Sunday, 30 July 2017

This Burning Man is complete!

If you are a new reader, hello and welcome.  You've arrived at a slightly awkward moment - in this case, five minutes after the story has actually finished. I would recommend clicking here, which will take you to the start of this fun, madcap romp through future Arizona. As it stands, the first 20% of the book can now be read online here, and the remainder of the text will shortly be available from Amazon for a mere 99 cents/pence at the links below.

US link: Click here

UK link: Click here

If you live in any other territory, please go to your local Amazon page and search for 'Kris Holt'.

Acknowledgements as follows:

First of all, to my amazing readers who have stayed with the project from inception and given all manner of advice and guidance - CJ, Erin, Kate, Lolli, Wee Red Bird, to name just the ones I know of. Thanks also to everyone at the Norwich Sci-Fi and Fantasy Book Club, who have been a constant source of encouragement and have listened to me bore on the subject of my work more times than I care to remember. Please know that it's much appreciated!

The e-book cover was produced by the thoroughly talented and delightful Elizabeth Jeannel. At this stage, I have no plans for a paperback version of 'This Burning Man'.

In terms of new projects in the pipeline, I recommend my other online project, the Caribou Chronicles, an urban fantasy tale which is co-written with the accomplished Canadian horror writer, Caitlin Marceau.  I also have a plan for a second novel in the TBM world, as yet not fully planned, but with at least some of the characters you've met from the first.  Provisionally entitled, 'The Fox and the Mox', expect news on development in 2018!

Until then, hold onto your hats, there's plenty more to come!  Best believe it...

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Chapter 8 - Back to School

'So what's the deal with you two anyway?' I said, meaning her and Gregor.

'Deal?' Jayci replied. 'Why does there need to be a deal?'

It could have been my imagination, but it kind of looked a bit like Jayci had a spring in her step this morning. She'd been smiling as she'd been checking and loading her kit, and I swear I heard her humming as she parked up the hovertrike.

'C'mon now,' I said. 'Don't bullshit me.'

'What? You saw how it is. Gregor has his ways. He has a skillset. He knows about interesting places. You might say he's highly-strung. He gets spooked real easy, he's not exactly a fast mover and he refuses to carry a gun. So when I'm travelling this far out, it's handy to have someone else there.'

'So after all your fine words about being able to look after yourself...'

'Oh, can it, laser boy. I don't need you there looking over my shoulder. I might need those measly muscles of yours to help me load some of the loot onto the hovertrike, though.'

'So I'm the muscle?'

Jayci stuck out her tongue at me. 'Dumb muscle, at that.'

'Touche. So do we even know where we are?' I said.

'Sixty miles west-northwest,' she replied. In the distance, we could see the top of a rusting water tower. 'Less about a hundred yards or so.'

'How can you be sure?'

The girl raised an eyebrow and span round quick enough that her braids trailed like drag ropes. She grinned at me, and flashed a piece of paper in my direction. 'Gregor's map is precise.'

I reached for it, only for her to pull it back at the last moment. 'Can I see?' I asked.

'Nope,' she said, smiling smugly, before folding the paper up small and sliding it down her top.

'This ain't an equitable arrangement.'

'Did Gregor teach you them words?' When she saw my expression, she rolled her eyes. 'Oh, c'mon. Lighten up, Phoe-phoe. This is a proper adventure, right? Chance to make a little money, have a little fun.'

'Chance to get shot up by random strangers in the middle of nowhere.'

'Yeah, well, better that than go missing in the night.' Our eyes met for a moment, and hers looked down. 'Sorry, I didn't mean that. Just weren't thinking.'

Jayci was many things, but I figured that malice for the sake of it wasn't something she'd shown, so I let it go. I watched her park up the hovertrike between two low dunes and mark it with a long piece of petrified wood that she found wedged in some rocks.

She stepped back to admire her handywork, glanced around for high places and movement. This far out, the sand moved with the air, and it was hard to see anything at all beyond the whistling grit.

'Reckon that's good?' she asked.

'Good as anything,' I said.

'C'mon then.' She slipped her jacket off her shoulders and dropped her water canister in the sand beneath the trike.

'You're leaving your water?'

She shrugged. Her shoulders were narrow, and you could see the blades poking out her back like broken kites. 'It’s heavy to carry.  If someone runs off with the trike, you ain't walking home on one can.' It was a fair point, but old habits are hard to break.

We pulled scarves across our faces to keep out as much of the sand as we could and scuffed our way across the heavy dust path into town. As villages went, it weren't much. Half a dozen buildings that were pretty much shells, half a dozen more that were just piles of rubble. We walked up to the nearest one. Yellow buffelgrass was bunched up beneath the decay. Drywall was peeling away from the timbers. The wood itself was scorched and wedged into right angles. It looked like ribs exposed under torn flesh.

'I'm not seeing my fortune here,' I said.

'You gotta look a little closer,' she whispered, pointing at the largest of the intact buildings. 'School house has gotta be that one over there. That's my baby.'

She peeled away from me, and pointed at the next house along. 'Go that way. Be careful. Sometimes people left traps if they was planning on coming back. It's good to find them before they find you, if you know what I mean.'

I had my stripes in staking out these kinda places.  Watching the ground all the way, I held my breath as I stepped away from the broken down house in front of me. Without the shade, the air was baking and it felt like you needed two breaths to get air for one. Out back, behind the house, a concrete cylinder that once held water or petrol was crumbling away in the wind. The metal cords that ran through the structure poked out and turned in on one another like army bootlaces.

Behind that, in a toolbox, I found a leaking battery and a shattered solar cell, neither of which was usable. The next house looked little better than the first, with stark red initials painted onto the sides. Whether it was graffiti or a warning to looters, I couldn't tell. Most of the front wall was missing, with the door hanging on a single hinge and creaking away.

