Sunday, 18 June 2017

Chapter 35 - One Shot

'Brother?' Rat's face, confused, dirty, scared. 'What's the matter?'

I expected Piano Man to laugh or pull off one of his vile rhymes to mock me, but now he was looking straight past me at Rat. Looking at her the same way that wild dogs look at a straggler.

'Rat, get back,' I warned.

'What do you mean? Where am I supposed to go?'

'Just get back,' I pleaded. Back, into the fire, as though that was somehow safer. Maybe it was.

'You're scaring me,' Rat said.

Piano Man's tune was low, melancholy. 'Phoenix,' he said, 'ain't you gonna introduce me to your little sister?'

Nothing I could think of to say in that moment was going to earn me a place in heaven. Though maybe I should have just gone wild, because staying silent wasn't about to earn me any favours either.

'If I were you, I'd want to get down from here,' Piano Man said amiably. 'It's pretty damn hot.'

'No hurry,' I growled. 'If you've got something to say, I'll wait to hear you out.'

'C'mon now, I saved your life twice already,' Piano Man said, the tune gaining a tempo, his hands a fury as they rattled at the keys before him. 'Are you still so bothered by me?'

I was dimly aware that the world was fraying around the edges, the flames climbing too slowly to be real. Rat's cries slowed down and she faded into the background, like someone calling my name from a street away.

The Piano Man's fingers blurred. They might have been the only thing that was still moving. 'Here's the thing. We've spoken a few times now, and that's not a common occurrence for me. Most people tend to find that once is enough for them. Now, first time we spoke, you should have died. Second time, pretty much the same. Third time, you actually did. Put all of them events together, and by rights, you shouldn't be here to engage in polite discourse, you get me?'

I still said nothing. No words felt safe.

'Phoenix, you seem to have a taste for a particular kind of danger, and frankly, you've been pushing and pulling the boundaries of reality every which way for a while. Now, that's a high-risk strategy, and no mistake. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that you ain't so much burning a candle at both ends as trying to bring one intact outta Hell. You get what I'm saying?'
I was a man walking a tightrope. A tightrope that reached out beyond this devil from the Sands, and down to earth and something like safety. I didn't want to have to go through the Piano Man – hell, I didn't even know if I could walk right through him like he was made of air - but if I stayed to hear to what he had to say, there was every chance Rat and I would be burned to cinders before he was done listening to the sound of his own voice.

'But you have a saving grace,' Piano Man continued, closing his eyes and playing by feel. 'The toll. Whatever you do, whatever crazy risks you take, it's okay, because you always pay the toll. Ain't that right?'

'I always pay my debts,' I said. If I threw my whole weight into that piano...

His voice cut through me, and I was sure he could tell what I was thinking. 'Why, if only everyone was as trustworthy as you. Here you are, a veritable Southern gentleman, honest, reliable, virtuous. If there was more people like you in the world, why, then it wouldn't be about to burn to a crisp, would it now?'

'Burn up here, or burn down there. Hell looks the same from every angle.' That thought stayed hanging there. Heat crawled up my neck, blistering the skin as it went. I could hear Rat whimpering.

'If only being deserving of a future was enough to earn you one, huh.' Piano Man's eyes flicked open and he looked over his shoulder and downwards. Instinct caused me to follow his eyeline and I saw Jensen a hundred and fifty feet below, standing on a raised platform at the edge of the bowl, Betsy at his shoulder. The barrel of the gun seemed to widen in a yawn, waiting for its moment.

Up here on the platform, we were sitting ducks. I had no time, had nothing, no threat, only an offer. 'You can do what you like to me. Ain't no need for me to fear death. It ain't nothin' new, after all. But don't take my sister. She's young. There's hope for her.'

'People say it's the hope that kills you.  'Course, a bullet'll do that too.'

'People say a lot of shit,' I said, levelling my pistol.

Piano Man blinked as I brought it up to his face, and then pointed it past his shoulder at Jensen below. Time was standing as near as possible to still. I figured this probably wasn't a fair advantage, but I was gonna take any one that I could get.

I wasn't too sure what I'd expected to happen when I squeezed the trigger. Was I subject to the same rules as usual? Would I watch the laser beam scream across the distance like a rope and grapple? Would it burn through Jensen and leave him standing there dumb until the world turned again?

Instead of any of the above, the trigger clicked away to nothing. Piano Man raised an eyebrow. 'Nice try. But you used all your charge getting the young lady free.'

