The Immortal Guns of Talon Konstantine: Black Whiskey
France is one of the few places where the vacuum system still works the way it did when it was first installed. The narrow cobblestone streets aren't choked with drifts of grit. Porches and storefronts are clean without the benefit of constant sweeping. The clothes the people wear look clean. White stays mostly white in the wash water in France. So the white shirts of the lawmen aren't some shade of dun, yellow or grey. Their tin stars seem a little shinier for it, too.
A temperate breeze flows continuously over France as the sand is sucked out and spit towards the treacherous southern desert. The few grains of sand that manage to infiltrate France aren't even noticed. The air is filled with the smells of fresh pastries, strong cheeses, heady wines and blood.
The president of France takes his morning coffee on the balcony of his residence every morning at nine. At 51, Honda Hayato is the youngest president in France's history. Last year's general election had him taking one hundred percent of the vote after his opponent was assassinated. The assassin was never caught. There were rumors that Honda had hired the assassin or had even done the act himself. That can't be proven because now, close to ten AM, France has no president. Honda is lying face down on the cobblestones below his balcony in a pool of his own blood.
There were about ten people gathered beneath the balcony, mostly aides and security guards. No one saw anything. They heard china breaking. They heard Honda stammer, "Who the fuck are you?" Then they heard the loud report of a shotgun, and Honda tumbled over the railing full of scattershot fired into his gut at point blank range. The smell of blood overpowers the stink of shit and piss from the dead president's body. The town is stunned into silence and inaction. The lawmen dawdle. The vice president refuses to come out of her rooms. The shock will dissipate in a few hours, and then it won't be a good time to be a stranger in France. McBride hopes that he doesn't have to show his face until after the assassin is caught or the people give up trying to solve the murder.
The boys are both unconscious when McBride walks into the Blue Moody Inn. Kaine has been still and silent except for the shaky rhythm of his heart. Iai has come around intermittently, muttering words McBride can't quite make out. The poor thing is delirious with pain, and McBride is surprised that Iai isn't dead yet. McBride knows how unbearable that kind of pain can be. The body itself can take almost anything. It's the mind that makes it hard.
The clerk at the registration desk tries to look calm and fails. "Can ... can I help you?" he asks.
"I need a room," McBride says. "Now. You'll have to pardon me not signing the ledger."
"Now, damn it! Get a goddamn key and unlock me a room!"
The clerk grabs a key and dashes up the stairs. McBride follows. His shoulders are beginning to ache. Neither of the boys is exactly small and light, and he's been carrying them for several hours.
The clerk struggles with the key until he finally gets it in the lock and opens the door. He scurries out of the way as McBride walks in. There's a single double bed. "Sorry, sir," the clerk says. "All the available rooms have ?"
"Never mind that," McBride growls. He stands at the foot of the bed and puts the boys down. He feels like he could float away. "Now get me something to write with and something to write on. And a pot of coffee."
"Cream and sugar?"
"No. Now go!"
The clerk runs down the stairs, shouts for someone to bring up a pot of coffee then runs back up. He hands McBride a scrap of paper and a pencil stub.
"Hold up, kid," McBride says. He scrawls on the paper, holding the pencil stub in his left hand. "Medical supply store here any good?"
"Oh, yes, sir. It's the best."
"Great. You run yourself over there and get everything on this list. You got ten minutes."
"But, sir ?"
"That may be more than either of them got, and I ain't gonna let my godsons die. You got that, kid? Go!"
The clerk runs down the stairs and out the door. McBride hears the manager come out of his office and call after the clerk. The clerk doesn't stop or waste his breath explaining. A waitress comes towards the stairs carrying a pot of coffee. "I'll take that," the manager says.
"Fuck," McBride says. "Just what I need." He looks at Kaine and Iai. Iai is still out. Kaine's eyes are open, and he's staring a hole through McBride. McBride is surprised at how much the hatred in that glare hurts him.
"Good morning, sir, and welcome to the Blue Moody," the manager says. "I'm Oliver Snyder. I believe you asked for --"
McBride takes the coffee pot from Oliver's hand and puts it on top of the dresser. "Yeah, thanks," he says.
"Sir, I --"
"Look, you'll get your stars. I'll tip the clerk. I just ain't got time to waste right now."
"May I ask what happened to them?"
"Mr., um. What was --"
"Underwood. Jackson Underwood. These are my godsons."
Oliver bends closer to McBride and motions that McBride should lean in, too. McBride fixes the diminutive man with his cloudy eye and folds his arms across his chest. "Mr. Underwood, just so you know," Oliver whispers. "Those boys ought to be in a proper hospital. And ... and President Honda ..."
"Yeah. I smelled it. I may be a killer, but I ain't into killin' presidents, all right? Now get outta the way. That kid'll be back soon, and I don't need you blockin' the door."