Stepping inside, I used one of the broken timbers to prod at the floor, testing to see if it would hold my weight. There was an open fridge in the back, lying on its side. The contents had long since gone rotten and been smeared across the insides. I wondered whether the scavengers were human or animal.

I walked through the house, prodding away with the timber as I went, avoiding the places where the floor or the ceiling sagged.  The windows across the back of the house – probably a kitchen, I figured – had long since been smashed, and now even the frames were crumbling.  I opened the drawers one by one, finding nothing but nests of desert creatures that fled for cover from the sudden light.

I’d pretty much given up hope of finding anything valuable by the time I opened the final cupboard.  There was a collection of pipes here from a sink or something.  Squeezed in the back behind them was a small dark box that could have been missed by people leaving in a hurry. 

It was rectangular, about the size of a bullet box you might pick up at the market, but the contents were  more interestin'.  Squeezing it open with sweaty palms, I could see that the back of the box was wadded with a soft material, like it was some kind of display case.  When I flipped the lid, two small silver coins were nestled in the wadding.  The one on the left had the profile of a man with a stooping brow and long hair tied down at the side.  The other bore a picture of a long, bull-like creature with wide shoulders tapering down to a narrow ass.  Around it were written the words, ‘United States of America’ and ‘Five cents’.

Chits had replaced coins years ago because these days they needed all the metal they could get.  I wasn’t the sentimental type, but it was still strange for me to think that what I was holding in my hand was probably a hundred and fifty years older or more.  Some collector would surely be interested in it, and it weren’t like it was heavy to carry.  I wasn’t expecting Jayci to share anything she found with me, so I saw nothing wrong with sliding the coin case into my bag.

I was all set to head back the way I’d come when I first heard the music.  It drifted in and out, on the fringes of my hearing, but the notes were clear and well-defined.  I guessed it had to be some kind of music box, but it seemed to be coming from outside the house.  I looked around, senses on alert, but nothing seemed to be moving or have changed inside the house.  A little bit against my better judgement, I went onward.

By the time I had eased open the screen door at the back of the house, my gun was in my hand.  I glanced left and right, but the sand was blowing again, and I couldn’t see a damn thing.  I thought about going back to look for Jayci, but if I told her that I was hearing music from out of the air, she’d just take it as a sign that God was messing with me.  Anyway, outside the house, the music was clear, too clear to be a recording. 

I slid down a low bank behind the house, following the music all the time.  The sandstorm continued to rage overhead, but down here the air was clearer.  To my limited brain, that didn’t seem like good physics, but I was just pleased to be able to see at least a few feet and pull the scarf away from my face.

When the scarf dropped away, what I saw kind of made sense and no sense at the same time.

In the middle of this sunken dustbowl, a single man in a black jacket and tails sat with his back to me at one of them Old Worlder saloon pianos.  It was sunk into the sand, with no suggestion of how it got there.  There were no vehicles around, no water bottles, nothing at all except an empty tip jar resting by the pedals.  The man himself was furiously animated.  His fingers flew across the keys, picking out high and low notes that conveyed a frenzy of agitation, undercut by a deep, mournful melody.  His long, jerky arms splayed around, causing his parted hair to bounce around as he played.

Out of nowhere, Piano Man stopped playing and kicked his chair around to face me. His eyes and his grin were both far too wide, pitching well into the rocky terrain on the far side of sanity.

‘Phoenix!’ he announced.  ‘I’m so pleased you could make it!'

Back to the Main Page > > >

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Chapter 7 - The Man with the Map in his Head

'Nobody knows the Sands.'

'Okay.  So nobody knows the Sands better than Gregor.'   Jayci slipped a key out of her pocket and into the lock first time.  Rather than opening the door all the way, she eased it just an inch or two and squinted through the gap.

I glanced around and behind us.  One or two rubberneckers in the mid distance looked away.  'What's up?  I thought this was your place?'

She shifted her angle, eased the door a little more.  'It is my place.'

'Then what's the hold up?'

'I can hear him in there.  He don't always react well to new people.'

'How am I gonna know a bad reaction?'

'That's when he doesn't ask questions after shooting.'

I said, 'You're shitting me, right?'

''Course I'm shitting you.  He wouldn't need to waste a bullet when he could wring your scrawny neck with one hand.'

Jayci opened the door all the way and motioned me inside.  I followed her lead through the backroom to a dingy front studio that looked out onto the main street.  A low-slung blind kept the whole place in semi-darkness.  In the midst of that darkness, a bulky shadow was moving back and forth, making a swishing noise as it did so.

'Gregor?  You in here?'

'You need to get some light in here,' I said.

'Jayci?  Is that you?'  The shadow moved quickly towards us and a narrow bar of light cut across the gloom.  The man before me was perfectly round, folds of fat over rows of muscle.  The top half of his face was all shiny dimpled forehead, the lower half a scruffy beard and moustache.  His mean eyes and hooked nose took up a space somewhere in the middle that was about the size of my thumbnail.

Gregor carefully leaned the brush that he'd been using to sweep the floor against the wall nearby.  Then he began to rub his hands together and stared straight at me, unblinking.  'Jayci, there's a stranger in my house.  I don't like strangers.  Also, this particular stranger has a gun and opinions on how we do things.'

Jayci moved between us, touched Gregor's arm and began to whisper to him.  I took the time to look around the room.  One corner was occupied by a rancid-looking sofa.  In front of that was a low table with a single magazine on it and two ancient office chairs that were facing into mirrors.  One had a white porcelain sink beneath it.

'Gregor does a bit of everything,' Jayci explained.  'Cuts hair, does tattoos.  He knows science and engineering.  He's a brilliant artist.  In fact, he's an all-round fucking genius.'

I had to duck low to see out of the blind.  'Whatever he is, y'all ain't getting many customers if people don't know that you're open.'  When I turned around, Gregor's expression didn't exactly look come hither.

