“Quint wants to have a word with you, Nails.”
I kept my eyes fixed on the flat grey eyes of the killer’s gas mask in front of me. It was a harder task than it sounds, given the short barreled pistol pointed at my stomach. His partner stood at the mouth of the alley, making sure no one would get curious as to what was going on. Not that there was much danger of that in Trade Town, anyway. Sticking your nose in other people’s business was a good way to get stuck with a knife.
“You’re Nod, aren’t you?”
The gunman chuckled, a dry raspy sound. “You’ve heard of me? I’m flattered. Keep your hands where I can see them.”
I lifted my hands back up, reversing their slow descent. “Yeah, I’ve heard of you. That must be Blinker then, keeping watching.” I jutted my chin out in the direction of his partner. “How am I doing so far?”
Nod bobbed his head up and down. “So far so good. You know why we’re here then.”
“I can hazard a guess.” The problem was, it could be a few different reasons. The bartender at Pips wanted to hire me because these two were shaking him down for protection on behalf of their boss. Also, one of my crew, Dogbreath, was dead, and I didn’t know why. “Something to do with Pips?”
“Something, all right.”
I shook my head, while taking stock of my options. There were no exits from here, and not much in the way of cover. I didn’t like my chances trying to get the gun away from Nod. I employed people like that for a reason. “I didn’t take the contract.”
“So? Quint wants to have a talk with you anyway, understand?”
I frowned, dropping my hands to my sides. “That’s what this is? An invitation to talk? Doesn’t Quint know where I work?”
Nod spared a glance toward Blinker. “Yeah, he does.”
“And were you told to grab me off the street? This isn’t how you do business. I’d be happy to talk to Quint. Tell him to send someone over, and we’ll set up a meeting.”
“Can’t do that,” Nod replied, shaking his head. “Boss wants a meeting now, not later. Understand?”
“Yeah, I understand, but don’t expect me to like it, all right?”
“You liking it was never an essential part of the deal.”
Nod pocketed the pistol, and we exited the alley. I had no way of knowing if his gun was even loaded, but the odds were high it was. Bullets were one of the few things not in short supply, especially in these parts. He gave a quick bob of his head to Blinker and the two of them flanked me on either side. Across the street, I caught sight of Nickle and Shiv standing near a market stand, pretending to look at the scrap the vendor had on display. Shiv was one of the others ones that worked for me. I trusted Nickle had brought him up to speed. Shiv took a step toward us, but Nickle grabbed his arm and bent his masked head toward Shiv’s.
Nod and Blinker led us through Trade Town, taking me to a section I never spent much time in. Truth was, Trade Town wasn’t all that big, and competition was fierce. And it wasn’t like there were many other options out there in the waste. Sure, you could try to set up your own settlement, like my sister Pincher did, but that wasn’t exactly a guarantee of safety either. Especially when you had gangs out there razing anything they could find, as if they were trying to hasten the end. Like it needed the help.
We stopped outside a pavilion tent. A few corrugated metal fences had been set up around the perimeter, and I spotted at least five sentries, all cradling rifles, and with pistols tucked through their belts. It looked like a stiff wind would knock it over, which meant it looked like most of Trade Town. The guards nodded to Blinker and Nod, then waved us through. They didn’t bother to search me. I wasn’t sure whether that was an insult or a compliment.
Inside the pavilion, Quint lounged on a big, ratty looking couch. Rugs spread over the ground covered the dirt of Trade Town, but you couldn’t disguise the smell — gunmetal and sweat — that permeated the place. Even the filters they had running to make the air breathable couldn’t do squat about the smell. Quint looked up at me over a pair of cracked sunglasses and his mouth split open in a wide grin over a scraggly beard. More guards stood inside, looking bored.
“Nails! Thanks for meeting with me.” He didn’t bother getting up.
“Your boys didn’t give much of a choice.” Removing my mask, I shook my hair free. “So what’s this you wanting a meeting? Why didn’t you ask nicely?”
