Dust and Decay – Chapter 1 – By Sean P. Wallace
Want to know what’s happening? The first book Dust and Sand was serialised here at Geek Pride. A summary is available here. You can also buy the definitive edition of Dust and Sand at all good eBook stores.
A hundred matters vied for General Richard Ryman’s attention: the escalating research into the demonic gods known as the Triangle; messages from other States entreating him for protection; telegrams demanding to know what he was doing about the infestation of demons and demagogues known as the Dixie Problem; and the day-to-day demands of managing the Solution which fought the Triangle’s monsters. To name a few.
One dominated his time and attention, a matter more important than all others: the search for Dustin ‘Dust’ Longe, the Wanted Man, former Solution agent, and chief suspect in the murders of Eleanor Naismith and Penelope Chalmers.
Dustin… Damn that stupid fool. General Ryman doubted the veracity of the charges – murdering women didn’t seem in his nature – but Eleanor Naismith had sent the Solution a message accusing Dustin of killing Penelope Chalmers, then her own remains were brought out of the Badlands riddled with bullets. Though he couldn’t believe the man would run rabid like that, it would be… difficult to prove his innocence in even the most sympathetic of courtrooms.
And everyone thought it General Ryman’s job to ensure that a trial came to pass. Alongside everything else, of course. The victims’ fathers – William B. Naismith, the Solution’s sponsor, and Senator Chalmers – had made hunting Dustin the General’s top priority, but Texas’ Governor was far more concerned about the increase in eldritch activity. It wearied him to juggle these balls, but juggle he did.
So when he received the Governor’s latest request, he called for the man he trusted most: Joshua McManaman.
The knock came at his door five minutes later.
The General finished his response to the Governor of Missouri, explaining that no more resources could be spared for the secondary Solution office and the expanding Dark Marshes it faced, and said, “Enter.”
Joshua entered and stood to attention. Tough and plain of face, the man had a neatly-tended moustache and the slow manner of a sniper. He was patient like no one the General had ever met, but coarse, particularly when at ease. Like his military behaviour and manners were a suit he wore. Most importantly, he was an excellent tracker.
“Good morning, Joshua.”
“Good morning, sir.”
“How does this day find you?”
The sniper moved only the muscles required to speak. “It finds me well, sir.”
The General lowered his quill. “How are the men, in your opinion, Joshua?”
“Give me your assessment. Be candid, if you would.”
The man had the decency to look uncomfortable, something the General always liked in a subordinate when he was being familiar. But he also knew to answer.
“We are stretched thin, sir. It was bad enough before, but now the things of That Which Sins are abroad even during the day.” His fist shook at the mention of the vile ‘god.’ “And that’s bringing other demons out. We will soon be low on supplies, particularly bullets, and the men know it. Their spirits are high after destroying that last batch of Fallen Angels, sir, but that was only a short-term victory.”
“We are working on the bullet situation.” The General pointed to one pile of papers among many on his desk. He withheld a wince at the mess. “I promise you it will be fixed.”
“We’d be much obliged, sir. Though I don’t think you called me up here for my assessment of our situation.”
The General smiled. It was a shame someone like Joshua hadn’t received Dustin’s powers: someone who had learned discipline, who had an understanding of order. Someone with patience. Perhaps more could have been done to stymie the Triangle if so…
Perhaps Eleanor Naismith would still breathe.
“No, I didn’t. Now, you are aware that the Governor has, for some time now, sought to form a formal posse to hunt Dustin Longe?”
Joshua nodded. “I’ve heard talk amongst the men, sir. Only rumours though.”
“They are not just rumours, Joshua,” the General said, rising. “Our Governor is fighting a tough re-election battle, and there is no surer way to ensure victory than by finding the State’s bogeyman and bringing him to justice.”
The sniper didn’t reply, but his expression shifted in some way the General couldn’t read.
“Well, he has finally pulled together enough favours to gather such a posse. Not a large group, they’d be noticed, but a powerful one. And he has asked that I provide manpower as well.”
Joshua tutted. “More mercenaries?”
