Abomination of Desolation
They traipsed across the hardpan in boots, past tumbleweeds stirred from slumber and sent bounding by dry gusts of wind. The dusty hulk of Smiley’s trailer sat alone in the distance, perched on the mesa’s edge surrounded by sage brush, cactus, abandoned tires, and sun-scorched plastic flamingos. The remains of a gutted Baja Bug yawned, its trunk wide open. Smiley’s new love caught their attention—proof-positive his business was going swimmingly: a shiny new pickup bluer than the desert sky on a summer day.
They’d left their own vehicle, a quarrelsome hatchback louder than its size, on the shoulder of the highway five miles back. The last thing they wanted was to alert Smiley—or that boy of his—to their arrival.
When they stood within ten yards of the dusty screen hiding Smiley’s front door, two aluminum steps above the baked earth, Michelle shielded her eyes from the sun’s glare with a bronze, sweat-slicked hand. “Think we should knock?” The stale breeze tossed her black hair over one shoulder. She wore a sleeveless Metallica T-shirt and skinny jeans tucked into snakeskin boots.
“I’m kicking the damn door down.” Susan strode forward to meet a gust head on, squinting hazel eyes into the wind blowing back her dirty blonde hair. Her boots and jeans could have come from the same outlet mall as Michelle’s, but instead of a clichéd heavy metal shirt, she wore a ribbed white tank that exposed her toned arms and accentuated the swell of her bust. “Smiley, you son of a bitch!” She leapt onto the second aluminum step and brought up one knee. “Get your ass out here. We’ve got business with you!” Her boot smashed through the brittle screen. The door shuddered; another hit would cave it inward.
Michelle glanced around. Nobody else was out this way. But she didn’t think to check underneath the trailer, thick with shadows where the ground lay twenty degrees cooler.
The door swung open. Smiley Barnes appeared in a stained undershirt that struggled to contain his belly and red jockey undershorts that left very little to the imagination.
“Hey there, girls!” He grinned, toasting their unexpected visit with a can of warm beer. “Back for another dose?”
Susan’s arm shot through the broken screen and seized his throat below a pair of sunburned jowls. “Your pills don’t work, you stupid bastard.”
Michelle pointed an accusatory finger up at him. “And you know full-well they don’t!”
Eyes wide and bloodshot, Smiley gargled. Susan released his throat but grabbed a fistful of his undershirt along with the silver hair that frothed over the neckline. Ignoring his yelps, she hauled him out through the remains of the screen door. She leapt from the aluminum steps and threw him to the ground, where he landed on all fours. The beer went clattering across the scorched earth, splattering its fizzy contents.
“Hey, if you want your money back—”
Susan laughed bitterly. “Too late for that, Smiley.”
“You sold us bad stuff, don’t you get it?” Michelle advanced, looking ready to kick him while he was down. “Expired!”
“No, no, that’s—you’re mistaken.” He waved them off, rising onto pink knees. “I sell only the finest, highest grade pharmaceuticals. Smiley Barnes would never intentionally—”
“Intentional or not, we’re both pregnant.” Susan’s fists clenched white. “Thanks to you.”
“Both of you?” Smiley blinked, eyes glancing from one to the other as he shifted in the dust. They had him flanked. “Well, you-uh know what they say.” He cleared his throat. “Any birth control regimen is guaranteed to work only ninety percent of the time—even the stuff you’d get straight from a doctor.”
“Don’t you dare quote us the odds!” Susan kicked a cloud of dust into his face.
He cringed, cursing as he wiped at his eyes. “It’s not like I’m the damn father.”
Michelle chuckled. “Maybe so. But we’re not gonna let you keep doing what you do out here.”
Smiley coughed, spat to one side. “I run a legitimate business, ladies, licensed by the great state of Arizona to—”
“Sell expired pills from Mexico? Yeah, I don’t think so.” Susan drew back her boot and plowed the narrow steel tip into his side. “Not anymore.”
Garbled curses erupted as Smiley fell over, holding up one fleshy hand. “Please, don’t do this! My boy—”
Michelle kicked him in the back of his head, sending him forward. He face-planted in the ground with a spurt of blood, crimson spreading to congeal in the dust. He lay still.
