Sunday, 7 May 2017

Chapter 32 - The Last Party on Earth

We pulled up a few hundred yards short of the dust bowl they'd chosen to host the celebration.  No point in hiding the trikes.  They weren't going to be fast enough to get us to the mountains after we were done here.  Unless Gregor came up with something, we were doomed either way.  And so - hats pulled down low, neckerchiefs pulled up high - we went forward. 

As soon as we were close, we realised we may as well not have bothered with the stealth approach.  There was no gate or entranceway, no charge for admission.  Every slope in the dunes poured more people into the bowl.  The celebration was huge, a triumph of the high-tech and the low-tech.  It seemed that the whole of Hole Town had showed up and the crowds were big enough that we could just blend right in.

They'd set up torches on poles every few feet, creating pathways through the sand that people had exploited by moving around to direct customers to their enterprises.  A tall, thin silo with an open top had attracted a large crowd.  When we got close, we could see why.

Mayor Belasco was leading from the front, as any politician would be – helping a crew of locals drain water from the tower into earthenware cups.

'Step right up, ladies and gentleman!  Yes, you can believe your ears and eyes – we're giving away water, free, to everyone in Hole Town for the duration of the festival!'

That was a big enough thing that it invited gasps from those stood around.  And then, when they were done gasping, they stepped up and took full advantage.

'Plenty of time, folks, no need to rush, no need to spill.  I've been down to the reservoir and I've seen for myself that we have water enough down there to supply an army.'  That prompted Mar to raise her eyebrows in my direction.  'And thanks to our new benefactor, we don't have such a pressing need for town funds, so even after the festival has ended, I'll be looking to reduce the cost of water in the long term.  And on such a hot day...I mean, hot night, why wouldn't you look to drink all that you can?'

It wasn't likely that Belasco would recognise any of us, but with skins from the Oasis, we didn't need to take the risk.  We moved in the other direction, past the immense iron statue and the crane they'd used to convert it, following huge, heavy cables that ran down beneath the surface – perhaps leading all the way to the Silver Sea itself, who knew – superpowering thousands of coloured fairground lights, mine carts running round on an oval-shaped track and even a galloper, which lurched around like something dead come to life. 

Nate Di Vio had spared no expense for his city-sized distraction.  On every corner, there were musicians playing instruments.  People crowded into areas roped off as dancefloors.  Kids were screaming and throwing firecrackers, a dozen different meats roasted on the spit.  Beer flowed from kegs that seemed to magically appear in our stead.  Gamblers were holding live games, cut cards in hand, fortune tellers were staring into crystals and reading entrails.  The priests rubbed shoulders with the whores, who'd set up their own tent city within the wider city, touting for the easy business.  A dozen bored-looking giants guarded the entrance, smoking cheroots or gnawing their way through corncobs and turkey legs.  The air was hot as shit and everything was bathed in the sky's unnatural light.  You could almost believe we were ready to catch fire.

Cass watched it all with wide eyes.  'This is like something from another world.'

'Last party on earth and we didn't even get an invite,' Mar said.

In fact, the only thing that was missing as Mar, Cass and I sidled through the town, seemed to be security.  That was fine with Hole Town's own, who were great believers in natural justice rather than word of law.  We saw one gentleman try to sneak his way into the whore tent, and get shown out, none too gently.  When he hollered, they smacked him around good.  When he was finally done, they dumped him in the sand in full view of everyone.  Passersby didn't so much as blink, stepping round him or on him as they chose.

'Debauchery,' Mar said as we passed, in a voice that could have been approving and could have been not.

'Big city life,' I replied, keeping my face turned to the ground.

'Give me the desert every time,' Cass said.  I could feel her twitchiness around the crowds.

We toured around the main thoroughfares quickly, glancing through gaps or under tarpaulins, looking for anything suspicious or even signs of Di Vio's men, but they seemed about as rare as hen's teeth.

'We don't have time to keep wandering,' Mar said after we'd circled the dancefloor in the centre twice.  'We're going to have to split up to find them.'

'Maybe our friend was bluffing,' I said, 'Or maybe he got given bad intel.  Perhaps the girls they took prisoner all went back to the mountains after all.'

'I don't believe it,' Mar said.  We split up the turf, and the pair of them slouched away.  'Keep your eyes open, your head down and stay out of the whore tent.'