'Believe it or not, Phoenix is sometimes okay.  And when he remembers his manners,' and here Jayci shot me a venomous look, 'he'll introduce himself.  Won't you, Phoenix?'

'Pleasure,' I said, waving half-heartedly.

Gregor shook his head and muttered as he sloped away.  His accent was strange, unplaceable, but I knew he wasn't local.  But then, what did that mean these days, really?  We were all just random mutts who fell into the sand when everything got turned upside down.

Jayci whispered to him again and he pulled a face like he was drinking piss.  When their short exchange was over, she turned back to face me

'Now, you might have noticed that Gregor here doesn't appreciate your ready wit, so it'd be real helpful if you'd sit yourself in one of those chairs and stop stamping around like you own the place,' Jayci said.

I followed Jayci's suggestion, sitting down, folding my hands across my lap and nodding amiably at Gregor.  For his part, he just stared straight back.  You wouldn't have needed a knife to cut the tension.  You could have done it with one of Preacher Man's wooden spoons.

'Well, this is nice.'  Jayci sighed.  'I'm going to sort us out some drinks.  In the meantime, why don't you boys get acquainted?'

She disappeared into the back room, but not before giving me a look that could have scorched metal.  That girl would have made a fine schoolteacher.

When she'd gone, I studied Gregor's expression.  It was the same as it had been throughout, just like a bulldog chewing on a lime.  I said, 'Y'know, with your face all screwed up like that, you could be scowling and I just wouldn't know it.'

'You're an idiot,' he said.

Jayci returned moments later with three of the muddiest coffees I'd ever seen.  'Don't get excited, it's pretty awful,' she said.  I sipped at it.  It was bitter and sweet and foul all at once. 

'So where did you fine folks meet?' I asked.

Gregor pulled a face at Jayci and she nodded.  He took a deep breath before answering the question.  'Some time ago, I did a stint in the Pen.'

'You were in prison?'

Gregor shrugged.  Jayci said, 'I bailed him out.'

'I never asked you to,' Gregor said.

'You never had to,' she said, turning back to me.  'Gregor kind of stood out.  It was pretty clear that he had some special skills that made him different to the typical mouthbreeders they get in there.'

I sipped at the coffee.  The second taste was no better than the first.  'So what did you do?'

'What everyone does,' Jayci said.  'He upset the wrong man.  Fortunately for him, the hunter who came after him was a professional and not some no-good, two bit gunslinger with more teeth than brains.  Gregor came quiet, we had a little chat and came to an arrangement.'

I looked at her.  Her braids were dragging along the floor between her legs.  'And what exactly do you get out of this?' I asked.

'Free board, for starters,' she said.  'But more than that.  Back before his trip to the Pen, Gregor used to make a living travelling through the desert and collecting old tech.  He repairs things, or builds 'em new from parts.  He constructed the hovertrike I came in on.  Best of all, he has a photographic memory.  Everywhere he's been, he remembers the way back.  It's like he's carrying a map in his head.'

My ears pricked up.

Jayci leaned in towards me.  'And Gregor's been everywhere.'

The man himself rubbed his hairy jowls.  'I was out in the Sands, scavenging every day for years.  It's actually a pretty empty place for the most part.  Far fewer people than the city.' 

'You ever run into bads?'

'Sometimes,' he said.  'But I'm not a hunter.  I don't carry a gun.  Most people will walk away if you let them.'

'Most people?'  He just stared back without saying a word.  I got a sense for just how Gregor might have ended up in the Pen.

I could sense Jayci waiting for me.  I wanted to ask the question, and they knew how much I needed the answer.  It was like playing poker when your opponents held all the cards.  Still, getting beat and losing my shirt had to be better than drinking any more of that coffee.

So I said, 'You ever hear of an oasis in the desert where a gang of women hole up?'

'Yes,' he said, never skipping a beat.  'I know it.  I've been there many times.' 

Jayci stepped in before I could ask any more.  'What my esteemed companion means is that he's sure he remembers a place like the one you're describing.  But before he can tell you how to get there, you're going to have to help us out with a little supply run.'

'Let me guess,' I said.  'In the Sands.'

Gregor pulled out a piece of paper and began to draw a map with a small chunk of pencil.  'There's an abandoned village I found some time ago, about sixty miles west-northwest.  The schoolhouse was pretty much intact and there looked like there might have been some interesting stuff there.'

I looked at the pair of them seated together, one grinning ghoulishly and the other rubbing his hands so intently it was like he was washing them in the air.  'Why didn't you check it out when you were there?'

'The place wasn't normal.  The energy there was...wrong.'  He looked away for the first time, like he knew he was selling me a horse that was lame.

'Energy?' I said to Jayci.

She smiled back.  'Not my words.  Don't look at me.'

'Bad juju.  Great,' I said.

'What's a bunch of downer vibes when you're badass enough to take down a giant by accident?'  Jayci had me over a barrel and she knew it.  'You want to know where that oasis is at, and we're gonna make it happen for you.  In the meantime, you can help us out a little.'

She leaned forward once again as Gregor sat back, and they looked for all the world like two misshapen levers on a chaos engine.  Jayci offered me a hand to shake, and I stared for a moment at her calloused yellow palm.

'You know,' I said to her, 'trusting this to you feels like a pretty damn stupid idea.'

Jayci's tombstone grin didn't falter.  'The great thing is, Phoe-Phoe, you don't have any choice.'

Go to Chapter 8 > > >

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Chapter 6 - Jayci

'You ain't Emmanuel Duguid.'

'Ain't nothing gets past you,' I said.

Jayci Clemence nudged at my shoulder with the steel-toecap of her size five.  'So where is he?'

I looked down, past my feet, and she moved that way.  When I sat up, she was holding Duguid's corpse by the lapels.  His head was lolling behind him like a melon in a sack.  There was a terrible smell in the air, like bacon gone bad.

'Goddamn it, you killed him!' Clemence said.

