The Ballad of Mario Crane, Part 3

They turned to look at me, each of them horrible in their own fashion, people who must wear masks to appear remotely human. In the center, there was a man who must have been a giant when he was alive, but now occupied his former space like the skeleton of a burned-up skyscraper. He was grinning, like he was enjoying himself, like he was happy, like he didn’t even recognize that he was already dead. His skin was waxy, sunken in to touch every bone, and around his neck there was a noose hanging like a necktie.

To his right stood a black man — I think he was black, under the blood it was hard to tell — wearing a fisherman’s yellow rain slicker. His eyes had been scratched out with some kind of claw, so I don’t think he could tell that his slicker hadn’t protected the tarot cards he was holding from being drenched in blood like the rest of him. Every one of his finger joints had a string tied to it, leading off to things I couldn’t see.

And to their left, a machine, one that was supposed to look like a woman if it had been completed. But a whole side of “her” face was missing, letting me see the gears and ratchets making up the assembly where a human being would have had a brain. They weren’t all there — pieces were obviously missing on the inside just as well as the outside. How was it still working without all the parts in its head? Was it still working? And who the hell decided to make its fingers out of scalpels?

The mouth on the machine pitched open, and emitted words, as if reading numbly from a script pasted together from other bits of text: “Lie down on your face, and don’t do anything foolish. Sloane will shoot you if you try.”

“Listen to the lady,” the skeletal giant, said, not nearly in the wheeze I expected from something so emaciated. “Or I might just shoot ya just for the fun of it.”

“Do … do you guys not notice this?” I asked, still holding my hands up. “This is not normal! She’s a broken machine, he can’t see, and you’re dead. Can you even lift that rifle?”

He could.

* * *

I would have loved to have a better explanation … some way I could have laughed off my experience as entirely normal. But when I woke up in an undertaker’s, with a hammer and a ruler sticking out of the gaping hole in my chest, there were no alternate explanations forthcoming: I was dead … and now I wasn’t … sort of.

I didn’t have the time or the presence of mind to comment on my situation when I woke up. Not even on the fact that the undertaker was treating the hole in my chest like a storage drawer — seriously, how unprofessional can someone be? — all I could do was grunt and roll off the table, causing the undertaker to scream. I probably would have too had I the breath in me, but instead all I could do was wheeze out, “What … happened?”

He stammered “You were dead? I figured you were gonna stay dead?” and all I could think was, Why is he asking that like it’s a question?

* * *

Back at the stagecoach office. Three nightmares, three broken things trying and failing to appear human. “Lie down on your face, and don’t do anything foolish. Sloane will shoot you if you try.” I’d been shot by him once in reality, and once again in my dreams. Let it not be said I never learn. I didn’t even wait for Sloane to speak up. Hands over my head, face in the dust. Not gonna be a hero this time.

Silence for a while … I fidget … then gunfire. I raise my head to see a different room. I’m in the undertaker’s again, surrounded by corpses. Sloane and his cronies murdered everyone else there without me to stop them. They didn’t shoot me this time. Maybe because I was already dead. A man who lies down while those around him die can’t be much better than dead himself, can he?

I sit up, and the undertaker screams. I raise my hands, try to get out something to calm him down, but he’s already at the point where he says “You were dead? I figured you were gonna stay dead?”

He reaches under his table and comes up with a dirt-covered shovel, repeating “Stay dead?” He’s between me and the only exit, and I don’t have time to say much before he caves my head in.

* * *

In the days since I stumbled out of the undertaker’s office, I have tried to get my head around the inexplicable phenomena that returned me to life. My body is different now; my skin is parched and dry, stretching thinner and thinner over my bones. I don’t feel any weaker — in fact, a ruinous strength has taken hold in me. I have to be careful not to destroy what I touch, as I learned the first few times I tried to have a glass of water. At least giant shards of glass piercing my hand don’t seem to do any lasting damage. Oh, and speaking of trying to drink, normal food just doesn’t do it anymore … only meat seems to help my hunger.

There’s also the gaping hole where a .44-40 round removed my heart, but that is easy to cover with my shirt. Honestly, that one is the least of my problems.

My mind hasn’t changed … but it is no longer alone. Something brought me back, something dark, and it’s decided to take up residence. I’d like to think it was my guardian angel, but the fact that I’m inadvertently crushing things and sated only by animal flesh doesn’t bode well for it being on the side of the angels. I’d ask a priest, but I’m kind of afraid that talking to a priest while being a walking corpse isn’t my best move. I’d ask the thing living inside me, but it isn’t all that talkative. Only time he seems to communicate is in the dreams he sends me, and those certainly aren’t any fun. Either he’s trying to wear down my willpower, weaken my spirit by tormenting me with twisted visions, or he’s just trying to annoy me; he won’t say which. He won’t even tell me his name. I call him Bippy, since he won’t speak up to object.

