Lily fascinates me. We do not know where she comes from, but that’s not unusual out here. Everybody comes from somewhere else, and if people don’t want to explain, we don’t ask.
When I met her, Lily was connected in some way with the sinister young bloke who wandered on the fringes of the town, and who was possibly stalking her. She was scared of him, she said. She told me that he buried people alive in the worked-out mines in the back hills. This sounded unlikely, particularly from her lips. She said it flat, like some coded joke, and when I did not react, she did not insist.
For some time, Toby and some of the other old fossickers have been complaining that someone has been filling in the old shafts. They thought it was the council, but Andreas, the mayor, stood up in the pub and denied it.
The empty shafts are our chief asset, he said. It’s what the tourists pay to see.
The tourists come into town in cars or buses. They watch a scorpion race, take pictures of the pub and the ruins, then head out into the hills. No-one expects them to return. Sometimes they come back to the motel overnight, but most go on to Bitter End. Or so we thought.
Not every tourist is a tourist, that is my belief. Some are undercover prospectors, speculators and government agents. And there are groups wandering like lost tribes, fruitlessly seeking their promised land, who arrive like tourists but show little enthusiasm for the scorpion races. They are always short of water. I used to imagine that the sinister young man came to us with one such group, because some of them are like him — young, unwashed and inscrutable.
The young fellow is known to us as Alan, although Lily says this is a mistake, that his name is Alla. I don’t necessarily believe her.
After the row in the pub, some of the old timers started spending more time in the hills, and one of them reported back that Alan had been seen with a dozer, damaging the mines.
Where would Alan get a dozer? He denied it, anyway. But there is a dozer out there. All sorts of machinery is mothballed at the Fourth Horse mine, just waiting for a decent war to bring the price back up.
Alan never slept two nights in the same place, always moving around. But the person he stayed with more than anyone else is Lily. Many times she said, I’m not having him in the shack again, and then she did. Sometimes she would stay with me, just so he couldn’t catch her at home. But she always went home eventually, and he would come around again.
There are always missing people, but lately our little community has been noticing a bit of a surge. Isabel, at the motel, said she had never had so many skip without paying, and lots of them leaving their kit behind. Then we had a busdriver who hung around town looking for his tour group, until he disappeared, leaving his bus outside the Oddfellows Hall. There are no police in our town, but they visit. They cover the bulletin board in missing person notices. In a perfunctory manner, they go about asking questions.
One day I told the police officers what Lily has said to me about Alan. They didn’t believe me. Come out, Lily, I said, and tell the cops what you told me.
Lily came onto the veranda with her eyes closed against the light. Lily is quite a good-looking girl, but when she talks she is lifeless. Her lips barely move. The police kept asking her to speak up. Not that she was resisting their questions.
Alan’s real name is Alla. He is a cult leader. People follow him into the desert — yes, into the hills — and he tells them to go down into the mines. When they are at the bottom he buries them.
Why hasn’t he buried you?
I don’t go down.
The police said that they would look into it, but I could tell they didn’t believe her. I didn’t believe her. But I don’t like Alan, so I took the time to watch him. I tried to keep myself hidden, but there was nowhere to hide, and I was pretty sure he knew I was there. He didn’t care.
I watched him wandering on the edge of town, and meeting the little groups of people who go out towards the mines. Some went on without him, some went with him. I watched him take one group to a pit head. He talked in an entertaining manner. They were interested; they laughed. He started up the petrol motor of the lift. He went down; came up. He took them down — it took several trips. He came up by himself. He turned off the motor. He shouted down the shaft; faintly I heard voices respond. He went to get the dozer — it was nearby, I should have recognised the ominous significance of its presence — and used it to shove rock and soil into the shaft. The stones crashed into the depths with explosive force, dust shooting up into the air. I couldn’t hear any people over the noise, but I could imagine.
When the bodies were dug out, Alan made no serious effort to get away. At first he denied everything, but then he shrugged and said, all right, yes, it’s been going on for a while now.
He is not a cult leader, or at least, there is no cult. He simply used whatever blarney he could to induce people to descend into the shafts so that he could bury them. Sometimes it was talk of treasure; sometimes just to have a look. He promised some people a religious experience; others, a party.
He never forced anyone to enter the shaft. Lily is not the only one who escaped. Others come forward now, belatedly, under pressure from the investigating officers.
There were whole groups who went down and came back up safely. Some of these people form a “Free Alan” support group.
Visitor numbers fell off briefly, but they came up again.
Lily continues to believe he is a cult leader whose real name is Alla. This was put to Alan, who laughed it off.
Nah, she’s crazy.
I keep Lily at my place. I tell her it’s not safe to be on her own. I keep her at my place and in my bed and I fuck her every night. It never helps reach any deeper understanding of her or him or myself. I wake up gasping for air.
© 2019 Craig Bingham
Hand reproduced with modifications from ‘A surreal desert scene’ by ClaraDon, https://www.flickr.com/photos/florida_photo_guy/38725310684 . Reproduced under creative commons license: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0). Desert scene reproduced with modifications from an image by rhianjane, https://pixabay.com/photos/anglesey-parys-mountain-wales-3816221/ . Reproduced under Pixabay license (Free for commercial use, no attribution required).