'Hey, he killed hisself,' I shrugged.  'I told him not to go pulling that trigger.'

Clemence glanced down at the gun, distracted for a moment by the laser, which wasn't the sort of thing even a seasoned hunter saw often.  But that girl wasn't the sort to get easily derailed when she was pissed.  She dropped Duguid like a bad habit, grabbed me by my collar and started shaking for all she was worth.

'This is still your fault, you dumbass!  Who gave you the right to stick your nose into my business?'

The blood was rushing from my head to my chest and back again, making me feel like I was floating.  'Hey, it was you who nearly blew me to kingdom come.'

'Damn shame I didn't,' she said, with feeling.

By now my eyes were trying to roll back into my head and my breakfast wasn't resting so well.  'Can you stop shaking me now?'

She let me go, and my strength returned a half-second too late to stop the back of my head crashing onto the floor.  The timbers cracked beneath me.  When the amber lights behind my eyes died down, I opened them to see her pacing from side-to-side and kicking at the rubble.

'Fuck,' she said.  'This is bullshit!'

'I'm sensing you're a bit upset,' I said.

She rounded on me again, and leaned in so I could see the fire in her mud-coloured eyes.  'You think so?  You know we don't get full bounty for dead men.'

I pulled myself upright.  'You don't get no bounty at all.'

Her expression changed from angry to dangerous.  'Say what, now?'

Ah, what the hell.  In for a cent, in for a buck.  'You said yourself that I was the one that killed him.  That means whatever bounty there is, is mine.'

She shot me a look that could have curdled milk and kicked me full in the shin.  No mule could have done better.

'Owww!  Motherf...goddamn it.'  I retreated, picked up my gun, checked it and put it back in the holster.  Jayci smouldered in my stead, her expression unchanging.

'Don't make me shoot you,' she said.  Her lips were so thin that they basically weren't there.

'As if I'd do something like that.'

'Do you know how long it took me to find out that our man here was on a religious guilt trip?  Do you know how many deacons I had to sweet-talk?' 

'How exactly d'you go about sweet-talking a deacon?'

'Some of them holy men ain't so pious as they pretend,' she said.

'So you-'

'No!  Goddamnit.  I just know people, okay?  God.  Then there was the charge for the hovertrike, plus-'

'How in hell do you afford a hovertrike?  Those things don't come cheap.'  Hovertrikes worked like small, underfoot rotors that carried a charge, though juice was expensive and charges didn't last long.  Still, when you weighed as much as Jayci Clemence, there wasn't much to carry.

'It's none of your goddamn business how I afford anything,' she growled, puffing up like a angry bird.  'Maybe I just happen to be really good at this bounty-hunting business.  That is, when other dumbfucks ain't killing the bads.'

'I kinda thought...'

'Kinda thought what?'

'I thought maybe you were out here with a partner.  It didn't seem likely that you were gonna bring Duguid down on your own.'

She laughed mirthlessly.  'What, you think I can't take care of myself, is that it?'

'Not at all.'  My shin was still throbbing.

''Cause at least I can fire a taser in a straight line, unlike some people I could mention.'

'Lobbing the grenades into the tower was a keen trick,' I said.

'Would have worked too if you hadn't been here,' she said ruefully.  'Those things weren't cheap either, you know.  You gonna pay me back for those?'

'No,' I replied.  'I'll let you off this time.  But don't try to kill me again.'

She laughed again, for real this time, I think.  The roof creaked above us and a beam crashed down a few feet away, throwing up another pile of dust.

'This was a nice church before you arrived,' I said.

'Ah, God doesn't care about us down here,' Jayci replied.  'If he's up there at all, he's probably got a lot more things to worry about than what we get up to.  You know, he's probably racing, or something.'

'Is that a thing?'

'It should be.'  She moved over into the space where the tower had been and stared upwards into the sky.  The sun was hot, and the light shone off those jet-black braids.  I wanted to ask, but I figured now maybe wasn't the time.

'You got room for a dead one on the hovertrike?' I asked.

She looked over her shoulder, and in profile, I could see her long, thin nose, which was more red than the rest of her face.  For a desert girl, it looked like a long while since she'd seen the sun.  'Changed your mind about the bounty?'

'I feel bad,' I said.  'I wasn't here for the bounty anyhow.'

'I ain't even going to ask,' she said, and went outside to retrieve her bag.  My rope and grappling hook were both long gone, blown to smithereens with the whole west side of the building, but Jayci had the full kit and in no time, our cadaver was trussed and resting comfortably on the rear of the hovertrike.  She tested it, and it bounced a bit on the sand, but once she'd adjusted for the weight, it was clear she could manage.  I retrieved the bike, and in no time, we were headed back south to the Quartermasters.

* * *

I was sitting outside on a rock in the shade when Jayci returned.  Truth is, I was lost in thought and didn't even see her coming.  First I realised she was there at all was when she dropped a small canvas bag between my knees.

'Half and half,' she said.  'Don't let no-one say that Jayci Clemence don't play fair.'

'Oh,' I said, before resting my head back on my hands.  'Thanks.'

'It's okay, pardner,' she said, exaggerating her accent on the final word.  'I'm not expecting your gratitude or nothing.  Some people would've just shot you when you were lying on your lazy ass in the middle of the desert.'

'I am grateful,' I said.  'Truly.'

'You sound like a man grateful for syphilis,' she said, and it was my turn to laugh, even though my heart was hurting.

''s not the money.  I've got water for six weeks and rent for three more,' I said.

'Then why in hell are you so cut up?'  She scuffed at the dust between us, moved it around with her toe.

'Duguid knew my mother.  He might have been the last person who met her before she disappeared.'

'That sucks,' Jayci said, stretching and adjusting her hat.  'How long ago did she go missing?'

'Ten years.'

'How is it you can find a bad in the desert in a few hours, but can't find your own mother in ten years?'  Jayci seemed genuinely perturbed, and she scanned the horizon with her eyes as she talked.  The braids brushed her ankles as they moved in the breeze.

