a fistful of frantic movements
rating: +26+x

1. It's Hard To See With Your Blood Over My Face

In this story the boy with the pale hair, let's call him Garv, he's taking the wheel over from the kid in the red hat, let's call them Su, because they hate their name said longer than it needs to be. They're in a truck of some sort. Let's call it a Toyota Hilux, standard-issue, and let's say it's streaked with red paint or gunfire, and let's call it old, because it is. Garv's leaning out of the passenger side, lighting the cigarette between his teeth with one hand — he breathes in once, thrice, throws the rest onto the highway — fuck! — wipes ash off the right-side mirror — you got all that, Su?

Su, hands gripping the wheel, the dead man slumped over the clutch, dead arm over the driver's seat, teeth falling out of their sockets — I've got it, they say. Or they think they do but they don't say it, they just smile through gritted teeth. Garv trusts that Su's gestures contain meaning just as Su trusts Garv with keeping ash off the Hilux's carpet, just as the both of them trust in the body between them, its limbs stiffening with every passing minute. They've got to do something about it at some point, they think. Or the whole thing'll fossilise, joints locking around the car seat headrest and the driver side door, and they'll never get out of the truck, and they'll never make it to San Francisco. Garv reads Su's body language and agrees.

So at the next stop they shove the body into the back. Between the two of them they've got enough strength to cram it on its side in the rear compartment, legs curled up and bracing against the sides, one arm previously draped over the driver's seat now sticking straight up into the air. The tarp covers the worst of it but Garv can't deny that it's starting to smell. Su buys air fresheners in the convenience store. Garv fills the tank to three-quarters. Su pays for everything with the little black card.

Hey, asks Garv, when they hit the road again, you think we're in way over our heads?

Su doesn't reply. Through the broken rear window the two can hear the tarp flapping against the corpse arm in the back, like a flag.

2. And The Songs Came From Under The Hill

At first, it was small items up and down the middle of Vegas; an orange hairdryer, a blue enamelled 'M' cut from an old Vicrola, a small plastic rectangle they would later learn was the check-in card for the Presidential Suite at the Hilton. Su liked the little boxes the items came in. Brown, thin like 20th-century stationery, the surface rough like old fingerprints. The two of them would pick the paper-maker up eventually, his body slumped over the armchair in the lobby of the Holiday Inn, the hole in his left temple artfully concealed by the scented burgundy of his shawl.

Careful, warns the math teacher over the phone, Analytics needs the pieces absolutely intact. So they package the paper-maker, bloodied shawl and all, and deliver him in one piece to the florist's office, the one Garv is certain is one of their guys in Summerlin — look how he wears all the tricks of the trade — and get two more boxes in return to drop off at the Strip. This is where they find the fake bullet, and the carnation wrapped in blue tape; this is where the story continues somewhere else, for someone else to discover.

Eventually the packages take them out of town. Before they know it they're carting bodies and bullets and petunias and Brazilian jungle orchids up and down the Mojave, knee-deep in Inland Empire. This is the rolling heart of America, says Garv over diner milkshakes and tyre-rubber steaks; this is where our studies come home to rest. He's certain the stories are pointing them there, nearly as sure as the math teacher is in his constellations of string on corkboard and the abstruse folds of narrative-space; there's a science in intuition, just as there's an intuition at the heart of every dark and secret science in the world, from the rolling desert clouds to the clandestine particle colliders humming metres below their feet, sending great loops of radio whalesong careening from the Hilux's radio in the motel parking lot by night.

Holy moley — exclaims Su, one hand curled on the peeling flesh-pink curtains — would you listen to that! It's the music of the gods!

In a dozen sweaty motel rooms strung out over the desert, Su pores over hastily-photocopied advance copies of publishers' manuscripts sent over by the math teacher, and Garv takes their notes and keys them into the terminal, using a set of personalised code-categories Su can only guess at. Between them they have a more-or-less complete idea of the shape of things to come, compartmentalised for their safety, of course; they've heard stories, or rather, intuited the non-stories, from the gaps in the record, of how one in their line of work can seem to know too much. The meta-commentary of their record, written by Garv and encoded by Su, is similarly fragmented; altogether they've compiled a small thesis of the world as defined by the Las Vegas border and the ever-expanding ambit of Interstate 15: the Mojave, its yellow moon, the black midnight sky.

