By David Orange

Pancho Castillo paused as he entered the laboratory of the Distinguished Collegium of Interspacial Physics.  Flickering gaslights illuminated two men. A tall man wearing a lab coat paced the lab, the other seated by a desk. The latter indicated an empty chair. “Please be seated,” he said.

Pancho noticed the seated man’s dusty outfit, especially riding gloves along with goggles perched atop a leather helmet

“I hear you’re fast with a gun,” the seated man said.

“Not fast, but I hit what I shoot. Usually they stay down,” replied Pancho.

“Usually? Doesn’t sound like a good shot to me.”

“Men die. Around these parts, not everything is human. Not everything that takes a bullet dies.”

The standing man nodded. “Good enough for me, and good enough, apparently for the Collegium. I am Avery Bradshaw, Operations Manager, and this is Rodney Lipson.”

“You dudes pay the ghost rock.” Pancho began lighting a cigar, but seeing Bradshaw’s baleful glare, thought better of it and extinguished the match. Bradshaw put down a half-assembled gadget and stood next to Lipson.

“You a religious man, Señor Castillo?” Bradshaw asked.

“I grew up around the missions, before the big earthquake swallowed most of ‘em up. I’ve seen unrepentant men do mucho malo without penitence or justice.”

“Besides life itself, what is Man’s greatest need?” Bradshaw asked.

“A good woman and a bottle of wine?” Pancho half-grinned, but stopped upon noticing yet another silent reproach from the tall scientist.  “Um, food and shelter.”

Bradshaw nodded to Lipson. “He’ll do. Go ahead and tell him.” With that, he returned to his work as if the conversation had never happened.

“Apparently a Reverend Ezekiah Grimme has started a church down in Lost Angels,” Lipson said.

“Free country, no laws against that,” said Pancho.

Lipson stood up and leaned closer, almost nose to nose with Pancho. “Grimme feeds people every week as some sort of communion.”

Pancho shrugged.

Lipson  continued. “Lost Angels was a desert even before the Reckoning birthed the Maze. How does he do this? The more people arrive in Lost Angels, the more food he brings forth, and the wilder the stories of his miracles. Do you believe in miracles Señor Castillo?

Pancho frowned, considering. “No.”

“I thought not. The Collegium believes that Grimme must be exposed as a charlatan so that we can deliver technological bounties throughout the lower Maze region.”

“I am but a hired guard. Why tell me this?”

“Our scientists could never enter Lost Angels unnoticed. A vaquero such as you could come from any ranch.  We need you to determine the source of Grimme’s power and sustenance.  I will take you by landship as far as Perdition’s outskirts. From there, you’ll receive a horse and ride down into the city itself. Be careful, the return is much more difficult than the entry.”

Bradshaw returned, proffering a slim weapon with a tapered opening.  He noticed Pancho’s skeptical glance and subsequent look down at his Colt six-shooters.  “This auto-revolver is much more efficient than your guns. You’ll thank me later.”

Pancho gingerly cradled the gadget, then followed Lipson outside to the waiting landship.

* * *

Pancho emerged from the wooded mountains separating Perdition from Lost Angels and the Great Maze. A jagged slope led down towards Grimme’s thriving city. Above plebeian tents dotting the outskirts, rose the spires of Grimme’s cathedral.

After a couple of days of the landship’s traversing the jagged landscape from Gomorra to Perdition, Pancho appreciated his sorrel mare’s ambling gait. Dust clouds collapsed inwards and moved towards the cathedral at the center. All of the locals had gathered to hear Reverend Grimme’s weekly sermon. At the city’s outskirts, Pancho dismounted, hitched the horse to a railing and walked toward the assembled crowd. Despite eating jerky, Pancho still felt gnawing emptiness in his stomach.

“…There was famine in all the other lands, but in the whole

land of Egypt there was food. Just as there shall be in the

City of Lost Angels….” Reverend Grimme preached despair, interspersed with scraps of hope.

Pancho jostled his way towards the center of the crowd, The faithful clung to their leader’s every word, interspersing silence and rapturous ‘Hallelujahs.’  Grimme scanned his flock, briefly meeting Pancho’s gaze. Grimme’s face appeared distorted and his jaws’ distorted movements did not match the guttural oration coming from his mouth. Pancho stared back in growing horror. The preacher of Lost Angels was not just insane, but inhuman. Grimme turned his gaze elsewhere, and continued his sermon.

I hope they bring out the grub soon,’ thought Pancho.

A bonneted woman in a gingham dress swayed in front of him. Turning as he jostled past, Pancho saw dark ringlets framing a delicate face. “I’m lost, so you must be an angel,” he said.

The woman ignored Pancho, but joined in chorusing ‘Hallelujah.’

Pancho drew the woman closer, disrupting her trance.

“How DARE you. On this Feast Day of all days.” The woman’s protests caused several red-robed figures to move towards the pair.

“Guardian Angels.” Murmurs rustled through the crowd.

Whoever the Guardian Angels were, they were trouble. Pancho drew the auto-revolver from his waistband. “Hope this thing works.” He squeezed the trigger. Nothing. He tried once more, but again, nothing. The Guardian Angels closed to within a few rows of worshippers.

Frustrated, Pancho hurled the auto-revolver to the ground. It discharged, skittering as it unloaded its rounds into bystanders and Guardian Angels alike. “Gracias, Señor Bradshaw,” Pancho said to himself.

The remaining worshippers remained transfixed by Grimme’s preaching. The wounded Guardian Angels continued their march towards Pancho. He drew his right side six-shooter and awaited a clear shot. The bonneted woman charged Pancho. Dodging aside, Pancho heard the crack of a pistol shot and blood splattered him. The woman fell dead at his feet. Dodging, Pancho saw a Guardian Angel aiming where Pancho had stood.  Fan-firing his six-shooter, Pancho killed the shooter, followed by the two on either side.

Twin roars answered Pancho’s shots. Pancho looked up to see a large figure in a hooded black robe holding a double-barreled shotgun. Caught in a crossfire not of their making, the remaining Angels and nearby congregants scattered. The shotgun wavered as the figure breached the chambers. The other hand fumbled two shells.

“I should be dead a hundred pieces over, but he can’t control his own body,” thought Pancho. He took advantage of the figure’s reloading to dive down and move towards the edge of the crowd. He then ducked into a nearby alleyway.

Slumped behind some barrels, he attempted to gather his thoughts.  

“Dios mios.  In the city of Angels, the Dead rule the living.”

Grimme ignored the commotion and continued preaching.