'Just out of interest,' I asked, deadpan, 'what would happen if I picked you up from your stool and threw you at that guy down there?'

Piano Man laughed in his wheezy way. 'Dyin' didn't affect your sense of humour, boy.'

He broke out of his tune for a moment to play the low, sombre bars from the Funeral March, ending at once in a single flat note that raised the hairs on my neck. But he continued staring, straight past the gun, straight past me.

'Whatever the price is,' I said, desperate, 'I'll pay it. However long it takes. I'll pay it.'

When he spoke, it was in a voice barely louder than a whisper.

'I don't doubt you would. But son, this isn't your toll to pay.'

There was a crash beside me as the climbing flames reached the support beams on our floor. I couldn't turn my head, but out of the corner of my eye, I could see them, smouldering chunks of wood, floating, suspended in the air.

'So why are we even having this conversation?'

He fixed me with a hard stare. 'Because you have to learn that it's not always about you.'

Suspended, like a life on hold. Like borrowed time, time I'd been living on since the day I'd first seen the Piano Man. The day after I'd met Jayci and Gregor. So recent, but to me it could have been lifetimes ago.

There were no words.

'Phoenix!' Rat pulled me around and screamed in my ear. The floating beam crashed down beside me, rocking the floor we were standing on. 'Stop it! There's no-one there!'

All at once, she was right. Piano Man was gone.

I grabbed Rat, hugged her close to me, as though my body could somehow shield her from a high-calibre bullet. Tears were flooding down my cheeks and hissing as they fell onto the wooden beams below. My little sister. I'd only just got to know her.

And then, as I looked down from the space on the platform where the Piano Man had been, I understood. A hundred and fifty feet below, Jensen was standing, Betsy still at his shoulder, but with the barrel pointed not up at us but down towards the crane cab. Cassie was sitting with her back to him, staring at the Burning Man.

'Cassie!' I yelled. To no avail.

'It's not always about you...'

It might not have been about me, but it still felt like it should have been. Clutching onto Rat with all the strength I had left, I dived for the hook of the crane just as Betsy sang out below us and a bloody splat shattered the window of the cab.

GO TO CHAPTER 36 > > >

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Chapter 34 - Fire in the Sky, Fire in the Soul

'Up, up!' I grabbed the chain and pointed at the sky, which seemed darker every second as the Burning Man belched out huge plumes of smoke. The crane's hook lifted fifteen feet off the surface before lurching sideways and nearly throwing me off. I clung tightly to the chain, knotted my arm around it.

The wooden platforms inside the Burning Man were all ablaze. Even if I could have fought through the flames, there was no way they would've held my weight. There was only one other way to get up to Rat. Cassie had spent an eternity of seconds hotwiring the crane and testing the controls. I'd pushed back through the crowd, climbed on top of the gantry, and we were ready to go.

Like being jerked upwards by an invisible arm, I gained purchase from nowhere and sprawled into the air. From then on, it was just me and the sky. I could hear screaming below, but my eyes were focused on the charred wooden bones and panel-beaten frame of the Burning Man. Fires hotter than hell crawled up its limbs and emerged from its belly. The stars dipped low, the wind blew. Somewhere up above, Rat was crying and calling out my name. Beneath me, stretching out ready in the event of a misstep, I could sense the open arms of God Himself.

I'd just gotten used to the flight when somewhere below, gunshots rang out. Spinning on my tiny rising world, I had no idea who was fighting. Hang on tight, boy. It's just one more thing you can't do nothing about.

Eighty feet up, gaps in the metal opened out big enough to climb inside, but smoke made it impossible to see if it was safe to do so. There was a whine as a bullet - aimed or stray, I had no way to tell - spun off the chain inches above my head. Keep climbing, keep climbing, embrace that good air. I'd already tried looking down once - when I stole a quick glance past my own feet, I began to get sick in my belly and turned my face up again quickly to make it stop.

A hundred feet, more and still rising, too many storys to count. I was getting light-headed, but I could see the dome of the towering icon rounding off above me, the torn metal a jagged sneer beneath its devil eyes. On a level with my head, a raised platform came into view. At the end of that platform, I could see a small figure crouched down, facing away from me, a silhouette against the rising flames. Before I could reach across to climb off, the ascent stopped abruptly.