3. There Are Many Wintry Nights In Spanish Novels

In one story, pursuers blow up a Federal mail truck in a parking garage in New Brunswick. In another, a killer is intercepted by an agent from her same organisation. What's consistent, Garv thinks, is how the stories are never consistent with their packages, that same week's deliveries: a dead librarian, magnolia blossoms wrapped in cellophane, and a salmon-pink gag severed ear. He starts to imagine their team as the protagonist of yet another set of stories, one taken care of by another precocious pair of kids on the other side of the country, their stories set far away from the hard-boiled literary-thriller pretensions of semipro mystery zines infesting the Californian Gulf. Su doesn't care for any of this — says they'd rather analyse tales than publish them — maybe sometimes they bring up an anecdote from Yale that sounds like one or two of Garv's stories. Garv hates it. But he tolerates it all the same.

They bring the librarian to a florist's in River Rock. They bring the severed ear to Victorville. They bring the magnolia blossoms, wrapped in cellophane, to a nameless ghost town on the edge of the Colorado River, where another body awaits them at a florist's. There are always florists' offices wherever they go, the florist a man or a woman young or old with a brooch or a hair pin with the triple-arrows of their trade, and there are always packages to pick up in rough brown paper, and there are always bodies to exchange for them. Sometimes they hint at a common hand, a certain neatness of the wound that bears startlingly close to a trademark, but they leave the speculation to the suits and their numbers. By night, the manuscripts pile up under the Holiday Inn's milky yellow lamp, and maybe Garv unwillingly notices something about Su's cursive that he hasn't noticed before, a certain way they connect the dots of successive i's and j's, perhaps, which only shows when they spell out a Latinate plural or a rare European last name. He thinks it funny to point it out to them, but forgets by the morning.

Knowing another by their handwriting, he thinks, is more intimate for some than holding hands or intercourse; it's a collegiate kind of voyeurism that borders on the perverse. Him, he prefers typing in Courier size twelve.

Su, ever the old soul, brain humming with spurious intertextual musings, sees their relationship this way: Garv's the consumnate professional armed with quips and disarming charm, and they're the straggler picking up the pieces from behind, the one who pays for gas and stacks the coins and keeps the spare toilet paper stocked in the back seat. There's an illusion of closeness that being in a pair implies and that doesn't sit easy with them; doesn't jive well with the way they want to move on the road. They want to drift along the aether; they want to be the whole damn dialectic. They want to annotate leaked drafts by motel-light, sip brandy at noon, leave long trails of bootprints on the desert sands. Su always takes their breakfast at the lobby while Garv takes his time in the shower and they think those five minutes alone are the most beautiful in the world.

In reality, neither of them could function very well without the other if it weren't for the moments of uncanny kinship and surreal jocularity the job brings. Deep down, both Garv and Su are okay with that. They share their rides in silence, like characters between scenes in a movie, and when they get shot at or their tyres get slashed they don't say a word to each other except the bare minimum necessary to keep going.

In another night's story, whole pages cascade with interlocking dialogues and nary a thing happens in the staging save for the singular movement of a woman's hand.

4. Sierpinski's Love Triangle, or, What's Parked Behind The IHOP?

The body hardening in the back of the truck goes to the math teacher in Pasadena.

He greets them from a corner seat at the IHOP, all crusty mall-Santa glare wrapped up in an old-timey three-piece patterned suit — hey, call me Sierpinski — and Garv takes his seat before Su and neither of them extends a hand. It's bad news in the general pattern — says Sierpinski — there's been a shift in their general strategy, owing to some complication down in the Angeleno literary circles, some unforthcoming contacts in the field. He's going to have to spend some time reconfiguring their lines.

But all that doesn't concern you very much, he adds. What have you kids got for me?

They tell him about the botched interception, the black van on the highway, the bullets narrowly missing the Hilux's cab. He asks about their assailants, about the presence of any signs. Writes down correlations in his gunky notepad — three or four Latino males, out-of-state plates, black sunglasses, flannel with white shirts.

That's solved, he says. Californian border patrol, plainclothes and armed, nothing more. It's not anything they should be worried about — certainly not a trace of some conspiracy, definitely not one of their own.