He shrugged. “Busy woman like you, I was worried you might not want to meet with me.” He waved his hand and a girl I hadn’t noticed got up from behind the couch, a glass in her hand. “Care for a drink?”
I smiled, going for warm and friendly as opposed to throat ripping. “I’ll pass. You still haven’t told me what you want to talk about.”
“All right, all right, straight to business. I can respect that. Look, with Harrow taken down a peg or two, I think there’s opportunity for us smaller operators, if we play it smart. Take Pips, for instance. There’s no reason we need to be fighting over scraps when we can be ruling this place.”
“So that’s what this is all about?”
“Somebody has been killing off members of my crew. I wanted to see if you knew anything about it.”
“Huh. I could ask you the same thing. A member of my crew, Dogbreath, got himself a dirt nap not long ago.”
Quint shook his head. “I don’t know anything about that. All I know is someone’s been picking off my folk one by one, and I was hoping to see if we could, I don’t know, join forces or something.”
“That’s what this is all about? You could’ve come to me, asked for a meeting. Instead, you stupid fuck, you have your goons pull me off the street, parade me through Trade Town where everyone can see, and think I’ll just talk to you? You didn’t spend any real time thinking this through, did you? Right now, my boys are going to be loading up and coming looking for me. And they’re the shoot first, maybe ask a few questions later types.”
“Look, I didn’t mean anything by it. Can’t you call them off?”
“With what, you dipshit? Look, I can leave now, by myself, and maybe they’ll realize that everything is all right and they won’t make you bleed all over your nice rugs.”
“Oh shi-” Before Quint could finish his thought, the deafening sound of automatic weapons ripped through the air. I hit the ground as bullets stitched across the tent. Quint dropped to the ground as well, and I watched as he crawled for the edge of the tent. His guards looked confused and scared, and I wondered how far at the bottom of the barrel Quint was scraping. They saw their boss scrambling out and they followed suit.
The gunfire ceased as quickly as it started. Nickle was the first one through the tent, followed by three more of my heavies. All of them were carrying heavy automatics. “Boss, you okay?”
“You idiot, didn’t you think I might be in here?” I asked, pointing to the wall where daylight is streaming through. I pulled my mask back on before the dust could get to me. I stood up and looked behind the couch. The girl wasn’t as lucky or as smart. Her life’s blood splattered on the rugs.
Nickle shrugged. “Sorry, boss. When we got word that Blinker and Nod had picked you up, we thought you might be in trouble. So I got the boys and-”
“Yeah, yeah, I can guess what you did next. Made a great big, bloody mess is what you did.” I shook my head. “You didn’t see Quint slithering out of here, did you?”
Nickle gave a half shrug and turned to the rest of the boys. Apologies, three boys and one very mannish woman. “Can’t say we saw much of anything,” he said. “Bit of a dust storm blew up while we were coming up. Worked to our advantage, to be sure, but we didn’t see anyone leave.”
“Crap.” I should have figured it would be too much to hope for that Quint would catch a bullet on his way out. Still, he had to be hurting with his base taken over.
“All right, you four search the place, and then torch it. I mean it. I want ashes here. If you can’t carry it, burn it. Understand?”
Four heads bobbing up and down told me they got my meaning. I could only hope so.
“Good. Nickle, walk with me.”
“So you think Quint did Dogbreath in?” The way he kept running his hand over the barrel of his gun told me he was nervous.
“It’s possible, but it doesn’t make much sense. I think Quint had his people watching Pips, wanted to see what the competition was like. You saw the place, it was barely lived in. They haven’t been here long and are looking to see who the players are. He wanted to cut a deal, go into business together.”
“What, he thought with Harrow taken down he’d have a shot at the big time?”
