“God does not change the winds.”
That is what his brother had said.
Darkness engulfed Cassiel as he plunged through space, hurtling towards the little blue planet where God made Man in His image.
He braced his wings and fastened the grip on his sword. Trying to find comfort in the last words of his dear brother Athaniel:
“God does not change the winds.”
It was during the final days of the war. Michael’s armies had routed the Oldest Brother and driven the pack of traitors to their last stronghold. Athaniel, the fairest of all the angels, had himself flown up to negotiate their conditions of surrender. Cassiel was chosen to accompany him.
At the meeting, Athaniel unwisely asked how the Oldest Brother planned on being crowned king without a dead father. Pride rose before reason and the Oldest Brother answered with sword. Ending diplomacy by planting it through his chest.
God was not there that day.
Or if He was, He did not seem to mind, for the winds blew gently across His Kingdom as it has done since the beginning of time.
Athaniel, dying in Cassiel’s arms, slain by his kind. His last words were of a futile war to change the winds, and as Michael and Gabriel flew to their aid, the fairest Archangel drew his last breath.
The Oldest Brother, along with his traitors were tried and banished, cast headlong out of Heaven by God’s own accord.
Cassiel had often wondered if Michael and Gabriel secretly blamed him for the loss of their brother.
How fitting that now, aeons later it is his own destiny to fall from the heavens.
He closed his eyes, the shame too heavy to bear for such a devoted servant.
To open and see what they had seen? Feel what they had felt?
Cassiel was not like the traitors. He had a true calling. Still divine, if only by heart. One blessed with a purpose, a most crucial task, and one that he was determined to see through.
The lone angel broke atmosphere above the Pacific Ocean in the dead of night, traveling faster than a bullet and heading for the western seaboard. His landing was less than graceful as he slammed into the desert at supersonic speed.
The shock wave could be heard for miles. The earth shook. Rocks and dirt flew up into the sky. Smoke twirled and engulfed the fallen angel as he gathered himself, rising to his feet in the small crater his arrival had created.
The air was thick here. Thick and smoky. And it smelled of war.
He shook his wings and looked up. The towering starry skies gazed back down at him—Silent, and distant.
Hell must have heard the arrival. They would all come for the angel, and in this state they would track him down.
The sword went first. He firmly planted it into the center of the crater, quietly apologizing to Raphael for disposing of such fine craftsmanship. Then his vambraces, followed by the torso armor, and lastly the tunica.
Cassiel stood there, naked and alone. With only a short dagger in his hand, looking up at the skies.
The silent starry skies gazed back down at him.
“I am Cassiel of Araboth” He whispered to it “High messenger of the Heavenly Host, Defender of the Empyrean.” He spread his majestic white wings out into the night.
He had a true calling. Still divine, if only by heart. One blessed with a purpose, a most crucial task.
Then he tightened his grip around the dagger and proceeded to hack his wings off.
The wind gently blowing across the desert.
"The mighty men, and every bondman,
and every free man, hid themselves in the dens
and in the rocks of the mountains;
16 And said to the mountains and rocks, Fall on us,
and hide us from the face of him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb:
17 For the great day of his wrath is come;
and who shall be able to stand?"
- Revelation -
THE TRAIN A COMIN'
A shooting star dashed across the sky as a train separated the desert in two. In front of it lay an endless track of steel and wood, and in its wake; a thick cloud of dust and smoke. The colossus roared through the night, battered but still mighty, adorned in heavy metal plates which had been crudely welded on in fortification from both man, and beast.
Inside, a posse of 6 guarded its cargo: barrels of oil, clean water, and crates of fresh vegetables for the citizens of the outskirts. The gunmen peered out of the few windows left open, gripping their weapons, and scanning the horizon for any signs of the enemy.
The only man who was not, a scruffy, middle-aged fellow by the name of Mark Shelby, sat upright in the corner. His head tilted forward as he slept in one of the many broken seats onboard. The train and its interior had long stopped serving the passengers of old, and rust and decay had taken over.
Oliver! The voices growled.
Shelby awoke with a gasp and sprung his eyes open in terror. Where were they? How long had he been out?
The familiar noise of the cars chugging along pulled him out of his groggy state and back to reality. The world had shattered, its cities burned, and yet somehow this tired shell of a man had a job. He exhaled and ran his fingers through his greasy gray hair.
Just another nightmare, Shelby, just another nightmare.
Thankfully, with the men busy on look-out duty, no one noticed his awkward gasp of fear.
That is... Except for her.
Across from him, and separated by a table that had seen better days, she sat. A short, sturdy, teenage girl with red dreads, heavy black eye make-up, and an amused expression on her face. Her name was Strawberries, and she was an ever-loving thorn in his backside.
B, as he had affectionately started calling her, had been in his employment for several years. No one knew the young lady’s real name, not even herself.
Long ago, when he rescued her—Rescue being a horrible fairytale-kind-of-word to the whole affair—he had leaned down and asked the child for her name. Strawberries was the only thing she could say for the next 2 days straight.
After their... meeting, he took her in as his partner-in-crime, though of course there were no crimes to be had anymore. For that, you would need the law, and in the barren wasteland the only justice you could hope for was through the mighty Ghede family.
Strawberries and Shelby worked on many successful odd-jobs together. Hell, everything had been going swimmingly until at one point, the family, or more precisely; the Baron himself, caught wind of their operations. He requested Shelby come work for them instead—This being gangster jargon for “hostile takeover.”
He had seen no other option but to shake hands and sell his soul to the devil, figuratively. Although, in this day and age, people could be forgiven for taking that statement literally.
The Baron put Shelby and most of his crew on tedious logistics duties. Strawberries loved it. Watching his men haul big crates around, and then spending the rest of the day gazing out of train windows, hoping to see a rare creature in the distance. She called it easy money; staying out of trouble and collecting a decent wage. He, on the other hand, despised the whole ordeal.