“No. Quality men. Men of power and purpose. Men like you.”
He shifted, gaining pride and losing a little stiffness. “I see.”
“Now, this is not something I will order you to do.” The General stepped forward. “I cannot command you to face the Wanted Man, to lead the attempt to capture him, especially with the Badlands so agitated. But I would like to send the best… human the Solution has to offer. And that would be you.”
He did not add that Joshua would be hunting the best non-human the Solution had to offer.
A brief smile of pride crossed Joshua’s face. He visibly relaxed. “It would be hard to turn down a request like that, sir. But, if you don’t mind my asking, how are we going to go about this? How can a small band survive in the Badlands when they’re so agitated, let alone track a man no one has seen anything of for weeks?”
“That’s what I like about you, Joshua. You think of the practicalities. Of the realities. You will not go unprepared: the laboratories have produced an incredible coach for your posse. It will hide you whilst you’re in the Badlands, cover you from the Wanted Man’s attentions and the Triangle’s. As for tracking him, that will be left to you: in my view, it’s more than likely that everyone’s failure to find Dustin is down to the horrors of the Badlands, rather than anything he is achieving. Besides, you will be accompanied by capable people. Strong people.”
The sniper did not seem convinced by this last point, but he nodded nonetheless. “Okay. Then I volunteer myself. When do I leave, sir?”
“Good man. You’ll leave today. The Governor’s posse gather in his home in Austin as we speak.” He felt a strange need to prove the posse would not be a waste of time. “As I understand it, you will be working with a lawman and a representative from the Vatican.”
Joshua soured. “Really, sir?”
“Really,” the General said, a little heatedly.
There was a strange enmity from some in the Solution toward the Catholic church. Perhaps it came from their link to the Irish, or from their relative unwillingness to help fight the Dixie Problem. Whatever it was, the General disapproved.
“That won’t be a problem, will it?”
The sniper seemed to catch himself. “Not from my perspective, no.”
“Good. Your carriage is being loaded now. If you hand off your duties to your best men, you can leave within the hour.”
Joshua saluted. “Is that all, sir?”
“I rather think I’m asking a lot as it is, Joshua.”
He smiled. “Nonsense. I’m looking forward to it, if I’m honest.”
“Yes, sir. That bastard Dust killed the Naismith kid. And that poor Chalmers girl.” His lips tightened into a snarl, his tone grew spiteful. “If I get the chance, I’ll put a bullet through him and laugh after.”
The General couldn’t remember any animosity between Joshua and Dustin. But then something tickled his memories. “You and William Naismith were close once, were you not?”
“I’d like to think that we still are, sir. As close as a man can be to his betters. I managed his security for just over two years before he sponsored the Solution. Worked closely with him during that time. Mister Naismith still invites me and my family over for his Easter feasts.”
The General nodded, feeling a little stiffer towards his best soldier. “Why did the Naismith Mining Company require someone like you? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“Not at all. The redskin bastards wanted to take back some land that Mister Naismith had won the mining rights to. Those damn savages didn’t understand that the Government had given him it, without any strings, and they threw themselves at us. Claimed it was sacred. Mister Naismith refused Government help, seeing it as his duty to protect the lands he now owned, and so he hired militias and specialists on his own dime. That in turn meant he required people to marshal these mercenaries. Veterans. I was one of the latter.”
The General fought down his immediate reaction. Tensions between him and the Solution’s sponsor were at an all-time high. The magnate held the General personally responsible for his daughter’s death. It didn’t matter that Eleanor had pressed hard to go on the mission, or that everyone agreed that Dustin was the best man for the mission: his youngest child had died, and, in his wounded state, he blamed General Ryman.
As was a father’s prerogative, he supposed.
The General told himself it was those tensions, that crumbling relationship, which made him feel sudden trepidation about sending Joshua to the Governor’s posse.
“Is that all, sir?” Joshua asked again.
“Yes. Thank you, Joshua. And good luck to you.”
The sniper nodded and left.
The General spent the next ten minutes watching his office door, feeling much less comfortable with the massing demands on his desk and beyond.