The imposing figure knocked his head back and let out a bellowing laugh.
“Who am I?! I have had many supplicants over the years asking for many things. None have as yet needed to ask ‘Who are you?'” Dan was about the speak but The man waved him into silence.
“I am the one who determines if you are worthy of passage out of this festering hellhole. You wish to leave the city intact, then you go by me and my ferrymen. There is no other way. I judge those who are worthy of freedom, and damn those who are not. That is how I got this name: The Judge” The Judge rocked forwards perching his chin upon his knuckles, his face hidden in shadow save for the golden shimmer of his eyes.
“What are you talking about? People leave the city all the time. There’s buses and trains that leave every day, and Highway 88 goes all the way to California. It’s not like we’re locked in!” Now it was Dan’s turn to laugh, but there was something about the still silent figure before him that menaced him into silence.
“They’ve made quite a Gordian Knot up there”, The Judge pointed squarely at the centre of Dan’s head, pressing the cold, accusatory digit firmly upon his skin. “A bit more finesse than old Alexander is required in your case, no? what they have done. What they’re still doing. This requires a gentle hand, not a rough cut. Or, is it that you want to be cut free?”
Dan had been mesmerized by the infernal glare of The Judges eyes, only half listening to the words that seemed to emanate from the industrial gloom as if projected and not spoken. He stuttered, realizing the silence was due to The Judge awaiting his response.
“Look man. I don’t even know why I’m here. I don’t know why I followed this tramp. I don’t know why, despite every instinct in my body screaming danger, I came to the outskirts. The place where everyone in the city knows not to go. But I’m here.” Dan said.
“Yes, you are. And why do you think that is?” The Judge replied, a curious smile playing on the corners of his lips.
Dan thought back to the last few days and nights. The endless cycle of waking, drinking, writing and sleeping interspersed only with trips to restock his fridge or drink at a bar. His mind lingered on the Polaroid photo pinned to his fridge. Dan, Graham, and her. Bea. Why did they have to leave? Why couldn’t she have said goodbye in person, instead of just writing him a damn letter weeks later.
“I just want answers.” Dan said clenching his fist and holding back the tears he knew would come. He glanced up and to his surprise he saw The Judge laughing.
“And here I thought you were another spineless soul, lost and wandering without purpose. Rough cut it is!” he paused and leaned forward into the crimson light, “There’s a fire in you boy. It just needs reminding what it burns for.” The Judge clasped Dan’s hand in a tight double palmed grip and yanked him to his feet. “I have something to show you.” he said, before adding “this one’s for free.” Dan was glad of that, as he had nothing to pay with, and was quite certain Verge didn’t either.
The Judge led Dan to a rusted fire door that moaned like a whore as he swung it open. Verge got up to follow but he was forced back down by two of The Judge’s henchmen. Whatever Dan was going to see was for his eyes only, he thought. The pair made their way up a dilapidated fire escape staircase that zigzagged up to the highest floor of the building. At each step, Dan expected the metal steps to buckle and break. Yet, by some miracle, they made it to the top level where an equally decrepit ladder awaited them, yawning back and forth as if a flower in a gentle breeze.
“You first.” The Judge said gesturing to the health and safety violation. Dan gulped and took one last look down before gripping tight onto the rusted rungs. “Chaos is a fucking ladder indeed” Dan muttered as he began to climb.
He breathed a final sigh of relief when he reached the rooftop, pulling himself up onto the corrugated surface. He had thought the stench blowing up off the river was bad back in the warehouse, but up here the fumes were nauseating. For a brief moment he teetered, vision blurring with a combination of the caustic air and the sudden rush of blood that came with standing up. A hand clasped his shoulder and steadied him.
” I did not bring you up here just to throw you back down, Dan Ali.”
“If I had wanted you dead I would have just said it so. No need for such theatrics. Now walk, to the top.” He gave Dan a motivational shove and with that the pair climbed up to the ridge. Dan wasn’t quite sure what he expected to see looking out beyond the city limits. Perhaps clusters of suburban bungalows, retirement villages and golf courses, all mixed with patches of countryside intersected by pockets of woodland. Rows of headlights from the cars travelling on Highway 88 excited to get away for a weekend in the country. His imagination was seemingly far too mundane to compete with reality. The highway was there at least – sort of. Almost as soon as the flyover crossed the river it stopped. One second there was a road, then there was nothing. A literal road to nowhere. Dan scanned the horizon his gut tightening as he took in the vast expanse of emptiness. There was no trees. No bungalows and golf courses. Beyond the wall was miles of mud and desolation. It reminded Dan of pictures of the Somme from his high school history books. The landscape was pocketed with tents and more permanent concrete structures. Floodlights illuminated it all for him to see, gently drifting across the mirage of fear.
The Judge grasped Dan’s shoulder and pointed out into the far distance silently willing Dan to follow with his eyes. Three glass pyramids stood ominously erect on the horizon. In a strange sequence that seemed almost like Morse-code, one by one they filled with a blazing white light, flashed a few times, and then went dark only to light up again moments later.
“That is where you shall find your answers,” The Judge said, “But first, you must do something for me to earn your crossing…”
Thank you for reading this canto of Sin City.
Go to the series page to see all currently available cantos and follow Dan and Verge’s journey.
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