“What are you looking at?” he asked, annoyed and mildly ashamed of the condition he woke up in.
She smiled and shot him a confused look as if he was tonight’s entertainment, which it appeared he was.
“What’s the matter, Shelb? Nightmares again?” She crossed her arms and pretended to mope like a little child.
In the Old World, people wouldn’t have looked at her twice. She was stocky and tough, wearing battered clothes, ending in a pair of oversized boots. Years of living in the desert had taken its toll on her skin, and they would have called the young girl neglected. But this wasn’t the Old World. Here everyone had been through the wringer, Shelby included.
“Not that you can relate,” he said. “But, I need my beauty sleep.”
She let out a defiant sneer, staring at him as he turned his head pretending not to notice.
Strawberries, though gentle, could be vicious when required. She was a part of this new generation that sprung up after that Great Fuck-All. The boys and girls who did not know of a life before the End. They, who had it easier without being shackled to grief, but strangely, also worse.
Shelby, on the other hand, was a fossil, weighing in at 56 years of age. At the rate the world chewed through its survivors he seldom met anyone who had been present on that day. And whenever he did, they did not talk about silly things like dreams.
“I like talking about dreams.” She said. “I reckon it would make you feel a whole lot better, Shelb, chatting about the terrible stuff in your wrinkled old head.”
“It was just a bad dream is all.”
This was their relationship. Her wanting to get under his skin, and him trying to keep her at arm’s length.
“That seemed like hell ´ova lot more than just a bad dream, you looked like you just saw the King.”
“It’s shit. And you’ll want to have me committed.”
“Committed?” she sounded perplexed. She knew what commitment meant, but couldn’t place it in the context of the sentence. “Is it one of your Old World words again?” She spoke with such a mix of pity and genuine compassion in her voice.
“Look, babe,” He said. “I don’t go nagging about all the guys you fuck, and you don’t go hassling me for being old.”
He adjusted his thick, beaten-down vest, secretly giving himself a compliment for being an asshole.
She figured sex could be used to get what she wanted, and Shelby knew this was the way it worked now. Most had resigned to violence, and to survive they turned whatever they could to their favor. The slave auctions in Babaco, the gladiator den in Le Choix. Either you held the gun, or you were the one getting shot.
Strawberries smile had turned into a condemning grimace.
“But you do, Shelb.” She said, “you nag about me fucking guys all the time.”
He knew she would react this way, It was all right. He would take disgust over apathy any day.
“Remind me of firing you when we get back home.” He said in a light-hearted manner as he stood up.
“You’re a funny old man,” she replied, having heard his harmless threats a million times before.
Shelby straightened his coat and adjusted his firearms. The first, a 357 magnum caliber revolver, dangling from his shoulder holster. More specifically, a 1990 Colt Python, double action trigger, 6 round chamber, 6-inch barrel. Loaded with Soft bullets. He had bartered it for the shock and awe it would strike into his enemies’ hearts whenever he raised it. The other was a Beretta with Hard bullets, chosen ‘cause it would fire fast.
One gunman was in the former onboard cafe, slouched over the counter, carving curse words into it with his knife. His name was Marvin, or Martin, or something like that. Shelby couldn’t be bothered to remember the names of his babysitters. These men who had been handpicked by the Baron for the supply run.
His posse was back at the 5th, most likely getting drunk by now, awaiting their return. Jonny, Gavin, and Oliver; those were his own men. Mainly because everyone else was dead or completely useless. He suspected the Baron split up the boys in a slight case of paranoia—this was after all a supply train, and they were very much capable of robbing it.
Marvin… or Martin, however, was a scrubby son of a bitch. He had a long, frail beard. He chewed the disgusting low-grade tobacco they grew in the tunnels, and he would always wear a stupid cowboy hat, regardless if he was indoors or not. It annoyed Shelby as a matter of principle. Only John Wayne should be allowed to wear a God damn cowboy hat, and this Marvtin was the furthest thing from an American hero.
“Everything good with the guys?” He cordially asked, while pouring himself a cup of water from the drum-barrel next to the counter.
They always brought one to share for the trip home. The rest they stored in the third, fourth and last railroad car, alongside the oil and crates of vegetables.
“You reckon we’ll be back at dawn, sir?” Marvtin said as he stopped carving and looked up at him.
“Looks that way, Mar..” he coughed and tried to muffle the name.
“Excuse me, sir?”
“Looks that way... Soldier.” Shelby revised, and rested his arms on the counter, wishing his posse was here instead of these useless clowns. A leader should know his men before sending them into war. Know what he can use them for.
The Ghede’s famous armored train would travel the supply route every month with few incidents; still, it wasn’t a place to teach new recruits. Marvtin had recently begun working for the Baron, and the two men in the corner both shared similar stories. It appeared the fragile peace had made cardboard cutouts of warriors, and he was stuck leading them.
The two greeted him as he walked over. Yankees and Black Metal were their names, or, at least what Shelby called them in the privacy of his own mind.
“See any trouble out there?” He said and smiled glibly at them.
“No, sir.” Black Metal replied. “Clear skies and a full moon out. If anything wants to attack us, we’ll see them coming a mile away.”
Black Metal and Yankees shared similar appearances; both wore dirty caps. One read; Yankees in smooth white curves on blue. The other; Black Metal in jagged white edges on black. He had been in the Baron’s service for a few months, and was perhaps the best gun on the train, whereas Yankees, Shelby reckoned, was in all likelihood just as incompetent as Marvtin. Seeing as he was holding a sawed-off shotgun while wearing sunglasses. As if he could see anything in the dead of night, or if he did, hit it at a distance further away than 2 feet. Shelby doubted they had ever heard of the Yankees, nor Black metal for that matter.
