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Chapter 21

A DOME OF HEAT HUNG over the desert, the sun pounding the lonely visitor to this Godforsaken place. Drinkwine whetted his lips with what little water remained in his liter bottle. It was hot. As he continued the tireless stride, following the fading imprints of Jafar’s staggering footprints, something shone on the sand ahead. Catching the sunlight was an empty water bottle dropped by Jafar Barr. Drinkwine wondered if he was out of water. There was nothing to do now but follow the footprints. He set himself back to the monotonous trek through the sand. “Eight times five is forty,” Drinkwine uttered with a throat dry.

The stillness. That’s what really got to Drinkwine. The immaculate stillness. Not a thing moved. Drinkwine believed for a brief moment that given the absolute stillness he could feel where the air had been stirred by Barr. Or was it Jafar Barr’s scent? Drinkwine wondered, in this void of landscape, could he actually track the scent of the killer, like a wild animal hunting its prey? No, no, no, he was a Harvard schooled detective. He wore fine linen suits and drank fine Scotch. Drinkwine shook the disturbing notion from his mind and trudged on, stopping when he realized he’d been so far gone in his thoughts he couldn’t recall the last several hundred feet. He looked at the trail of footprints he’d left in the impressions of those created by Jafar to assure himself he had, in fact, been moving, deeper into that desolation. The desert was luring him in, deeper into the expanse that would swallow him in a brutal beating of elements. These thoughts were upstaged by the disturbing realization that the temperature was rising as the desert began its roasting transformation, driven by the colossal fuck up of the Myoko mirror.

There was nowhere to find cover out here in the open wilds of desert. Drinkwine settled to the ground and prepared himself for the lashing he was to receive from the errant rays. The heat and blistering sun arrived right on time, pounding with Biblical proportions as the entire reach of desert was drawn up into the cataclysmic event. Drinkwine thought his body would rupture from the baking. If the heat didn’t get him, perhaps a heart attack would. Roasted alive, like a pig on a spit.

Drinkwine conjured a winter on Earth when he had been taken ice fishing on Lake Erie. Against the pressing heat he tried with all his will to remember the thick ice, the freezing air, the biting cold. How he wanted for that cold right now.

After what seemed an eternity Drinkwine felt the heat ease. Bringing his head up from the cover of sand, he watched as the desert slowly took shape again out of the receding glare. The gods must be having a time of this entertaining spectacle, Drinkwine thought—two foolish humans having entered the devil’s playground. He imagined them high above in the clouds, reclined on animal furs, sipping at their drink while being hand-fed grapes by naked nymphs. Cold, plump grapes. Drinkwine had to snap himself out of the delirium. He slapped himself hard across the face to bring himself back. He was drifting, the prelude to death in the desert.

Laboring to pick himself up off the sand, Drinkwine stretched out his arms to try and catch any cooling breezes that might be felt. Standing there, arms leveled, he looked like a tattered scarecrow lording over the barren, wasted plain. With not a thread of air to be found, he trudged on. “Seven times six is…,” Drinkwine puzzled over the answer. “Seven times six, is six, seven times….” He was drifting. He knew it. He could feel the desert peeling away his awareness. “I’m Detective Drinkwine, age sixty-one. Married…,” the thought was aborted. “No, no, divorced. Separated. Soon to be divorced.” He fell into a trance watching his feet sink into the sand with each tired step. “Drinkwine, what an odd name. Is that your real name?” Drinkwine laughed at the years of rude comments. “Yes, damnit, that’s my real name.”

The infinite, ink black of space unfolded with freezing cold. Steady and immovable from its perpetual orbit, the Myoko mirror had re-set its hectares of Mylar panels and settled back into redirecting the sun’s rays at the frozen poles of Mars. The satellite was completely unaware of its tortures of the damned far below. It was an innocently malevolent satellite that was unwittingly threatening to take the lives of two men—one, a man of the law, the other, a sadistic murderer. It made no difference to the marvel of technocracy, it had been programmed to do one thing; melt the ice caps and spring forth the precious water for Mars. It was immune to the comparatively petty concerns of two humans who had engaged in some strange pursuit across the wasteland below. It would be here, carrying out its duty, long after those two men had expired. Whether their end was to arrive in the coming hours and days, or whether they lived out long lives back on Earth, or in prison on the Moon, it was of little consequence to the Myoko. It would still be floating serenely four hundred kilometers above Mars for many years to come.