“That’s a start.” Michelle winked at Susan. “Now what?”
“We torch the place.” Susan regarded the trailer with disgust.
Michelle frowned. “Not with his boy inside—”
“Of course not,” Susan snapped. “What do you think I am?” She returned to the aluminum steps and swung open the dilapidated screen to peer into the darkness. “Hey, kid. You in there?”
She didn’t see the shape emerge out from under the hitch end of the trailer, a dirty little boy with bright blue eyes that glowed from the shadows. He wore nothing but a pair of baggy overalls with holes at the knees.
“Susan…” Michelle saw him.
He saw her, too. He stared at her unblinking, stared so hard his eyes jittered in their sockets. A split-second later, Michelle collapsed to the ground with her bones shattered inside the confines of her flesh, piercing her heart and lungs as she dropped to the earth. No more than a sick wheeze escaped her lips, and her eyes remained wide, fixed on the boy well after her heart had stopped beating.
Susan staggered back, unable to believe what she’d just witnessed. “No…” She held out both hands to the boy.
“You hurt my papa.” He looked at Susan, and his eyes danced.
Unlike Michelle, Susan let out a strangled shriek as she broke apart from the inside, falling like a marionette’s puppet with every string severed at the same moment, her body no more than a bag of flesh punctured by sharp sticks.
The boy blinked, and his bright eyes focused on Smiley Barnes, moaning and coughing into the dust as he came to. The boy shuffled over to him and rested a begrimed hand on his sunburned shoulder.
“You okay, Papa?”
Smiley wiped his bloody nose across a bare forearm and rose, using the boy like a crutch as he struggled to his feet. The boy trembled beneath his father’s weight.
“You made this mess, boy,” Smiley blew blood and snot from each nostril, one at a time. “Clean it up now.”
He belched and staggered back into the trailer, leaving his son outside with a slam of the door.
The lights in Howard’s Tavern were just bright enough to glow blue through the haze of cigarette and other varieties of smoke; but Mercer wouldn’t have needed the house lights to see the man approaching him at the bar. Priests had a way of standing out in a place like this.
Father Thomas slid awkwardly onto the stool beside him, judging each movement before making it.
Mercer didn’t glance up from his tumbler of Eurasian whiskey. “Ready to try again?”
“That stuff you’re drinking should do the job for me.” The priest coughed and attempted to clear his throat—a futile effort. He always sounded like he had a serious clog down in his drainage pipes. “A little early in the day, don’t you think?”
“Never.” Mercer tossed back what remained in his glass and checked his exit with a careful nonchalance.
The priest wore a scabbard strapped to the back of his cassock, and Mercer knew the holy man wouldn’t think twice about whipping out his katana in here, before God and everybody—just the one-eyed barkeep and a pair of homeless codgers savoring the bottles they’d splurged on after half a day panhandling. Mercer could see it now: his head dropping off to tumble over the side of the bar, his body twitching like a drunk tap dancer while his spirit shook itself free, inconvenienced with the necessity of finding another host, fresh from Death’s door, that would do just as nicely as the fleshbag he currently wore. Never much fun, that, and dealing with the family relations was even worse.
“Suit yourself.” The Church assassin reached into his coat and Mercer tensed. But the Priest’s cadaverous hand hadn’t gone over his shoulder for the sword but into a breast pocket. “You’ve got to spend all that hard-earned lucre on something, I suppose. It sure as hell isn’t on your accommodations.”
Mercer felt the tug of a grin. He poured another round and toasted the priest—his fourth-floor neighbor from the Plaza Hotel, which, despite the flavor of its name, was little more than a pay-by-the-hour hellhole, home sweet home to plenty of drug addicts, prostitutes, and other local degenerates. Mercer’s clients, more often than not, as well as the priest’s.
“To the Plaza,” Mercer mumbled and tossed back his tumbler. He could feel the sluggish effects of the whiskey, and if his mind had been clearer, he might have worried about his reflexes once the holy man decided to cut the crap and get his Terra Sacra groove on.
