Loosed upon the World
SHOOTING THE APOCALYPSE PAOLO BACIGALUPI
If it were for anyone else, he would have just laughed in their faces and told them they were on their own.
The thought nagged at Timo as he drove his beat-up FlexFusion down the rutted service road that ran parallel to the concrete-lined canal of the Central Arizona Project. For any other journo who came down to Phoenix looking for a story, he wouldn’t even think of doing them a favor.
All those big names looking to swoop in like magpies and grab some meaty exclusive and then fly away just as fast, keeping all their page views and hits to themselves . . . he wouldn’t do it.
Didn’t matter if they were Google/NY Times, Cherry Xu, Facebook Social Now, Deborah Williams, Kindle Post, or Xinhua.
But Lucy? Well, sure. For Lucy, he’d climb into his sweatbox of a car with all his camera gear and drive his skinny brown ass out to North Phoenix and into the hills on a crap tip. He’d drive this way and that, burning gas trying to find a service road, and then bump his way through dirt and ruts, scraping the belly of the Ford the whole way, and he still wouldn’t complain.
Just goes to show you’re a sucker for a girl who wears her jeans tight.
But it wasn’t just that. Lucy was fine, if you liked a girl with white skin and little tits and wide hips, and sometimes Timo would catch himself
fantasizing about what it would be like to get with her. But in the end, that wasn’t why he did favors for Lucy. He did it because she was scrappy and wet and she was in over her head—and too hard-assed and proud to admit it.
Girl had grit; Timo could respect that. Even if she came from up north and was so wet that sometimes he laughed out loud at the things she said. The girl didn’t know much about dry desert life, but she had grit.
So when she muttered over her Dos Equis that all the stories had already been done, Timo, in a moment of beery romantic fervor, had sworn to her that it just wasn’t so. He had the eye. He saw things other people didn’t. He could name twenty stories she could still do and make a name for herself.
But when he’d started listing possibilities, Lucy shot them down as fast as he brought them up.
Coyotes running Texans across the border into California?
Sohu already had a nine-part series running.
Californians buying Texas hookers for nothing, like Phoenix was goddamn Tijuana?
Google/NY Times and Fox both had big spreads.
Water restrictions from the Roosevelt Dam closure and the drying-up of Phoenix’s swimming pools?
Kindle Post ran that.
The narco murders that kept getting dumped in the empty pools that had become so common that people had started calling them “swimmers”?
AP. Fox. Xinhua. LA Times. The Talisha Brannon Show. Plus the reality narco show Hard Bangin’.
He kept suggesting new angles, new stories, and all Lucy said, over and over was, “It’s been done.” And then she’d rattle off the news organizations, the journos who’d covered the stories, the page hits, the viewerships, and the click-thrus they’d drawn.
“I’m not looking for some dead hooker for the sex and murder crowd,” Lucy said as she drained her beer. “I want something that’ll go big. I want a scoop, you know?”
“And I want a woman to hand me a ice-cold beer when I walk in the door,” Timo grumped. “Don’t mean I’m going to get it.”
But still, he understood her point. He knew how to shoot pictures that would make a vulture sob its beady eyes out, but the news environment that Lucy fought to distinguish herself in was like gladiatorial sport—some winners, a lot of losers, and a whole shit-ton of blood on the ground.
Journo money wasn’t steady money. Wasn’t good money. Sometimes, you got lucky. Hell, he’d got lucky himself when he’d gone over Texas way and shot Hurricane Violet in all her glory. He’d photographed a whole damn fishing boat flying through the air and landing on a Days Inn, and in that one shot he knew he’d hit the big time. Violet razed Galveston and blasted into Houston, and Timo got page views so high that he sometimes imagined that the cat 6 had actually killed him and sent him straight to Heaven.
He’d kept hitting reload on his PayPal account and watched the cash pouring in. He’d had the big clanking cojones to get into the heart of that clusterfuck, and he’d come out of it with more than a million hits a photo. Got him all excited.
But disaster was easy to cover, and he’d learned the hard way that when the big dogs muscled in, little dogs got muscled out. Which left him back in sad-sack Phoenix, scraping for glamour shots of brains on windshields and trussed-up drug bunnies in the bottoms of swimming pools. It made him sympathetic to Lucy’s plight, if not her perspective.
It’s all been done, Timo thought as he maneuvered his Ford around the burned carcass of an abandoned Tesla. So what if it’s been motherfucking done?
“There ain’t no virgins, and there ain’t no clean stories,” he’d tried to explain to Lucy. “There’s just angles on the same-ass stories. Scoops come from being in the right place at the right time, and that’s all just dumb luck. Why don’t you just come up with a good angle on Phoenix and be happy?”
But Lucy Monroe wanted a nice clean virgin story that didn’t have no grubby fingerprints on it from other journos. Something she could
put her name on. Some way to make her mark, make those big news companies notice her. Something to grow her brand and all that. Not just the day-to-day grind of narco kills and starving immigrants from Texas, something special. Something new.
