Sunday, 21 May 2017

Chapter 33 - Old Friends

'Get your dumb asses down from that platform!'

Just about the best thing you could say about being underneath the Burning Man was that from here, you couldn't see its ugly face. The base was a raised concrete platform that they'd bolted the outer shell to. Inside, a wooden scaffold showed where they'd worked on the reconstruction. Mostly though, what was left within was waste wood, debris, and dust. Whoever worked on this had used it as a dumping ground for whatever spare materials they needed rid of.

I had my pistol up and raised – the night was so light and warm that it was charging even as I held it up. What I hadn't banked on was that alcohol and lack of brains are two sure-for-certain indicators of blind courage, and these two men were about as blind as it got.

'Blondie! Fuck me, man, it's been ages. How are the kids?' The first man tugged at his crotch, as if I needed reminding of what he was talking about.

If there was anyone I wanted to see less right now than Waylon goddamn Boggs, it was his angry, joyless brother. Right on cue, Opie stepped out from the mess with a face like a puckered ass. Above them, angry flames were already climbing up the wooden skeleton, turning it and the metal outer shell black.

'What in hell have you two idiots done?' I said.

'What?' Waylon looked up to where the fire was spreading upwards and shrugged. 'Oh. Well, we was just havin' a little fun. Accidents happen, you know.'

'I oughta haul your wise ass down to the station,' I said.

'You oughta,' Waylon agreed. ''Cept, there ain't no station anymore, is there? And you...well, you remind me. Ain't you the criminal these days?'

There was a ripple of noise and I turned to see a crowd building behind me. Most were looking up, but the ones at the front were keen not to miss out on any drama down at floor level. If there were any of Di Vio's men still in the town, they'd be finding out about this pretty quickly, and that put me in a bit of a delicate position, to say the least.

'That's right, folks,' Waylon Boggs said, 'this here dangerous criminal is wanted by the town! Doesn't it just make you sick? He's willing to defy the law to come here today, invade our party and set light to our brand new mascot! I tell you now; it's a damn shame, is what it is!'

Waylon had enough going on in the short-term to be a decent showman. It wasn't hard to imagine him in a wool suit and tie, hawking nerve tonic from a cart to dimwitted farmhands out in the wastes. Actors have long believed that the show must go on, but sometimes things have gotta stop before they get out of hand. While his attention was focused on the audience, I swung my mom's pistol barrel-first into the back of Waylon's head and knocked him out cold. If only it had been that easy last time. Regardless of their feelings about me and my supposed criminal status, Hole Town still loved theatre and there were a few cheers as Waylon landed on his face in the dirt.

What I hadn't bet on was Opie finding courage somewhere in his britches. I looked up straight into the barrel of his gun.

'Fuckin' sonuvabitch...' he spat, and that was all he got, because someone standing nearby grabbed his arm and used it to swing him round into the platform. He landed unconscious next to his brother, sweet as you like.

'Thanks,' I said to my savior, who was hunched low inside a dark jacket. I'd half-expected it to be Cass or Mar, turning up again at a very handy moment. What I didn't expect was to look down into the hard eyes of Sergeant Carter.

'Sergeant?' I said.

'Not any more,' she replied, taking my arm and leading me into the crowd. In our stead, the fire continued to climb up the Burning Man.

'What in hell are you doing here? I thought you cleared out when the Army left.'

'Army don't need me no more,' Carter said, no longer meeting my eye. 'They're on the other side of the world, fighting with bombs they're aiming from space. Ain't nobody caring about one pair of boots on the ground. Besides, this felt wrong. These mercenaries aren't our friends. I'm afraid for the town.'

'You ain't wrong,' I said.

'What do you know?'

'Nate Di Vio's men have cleared out. They're all heading back to the reservoir under the mountains. They think that the world is gonna catch fire on sun up.'

Carter's brow clenched. 'But that's crazy!' she said.

'Is it?' I replied. Sweat was flooding down my cheeks, my arms, my back. From the dark pools of her clothing, I could tell that Carter was suffering the same. 'Have you ever seen a night like this one – a night that's so hot, so bright, it could be a day?'

Carter said nothing, but she was thinking hard and I could see the doubt in her eyes. At the same time, I was remembered how complete her authority had been when she was uniform, leading the way. Things had changed. A few short weeks had been all it took to turn the world on its head. Now, we were all rebels in disguise.

'We live in a desert,' she said finally. 'You're gonna have to do better than that.'

I held up my gun so she could see it clearly, tapped the green light running along the barrel. 'This is a solar cell. It charges under light – specifically, daylight. And yet, it's charging now, though it's supposed to be the middle of the night.'

Carter's face was grim. 'This still ain't much to go on.'

'Unless you've got a telescope handy, I'm giving you all the proof I can. Di Vio's men are all set to head out to the mountains. They're going to ride the crisis out there while we burn.'

'Goddamn it. I knew those assholes were up to something. And that must be why there are so few of them here.'

I nodded.  No-one had come to attend to the fire.

'When I was exploring earlier, there was a pool of them guarding vehicles at the far end of the bowl. I saw the Mayor down by the water tower. He was saying that he was going to speak to them, find out why they're not patrolling like they should be.'

'Save him a trip,' I said. 'Find him and tell him that we need to get everyone over to the mountains as quickly as possible. We have a guy sorting the transport right now.' As I finished speaking, I looked out into the desert the way we'd come here. There was a dust cloud forming in the distance.

'Transport?'

'It's gonna be fast, like lightning fast. It's gonna have to be to get everyone in the town to the mountains before sun up.'

Carter's face was a joy. 'And where is this transport?'

'You'll know it when you see it,' I said, crossing my fingers behind my back. Not for the first time, I was silently acknowledging Gregor's role in delivering the whole town before he'd even done arrived on the scene.

'You're asking too much,' Carter gasped. 'Mayor Belasco's not gonna believe me if I tell him that the world's gonna end.'



'Then don't tell him that. Tell him that we found out Di Vio's men have gone rogue, decided to take the water for themselves. Tell him that they're sending an army here from the town. Remind him that he'll need people he knows he can rely on to help him take everything back. Which is where we come in.'

Carter followed my eyeline to where the dust was boiling on the horizon. 'Storm?'

'I hope so,' I said. 'and you'd best believe that it's on our side.'


---

Carter was every kind of skeptical, I could tell, but the years I'd spent building a reputation as a hunter hadn't been in vain. Whether she believed the world was ending or not, she went off in search of the Mayor, to tell him that Hole Town was set to lose our water unless he could convince everyone to shoulder arms, jump on our invisible magic carpet and fly across the desert to safety.

I stopped short of telling her to hold Waylon Boggs' head under the pipe at the water tower. His loud mouth might have come in useful, but she was going to have to sell that pokery herself.

For me, that was one job done. I'd looked everywhere twice, and there was no signs of any of our people at the fairground site. Now I just had to grab Mar and Cass, and hope that Padre Reyes wouldn't be too unhappy that the Burning Man was literally on fire.

That fire was pretty goddamned big by now too. The crowd around it was getting bigger, and people were pointing up the structure. I couldn't blame them. It was one hell of a show.

People screaming. And then Mar, at my shoulder.

'Phoenix! Don't just stand around! We've got to get up there!'

'What?'

'Look!' She thrust a pair of binoculars up to my eyes, and only then did I see what she and everyone else was pointing at.

On the highest platform, where the climbing flames touched the eyes of the Burning Man, I could see Rat's face.

GO TO CHAPTER 34 > > >

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