* * *

Back in the stagecoach office, where it always starts. Three figures, like they always are: giant dead man, half-assembled murder-machine woman, and bloody cultist. If I stop and talk, he shoots me. If I surrender, he shoots everyone else.

The machine gets to “lie down on” and I charge Sloane, aiming for his left shoulder, putting me closer to the blind cultist than the woman-shaped killing machine. Out of range for her to kick me, inside the minimum range of his rifle arm, I smack into him full force, and we go tumbling over the counter in a heap. He’s surprised by this, and before he can pull a knife, I have him in a triangle choke. Once his right arm is trapped under my leg and his guns are kicked out of reach, I draw my service revolver on his two flunkies.

“All right, now both of you, face down on the ground!” They are dead silent — it appears that Bippy can make any new image he likes, but can’t do too well with sound, and so any time I deviate from the ‘script’, I’m left hanging in this eerie silence. But the two do comply, and they vanish underneath the low counter. They stay down, beyond my sight. I can’t even hear Sloane struggling in my grip, because I’d never heard that sound in life. I don’t have any cuffs, but I’m not feeling that charitable anyway. So to ensure Sloane isn’t any more trouble, I break both his arms before I let him go. They’re brittle like sticks of chalk and snap off in a cloud of choking dust.

His flunkies are gone and their hostages are dead. When they dropped from my field of view, they started stabbing, and I couldn’t hear any of it. They murdered eight people within feet of me, and I couldn’t do anything because I didn’t even know about it. Then they slithered off like the snakes they are.

Behind me I hear a voice: “You were dead?” I turn, and the room behind me has become the Liver Creek undertaker’s. The undertaker is standing there with his shovel once more, examining the carnage, thinking I should be among the bodies. He’s probably right. He lifts the shovel at me. I lift my revolver. He charges as I squeeze the trigger.

I tell myself what we always told ourselves in New York: anyone who attacks a policeman deserves what he gets. If I’d only had a baton I’d be dead instead of him. Now nine people are dead because of me. I walk out of the undertaker’s onto the street.

Gomorra sits on the horizon, the only landmark on a vast plain of grey. There’s a hole in the sky above it; a great sucking chest wound in the heavens. There’s a black-clad ferryman sitting in a boat, beckoning me to to ride with him across the desert, to finish my journey into the land of the dead that is Gomorra, California. I reach into my pocket for the customary two coins, but he waves me off; this one is on the house.

It is only after I board and the desert turns to inky, black water that I see another boat behind me with another ferryman. This one holds my wife and child. The boat comes to Liver Creek, and from the waves around them, I see Sloane’s two cronies rise with knives drawn. I leap from my vessel, but cannot reach them before their throats are slit, and I sink into the darkness.

* * *

In the weeks since my death, I’ve tried to figure out who I am now and what the heck I ought to be doing. I wired back home and told them not to come; this is obviously not a situation I want my family to see. It didn’t take any threat of Sloane to do it either, but the dream showed me it was a bad idea to forget about doing it. I hope Esther’s sister isn’t fed up with them yet.

I never picked up my job with Morgan, either. I don’t think a respectable woman like Lillian Morgan would want anything to do with an animated corpse, nor would she want the walking dead poking around her ranches. I did complete the journey to Gomorra. And when I sleep, that journey unfolds in front of me, a phantasmagoria of dim, dreamed torments where no matter what I do, I cause death, and no matter what decision I make, it is the wrong one.

It’s really starting to get on my nerves.

This town is awful. The Sloane gang terrorizes it regularly; the police don’t seem to have the manpower to dissuade them. I’d offer my experience, but again … corpse animated by black magic … probably. The people here are violent and foolish. Every third building is some kind of casino or saloon or brothel; I don’t even know where people are getting the money to spend at them. The economy here is nothing like the city.

Well, maybe it is. I’ve been keeping my head down … feeling out the situation, maintaining a low profile. I try to avoid doing things that Bippy can turn into more nightmares, hoping that maybe I can learn something new from the visions I get.

* * *

Stagecoach office again. No more mucking about. Rush Sloane before he even opens his mouth, tackle him behind the counter. Get my gun up to the cronies. “Okay, hands where I can see them, and don’t leave my sight.” No. You know what? No more chances for them. Once they’re disarmed, I fire.