So when the tip came in, Timo thought what the hell, maybe this was something she’d like. Maybe even a chance to blow up together. Lucy could do the words, he’d bring the pics, and they’d scoop all the big-name journos who drank martinis at the Hilton 6 and complained about what a refugee shit hole Phoenix had become.
The Ford scraped over more ruts. Dust already coated the rear window of Timo’s car, a thick beige paste. Parallel to the service road, the waters of the Central Arizona Project flowed, serene and blue and steady. A man-made canal that stretched three hundred miles across the desert to bring water to Phoenix from the Colorado River. A feat of engineering, and cruelly tempting, given the ten-foot chain link and barbed wire fences that escorted it on either side.
In this part of Phoenix, the Central Arizona Project formed the city’s northern border. On one side of the CAP canal, it was all modest stucco tract houses packed together like sardines stretching south. But on Timo’s side, it was desert, rising into tan and rust hill folds, dotted with mesquite and saguaro.
A few hardy subdivisions had built outposts north of the CAP’s moat-like boundary, but the canal seemed to form a barrier of some psychological significance, because for the most part, Phoenix stayed to the south of the concrete-lined canal, choosing to finally build itself into something denser than lazy sprawl. Phoenix on one side, the desert on the other, and the CAP flowing between them like a thin blue DMZ.
Just driving on the desert side of the CAP made Timo thirsty. Dry mouth, plain-ass desert, quartz rocks, and sandstone nubs with a few creosote bushes holding onto the dust and waving in the blast furnace wind. Normally, Timo didn’t even bother to look at the desert. It barely changed. But here he was, looking for something new—
He rounded a curve and slowed, peering through his grimy windshield. “Well, I’ll be goddamned. . . .”
Up ahead, something was hanging from the CAP’s barrier fence. Dogs were jumping up to tug at it, milling and barking.
Timo squinted, trying to understand what he was seeing.
“Oh, yeah. Hell, yes!”
He hit the brakes. The car came grinding to a halt in a cloud of dust, but Timo was already climbing out and fumbling for his phone, pressing it to his ear, listening to it ring.
Come on, come on, come on.
Lucy picked up.
Timo couldn’t help grinning. “I got your story, girl. You’ll love it. It’s new.”
* * * *
The dogs bared their teeth at Timo’s approach, but Timo just laughed. He dug into his camera bag for his pistol.
“You want a piece of me?” he asked. “You want some of Timo, bitches?”
Turned out they didn’t. As soon he held up the pistol, the dogs scattered. Animals were smarter than people that way. Pull a gun on some drunk California frat boy and you never knew if the sucker was still going to try and throw down. Dogs were way smarter than Californians. Timo could respect that, so he didn’t shoot them as they fled the scene.
One of the dogs, braver or more arrogant than the rest, paused to yank off a final trophy before loping away; the rest of the pack zeroed in on it, yipping and leaping, trying to steal its prize. Timo watched, wishing he’d pulled his camera instead of his gun. The shot was perfect. He sighed and stuffed the pistol into the back of his pants, dug out his camera, and turned to the subject at hand.
“Well, hello, good-looking,” he murmured. “Ain’t you a sight?”
The man hung upside down from the chain link fence, bloated from the Phoenix heat. A bunch of empty milk jugs dangled off his body, swinging
from a harness of shoelace ties. From the look of him, he’d been cooking out in the sun for at least a day or so.
The meat of one arm was completely desleeved, and the other arm . . . well, Timo had watched the dogs make off with the poor bastard’s hand. His face and neck and chest didn’t look much better. The dogs had been doing some jumping.
“Come on, vato. Gimme the story.” Timo stalked back and forth in front of the body, checking the angles, considering the shadows and light. “You want to get your hits up, don’t you? Show Timo your good side, I make you famous. So help me out, why don’t you?”
He stepped back, thinking wide-frame: the strung-up body, the black nylon flowers woven into the chain link around it. The black, guttered candles and cigarettes and mini liquor bottles scattered by the dogs’ frenzied feeding. The CAP flowing behind it all. Phoenix beyond that, sprawling all the way to the horizon.
“What’s your best side?” Timo asked. “Don’t be shy. I’ll do you right. Make you famous. Just let me get your angle.”
Timo squatted and started shooting. Click-click-click-click—the artificial sound of digital photography and the Pavlovian rush of sweaty excitement as Timo got the feel.
Timo kept snapping. He had it now. The flowers and the empty milk jugs dangling off the dude. Timo was in the flow, bracketing exposures, shooting steady, recognizing the moment when his inner eye told him that he’d nailed the story. It was good. Really good.
As good as a cat 6 plowing into Houston.
“That’s right, buddy. Talk to your friend Timo.”