Father Thomas slapped a manila folder on the bar and beckoned to the barkeep. “Scotch. Dry.”
The mute bartender nodded once and shuffled to the end of the mirrored shelves crowded with bottles of every shape, color, and vintage.
“Sure you don’t want to move up in the world?” Mercer raised his own bottle.
“Had enough of that acid back in the war. My tastes have matured.”
Mercer doubted that. Word around the Plaza was that the good priest preferred only the youngest, most inexperienced harlots for those two-hour confessions behind his room’s locked door. They always emerged at the end of their “prayer sessions” looking the worse for wear. The bruises, swollen eyes, and fat lips were nothing in comparison to the shame weighing them down after their weekly visits.
“You can’t afford it,” Mercer said, refilling his tumbler. He winked drowsily at the Cyrillic script on the bottle’s label. “The Big Man doesn’t pay you squat.”
“Eternal rest is more than you’ll ever get.”
He had a point there. Unwelcome in both Heaven and Hell, Mercer’s disenfranchised spirit had only this earth to call home, as long as it lasted. But he didn’t really mind. There was plenty to keep him busy here, more than enough souls who needed smuggling into the Afterlife.
The barkeep set the holy man’s drink before him and offered to leave the bottle, but Father Thomas declined, waiting until the man had shuffled to the opposite end of the bar before clearing his throat. Again, a futile effort.
“This is for you.” One of his swollen-knuckled fingers stretched out to tap the folded envelope. He slid it toward Mercer. “Take it.”
Mercer lurched back on his stool. Who was this priest to give him orders?
Father Thomas sipped his Scotch, staring straight ahead at his reflection through the bottles on the shelves. “Do you really want to spend the rest of the day hunting down another suitable host?” He stretched his back, lifting one shoulder, then the other, swiveling to face Mercer. His meaning was clear.
Mercer’s fleshbag fit him nicely—thick-muscled and solid. Its previous owner had maintained it well, and its liver was strong enough to take this “acid” he drank religiously. It had the potential to last him another ten or twenty years—as long as he was able to steer clear of this holy assassin’s blade.
Mercer palmed the envelope and slid it close, peeling open one end. “What is it?”
“A problem.” The priest nursed his drink, shoulders back now, the katana’s scabbard holding him erect.
Mercer slipped his fingers inside and withdrew a short stack of black and white photographs.
“There is a boy out in the desert,” the priest began.
A voice crying in the wilderness, Mercer mused, glancing over the half a dozen images of a dilapidated trailer in the middle of nowhere and a small boy in dirty overalls nosing about outside.
“He has replaced you, for the time being.”
Mercer glanced up. “Really.” The Terra Sacra’s hit list had a certain order to it. As far as he knew, Mercer’s name had always been at the very top. “The kid must be a real hell raiser.” His gaze returned to the photos.
“Do you follow the news?” An odd question, but this holy man was a peculiar duck.
“As little as possible.”
“Birds have been dropping out of the sky by the hundreds, all over the country.”
“End of days?” Mercer smirked.
The priest shifted on his stool, fingered the condensation on his tumbler. “USDA poisoning. The blackbirds were pests, destroying crops.”
Mercer frowned. “What’s that have anything to do with—?”
“None of those starlings died with a single bone broken. They simply dropped out of the sky; their hearts had stopped beating. But here,” his cadaverous finger made a repeat appearance, pointing like something from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at the photographs, “in Arizona, just a few miles from this boy’s trailer, there have been reports of thousands of dead fowl, varying species, with every bone in their bodies shattered as if they were broken up from the inside—without any signs of exterior trauma.”
Mercer nodded, musing. Then he tossed the envelope and photos back onto the bar. “Any particular reason for this show and tell?”
The priest gathered the evidence and returned it to his breast pocket. “We could use your help.”
Mercer nearly choked on his whiskey. “How’s that?” He must have misunderstood.
“The Terra Sacra cannot afford to send any more of our operatives after the boy. We can’t get close. He’s moving on to bigger mammals, destroying more than birds. He’s no respecter of persons.”
“Sounds like your boss.”
“You, however,” the priest continued, “have a certain rare . . . gift.”
