Nails (Episode 1)

Aka When All You Have is a Hammer…

By Matthew X. Gomez

“What a fucking mess.” I can’t say this was the way I wanted to start my day, staring down at the gutted corpse of Dogbreath. Hell of a place to die, stuck in a deserted shack, buried deep in Trade Town. It was hard to tell, but it looked like the deed was done here. Nickle and Tulip were standing nearby, fidgeting nervously. Tulip had found Dogbreath, then went and found me and Nickle.

“You tell anyone else?” I knelt down by the cool dead body. Dogbreath’s eyes stared, already glassed over, mouth open in one last display of uncomprehending shock. I searched the body, quick and easy. Not the first time I’d gone through a dead man’s belongings.

“No, I c-c-came straight to you.” I looked up at Tulip, saw her standing as far as possible from the body. Her eyes were wet. Too late, I remembered her and Dogbreath had a thing going on. Nothing too formal or permanent, but, well, something. It’s never easy seeing someone dead that you used to fuck, even if you weren’t the one to kill them.
“Okay, that’s good.” Dogbreath didn’t have much on him, only a knife and a bit of bent metal threaded through a cord. I tossed the cord to Tulip, figured she could barter with it for something. I tossed the knife to Nickle.
“Notice anything on that?”

Nickle held the knife up. It wasn’t much to look at, a shard of metal tied to a bit of polished wood for a handle. “It’s clean.”

I nodded. “Give me a hand here.” Nickle stuck the knife through his belt, then helped me roll Dogbreath over. The dark stain, almost black, on his lower back along with the big rip in his coat told me how the deed was done. “Poor bastard didn’t stand a chance.”

A retching sound made me look up in time to see Tulip getting sick in the corner.

“Either of you remember where you saw him last?” Odds were good Dogbreath got done in by someone on his own time, but I couldn’t ignore the possibility that his death had something to do with me. Dogbreath was part of my crew, and his death impacted me. These days there were too many movers and not enough resources, and Dogbreath getting himself killed wasn’t doing me any favors.

Nickle shook his head. “Last I saw him was yesterday, after the job we did. We went our separates after you paid us.”
I wrinkled my nose and stood up. “And you didn’t run into any trouble?”

Nickle grinned, revealing a set of cracked and stained teeth. “Nothing I couldn’t walk away from.”

“Tulip? What about you?” Tulip wasn’t part of my crew, but she’d been with Dogbreath, had hung around on the periphery and knew enough about the way things worked to know to keep her eyes open.

“I saw him last night, over at The Dead Rabbit. He wanted to party, but I had to work. He said something about getting a drink and that was the last I saw him.”

“When was that?”

“Two bells?”

“All right. Come on, let’s get out of here. Nickle? Find a corpserunner, and let them know where to find the body. Tell ‘em I’ll pick up the tab on it. Tulip, you’re coming with me.”

“On it, boss.” Nickle slipped on his mask, and stepped out of the shack, leaving me just with Tulip.

“Nails, I don’t know about this-”

“Excuse me?”

“Well, I need to get to work and-”

“Don’t fuck with me, Tulip. I’m not in the mood. If you’re worried about getting paid, I’ll handle that. If you’re worried about losing your job, well, maybe I can find some work for you.”

She cocked an eyebrow at me. “Are you serious?”

Shrugging, I stepped away from Dogbreath and toward her. “Sure, why not? I’m guessing you did more than serve drink at The Dead Rabbit, right?”

She nodded. “I never told him,” she started, looking at Dogbreath.

“And I don’t think it bothers him now, do you?”

She shook her head. “Now what?”

I smiled at her, trying to play nice. “Now, we find out what happened to your boyfriend. Come on.”