The man had a story to tell, and Timo had the eye to see it. Most people missed the story. But Timo always saw. He had the eye.
Maybe he’d buy a top-shelf tequila to celebrate his page-view money. Some diapers for his sister Amparo’s baby. If the photos were good, maybe he’d grab a couple syndication licenses, too. Swap the shit-ass battery in the Ford. Get something with a bigger range dropped into it. Let him get around without always wondering if he was going to lose a charge.
Some of these could go to Xinhua, for sure. The Chinese news agencies loved seeing America ripping itself to shit. BBC might bite, too. Foreigners loved that story. Only thing that would sell better is if it had a couple guns: America, the Savage Land or some shit. That was money, there. Might be rent for a bigger place. A place where Amparo could bail when her boyfriend got his ass drunk and angry.
Timo kept snapping photos, changing angles, framing and exposure. Diving deeper into the dead man’s world. Capturing scuffed-up boots and plastic prayer beads. He hummed to himself as he worked, talking to his subject, coaxing the best out of the corpse.
“You don’t know it, but you’re damn lucky I came along,” Timo said. “If one of those citizen journalist pendejo lice got you first, they wouldn’t have treated you right. They’d shoot a couple shitty frames and upload them social. Maybe sell a Instagram pic to the blood rags . . . but they ain’t quality. Me? When I’m done, people won’t be able to dream without seeing you.”
It was true, too. Any asshole could snap a pic of some girl blasted to pieces in an electric Mercedes, but Timo knew how to make you cry when you saw her splattered all over the front pages of the blood rags. Some piece of narco ass, and you’d still be bawling your eyes out over her tragic death. He’d catch the girl’s little fuzzy dice mirror ornament spattered with blood, and your heart would just break.
Amparo said Timo had the eye. Little bro could see what other people didn’t, even when it was right in front of their faces.
Every asshole had a camera these days; the difference was that Timo could see.
Timo backed off and got some quick video. He ran the recording back, listening to the audio, satisfying himself that he had the sound of it: the wind rattling the chain link under the high, hot Arizona sky; meadowlark call from somewhere next to the CAP waters; but most of all, the empty dangling jugs, the three of them plunking hollowly against each other—a dead man turned into an offering and a wind chime.
Timo listened to the deep thunk-thunk-thunk tones.
Good empty desert sounds.
He crouched and framed the man’s gnawed arm and the milk jugs. From this angle, he could just capture the blue line of the CAP canal and the leading edge of Phoenix beyond: cookie-cutter low-stories with lava-rock front yards and broke-down cars on blocks. And somewhere in there, some upstanding example of Arizona Minuteman militia pride had spied this sucker scrambling down the dusty hillside with his water jugs and decided to put a cap in his ass.
CAP in his ass, Timo chuckled to himself.
The crunch of tires and the grind of an old bio-diesel engine announced Lucy’s pickup coming up the dirt road. A trail of dust followed. Rusty beast of flex fuel, older than the girl who drove it and twice as beat-up, but damn, was it a beast. It had been one of the things Timo liked about Lucy soon as he met her. Girl drove a machine that didn’t give a damn about anything except driving over shit.
The truck came to a halt. The driver’s side door squealed aside as Lucy climbed out. Army green tank top and washed-out jeans. White skin, scorched and bronzed by Arizona sun, her reddish brown hair jammed up under an ASU Geology Department ball cap.
Every time he saw her, Timo liked what he saw. Phoenix hadn’t dried her right, yet, but still, she had some kind of tenacious-ass demon in her. Something about the way her pale blue skeptical eyes burned for a story told you that once she bit in, she wouldn’t let go. Crazy-ass pitbull. The girl and the truck were a pair. Unstoppable.
“Please tell me I didn’t drive out here for a swimmer,” Lucy said as she approached.
“What do you think?”
“I think I was on the other side of town when you called, and I had to burn diesel to get here.”
She was trying to look jaded, but her eyes were already flicking from detail to detail, gathering the story before Timo even had to open his mouth. She might be new in Phoenix, but the girl had the eye. Just like Timo, Lucy saw things.
“Texan?” she asked.
Timo grinned. “You think?”
“Well, he’s a Merry Perry, anyway. I don’t know many other people who would join that cult.” She crouched down in front of the corpse and peered into the man’s torn face. Reaching out, she caressed the prayer beads embedded in the man’s neck. “I did a story on Merry Perrys. Roadside spiritual aid for the refugees.” She sighed. “They were all buying the beads and making the prayers.”
“Crying and shaking and repentance.”
“You’ve been to their services, too?”
“Everybody’s done that story at least once,” Timo said. “I shot a big old revival tent over in New Mexico, outside of Carlsbad. The preacher had a nasty-ass thorn bush, wanted volunteers.”