Sierpinski has a corkboard full of string where he keeps tracks of things like this. Not just what kinds of people look like what but also what kinds of things should happen to whom, which when taken altogether with the proper notation can be considered a series of modified fields. It's the general shape of the story like Garv and Su's notes but expressed abstractly, as arithmetic. Garv and Su don't understand an iota of it, but they don't care because it's the same thing anyway. So they trust the schoolteacher when he brings out the real severed ear, iced in a styrofoam box, as well as the real bullet, brass-heavy and wide as a crayon, wrapped in three layers of thick cotton cloth.

And a fake magnolia flower, cellophane-pink like a baby's lip, packed in the familiar brown box with the coarse paper like fingerprints.

These are the real deal, he says. How 'bout you get them to Barstow by the weekend — check tonight's story for the address, by the way — five thousand dollars for the each of you. Pause. You two good?

Garv obliges. Sierpinski snaps his fingers. When Su gets back to check on the truck both the body and the tarp are gone.

5. Budweiser Light Ain't That Bad

Garv, cigarette aglow, in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn.

Su, beer in hand, legs dangling from the back of the Hilux.

The bodies don't bother you — says Garv. So why this?

Su shrugs. It's probably something to do with the physicality of it. I think it makes a difference. Things are more real when taken apart from something because you know there's a whole they belong in. It's hard to ignore just how big this is getting. Are we complicit in unfucking the shape of the world?

They take a huge sip from the can.

6. Parkour Is Romance By Other Meanas

They touch down in Barstow. The manuscript, lovingly emailed as a text file, from some Austin college zine dedicated to the recreation of noir, which is to say, there is a dreadful lot of imagining about the night. Men in old hats follow women in dark streets into corners where cigarettes are lit and secrets are shared. It's all very gentlemanly in a blase kind of way which Su doesn't dislike but has to put up pretenses to preserve their brand. Garv notes the places where the text stumbles against its own unfamiliarity with the setting — style chafing against substance, you know? — the dialogue painting places that simply don't exist to begin with. It's the author's projection of their fantasies, of a more civilised time before the present. So deliberate it's got to be cliche.

Su notes how the first words of the main character's mangled metaphors form some sort of charade alluding to 9 Sycamore Lane.

They find the McMansion vacated when they arrive, arson marking black scars on the lawn, the body in the side-loading washing machine burnt black from the waist down.

In the story, the man must part ways with the mysterious woman: leave it be, mon cherie, our love is falling apart. So they follow the signs and leave the ear in the fridge, take the plastic cherries from the bowl on the counter, debate on whether or not to leave the bullet.

Garv disagrees on the significance of the setting, argues that the vague spatiality necessitates further distinction, a separate set of signs. Su maintains its direction towards a local elementary school.

They let this adversarial reasoning carry them towards a conclusion when there's a rattling at the door. Su makes to dive behind the couch. Garv grabs them by the collar and runs.

Stumbling out the back door, Garv cursing under his breath — didn't fucking train us for this, goddammit — Su's running ahead now, hopping the fence into somebody else's onerously decorated yard, marble ostentations, a fountain shaped like a man's mouth — they don't even register the sound from the McMansion as a gunshot until they're two streets clear and truckless, stranded five miles from the centre of town.

After a while, Garv says: Fuck the stories, man.

So the two of them just start walking and don't look back, the oversized bullet rattling in Su's jacket pocket besides the loose change and truck keys.

7. You Can Leave

Sierpinski's corkboard, it seems, never lies. Much like a trick origami toy, the transformation of the Inland Empire's affairs flows from one shape into another via chaotic but not unpredictable rules. He gets a call on the cheap Nokia — the number obscured, making the identity obvious — warning him that the opposition is moving in. He places a call on another Nokia — which his department will obscure, making his identity obvious — to fold the shape of the story again. On a third Nokia, he dials another number.

The plainclothes detectives of the Californian border patrol. The desert overflowing with bodies. Garv and Su, now fugitives, running. To invert the state of affairs one must adjust the order of operations, remap the particulars, or send one or more assumptions fleeing into the night.

Su finds Garv's sleeping bag empty when they wake. In his place lies a Barrett M82 — the light fifty, the terror of Kandahar, the official state rifle of Tennessee — a big damn gun, at any rate, cream-lit by the moon, and the round in Su's pocket slides neatly into the catch.