“We saw a shooting star.” Yankees burst out. “about 15 minutes ago.”
Shelby pretended to be surprised, as rookies annoyed the living crap out of him.
“Well, did you wish upon it?”
“I’m sorry, sir?” Yankees replied, then gawked over to this partner hoping for some clarity.
“I said, did you wish upon it?”
“Eh, no, sir?” Yankees scratched his head.
“Then why the fuck are you telling me this?” Shelby said. “Watch the land, not the skies. And take off those stupid sunglasses, you look like a fucking idiot.” He quickly swung around and walked away, hoping his little spiel made them more alert. Damn rookies would be the end of him.
All of a sudden they could hear loud scraping noises from the roof.
“Shelb”… Strawberries whispered and reached for her rifle.
Shelby nodded and signaled to Marvtin, “Go tell Damphousse to speed up.”
Marvtin sprang out from behind the counter in a panic as he headed for the control car. The driver, a young man, named Damphousse, was a permanent resident on the train. Shelby was confident he could push the locomotive to the limit.
The scraping and shrieking was increasing, as if giant metal cockroaches were scurrying above their heads. Shelby had heard them before. How they had gotten onboard without them noticing was beyond him.
“Everybody, stay away from the windows, and be cool,” he said. His blood freezing to ice.
The train was gradually reaching max speed, the wind howling into the open cracks, and it became difficult to keep balance. Marvtin stumbled back, pale as a ghost, as he fumbled to find his rusty revolver.
“Check your ammo, folks!” Shelby yelled out, pretending he was preaching to a group of marines and not the village nut-jobs. “We don’t wanna be firing Softs out there!”
The group inspected their weapons, but they all knew what they had boarded the train with. Mortal men never ventured out into these parts.
A black oily arm burst through the wall, its sharp nails clawing the wooden interior, searching for something or someone to grab a hold on. All of its tendons exposed; dark muscles, nerves expanding and retracting, detailing the inner workings of the Hell creature.
Shelby’s heart was racing. This didn’t seem to be a mindless attack.
Yankees grabbed his sawed-off shotgun and pointed it at the black arm squirming to find passage.
“No!” Shelby screamed as a deafening bang rang out.
The hand fell limp onto the ground, profusely spurting an ink-like substance, as the owner it belonged to vanished back into the night. Yankees fell down, screaming and grabbing his own face.
“Ricochet, Captain!” Black Metal yelled, as he dragged the bleeding man to the middle of the railroad car and cocked his rifle.
“Fucking moron,” Shelby muttered to himself. The armored plates would not only stop a shotgun blast up front but also deflect it back.
The lights went out, and the train came to a screeching halt, throwing them across the car to land on top of each other.
Nothing but silence and darkness as Shelby clumsily tried to catch his bearings. Above him the lamps flickered before coming back on.
The train stood dead in its tracks.
“Shit!” Marvtin spat out as he scrambled to find his revolver. “We’re so dead!”
The scratching returned with a vengeance. The creatures gathering outside, hammering to get in. Wet screams on shrieking metal. Stuck in no man's land and Hell and its demons were here to feast.
Shelby picked himself up,
“Stay here!” He yelled. “I’ll check the locomotive.” Then he grabbed the door-handle and slipped inside.
The control car was pitch black, save a lone light source fluttering in front of him. A small fire had broken out in the electronics. The wind whirled through a shattered window. On the ground laid the mutilated corpse of what once had been Damphousse. From the shadows, two ruby red dots glowed.
It moved slowly forward with intention, hissing as it did so. The shape of an oiled, obsidian figure emerging from the darkness. The flickering fire highlighting its face. Soulless droplets in place of eyes, on a surface, burned and disfigured.
A wide grin surfaced, spanning from ear to ear. Saliva dripped down from the sides as its jaws opened and sharp fangs appeared.
Shelby went for his revolver and fired three shots straight through the creature. He was horrified to see the bullets plopping trough it as if he had shot at sand.
Stupid, old man. He’d gone for the wrong gun.
The creature leaped forward in response, as Shelby fell on his back, crying out.
A loud boom!
And the beast exploded, covering the control car along with Shelby in thick, black muck.
He wiped his face, shocked and confused before peeking over his shoulder at Strawberries standing there in the doorway with Yankees shotgun.
“Get lost!” She grunted.
A still stunned Shelby staggered to his feet and tried to mop the muck from his coat.
“I’m never firing you again!” he confessed, as she rolled her eyes in return and threw the empty shotgun on the floor.
“This is bad Shelb, we have to get out of here, right now.”
“I know,” He gazed out the front window. On the horizon he could see silhouettes of several large horned figures standing still. He’d seen them before. The East-Traders had once told him they herded the mindless creatures. That could only mean a strategic operation. That could only mean the Banner of Hell.
“I reckon we’re surrounded.” He glanced back at Strawberries who had grabbed her rifle and opened the door to the second car.
Black Metal laid bleeding on the floor as Marvtin frantically fired towards the slimy figures clawing their way through an increasing hole in the wall.
“Shit! We’re so fucking dead!” He cried out as he shot at the creatures. “We need a bomb or something!”
“Won’t matter Marv,” Shelby said as he ran past him. “That’s the King’s own.”
“Who‘s Marv? Where are you guys going? They’re everywhere!”
“Your name’s not Marv?” Shelby looked back at him.
Two of the creatures slithered through the opening, hissing and grinning. Strawberries promptly grabbed him by the shoulder and disappeared into the third car.
“So this is really it, Shelb?” She gave him a pitiful stare as he locked the door, picked up a wooden crate from the corner, and jammed it into the handle. The supply cars had no windows, no cracks, and were designed to be the most fortified part of the train.