Timo didn’t think he’d ever forget the scene. The tent walls sucking and flapping as blast-furnace winds gusted over them. The dust-coated refugees all shaking, moaning, and working their beads for God. All of them asking what they needed to give up in order to get back to the good old days of big oil money and fancy cities like Houston and Austin. To get back to a life before hurricanes went cat 6 and Big Daddy Drought sucked whole states dry.
Lucy ran her fingers along the beads that had sunk deep into the dead man’s neck. “They strangled him.”
“Sure looks that way.”
Timo could imagine this guy earning the prayer beads one at time. Little promises of God’s love that he could carry with him. He imagined the man down in the dirt, all crying and spitty and grateful for his bloody back and for the prayer beads that had ended up embedded in his swollen, blackening neck, like some kind of Mardi Gras party gone wrong. The man had done his prayers and repentance, and this was where he’d ended up.
“What happened to his hand?” Lucy asked.
“Dog got it.”
“If you want some better art, we can back off for a little while, and the dogs’ll come back. I can get a good tearaway shot if we let them go after him again—”
Lucy gave Timo a dirty look, so he hastily changed tacks. “Anyway, I thought you should see him. Good art, and it’s a great story. Nobody’s got something like this.”
Lucy straightened. “I can’t pitch this, Timo. It’s sad as hell, but it isn’t new. Nobody cares if Old Tex here hiked across a thousand miles of desert just to get strung up as some warning. It’s sad, but everyone knows how much people hate Texans. Kindle Post did a huge story on Texas lynchings.”
“Shit.” Timo sighed. “Every time I think you’re wise, I find out you’re still wet.”
“Oh, fuck off, Timo.”
“No, I’m serious, girl. Come here. Look with your eye. I know you got the eye. Don’t make me think I’m wasting my time on you.”
Timo crouched down beside the dead man, framing him with his hands. “Old Tex here hikes his ass across a million miles of burning desert, and he winds up here. Maybe he’s thinking he’s heading for California and gets caught with the State Sovereignty Act, can’t cross no state borders now. Maybe he just don’t have the cash to pay coyotes. Maybe he thinks he’s special and he’s going to swim the Colorado and make it up north
across Nevada. Anyways, Tex is stuck squatting out in the hills, watching us live the good life. But then the poor sucker sees the CAP, and he’s sick of paying to go to some public pump for water, so he grabs his bottles and goes in for a little sip—”
“—and someone puts a bullet in him,” Lucy finished. “I get it. I’m trying to tell you nobody cares about dead Texans. People string them up all the time. I saw it in New Mexico, too. Merry Perry prayer tents and Texans strung up on fences. Same in Oklahoma. All the roads out of Texas have them. Nobody cares.”
Timo sighed. “You’re lucky you got me for your tour guide. You know that, right? You see the cigarettes? See them little bitty Beam and Cuervo bottles? The black candles? The flowers?”
Timo waited for her to take in the scene again. To see the way he saw. “Old Tex here isn’t a warning. This motherfucker’s an offering. People turned Old Tex into an offering for Santa Muerte. They’re using Tex here to get in good with the Skinny Lady.”
“Lady Death,” Lucy said. “Isn’t that a cult for narcos?”
“Nah. She’s no cult. She’s a saint. Takes care of people who don’t got pull with the Church. When you need help on something the Church don’t like, you go to Santa Muerte. The Skinny Lady takes care of you. She knows we all need a little help. Maybe she helps narcos, sure, but she helps poor people, too. She helps desperate people. When Mother Mary’s too uptight, you call the Skinny Lady to do the job.”
“Sounds like you know a lot about her.”
“Oh, hell, yes. Got an app on my phone. Dial her any time I want and get a blessing.”
“True story. There’s a lady down in Mexico runs a big shrine. You send her a dollar, she puts up an offering for you. Makes miracles happen. There’s a whole list of miracles that Santa Muerte does. Got her own hashtag.”
“So what kind of miracles do you look for?”
“Tips, girl! What you think?” Timo sighed. “Narcos call on Santa Muerte all the time when they want to put a bullet in their enemies. And I come in after and take the pictures. Skinny Lady gets me there before the competition is even close.”
Lucy was looking at him like he was crazy, and it annoyed him. “You know, Lucy, it’s not like you’re the only person who needs an edge out here.” He waved at the dead Texan. “So? You want the story or not?”
She still looked skeptical. “If anyone can make an offering to Santa Muerte online, what’s this Texan doing upside down on a fence?”
“I’m serious, Timo. What makes you think Tex here is an offering?”
Because Amparo’s boyfriend just lost his job to some loser Longhorn who will work for nothing. Because my water bill just went up again, and my rationing just went down. Because Roosevelt Lake is gone dry, and I got Merry Perrys doing revivals right on the corner of 7th and Monte Vista, and they’re trying to get my cousin Marco to join them.
“People keep coming,” Timo said, and he was surprised at the tightness of his throat as he said it. “They smell that we got water, and they just keep coming. It’s like Texas is a million, million ants, and they just keep coming.”
