When Oliver reached the outskirts of town, the streets were still deserted. At first, he walked quickly, thinking that the group of men might still be around. But to his relief he found none of them, and after a while, his alarm subsided. But he did find some of the results of their actions. He found a generous sprinkling of empty shell casings and a dead person sprawled out on the side of the road, it was a man, gunned down at point blank range, clutching something in his hand. With some difficulty, Oliver pried the cold fingers open and removed a knife. He clicked the switch and the sharp blade swung open. He peered at it, first holding it close to his nose, then retracting the switchblade before putting it in his boot. Yet didn't feel the least bit safer with his new weapon.
Oliver made such haste that it was not long before he reached the rutted road. He was completely exhausted and hungry, ideally looking for someplace comfortable to rest his head, but moving on now would mean sleeping outside. He laboured onward for an hour or so, he still seething inside. He clenched his jaw until it hurt to try calm down, and it barely worked. But eventually both his anger and his headache slowly ebbed, but he stayed anxious.
The sun dropped below the horizon, the air was crisp and sharp, and the sky was clear and bright with stars. He chewed his thumbnail as he thought, trying to come up with a way to sell the key. Eventually he stopped, thinking it hopeless, but Oliver's heart began to soar when he spotted a familiar wagon. It was stationary further down the road.
Oliver picked up his pace a little; heading for the wagon. Oliver could not see the old man properly in the darkness, he looked to be sleeping behind the wheel, his head lolled forward on his chest.
In his haste, he stepped on something hard and heard it crack under his foot. Oliver picked it up and held it in the moonlight to assess it.
It was the old man's pipe.
Holding the squashed pipe, Oliver approached the side of the vehicle, taking a moment to catch his breath. "Excuse me," Oliver wheezed, "Look, I'm a bit buggered, can I take you up on that ride to Chloride? Or wherever you're going, that'd be great." he said, but there was no reply.
"Also I think I might've stepped on your pipe," Oliver continued uninterrupted. He grabbed the side of the wagon and with one hand jumped up, pulling himself into the huge metal engine that took up most of the wagon bed ticked.
Oliver reached his hand over to the old man sat across the bench, to gently nudge him awake, when he saw the spots of blood glistening in the moonlight, the blood poured through his already soaked tunic.
Oliver stared at the body, eye's wide in alarm, "Oh- oh no..." he croaked, his voice shaking with fright.
The body slumped forward onto the steering wheel, his arms loose at his side; revealing the back of his head was blown apart like an overflowing sewer.
Oliver twisted away from the sight, he fought hard to keep the contents of his stomach from erupting.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, calming himself as he reluctantly checked the dead man's pockets. Desperate times calls for desperate measures, he thought. Above all, he wanted to survive.
Oliver found a note and unfolded it, but the moon was too dim to read by. He also found a small box of matches, and when Oliver shook the box he discovered it was half full.
He manoeuvred himself around on the seat with a grimace until he could get his feet onto the driver's torso. He apologised repeatedly as he pushed and kicked the body until he'd managed to force the dead courier out of the wagon, flopping like a ragdoll. Oliver slid across into the still disturbingly warm seat and bended to find an oil lantern tucked between his legs. He pulled out the lamp, but hesitated for a moment to light it.
Oliver shook a match out of the box and adjusting the wick, struck it. The first match failed to light. The second match also failed. Perhaps it was too wet or the matches were too old.. not giving up, he tried two more matches, and finally the second took to flame with only one left to spare. He lit the lantern and it quickly illuminated the wagon.
Blood. There was so much blood he could taste the metal as he breathed, his face frozen in horror. He felt squeamish and momentarily nauseated from the sight as he felt bile rise in his throat for the second time, he tried to swallow it back but too late; the hot, bitter liquid filled his throat. He spluttered and sprayed it out of his mouth and over the side of the wagon. When his stomach quit clenching, he slowly dragged his shaking body upright. The blank, emotionless expression swept over his face as the realization of the situation gradually seeped in. The fear seemed to build behind his eyes. Feeling like a caged animal, he sat there. Paralyzed by the tragic feeling of isolation, all alone. with nobody to help him. His energy and resolve quickly faded, leaving him drained.
Oliver sat there a long time, very quiet, and then slowly, on the edge of his seat, reached into a coal scuttle and grabbed a small metal scoop. He shovelled a pile of coal into the Engine's furnace. Sparks flew up from the dying fire, and soon a tiny tongue of flame licked at the black coals.