“You know I used to be a salesman?” Shelby said with a pathetic tone in his voice.
She put her hand on his shoulder and smiled sadly,
“I know Shelb, back in the Old World.”
What a cock-up this had all turned out to be. The crew had proven to be useless, and now they would meet their demise at the hands of vicious beasts.
Shelby desperately rummaged the surrounding cargo. Big drum barrels in front, dozens of them. He knew the fourth and fifth car could be overrun by now. Nowhere for them to run.
Strawberries was in the process of checking her ammo when he drew his old revolver. He aimed it at two of the drums, firing a shot into each. They penetrated both just beneath the top, then he holstered his weapon, rushed over to them and cracked the first one open. This was the last water drum they had tapped; those were never full, and this one had a fifth of water.
“Jump in, B,” he whispered as she stared back at him in disbelief.
“But, what about you?” she frowned.
He slapped his hand on the other drum.
“I’ll be in here. Now get in.”
“Shelb, it’s full of oil. It’ll kill you!”
A loud bang hit the door. The handles bent down, and the hinges started to give in. Shelby lied through his teeth.
“The last one is almost empty B, I’ll be all right.”
He picked her up and helped her into the barrel. There she crawled up like a ball, with the water reaching up to her waist.
“This is not a good idea.” She sighed as he placed the top over. A couple gentle pats with his hands, then he bent down to the bullet hole and said,
“Sure it is, girl. This is a great idea. Now shut up and breathe through the hole.”
The cacophony of scratching and hissing was almost deafening at this point. Shelby cracked opened his newly formed hideout and peered down into it. It was black and half-filled with thick petroleum. He took a deep breath while quietly cursing to himself,
“Yeah... this was a brilliant move..”
The nut bolts bounced against the walls as they gave in and the door finally flung open. The dark figures emerged with terrible intent, growling to each other.
All this Shelby could watch from the hole in the drum. The oil now reaching up to his chest. The fumes so strong that he was already dizzy, as he pressed his lips against the opening to feel the fresh air from outside.
The creatures scoured the car trying to remember what they’d been searching for in the first place. Shelby prayed to the gods of nothing. His own little gods of science, physics, and probability. The ones he’d believed in before the age of demons and angels. The ones who calculated the chance of the beasts finding the holes in the drum-barrel suspicious, or the odds of not dying of asphyxiation while swimming in petroleum. It was almost unbearable now. Shelby drew one big breath of air and then used the hole to peer out.
Their attack was over; in its wake laid 4 murdered men.
The creatures noticed a higher presence and stopped moving as someone else entered through the gaping side in the train. A tall, broad-shouldered man sauntered in and stood at the center of the car. The long-coat he was wearing appeared to have been a military garment. Now it looked moldy, as if rotten bark wood covered him. On top of his slick hair he bore an old navy hat, and on his shoulders, thick brown fur that could not be from any earthly animal.
He was a man, yes, but his eyes were white; so were all the dead who were let back into this world. Folks damned to an eternity of punishment, and then when the Great Fuck-All came to pass drafted to serve in the infernal army, under the Banner of Hell. This one must have climbed high in the career ladder of the afterlife.
“Colonel Francis! Colonel Francis!”
Another man entered. A thin, raggedy clothed character who ran up to Colonel Francis. “There’s no sign of him, Colonel, sir.” He said. His white eyes nervously drawn to the tall, dark creatures now seemingly transfixed.
The shreds hanging onto his body had once been a decent tennis outfit but had deteriorated since then. Few Flatliners ever changed their appearance; some said they wouldn’t, others that they simply couldn’t. Like ghosts of solid matter, they would linger in a state of who they once were, but could never be again. He must have been someone important when he had lived, but was now nothing more than the Colonel’s lackey.
“The General wants us to keep moving, Colonel, sir.” He said.
“Well, we mustn’t disappoint our great leader.” Colonel Francis smiled and scratched his chin. “Gather the men.”
Shelby sighed. Half out of relief and the rest out of concern. The Banner would soon be on their way, but any mention of a General was a bad sign. It was even less comforting that it had been uttered by two high standing members. Decades had passed since Hell or Heaven had fought over these parts. Not since FarHaven, not since the angels had disappeared, and whatever was left had been carved up between the merciless.
His thoughts drifted as the fumes grew stronger. He glared into the hole and noticed the men dissolved into shadows and shapes, their voices hushed and incoherent… Then Shelby blacked out. The rest of the night was a blur for him. Locked inside an 85-gallon steel drum, and floating through an eternity of his own memories, hopes, and fears. He would remember only a handful of things; seeing his old girlfriend and her child. They would smile, embrace him, and tell him it was never his fault, although he knew that it was.
And lastly; the nightmare from before returned, taunting him with its cryptic message: someone is looking for Oliver Cavanaugh. Someone is coming…
A small beam of light penetrated the curtains and hit Oliver Cavanaugh in the eyes. He squinted in return, turning his head away to postpone the break of noon.
A brand new day had finally crept into the young man’s life.
The tired make-shift bed he lied in decorated the middle of the hotel room. A modest place that had been home for the last year.
Oliver was a ripe man of 20 years, and in the community viewed as “ready to settle down”. He, on the other hand, had no interest in acquiring neither a house nor a wife. His place in the Shelby Gang was far more important. Not to mention fun.
He relished a job that involved plenty of weeks on the road—sometimes at the drop of a hat—with the unstable lifestyle it brought, not to mention the women.
Reasons like these were why Oliver enjoyed the luxury of a modest hotel apartment that was regularly cleaned by the owners.
As the quickest draw in the gang—and indeed the town—he received more than his fair share of the bounty from the adventures work they did. Of course, he could make the step up to a leadership job, take care of others around him. If he had to…
And he very much did not.
