I'll see you all back at the Oasis in a few hours.'

Mar waited until the old woman's trike disappeared behind a rock outcrop before rounding on me.  She grabbed the front of my cassock and might have started wailing on me if Rat hadn't been there to jump between us.

'Rat, get out of the way or I'm gonna throw you out of the way.'

'Don't even think about it, Mar!'

'He's taking advantage of you, don't you see?  He's playing you for a fool!'

'It's his photo in the locket!  How's he supposed to fake that?'

I held my arms up and tried to speak above the fury.  'Maybe if we all just calm down and talk about this-'

'He has a passing resemblance to someone from an old photo taken back when they were a kid and that means you're just going to follow him into the lion's den?'

'Look at us.  Our eyes look the same.  Our everything looks the same.  We're both skinny as rifle rounds.  We're brother and sister.  It's obvious.'

'Everyone's skinny, Rat, ain't no-one got enough to eat!  Dammit, you're just seeing what you want to see.  You've had that locket around your neck since you were old enough to trust not to lose it, and ever since then, you've been seeing a new brother every time you look around...'

There was a moment then, a brief calm, that kind you get when someone has said something in the heat of the moment and moved the conversation from an acceptable place to somewhere else entirely.  I thought of myself, knowing only a space where a mom should be, and looked down at Rat, who knew about her mother but had this same space where there might be a brother instead.  Family, tied not to her by duty or shared loyalty, but actual blood.  A tie that might mean something somehow more real.

Mar said to Rat, 'I shouldn't have said that.  I'm sorry.'

'Fuck you,' my sister said.  She led me by the sleeve of the cassock over to where three more hovertrikes were stacked up, leaning against the wall of the canyon.

'You're with me,' she said, smiling again despite herself.

'What about them?'  Mar was following behind, slowly, making no attempt to catch up.  Cassie walked behind her, looking weary and uncertain.

'Oh, they'll follow.  They won't let me go off on my own,' Rat said.  That was actually a comforting thought.  Rat might not have known her intimate family ties, but she had a family nonetheless.  And now we were in trouble, like it or not, they were going to follow along.


 Rat glanced at me once more, and I was struck once again by those telling features.  I stepped up behind her on the trike.

'Hold on tight, brother,' she said.  'We're gonna go get your friends.'

GO TO CHAPTER 25 > > >

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Chapter 23 - Carrion Bird, Carrion Bird, Sing a Song for Me

Laying down. Thrown down. Dumped in the Sands, like copper ore castoffs, old furniture or a sack of rotten fruit. Something scavenger-dull nipped at my bottom lip.

'Is he dead, Cass?' a woman's voice said.

'Bird seems to think so,' came the reply.

'Ten grams says yes,' said a third voice, one I vaguely recognised.

When I opened my eyes, the first thing I saw was the vulture perched on my chest. It pecked at my lip again and then turned its head side-on, all the better to appraise my carcass. When I coughed up the mouthful of desert that I'd swallowed, the bird responded with a string of cawed obscenities that would have made a Hole Town pimp proud and briefly took flight, settling on a rock spar a few metres away.

'Damn it all.'

The complaint was punctuated by a burst of laughter.  'Ten grams, Mar!  That's what you said, and that's what you owe.'

'He could die anytime.  Like right now.'  That voice again.  I turned my head to see the pink-haired girl from the town.  She'd been in the process of hiking over my way but when our eyes met, she stopped.


'It don't count if you shoot him.'  I didn't recognise this girl's voice, but I knew her too - the impossibly tall one I'd seen in the town.  She was six feet and plenty more, her tan limbs shining like she'd been carved outta something precious and otherworldly.  Relaxed and smiling some, she looked altogether happier than I remembered from before.  She was walking up the dune alongside a third girl, a hollow-cheeked princess straight outta story books.  The girl that Piano Man had called my sister.

'Cassie,' Pink Hair called urgently.

Cassie snapped into action in a fraction of a second, and I was pleased to see my sister was no slower.  She had her pistol up and pointed at my head just as Cassie brought her rifle around and sighted me.  Only when she was satisfied that her companions had me covered, did she lower her rifle.  I stared past the lowered barrel for just a second or two.  At this range, a rifle was a liability.

'Good afternoon,' I said, nodding to the two nearest to me before addressing Pink Hair, the girl I now knew was called Mar.  'How's things with you?'

'He's bounty,' Mar said to her friends.  'Don't take your eyes off him.'

'He has a name too,' I called back.

Cassie threaded the rifle through a strap over her shoulder and pulled a wicked looking curved blade from her belt.  That was more of a close-quarter affair, and I had no doubt that she was just as deadly with one as with the other.  'He's dressed as a priest,' she said.

'Everyone needs a day job,' I said, pulling my knees up and adjusting the cassock so that it fell back down around my ankles where it belonged.

'He smells something fierce,' my sister said.

'Oh, c'mon now!'  Once upon a time, churchwear had been altogether more fancy, and a preacher would have been stepping out to face the masses in silk or faille.  In these slightly more backward times, availability was the single most important factor when sourcing clothing and so I'd spent the day sweating under a heavy cotton overcoat tied with a rope.  I was hardly feeling my freshest, so to speak.

Mar waved her gun at me, the same gun that she'd used to save my life in the town.  She was gesturing at my garb.  'You packing under that?'

'Best believe it,' I said.

For a moment, I thought she was going to ask me to lift the cassock up, but she tipped her head, thought about it and obviously decided that she could deal with whatever I was carrying.

'What are you doing out here anyhow?' she asked.  'I saw you at the town meet.  Are you tracking us?'

'Not tracking you,' I said, slowly brushing sand off my chest.  'Seeing an old friend, though I got a bit sidetracked.  Anyway, you were there.  You heard what he said, the new big man.  No more bounty hunters.  We're done.'