Oliver didn't know much about driving an automobile, but he knew enough to make the cobbled contraption go forward. With a loud hiss, the brakes released before the wagon revved and inched forward. Clouds of steam erupted skyward as the engine surged. His destination unknown.
Curiosity got the better of him, and he unfolded the wrinkled note which he found on the old man's body with one hand and held it up to the lantern, so that the flickering light fell across it.
I've arranged your stay in Chloride, at Ye Broken Barrel Inn. Just give the innkeeper your name and you'll be given a meal and a room for the night.
Oliver read, looking over the simple, hand-drawn map and the surprisingly easy-to-follow directions scribbled on the back. The handwriting was crude, kind of clumsy and not all that neat, it wasn't signed by anyone either. He folded the note in two when the thought occurred to him- that it was possible to claim he was Peterman, reaping the old man's promised hospitality. The idea of lying down suddenly seemed very appealing.
He chewed his thumbnail in brief thought to even out the rough edge when his stomach gurgled and growled, reminding him that he had not eaten all day.
"Good point." he replied.
Oliver knew Chloride was a mining town, where thieves and scum came to fester and hide. For in Chloride, they could roar as they like. Civilized people shunned the town, and the authorities, well paid with stained coins, did not interfere. This, however, did not discourage Oliver; and eagerly followed the directions.
As he drove deeper into the night with only the stars and the quarter moon to keep him company, the winding country roads narrowed until eventually he came upon a straight-cut logging path that had been hacked through dense woods. There were stumps of trees everywhere, but there was a wide patch of road cut through it with the stumps dynamited out. Any resemblance to the natural greenery of what had been there before was purely accidental. There were hardwood trees piled up to dry, and all the pines had been toted off to make lumber.
the wagon began to cough and splutter loudly as it rocked and rolled and bounced along the deeply rutted dirt road, stopping and stalling every few metres. Oliver frowned, glancing over to the engine furnace. There was under half a scuttle of coal left by the grate; the last of the fuel.
After another bumpy pelvis-shattering mile or two, the wagon crawled sadly to a stop. Unfortunately, it was clear Oliver couldn't keep the automobile, or sell it either for that matter. It was covered in blood stains and bullet holes. Niche market, he thought, and decided it was probably best to abandon that unnecessary responsibility and walk into town instead. With that in mind, Oliver unceremoniously derailed the rickety wagon off the road, covering it with a few branches that he found nearby. That way, if anyone drove by, they probably wouldn't be able to spot the crime scene on wheels; not that he was directly responsible of course.
That done, Oliver trudged wearily alongside the road. It was a mudbath, his trousers sopping and uncomfortable around his ankles, splashed to the knees, his shoes ruined and squelched when he took a step, his socks gritty.
Oliver followed the road into town. He kept to the tress, and when he had gotten to the outskirts of town, traversed a dense curtain of thick, greasy, grimy smog.
Oliver could barely see ten yards ahead. the air was so thick he could almost grab it, and made his eyes water and left a pungent acrid taste at the back of his tongue.
At intervals he saw large rats darting between the cobblestoned streets. The rats were freakishly large, he told himself he'd never seen them that big. He saw two of them leaping down from a fence and going after a cat. That cat was not yet fully grown and it wasn't quite sure what it should do. As it hesitated, the rats pounced on it, but then a larger cat lunged in and the rats scampered away. Oliver raised his eyebrows in shock, looking down at Mr. Peterman's note instead. Oliver continued to follow the directions, skirting a sleeping lumberyard and one of many wide areas filled high with scrap metal and junk; Navigating a network of winding lanes and alleys that had no paving and was mostly mud and stones, that sloped downward and then up and then down again.
All the dwellings here were very old, with the wooden walls splintered and some of them partially caved in. Oliver watched a shady looking tanner across the street empty a barrel of unmentionable looking liquid down the drain. They traded disconcerted glances at each other as he hurried by.
Squinting up from the note he saw a wooden sign hung by one short chain, the other side broken so the sign was on an angle. Oliver turned his head slowly until it looked right-side up to him and read: Ye Broken Barrel.
Torchlight licked stuffily from cracked windows, crammed with old newspapers to keep the wind out, and wide thrown doors, and out these doors, stale smells of wine and sweaty bodies plagued the air. Fists hammered on wonky tables, and the shrill laughter of women could be heard.
