A Gathering Evil, Page 3Michael A. Stackpole
Despite the decrepit conditions of the bathroom, Consuelo had attempted to make the best of it. The single window had been framed with frilly curtains. Little pictures of insufferably cute angels—likely the front half of old Christmas cards—had been framed and hung on the wall facing the toilet. A little wall rack held four magazines, but all of them were in Spanish and three dealt with soap operas, so I refrained from reading them. The spare roll of toilet paper hid beneath the skirts of a knitted doll.
I took a quick glance at myself in the medicine chest mirror hanging over the sink. While my face looked familiar and my black hair seemed a bit long, I did not have a quick flash of insight that provided a name. I rubbed a hand along my jaw and the black bristles lurking there, but I saw no razor on the sink and didn't want to go digging around in the Ramierez medicine chest.
Besides, I thought, if someone is out to kill you, adopting a beard might, make target recognition and acquisition a bit more difficult.
Kneeling in the tub, I pressed the rubber stopper down into the drain and turned the water on. Like the sink, the water came out of two faucets, so I scooted back a bit to avoid getting scalded by the hot water. I really hadn't needed to bother—in Phoenix the water seemed to come in "warm" and "a bit warmer than that." The hardness of the water made it a bit difficult to get good lather out of the soap, but I managed to clean myself up fairly easily and dried myself with a threadbare towel that once belonged to a hotel.
Wearing the towel like a kilt, I returned from the bathroom and found Estefan talking to a clean-shaven Anglo roughly his size, with blue eyes and a buzz-cut crop of red hair. "Rock Pell, I assume?"
"Fully-on, tulman." He tossed me a thick packet just slightly larger than the Yellow Pages beneath the phone. "These are some clothes. They should fit you fine. If they don't, Coy-man said I can drop a couple of aught-aughts getting you tripped out in gutter-ware."
When Pell said "aught-aughts" I saw Estefan's face light up. I assumed Pell had meant $100 bills which, given the way the house looked, would be a vast fortune to the Ramierez household. At the same time I sensed from Estefan a fear that Rock would offer him money in return for the kindness shown me, which Estefan would refuse—despite desperately wanting it—because he did what he did for me to return a favor Coyote had done him long ago.
I also got from Pell the feeling that he would offer Estefan money—not because he lacked feeling for Estefan and his family, but because it was easier than actually figuring out another way to help them. I looked at my host. "Estefan, did you go out and buy the bullets for my pistol after you'd brought me here?"
"So you paid street prices for them." I shifted my gaze to Pell. "If you think Coyote can spare it, you might want to repay him for the ammo. I will take the gun with me and I would like the rest of the bullets. Fifty should cover it, right, Estefan?"
Estefan started to protest that he had not paid that much, but Pell never heard him. "$50, Estefan? Man, they sold you a grande line of dookey, you know?"
"I don't think it was a buyer's market, Rock. He was in a hurry, and I'm happy he did get the bullets, because I was out."
Pell pulled out a wad of bills and started to peel them off, one at a time. He stopped at three Reagans and four Lincolns, then folded them over and gave them to Estefan. Again my host tried to protest, but I shook my head. "Putting me up was your favor to Coyote. Buying bullets for me was your favor to me. I have yet to pay forward for you, but this will show my good faith."
"Cracias, señor." Estefan pocketed the money and handed me a nearly full box of bullets.
"De nada. Be with you in a minute."
I retreated to the bathroom and pulled the plastic wrap off the package I'd been given. Pell had brought boxer briefs, which I found I did not like, but put on anyway, and a pair of white tube socks with blue stripes at the top. The jeans fit perfectly, though were brand-new and still starchy-stiff. I pulled on the black T-shirt and had to wonder what the true meaning of having "RoIIerblades does slalom" emblazoned on my chest portended, but I was in no condition to complain.
Dressed, I returned to the front room to find everyone had retreated to the kitchen where Consuelo was serving beans and rice with tortillas. Pell had taken a place at the table and eyed the food hungrily. A quick glance at the pots on the stove told me the Ramierez family would go hungry if they tried to feed all of us, and I knew they would make the attempt.