Both of us slipped on our gas masks before stepping onto the street. The smoke and dust wasn’t as bad as it might have been, but trying to breathe that filth without a mask would leave anyone not a mutie gasping and choking within a few minutes. I trusted Nickle would take care of the corpse. The bit of barter I’d pulled off of Dogbreath would more than take care of it. The streets were mostly empty, what with it being early in the morning. Few things got done in Trade Town before noon. That’s not to say the streets were abandoned. A few street vendors were still out, a number of urchins running through the alleyways. An old dog, mangy and with rheumy eyes, whined at us as we walked past.

“Other than The Dead Rabbit, where else did he like to go?”

“He was always taking me to Pips.”

“I didn’t know Dogbreath gambled.” Made me wonder what else I didn’t know about my former employee.

I caught Tulip shrugging out of the corner of my eye. “He didn’t, much. He said he liked to watch, see who was winning, who was losing. He said he liked watching how the game was played, and that the house always cleaned up at the end of the night. Sure, somebody might get lucky now and then, but that was to keep people coming back.”

“Huh. Was he thinking about opening his own place, do you think?” It probably wasn’t enough to get killed over, but then folks in Trade town were getting killed over less every single day.

Tulip shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe. He didn’t like talking about the future much. He said today was hard enough without having to worry about tomorrow too.”

“Ain’t that the truth.” We maneuvered through Trade Town, heading in the general direction of Pips. It would have been nice to walk straight there, but that wasn’t how Trade Town was laid out. There were no streets to speak of, and no one had sat down and planned what should go where. People came in, set up camp, and sometimes a more permanent building would pop up. Yeah, there was a wall around the main part, and if you had the scratch or the pull, you lived inside. It gave some protection from the mutants and other things crawling from the wastes, but all it really meant was you were locked up with monsters that looked like you.

We dodged past a vendor selling charred meat on a stick. More folk were coming out on to the street now, crawling out from their tents and shacks and holes in the ground. Trade Town waking up. The buzz of conversation, of humanity, picked up in volume, in intensity, all of it muffled by the omnipresent masks and wraps to keep the dust out of the lungs.

Tulip kept silent as we walked, leaving me to my thoughts. Dogbreath being dead didn’t mean my obligations were wiped out, and I still had business to do. First Pips, though, then I’d see about working on some barter, on making sure my people had food in their bellies.

Pips was housed in one of the more permanent buildings in Trade Town, a concrete slab structure sitting squat in the dust. A guard slouched outside, a gun and a knife sitting easy in his belt and close to hand. I couldn’t see his eyes past the polarized goggles, but I could feel them on me none the less. I tried to place a name to the clothes, but I was coming up blanks.

“Know who that is?”

Tulip bobbed her head. “Blanco. He’s a regular. Probably pulling guard duty to pay off a debt.”

“All right. Let’s go see what’s up.” I don’t know him, but I’m wondering if I should. Business I’m in tends to see high turnover, and good help is at a premium. Still, I don’t need anyone with a gambling problem on my payroll. Though, given Dogbreath, maybe I haven’t been doing too good of a job at that lately.

“Heya, Blanco.”

He shifted when he saw us walking up. Nothing too noticeable, but definitely more alert, ready to take action. “Nails. Tulip.” He’s connected, knows who’s who.

“You seen Dogbreath here last night?” It’s a stab in the dark, but sometimes you get lucky.

He shook his head. “Nah, I was at Harrow’s, checking out the new stock.”

“Last I checked, Harrow was shelved, especially after what happened with Butcher Bird.”

Blanco shrugged, kicked his feet in the dirt. “Word is the fights are coming back. People like to see blood flow that isn’t theirs. Figured I’d get a look, see what was on offer. Might make a bit of jingle on a fight.”

“Ever thought about doing an honest day’s work? If nothing else it’ll get you out of the dust.”

He took a long moment looking me up and down. He didn’t move his head to the side, but I could sense him sizing up Tulip too, who decided to hang back a bit, watching the street as Blanco and I conversed. “You want me to come work for you? Thought you had more than enough runners. You looking to expand?”

I shook my head. “Looking to keep status quo. Dogbreath got himself dead last night. I’ve got an opening.”

“Huh. Let me think on it?”