As Drinkwine continued into the gathering night he was suddenly aware of the disarming cold that was engulfing the desert. A few hours earlier he’d prayed for cold, now that it was arriving he feared for what he might be met with in the night ahead. Savage place, he thought to himself. What a savage place.

The stars crossed the night sky in their imperceptible crawl. Drinkwine, mouth agape, stared up at them as he warmed himself by a small fire. He’d lucked upon a patch of dead branches that had weathered the Martian elements for who knows how long. The dead plants—remnants of man’s failed attempts to grow things here—had been spread to these far reaches by the irascible winds. They were one simple little nicety the desert had gifted him. He’d managed to start a fire with his silver lighter, feeding the weak flame with twigs and branches and words of encouragement. He cupped his hands over the licking flames. This place, he thought to himself, with no further comment save a shake of the head. This fucking place.

As Drinkwine warmed his hands against the cold, something far away in the dark spread of desert caught his eye. He studied the black distance for a long while, waiting to see it flicker again. Then, he saw it. Far off on the desert plain, a good fifteen kilometers distance, Jafar Barr had built himself a fire as well. He’d succumbed to the chill and had built a fire. Drinkwine didn’t seem too concerned. He figured that as long as there was a fire, Jafar was stopped for the night and would not gain on him. Yes, Drinkwine thought, just keep building fires each night. He was too tired for confrontation, too tired to continue. For now, as the sleep came over him, he considered, there was nowhere for the man to run, save the horizon. The distant fire shown once more as the flames sparked up, the sole thing in a sea of black, and then Drinkwine was asleep.

Morning broke with blushing skies as the sun crested the horizon and began its arduous crawl into the Martian dawn. Drinkwine had woken early and sat on an immense dune that commanded an expansive view of the plains beyond. In the distance a thin plume of smoke rose from the dying coals of Jafar Barr’s fire. He traced the lone, dark dot corrupting the otherwise perfect sea of red sand. The speck was Jafar, continuing his desperate, slow escape across the inhospitable desert. Drinkwine had to marvel at the killer’s fortitude. He collected up the rusted pipe and descended the dune in pursuit.

Drinkwine had settled into the trace of footprints left by Barr. They waivered drunkenly. They belonged to tired legs in the command of an exhausted and drained mind. The tracks teetered erratically, continually correcting to fall back into some point of incoherent direction Jafar Barr had determined. Drinkwine assessed that by the way the left foot dug unevenly into the sand that Barr was limping, perhaps nursing a strained muscle, an aching knee. It would slow him. He would gradually succumb. The wound would provide Drinkwine with advantage in the hunt.

The sun had climbed high into the Martian sky, bringing the heat with it. Drinkwine tried to ascertain what time of day it was. It was getting near the sunstrike. He raised his arm to discover his watch was gone. He’d taken it off to build the fire last night and had left it sitting in the sand. Fool, he admonished. Fool.

Drinkwine didn’t have to wait long to confirm his hunch that it was near roasting time. Time to put the pig on the spit again. His skin was already red and blistered from the exposure of the past two days. His lips cracked painfully with even the slightest movement. His entire body was riddled with rebellion to this endeavor. Only his determination seemed intent on continuing.

At the first hint of temperature rise Drinkwine collapsed onto the sand and pressed his face into the sunburned skin of his forearm. He readied himself for the harsh brutality of the Martian desert, which welcomed the assault of the Myoko mirror like a lusty lover. Those fucking gods must be rolling in the clouds at this, he thought to himself. “Well I’m still here, you motherfuckers,” Drinkwine uttered, the profanity worth the further crack of lips as he settled in for the beating, the way a truant kid must accept his punishment.

Surely he would die, Drinkwine thought, as he buried his face into the fold of his arm. He felt the heat of the reflected rays blistering the back of his neck and baking his skin. My God, he thought. The sun and heat was draining his body, he could feel himself evaporating. “Shit, shit, shit,” he exclaimed, laughing manically at the memory of his mother always saying that when she was angry; “shit, shit, shit.” How could he be laughing? Maybe he was going mad. That was it, the desert and sun were toying with his sanity before delivering the killer blow. Well fuck them. Fuck this entire fucking planet.

Drinkwine was suddenly saddened at the thought of dying. He would now be one of his precious corpses with nothing left to say. No emotion, no thoughts, no concerns. Curled up in the fetal position, his face pressed into the fold of his arm to escape the hammering sun, Drinkwine started to cry. He hadn’t cried since he was a little boy. But his body was too dehydrated to produce any tears, so he wept dryly.