'I don't know,' I said, beginning to regret that I'd brought up the subject at all.  I scooped up the canvas bag, shook it slightly out of habit.  All chits weighed the same, but it still felt far too light when I thought about the six-month bounty I could have had for bringing Duguid in alive.  'You kind of interrupted the conversation before he could tell me anything useful.'

'He say anything at all?'

'Not much.  Rumours about a group of women living out in an oasis somewhere.  It was a hundred miles out or more.  Not the kind of distance you just do without planning.'

'There are settlements out in the Sands,' she said.  'Maybe your mom got to one of them.'

'There's a lot more than settlements out there.  There are bandits and thieves.  Killers.  All sorts of weird, freakin' wild animals.  Things that science can't explain.  They say if you go far enough, it's like stepping into another world.  Someone wants to disappear, it's the place to go.'

'You think she wanted to disappear?'

I thought about it, thought about the signs.  I had no way of knowing whether Duguid had been right about my mom's troubled mind.  Looking back now, I could remember long silences, times that we didn't talk.  But everyone's got a right to space in their own mind.  Who could say what else was going on in there?

'I don't know,' I admitted.  'I know she was looking for someone, but that's not much to go on.  She was a hunter.  But going more than a hundred miles into the Sands...that's different.  I make a decent living and I've never needed to travel close to half that distance.  I've spent all my adult life out in the Sands and I'm sure I ain't seen more than a tiny bit of it.'

Jayci looked at me properly then, like she was seeing me for the first time.  She done screwed up her eyes like she was looking at the sun.  I could practically hear her thinking.

Finally, she said, 'I ain't gonna promise you nothin', Phoenix.  But maybe, just maybe, I can help you.'

I looked inside the canvas bag.  It was every bit as light as its weight had suggested.

'How can you help me?' I asked.

For the briefest of moments, Jayci's eyes flashed with something other than her customary anger.  'Because I know a man that knows the Sands.'

Go to Chapter 7 > > >

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Chapter 5 - Shit Gets Real

Duguid didn't so much stand up as unfold, one set of joints at a time. He had a casual way about him, like he wasn't gonna hurry for no man, regardless of the circumstances. His legs were long enough that he could have stepped over me without so much as realising I was there. His nose and chin were pointed in a way the photo hadn't captured. The sharp edges they created just made him look all the more dangerous. The handgun holstered on his hip looked powerful enough to punch a hole in a tank.

'Taser is a hunter's weapon,' he said. His voice was rich, echoed around the space above me with all the inherent threat of storm clouds.

'As God is my witness, I'm not here for bounty,' I said. 'I want to talk about someone from your past, someone you knew once a long time ago.'

Muscles rippled under his vest. 'I'm listening,' he said.

'Years ago when I was a kid, you used to come to Twelve. After the services, you used to stay behind sometimes and talk to my mother. Tall woman, long hair, leather boots. Maybe you remember her.'

'Maybe I remember her. Why do you care?'

'She went missing after you left,' I said. 'I want to find her.'

His handsome face twisted then, like one of those demons they tell you about in stories. 'Are you accusing me of something?'

'No. I got no evidence that you were involved. Be honest, I ain't got nothing at all. I want a lead, some new information, something I haven't heard before. I guess...I want to know if you can help me.'

'So you say you want help, but you sneak up on a man while he's praying and point a taser at him.'

'Yeah, well, maybe you'll forgive me for that. I thought if maybe I came in the front door, you might not give me a chance to talk at all.'

Duguid squared onto me but made no attempt to approach. For my part, I lowered the taser maybe an inch, but I wanted something there that at least gave me a fighting chance if he changed his mind.

'This woman...your mother...yes, I remember her. Very pretty girl. The bluest eyes. But she had a troubled mind. She was a hunter, and she was looking out in the desert.'

'For what? What was she was looking for?'

'For who. She'd heard a story about a group of women holed up in an oasis a hundred miles or more out of town. She thought the person she wanted might be with them, and wanted to know if I could verify the stories.'

'And could you?'

'I hear things all the time. But who's to say what's true? The Sands are forever shifting. What's there today ain't always gonna be there tomorrow.'

My hands were trembling now. 'Who was the person, and where was the oasis?'

He scowled at me, and I got a sense that his patience was wearing thin. 'Boy, we're talking conversations that are ten years old. You're lucky your mother was so fine, else I don't reckon I'd remember her at all.'

'Can you give me a direction for this oasis?' I said.

He snorted with laughter. 'A direction. You gonna go out there and pick up her trail?'

I levelled the taser. 'If you give me the direction, I'll go now and get out of your face forever.'

'Ten years it's been and more,' Duguid said, turning away from me. 'Trail is cold, and so is she. Go on. You go runnin', now.'

I was so furious right there to see my mom's life written off in that way that I was all set to drop my taser and pull out my pistol. I never got a chance 'cause at the same time, a dark blur moved across the stained glass windows to my right. Duguid saw it too. A harsh female voice that I recognized only too well rang out from outside.

'Emmanuel Duguid, you're wanted for crimes against the state of Arizona. Get your ass out here now!'

Duguid's gaze flicked back to me, and his face curled into a snarl. 'Oh, I see. Keep me occupied and pen me in. So much for God being your witness.'

I pointed to the blur outside. 'Now, she ain't nothing to do with me.' But he wasn't buying it, and in his shoes, I wouldn't have either.

For a big man, Duguid could move. I fired the taser but he dodged it with ease, and his gun was in his hand in the same movement. I ducked as he stood up and his round shredded the pew to my left, turning it to matchwood.

I rolled, laser tight now in my hands, but if I shot this man, I was risking losing any chance of finding my mom. The cold metal grip was just another reminder of her.

A second round crashed over my head and tore an effigy of Jesus off the wall. A third shattered one of the stained glass windows. I popped a candy jack. Duguid's absolution was going to have to wait a while.

