I follow Jenny to the market of five roads. Damp hangs low in the cold, making the air thick even though heavy drops fall. Rows of huts line the narrow channel between the brick walls of two factories. Running water darkens everything and sends a little river splashing merrily over Jenny’s feet and mine. It’s a small, claustrophobic world. If it weren’t cold it would feel cozy, but the mist swirls, giving the open doorways of the huts and the gaping windows of factories a kind of haunted, dreamlike, look, as if everything’s shifting like it were built in treetops.
In the market, the familiar sprawl of booths lays ruined, empty of movement besides rain and water. Burnt-out police cars block four of the five ways. More than a few bodies lay like garbage, strewn among the overturned stands. Bullet holes mark the shop-fronts and three-meter cut-stone wall of the monkey shrine around the perimeter. It looks like the police tried to form a barricade against something coming from the temple, but it was too little too late. Some of the bodies are police, others civilian. Their blood spreads with the rain-water, adding a red tint to the mud.
Jenny pauses at the bumper of one burnt-out police car and her eyes scan the wreckage, lingering on the same black, German-made car still parked in the corner from when we were last here.
Someone whimpers, somewhere in the market. I can’t tell where.
“Hell of a party,” Jenny says.
Immediately a voice calls out in Thai:
‘Don’t come! Don’t come in! You’ll wake them!’
But Jenny doesn’t understand. She darts across the open space to the closest merchant stand and pauses, revolver held low.
“Jenny!” I hiss.
She glances over her shoulder and frowns. I reach her in a burst of speed and crouch.
“Something’s wrong,” I tell her.
Running steps splash in a puddle. A body sprints, bare backed and low to the ground, between the market stands. Another moves through the rain, and another. They’re coming at us like a pack of wolves.
“Move,” I hiss, but Jenny stays still as a stone. She raises her gun an instant before a running figure rounds an overturned cart half a dozen yards away. The man is naked, local, middle-aged, his patchy skin stained with something dark and his face hollow with that sucking emptiness.
Her gun barks and a dead face slaps the mud at her feet. Its eyes and lips have been pecked off by birds. White power rushes out of its eyes and the bullet hole between them, leaving behind a corpse devoid of life or memory.
We run. The white moves in something behind an empty fruit stand an instant before a hollow face leaps over it, carried by a coil of that shimmering void. Pale hands reach. There’s no aggression, only evil empty.
As I backpedal, her gun snarls again and the void gives way to a soldier’s face, staring and dead as it topples past.
She’s already away from me, running hard for the open street that leads to Bitter Flower.
Someone else shoots rapid panic fire from a gun much louder than Jenny’s. A male voice bellows with inarticulate fear.
Jenny moves ahead of me but running feet slap the mud behind, catching up fast. I turn back. White and void reach for me, but the body carrying them has its flaws; I slip the clutching fingers and my counter taps a purple mark buried in naked ribs. It splits apart with a flash of green lightning. That’s new. Flesh cracked like shattered china fans across the mud in a three-yard-long spray.
Another comes behind it, and another behind that. Their wild movements have an animal ferocity but a calculated feint fools the first and its torso shatters as I find the flaw there. The second springs at my flank but Jenny’s gun cracks, her third shot finds a third mark in the target’s heart, and it spills against me, dead before its fingers can clutch. I let it fall.
The other shooter’s bullet buzzes past my ear so I run, looking for hard cover in the yard full of wood and cloth.
From the corner of my eye I see the shooter move past the black car, a policeman with an officer’s stripes, his rifle a long black void against the maelstrom of terror and anger that makes up his living aura. He aims for me, but Jenny’s gun pops again and the purple flower of agony blooms in his chest. He steps back, clutching the wound. The rifle falls from his hands and he sinks with his back to the black car.
I pause by a water barrel. There’s no more movement. Jenny waits, crouched behind the flimsy cover of a wood pallet. When our eyes meet she opens the cylinder of her pistol and ejects the four spent shells. I shake my head and shrug. We’ll find another way. She nods and starts past the burned-out cars at the market’s edge.
At that barricade, I can see down the sixty-yard street to where the alley leading to Bitter Flower turns off. From the mouth of that alley, the yellow petals of the kundai tree spread like spilled sunlight.
I stop behind the barricade. More abandoned police cars punctuate the narrowing way, and Jenny moves on, keeping one of the cars between her and the dangers ahead.