"Rock, let's go."
He looked up at me as if I were mad. "It would be impolite to refuse..."
"I know, and I hope Estefan and Consuelo can find it in their hearts to forgive me." I made a show of tucking the Krait into my waistband at the small of my back. "It just occurs to me that if someone was out to kill me, having me here puts them in danger."
Pell hesitated as his hunger fought with what he thought was best. He finally nodded, then stood. "Besides, we need to get you some real shoes."
"Among other things."
I turned to Estefan and shook his hand. "Muchas gracias, mi amigo."
He smiled. "De nada. Hasta luego."
Pell led the way from the house and I got my first good look at Phoenix in the daytime. Of course, given the solid ceiling 10 stories above us, separating day from night was difficult. Unlike when I made my escape, I did feel an incredible amount of heat radiating down from the roof. Sprayed on the underside of the panels I saw the letters APS.
"Rock, what is over us?"
"It's Frozen Shade, courtesy of Lorica Industries and Arizona Public Service—better known around here as Another Public Screwing."
"Fascinating. So what is it?"
"Solar voltaic cells, man. The city's covered with them to produce power."
I squinted my eyes and took a closer look at Frozen Shade. Massive steel girders, rendered black either by design or thick coats of soot, supported the panels on either side of their centerline. The panels themselves looked to be about a quarter of a mile on each side. In a couple of places I saw little shacks built onto the girders or bridging the gap between a girder and a nearby building. I also saw, nestled like a bubble of shadow, cylindrical housings attached to the panels near the top of each girder.
"The panels can be moved?"
"Yeah. When a dust storm comes through and coats everything with dirt, APS tips the panels up about 20 degrees and washes them off with a sprayer system built into the panel itself. That's the only time it ever rains down here in Eclipse. The only other time they crack the panels is if the air gets thick enough down here that it starts leaking up into the citadels."
We reached his car, and he punched the keycode into the lock on the driver's side. I found the vehicle an improbable white. Only the barest dusting of soot had settled on it. He opened the passenger door on the Ford-Revlon Elite sports coupe. I pulled the Krait before getting in, then shut the door and let the car adjust the safety restraints.
"A sadist designed these belts, eh, Mysterioso?"
I smiled politely as he started the electra-glide engine, and we set on our way. Thinking to stash the pistol, I opened the glove compartment. A huge drawer slid down, revealing a perfectly organized cosmetics tray. At the same time, my sunvisor flipped down, and the twin spotlights on either side of the mirror temporarily blinded me.
"Is this factory-standard, or did you special-order it?"
"Standard. Ever since Revlon bought in, they've really done the glove box up right. You know the joke, right? 'I had to get a new Elite because my lipstick was used up.'" Pell chuckled to himself until he noticed his mirth was not, in my case, infectious. "I never use that stuff, of course, 'cept maybe some of the black nail polish and some mascara when I have to go into Drac City."
"Bunch of skanky hippy witches and vamp-punks from the '90s decided to settle in Scottsdale and breed. They turned 'The West's most Western Town' into a little slice of Transylvania. They go for skin ble
aching and canine implants. Got a weird Christian sect there, too, that claims Jesus rose from the dead because he was a vampire—you know, 'He shed Hisblood for you and now He wants it back' kinda thing."
"I see," I said when I didn't. Even though I had no real idea who I was, I knew I had nothing in common with the world Pell was describing. "Look, I need a couple of things: Some proper footwear, a shoulder holster, some spare clips for the Krait and a bullet-proof vest. Do you think Coyote will spring for that?"
"Are we looking for your identity, or are you going to war?"
"Could be both, dude. Glad you're along for the ride?"
Pell didn't answer, so I settled back in the plush seat to watch the city go by. Above us I could see the seams of the solar panels running down the middle of the street. This made sense if, as Rock had said, the panels were able to vary their pitch enough to let water and debris run off. Beneath the panels, buildings varied from old sprawling ranch-style homes to a variety of tall and short apartment complexes. Strip malls and convenience stores dotted the corners of intersections, and occasionally whole huge blocks were taken up with open malls.
