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Davey furrowed his brow.
‘He is lying to you about pretty much everything,’ Cross continued. ‘Sure, he lets the people drink and smoke and fornicate, but that is to dull their senses to whatever else he has going on behind the scenes. I assure you if you take a look in the warehouses at the centre of his compound your opinion of him will change.’
‘I don’t know which warehouses you are talking about.’
‘Finally, a sliver of truth has tumbled from your lips. Of course you don’t know what I’m talking about; he has kept this out of the sight and earshot of everyone in his community. And for good reason.’
‘So you know I’m lying. You know King Solomon sent me here. And I presume you know why.’
‘Isn’t it obvious?’
‘Yes, I suppose it is. What’s next? I get stuck on a spike in the village green like those poor sods out there?’
Cross smiled again.
Davey found the look nauseating.
He looked away, preferring to pluck his eyes from their sockets than see it ever again.
‘No. As I have said, I am a preacher man. I take the lost and lead them to God. There would be no sense in me killing you just yet, not while there is hope of a change for you. And there is, of that I am certain. You remind me of Deborah. Desperate. Lost. Drowning in rage and despair. Well, I have the life jacket for your troubled soul, young man. But it is not going to be an easy swim, for these are choppy waters indeed.’
Davey went to speak again, but Cross cut him off. ‘No, I am going to let you see that I speak the truth. Go back to the Freelands. Look in those warehouses and see if you still want to call Solomon your king. And when, inevitably, you decide that he is not worthy of your admiration, you come right back here and I will guide you to God’s side.’
‘And what if I don’t believe you?’
Cross continued to stare at him.
He pulled the gun that had been taken from Davey out of a shoulder holster, deftly thumbed a bullet into the breech and put it in the middle of the table.
After a second’s thought, he picked it up and pressed it into Davey’s hand.
His eyes locked with Davey’s.
‘Put the gun here,’ Cross said, tapping the dead centre of his own forehead.
Hands quaking, Davey did as he was told.
‘If you are certain that I’m lying to you then all you need to do is squeeze the trigger and you have struck a blow for your King and his cause,’ Cross said, a sickly grin on his lips.
Davey didn’t take his eyes off Cross’s.
Cross didn’t flinch.
Davey’s finger tightened slightly on the trigger.
‘What’s the matter?’ Cross laughed, his expression utterly demonic. ‘Don’t you trust your King?’
Davey idly scratched his head.
All of this was fucking with his mind.
The last thing he wanted to do now was murder Cross, when the preacher had come across as a slightly misguided zealot.
He definitely had a screw loose somewhere, but who didn’t these days?
Deep down, he had a feeling that Cross was telling the truth.
He furrowed his brow, desperately trying to think.
‘If you really want to kill me then here is your opportunity,’ Cross smiled. ‘But God knows the truth and He is in your heart somewhere. I have the utmost faith that He will tell you the right thing to do.’
Davey groaned a little then slowly lowered the gun.
He pushed the safety on then set it onto the table.
‘I thought as much,’ Cross grinned.
‘So what do I do?’ Davey said.
‘My men will take you most of the way back to the Freelands. You go back and pretend that you got lost or something – that bit is up to you – and that you need a few days to recuperate. While you do so, you sneak in to the centre of the compound and see what’s going on in those warehouses. Then, when you learn the truth about your so-called King, you do the right thing. And after that, you come back here and find God.’
‘What do you mean, Do the right thing?’
Cross smiled and nodded to Deborah.
She picked up a mud-smeared blue rucksack from behind the sofa.
‘Salvation is here for King Solomon’s camp. The contents of this bag will erase his lies and hypocrisy from the face of the earth.’
Davey’s jaw dropped at the realisation of what was in the bag.
‘When you’ve found out King Solomon’s dirty secret, you place this in the centre of the warehouse compound. Press the red button to arm it. Then you retreat to a safe distance, taking the remote with you. I’d recommend you walk for a fair distance before you even think of setting it off. This is a big one.’ He put a hand to his mouth and giggled an unsettling childlike laugh at this. ‘When you are safe, you press the red button on the remote and…’ Cross made an explosion sound.
‘And that’s it? You let me come back, scot free?’
‘We are not bad men, David. We may do some… unpleasant things to cleanse the souls of others, but we are not bad ourselves. We are doing the work of God. And I’m sure you will agree when you see what Solomon is hiding in those warehouses.’
‘Well, I guess I’d be stupid not to go for it, then. When do I go back?’
‘We’ll get you some antibiotics for those nasty bites. Then you can spend the night and we’ll take you back after breakfast.’
‘Sounds too good to be true.’
‘I assure you it isn’t.’ Cross rose, offering a firm handshake to Davey, then adding, ‘You get a good night’s sleep, David. I will pray for you.’
The men from the bulldozer came in, toting shotguns and bullet belts.
They led Davey out to a small brick building which was just outside the fences of Cross’s church.
Preacher Kelly aimed the gun in Davey’s face to make sure he didn’t try anything, while Jake unlocked the heavy metal door.
It opened quietly – it seemed even the hinges didn’t dare squeak under Cross’s regime – and revealed shelves rammed to the gills with medicines.
‘Wow, that’s quite the stockpile,’ Davey said, eyes wide.
‘Yup,’ Preacher Kelly said, opening a sealed syringe and poking it into a small, one-dose bottle of antibiotics. ‘This should keep you ticking over.’