There is a slip of receipt paper beside it. Date and time and coordinates. An elementary school near Downtown LA. A woman's name. Details of a face.

The Analytics Department deals in darkness but it sees things in light. The back of the paper has a list of truck names and destinations marked with little crosses. Su doesn't find this odd in the slightest. They leave the underpass before first light.

It's surprisingly easy to walk around unnoticed with a rifle as tall as they are. The first trucker — a hulking purple Volvo — gets them as far as Victorville, where a butch woman in a beat-up vermillion Hyundai offers to bring them across the ridgeline for a cup of coffee and the fake carnation.

It's good hiking this time of year, she drawls, pinning cellophane petals to her lapel. Send my regards to the trees when you're there.

There's no conversation in the cab and no sign of Garv until they cross the pass, when the radio blares a report of a burning border patrol car blocking an Amtrak express train. Su suspects that Garv is way ahead of time. Separated they're unravelling. The trucker's beginning to suspect something and Su's not sure if it's a conclusion they expect. They cling on to the base of the rifle and fall asleep on its barrel while the great vermillion Hyundai rushes onwards to its destination in the great freight parks north of old San Bernadino. Soon the truck comes out from the shadows of the trees and white sunrays cut through the peeling windscreen shade.

The truck rolls to a stop. There's a roadblock up ahead, kid, says the driver. Best to start walking.

Su blinks. It's a little before midday. The time on the paper reads six P.M.

The driver smiles, baring long yellow teeth. Revenge is a real bitch, huh?

8. I'm Not Locked In Here With You

Garv in the interrogation room, skinny hands chained to the desk.

We checked the guy you talked to — says the border patrol detective — well, he's not a lawyer. Not even a person in the United States, to be exact. Just who the fuck do you think you are?

I have nothing to say if he's not here, says Garv.

Who sent you here? Who is your partner? What outfit are you working for? The Russians? The CIA? Who kills the people in the stories that you leave behind? Are the bodies always half-burned and stuffed into washing machines? What business do you have in San Bernadino?

I have nothing to say. Can I have a glass of water?

The door slams. The detective doesn't come back. Hours pass, and Garv feels his muscles tighten against the warm steel of the chair.

9. The Adrenochrome Mills of The Lower Mojave

That's a damn fine tale, I drawl, hunching over the driver's seat of the lime green Nissan.

Su listens, thoughtfully, their cap pressed down low over their eyes.

Goddamned fucking spooks, I say. Last night we caught their vibrations on the radio. A screeching around one-hundred-point-nine FM, some time around two in the morning — that's where they've got the kids, mark my words — they're screaming for help under the highway.

It's the music of the trapped gods, says Su. They electrify them under the desert floor with high-energy particles. The electricity makes them cry, and that's how they get the adrenochrome, because the gods are in the shape of little kids.

I consider the truth of this for a little while — hmm — eyeing my small passenger, their comically large gun — spit tobacco out the window into the path of a passing yellow schoolbus — why, my non-binary friend, I think you're goddamned right.

10. The Things We Love Are All Out To Get Us

The thing is, Garv thinks as he sinks into the leather chair, he's got no leverage here. Spycraft's something they've stumbled into, unwillingly, part of the scope creep of their organisation, and he's got nothing but honesty left for the tall men in the polo tees and the bulky cargo shorts, no psychological tricks or cyanide capsules for the mescaline they're pumping into the IV now, or some other psychedelic force-feminising drug — it's an experimental scopolamine derivative, really, but he doesn't know.

I analyse stories for themes. Between that I move packages. What more do you want?

The plainclothes detectives of the Californian border patrol aren't having any of this. They're sure he's Cuban, now, or some deep cover Chinese plant. Eyes hinting no doubt at some threat beyond these peaceful shores, from somewhere beyond the pale.

You've got the wrong man, he says. I'm from Pittsburgh. Garvin's an old family name. You can check the records — PSU, majored in English, class of '17. Would an illegal profess an unironic love for the great American novel? I love free movement and I believe the land we stand on is the stuff of legend. It's mythic, the stuff that we do, stretching threads across the highways, it's like weaving a great canvas of time and space full of me and you and all those mom-and-pop florists we pass along the freeway in towns with names like Stetsonburg and New Pickett. You think some random pinkie kook would love this? Reading shit manuscripts from wannabe noir hacks, those Iowa-bait tryhards? It's a work of passion, and you better believe it.