In this land of always night, colors appeared muted, if at all. Some bright neon signs flashed on and off to lure customers into this bar or that video rental center, but the thickness of the air seemed to leech the life from the lights. Racing through the city in Pell's Elite, I felt like a cockroach scuttling across a kitchen floor in fear that someone would turn the lights on and squash me.
"How did the city ever get the populace to agree to putting this thing up?"
Pell shrugged stiffly, and I immediately assumed anything he said would be half-fabrication. "Phoenix City Council lost some public referendums in the late '80s. They decided that was not the way anything could get done. Working with the Feds, they had the Environmental Protection Agency sue the city because, with the ozone layer going wonky, there was an increased incidence of skin cancer. Then they also inspired some trouble out at the Palo Verde Nuclear Plant. Pinned some sabotage on an eco-terrorist group they called Blue Thunder—fried a couple of people because of it.
"All of a sudden, every tree-hugger and anti-nuke freak pushed for an alternate power source. The city threatened to annex large parts of the desert to the southeast of here to blanket with solar panels, but the same environmentalists protested. In a brilliant compromise, the Sierra Club and other groups that live outside the city agreed to let the city build the solar collection panels above the city. We used to be known as the Valley of the Sun, which is still true up there, but down here we're the Valley of Midnight."
"Incredible." As we continued on, I noted, in places, a parallel road system approximately 40 feet above us. "What's with the dual roadway?"
"In Phoenix, you can't dig down because the ground is baked hard. The upper roads connect some of the citadels with each other, though only contract labor uses them. Notice how they don't have any exits, just run on straight lines?"
"That's so regular Mikes like us can't get on them. You enter and exit only at corpvils like Lorica or Honeywell & Koch. Or City Center—as if we'll ever see the inside of that place."
I decided I did not like Rock's attempt at including me in as "one of the boys," and I heard some bitterness in his voice when he mentioned City Center. I did not know who or what I was, but I knew I was not the same as him. Even so, I could see how Coyote could find him useful. The man had an open face, but used it well to conceal a scheming mind. Pell had correctly seen that he had not made a good impression on me, so he sought to change it. While he failed, his chameleonlike ability would make him very useful as a go-between with different groups.
Rock pulled into a parking lot and honked the horn. A garage door in the side of a warehouse opened up, but only barely enough to let the Elite squeak through. Rock hit a button on the dash that retracted his antenna, then pulled forward. "Watch yourself in here. These neo-Nazi freakos are truly bad, but they know their stuff. Be careful; these bleach-brains have no sense of humor." He frowned. "Knew I should have driven the Benz."
Rock let the Elite roll forward into the lightless warehouse, and that started my palms itching. Behind us I heard the door roll shut, then suddenly two dozen arc-lights flooded the place with light. Instant white-out for me, but as I squinted and shaded my eyes, I saw Pell had pulled on a pair of mirrored sunglasses.
Okay, Rock, if these are the games we will play...
Rock opened his door and got out. I did the same, moving slowly and easily to make it obvious to the silhouettes behind the lights that I was unarmed and very nearly blind. Throwing his arms wide, Rock greeted a short man with long, blond hair, exchanging back-slapping hugs. "Heinrich, you son of an Alsatian bitch, you look great!"
Heinrich, who looked about as healthy as an albino mushroom farmer, grinned broadly. "Stein, you have not changed. What can I do you for today?" He snapped his fingers, and three-quarters of the lights died.
Rock nodded toward me. "He needs some boots, a vest, maybe a jacket."
Heinrich came around the front of the Elite and looked up into my face. "Gut, they are green."
"Pardon?" I knew the German expression I wanted to use was "Verzeihung," but I felt disinclined to use it for two reasons, the primary being that his German and his accent had undoubtedly been learned by watching too many Nazi wet-dream war movies.
"I said your eyes are green, and this is good. That means there is no blood from the mud people in you."
