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 > > >

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