Su and I analyse stories which signal the emergence, he says, more clearly, of a particular set of properties that will bring about the end of the world. We suspect there are items, people, things in real life that resemble these fictions. Our task is to alter them by any means possible. Distributed into many actions, entirely mundane, entirely legal. I swear. We have to be clear about these things. Our target thrives in obscuration; we surround our target with an excessively-documented surface of light.

We don't believe you. You killed the woman in the washing machine.

Mikaela Preston, age forty-three, housewife, undiagnosed psychosis. Death by natural causes.

They ask about his employers, about Su, about the North Korean internment camps, about secret radio transmitters in Dubai. But they don't believe a word he's saying about the end of all stories and the end of the world. To be an officer of the law, Garv realises, is to curtail all imagining that there's a world left to save.

Listen, he says, feeling the scopolamine-not-scopolamine creep up his spine, listen, don't you lay a finger on my partner. What concern do you have with our work, anyway? We're entirely domestic. You have no right to do this.

Customs and Border Protection has an extraordinary jurisdiction of up to one hundred miles from any coastline of the continental United States, says one of them.

Fuck me, he says.

There is an interior, hisses the man in the navy polo tee and beige cargo shorts to his right. It is unknown to us. By pursuing these long and tenuous threads we hope to breach it by force of attrition. Your actions as a foreign enemy of the United States will give us just cause to extend our reach past Mount San Antonio and into the sands beyond. There, dark engines churn, and our section chief's destiny awaits.

Whose and what destiny?

The man on his left, in the brown polo tee and the white cargo shorts, heaves a sigh like a broken tannoy. Of his destiny, we do not know. Of his name, we cannot say.

Garv braces against the thick leather straps. The drug's in his sinuses, he's sure of it. There's a sensation in his face like pressurised petrichor.

I figured, he spits. What else have you got for me?

The two detectives in the polo tees just stand there and stare at him until the whole world turns blue.

11. When The Shovels Break We've Still Got Our Fingernails

The severed ear takes a long and winding journey to a forensic office in Pasadena. The passing of a white Toyota Hilux — pristine, with no bullet holes — momentarily distracts the officer pushing the cart with the styrofoam box on it — keeps her attention long enough for the box to drop, contents and all, into the empty shopping trolley of a passing homeless man.

The homeless man performs a long and complicated walk that takes him past several parking lots in big box stores. With religious certainty he selects a particular unlocked car and throws in a package wrapped in brown paper.

Old Sierpinski, fingers aching, puts down the final phone. A series of motions have been set in motion, he believes, to alter the target by any means necessary, and the end is finally near. But the chart's grown too big, too unwieldy; he's lost all ability with his Nokias to prune the ends, and — given the unprecedented interception of his interns — the precision of his moves grows looser by the day. This move, he thinks, may be Analytics' final one.

Sierpinski puts on his tweed coat and straightens his tweed tie. Then he puts on his tweed hat and heads for sixth period with the fifth-grade class.

12. Where The Illithids Are

From the window seat of one of many diners across this low and blessed city I see a brown Saab swerve into the sunlit fishbone of a steel bollard. I hear a woman scream. I see the bird shape of the mold stains on the windowpane, the passing of a stray dog, the lone waitress's name tag reading a singular, dusty, 'Molene'.

Su, their posture steady, hands me the slip of paper under the table.

Don't lose it, sir, and good luck! — they say — we won't let those reptile bastards win!

13. Interlude

The men in the polo tees ask Garv about the magic machines. They're sure that vast engines control the fate of America, dark electric mills churning under the deep, that the terminal with their coded musings really links to some noumenic hive-mind pataphysically weaving onward the fabric of reality.

What the fuck are you talking about — screams Garv, choking through the tube gag — there are no magic machines, there's just us!

