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.


Saturday, 16 January 2016

Chapter 2 - Hole Town

She called me Phoenix, 'cause that was where she pushed me out, deep in the middle of the Sands, in a field hospital by the side of the road. When it was done, they wrapped me in a military blanket, handed me over and gave my mom the standard issue bottle of ionised water. 'For his eyes.'

In the early days, it was just the two of us. Me, crying infant, snot everywhere, her, leather-booted bounty hunter with legs so long that she straddled the sky. She would ride from place to place as the work demanded, cruising the crumbled desert roads atop her Goldwing. That old thing was a pure beast of burden, but you can bet it'd beat a midday desert walk every damn time.

She could talk, my mom, and she could walk like a pro, and they tell me she could fight. But one day she dropped me off with the local preacher and went a hundred miles north of Hole Town into the desert to go chasing a bad. Sun went down, sun came up, she never came home. That's just how it happens.

So I stayed there with Preacher Man at Catholic Compound Twelve. I know what you're thinking, but where's a kid gonna go? I was ten years old, skinny as Death hisself. I had no wheels, no money, but I did get something. Old Preacher must have been a honest man, because the day I left the compound, he brought me a bundle of wax and cloth and said, 'This is yours. She asked me to give it to you.'

It was my mom's gun, the one I still carry. A beautiful, hand-crafted silver-green automatic that sits in the palm like it was born there. We're the same size, the same build, me and her. I point it, sight it, and right away, I'm home.

'It's a genuine antique,' Preacher Man said. 'But in beautiful condition. She said that to fire it, you squeeze that plastic grid behind the guard. Nothing so crude as mechanics for the old worlders.'

'No bullets?' I said.

'No need,' he replied. 'It's a laser. Hang on now. She gave me a piece of paper, wrote it all down. No-one trusts me to remember anything.'

So Preacher Man spent five minutes looking through his breeches for the paper, and that was a sight that no-one'll ever need to see twice, believe me. After a lot of cussing and wasting, he found it, unfolded it and began throwing around words like DNA and solar and charging and efficiency. Now me, I'd already seen enough and heard enough. Point and click, it's that easy. No-one else can fire it but me, 'cause the gun is linked to me through the blood. Want to make sure there's always a round in the chamber? Stay in the light, my son.

Some people'll tell you that every answer leads to another question, and this one leads quicker than most. I'd seen my mom go on jobs a hundred times and she'd never once left her gun behind. She had other weapons, I know. She kept a shotgun strapped to the muffler and a blade in her jacket, but why would you leave behind your main weapon – the one that gave you the biggest advantage? That's something I never understood, and ten years later, I'm none the wiser.

Preacher Man taught me to read and write, and he told me lots of stories about the old world while I was in Twelve. The old worlders had better tech than us. A laser weapon never needed to be retooled, never got sand in the mechanism. These days, though, the parts are impossible to come by. Heck, these days, it's hard enough to pay for juice to power a production line. We're back in the days of the whores and the artisans, when every job is done by hand, with love.

Preacher Man once told me there was a time when every man had his own car, had his own fence. They'd sit on their porches from dawn to dusk, spraying water in their yard so they could grow their own stretch of grass. Grass may seem like a strange thing to want, but when all you see is sand all the time, I reckon maybe it does funny things to your head.

Water; now there's a problem, a problem for most. We may be luckier than some, 'cause the mountains round here used to be topped by sheets of ice. People lived up on the peaks in summer and travelled down the mountains with the coming of winter. All of that water is long gone from the mountaintops and now lies in a basin beneath the earth. They guard it pretty damn close – you best believe it only comes up for those that pay their way.

'Course, a man's gotta drink, whether he has money or not. Many men, they got families, and all of them gotta drink too. Most things have value, so barter's always an option, but sometimes a man's fingers are quicker than his brain. They used to have a thing called petty theft, but these days there ain't no such thing as petty. Military doesn't want to waste resources chasing down every man's disputes, so that's where the bounty hunters come in. The quartermasters log all the complaints, all of the crazy, and then hand over to us to bring 'em in.

As well as theft, you can have a bounty on your head for a whole pile of things: Fighting, looting, burning, siphoning, smirking at the wrong man's woman. Hosting a demonic audience, whatever in hell that means. Artful deceit. Chicanery. Abusive language. Malicious lingering. Improper use of medicine. Possession of body parts - that's those belonging to other people. Then there's worshipping the wrong God. The last one used to be a real issue for Preacher Man. In his quietest voice, he'd say, 'They're all the same God. We just can't prove it yet.'

In fact, the only misservice you can do a man that can't result in a bounty is the greatest misservice of all – being rich when he's not.

Don't get me wrong, I can't complain. Without people arguing and getting into petty fights, I'd have no job to do and I'd be an army brat, chasing bombs somewhere abroad, or perhaps working down a copper mine, counting away my youth in hours in the darkness. No, that's not the place for me. Give me the warm winds, give me the Sands. Give me Hole Town, beneath the Fallen Cross, where my heart lives. You go there, and you tell 'em - daddy's coming home, princess. Daddy's coming home.