The young gunslinger picked up the work-shirt thrown carelessly onto the floor the night before, then grabbed his revolver-belt and got ready.
Adjusting his belt had taken several days. He had sanded the inside of the holsters until it was slick and smooth, curved to an angle to which he could easily slip the pistol muzzles over the top and fire within a fraction of a second.
Freedom Arms.454 Casull revolvers—he had found a matching set back at a weapons dealer in Second. They had been expensive, but with some tuning and work they had turned out to be supreme weapons—given of course the limitation of only ten bullets.
The belt buckle was of an old-world motive. Shelby had once told him was the insignia of the men who ran this land before the Dark Times, before the Ghedes. Oliver himself didn’t care much for the old stories. Shelby would often preach to them about the life before. All Oliver knew was how awesome the metal bird spread its wings over the leather on both sides of his belt. Its body hidden behind a colorful shield. It looked prideful, fearless against man. Just like him.
He slid the old shirt over his head and down his thin, yet muscular body. The kind young men have, when they can drink until their bellies burst, and still wake up with the figure of Apollo.
He studied himself in the mirror hanging in the hallway—His blond hair was greasy and scruffy, his blue eyes shining through his dusty but beautiful face. No matter what he wore or what he did, the girls of the outskirts would notice him. He blamed it on his glacier blue eyes and smiled awkwardly to his own reflection.
Then he walked outside.
The 5th was the last outskirt that had been founded and constructed under the Ghede family’s vigilant watch. It bore an uncreative name, considered merely the next in a long line of towns—a dream that had never come to fruition. Built 10 years ago on the ruins of old, out of the brick foundation sprung wood housing. The shacks usually had tin roofing, or the equally popular rawhide, and the houses were never particularly big. The hotels, bars, stores, and other landmarks were a different matter. Those were built out of lumber, or located in the old buildings that had survived mostly intact.
Dusty roads ran through the town in straight, intersecting lines. The sun would rise in the west and shine on the border-houses first—all crammed together—then the old train station where the train should have arrived yesterday. Then lastly the light would hit the tents and caravans preparing for the trip east. A long and risky voyage only the East-Traders would undertake.
The 5th housed about 5000 people, and most people considered it nothing more than the last stop before the coast.
Oliver sauntered down the street that made up his adopted town, glancing back over his shoulder at the wooden sign written above his window. It read; “Swan’s Hotel” in crudely carved out letters painted red. The owner of the place was a large woman nicknamed Swan. Rumor had it she used to be a somebody in Babaco, before trouble had found her in the form of a bigger somebody. The solution had been to escape to the far south. Out of sight, out of mind.
In honest Oliver paid little attention to the circumstances people found themselves in, nor the paths that led them there. In this town most folks had fled from somewhere else. That was the life that they led; one of silent desperation.
Even what Jonny had told him about Strawberries did not really surprised him.
As much as anyone, Oliver had seen his own share of shit, and out of it all he had honed a skill. He knew something few men did, and so they paid him for it: He knew how to hit a target—how to hit it fast, and how to hit it well. That was all a man could really ask for in this world of dust and dirt: Food and a steady job. And with luck and ability he had gained both.
He reached down into his brown pouch and finished rolling himself a South-Babaco cigarette. He lit it and drew the smoke into his lungs, letting the dry taste linger on his tongue as he did so. It was not as good as the coast-brand, nothing ever was, but it was a lot better than that Le Choix crap, and it reminded him of home.
He closed his eyes and dreamed of Babaco—his hardworking parents, and the smell of the herd as the sun rose over their little farm. Then he released the smoke out into the air, watching as a man on a horse rode by pulling a cart filled with old vegetables. The town had started rationing their food, and Oliver was getting increasingly worried about the delayed train.
He drew another puff from his cigarette as he looked up at a familiar building. It was a bar bearing no name and on the outside hung only a plain sign that read: BAR.
The owner could not be bothered with fine points such as titles—or cleaning the glasses for that matter. These where minute details too small for a businessman to be concerned with. People had been getting drunk for ages and would continue doing so in the future, regardless of pesky names, signs, or hygiene.
The saloon door swung open and a round, stocky figure appeared in the doorway. He sported a thick brown beard and a well-used green cap, covering his eyes from the sun as he walked out into the street.
People around these parts called him Jonny Ghetto—for reasons that evaded Oliver.
He waved and yelled out,
“Get your ass in here, kiddo! We have beer!”
Oliver, in return smiled awkwardly and nodded.
The two men had been good friends, going back to Oliver’s first day in Shelby’s service. The change to hired gun had been intimidating for the young man, but Jonny had made it a lot easier by showing him the ins and outs of the job. They had trekked many miles together—Fought together, drank together, got paid together.
“Any words on the train yet?” Jonny asked. “From Mark? From Strawberries?”
“I just woke up,” Oliver admitted. “I hope they’re all right.”
“Yes, this is a most serious matter. Hopefully, our friends are all right.” He grunted, then shifted his eyes around nervously before whispering, “If Shelby lost that train, and he is NOT dead, I fear he’ll soon wish he was.”
Oliver’s first thought was of the Baron and he swiftly shut it out.
As the two friends entered the bar, the sweet scent of barley struck him instantly. The place was usually packed, but now it was almost empty. There were only two other men in the establishment; the lanky bartender—and weary owner, pretending to clean a glass as he wiped the bottom of it with a dry towel. And on the far side of the bar, in the corner; sat another man. He looked to be in the early 40s, balding, with a thick twirled mustache on his face, and sporting, as always, a set of black round shades.
The man leaned back into his chair and a much too familiar grin appeared on his face.
”Oi! Fuckin’ ‘ell’d you cunts make me wait this long for?” He shouted.