I smiled. "Or it means my contact lenses are green." I thoroughly detest race-hatred, and I was starting to get angry that Rock had brought me here.
Heinrich leaned close to get another look at my eyes, but Rock slapped him on the back and laughed. "He was joking, Heinrich."
"We in the Warriors of the Aryan World Alliance do not take racial purity lightly. I have heard he spent the night with a beaner."
"Just sleeping, Heinrich, not swapping blood." Rock gave me a frown, then draped his arm over Heinrich's bare shoulders and steered him deeper into the warehouse. "This is business, remember?"
"Heinrich, would it make a difference if I were 'tainted?'"
The little man turned and nodded slowly. "It would cost Herr Stein more, and get you less. Your attitude may accomplish that yet."
"Easy, Heinrich, you owe our mystery man here. He dusted a Reaper lab. Who knows what they were harvesting and selling for transplant."
" Ja, good point." Heinrich turned back and led Rock into the maze of wide shelving units running from floor to ceiling.
Their departure gave me a chance to look around. Aside from the obligatory portraits of Adolf Hitler, Evan Mecham and Tom Metzger, the place actually looked fairly normal. This section of the two-story building had no second floor, but a catwalk ran around the walls at roughly 12 feet. Armed guards roamed along the catwalk, carrying submachineguns and practicing truly disdainful sneers.
All of the Warriors I saw wore the same sort of uniform Heinrich had sported. Gray jodhpurs were tucked at the knee into gleaming cavalry boots. Black suspenders held the pants up, and only three of them wore anything more on their upper torso. Those three—one man and two of the five women I saw—sported gray T-shirts with a Nazi eagle emblazoned across the chest like a superhero insignia.
The Warriors appeared to me to be uniformly lean. They wore their hair very short, with the men favoring the high and tight cut of special military forces or corporate security teams. The women tended toward longer hair or more stylish cuts, but none of them let their hair get beyond shoulder length. And, yes, of course, everyone had their hair bleached white blond.
The odd thing about all of them—and it took me a moment to catch it—was that they had undergone some very subtle cosmetic surgery. On the men, the haircut almost hid it, but I could see how implants had been inserted beneath their scalp to give their skull more height. It literally made their foreheads look larger, which would have made them look smarter if not for the piggish i
gnorance in their eyes.
The guns they carried were impressive. I don't know how I did it, but I identified them as Honeywell & Koch MP-7s. Like my Krait, those guns took 10mm ammo in their 30-round banana magazines. Heinrich had worn a sidearm instead of one of the MP-7s. I did not get a good look at it, but I guessed it was an antique Walther he kept more as a memento than because of its firepower.
Rock and Heinrich returned quickly with the items I needed. The Bianchi shoulder holster fit perfectly and Heinrich had even strapped two loaded Krait clips into place on it. The Kevlar vest they showed me looked sufficient to stop anything this side of a big-game round. I grunted and tossed it on my seat.
They brought me two pairs of boots, which was probably Rock's idea. The first was a pair of standard punk-issue Doc Martin's. I rejected them a priori and opted for the more appealing Schwarzkopf boots. They fit snugly, and I laced them up. As I did so, Rock wandered off and left me there with Heinrich.
"You know, my friend, you should not think so harshly of us." He opened his arms and took his brethren in with one generous gesture. "We are here protecting what our people have earned in this world. You are not a stupid man. Being in that den, even for one night, would have told you what kind of people they are. They dilute us and drag all mankind down to the level of beasts."
I finished knotting off my second boot, then stood slowly and towered over Heinrich. "By no stretch of imagination am I your friend. What I saw in that home was a loving family doing its best to eke out an existence by any means possible. They are less a threat to you than, say, I am."
I let my words hang in the air between us. Heinrich concentrated hard enough to make me combust by an act of his will, but I just got chills looking at him. A couple of his roving guards stopped to watch us, and the tension built as if we were in a crash-dive on a sub. I watched his eyes and read his desire to draw his gun and shoot me, but he knew I'd make him eat it.