A man stood leant casually against the doorframe holding a pot of ale, wearing a corduroy fiddler cap. He thumbed the brim of his cap and stepped aside to allow Oliver through, watching him with a curious, almost sceptical expression. It was obvious Oliver was no local, his clothes weren't caked in soot and machine lubricant.
Oliver mentally braced himself, chewed anxiously on his thumbnail and plunged into the noisy tavern. It was Friday night, so the tavern was full to capacity with people unwinding from a long week at work, or just out looking for a good time.
He gave himself a moment to adjust to the dim lighting of the musty interior before sheepishly working his way through the roaring crowd. He approached the bar and parked his lanky frame between two hardy workers. They gulped down ale faster than their throats could accommodate, spilling it on their shirtfronts, which they then took in their mouths and sucked.
Oliver waved his hand catching the attention of the barkeep, a stocky man wearing a stained apron. He waddled over and eyed him up and down, as if wondering what to make of him as he cleaned a glass mug with a questionably clean rag he pulled out from behind his pants. Oliver saw him glance warily at the dried blood speckled on his sleeve.
"Hrrrm... Ain't seen you before! You new or somethin' lad," said the barkeep, "ain't no worker 'ere, 'ey? wha' do ye want?" he continued without pauce, before Oliver could reply.
"Uh- yeah." Oliver jabbered, shaking his head as he cleared his throat, trying to compose himself. Social interactions were never really his forte by any means and made him nervous.
"You wha'? Spit it out, Blimey! Ale? Do ya' want a bloody ale?"
"No. Look, right, my name's 'Mr. Peterman', got that? I was told I have a room and a meal already paid for?" Oliver lied, withough so much as blinking. He rested his hands onto the bar, pretending he had some important business to take care of. The bar felt sticky.
The barkeep frowned, his big nose wrinkling like an accordion as though he smelled a bad odour. Oliver held his breath, waiting patiently for his reaction. He got a few suspicious glances and he sensed that some people were talking about him.
"Think I'm stupid?"
Oliver blanched and wondered if or how he knew Oliver was lying- when it finally dawned on him that the barkeep may already have been well acquainted with the real Mr. Peterman! Afraid for a moment he had made a terrible mistake, Oliver span on his heel and was about to run back, when the barkeep continued speaking after him.
"You ain't got no 'meal'! Jus' a poxy room- Oi! Where yer' goin' Mr. Peterman, yer' need the key for the room! Some git told me ye might be comin' tonight an' paid for you... It's Room 6,- 'ere." he said and slapped a small key down hard on the sticky counter.
Oliver wobbled back and let loose a sigh of relief, "Perfect." he smiled lamely and took the key.
The barkeep snorted, "Enjoy, I guess," and jerked his thumb toward the stairs. "Creep."
The warped stair creaked underneath Oliver's muddy black leather brogues, his legs felt heavy, his feet numb. He thought about home, and how starting today, he'd be officially starting his life homeless, without Charlie. The thought brought tears to his eyes, and they ran down his cheeks. He vowed not to trust anybody again. He'd already made the mistake of working with another, Gauge- the hooded figure who wore the gasmask, the man responsible for burning his home to the ground. Gauge had already tried to kill him once already, and Oliver couldn't count on his luck a second time. He knew that Gauge was a delusional, ruthless man who will stop at nothing in order to get the strange 'key' Oliver had in his pocket. He shuddered involuntarily at the thought of what might happen to him should Gauge ever find him. Oliver needed to sell the key, it was the original agreement between Gauge and himself- but apparently Gauge had other plans for it.
Oliver shook his head, concentrating on finding his room as he wandered down a long dark corridor, taking in the flaking plaster- dimly illuminated by a single sad-looking lantern at the end of the hall.
Pushing down on the handle of room six, he found it open. Oliver stopped walking, looked around. No one in the hall. He listened. No noise coming from the room.
Oliver shrugged to himself, slowly pushed open the door and frowned. The bed looked uninviting and rumpled up, and everything, including the curtains, looked unclean and not well cared for. The tallow candle he saw was burning low inside it's bronze candle-holder beside the bed. He would miss the luxurious width of his king sized bed.
"Urgh... Well, I suppose beggers can't be choosers," Oliver said when a powerful push caught him off guard, sending him stumbling. Somebody stepped into the room and slammed the door behind them, their breath laboured.