'Taking your time getting out here,' Jayci Clemence called. 'Hurry on up, now.'

For a moment, all was silence and I lay still as the dead, straining my ears to hear movement. From Duguid's direction there was nothing, but from behind me, I heard three soft thumps, like baseballs hitting a glove.

In slow-motion, I looked round to see the small, ball-shaped devices that had followed my route down from the bell tower. Nestled in the dust, they might have been goose eggs, except for the trigger and handle on the top of each that told a different story.

Jayci Clemence most definitely had a plan. She was gonna flush the bad out.

I ran then, and there was only one way to go.

The explosion took out the wall, the tower, half the roof and it also forced me through all of the pews left in the building. When I came to, I was looking up at the sky, turned crazy grey by the dust, and then when my eyes refocused, I was staring down the barrel of my own gun. Duguid's weapon might have been lost to him, but it was clear he wasn't a man to turn down an opportunity.

I said, 'Wait a minute here. You don't want to be doing that.'

'No trigger on this chigger. I'm guessing you just squeeze this little plastic bit here?'

'Emmanuel, believe me, you don't wanna go pressing that.'

'I don't think you can go telling me to do anything,' he snarled.

'Tell me which direction the oasis was,' I begged. 'I need to know.'

'Oh, enough of that shit.' He pulled me up only as a precursor to throwing me down again, and then kicked me in the midriff.

Doubled up, I looked past him at the crumbling masonry overhead, and then glanced to the side where the wall had been five minutes before.

'You can still get out of here,' I said. 'We can still get out of here. I'll come with you. We can talk. But do not, do not squeeze that trigger.'

'You got a funny way of begging for your life.'

'This isn't about me.'

'Not for much longer, anyhow.'  Duguid slammed me down again and again.  Fury set his eyes hard, like cut gems from the heart of the earth. I could see him now, the man that could slaughter an entire family, kids and dogs and all, just for breaking a promise.

'Please.' One last try.

'Any last words, momma's boy?'

It was hopeless. 'Ain't none you're gonna listen to, are there?'

'True, that.'

Duguid squeezed the panel that released the laser bolt. Green lights ran the length of the barrel, and something in the gun began to sizzle, like meat on a skillet. His head jerked upwards, and his limbs spasmed out, like he was dancing to music only he could hear. The gun fell from his grip, and he dropped to the floor beside it.  He lay there, perfectly still, smoke rising from his hair, mouth and eyes.

The candy jack must have kicked in at some point, but I wasn't feeling it.  Instead, I laid back down, my eyes watering, and willed the whole damn place to fall in on me.


Sunday, 14 February 2016

Chapter 4 - God in the Sands

Carter definitely knew about Emmanuel Duguid.

'That man's a giant. He's got the build of a longhorn steer and about a tenth of the charm.'

'I've brought in big men before,' I said.

'You be careful,' Carter said to me. 'This one gets the red mists.  When he's cold, he's stone cold.'

She showed me the file they kept on Duguid.  There had been a business deal, a family willing to sell Duguid a ranch at a knockdown price. When they unexpectedly came into some money, the deal was off. It's fair to say that it didn't go down too well for anyone concerned.

'He figures they lied to him.  He can't stand it, so he shoots the owner's wife, their three children and all of their dogs. Then when he's done with the rest of the family, he strangles the owner, right there, at the head of his own table.'

Carter took her time flicking through the file.  Finally, she came across a single photo and passed it across to me.

Emmanuel Duguid was maybe forty years old. In the picture Carter gave me, he was standing on decking next to one of those old-style rocking chairs, reaching out with an arm to grab some child's toy that was stuck on the roof.

'You weren't kidding when you said he was a giant,' I said.

Carter sipped her coffee. 'I got reports saying he's all of seven feet tall. Now, I know some of those good ol' boys get a bit free and easy with the details when they've had a few, but make no mistake, this guy is huge. You ain't going toe-to-toe with him, that's for sure.'

The bounty was significant, enough to live on comfortably for six months. The government had put it up. That only happened for people they really, really wanted out of the Sands. A crime like this wasn't bread and butter for every hunter. Some people preferred to paddle in the pool rather than swim in the sea.

Carter said, 'I wouldn't blame you if you walked away from this one, Phoenix. I don't think anyone would.'

Honest truth, I didn't want anything to do with Emmanuel Duguid. It was probably a miracle that the Deacons had got him out of Twelve without him gutting half the clergy. But he was maybe the only chance I had of finding my mom.

'It's fine,' I said.

'Give me your tag for the peg,' Carter said, in her most procedural voice.

Dog-tags got hung on a peg till hunters got back to claim them. After two weeks, the tags went from the pegs to the lost property drawer, at which point they got claimed by your next of kin.

As I watched, Carter hung my tag on a peg that was already occupied. That only happened when multiple people were looking for the same bad. It shouldn't have been so surprising, what with the sum of the bounty and all, but most tags were military style, plain and engraved with a name. The tag I was sharing a peg with this time was different. It was perfectly black, with the face and whiskers of a little cat at the top.

'Who's tag is that?' I asked?

'Clemence,' Carter said.

'I don't think I know Clemence.'

'You know Jayci Clemence.'

It took me a moment. 'Clemence the emo girl? All five-feet-nothing of her? You're shitting me, right?'

Carter raised an eyebrow. 'Do I frequently shit you, Phoenix?'

There were all the mental images I didn't need. 'No, ma'am.'

'Well then.'

'So you let Jayci Clemence go after our stone-cold killer?'

'Let her?'  Oh my, was that wording a mistake on my part. 'Now pardon me, Mister, but my job involves giving you all the facts and letting you make your own mind up about what you can and can't do.  Clemence knows what you know, and all evidence points to the fact that she's got a smarter head on her shoulders than you do.  If you think that she needs a helping hand just because she's a woman-'

I whipped my hat off my head and held it across my chest. 'No ma'am, I would never think that.'