Was it his imagination, or was the sunstrike abating? Yes, the blast of heat was retreating, returning the desert to its comparatively tolerable baking. He had been toasted raw by the Myoko’s misguided wickedness. When he brought his head up he had to acclimate his sand-blinded and sunburned eyes to the red dunes and blue sky, blinking the focus and dull color back into them. As the familiar ocean swells of loping dunes and blanched rock formations came back into view from the receding glare—he froze.

Leaving dainty, perfect footprints in the sand with her splendidly naked feet, a woman was approaching. She wore a thin summer dress that went to just above the knees, revealing smooth calves. She had an elegant demeanor that defied the harsh surroundings. Drinkwine knew the hair, and the walk so well. It was Celeste. She was smiling that coy smile of hers, lips closed, as if stifling some private joy. Shyly, she broke eye contact to look at the sand as she strode closer, ever closer. Yes, it was Celeste, so beautiful. Oh so soft and gentle against the harshness of the landscape. And that smile. That’s what he had fallen in love with all those years ago. She had come to Mars to save him. Save him from the sun, the sand, the murderer. She was going to make everything all right again.

When she arrived before Drinkwine, she bent down, modestly holding the dress so as not to reveal too much of her legs. As she leaned in, her body blocked out the harsh sun, casting a cooling relief of shadow over him. She looked longingly into his eyes, tacitly begging forgiveness.

“I forgive you, sweetheart,” Drinkwine uttered, “I forgive you.”

She smiled sweetly.

He tenderly reached out his hand to touch her. His fingers passed through her hair, invoking the horrific revelation that she was merely another of the planet’s mirages. As she vanished into nothingness, smiling coquettishly, her shadow evaporated as well, allowing the sun to slam him with penetrating heat. Drinkwine collapsed to the ground, his tearless sobbing and tormented exhales puffing up grains of sand.

The sun seemed to have lost some of its power against him. Perhaps, Drinkwine thought, he was being toughened to the ordeal. No time to get cocky. Especially since he was eyeing the first rumor of tumult in the distance. Maybe if he pretended not to notice it would retreat and leave him be. But evidently the desert wasn’t in a magnanimous mood. With dread, he observed as the winds incited the sand, giving birth to one of its dust devils, spinning it into a fury.

Drinkwine watched as the swirling column of dust swayed with indecision, this way and that. Then, as if preordained, it made straight for him. Well Goddamn, he thought, as he tiredly raised the torn linen tail of his headpiece across his face in anticipation of the beating, which caught him up without pity. The calm that had accompanied the day was instantly transformed into a thrashing caldron that descended on him without pity. His body was bullied and beaten in the harsh play of the desert. Drinkwine took a wide stance to brace against the blow but the turbulence bent him at the knees and he had to reach down a hand to steady himself.

When the tornado had had its fun with him it dashed off for parts unknown, leaving Drinkwine battered and bruised in its wake. When he looked down he saw his feet were treading virgin sand. Where were Jafar’s footprints? He frantically searched the area and only saw the freshly groomed waves of dunes. The cell phone compass was dead. The sun, directly overhead, had no orienting shadows and Drinkwine was overcome with panic. The dust devil had turned him around and with the sun directly overhead he had no idea what direction he was facing. A desperate fear coursed through him as he tried to make sense of the distant horizons—only rolling sand, in every direction.

He picked up the tracks again by chance, lucking upon the wavering imprints of Jafar Barr’s shoes. Drinkwine was calmed by sight of the murderer’s footprints. He looked into what they might tell him by their sun drunk swagger. The strides reeked of fatigue and mistrusting direction. Jafar Barr was fading. But Drinkwine was fading too. He pressed on.

Several times Drinkwine had to remind himself what he was doing out here. He was tracking a killer. That’s right, he thought to himself, this man, this man Barr had killed someone. Drinkwine wondered for a moment why. It all seemed so unimportant, so trivial. So, a man had been killed. They don’t arrest beasts for killing one another. Why man? Drinkwine had to shake the delusion from his head, straining to keep his thoughts tethered to reason. He knew it was wrong, what this man had done, yet, out here, against the harsh plains of Mars, it seemed so inconsequential.

The estrangement from all the industry and commerce unfolding back there in the growing metropolis of Jannah only served to trivialize the murder for Drinkwine. Removed from civilization, from technocracy, the notion of murder seemed simply a routine of nature, absent of guilt, without criminality. An animal is not reprimanded for killing in the wild. So why all the fuss when men do it?

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