Mercer cursed under his breath. These fleshbags sure liked to change their tune once they found a use for you. “You want me to go after him, this Abomination Boy?”
Father Thomas blinked at his use of the A-word.
“That’s what he is, right?” Mercer narrowed his gaze at the holy man. “Some kind of supernatural freak you and your blessed Terra Sacra assassins think should be exterminated?”
“The order came from Saint Peter himself.”
“And I’m sure it was the Big Man’s idea to involve me.”
“He believes you’ll find the terms to be quite agreeable.”
Mercer did his best to appear uninterested.
“We would not expect you to do this job for us without some sort of compensation.” He paused. “And it just so happens that I will benefit as well.”
“Win-win,” Mercer muttered. “But you won’t be the one pulverized by this kid.”
“If you go to Arizona and take care of the situation, Saint Peter will find a replacement for me at the Plaza. You will never see me again.”
“I’m sure you’d like that.” Word was the priest had grown tired of his assignment; recently he’d been referring to the Plaza Hotel as “Hellhole Heights.” He’d gotten older, much older, over the years, while Mercer hadn’t aged a day.
“You can look forward to pulling all manner of pranks on my replacement, some wet-behind-the-ears lad fresh from the Vatican. Think of all the fun you’ll have together.”
Mercer eyed the bulge of the priest’s scabbard. “More than having you come at me with that thing?”
The corner of the holy assassin’s thin lips twitched upward. “What do you say? Are you willing to set aside our differences for a time, or shall I free your spirit from this latest acquisition here and now?”
His bloodshot gaze ran across Mercer’s body, one found cold lying in the Mercy Hospital OR, a John Doe who’d given up the ghost only moments before. After a quick bath and a shave, the thing had been presentable right off the bat.
Mercer almost chuckled, glancing at the one-eyed man down the bar. “You’d have to be desperate.”
The priest ground his teeth. “The child must die. And you’re the only man for the job.”
“I’m not a man.” Mercer drained his glass and smacked the tumbler flat onto the bar. He slid unsteadily off the stool. “But I’ll do it, if only to keep you off my back. You ugly vulture.” He almost chuckled. “I have your word. I go to Arizona, you get replaced.”
Father Thomas crossed himself and raised his right hand. “The word of Saint Peter himself.”
Good enough, Mercer supposed. “One of these days, you’re going to explain how the Big Man keeps in touch with you down here.”
“Privileged information, Soul Smuggler.” The priest flashed a hideous grin.
“Some Terra Sacra secret?”
“One of many.”
Mercer didn’t doubt it.
His boot heels scuffed along the dusty road, a sun-scorched hardpan off the highway where Mercer had abandoned his frothing Falcon GT. He’d left the hood up to cool off the radiator, but that wouldn’t be helping matters anytime soon. Not in this heat.
Mercer hated Arizona—Phoenix, in particular. It was the ugliest terrain he’d ever seen, and the hottest. The closest thing to hell he’d experienced in the past two millennia. Beads of perspiration dribbled down his temples from the band of his black fedora and down his collar to collect in the small of his back, soaking his cotton shirt beneath the long coat that flailed in the parched breeze with every stride . A crispy tumbleweed blew across his path, and he swiveled his head to watch it bound over clumps of sage like a runaway convict.
Ahead, maybe half a mile off, he saw the trailer owned by a drug dealer named Smiley Barnes. The guy specialized in cheap pharmaceuticals carried across the border from Mexico. A fellow smuggler. Father Thomas had pointed out: “You two will have much in common.”
Mercer eyed a flash of light at the lower midsection of the trailer. Some kind of signal?
He let out a low oath. This fleshbag sure liked to sweat. Was it really worth it, driving all the way out into the middle of nowhere, frying his Falcon, hoofing it over five miles in this infernal heat, just to do that confounded priest a favor?
Yes. If it meant that old cadaver would be replaced by some wide-eyed, fresh-faced kid from the Vatican, life could get interesting again.
Until the Terra Sacra found some way to contain Mercer’s spirit, they’d be fighting the same losing battle their predecessors had for centuries. And he would continue to smuggle suicidal souls—those normally barred from entry at the Pearly Gates for the unforgiveable sin—into the Afterlife as long as they could pay. Eurasian whiskey didn’t come cheap, after all.
