By Matthew X. Gomez
“I’m here to see Harrow.” Dust swirled around my legs as I waited outside the compound, a precursor of the dust storm to come.
“You Nails?” The guard didn’t look like a mutant, but it was hard to be sure. There was no telling what was concealed under the gas mask and bulky clothes. He spoke well enough, so it could be.
“Is Harrow expecting someone else?”
The guard shrugged. “All sorts of people have business with Harrow.”
I suppressed a snort. Yeah, Harrow might deal with all sorts of people, but few people dealt with the man on anything like a voluntary basis. Harrow was a slaver, and his biggest contribution to Trade Town was the arena he ran, pitting hard luck cases against the worst the Burned Lands had to offer.
“What do you think?” Going unarmed in Trade Town made about as much sense as going around without a mask on, and you’d probably die slower inhaling the toxic air than you would without a weapon. I flipped my coat back, revealing the gun I wore on one hip and the three foot blade hanging from the other one. Truth to be told, I’d rather have other people get their hands dirty on my behalf, but that doesn’t mean I was completely useless in a fight.
“Can’t let you in to see Harrow while you’re carrying. He’ll have my hide nailed to his wall if I let you in carrying all that, especially in light of recent developments.”
“Is that so? I’m here because Harrow asked to see me. Are you going to be the one explaining that you turned me away because I didn’t want to go naked into his lair?”
The guard shifted his weight from one foot to the next. He twisted his body to look past me, checking out who I’d brought with me. He scratched at the strap holding his mask on before nodding.
“Yeah, I guess you got a point there. Come on then, let’s go see the big man.”
Calling Harrow a big man wasn’t only a statement on Harrow’s position. Even as he was now, lounging indolent, eyes half lidded, he intimidated me. The four guards standing around didn’t do anything to ease my worries, but that wasn’t anything new. Harrow smiled as I took off my mask, shook my hair free.
“Damn, Nails, you’re looking as good as ever.” His eyes narrowed and his brow lowered. “I see you’re still armed, however. That goes against my direct orders.”
I smiled at Harrow, being sure to show lots of teeth. “I told your guard that I didn’t need to see you so badly that I was willing to do a striptease. Besides,” I added, looking around at the surrounding guards, “I didn’t think you’d mind one poor woman to bring a few defenses with her.”
Harrow barked a sharp laugh. At least, I think it was a laugh. It was hard to tell with Harrow. “And if I had them taken from you?”
“You could. But at least two of your guards would be left wondering how’d they reattach their dicks when they tried.”
Harrow’s smile grew wider, and his eyes looked like those of the dogs that came howling out of the wastes, all madness and sickness wrapped into a furry ball of teeth and claws. “I’d almost like to see that happen.”
“Might put a damper on our conversation though, don’t you think?”
Harrow exhaled a long, slow sigh. He almost looked sad. “I suppose there is that. And I did invite you over to… talk. I understand you lost one of your people recently. Dogbreath, wasn’t it? My condolences.
“Anyhow, I have a favor to ask of you.”
I wrinkled my nose. “I’m not in the habit of doing favors, Harrow. I’m not running a charity.”
“No. You’re not. A poor choice of words on my part. Not a favor. A trade. I have something you want, and I want you to do something.”
I let my gaze travel slow around the room. I took in the bare, cracked concrete walls, the guards with fingers hovering near triggers, Harrow sprawled in his chair, too tired and hurt to stand.
“I can’t think of anything you have that I want that badly, Harrow.”
“No? How about a name? A name attached to the person that killed your boy, Dogbreath? Can’t let something like that slide, can you? What would people say. Why, I’d imagine they’d think old Nails was getting soft.” His smile grew wider, but it didn’t touch his eyes. Those remained half-lidded and cold like a reptile eyeing a warm bit of rodent.
“And what do you want in return, Harrow?”
Nickle met me coming out of Harrow’s. Seeing the look on my face, he fell in next to me, waved the rest of the crew back.
I nodded, not sure if I trusted my voice yet. I didn’t know how Harrow knew who’d killed Dogbreath and I didn’t yet. I couldn’t ignore the fact that he might be having me on, but Dogbreath was part of my crew, my family. If I let his death go unanswered, then it was time to roll over and expose my neck. Still, what he was asking me to do… My stomach flipped at the thought.
“So, what’s the move?”
“How many bodies can we pull together? Good with a gun, steady when things get loud.”
“Five, easy. Seven if you want to gamble that they’ll hold their shit together.”
“No. I only want steady hands on this, understand?”
“Yeah, it’s that bad. Make sure everyone’s armed, and ready to get dirty. This isn’t going to be a showpiece. Blood’s going to have to get spilled.”