14. The Nixon Administration And Its Consequences Have Been A Disaster For The Human Race

Su trades me the rifle and the receipt for a commemorative steel coin. Not legal tender, by any means, but about the size of a quarter, and weighing enough to be one. On the front is a bevelled harpy tearing open a bag of cocaine. On the obverse, cerulean emblazoned on bone white: DRUG ENFORCEMENT ADMINISTRATION - PERSEPHONE WING - YOU ONLY DIE TWICE.

Su waves my truck goodbye from the safety of the counter. Molene pours them another cup of coffee. They reach for their wallet, realise, with some alarm, that they left the black card under the mossy overpass hours ago. The diner's rusted register consumes Su's last seventy-five cents.

Another set of motions, they think. Another ritual of hidden hands. They realise, with some purpose, that a certain placid trust has been building in their heart over the past year which has only recently become so large as to banish all fears about its growing. It's the same with the wanderlust, that ill desire to stake it out on her own, whose intensity has only seemed to fade with Garv's departure and the Barrett's cold heft. Out here, on the other side of the desert, Su decides that there are pieces of America out here with too much weight for even the finest topologists to bear. There are plans, there are stories, and there are maps in coloured string — but beyond that lies the territory, my dear, and the land beyond the land.

A long while later, Su calls the schoolteacher at a payphone using one of several contingency numbers. Into the coin slot goes the harpy. The machine accepts it unhesitatingly. The math teacher doesn't pick up. Su beholds this for all of ten minutes then walks down the boulevard alone.

15. Forty Thousand Men And Women Everyday (We Can Find Happiness)

— and I'm death, the midnight rider, the one with no apologies or illusion about my role in the grand scheme. You think you know about the shape of the world? Fuck you! Things are more real when they're taken apart from the things they're part of. I coined that phrase long ago myself — after the conspiratorial assassination of Haiti's Jovenel Moise, actually, shot to death by DEA plants — couldn't see the need for interwoven truths in an age of lies, you see — know that there's only one, one singular and determinable God. And he sees through all of it — like the ground is made of glass!

Take a swig from the bottle. Eyes on the road. There are tasks, and then there are tasks, there is a surfeit of free will in the world and the ones in power don't know it. Death comes because we will it. The history of assassinations cuts through the tangle of the world like a straight line, and the world's not a surface, either, like the mathematician and his ilk believe, it's a ball run through with tiny holes, and our will is what plugs the gaps.

I have these dreams of old America, see, those vast and rolling plains stretching across the canvas, so many words and feelings strained across the skein of bitter concrete, splashed across the pages of the world. So many thoughts and feelings involved in the great moving that the thought of it coming to an end was utterly pointless. Yet never has such thought been so diffuse — stretched thin across such delusions of grandeur and 'the big picture', you see, across many innumerable fraternities — that it became impossible to point out any one story out of another.

That's what this world needs, conviction and a little push. I push the pedal onto Belafonte and Sixth and leave tyre marks on the pavement. Jacqueline Kennedy held much the same view, clinging on to her husband's corpse from the tail of the limousine, that the path can always be gleaned from the vibrations of the rear-view mirror; I spy burger wraps and cut trees, last night's roadkill off the white-painted strip. Who left these markers, these strange signs? Our decisions to see are entirely our own.

The choice of words of the coin, in this respect, was rather inspired: the narc that wore it swore she'd never set foot in Haiti, claimed nefarious interference by the FBI, presented evidence of said claims through a fistful of wires ripped from the Hilton wall. Small is the mind which seeks comfort in the collective will of organisational charts and corkboard webs. Her brains formed an image of a halved butterfly on the jade wallpaper of the Presidential Suite —

Or the woman in the washing machine, who pleaded ignorance to the dead gods hidden in the particle colliders, deflected blame onto the shadowy forces of the Pentagon and its demon priests right until the lit Zippo hit the fuel-soaked drum —

Or the florists, placing dried flowers on dead eyes —

Or the paper-maker, dread-sick of narrative basilisks creeping into the tomes of his vast library, staring down the ice pick as if its singular tip was the answer to every murky end he'd ever imagined. He welcomed me into his study because he was eager to please. Music streamed from his wound as he died, if you can believe that —

It's fine if you don't. There's the mark of the true fabulist, see, never taking anything too deeply if one can help it, because belief is the foundation of a farcical world which thinks that things are connected to other things. Stacks of heaving sycophants — too many conspiracies, too many self-effacing motherfuckers — all endlessly mouthing off theories about organisational charts and foreseen events and the true shape of the world.