“Sure. Just don’t take too long. You aren’t the only one I’m asking. You know where to find me if you decide to take me up on the offer?”

“Sure do.” He stepped to the side, opening the way into Pips. “Thanks for the offer.”

I bobbed my head at him, then Tulip and I were inside. It’s dark, and it took a bit even after the masks were off for our eyes to adjust to the dim lighting after the harsh light outside. A man stood behind the bar, running a dirty towel into a filthy glass. On a small stage, a woman twirled around, shedding bits of cloth to the slack jawed approval of a couple of heavies. Back in a corner, the last dregs of a card game were wrapping up, the heavy bags under the eyes of the players testimony to how long they’d been awake.

“We’re not looking for working girls,” the bartender called out.

I cocked an eyebrow at Tulip, but decided not to say anything. Instead, I walked up, placed a hand on the counter and made myself comfortable on one of the stools. “I’m not looking for a client. I am after some information, though.”

“Oh. Sorry. When I saw you walk in with her I thought-”

“Never mind what you thought. Do you know who I am?”

The bartender shook his head.

“I’m Nails. You know me now?”

The bartender nodded his head so quickly I thought it was going to rattle off. “Sorry, I mean, I didn’t know it was you, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah. Someone who worked for me was in here last night. Goes by Dogbreath. You know him?”

“I know him. He was in here last night, and winning, too, for a change. Left with full pockets and everything.”

“Any idea what time that was?”

“Right about four bells.”

“Huh. You work the day and the night shift?” I dragged my nails over the scarred wood of the bartop. Dogbreath must have been flying high to leave after such a short period of time. The Dead Rabbit and Pips weren’t exactly cozy to each other.

The bartender nodded. “Danger of being the owner, I guess. My replacement comes on in about an hour. Look, you interested in picking up some work?”

“I said I’m not-”

“No, nothing like her,” he cut in, jabbing a thumb at Tulip. “I’ve been having issues recently with some of the locals. I wouldn’t mind hiring some extra protection and I hear tell you’ve got the muscle for it.”

I felt my mouth frowning, felt my stomach ball up. “Not going to be able to do it. I’m spread thin at the moment as it is. If something changes though, I’ll let you know.” I stopped drumming my fingers on the bar top. “Who is it that’s giving you trouble?”

“Couple of heavies named Blinker and Nod. You know them?”

My frown gets a bit deeper. “The names are familiar.” I knew them well enough, two operators working for a man who went by the name of Quint. He was bad for my business as we ran in similar circles and occasionally our interests brushed against each other. So far we’d managed to keep it low key, but I had an itch that we’d be spilling red before too long. “They’re hitting you up for protection?”

The bartender made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat. “If only. They’re harassing my customers and the girls as they walk to the club. It’s getting out of hand. You change your mind, or you think of someone that can help out, let me know, will you? I’ll make sure you get a finder’s fee.”

“Okay, sounds all right. You didn’t see anyone leave with Dogbreath, maybe seen someone trying to get all nice with him?”

The bartender shook his head. “No, nothing. Sorry, wish I could help.”

I shrugged. “No worries, and thanks.”

After we left Pips, I turned to Tulip. “I need to make some arrangements. I have irons in other fires, and I need to make sure everything there is even. You know where my place is?”

Tulip nodded. “Yeah, Dogbreath told me where it was.”

“All right, come see me there after dusk.”

“But I’m working-”

“Not anymore, you’re not. You work for me now, understand? Head on over to The Dead Rabbit, tell them whatever you need to tell them, then meet me there, okay?”

“All right. What about Dogbreath?”

My mask hid my smile as I said, “Let me worry about Dogbreath. I’ve got a few ideas. Keep your ears open, though, and let me know tonight if you hear anything, all right?”

Tulip nodded before disappearing into the crowd of Trade Town. I turned and headed toward Ferro’s, my home and castle. I had threads to pick at, and I knew one of them would lead me to Dogbreath’s killer.