'Waylon Boggs.'

'Criminal activity.'

'Non-payment of loans, rustling chickens, obstructing a hunter in performance of his duties and ruining a factory wall by smacking it repeatedly with his face.'

Waylon himself was slumped over the counter, too out of it to really add much to the conversation. The quartermaster, Sergeant Carter, looked at him and then at me with disinterested eyes. The pips on her shoulder hinted at active service, but she must have done someone a right ol' favour to get a posting here at home rather than overseas, fighting whichever war we'd got involved in this year.

The bounty system worked well for Carter. She'd long since figured that she got paid the same whether she spent the day chasing bads all over the desert or sitting around in fatigues drinking beer. So she got to be the Sheriff while the rest of us played cautious Deputy. I kowtowed a little, because that was the way to keep her onside, and having her onside meant I got first pick of the jobs and subtle warnings that helped to keep me alive.

'Nice job, Phoenix,' Carter said. 'Fourth one this month. You're raking it in just now.'

'Well, you know me, ma'am. Gotta pay for my Playboy lifestyle somehow.'

'You just keep it legit, now.'

'What's he looking at?' I said.

'Waylon? Well, it's a two-year for the birds, plus Old Man Winters is hopping mad about his daughter. But it's an open secret that she's got a soft spot for this jackass. I reckon he'll end up getting bailed out within a few weeks. Unless you got anything you want to add in?'

My balls were still throbbing, but slamming Waylon's head on the factory wall had been quite therapeutic. 'I got nothin',' I said.

'Excellent.' Carter motioned in the back for a corporal to cuff Waylon and take him through to the cells. I'd already turned to go when Carter called after me. 'Wait up. You looking for something new right now?'

'Oh, soon,' I said. 'But first I gotta go see a man about a gun.'

(GO TO CHAPTER 3) >>> 

Friday, 1 January 2016

Chapter 1 - A Way of Life

I'd barely finished my prayer when the bad decided he wasn't going to wait, and instead he came to me. I was leaning on the wall at the precise spot where he came through it, and those hepped-up hillbilly fellas are no more likely to stop for a wall than a Mack truck.

His charge took the tazer out of my hand, so I had to stop him the only other way I could. I stuck out my foot and he went right over it, through the rusty metal barrier opposite and down the scaffolding, all the way to the bottom.

Thirty feet down should've taken some sting out of him, but he didn't know when to quit. He was up on his feet again and running out towards the highway, and likely I'd have lost him if there hadn't been a support pole right there. I slid down three stories and landed slightly less than graceful, but it meant I could still give chase.

He was a strong one, that was for sure, and pretty damn shrewd too. He knew I was right behind him, and as he ran through the factory complex he pulled at every storage container and loose piece of machinery so they fell down behind him. I was hurdling and ducking, and it was no surprise when he reached the central staircase well ahead of me.

'Give it up, Waylon,' I said.

'Screw you, asshole!' As I reached the top of the staircase, a pile of pipes and other debris fell through the gap above. I stepped aside and let it clatter past.

'You're all just wasting my time, now.'

'I got all the time in the world,' he said. 'Just you wait and see.'

A half-second later I was on a level with him. 'Your time is running out. Best believe it.'

I was gaining then but he skipped onto a gantry and swung himself up before kicking one of the support bars out behind him. Instead of following him up, I went along the same way and met him coming down.

Waylon stopped, gave me the eyes and then kicked out at me, sending me sprawling. I was upright again in a flash, but he'd headed back where he'd come from. I was three whole steps behind. This wasn't my smartest move, as there was no room up there to swing a cat, but goddammit, if he didn't jump straight off the end, pull a damned somersault out of his ass and grab onto a pulley that was swinging from the ceiling. By the time my gun was in my hand, he'd circled around and was hanging directly over a container of rubbish way down on the floor below.

This was the first time I'd seen Waylon still, and with his long arms extended, every shining muscle and vein stood out for inspection. He may have had greasy hair and a beard you coulda lived in, but a good woman could have hosed him down, shaved him to the quick and maybe made something of him. Right now he was looking down, gauging distance, running everything over in his mind.

'Long way down,' I said, conversationally.

'Soft landing,' he replied.

'If you land on your head, maybe.'

There was a dumpster load of cardboard or paper or some similar shit down there in the container below, but no way to tell how deep it went. The thick layer of dust over all of it would probably count for something. I could tell he wasn't so sure about it, though, else he'd have already gone.

'Why in hell you chasing me anyway?' he said.

'You owe a man called Winters $500.'

'Fuck me, for real? Old Man Winters is a goddamn millionare.'

'I know, and he's got better things to do than chase your sorry ass. I wouldn't be here, except you done screwed his daughter.'