A massive diminishment of human spirit. I alone hold all the will in the world!

I move with no apologies to the location of the future death of the section chief of the Californian division of the Customs and Border Protection service. The choice of tool rarely matters for desires when asserted will always bring about the ends. Mantras ground the mind but they do not drive the arm. From the parking lot behind the brick wall across the street from the school I see the shape of the man move through the second-floor rooms.

The teacher's ushering him in. Short fat-faced man, tottering to take the section chief's coat — some departmental jacket, though the rest of the chief is out of uniform, save for the seven-pointed star on his chest and the Colt on his waist — it's career day, please greet our guest, who now stands at the head of the room beside the open window framed by the Barrett's modified bead sights.

He looks like a man consumed with thoughts that he alone has permitted himself to consider, which surely counts as some form of neurological suicide. Not too out of place for a cop in Biden's America, surely. Look at the way he puts his hands in his pockets, look at how the children listen for the promise of secrets he can't deliver. I begin to hate the way he speaks. The way he adjusts his horned-rimmed spectacles like he's keeping something back. The way he turns from the children, the way his tweed tie jumps and twitches when he turns. I hate a man who believes he has so much that he thinks he can withhold the world.

I fire, and in between my thought and deed the teacher bends down to pick up a pin. The bullet tears a hole through his gut before piercing the blackened mass of the section chief's heart.

In the ringing of my ears the kids begin to scream — someone drops something to the ground — others pour in from the next room, peer in, stick their heads out of the next classes' windows, look at the bodies, the shattered glass, out the building towards the carpark, towards me.

And then — suddenly, interminably — theirs screams turn into cheers.

16. These First Few Desperate Hours

Now Garv's all alone. The detectives in cargo shorts have scattered like rats, leaving cherry-scented serum pouring out of his dry, open mouth. He struggles, hurts himself on the cuffs a little, lies still for a little bit. Maybe for hours. Maybe days.

Presently from behind someone comes in and cuts him loose. In the single flickering bulb of the prison cell he recognises Su, the cropped hair, paint-streaked bomber jacket, registers some mild surprise at the crowbar and the bloodied lanyard in their hands.

Had to get in somehow, they say. And then, looking at the state of him: Sorry that happened.

Garv wipes his mouth, gets on his knees. Starts vomiting on the tiles. How much time did we lose?

Not much, says Su. Didn't even think we were on a schedule. Between Garv's fourth or sixth retch: Do you want me to carry you?

Bracing his body against the wall gives Garv enough leverage to put the rest of his weight onto Su. Down the narrow corridor Su takes a left, then a right, then a right onto a flight of stairs.

Su asks Garv: Do you know where they took our stuff?

The two of them stagger out of the police station, which (as Garv is only starting to realise) is really some kind of indeterminate safehouse whose tunnelling, wedge-shaped entrance spits them out of a black-painted door tucked discreetly between an Asian-owned liquor store and a Salvation Army. Garv blinks in the streetlights, still glare-blind from his ordeal. Or maybe it's the comically scopolamine-dilated pupils, notes Su, though they don't say it to his face.

Su dumps the contents of the evidence bag onto the pavement. The terminal's intact, as are their spare clothes, and the keys — though it'll take them some time to find another truck. On top of them all is a final envelope of stories and a pair of dried sunflowers.

I don't get it, says Su. Sierpinski's line is dead. I thought they cut us off.

Garv shrugs, gestures at the ground. Doesn't mean the universe's done talking.

Su considers this. They think about the motels, the road, the squabbles, the endless smiling truckers. Greasy bacon by a gas pump — thermal flasks, the metal hot with bad coffee — all the land wrapped up in murders and flowers and brown paper.

You're right, they say, and for a short moment it feels like every coffee cup in every cafe has just been placed into their saucers. Garv feels it too — like the air's made of clear Lego bricks. Elsewhere other trucks are heading off and packages are placed on doors and pallets are loaded onto trolleys and flowers are being placed on the eyes of the dead and gods are broken and tales are shared and Garv loads up the duffel bag — Su's holding the brown envelope — with all of their stuff, picks it up, and the two of them walk on right off the page and stride into the everlasting sunset.

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