'Damn right you wouldn't.' Carter settled down behind her desk and opened one of the technical manuals that were sitting there. 'Get your ass outta here.'

I did just that while I still had an ass worth saving.


Don't get me wrong. It wasn't that female bounty hunters weren't a thing. My mom was one, don't forget. It's just that Jayci Clemence didn't exactly fit the mold. I could have reached my thumb and forefinger round her arm at the widest point. She had this pinched face and a temper that always seemed like you dragged her out of bed before sunrise. Her braids hung down so far it was a wonder she didn't trip over'em when walking. From her eyebrows, you could see her hair was naturally light, but the braids were black as midnight. Rumour was she dipped 'em in tar.

That said, I didn't know Clemence so well. Maybe she had a partner out there. Some of the most famous bounty hunters were those that hunted in pairs – when you had someone watching your back, it was all the more likely you'd come home. Even so, economies and human natures being what they are, it was no real surprise that it wasn't really that common. Trust took time to build, and when you were scraping by, you didn't want to share your bounties with someone else – especially when that someone else was soon as likely to cut your throat in the night and steal your water chit.

Basic hunter gear wasn't so hard to come by. I could believe that Clemence could rustle up a cattle-prod big enough to take down a drunken rancher, but I was struggling to imagine her rolling up alone at the depot with Duguid hogtied on the back of her trailer. I figured that maybe she was playing Bonnie to someone else's Clyde.

Carter wasn't about to tell me any more about what Clemence had planned, so I figured I was good to just go ahead and chase down the bad myself. I had that advantage of knowing where to look. After what had happened at Twelve, it didn't seem likely that Duguid was gonna be welcome at any other compound, so my rough plan was to head out north and check out all the premises on the road. Men looking for God often found Him, so I had to make sure I caught up with him before that happened.

I checked out a few places along the road itself, all of which turned out to be empty. When the obvious places were checked, I moved on to those that were a bit more off the beaten track. Ten miles outside of Hole Town, I took a left down a narrow path behind a sandstone outcrop. Out here in the middle of nowhere, I knew of an abandoned church with a sharply-sloped roof. The community it supported had long since headed for the shelter of the big town, and just the stark, whitewashed walls of this lost house of the Lord remained. This was a shady place indeed, one where a man concerned about his mortal soul could seek absolution undisturbed.

I pulled the motorbike up where the path gave way to dunes and laid it down in a dip in the sand. There was no movement in or outside that I could see, but circling around slowly, I could see a Chevy parked among the dunes out back. That had to be Duguid's car.

There was just the main doors that I could see from the ground level, but if I trapped him in the space, there was every chance he was gonna try to shoot his way out. I wasn't concerned about the bounty; I needed to have the conversation.

It's a well-worn observation that man cannot live by bread alone; so it is that a hunter can't get by with just his gun and his taser – he's gotta have his wits and one or two other tools that'll help him out too. One of those tools is rope, and mine was tagged onto a grappling hook that went up over the top of the building. I tugged on it, and judged it good to hold my skinny ass up as far as the bell tower.

Nimble as a cat, I was through the tiny window and crouched on the platform just inside. Below, I could hear a man praying in a language I only vaguely recognized. Spanish, maybe, or Creole. I had no ear for that sorta thing.

I leaned down as low as I could. Duguid had his back to me, kneeling down in front of the altar. Slipping down the bellrope silently, I assumed a position behind a pew at the back of the room and breathed a prayer of my own.

For a short while, there were my words, and there were his words, and it was like the Lord hisself was stood between us, counting steps before the duel.

When the whispering had stopped and the silence got to lengthen, I slipped my taser out of my pocket and pointed it at his back. 'Emmanuel Duguid. I need to talk to you about Catholic Compound Twelve.'

(GO TO CHAPTER 5) > > >

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Chapter 3 - Preacher Man

Being back at Twelve was like walking back to childhood, except everything you see has shrunk.

Actually, check that.  The deacons on the door remained as large as ever, offering me God's blessing as I stepped through the gate.  A certain bulkiness in their robes hinted at handguns in chest holsters.  I checked my mom's gun and my taser in the office at the front and a rector with wispy grey hair showed me through to a back room where I found Preacher Man lighting a censer with shaking hands.

'A surprise for you, Padre Reyes,' the rector said, a little too loudly, before bowing and retreating.

'Fifty years I have lived here,' the old man said in a raspy voice.  'Fifty years, and I remember the ceremony like it was yesterday.  “For my yoke is easy and my burden light”.  Matthew, 11:30.  And after all this time, they treat me like a silly, sad old fool.  Me, a veteran of five thousand services, able to recite the passages of Leviticus from memory even though I haven't read them since my nineteenth birthday.   I tell them, I might not have my sight but I can still hear, and every single man's footfalls sound different to me.'

I waited patiently, hat in hands.  Preacher Man never used ten words when a hundred would do.

'Will you step forward, son, and receive my blessing?'

'Surely, Padre, I would like that very much.'  I stepped forward and he embraced me.  He'd been taller in my younger days, but the weight of the world and advanced age was pressing him down.  Stooping, he was now shorter than me.

He said, 'Every time you leave I wonder if you'll ever return. How long has it been, Phineas?'

'A year and a half, Padre.  And we've been through this before.  Mom called me Phoenix after the place.  You know that.'

He winked at me.  'I always hoped you might take to the name I suggested instead.'

'Not a hope in  Not a hope.'

'Phoenix has unwelcome connotations.  It sank into the Sands years ago.  The last residents abandoned it and came to Hole Town.  Soon it'll be a place forgotten in the minds of all but those who come from hereabouts,' he said.

'I was born local,' I told him.  'Everywhere I go, I still am.'