His accent unmistakable, as well as his name: Gavin Morrison. People around these parts called him The Englishman, for obvious reasons.
“The beer they serve ‘ere is warm enough to scorch me tongue off.”
He lazily leaned further back, so that the chair now balanced on its hind legs, then he slammed his feet upon the table.
The bartender scoffed in return, Oliver just chuckled and grabbed a seat next to him.
Jonny Ghetto had emigrated to town when it first opened to the public. He had dragged his family along in the hope of building a better future for them. As a result he did not see them very often. ‘Always busy running errands for Shelby’ as he put it.
For everything Oliver knew about Jonny, it was the opposite with Gavin: The man was a wild card, a joker. No one, but Shelby knew how to rein him in, and he often had to do so quite firmly.
Oliver had gathered—from the short time they had ridden together—that the man originated from the distant East, that he loved to sing horrible folk songs, and that he was a raving lunatic.
“I met this bird once, yeah?” Gavin flicked a bottle cap at Oliver to break him out of his spell. “She was fit; Thick lips. Black, curly hair blowing in the wind. Perfect tits. The whole works.”
Jonny glanced over to Oliver and rolled his eyes.
“So she worked at the local stable, yeah? Tending to the ‘orses an’ what ‘ave you. Then, one day, a lot wetter an’ darker than this day. ‘er father, who ran the stables, told ‘er she ‘ad to go all the way to the field to fetch the ‘orses, seeing as the rain and thunder was gettin’ worse, yeah? So this young bird. Did I mention she had black curly ‘air?”
Jonny sighed. ”Does this have anything at all with the situation we find ourselves in?”
A finger and a shhss emitted from Gavin in reply.
“Right, so this young lady legs it to the field to save these bloody ‘orses. ‘owever, on the way she passes a titchy scorpion. It was fighting for its life, grabbing at a leaf, floating in a large pond. So this buggered thing calls out for ‘elp.”
Jonny slammed the beer down on the table. “Talking scorpions? Save these damn fairytales for the youngsters.”
Gavin shot them both a look and the light in the room seemed to dim, the bartender further away than ever.
“I’ve seen quite a lot of shite in my lifetime” Gavin said. “Dead wankers who walk the earth, dark beings that prey on mortal men. Even the fuckin’ goat-geezers. I don’t think a talkin’ scorpion is too much to ask, yeah?”
Jonny knew the Englishman better than Oliver, and he did not seem too impressed with his skill of tongue, however, he nodded, and let the man have the floor.
“No!’ The lady cried out. ‘You’re a scorpion, an’ you’ll stab me with your fuckin’ tail…’ The lady knew she had to rescue the ‘orses; running around outside as the storm raged. ‘owever, this scorpion continued to beg; ‘please! I beg you.’ It cried out, ‘You ‘ave me word that I ain’t stabbin’ ye!’ The black-’aired lady ‘esitated at first. A Scorpion is a dangerous thing, innit? But love for all life won out in the end, an’ the brave lady walked out into the water an’ picked it up.”
The men sat in silence.
Gavin used the dramatic pause to pour himself another glass of beer.
“So what happened?” Oliver asked. “Did she save the scorpion?”
“She got stabbed by the bloody thing is what.”
The room was dead quiet.
“The young lady tumbled into the water, an’ the scorpion with her, an’ she spent her last dying seconds asking it; ‘Why? Now we are both going to die.’
‘Because I’m a bloody scorpion is why!’ Gavin put the glass down.
“The. fucking. end.”
“Wow..“ Jonny replied. “I must say… That’s a shitty story.”
Oliver burst out laughing, “Who taught you storytelling? That was awful.”
“You Yanks wouldn’t know good storytelling if it bit you up the arse.”
Oliver was well used to Gavin uttering names that neither of the guys knew. Shelby regularly did the same thing. He reckoned it was part of why the captain liked him so much.
“So, we’re the girl in this story? Is that what you’re trying to say?” Jonny replied, his patience growing thin. ‘Just say what you mean’ was his motto. Not the worst ideology Oliver had heard.
“I would imagine we are the ‘orses” Gavin replied, “an’ storm, lightnin’, an’ the ‘ole rottin’ Greek tragedy is headed our way.”
”You’re referring to the Baron.” Jonny’s voice was at a near whisper.
“Bloody right I am!” Gavin shouted. “We don’t go looking for that train, an’ the you-know-who will be searchin’ for us.”
Oliver knew exactly what he was talking about. Shelby would never steal the train, it would be too far a ride with the cargo. However, if he had lost it, the Baron could be looking at the rest of the crew for an explanation.
“Could it be bandits, the East-Traders, or maybe the Tunnel men themselves?” Oliver knew he was reaching for straws, The Tunnelers stood for a lot of trading with the 5th, perhaps they wanted more for their troubles, maybe this was the start of a war with the Ghedes.
“No,” Gavin peeked over his shoulder as two figures entered the bar. “It’s somethin’ else…. And it’s ‘eaded our way.”
The characters observed them from the far side of the room. Gavin, being the least gracious of the group, turned around to face them. The first one was a woman. She looked well-trained. Wearing pilot glasses to hide her thoughts from the outside world. Oliver could still make out a stern face with black hair curling down on both sides.
The other one was a tall, muscular man in full combat attire—black boots, black army fatigue, even a black kevlar vest. He had a rugged face with black stubbles to match. He must have been born with a cigar in his mouth and a gun in his hand.
”Listen up, maggots!” The buff man yelled. “The Top-hat man wanna have a couple of words with you!”
Oliver had traveled a lot in the southern parts of the Line and was accustomed to the different names the deities would have: ‘The Top-Hat Man’ in The 5th, ‘The Baron’ in Babaco, ‘Mr. Petrol’ at Second, and of course: ‘Baron Kriminel’ in most of Le Choix.