The needle prick wasn’t too harsh.
And Davey did start to feel better, especially after he’d showered and crawled into the freshly made bed they’d set up for him.
He was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.
The next morning Davey rose, took the rucksack that had been prepared for him.
‘It has some sandwiches and fruit to keep you going,’ Deborah confided with a knowing smile. ‘There’s a breakfast for you there.’
Davey thanked her, guzzled some of the coffee before devouring the toast and eggs.
Drying yolk still clung to his chin when Cross shuffled in.
He had his charming eccentric head on today, it seemed.
‘Good morning, young David,’ he beamed, the smile reaching all the way to his eyes now, though the irises seemed a slightly darker shade than they had the last time they had spoken. ‘I trust you slept well?’
‘Yes, thank you.’ Manners were something that had been bred into Davey, even if he was dealing with an absolute nutjob.
‘Good, good. More eggs? More coffee?’
‘No to the eggs. Yes to the coffee.’
Cross nodded, suddenly racing round the kitchen to get everything done in time.
Davey was impressed at how he juggled the various tasks without compromising any of them.
The coffee appeared in front of Davey as if by magic.
Cross served himself a large breakfast then began tucking in without airs and graces.
A rabid bear would make less mess, Davey thought with a smile.
‘Can’t be expected to do the good Lord’s work on an empty stomach,’ Cross said, his dark eyes twinkling with his grin.
He backhanded the egg yolk and grease off his chin then carefully wiped it off his hand with a pristine handkerchief.
Davey didn’t know how to respond.
Cross still creeped the hell out of him.
He didn’t want to spend a second longer than necessary in his company, but he was so happy in the luxury his village offered that he could have stayed all year.
It was a conflict that threatened to tear him in half.
‘Anyway, young David,’ Cross said, placing a hand on his shoulder.
The cold, clammy feel of his flesh made Davey recoil.
Cross looked down at him, clearly offended, but didn’t say anything.
‘Sorry, I just have a nasty bite on that shoulder,’ Davey lied without missing a beat.
‘Ah, of course,’ Cross said, ‘I apologise. Heartily.’
‘It’s ok. Are we setting off now?’
‘Yes. Brush your teeth. Wash your face. After all, young man, cleanliness is next to godliness.’
Davey almost rolled his eyes, but sensed that Cross would pluck them from his skull and use them as marbles if he so much as guessed that he’d done such a thing.
Instead he played it safe and nodded in agreement.
Cross bid him goodbye with some more of his characteristic weirdness and sent him off with one of the bulldozer crews.
‘This is close enough,’ Preacher Kelly announced in between rapid-fire bible verses over the loudhailer. ‘We don’t want them to figure out where you’ve been.’
The bulldozer came to a halt so fast that Davey almost mashed his face into the seat in front of him.
Davey bid his goodbyes to them and carried on, his backpack heavy on his shoulders as the midmorning sun hit him.
The Garbage Mountains were off to his left.
He could see – and smell – them clearly from his position, but they were in the distance, like a bad memory faded by time.
He found the distance reassuring; the last thing he wanted was to go down there again.
His eyes filled with tears at the thought of poor Duke and the fate that had befallen him.
The soil beneath his feet was sun-blasted, baked to the point of cracking.
The sun seemed much fiercer these days.
It seemed humanity had become more savage with it.
The journey back to the camp was long and hard, especially in the heat which was enough to make sweat run down between his shoulder blades.
His shirt clung to him, the straps of the backpack chafed his shoulders and back to the point of drawing blood.
It was almost as bad as the pain from the rat bites.
At least there was no chance of getting lost; the sounds of fireworks and laughter and drunken cheers were clearly audible, beckoning him in like ethereal fingers.
After what felt like forever, the Freelands finally appeared like an oasis in the desert.
The colourful and elaborate spray-paint murals that adorned the outer edge of the fences made it seem welcoming in the extreme.
The armed guards – with or without bullets, it wasn’t clear from this distance – not so much.
‘What’s your name?’ the guard on the gate barked.
‘I’m Davey. I was sent out to kill Reverend Cross, but I got lost in the garbage mountains. I managed to find my way back here. I seek sanctuary under King Solomon’s guard.’
The guard smiled. ‘Ah of course, Davey lad. Come on home. The king is keen to hear from you.’
Solomon was anxious when he raced out to meet Davey.
‘Are you hurt?’ he asked, his face ashen.
‘Not really. I got bitten by rats, but I am fine apart from that. I couldn’t find Cross’s place. I got lost in the wastelands.’
‘My fault entirely. I apologise, Davey lad. Have you eaten?’
‘Not in a while.’ Davey lied as he didn’t want to reveal he’d eaten breakfast with Solomon’s biggest enemy barely two hours ago.
‘Where did this bag come from?’ Solomon asked.
Davey jolted slightly.
He hadn’t thought of this.
The King’s awareness impressed him.
‘I took it off one of the guys I killed in the wastelands. I lost the one you gave me when the rats attacked me.’
Solomon nodded as if he’d bought it.
‘So, how are you, Davey lad?’
‘I’m exhausted, but unharmed.’
‘Good. Let’s get you some food.’
Davey felt bad for deceiving the King, but he knew he couldn’t let him know what was really happening.
Besides, he wanted to know what he was hiding in his warehouses.
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