Not that it wasn't my scene, but I'd busted a whole lot of fellas over the years that looked like the ones now coralled out front in Pimptown Central, and the last thing I needed right now was trouble like that.  Besides, I had someone else to look in on.

There were fourteen Compounds stretching out from the dry Southern roads to a safe middle distance in the Sands.  They featured heavily in Hole Town life and they'd come together to construct an edifice for worship directly across from the statue.  In the middle of the floor, a new cross in miniature – as big only as two men, but with all the severe right angles that made you think of a man's suffering after he'd been nailed to it.  The Deacons – every bit as large and certainly no prettier than the men guarding the whores – stood before the crowds, quoting scripture and enacting scenes from the Holy Book.  Even the Catholic Church could do theatre when it needed to.

They checked me when I approached, noted the gun, made no attempt to take it.

'Is Padre Reyes here?' I asked.

They pointed me through the tables where the priests sat and somewhere in among the general confusion of bodies, I found my way to a small section in the back where the older holy men had been placed.  Four men, none younger than eighty years old, and each with his own direct hotline to God.

'Padre,' I said, addressing my old mentor.

'What?'  The second man, sitting just behind Padre Reyes, had a nose that took up most of his face.  It was swollen and flattened, like it had been punched a lot, or inflated and then punctured.  It still managed to hold in place a pair of old, twisted spectacles that were probably more about habit than allowing their wearer to see straight.

Padre Reyes turned around and shushed him.  'Phoenix!  It's you!'

'Padre. It's good to see you.  I was worried that you might have stayed in the compound.'

'Stayed in the compound?  After they turn our town's spiritual landmark into this monstrosity?  Never!'

'It's appalling,' another of the priests, an old black man with a long grey beard, said.  The final one of the group was the oldest of all, completely toothless, staring into the middle distance and drooling slightly with a distant smile on his face.

'True, Father Christopher,' Padre Reyes said.  'Ay, I'm suffering in this heat.'  He tried to fan himself with the corner of his robe.


'I said, it's hot!'

'It's what?'

'Padre,' I said, 'we don't have time for this.'

'We don't!'  The old man took my hand and tugged on it furiously.  'Phoenix, it's a travesty!  You can see their desecration for miles around!'

'Padre, you have to listen to me,' I said.  'This is more important.  Life or death!'

'Now there's a choice to go offering to an old man.'  The black priest wheezed and began to laugh.  Padre Reyes just gaped at me. 

'Boy, this is more important than life or death, don't you see?  We can't let them get away with it!'  The enraged old man pointed at the sky.  'Do you know what He might do to this town for allowing this desecration to go unchallenged?'

'Burn us all in fire and brimstone,' I replied automatically.

Padre Reyes shrank back into his chair.  'If you can't take this seriously, then you should go.'

I checked myself.  'Fine.  I'll challenge it.  In fact, I'll go speak to Mayor Belasco right now.'

'Demand he restores the Fallen Cross,' the Padre said.  'And that he orders prayer and penance from the entire town!'

'I will do all of that,' I said.  'And in return, when my friends come, you have to go with them.  It's the only way for you all to be safe, do you understand?  Tell them my name – tell them you know Phoenix.  There'll be at least two of them – a big fat genius guy and a skinny, young attractive woman with braids...'

'A woman?'  The padre scoffed.  The three other men all sat up in their chairs at the mention of that word.  'Get on with it!  There's no time to be chasing women!'

'Where are these women?'

'Shut up, Father Hernandez.  I'm trying to talk this young fool into making them restore the Fallen Cross!'

'Besht hurry,' the oldest priest said in a scratchy, high-pitched tone, pointing through a gap in the crowd in the distance.  'Shey're out there underneash it righ' now, playing abou' wish torchesh.'

'What?  Where?'

He might've been as gummy as a stuffed gator, but the old man wasn't wrong.  A pair of Hole Town's finest were shoving one another drunkenly round the base of the statue, waving torches like baseball bats.  'If shey ain't careful, shey'll shet fire to the whole shebang.'

The good thing was, at a sprint it took me less than a minute to get from the back of the Church's edifice to the base of the statue.  The bad thing was that by the time I got there, the fire had already been burning for thirty seconds.

GO TO CHAPTER 33 > > >

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