He put an arm around my shoulder, both a comradely gesture and one that enabled him to walk without a stick. 'Whatever they call you, you're a virtuous son of Hole Town.  A righter of wrongs, that's what they tell me.'

'Then they make it sound better than it is,' I said.

'It's not just the scripture writers of the ages that had a gift for words,' he said, smiling toothlessly under his rheumy eyes. 'Will you dine with me?'

We ate thin cornmeal soup from wooden bowls with wooden spoons.  He hadn't left the compound in years, so we mostly talked about the town.  The church was pressing for repairs to the Fallen Cross, but no-one had the cash to pay the bill.  He chastised me when I mentioned the bordellos, and urged me to avoid the numerous follies of youth.  In so many respects, it was like I'd never left.  The company here was never too slow for me.  If a man's life is measured by his gusto, Preacher Man was ageless, mashing his way through his soup in next to no time at all.

'As delighted as I am to have you here, boy, I know what young men are like and they don't just show up uninvited to share a meal with their older counterparts. More's the pity! So how can I help you? Do you come seeking absolution for your sins?'

'Well,' I said, suddenly twelve years old again, a guilty itch all round my scalp.  'Basically, I'm still looking for my mom.'

Before I'd even finished the sentence, the old man had his hands up to his head and was groaning.

'This again,' he said.  'This waste of time! My son, you were a good boy and you grew up to be a good man.  But part of being a man is letting go of what you were when you were a boy.  Since the moment your mother left you here, you've been aching to return to her, and you know full well that I don't know where she is.'

'It's been a long time,' I said, trying to stay patient.  'I wanted to know if you remembered anything more. It's not easy, growing up without a family.  And while I appreciate all that you did for me, you can never be a parent.  That's just how it is.'

'Plenty of people turn sixteen having never known their parents.  In these trying times, we look to one another, and we look to God for guidance.'

'God's been guiding my hand since the day I left here,' I said, 'and every time He delivers me, it's from evil and temptation.  I ain't saying I ain't thankful, but one of these times, I'd like Him to deliver me to somewhere, rather than from.  That's all.'

Preacher Man wiped his mouth with a napkin and swallowed.  'God deliver me from foolish, blasphemous boys.'

'All I'm asking you to do is think, Padre.  Is there anyone else who knew her?  Anyone you could put me in touch with?  Someone who could help me track her down.  I can handle it if she doesn't remember me.  I can even handle it if she doesn't care.  But I have to know, you get me?  I have to know.'

'You must let it be.  All things are as they are meant to be.'

I took his hand, something that I immediately realized I'd never done before.  He noticed it too.  We both stared down at the table, spoke without looking at one another.  'Padre, please. If you know anything, tell me.  This really matters to me.  As the Good Lord is my witness, it might be the only thing that does.'

'Okay, okay.'  Preacher Man shook a little, caught his breath.  Behind him, the lights on the candles scattered and reformed into flames.  'You've already followed up on all of the leads I've given you before, yes? Well, against my better judgement, I have this.  There's one man, a man I haven't mentioned before.  A Dominican called Emmanuel.  He used to be in the parish before your time, but he stopped coming shortly after your mother arrived here.  He moved on, the way that people do.  I remember that on more than one occasion, they stopped to talk at the end of services.  That's it.  I don't know if they were close, but she never seemed to talk to anyone else, so maybe it's something.'

'Why have you never mentioned him before?' I said.

'I never expected to see him again.  But...Emmanuel came back here two days ago.'

The old man was trembling.  I wondered if his health was failing, or if it was due to something else.  I said, 'I appreciate you telling me this, Padre.  It means a lot.  I'll ask around, see if I can find him.'

I already had one hand on the door when Preacher Man stopped me.  'Wait. There's more.'


'When Emmanuel came in, he was...troubled.'


'Yes,' the old man said.  'At the beginning, he was okay, but when the anger took him, it was like he became someone else.  He was furious, cursing.  The Deacons had to remove him.  His own actions were driving him mad.  He was looking for absolution, but I couldn't give it to him.'

'Padre,' I said gently, 'he would have had to have done something really, really bad for you to refuse him absolution.'

The old priest bit his lip, like there was something he really wanted to say but an equally powerful force held him back.

'If I'm going to find this man, I really need to know what I'm getting myself into,' I said.  I hated to exploit the emotions of someone I cared about, but I knew I wasn't going to get the information any other way.

Down within his cassock somewhere, the old man's layered bones racked up into a shrug. 'You know I can't tell you what he said to me.'

'And yet you want me to know it,' I said, ''cause you haven't told me off for asking.'

He flinched, busied himself with the rosary within his hands.  Counting off the prayers.  Thinking through the consequences.

'You can tell me,' I said.

'My yoke is easy,' he replied, 'and my burden is light.'

I looked him in the eye.  'My yoke is anything but easy, and my burden is knowing I might not come home tomorrow.'

He turned his head and looked away from me.  I wondered too late if maybe I'd pushed Preacher Man too far.  Still, this Emmanuel and the promise of answers hovered just outside my reach, teasing in close and then flying away when I stretched out to them.

'Phoenix,' he said finally, 'His full name is Emmanuel Duguid.  When he left here, he was very, very angry.   I can tell you that he went north, out towards the Sands, and you already know what he wants most.  The things that he did won't have escaped the attention of the people you do jobs for.  I suggest you ask them back in the town.'

'Thank you, Padre,' I said, picking up my hat. 'I'll do that.'

'Just so you know...I wouldn't suggest that you look for him, much less approach him. But then I guess that whatever I say isn't going to make much difference, so consider yourself keeper of this information. Do with it what you will.'  I bent my head to the old man, kissed the fake ruby ring on his claw-like fingers, and promised to return to him with good news the next time I had some.

By the time I stepped back over the threshold, the light was fading.  The heat had drained out of the day and it left me glad of my jacket.  Behind me, the lights of the compound poured into the void, and God's own home in the desert became the coldest place on earth.