”Sod off, you bellend.” Gavin grunted and flipped him the finger. An unwise move and fitting to his character.
The buff man showed no emotions in return. His face chiseled from stone. The woman next to him, however, pulled out a rifle.
In a gunfight Oliver would have had his gun out by this point. Cocked, with the crosshair aimed at her head before she could take another breath. However, she took her time. Her face calm, her glasses reflecting only the sorry state of the three men back at them. She slowly cocked her rifle and aimed it at Oliver and Jonny. Panning the muzzle rhythmically between the two.
Oliver could still take her out. If he reached for his gun while she was aiming at Jonny he would have a clear shot. The dilemma was that everyone worked for the same boss.
The buff man walked up to the table and placed his hand firmly on the back of Gavin’s head. He smiled, before ramming his head straight into the table.
Jonny leaped out of his chair with a horrified look on his face. A weak moan resonated throughout the saloon.
“Aaaah!... Bloody ‘ell, whatchu gonn’ an’ do that for?” Gavin braced his hands against his nose. The shades on his face holding on for dear life.
“Shut up!” The buff man then shifted his attention to the other two men. “you jokers wanna give me some lip too?”
Oliver and Jonny stood there, eyes wide open, much to his satisfaction. He grabbed the still moaning Gavin by his shirt collar and yanked him out of the chair
“Top-hat man, now!”
The march over to the Baron’s headquarters was a bit of a blur for Oliver. His head filled with the outcomes of several scenarios, most of them ending in death. Jonny was blabbering on about how they had nothing to do with the train missing, until the buff man had first told him to: ‘Tell it to someone who gives a shit.’ and then threatened to shoot him in the foot if he did not shut up.
The Baron’s Headquarters was situated in the middle of the town; all in accordance with the rules of the Pact. It stood there, menacingly in front of them. A red, 3 story building made out of brick. One of the few structures that had survived intact, and as a result the highest building in all of The 5th. Every hole and damage was covered with fabric and wood, with extensive repair to the facade. The windows were draped, and blocked the outside viewing in. On the front it read in big official letters: ‘The House of the representative of the Pact’.
”When we get in, let me do the talking.” Jonny whispered. “I might just be able to get us out of this one.”
Comforting words that calmed him somewhat. Jonny had a knack of talking himself out of situations. He had a kindness people found hard to ignore.
Oliver had never been inside the House of the Baron and doubted if even Shelby himself had been allowed there. Perhaps when he was first hired.
The stairs leading to the top were the longest he had ever climbed. He spent the time wading in doubt.
Inevitably, they reached the 3rd floor and the buff man led them into the main office. It was a dark and claustrophobic room. All the windows were covered, the only light were from the candles placed haphazardly around, and a few rays finding their way through the cracks in the window.
The interior was built to accommodate one another. The chairs had curvy decorating lines carved into them, with a big desk in the corner appearing to be the cherry on top. A solid chunk of mass, radiating a sense of authority.
As Oliver sat down, he cast a glance at Gavin next to him. He seemed fine, with his shades firmly on his face. He gave Oliver a gentle smile in return and nodded.
As he was about to say something, the door burst open and in pranced a dark figure. It was dressed in a dusty and dirty suit, underneath it danced a bare, slender body. Its face was covered in white paint, outlining a skull, covering all but the eyes, nose, and cheeks. On top its head sat a tall hat that had seen better days. Oliver wondered if he had once been a mortal man. Long ago.
He squinted back at Oliver and smirked, before giving out a big hardy laugh: A powerful bass sound rumbled through the room.
“Welcome to me humble tower! I hope me men were polite to you.”
His voice was heavy, his accent thick. Oliver could not place it. It seemed as exotic as Gavin’s but a world apart. He felt the urge to speak, but the Baron locked his black pinhole eyes upon him.
Jonny saw this and immediately jumped in.
“Look, Mr. Kriminel, sir. There’s been some kind of misunderstanding. We’re only hired-work for Mr. Shelby. We don’t know what…”
The Baron snapped his fingers and gave the buff man a little nod.
“Alan, get Miss. Ritter, and hang dis man by de neck in de town-square.”
He then grinned back at Oliver with a calm and cold expression on his face.
Jonny was in a mix of panic and denial as their captors, Alan and Miss. Ritter dragged him by his shoulders out of the office.
Thus, only three remained in the room.
Oliver thought about where his guns were being kept. If he could take down a mighty Ghede with only his wit and some hard bullets. He thought about Jonny, and felt the urge to say something. Something profound. That this was a waste of time, resources... that this was madness.
Gavin must have noticed this, because he gave him the universal ‘shut up’ signal.
”Where was I, now?” The Baron smiled. “I run a small business; Dis town. For it to work I need dat train.”
Oliver shrugged, unsure of what to say, or rather what he dared to say.
“And I can’t let people see de men responsible for de coming hunger, drinking and laughing in a bar, can I?” He paused momentarily only to acknowledge Miss. Ritter entering back into the room. They exchanged a quick glance, and Ritter nodded.
“Dis train, I would like it back. I have me people to feed.”
Oliver swallowed, as he attempted to answer for the crime of the century, one in which he knew nothing of.
“I.. I’m terribly sorry, sir. I have no idea what could have happened. Bu.. but, we have nothing to do with it. I.. I swear.”
The Baron smiled, amused.
”You swear ‘pon what?”
“Always be swearing, and begging, and praying. Never they know to whom.” His white teeth shone brightly as he grinned, reminding more of an angry dog that once bit Oliver as a young child.
Things were going from bad to desperate now.
“But, I would like to volunteer to any rescue mission, Sir! Honestly…”
”Good!” He slapped Oliver on the back. “But maybe we find better use for you... Maybe we hang you up next to your friend.” He held up his hands mimicking a sign. “Telling de rest of de cities what happen when you fuck me.”