The arm of the crane swung round in a wide arc and crashed twice into the shell of the effigy. The first slam surprised me, the second shook me clean off the chain and I fell loose. For a moment, there was the sensation of falling, and then the world turned upside down, along with my stomach. I didn't even have time to scream.

The world rushed by, left, right, and I was seeing everything upside down. Glancing up, the tip of the crane's hook had snagged my trousers, right near my ankle. I was hanging in space with only a few strands of cotton between me and the last fall I'd ever take. Twisting around, trying to pull myself upright, I could see Cassie, a shadow in the distance far below, wrestling in the cab with one of Di Vio's greycoat goons.

The crane lurched into life again, up, down, sideways, taking a dozen orders all at once as the pair below struggled over the controls. The hideous face of that damn metal golem swung into view and I bounced off the side again with a sound like the gong they bought out for tourists in Hole Town's eastern-themed brothels. At the same time, I felt myself slip lower as a couple of the remaining threads tore on my trousers.

I could see what I thought was Mar, pinned down behind some barrels by gunfire. People were screaming and running, and everything looked like a hot mess. Up here, the world just kept spinning, leaving me dizzy. The shell of the effigy roared around again and I tensed my body up, kicking away with my free foot, taking the impact and saving myself more bruises. A twang above signified another thread giving way. There was just one left. With an increasingly fragile grip on both the crane and my sanity, I turned in even more chaotic fashion, knotting myself around. Then the crane itself loosed, dropping me twenty-five feet in a single heart-stopping second before pulling me up short with a thump that scrambled my brain.

It looked like the goon had his hands on Cassie's neck, choking her even as she tried to keep the crane steady. When she tried to free herself from his grasp, he went for the controls, stabbing at buttons and wrenching at the joystick she was using to control the arm. On cue, I span around once more, heading back towards the Burning Man just as Cassie smashed the merc face first into the control panel. I went clear through a gap in the effigy's outer shell just as the final thread at the bottom of my trousers gave way.

I was launched straight through a pile of burning planks, bringing an avalanche of loose masonry and sheeting down upon my head. I grabbed a hold of the one beam wide enough to hold my weight and clung on for dear life. The rest of the scaffolding tinkled and thumped before being consumed in the white-hot nightmare below. It was a handy reminder of what I was due if I let go.

Here, swinging below the platform I'd seen earlier, the heat was intense, unbearable. A hundred separate blazes crackled around me, catching on my skin and my clothes. Clambering on top of the beam as the structure around me glowed, I whipped my smouldering jacket off, dropping it into the void. It burst into flame before it was halfway down. And then I climbed the scorched beam, one foot above the other, pushing the weight out and up. Pretend it's a hot summer's day and you're climbing a tree. A tree that's definitely not a cauldron of fiery death. A real goddamn hot summer's day. The inner walls of the Burning Man closing round me like an oven. Seemed I could smell myself cooking. Sweat dripped down my arms, making the climb up the wood ever more slippery and dangerous.

Finally, having worked well past the point of exhaustion and with my blood roaring as it pumped at speed through my temples, I dragged my body onto the top platform inside the head of this wicked construction. The heat was rising, trapped in this chamber like it was a fishbowl turned on its head. I had to get out, and right on cue, the hook of the crane appeared at the end of the platform and hovered invitingly. Bless you, Cassie. No other women in the world had ever made me more grateful than she did right that moment.

' can't be you...'

Rat was kneeling where I'd seen her earlier, coughing, choking, but still fighting to stay alive. The will to live is in the genes, of that I was sure. Di Vio had had my sister chained to a spot in the plating, right behind the Burning Man's soulless eyes. From here, I realised Rat had been able to see everything that was happening below - a cruel touch someone was gonna pay for. Now, when she saw me, I could tell she thought she was dreaming. But I had her upright in a second, and the charge I had left in the laser was enough – blessedly - to cut her loose.

'Is there anyone else?' I yelled.

'Just me,' Rat cried. She opened the locket around her neck, showed me the picture we'd looked at together when we'd first met. 'Their leader saw me looking at your picture.'

She stood upright, embraced me, and I turned to lead her back to the crane so we could head down safely.

When I turned back, the platform was blocked by an immaculately-dressed man sitting at a piano. He nodded to me, smiled evilly, and held my gaze as he began to play.

'Brother,' Rat said, 'What are we waiting for?'

Moving myself between her and Piano Man, I lifted my pistol. 'Someone's about to go to hell, Rat. But it ain't gonna be us.'

GO TO CHAPTER 35 > > >