Truth to tell, this was my least favorite kind of work. I preferred deliveries, or protection. I didn’t mind a show of force to keep someone in line, but I’d figured out early there was little profit in bloodshed. All it did was piss someone off, and mean there was at least one less customer out in the world. I hated being in this corner, but sometimes there’s no helping getting your hands dirty.
“Where do we meet?”
“Ferro’s. We’ll leave from there. The less anyone else knows about this, the better, understand? And yeah, that includes you, so don’t even ask. I want everyone there at sundown, and tell them double usual pay.”
“So, this is deep shit, isn’t it?”
“Neck deep, Nickle. Neck fucking deep.”
The emptiness at Ferro’s did little to make me feel better. Sun was just going down, which meant the worst of humanity that called Trade Town home came out to play. I’d already sent Sage away with enough barter to get nice and drunk. Or a good meal. Maybe even both.
Nickle carried his weight. Five other hard cases sat in the bar, all of them sipping water, gnawing on dried strips of meat they could pretend was something other than rat or crow. All of them were armed, and looking at me like they wanted to eat me. Four men and a woman. It made me wish Nero was around, but no one had seen that blind fuck for months. Word was he’d wandered out into the desert, never to be seen again.
I’d managed a couple of hours of sleep between Harrow’s and then, but my eyes felt full of grit and my stomach refused to settle down. I knew once the violence started I’d be fine until it ended, but the anticipation of it was getting to me.
“All right. We’ve been hired to send a message, violent and bloody.”
“You mean you’ve been hired,” the woman said. I gazed at her, trying to place a name. Fetish, I think. Some bloodletter wandered in from the Burned Lands, a head full of violence and a hate on for anyone who looked at her funny. I figured she’d be the first one in. “We’re only the hired help.”
I narrowed my eyes, my tongue finding the side of my cheek where I thought a sore was coming in. I’d be glad for the pain, if I lived until tomorrow. “I’ve been tasked. Nickle here thought you might be able to carry weight and see some barter in exchange. If you don’t like it…” I pointed at the door.
“I didn’t say I didn’t like it,” Fetish murmured.
“Who are we working for?” someone else asked. Juggler, I think his name was. After a while, all the hired guns started to look the same. They rarely stuck around one way or the other for it to make much sense to get to learn their names.
“Does it matter?” Nickle piped up. “You aren’t exactly in a position to be turning down jobs, are you?”
“No, but I thought-”
“Are we paying you to think?”
“Then don’t worry about it. The less you know the better, all right?”
“Yeah, yeah fine.”
“Good, so here’s the plan.” I pushed the tables out of the way and spread the map down on the ground.
“Hey Nails. Guess you thought about my offer, huh?” Capper looked up from the bar, where he was polishing the wood with a bit of cloth. “Can I get you something to drink?”
I smiled as I unhooked my mask. “What’ve you got that you recommend?”
Capper gave a shy little smile. “Not sure, really. Most of it’s crap, you know?”
“Yeah. Seems to be something of a trend around here. So what’s the least worst?”
“Oh, I’ve got something here for you.” He bent down and picked out a brown bottle. A bit of liquid sloshed around, and he splashed some into a mostly clean cup. “This part of your crew?”
Turning around, I saw Nickle, Fetish, and Juggler come into the room. Capper’s crew, the bouncer at the door, the other bartender, and the dancer on the small stage in the corner all started, looking nervous as a rat destined for the stew pot. It wasn’t usual to see so many hardcases in one place without a dustup being imminent.
“This your crew?” Capper asked. “They the ones that are going to protect me?”
I shook my head and smiled. I took a long, slow drink from the glass on the bar. “Had another offer come in, Capper. Afraid I’m not going to be able to take yours.”
Understanding broke over his face like the dawn, harsh and unforgiving. “Why you double crossing bi-”
The cold barrel of my gun pressed against his forehead stopped his sentence. In the mirror behind the bar, I saw Fetish behind the bouncer, the cold steel in her hand pressed under his ear. Girl knew her business.
“Why? Get a better offer?” Capper asked.
“You could say that.”
“Look, whatever they’re paying you, I can match. Hell, I can probably double it.”
“It’s not like that.”
“Look, Nails. Come on. Let’s make-”
The thunder of my gun, the splatter of his brains against the mirror, and his body collapsing to the floor prevented me from hearing the rest of his sentence.
“Sorry, Capper. It wasn’t personal.
“Come on. Time to go collect from Harrow.”
“The deed is done?” Harrow, still slouched in his chair, looked up. His bloodshot eyes bored into mine, and something dark red had crusted around his lips.