The street is a river of corpses, spread nearly hand to hand from gutter to gutter, bumper to bumper, head to heel. There must be a more than a hundred of them, as if they had been packed into this road when a bomb went off, but if there was an explosion then I see no other sign of it.
It can’t have been a bomb. One corpse holds the knife buried in its own throat. A rifle with a barrel split by misfire lays where it was dropped; in front of it, three men were killed by the discharge, and behind it, the owner stands with his head impaled on a street sign cross-bar. Looking deeper, I see the blue sigils of a strange power shifting beneath the surfaces of things, like a spider web whose heart lays beyond the gaping alley mouth.
“Jenny wait!” My call stops her. She looks back from about halfway to the intersection. “Come back!”
A gunshot breaks the still. I spin on my heels, looking for the shooter as I duck behind the hood of a car. Cover is only so useful if you don’t know where the shots are coming from.
A muzzle flash snaps my attention to where the shooter lays by the bumper of the black car. The officer’s drab uniform and twisting aura bear the marks of the bullet hole Jenny put in him and the white empty grows behind his eyes even as I watch.
I didn’t know that could happen. It’s spreading on its own?
His revolver wavers in his hand. His eyes are wild and so is his second shot – the bullet zips past close enough to hear its buzz and meaty impact into a body in the street. The shooter’s face is a twisted mask of desolation held together by fear.
Behind that face a depthless vortex falls away, empty and slowly growing deeper. I only stare a moment, then he squeezes off a third wild shot and I duck back to get out of his field of fire.
Jenny’s lain down in the street, her gun arm splayed toward the shooter.
“Leave him!” I tell her, as I jog past, but she doesn’t move.
“Hey,” I say, turning toward her as the wild-eyed cop fires off another shot. “What, did you find more bullets? Come on!”
Broken glass jingles a sharp sound where the policeman’s bullet landed.
I grab Jenny’s shoulder and haul her over. Her gun falls from loose fingers. There’s blood on her hair, and the mud beneath her face is dark with it. A hole in the back of her head is much smaller than the one gaping at me like a sick mouth in her forehead. It throws up a sputtering flow of blood. Her eyes stare. They stay open even as the thick red pools into them. I cover the hole in her forehead, but the blood keeps coming out.
“More bullets,” I mutter, “we’ll figure it out.”
But she isn’t moving, and my eyes see the angry reality of her injury carved through her life-force with a finality that cannot be repaired.
The policeman fires again as I gather her in my arms. His bullet dies with a wet slap in the mud of the street.
I curl up around her, holding her close. Her body rests limp as chewing gum in my arms. She rasps a long breath and doesn’t inhale. I hold her. I don’t know what else to do. Her cypress smell clings to her dress, despite the rain and mud. The cloth at her shoulder is strangely clean.
Her warmth lingers, but the rain steals it away.
The policeman fires another shot. It must be his last.
Some of the mud comes off her cheek as I wipe it. Then I set Jenny down, as gently as I can. The intersection is a bog of muddy puddles and the bodies of cars and people. I walk toward the policeman. His gun stays aimed at me, his finger tugging at an impotent trigger.
A black truncheon sits in a mound of mud by the car’s front bumper, probably dropped by a policeman. I take it up.
His face is haggard and there’s blood on his cheek and on his shirt. He stares up at me as the white makes his face empty. His gun’s hammer keeps clicking, over and over again.
Bright behind his eyes burns a memory of Agafya standing like a bell-tower, grasping this man’s face in one huge hand while the white moves around them and down the grasping arm.
“Help me,” he whispers while the gun continues to click.
I look for the weakness in his skull. My first blow sends fractures lacing through the bone. The second splits it open like a rotten melon. His gun hits the mud. It’s joined a moment later by oozing blood and grey matter and a curl of steam.
It’s the only help I have.
I keep thinking of a postcard. The piece of paper blocks out my vision, makes it hard to look past to see the street where Jenny’s corpse makes a pale contrast to the browns of mud and blood. The paper has a dog-ear and slight moussing on the bottom edge. It reads:
Jenny’s dead. Take her gun. Fight hard. –Dad
I stand near Jenny, with rain water running over my face, my body an aching mess and a hole you could sail a boat through where my heart was.
“We had a plan, kid,” I tell her. “What happened to the plan?”