“There are definitely a lot of people in Texas.”
“More like a tsunami. And we keep getting hit by wave after wave of them, and we can’t hold ’em all back.” He pointed at the body. “This is Last Stand shit here. People are calling in the big guns. Maybe they’re praying for Santa Muerte to hit the Texans with a dust storm and strip their bones before they get here. For sure they’re asking for something big.”
“So they call on Lady Death.” But Lucy was shaking her head. “It’s just that I need more than a body to do a story.”
“But I got amazing pics!”
“I need more. I need quotes. I need a trend. I need a story. I need an example. . . .”
Lucy was looking across the CAP canal toward the subdivision as she spoke. Timo could almost see the gears turning in her head. . . .
“Oh, no. Don’t do it, girl.”
“Do what?” But she was smiling already.
“Don’t go over there and start asking who did the deed.”
“It would be a great story.”
“You think some motherfucker’s just gonna say they out and wasted Old Tex?”
“People love to talk, if you ask them the right questions.”
“Seriously, Lucy. Let the cops take care of it. Let them go over there and ask the questions.”
Lucy gave him a pissed-off look.
“What?” Timo asked.
“You really think I’m that wet?”
“Well . . .”
“Seriously? How long have we known each other? Do you really think you can fool me into thinking the cops are gonna give a shit about another dead Merry Perry? How wet do you think I am?”
Lucy spun and headed for her truck.
“This ain’t some amusement park!” Timo called after her. “You can’t just go poke the Indians and think they’re gonna native-dance for you. People here are for real!” He had to shout the last because the truck’s door was already screeching open.
“Don’t worry about me!” Lucy called as she climbed into the beast. “Just get me good art! I’ll get our story!”
* * * *
“So let me get this straight,” Timo asked for the fourth or fifth time. “They just let you into their house?”
They were kicked back on the roof at Sid’s Cafe with the rest of the regulars, taking potshots at the prairie dogs who had invaded the half-finished subdivision ruins around the bar, trading an old .22 down a long line as patrons took bets.
The subdivision was called Sonora Bloom Estates, one of those crap-ass
investments that had gone belly-up when Phoenix finally stopped bailing out over-pumped subdivisions. Sonora Bloom Estates had died because some bald-ass pencil-pusher in City Planning had got a stick up his ass and said the water district wasn’t going to support them. Now, unless some company like IBIS or Halliburton could frack their way to some magical new water supply, Desert Bloom was only ever going to be a town for prairie dogs.
“They just let you in?” Timo asked. “Seriously?”
Lucy nodded smugly. “They let me into their house, and then into their neighbors’ houses. And then they took me down into their basements and showed me their machine guns.” Lucy took a swig of Negra Modelo. “I make friends, Timo.” She grinned. “I make a lot of friends. It’s what I do.”
“Believe it or don’t.” Lucy shrugged. “Anyway, I’ve got our story. ‘Phoenix’s Last Stand.’ You wouldn’t believe how they’ve got themselves set up. They’ve got war rooms. They’ve got ammo dumps. This isn’t some cult militia; it’s more like the army of the apocalypse. Way beyond preppers. These people are getting ready for the end of the world, and they want to talk about it.”
“They want to talk.”
“They’re desperate to talk. They like talking. All they talk about is how to shove Texas back where it came from. I mean, you see the inside of their houses, and it’s all Arizona for the People, and God and Santa Muerte to back them up.”
“They willing to let me take pictures?”
Lucy gave him another smug look. “No faces. That’s the only condition.”
Timo grinned. “I can work with that.”
Lucy set her beer down. “So what’ve you shot so far?”
“Good stuff.” Timo pulled out his camera and flicked through images. “How about this one?” He held up the camera for her to see. “Poetry, right?”
Lucy eyed the image with distaste. “We need something PG, Timo.”
“PG? Come on. PG don’t get the hits. People love the bodies and the blood. Sangre this, sangre that. They want the blood, and they want the sex. Those are the only two things that get hits.”
“This isn’t for the local blood rags,” Lucy said. “We need something PG from the dead guy.”
She accepted the rifle from a hairy biker dude sitting next to her and sighted out at the dimming landscape beyond. The sun was sinking over the sprawl of the Phoenix basin, a brown blanket of pollution and smoke from California wildfires turning orange and gaudy.
Timo lifted his camera and snapped a couple quick shots of Lucy as she sighted down the rifle barrel. Wet girl trying to act dry. Not knowing that everyone who rolled down to Phoenix tried to show how tough they were by picking up a nice rifle and blasting away at the furry critters out in the subdivisions.
The thought reminded Timo that he needed to get some shots of Sumo Hernandez and his hunting operation. Sucker had a sweet gig bringing Chinese tourists in to blast at coyotes and then feed them rattlesnake dinners.
