CHAPTER 3: A MAN RETURNS TO A BAR
In a cell so small that the walls pressed in on his shoulders, back and chest Thomas Hieronimo squatted in perfect stillness like a fly caught in amber.
He had been here so long he had begun to forget what he looked like, and now when he thought of himself, he saw himself as sensations, four points of pain in blackness. And yet, he knew that he was not hungry or thirsty. And that terrified him, because if he had not been here long enough to become hungry or thirsty, if he had really only been here hours, or maybe even minutes…
He screamed suddenly and he felt his scream shiver along the walls like rippling water.
If he had only been here for minutes, then what would the years feel like?
Then suddenly, there was a creaking and Thomas was bathed in yellow light and his darkness-gorged eyes became pinpoints of agony.
Through streaming tears he could see two figures silhouetted against the light, black as death
Minutes later he was being marched through the hallways of the Combat Tower with two Red Scorpions behind him. Every joint in his body was screaming in pain but he refused to let it show. If these goons were marching him to a firing squad he’d be damned if he’d give them the entertainment value of a silly walk.
The walked what seemed like a mile of grey floor and wall before reaching a tiny green door.
One of the Reds opened it, roughly shoved Thomas inside.
In the elevator, crushed between the two Reds, Thomas came dangerously close to panicking.
Just when he felt his last nerve about to snap the door opened and they were out in hallway.
Another mile of grey floor and wall was walked.
Another door, larger this time, black.
The Red pressed a button.
Thomas watched the door swing open and felt hands grip either shoulder.
This is it, he thought.
He was quite surprised therefore to find himself flung roughly through the air and onto the street.
He leaped to his feet, ignoring his protesting muscles, and proceeded to brush the sand off his clothes.
That wasn’t right.
He turned to face the two Reds.
“Go on.” said one “Beat it.”
“Excuse me?” said Thomas.
“You’re free to go. Take a walk.”
“I’m sorry.” said Thomas “Maybe you don’t know who I am? I’m Thomas Hieronimo. I started a riot, almost killed Mabus, raised an army and tried to take over Gomorrah. Are you sure you haven’t confused me with someone else?”
For someone so big, the Red Scorpion was able to get up in Thomas’ face with impressive speed.
“Let me make this very clear to you” said the Red “I know exactly who you are. You are the guy who got a whole load of my friends killed. You are the guy who should be rotting in that box until we have finished making up a very long list of ways to hurt you before your body finally gives out and dies from pain. Not from injury, not from shock. From pain. You should be one of those very, very select people who actually die from pain. But instead you’re the guy who we got orders to turn loose this morning. Orders from Mabus himself. And I am normally real good at following orders. But this one’s a doozy. So how about you walk away from here before my discipline is tested any further?”
And with that, he turned on his heel and walked back towards the door.
“Wait a minute!” Thomas called “Mabus ordered me to be released?”
“Yeah.” said the second Red “Imagine our surprise.”
The first Red growled in a way that suggested a stronger emotion than surprise had been his first reaction.
“Why?” Thomas wondered aloud.
“Maybe he figured you’d learned your lesson. Or, I dunno. Maybe he figured there’s someone out there in this city of lunatics, murderers and psychopaths who lost somebody because of you and who has a better imagination than we do. Who knows? Enjoy your freedom.”
And with that the slammed the door and Thomas was left in the New Gomorrah street, up to his ankles in sand.
He looked down.
“Sand.” he said aloud “That’s new.”
On a hunch he looked up.
“Sky.” he said aloud “That is also new.”
He had known things would be different on the outside, but still…
The city had changed, body and soul.
New Gomorrah as Thomas remembered it had been a seething black mass of tenement buildings and tower blocks, ringed by filthy hovel camps, a black stone pit surrounded by brown and stinking wood and fabric. Breaking up the skyline, the jagged demon’s paw of the Medical Tower, the great semi-circular beetle shell of Xanadu, the solid brick that was the Combat Tower and in the centre the needle-thin spire of Mabus’ Chamber. And over it all, more awesome and more hideous than all of them had been the great stone sky, the lid that held the madness in. Thomas remembered the smell of violence in the air, the itching sensation under his skin and behind his eyes when he walked the streets that at any minute carnage would erupt like a bursting dam.
As he stalked the streets kicking plumes of red sand before him it felt like he was walking through a ghost town. Streets that had once been sluggish, flowing rivers of humanity were now dusty and deserted. Thomas counted maybe three others on the street, hunched figures wrapped so heavily in clothing that he couldn’t make out their features, staggering against the razor wind.
The city seemed all but deserted.
He felt around in his pocket.
Amazing. They had left the 15 Gomorran talons he had in his pocket when he had been jailed. Even more amazing, they had left him his daggers.
He turned towards the centre of the city, and in the distance, through flying pillars of sand he could just about make out the thin, death-black sliver that was the Chamber.
Why are you doing this, old man? he thought to himself.