A disgusted noise come from the back of my throat. “Harrow plays at being the big man, and the outsiders buy into it. They want to see it like those settlements out in the waste, like the one my sister runs. They want to know there is one person in charge, one person to deal with and that’s it. That’s not Trade Town though, is it? You have a hundred different factions and twice that many scams and plots all running at the same time. There’s never one top dog, and there’s no point in trying to be one. You know what getting to be top dog is good for? Getting a big fucking target painted onto your back. That’s something Quint and those like him will never understand.”
I turned down a side street, Nickle following on my heels. “That doesn’t mean you can come in and think you can push the regulars around, though.” I smiled, even though I knew Nickle couldn’t see under my mask. “You don’t get to be a regular in Trade Town unless you know how to push back.”
We got to Ferro’s, Nickle hustling to keep up. “I still want to know who killed Dogbreath, understand? And tell everyone to keep an eye peeled for Quint. I want to know the second that asshole pops his head above ground. I want him alive though, understand?”
As I passed through the heavy rugs that acted as airlocks to the outside world, I stripped my mask off, but kept my heavy coat on. Not for the first time, I wondered why I did what I did. I could head out to my sister’s place, Blackgrave. From what I understood, she had a cozy little set up there, and didn’t have to worry so much about people trying to take what she’d worked hard for. Yeah, maybe the occasional mutant clan, but how tough could those really be, anyway?
I passed by the bar and picked up a bottle of the local ‘shine. That was one of the first things I did when I took over Ferro’s, converted a couple of the backrooms into stills. It was easy barter and kept us in other things we needed, like juice for the lights.
“Anyone come looking for me?” I asked Sage, a pretty little thing that had stumbled in from the wastes. Lucky for her, Nickle had found her before Harrow or one of the other slavers did, and we put her to work. Paid her, even.
She nodded her head, staring at me all the while with crystal blue eyes I could fall into forever. “Somebody named Capper came looking for you.”
“Capper? Name doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Said he worked over at Pips.”
“Oh, yeah, him. I might have taken care of his problem for him, so I’ll be sure to pay him a visit. Anyone else?”
“Just the usual folk coming in to pick up their shipment.” The usual folk meant Trade Town regulars, as well as a few folks considered themselves medicine men. The ‘shine made for a good anesthetic, or so I heard.
I took a sip from the bottle and enjoyed the sweet burn as it made its way down. “Any trouble?”
“Nope. Got the usual collection of junk from the scavengers, but we’ll probably be able to get something decent for it. A couple of kids came by, trying to sell information. It wasn’t anything we hadn’t heard before. Sounds like Harrow is almost back on his feet though. Word is the arena fights will be picking back up again soon.”
“Sounds good.” A wave of exhaustion came over me, and suddenly it was hard for me to keep even my eyes open. “I’m gonna go lie down. Don’t wake me up unless the place is on fire, understand? Better yet, don’t wake me up unless I’m on fire.”
I found my bed in the back and collapsed on top of it, not even bothering to take off my boots or coat. Despite my exhaustion, sleep didn’t come quick. I kept seeing Dogbreath sprawled out dead, the girl at Quint’s riddled with bullets, and countless others. I heard some folk say that it got easier with time, dealing with death. Somehow, it never got easier for me.
I closed my eyes, and when I opened them again, it was to commotion out in the bar. I stumbled, still half asleep out into the bar. There was something going on, as six of my crew were standing around. Sage was backed into the corner, her eyes wide and her whole body trembling. My crew all had their guns out and pointing at the largest… thing I’d ever seen. He was enormous, all rolling layers of sun-baked flab. I could tell, because he was mostly naked, only a pair of shorts straining mightily to contain his body. He looked over at me with slightly misplaced eyes, a mouth too small for his head curled into a grin. A small deformed arm sprouted from one shoulder and curled around, in addition to the two proportional arms he sported.
“No mutants allowed,” I said, finding my voice. “Sign is pretty clear about that.”
“Harrow sends regards, Nails. You’ve been invited to a meeting.”
My eyes narrowed and a ball of ice formed in my stomach.