He snapped a couple more pictures and checked the results. Lucy looked damn good on the camera’s LCD. He’d got her backlit, the line of her rifle barrel across the blaze of the red ball sun. Money shot for sure.
He flicked back into the dead Texan pictures.
“PG, PG . . . ,” Timo muttered. “What the fuck is PG? It’s not like the dude’s dick is out. Just his eaten-off face.”
Lucy squeezed off another shot and handed the rifle back.
“This is going to go big, Timo. We don’t want it to look like it’s just another murder story. That’s been done. This has to look smart and scary and real. We’re going to do a series.”
“Hell yes, we are. I mean, this could be Pulitzer-type stuff. ‘Phoenix’s Last Stand.’ ”
“I don’t give a shit about Pulitzers. I just want good hits. I need money.”
“It will get us hits. Trust me. We’re onto something good.”
Timo flicked through more of his pictures. “How about just the beads in the guy’s neck?” He showed her a picture. “This one’s sweet.”
“No.” Lucy shook her head. “I want the CAP in it.”
Timo gave up on stifling his exasperation. “PG, CAP. Anything else, ma’am?”
Lucy shot him a look. “Will you trust me on this? I know what I’m doing.”
“Wet-ass newcomer says she knows what she’s doing.”
“Look, you’re the expert when it comes to Phoenix. But you’ve got to trust me. I know what I’m doing. I know how people think back East. I know what people want on the big traffic sites. You know Phoenix, and I trust you. Now you’ve got to trust me. We’re onto something. If we do it right, we’re going to blow up. We’re going to be a phenomenon.”
The hairy biker guy handed the rifle back to Lucy for another shot.
“So you want PG, and you want the CAP,” Timo said.
“Yeah. The CAP is why he died,” she said absently as she sighted again with the rifle. “It’s what he wanted. And it’s what the Defending Angels need to protect. It’s what Phoenix has that Texas doesn’t. Phoenix is alive in the middle of a desert because you’ve got one of the most expensive water transport systems in the world. If Texas had a straw like the CAP running to some place like the Mississippi River, they’d still be fine.”
Timo scoffed. “That would be like a thousand miles.”
“Rivers go farther than that.” Lucy squeezed off a shot and dust puffed beside a prairie dog. The critter dove back into its hole, and Lucy passed the rifle back. “I mean, your CAP water is coming from the Rockies. You’ve got the Colorado River running all the way down from Wyoming and Colorado, through Utah, all the way across the top of Arizona, and then you and California and Las Vegas all share it out.”
“California doesn’t share shit.”
“You know what I mean. You all stick your straws in the river; you pump water to a bunch of cities that shouldn’t even exist. CAP water comes way
more than a thousand miles.” She laughed and reached for her beer. “The irony is that at least Texans built where they had water. Without the CAP, you’d be just like the Texans. A bunch of sad-ass people all trying to move north.”
“Thank God we’re smarter than those assholes.”
“Well, you’ve got better bureaucrats and pork barrels, anyway.”
Timo made a face at Lucy’s dig but didn’t bother arguing. He was still hunting through his photos for something that Lucy would approve of.
Nothing PG about dying, he thought. Nothing PG about clawing your way all the way across a thousand miles of desert just to smash up against chain link. Nothing PG about selling off your daughter so you can make a run at going north, or jumping the border into California.
He was surprised to find that he almost felt empathy for the Texan. Who knew? Maybe this guy had seen the apocalypse coming but he’d just been too rooted in place to accept that he couldn’t ride it out. Or maybe he’d had too much faith that God would take care of him.
The rifle was making the rounds again. More sharp cracks of the little .22 caliber bullets.
Faith. Maybe Old Tex’s faith had made him blind. Made it impossible for him to see what was coming. Like a prairie dog who’d stuck his head out of his burrow and couldn’t quite believe that God had put a bead on his furry little skull. Couldn’t see the bullet screaming in on him.
In the far distance, a flight of helicopters was moving across the burning horizon. The thud-thwap of their rotors carried easily across the hum of the city. Timo counted fifteen or twenty in the formation. Heading off to fight forest fires, maybe. Or else getting shipped up to the Arctic by the Feds.
Going someplace, anyway.
“Everybody’s got some place to go,” Lucy murmured, as if reading his mind.
The rifle cracked again, and a prairie dog went down. Everyone cheered. “I think that one was from Texas,” someone said.
Everyone laughed. Selena came up from below with a new tray of bottles and handed them out. Lucy was smirking to herself, looking superior.
“You got something to say?” Timo asked.
“Nothing. It’s just funny how you all treat the Texans.”
“Shit.” Timo took a slug from his beer. “They deserve it. I was down there, remember? I saw them all running around like ants after Hurricane Violet fucked them up. Saw their towns drying up. Hell, everybody who wasn’t Texas Forever saw that shit coming down. And there they all were, praying to God to save their righteous Texan asses.” He took another slug of beer. “No pity for those fools. They brought their apocalypse down on their own damn selves. And now they want to come around here and take away what we got? No way.”