Mercer eyed the yard as he approached, his boots skidding to a halt at its perimeter. This Smiley fellow liked his privacy; besides the dust-caked trailer, a few plastic flamingos that had seen better days, and a neglected Baja Bug, there wasn’t much else. The truck nearby looked brand new in stark contrast to its surroundings, and Mercer was already sizing it up as a potential exit strategy when he noticed the source of the flashes of light.
“I know why you’re here,” Smiley said thickly as if coming out of a coma, his head bandaged and discolored from a recent injury. Reclining in a beach chair with a foil shield reflecting sunlight at the undersides of his jowls, he cracked one eye open and smirked. “Billy!” The man strained to rise to his feet with a few grunts and groans. “Good luck, stranger. You’re sure as hell gonna need it.” He took his makeshift tanning foil and disappeared into the trailer, leaving the torn screen door to flap shut behind him.
A small shape emerged from the shadows under the hitch end of the trailer.
“Hello, Billy.” Mercer planted his feet shoulder-width apart, unable to help feeling like this was some sort of old western showdown—which brought back more than a few fond memories of the time period. But instead of two gunslingers, this was the meeting of two unholy abominations.
The boy didn’t respond. He stepped into the sunlight in a pair of dirty overalls. Dust and grime clung to him like a living fungus, but his eyes shone clean, bright and blue as turquoise.
“Others have come for you before. Is that right?”
The boy raised an arm to point beyond the trailer where the mesa ended abruptly in a steep cliff. Mercer wondered how many bodies he’d find down there.
“You just want to be left alone,” Mercer said.
The boy’s eyes locked on him. The little abomination gave a slow nod but didn’t blink. Not once.
“Yeah. You and me both, kid.” He didn’t know what else to say. He glanced back the way he’d come and seriously considering leaving. He doubted his Falcon had enough life in it to get him back home, let alone to the nearest gas station. “My car . . .” He gestured vaguely and returned his gaze to the boy—
Who had suddenly come to stand right in front of him. Fast. Very fast. And quiet, staring up at Mercer with eyes that jittered in their sockets.
Mercer cursed as his fleshbag collapsed to the ground, every bone shattered inside the confines of its skin. His spirit shook itself free and hovered for a moment, indecisive.
Now what? Fly all the way home across hundreds of miles on the immortal winds of the ethereal world? Sure, that was an option. But from past experience, Mercer knew it wouldn’t work out so well. Forget this kid and the agreement with the priest; if he didn’t find a workable body in the next hour or two, he’d find his spirit flirting with madness, the kind that could send him into a black hole of spiritual limbo from which he’d never reemerge.
In any other situation, there would have been a hospital or morgue nearby with bodies for the taking. But out here, in this overwhelming desolation where the kid had apparently destroyed every living bird and mammal within a ten mile radius, Mercer’s spirit twitched in a sudden panic.
The boy had already started tugging his corpse by one arm, heaving the broken remains toward the cliff’s edge to dump them over the side.
Of course—there had to be something down there Mercer could slip into, even if it was just long enough to get his head straight, take a minute or two to collect himself.
His spirit swept upward, over the cracked roof of the trailer barbed with old TV antennas and satellite dishes, then plunged to the base of the cliff where a horror story lay scattered among the jagged rocks below: broken corpses of men of the cloth alongside white trash desert rats rotting in the sun and crumpled, overturned vehicles. If Mercer had to estimate, it looked like Smiley and Billy had been visited at least a dozen times already. The most recent additions were two women, a day old at the most.
Beggars couldn’t be choosers, or so the cliché went. Mercer’s spirit penetrated a shattered body wearing a sleeveless Metallica T-shirt, and instantly he knew this fleshbag wouldn’t be carrying him anywhere. Not a single bone remained intact.
He couldn’t sense another living thing within range. There was the boy and his father and little else. A few insects and a lizard or two, but nothing he could use to steer himself back to civilization, even if he got his Falcon running again. He could travel by spirit if worse came to worst, but the idea of losing himself was enough to make him stay put for the moment.