The woman falls first, into a pile of metal shavings and gears, as if my bullet disrupted the delicate balance holding all her pieces together. The other one’s eyes go wide, and his mouth starts moving a mile a minute. Maybe he is begging for his life, and maybe he’s invoking some fell curse. I hadn’t heard either before, so no sound is coming out anyway. I shoot him, too. He explodes like a rotten cantaloupe, blood everywhere. I break Sloane’s arms and stand. The hostages are alive this time … but they shiver in fear at the sight of me.

Better afraid than dead, I guess.

Now it’s time for the undertaker to come in with his shovel, and tell me “Stay dead?” I shot him last time … but seeing those terrified faces staring up at me, I don’t want to this time. I brace myself for the swing, catch the shovel, and yank it out of his hand. I don’t want anyone else to die.

He won’t let go when I pull, and I send him careening backwards into the counter. He collides with a sickening thump, head gashed open by the counter’s edge. The hostages all look at me like the monster I am. He shouldn’t be hurt. He should be fine; nobody is that fragile. This is unfair … but I can’t really complain, can I? Because people are that fragile. Everyone. They all break at my touch.

No reason to stay and be gawked at. I walk out of the office and promptly turn around, facing away from Gomorra, looking for the boat carrying my family. Of course, there’s no boat; it’s the desert. But there is the telegraph office I used to send the message to them. Maybe Bippy thought turning the desert into water was a bit too on the nose.

The two people I met outside the office — the real office, when I actually sent the message to Esther — are standing outside. The man’s as dapperly dressed as ever, but that’s all there is to him; he’s just a dressmaker’s mannequin now, a wooden doll with no features. The woman next to him looks as she did in the real world, which is to say shabby, unkempt and sleepless, with a tamed raven on her shoulder. She looks entirely normal actually until she turns around, and I see her heart’s hovering outside her chest, and upon it is a weary, half-lidded eye.

“Why thank you,” says the mannequin-man, even though I didn’t actually compliment him this time. “You know, if you’re interested, I have all my tailoring done by Bethany Shiile. She’s always happy to take on new clientele.”

My response now is the same as it was then, mostly so I won’t throw him off track. “Thanks, but I don’t know how much she could do with someone of my, ah, complexion.” The sidewalk outside the telegraph office has turned into a dock, somehow, and I know my family will be here soon, needing somewhere to moor.

He chuckles. “Are you talkin’ about the fact your skin’s white, or the fact it looks like you left it layin’ out in the desert for a week?” He leans in like he’s going to jokingly jab my ribs, but I care even less than I did the first time. He’s blocking the dock, and if he won’t stop talking, my family will sail on by and miss me. “You wouldn’t be the worst lookin’ fella to come in. But if it’s skin you’re worried about, I know –”

“I don’t get it,” says the girl beside him, interrupting. “Why is the eye on my heart? That’s weird for the sake of being weird. The hole isn’t above Gomorra either. And turning the desert into water? That’s way too on the nose. This whole thing is just a bunch of nonsense symbolism thrown together to try and look meaningful.”

The man doesn’t have neck joints so he has to hop in place to look toward her. “What on Earth are you talking about? Is that bird telling you some story we should be aware of?”

I was as confused as he was when she said those words, because when she did, we were all normal looking people in the real world. But this time, they almost make perfect sense.

She looks straight at me as she continues. “You need to get out of Gomorra. Leave. None of this,” she waves her hand, “means anything. It’s all in your head; there’s nothing here about the future. You’re not going to learn anything except what you wanted to learn anyway.” Then her bird cawed at her, and she turned to answer it, becoming lost in a conversation between human and bird. “No, I don’t … What, is this not happening? Is that guy not actually there? … Well then what’s the problem?”

The mannequin-man continues to stare at her. “You are the single strangest person I’ve ever met, you know that?” He hopped in place to turn back to me. “She is like this every single time she meets someone new. Drives me up the wall.”

Before, I’d just shrugged because she struck me as just as strange. Now I knew what she was seeing the whole time.

* * *

She knew what I would see. She probably knew I would be there at the telegraph station that day; that was why she came at all. And she had an important message for me. Leave Gomorra. Don’t listen to the dreams. The dreams tell me I can’t touch anything without breaking it … that all I bring is ruin and death. But they aren’t true.

I know why I should leave Gomorra. Because outside of this town, in the ruins of its sister city Soddum, the Sloane Gang are holed up.

And I have to find Sloane.

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