“If that’s your way of asking if Capper is dead, then yeah, the deed is done.” I should have felt worse about it then I did. Capper had never done anything to hurt me or mine, so far as I knew. Then again, none of us these days were what you’d call paragons of virtue, so maybe that’s why my conscience didn’t even twinge.
“Didn’t give you any trouble I take it?”
Shaking my head, my hand dropped to my gun in my belt. I wasn’t trying to be threatening, but I was done with the chitchat. Harrow unsettled me in a profound way. I wondered in five years’ time if I’d be any different from him. Assuming I wasn’t dead, of course.
“I’m guessing you want some information, then.”
“Well that was the point, wasn’t it? Capper dead, but without your hands on it, in exchange for the name of the person who did for Dogbreath.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Harrow ran a long, cracked finger nail between his teeth, prying something out and flinging it to the ground. “Little slip of a girl, short dirty blonde hair. Works at The Dead Rabbit. She came to me, asked for help doing someone dirty. When she told me who, I declined out of professional courtesy.”
“You’re a gentleman, Harrow.”
“Aren’t I just? Anyhow, word is she found some heavy to do it, name of Chipper. You know him?”
“By reputation.” Chipper was a freelance gun-for-hire. I’d made use of his services from time to time, but truth was he made me nervous. He wasn’t one for following orders, and he was far from a light touch. Thinking about how we found Dogbreath, well, it fit with his style.
“You need anything else?”
“No, I’ve got what I need. Thank you, Harrow.” To my credit, I kept my tone pleasant. Not an easy task at all.
“If you’re ever looking for work, Nails, want to give up the independent lifestyle…”
I’d already turned to leave, and didn’t bother looking back or giving Harrow an answer. I’d slit my own throat before working for that monster.
“Oh, good, you’re here.”
Ferro’s was quiet. Unusually so. Might have something to do with the fact I told Nickle to close up and send the customers home. We’d tighten our belts a bit as a result, but well, some things were best done in private. Tulip sat at the bar, a glass of my moonshine in front of her, and it about half gone already.
Nickle stood behind the bar, running a stone over his knife. The sound of metal on stone grated, and it was all I could to do to not yell at him to stop. Truth to tell, my nerves might have been a touch frayed from recent events.
“Any luck finding who did Dogbreath?” Tulip asked. Her eyes were redrimmed, but her hand was steady on the glass. She was good, I’d give her that.
“Freelancer named Chipper did for him. Nickle, let me have what she’s having.”
We sat in silence for a bit, both of us drinking. Nickle put away his knife and stone, and drew his gun and a small folded case. He disassembled the weapon, laying out the pieces on the bar and taking the time to clean each one.
“So Chipper’s dead, then?” Tulip swiveled in her seat to look at me.
“Hmm? No. Chipper’s hand might have been on the knife, but he wouldn’t have killed Dogbreath without someone pointing him in that direction. Besides, Chipper’s a skilled hand with a blade. I might need to make use of him myself in the future. I don’t hold any animosity toward him, any more than I would toward a gun someone aimed at me. No, I’d go after the owner of the gun, wouldn’t you?”
“That’s what I thought. So why’d you do it, Tulip?”
Before I’d finished the question, she’d taken off for the door, but came skidding to a stop when Fetish stepped in front of her, naked blade held crosswise across her chest and a grin like a mad dog splitting her face.
I stood up, pulling my knife free.
“Look, Nails, why do you think it was me? I’m the one that told Nickle where to find the body.” She backed away, nervous as a cornered rat. “Why would I do that?”
“Throw off the scent. You thought we wouldn’t be able to trace it back to you. So why did you do it? I’m curious.”
“Would it make a difference if I told you?”
I smiled, the warm friendly one I reserve for new potential clients. “It might.”
“Bastard was cheating on me. I found out and went to him. Told him what a useless bastard he was. He-he laughed at me. Asked me why I ever thought we were exclusive.”
Tulip nodded, tears welling in her eyes. We were standing an arm’s length apart at that point. My fingers trembled against the grip of my gun. Something whooshed by my ear, and a knife embedded itself into Tulip’s neck, sinking up to the hilt. Blood sprayed out, hitting me full in the face.
“Guh. Guh. Guh.” Her hand reached up, touching the handle. Slumping to the ground, she left a dark red streak on the wall behind her.
I turned around to see Fetish staring there. “Wasn’t sure you were going to do it. Hey Nickle, can I get a drink?”
I stared down at Tulip, body already cooling on the bare concrete floor.
“Better pour one for Fetish, Nickle.
And get someone in here to clean this up.”