He forced the woman’s crusty eyes open and blinked, expecting the blinding glare of the sun. Instead, he found himself in shadow—but it wasn’t cast by the cliff behind him.
Father Thomas cleared his throat and chuckled softly. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you like this before.”
The woman’s vocal cords were raw and dry, but Mercer forced them to rasp, “Dying?” As if on cue, Billy dumped Mercer’s fleshbag and it flopped among the rocks, spurting blood from every fresh puncture.
“A woman.” The priest reached for the scabbard strapped across his back.
“You followed me.” The woman’s voice slurred, cracked lips sluggish. Mercer couldn’t make even one of her fingers twitch.
The holy assassin’s katana gleamed as he swept it through sunlight. “This is as good a place as any to strand the likes of you. There is no escape for you here, Soul Smuggler.” The blade came down in a single stroke to sever the woman’s head from her body.
But Mercer’s spirit had already switched hosts, returning to his own—what remained of it. “Not much of a plan, priest. I’ve got plenty of corpses here to choose from. Granted, some aren’t in the best shape, but I’ll do what I have to. And when I get bored with you hacking up the meat, I’ll move on.”
“Not with him around, you won’t.” The priest nodded up to where Little Billy stood at the cliff’s edge, staring down at them. “How fast can that spirit of yours move?” The sword struck again, and Mercer’s head toppled among the rocks.
His spirit broke free, rocketing upward steeply, invisible to the mortal eye. Or so he thought.
Racing away from the trailer, backtracking to the smoking Falcon as fast as he could fly, then heading straight for the highway and the nearest town with the nearest morgue and the freshest meat to be had, Mercer became aware of the soft patter of scurrying feet chasing after his ethereal essence.
Little Billy could see him. And Little Billy was freakishly fast.
Mercer’s energy dissipated, as if he were compelled to slow down by some external force. He turned to find the boy’s eyes shuddering in their sockets like he was possessed or having a fit—take your pick.
Unlike every other mortal on the planet, he could see Mercer, which meant Little Billy’s powers apparently extended beyond the physical realm. Unexpected. Frozen in mid-air, Mercer did the only thing he could: speak to the boy, spirit to spirit:
We’re alike, you and me.
Little Billy’s eyes calmed. There was no guile in him; it was plain to see. He was a killer, of that there could be no doubt, but he killed only to protect his father. From the depths of the boy’s soul, Mercer saw the memories play out: Smiley telling him bad people were coming, that he had to use his special powers to protect his papa.
Little Billy had never seen anything like Mercer before. He stared at his spirit in mute wonder with eyes clear and focused.
Mercer found himself free to move. If he dashed across the highway into oncoming traffic, would the boy follow and splatter himself across the front of a semi?
But he didn’t have to kill this kid. There had never been an arrangement with Father Thomas, endorsed by the Big Man Upstairs. That much was obvious now. This abomination could be left alone.
Mercer’s spirit vacillated, indecisive, unsure of the right direction to take into town. But he didn’t flee from the boy, now that he could. There was more to be said:
You are special, an incredible creation. There is none like you. Don’t let anyone tell you different.
The light in the boy’s eyes dimmed, his spirit troubled. “Take me with you?” he panted, hopeful.
Mercer could see plainly that his soul yearned for release. But he didn’t make a habit of carrying kids across the border into ethereality. And besides, it wasn’t like he had hands right now to quench the life from this boy’s bag of flesh and free his spirit.
Mercer twitched to and fro in mid-air.
You go back to your father. But don’t you kill for his sake anymore. Protect yourself—not him.
The boy stood rooted and blinked.
For Mercer, it was enough. He fled across the desert, following the highway through the desolate terrain toward the first outlying town of Phoenix. There was a new fleshbag to be found.
He always felt so naked without one.
Milo James Fowler is an English teacher by day and a writer by night. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Shimmer, Daily Science Fiction, and Macmillan’s Criminal Element. In his spare time, he collects rejection letters.
Fellow travelers are always welcome: www.milo-inmediasres.com
© 2012 All rights reserved Milo James Fowler.