“No room for charity?” Lucy prodded.
“Don’t interview me,” Timo shot back.
Lucy held up her hands in apology. “My bad.”
Timo snorted. “Hey, everybody! My wet-ass friend here thinks we ought to show some charity to the Texans.”
“I’ll give ’em a bullet free,” Brixer Gonzalez said.
“I’ll give ’em two!” Molly Abrams said. She took the rifle and shot out a distant window in the subdivision.
“And yet they keep coming,” Lucy murmured, looking thoughtful. “They just keep on coming, and you can’t stop them.”
Timo didn’t like how she mirrored his own worries.
“We’re going to be fine.”
“Because you’ve got Santa Muerte and a whole hell of a lot of armed lunatics on your side,” Lucy said with satisfaction. “This story is going to make us. ‘The Defending Angels of Phoenix.’ What a beautiful scoop.”
“And they’re just going to let us cover them?” Timo still couldn’t hide his skepticism.
“All anyone wants to do is tell their story, Timo. They need to know they matter.” She favored him with a sidelong smile. “So when a nice journo
from up north comes knocking? Some girl who’s so wet they can see it on her face? They love it. They love telling her how it is.” Lucy took a sip of her beer, seeming to remember the encounter. “If people think you’re wet enough, you wouldn’t believe what they’ll tell you. They’ve got to show how smart and wise they are, you know? All you need to do is look interested, pretend you’re wet, and people roll right over.”
Lucy kept talking, describing the world she’d uncovered, the details that had jumped out at her. How there was so much more to get. How he needed to come along and get the art.
She kept talking, but Timo couldn’t hear her words anymore because one phrase kept pinging around inside his head like a pinball.
Pretend you’re wet, and people roll right over.
* * * *
“I don’t know why you’re acting like this,” Lucy said for the third time as they drove out to see the Defending Angels.
She was driving the beast, and Timo was riding shotgun. He’d loaded his gear into her truck, determined that any further expenses from the reporting trip should be on her.
At first, he’d wanted to just cut her off and walk away from the whole thing, but he realized that was childish. If she could get the hits, then fine. He’d tag along on her score. He’d take her page views, and then he’d be done with her.
Cutting her off too soon would get him nothing. She’d just go get some other pendejo to do the art, or else she might even shoot the pictures herself and get her ass paid twice, a prospect that galled him even more than the fact that he’d been manipulated.
They wound their way into the subdivision, driving past ancient Prius sedans and electric bikes. At the end of the cul-de-sac, Lucy pulled to a halt. The place didn’t look any different from any other Phoenix suburb. Except apparently, inside all the quiet houses, a last-battle resistance was brewing.
Ahead, the chain link and barbed wire of the CAP boundary came into view. Beyond, there was nothing but cactus-studded hills. Timo could just make out the Texan on the far side of the CAP fences, still dangling. It looked like the dogs were at him again, tearing at the scraps.
“Will you at least talk to me?” Lucy asked. “Tell me what I did.”
Timo shrugged. “Let’s just get your shoot done. Show me these Angels of Arizona you’re so hot for.”
“No.” Lucy shook her head. “I’m not taking you to see them until you tell me why you keep acting this way.”
Timo glared at her, then looked out the dusty front window.
“Guess we’re not going to see them, then.”
With the truck turned off, it was already starting to broil inside. The kind of heat that cooked pets and babies to death in a couple hours. Timo could feel sweat starting to trickle off him, but he was damned if he was going to show that he was uncomfortable. He sat and stared at the CAP fence ahead of them. They could both sweat to death for all he cared.
Lucy was staring at him hard. “If you’ve got something you want to say, you should be man enough to say it.”
Man enough? Oh, hell, no.
“Okay,” Timo said. “I think you played me.”
“Played you how?”
“Seriously? You going to keep at it? I’m on to you, girl. You act all wet, and you get people to help you out. You get people to do shit they wouldn’t normally do. You act all nice, like you’re all new and like you’re just getting your feet under you, but that’s just an act.”
“So what?” Lucy said. “Why do you care if I fool some militia nutjobs?”
“I’m not talking about them! I’m talking about me! That’s how you played me! You act like you don’t know things, get me to show you around. Show you the ropes. Get you on the inside. You act all wet and sorry, and dumbass Timo steps in to help you out. And you get a nice juicy exclusive.”
“Timo . . . how long have we known each other?”
“I don’t know if we ever did.”
“Don’t bother apologizing.” He shouldered the truck’s door open.
As he climbed out, he knew he was making a mistake. She’d pick up some other photographer. Or else she’d shoot the story herself and get paid twice for the work.
Should have just kept my mouth shut.
Amparo would have told him he was both dumb and a sucker. Should have at least worked Lucy to get the story done before he left her ass. Instead he’d dumped her and the story.