'Why's it his fucking business what I do?'

''Cos a rich man don't want no hick grandkids,' I said.

Waylon adjusted his grip and I could tell he was struggling. 'You ain't no better than me.'

'I ain't stupid enough to do the dirty with Missy Winters.'

He blinked back sweat. 'Hey now, it was her what got fresh with me, you hear?'

'That's not what she says.'

'She got a whore mouth. I'm telling you, that's the truth.'

Waylon's denims were hanging loose off his shoulders. They probably had a fortnight's wear in them, and were looking all the worse for it. He had a dark stain on his chest, probably from spilling gas while filling up his pickup.

'Are we done?' I said.

He looked at me, looked down one more time and then looked up again. I saw his eyes, saw his jaw set. Saw his intention. 'One way or another I gotta come down.'

'Aw, c'mon, Waylon, don't do nothing stupid, now,' I said.

'See you on the other side.'

'You're going to buy yourself a toe-tag,' I warned.

'Hang here or hang there, what's the difference?'

He had a point. 'Not much,' I said.

'When you see Old Man Winters again, tell him I gave it to her up the wazzoo, and she loved every goddamn minute of it.'

He dropped.

I'll tell you I'm a lucky man, blessed even, but Waylon must have paid his dues a hundred times in kind words, rosaries and votive candles. He landed perfectly in the container, chucking up a dust cloud that meant no chance of me getting a clear shot at him. I thought for a moment about jumping for the pulley and swallow-diving after him, but fortunately my love for the Good Lord doesn't compel me to push my luck too far. I could hear Waylon's footsteps disappearing deeper into the factory, and knew there was only one way to head him off – I had to get to the pickup before he did.

I barrel rolled down the stairs and sprinted for the massive window opposite. A round from the laser pistol cracked the frosted glass ahead and then it was elbows up by my face, head down, hit and hope.

Hitting the glass with a crack and splintering the damn thing near everywhere, I rolled out onto a balcony above the parking lot, picking up all sorts of scratches, cuts and other happy things that would have to wait until later. Right on cue, Waylon ran beneath and I dropped down. I managed to catch him with a boot between the shoulder blades and he went face first into a pile of loose boards someone had stacked up by the outer wall. I hoped it was less painful than it looked. Either way, this time he got up a lot more slowly than before.

I popped a candy jack for energy. 'Give it up now. I'm right out of breath.'

He goggled at me. 'Who in hell are you, anyway?'

I tugged my jacket open, showed him the Guild badge. 'My name is Phoenix. I'm working out of Hole Town.'

He hit me then, real fucking hard.

When everything had stopped spinning, I realized I'd fallen away to one side. My jaw was throbbing but I was in too much pain to close my mouth. Waylon wasn't done. He pulled my leg away to one side, and then gave me one of his size twelves, right in the balls.

I think I maybe cried a bit, though honestly all I remember is things going white and everything that wasn't my crotch ceasing to matter for a while. When I stopped rolling around and whimpering, I saw Waylon standing over me, lit cigarette in one hand.

'You asshole,' I said. 'My fuckin' kids ain't even been born yet and already they're hurtin'.' 

'Like you wouldn't have done the same to me.'

'I'm gonna do the same to you when I get a chance. Best believe it.' I rolled upright and tested each of my teeth in turn with my fingers. 'Goddamnit. You nearly broke my jaw.'

He punched me again, adding a whole new layer of pain to the ones I was in already. 'See, you goddamn hunters think this is some kind of game. You chase us down, slap us around and sell us back to your bosses. We do a spell in the Pen, and in a year or two, go back to our slave jobs and everything's forgiven. Well, fuck that. This is our lives, man. I shouldn't have to go back to hell for you. I shouldn't have to go back for anyone.'

'If you don't wanna go in the Pen, maybe you should learn some respect for other people's stuff.'

'Them same other people what do all the favours for me? Screw them, and screw you. I'll do what I damn well want,' he said.

I've been to many places and done many things in the handful of years since I left Twelve. Life is for the living, I truly believe that, and I've been out, doing my very best to embrace that principle. I got no fear of death. We're all on that road. But as I was lying there, I couldn't help but think about my mom. Is this how it ended for her? Down on her back, killed by some yahoo who got the drop on her?

Enough of thoughts like that.

My tazer and my gun were both gone, and I wasn't pulling a knife unless Waylon did likewise. I struggled upright and spat a mouthful of blood out into the desert. Someone once told me that a long time ago, people prepared for battles by spilling their own blood in the mornings before they started. Well, it weren't lunch time yet, and I was done playing around.

'Come on,' I said, trying my best to assume a fighting stance even though I was swaying slightly. 'Let's finish this.'

He gave me that look I love to see – that one where they're tired, like dog tired. That one they use when they're beat in the mind.

'Damn it all,' he said, 'can't you just let me go?'

'Ain't payin' no bills that way,' I replied. The candy jack kicked in, and then I was on him.