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 > > >