Oliver’s world started to spin, he felt dizzy. Thoughts jumbled together. All he could think about was getting out of the chair, out of the room.
Gavin’s voice cut the tension in the air like a knife. Ritter, in response seemed less than impressed.
“Ever been with a proper bloke? Betcha a tenner my cock’s bigger than Nightmare the Clown over here.” He grinned. The round shades on his face creating the illusion of a skull, an uncanny mirror to the Baron himself.
Ritter’s face—a statue of stone—was unchanged, save an eyebrow of which she raised in disgust.
“Ritter?” the Baron spoke calmly.
The cold-blooded woman drew her gun. Gavin’s grin quickly turned sour and Oliver closed his eyes as a loud bang rang out, the ringing in his ears could not hide the sound of a sack of meat awkwardly sliding out of the chair and hitting the ground.
All of Oliver’s fears had now materialized. He carefully opened his eyes in the opposite direction of the body. Jonny was undoubtedly getting strung up as they speak, and now Gavin lay dead on the floor.
A queasy feeling overcame him. His stomach tightened and his head started spinning. Never had he crossed anyone, not really, perhaps a few girls. Never borrowed something from the wrong man, nor let his mouth run loose in front of the wrong crowd. And now, here he was, ready to be executed for something he knew nothing about. Just for the technicality of it.
“Now where was I?” the Baron scratched the top of his forehead with the smoking revolver he had taken from Ritter. The top-hat tilted further down its crooked angle.
“You see, I need one of you, de good shepherd Shelby might be coming back.”
He casually jumped up on top of the desk, produced a cigar from the drawer, and snickered.
“And since your friends seem a little dead..”
Oliver wondered how old he was. How many men he had heard pleading for their lives. He decided to shut up, to let this beast finish his little plan, then pray for the best. The fastest gun in town is not a match against a god.
The Baron lit his cigar, and Oliver in return coughed at the bitter smell of smoke filling the enclosed, dim room.
”You know, I told him once.”
“Shelby.” He replied. “I told him he could get whatever he wanted in dis place, he is a clever man.”
Oliver nodded and stared down at the floor. The room smelled of vomit. Vomit, cigar smoke, and fear.
“Den he tricks me. Me, de Loa of violence and death. Who would dare to trick me?”
Ritter took her seat in the corner of the room, just behind Oliver.
“So you want de job, boy? Working for me to find de train and kill Shelby?”
Was he given a way out of this room? A second chance at life? He was about to answer when he heard a pathetic cough coming from the meat sack that used to be Gavin. It slowly moved and gave out a moan.
“Bugger me, that stings.”
Baron Kriminel laughed out in delight, “Haha! welcome back, Mr. Morrison!” He leaped from his desk and started prancing around. “It took you long enough.”
Gavin turned his head. It was clean of blood; the shades were in perfect condition and had been tossed to the side. That’s when Oliver realized he had never actually seen Gavin Morrison’s eyes before. They were, horrifyingly a haze of frosted white. An ocean of milk. His hair stood up on his back.
“I knew you be a ghost, Mr. Morrison. I can smell your rotten kind a mile away. If I couldn’t, then what would be de point of De Pact?” Baron was a kid frying an ant under a magnifying glass.
Oliver knew that Shelby had been tight with Gavin. Or rather, that he kept to himself. Why out of all the places in the world was he was hiding here? In this town? Everyone knew that the Flatliners fought for the Banner..
A loud gunfire rang out and Oliver fell out of his chair from the sheer shock wave. He hit the ground and rolled behind the toppled furniture, his ears ringing.
The fear of death had tensed every muscle in his body. He gathered up the nerves and raised his head above his newly found fortress.
There he saw that Gavin had been shot again. This time by the Baron, and this time in the head. The smoke slowly curled around the revolver.
“But ghosts are in de infernal flames, Mr. Morrison.” He licked the tip of his revolver. “Or belong to dem.”
Again, the body slowly began to move,
Oliver was unsure if the next sound coming from the body was laughter or wheezing.
“What’s your secret, dead boy?” The Baron leaped through the air and landed in front of him, squatting down and lightly tapping the revolver on Gavin’s forehead.
“They let me out,” Gavin replied.
“Fuckery!” He pulled back the trigger on the revolver. “I can hurt you all day, dead boy.”
Oliver felt the cold tip of a muzzle resting on his ear. Ritter had moved from the corner and was now right behind him, pointing her rifle at him.
“Don’t you get any bright ideas now, Cowboy.”
He slowly raised his hands in submission.
“None escape from Hell, Mr. Morrison.” The Baron declared. “I should know. Dere’s something big at work with you. A bargain made?”
Gavin lowered his gaze to the floor. His clothed were in perfect order. The hole in his face had vanished.
“Hell doesn’t make bargains.” He replied. “At least not with the sorts of us.”
Ritter, in response, shifted her aim towards Gavin as he stumbled back on his feet. The look on her face reflected an uncertainty at the whole situation.
The Baron on the other hand, was still locked in with the same joyful and fearless curiosity.
Oliver shivered. There were no escape plans. Jonny was dead, Gavin was a cursed Flatliner, and the Baron Kriminel was wrapping up the meeting.
“Well dis was fun. One of you will go to get me train.” He opened the chamber and silently counted the bullets left in the revolver. “And you, Gavin Morrison, be a person of a rare skill.” Then he pointed it at the young gunslinger.
Oliver hoped he would see his parents again. Hand-in-hand on their farm as he helped bring the herd in. But he also knew that the action of closing his eyes would not cause the outside world to halt to a stop. The cylinder of the revolver would slowly rotate, the hammer would strike down, and the powder ignite.
HOUSE OF THE BARON
To be continued....