'Yeah, well, new man's security couldn't stop a bullet if they were a barn door.  We ain't worried.'

'You should be,' I said.  'But not about his security.  You should be worried about the sun.'

'You a scientist now?' Mar asked, deadpan.  I'd expected her to laugh.  Once again, she was set to surprise me.

'You know about the perihelion,' I said.

'Is that what they're calling it?'  Mar shook her head.  'We suspected that something big was up.  We knew about the hits on the army supply runs, and we know that Nate Di Vio hasn't come south out of the good of his heart.  He was looking for something, and he's found it here in Hole Town.'

'He wants water and shelter from the drought. Anyone who doesn't have those things pretty soon is going to be in a world of trouble.'  I looked from one to the other of them, a cadre of weapons pointed my way, though more in caution than threat.  'Now you guys are going to tell me that you've got a whole science lab laid out wherever it is you're holed up.'

'We work with what we've got.  We're not just gunslingers and pretty faces,' Mar said.

I couldn't think of a good answer to that, but my eyes kept flicking away from her and to my sister and her sun-coloured hair.  The more I looked at her, the more the truth was obvious to me.  We had the same nose, the same blue eyes, the same lines around the mouth.  All the signs were there, and I was sure of it now.

I was also aware from what Piano Man had told me that the clock was ticking, and I wasn't making up ground this way.  Turning back to Mar, I said, 'I never got the chance to thank you for what you did in the town.  You saved my life that day.'

'It was a bounty,' Mar said.  'Nothin' more.'

'Well, I owe you regardless.  But if I'm going to pay you back, I need to go into town to pick up my wallet.'

'Let me guess,' Cassie said.  'You want us to give you a lift.'

I nodded, smiled, crashed like a three-foot wave trying to topple a mountain.  She snapped, 'We've got things to do that don't include playing tour party to your skinny ass.' 

'Besides,' my sister said, 'the city is crawling with the new man's security.  Why would we take that risk?'  Her voice was softer than the others.  Maybe it was because she was younger than them, or maybe it was a sign that she was meant for things that didn't involve pointing guns at strangers in the desert.  I wanted to know more about her, ask her her name, but I knew if I did, I would get shot down.  Possibly literally.

'You said not a minute ago that their security were useless,' I said, shrugging and glancing around.  'Plus I can pay you, of course.  You can even take what I have up front.'

I reached for the bag between my knees, prompting a flurry of ballistic safety clicks and warning noises from the three of them. 

'Relax, now,' I said, moving more slowly.  I dragged my change of clothes out before me and then tipped the contents of the bag out onto the sand.  It was a pretty motley collection of dust, wrappers and small-value chits, light of the one that I'd thrown into Piano Man's tip jar to stop him from eating my brain.

'There ain't much there,' Mar said.

'There's more back at the hutch,' I said, aware that my voice was growing ever more desperate.  I had only truth on my side now.  'Listen...I need your help.  My friends, they have the knowledge and the skills to help us figure out what to do about the perihelion, but they're not going to make it out of Hole Town unless they have some arms on their side.  They're sitting at home right now, waiting for me to come and help them formulate a plan, but unless I get help from you, I'm not going to make it back there in time.'

Three stares.  One indifferent, one judgemental, one curious despite herself, but inclined to trust her older, more sceptical companions.

I was losing.  I could feel it.  And any chance I had of saving my friends, of saving my town, of saving whatever there was left that was good in the world was all slipping away then and there...

...it'll tip on the tiniest things...

...use your better judgement, and use it quick...

I turned back to the girl with the yellow hair, the one who shared my eyes, my face, my hope.

'Besides,' I said directly to her, pushing everything I had into the centre, 'you have to help me.  My friend, he told me.  I'm your brother.'


'What the fuck?'  Cassie was the no-nonsense type; she might have shot me right then if she'd been holding a gun.  I could hear Mar protesting too, but as I watched the girl with my eyes look at me, really look at me for the first time, I could see her making the same mental calculation I'd been making the minute before.

See her coming to the same conclusion.

She was fingering a locket round her neck by the time that Cassie hauled me upright.  I was still staring at my own flesh, unresisting, when she cried out, 'Mama Smokes!  Could he be telling the truth?'

I had Cassie's knife at my throat and Mar's gun to my head, but everyone was frozen and staring at the figure now cresting the dune before us.

She was an immense, perfectly round woman of sixty or more, wearing a long leather jerkin and sitting astride a tiny hover scooter that ploughed a slow, zig-zag trail towards us in the sand.  A cap was set on her head at a jaunty angle and her eyes were ringed with aviator goggles, the better to keep out the dust.  Her face was a mess of post-hormonal bristles, but it didn't matter none, as the patchy facial hair was a fine compliment to the sawn-off shotgun she had balanced in the crook of one massive tattooed arm.

The scooter puttered to a halt.  Mama Smokes stepped away from it and lifted her goggles so she could better stare at me with her hoggish eyes.

'Locket,' she barked.  The jewellery piece that my sister had been holding was handed over, held up next to my face and inspected.

Time stood still.  Even Cassie and Mar seemed like they were holding their breath.  On his rock spar in the near distance, the vulture who'd been pecking at me earlier tipped his head hopefully.  Maybe he'd get what he came for after all.

Finally, Mama Smokes pulled the goggles down and spat like a trooper.  The shotgun came up to a resting position and she rubbed her bristly chin thoughtfully before addressing my sister by her name.

'Well, it's been ten years, Rat,' she said, in sweet Marlboro tones, 'but you'd have to admit, he certainly looks the part, don't he?'

GO TO CHAPTER 24 > > >