Oliver glances over his shoulder. The sheriff will start asking questions about the guests soon enough, and he wonders about this Mr. Underwood person. The best thing he thinks he can do is just not mention that particular guest. It's for his own safety as well as for those two injured boys. As long as the room is paid for, it doesn't really matter. He steps away from the door. "All right, then, Mr. Underwood. If you need anything, you just let me know."
McBride lifts his chin slightly and watches Oliver scurry away.
"I don't think he believes you," Kaine says.
"You shut up, boy," McBride says. "You ain't in no condition to be fussin'."
Kaine tries to get up, but no matter how hard he tries, he can't do it. Not without doing more damage. He stares at the ceiling. He wants to be angrier than he is. There's no point to it, though. He can't leave. He can't fight. He can't do anything for Iai. He tries to remember the visions he's had since the train tried to kill him. Not much of it is very clear. Just Kumiko in a long dress of pink crushed velvet with a long row of pink pearly buttons up the back and Jynx saying, "That's a lot of buttons. Better get started." After that, it's a miasma of voices and images. Eventually, he falls asleep trying to piece things together, and the visions invade his dreams.
The clerk makes it back up to the room with four minutes to spare. McBride gives him ten stars.
"Is there anything else I can --" the clerk starts to ask.
"Nope," McBride says and shuts the door in the kid's face.
When he turns back to the bed, Kaine has fallen asleep again, and Iai is awake, struggling to sit up. So much of him is broken that McBride is surprised he can move at all. Tears of pain roll over Iai's cheeks. At least McBride thinks they're tears. They look like mercury, and splash down on Iai's broken hands with a sound like falling glass.
"We'll rent a jeep," Winston says. Pollie nods and helps him into his duster. He slaps his Stetson on his balding head. "We'll go to Grave first. I'm sure they've already moved on, but I'm curious as to why they went there."
"Do you think Iai will come back to work for you?" Pollie asks.
"I doubt it. He's not ... not one of us. He's got other things he needs to do."
Winston tries to ignore her gloomy mood. He straps on his gun belt. His body is still sore, but he can't stay in bed another day. The longer he's laid up, the better chance his superiors have of figuring out that he's not working on their agenda. Besides, he still feels responsible for Iai, and if something happens to Iai, Winston won't be able to forgive himself. Neither will Pollie.
A young woman in a tweed skirt suit walks into the infirmary. Winston doesn't recognize her, but by the way she's dressed and by the file folder she's clutching in her arms, he knows she's one of the corporate people from Superior C & D or maybe even CrimeNet. She spots him, adjusts her square framed glasses and walks towards him with an air of purpose and authority. "Mr. Winston Cash," she says.
Winston's first instinct is to hide behind Pollie and pretend he's not there. He's got work to do, and this corporate minion is going to do her best to keep him from it. "Yes?" he asks.
"My name is Perry Lafontaine," the woman says. She extends her hand to him.
He takes it, impressed with her grip. Most women shake hands like dead fish. The ones with firm grips aren't to be taken lightly. Already, the encounter isn't going to his liking.
"I'm with the internal investigation division of CrimeNet," Perry says. "I'm not sure if you've heard about the incident at the headquarters in Roswell."
Winston feels like he's been hit with a ton of bricks and fights the urge to sit back down on his sick bed. Pollie takes his elbow to steady him. "No, ma'am," he says. "I've been on Phoenix for a week or so now. Not much news gets out here. I'm a little more concerned with the burning of the Mirage and Hopesprings."
"Yes, I understand. After all, there's likely to be an enormous bounty on the arsonist."
"Arsonist? Don't forget murderer."
"Several days ago, the CrimeNet headquarters was attacked. Seven security workers were killed. One, a man named Roland Lockhart, was taken hostage. Have you ever met Lockhart?"
"No, I don't believe I have."
"There's been no word from the kidnapper, but we have reason to believe she's come here. We also have reason to believe that Lockhart was involved with your apprentice ... um ..." Perry flips open her folder and squints at the page. It's not that she doesn't remember the name. She doesn't think she can pronounce it.
"Iai," Pollie says.
"What do you mean involved with?" Winston asks.
Perry closes her folder and adjusts her glasses. Her cheeks start to turn pink. "I mean ... it's suspected that they were ... um, you know, involved."
"If they were lovers, Ms. Lafontaine, just say so. It's not as if I didn't know Iai has no taste for women."
Perry recovers from her embarrassment and fusses with her hair. "It's all just speculation at the moment. We have no proof of the depth of their relationship, but we do know they knew each other. Other security workers had seen the two of them together. We also found this." She pulls a primitive text-messaging device from the pocket of her jacket and hands it to Winston. "We were able to track down a similar device that this one was linked to, which unfortunately appears to have been destroyed. Your apprentice purchased both devices shortly after he and Lockhart began to work for us. We're inclined to believe they were more than friends because of the last message that Lockhart sent declaring his love for your apprentice."
Winston looks over the device. "May I turn it on?"
He does so and scrolls through the messages saved on the device's tiny hard drive. It's difficult for him to tell from the content of the messages what they were up to, but it seems as if most of the messages Roland sent were rumors about the Seraphim twins and their whereabouts. He turns the device off and hands it back to Perry. "I'm not sure I understand why you're asking me about this," he says.