Lucy climbed out of the truck, too.
“Fine,” she said. “I won’t do it.”
“Won’t do what?”
“I won’t do the story. If you think I played you, I won’t do the story.”
“Oh, come on. That’s bullshit. You know you came down here for your scoop. You ain’t giving that up.”
Lucy stared at him, looking pissed. “You know what your problem is?”
“Got a feeling you’re going to tell me.”
“You’re so busy doing your poor-me, I’m-from-Phoenix, everyone’s-out-to-get-me, we’re-getting-overrun, wah-wah-wah routine that you can’t even tell when someone’s on your side!”
“You can’t even tell someone’s standing right in front of you who actually gives a shit about you!” Lucy was almost spitting, she was so mad. Her face had turned red. Timo tried to interject, but she kept talking.
“I’m not some damn Texan here to take your water, and I’m not some big-time journo here to steal your fucking stories! That’s not who I am! You know how many photographers I could work with? You know how many would bite on this story that I went out and got? I put my ass on the line out here! You think that was easy?”
“Lucy. Come on . . .”
She waved a hand of disgust at him and stalked off, heading for the end of the cul-de-sac and the CAP fence beyond.
“Go find someone else to do this story,” she called back. “Pick whoever you want. I wouldn’t touch this story with a ten-foot pole. If that’s what you want, it’s all yours.”
“Come on, Lucy.” Timo felt like shit. He started to chase after her. “It’s not like that!”
She glanced back. “Don’t even try, Timo.”
Her expression was so scornful and disgusted that Timo faltered.
He could almost hear his sister Amparo laughing at him. You got the eye for some things, little bro, but you are blind, blind, blind.
She’ll cool off, he thought as he let her go.
Except maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe he’d said some things that sounded a little too true. Said what he’d really thought of Lucy the Northerner in a way that couldn’t get smoothed over. Sometimes, things just broke. One second, you thought you had a connection with a person. Next second, you saw them too clear, and you just knew you were never going to drink a beer together, ever again.
So go fix it, pendejo.
With a groan, Timo went after her again.
“Lucy!” he called. “Come on, girl. I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry . . .”
At first, he thought she was going to ignore him, but then she turned.
Timo felt a rush of relief. She was looking at him again. She was looking right at him, like before, when they’d still been getting along. She was going to forgive him. They were going to work it out. They were friends.
But then he realized her expression was wrong. She looked dazed. Her sunburned skin had paled. And she was waving at him, waving furiously for him to join her.
Another Texan? Already?
Timo broke into a run, fumbling for his camera.
He stopped short as he made it to the fence.
“Timo?” Lucy whispered.
“I see it.”
He was already snapping pictures through the chain link, getting the
story. He had the eye, and the story was right there in front of them. The biggest, luckiest break he’d ever get. Right place, right time, right team to cover the story. He was kneeling now, shooting as fast as he could, listening to the digital report of the electronic shutter, hearing money with every click.
I got it, I got it, I got it, thinking that he was saying it to himself and then realizing he was speaking out loud. “I got it,” he said. “Don’t worry, I got it!”
Lucy was turning in circles, looking dazed, staring back at the city. “We need to get ourselves assigned. We need to get supplies. . . . We need to trace this back. . . . We need to figure out who did it. . . . We need to get ourselves assigned!” She yanked out her phone and started dialing madly as Timo kept snapping pictures.
Lucy’s voice was an urgent hum in the background as he changed angles and exposures.
Lucy clicked off the cell. “We’re exclusive with Xinhua!”
“Both of us?”
She held up a warning finger. “Don’t even start up on me again.”
Timo couldn’t help grinning. “Wouldn’t dream of it, partner.”
Lucy began dictating the beginnings of her story into her phone, then broke off. “They want our first update in ten minutes; you think you’re up for that?”
“In ten minutes, updates are going to be the least of our problems.”
He was in the flow now, capturing the concrete canal and the dead Texan on the other side.
The dogs leaped and jumped, tearing apart the man who had come looking for water.
It was all there. The whole story, laid out.
The Central Arizona Project.
A whole big canal, drained of water. Nothing but a thin crust of rapidly drying mud at its bottom.
Lucy had started dictating again. She’d turned to face the Phoenix sprawl, but Timo didn’t need to listen to her talk. He knew the story already—a whole city full of people going about their daily lives, none of them knowing that everything had changed.
Timo kept shooting.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PAOLO BACIGALUPI is the bestselling author of the novels The Windup Girl, Ship Breaker, The Drowned Cities, Zombie Baseball Beatdown, and the collection Pump Six and Other Stories. He is a winner of the Michael L. Printz, Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Compton Crook, and John W. Campbell Memorial awards, and was a National Book Award finalist. A new novel for young adults, The Doubt Factory, came out in 2014, and a new science fiction novel dealing with the effects of climate change, The Water Knife, was published in May 2015.