Are you trying to tell me that all is forgiven, or that I’m not even worth punishing?
Is this mercy or contempt?
Leonard the barman looked up at Thomas’ entrance and slammed the glass he was cleaning onto the bar so hard it shattered.
“What the Hell do you think you’re doing here!?” Leonard roared.
“Ex…excuse me?” Thomas stammered.
“You dare come in here?! Into my bar?! After the stunt you pulled? You got some neck fellah!”
“Oh yes…the riot…em…terribly sorry…please accept my most heartfelt apologies…” Thomas pleaded.
“Save it!” Leonard snarled, grabbing a shotgun from behind the counter and blasted Thomas three times in the chest.
Silence descended on the bar as Leonard stood over the mangled remains of the Thief’s Son.
“The management reserves the right to refuse admission.” Leonard said quietly.
Oh, how Leonard wished that was what happened when Thomas walked into the bar. As it was, he simply glanced nervously at his nice, clean, newly repaired establishment, prayed that nothing was going to happen to it and tried very, very hard not to make eye contact with Thomas.
“Hello barkeep.” said Thomas politely.
Leonard was already sweating. He grunted vaguely and kept cleaning what was rapidly becoming one of the cleanest glasses in recorded history.
Thomas took out a single bronze eight talon piece and spun it on the counter top. He watched the two sides spinning, the scorpion and the figure eight blending into each other before it finally shivered to stillness, the scorpion facing up.
“Glass of red.” said Thomas dully.
Leonard took the bottle and began to pour the wine very carefully as his hands were shaking.
Thomas felt a tap on his shoulder.
He turned and ducked in a single movement.
The punch went over him and hit Leonard in the face, sending the wine, the glass, and the barkeep crashing to the ground in that order.
Thomas grabbed his attacker and slung him onto the bar and had the dagger to his throat before he could yelp.
He was a granite faced man, balding and with a score of brown scars lashed across his face. Almost perfect in his ugliness.
“Oh bravo!” snarled Thomas “You are the first one with the gumption to take a shot at me. Lose some points for attacking me from behind of course, but still, bravo all the same! Now, Mister…”
The man was staring at him with white rabbit’s eyes.
“Gustav, Gustav I am going to ask you some questions. Feel free to answer them in whatever order is most convenient but make sure you do answer them or…”
He pressed the dagger in.
“…or ow. Exactly. These questions are: Where are we? Where is the Hangman’s Daughter? Where is the Golden Scorpion? Where is my sister? Where is Ezekiel Holtz? Where is everybody else? In your own time.”
“We’re in the bar…”
“Stop. Already we come to grief. I know we are in the bar.”
“We’re in New Gomorrah.”
“Don’t…are you trying to be funny?”
“No! I swear!”
“Because you will soon be very funny. To me at least, but then my sense of humour is a trifle macabre. Where is the city, now? I have been interned for some time. Before I was locked up there was no sky and no sand. Now there are both. Enlighten me.”
“We’re in Hell.”
“I thought as much. Mabus’ actually did it?”
“Damn him anyway. I am not happy about that. Not your fault of course. Continue.”
“Don’t know where the girl is. They say Mabus traded her to a demon. Some say she’s wandering hell now looking for her father.”
“Who says that?”
“Idiots. Girl’s dead. Nothing can survive this place alone. Especially not a child.”
“I’ve forgotten what came next.”
“Oh yeah, Cole’s on the front line. Trying to push through the second ring, lead us through the storm.”
“Which brings us to…”
“Your sister’s with him. He’s sorta adopted her. She goes everywhere with him.”
“Does she really? How very interesting. And Holtz?”
Gustav actually laughed at this.
“Are you kidding me? If I knew that I’d be there now gutting him for the reward money.”
“Reward money? There’s a reward out for him?”
“For the man who shot Mabus? Yeah. Just a little one.”
“It’s not little at all, is it?”
“I don’t think they’ve invented a number high enough.”
“Hmmm. By any chance do you know what the reward for me is?”
“Dunno. I assumed it’d be a lot.”
“You assumed wrong. There’s no reward on me because I was released.”
“Released?” Gustav’s eyes widened even further, if such a thing were possible.
“I just thought you must have escaped.”
“Your confidence is flattering. But no. Mabus has released me. His express orders.”
“Quite. But, hey! Luck day for you! You get to tell all your prospective bounty hunting friends that I am not in season and that if they try anything Mabus will be most displeased. I’ll probably have killed them before he has a chance to do anything but this way I get spared the effort. Go, go, go.”
He let him up and Gustav was out the door with a speed impressive for a man so large. Thomas turned to face the other patrons.
“I’m going to have my drink now, so anyone who wants to chance their luck please do so now.”
No one took him up on his generous offer.
Thomas shrugged and leaned over the bar to look at the bleeding, groaning mess on the floor rolling around in the broken bottles and spilt spirits.
“Excuse me.” he said “Little service here?”