Perry pulls a glossy eight by ten photograph out of her folder and hands it to Winston. It's a mug shot of an attractive young woman with long, sleek black hair and a dark olive complexion. Her eyes are startlingly light, and they seem somehow wrong. "Have you ever seen this woman before?" Perry asks.
Winston shakes his head. He can't figure out what's wrong with the woman's eyes, but something has to be.
"Her name is Suada Zacharias. Do you know if your apprentice was aquatinted with her?"
"I doubt it."
"Where is your apprentice, by the way?"
Winston looks up from the photograph. His mouth twists into a frown.
"He's dead," Pollie says. "He died in the fire at the Mirage. So go away and leave us alone."
Perry consults a page in her folder. "No, Miss Cash, I'm afraid he's not listed among the casualties," she says. "In fact, I don't even have record of him being injured."
"Well, he was. And he's dead now."
"Miss Cash --"
"He didn't do anything wrong!"
"Pollie, calm down, honey. It's okay," Winston says. "I'm sure she's not trying to accuse him of any wrong doing."
"Actually, Mr. Cash, we have reason to believe he's somehow connected with this Zacharias woman," Perry says. "She's responsible for kidnapping Lockhart and killing the other seven men. We also believe she was involved in the recent slaughter of nearly one hundred men and women at a monastery outside Atlanta. The order was called the Feathers of the Warrior. It appears that they were dedicated to the worship of a fourth and unknown star angel called Samurai. They were all highly skilled fighters, and not one of them survived. Both Lockhart and your apprentice were former members of this order. We're also convinced that Zacharias is a demon of some sort or perhaps possessed by a demon."
Winston folds his arms and strokes his mustache. "So. Let me see if I have this right. You think Iai and Roland were lovers. I'll grant you that as true. You think Iai knows this supposed demon that kidnapped Roland. You think both Iai and Roland used to be monks at this recently wiped out monastery of warriors. Therefore, you must think that Zacharias has some grudge against Iai and has kidnapped his lover in order to get his attention."
"Actually, Mr. Cash, I believe that all three of them have some plan that involves the leylines and the Shaman Rail Line. I think they're working together. It's a fact that your apprentice lied in order to get this position. I'm sure you know that by now. Lockhart's application also contained some creative writing to cover up illegal activities such as narcotics sales and prostitution. He has an ex-wife and a nine-year-old son, Mr. Cash. The sooner we learn his whereabouts, the better. And that's why I need to talk to your apprentice."
"Could you call him by his name just once?" Pollie asks. "It's Iai. Three little letters. Two little sounds. It's not hard. It's really a pretty name if you think about it." She pauses, thinking about it. "It's also a palindrome."
Perry thinks about it as well. "Yes, but what the hell does it mean?" she asks.
"I need to speak with him," Perry says to Winston.
"He left the Mirage to try to find the demon who set it on fire," Winston says. "I don't know where he is."
"Did he leave alone?"
"No. He left with Jynx Seraphim and Kuroda Kumiko."
Perry chews on the inside of her left cheek. "What happened to the other Seraphim boy?"
"He was stillborn. There hasn't been another Seraphim boy for eighteen years."
"I'm sorry, what?"
"I'll prove it."
"Actually, Mr. Cash, your new assignment is to track down Suada Zacharias."
Winston sighs and looks down at the photograph in his hands. "When was this taken?"
"Twenty years ago when she was arrested for purchasing illegal weapons."
"So she's ..."
"She looks exactly the same. I told you, Mr. Cash. We believe she's a demon. Exercise extreme caution with this suspect. We prefer that she be brought in dead. Thank you for your time. Have a nice day."
Perry turns on her heel and walks out of the infirmary. When she reaches her room in the Kiwi Hotel, she changes into something a little more suitable for the desert, rents a jeep and drives out to the site of the Mirage fire. There will be more clues there, and she doesn't want to wait for Winston to decide to tell the truth.
In the grey of fading dreams, Kaine listens to a distant cry of pain. It sounds like shards of crystal in a tornado. He knows where it's coming from. It's right next to him, but he can't make it stop. He tries to open his eyes. His muscles feel like they're shot through with molten lead. I got beat up by a train, he thinks. It's not a disturbing thought as long as he doesn't let himself consider what it actually means.
He's been watching a steady backwards progression of visions. Some of them he remembers well, but once those pass, he knows he's not seeing his own visions any more. He sees what all the Shamans before him have seen. Eventually, there's nothing but hot light. Blue and silver pulse in time to burning jets of gases and hurtling chunks of liquid matter. This is the first Shaman watching the universe being born. It doesn't look like anything special to him, even though those ancient eyes, but the desire to protect it courses through every fiber of his being. The desire is strong enough that he can't believe that it comes from him. It must be divine.
Soon, even the light is gone, and the heat cools. He hears flames and feels sand between his fingers.