The light rain pattered on the roof with all the comforting sounds of a leaky faucet. Boss was sore from a bad night’s sleep, which meant he was cranky and tired. The numbers weren’t making him any happier. They’d pushed out a shipment two days before, ahead of schedule, but the buyers still hadn’t received the goods and naturally hadn’t paid up yet. Which meant Boss was short on men, and worse, short on money to pay off the greasy dealer that was standing in front of him right now.
“Look,” the dealer said, “I got places, so if you don’t deal, I’m cut loss and head on, you know?”
“Relax,” Boss answered. “I’ve got the points.”
“So what’s blockin’ the stops, pops?”
The words made so little sense it made Boss’s teeth hurt. “Waiting to hear back from Moneymath. Market prices, you know.”
“Deal’s the deal, no time for chit-chat, take her at two hundred or we’re gone.”
Boss gave the dealer a good looking over. A gangly creature, with long stringy hair and blotchy skin like poorly tanned leather. His clothes were ill-fitting. His coat was surprisingly luxuriant and too big in the shoulders; the high collar of his shirt was so wide, it looked like he could pull it off over his head without unfastening it. But despite the disheveled appearance and his terrible grasp of human language, Boss recognized the keen look in the dealer’s eyes. Here was a man accustomed to walking into dangerous situations. And since he was standing here, he was also accustomed to walking back out of them. Boss was either going to have to come clean with him, or kill him real quick.
“What’s it, lawdog? Am I pricey or am I scoots?” he asked.
The lawdog caught Boss’s attention, made his hackles rise. He’d been a man of the law once, years ago, but he’d left that far, far behind. The dealer had a sly grin on his face, like he knew that’d get to him. Boss thought about the two-gun he had hooked on a swivel under his desk. That’d fold the dealer in half real quick and take his little grin right with it.
But Boss couldn’t help following the leash the dealer had in his hands, right over to where it hooked on the girl’s collar. She couldn’t be more than thirteen. Hands bound in front of her. Pretty too, under the grime and bruises. The two-gun wasn’t the most precise of killing instruments. Boss didn’t want to risk damaging the goods.
“Stray, kin, or kidnap?” Boss asked the dealer.
“She’s mine, don’t mind you the why.”
“My clients are the worrying sort. They expect details. Where’s she from?”
“The Six-Thirteen. She’s mine, fair deal.”
“I’m no one’s but my own…” the girl said, looking up at Boss. She didn’t look as defeated as they usually did. The dealer jerked the leash hard, and she immediately looked at the floor again, but Boss could tell from the angle of her head that she was watching the dealer out of the corner of her eye. He didn’t see any need for treating her so, and he started feeling a little better about killing this guy.
“No one’s going to come looking for her?” Boss asked.
“Not without comin’ up gravelike.” The dealer smiled at that, like he was real pleased with himself. Probably stalked some poor family and murdered them in their sleep. For a brief moment, Boss felt a twinge of sympathy for the girl, which in turn made him feel more sorry for himself — for what he’d been reduced to. He was a good man caught in an evil time. But this was the hand he’d been dealt, the life of a once-lawman in a lawless world. Nothing to do but play it out as best he could. Boss sighed.
“Alright, finally,” he said, smiling through the lie. “Moneymath says one seventy-three and some decimals is the going rate for pristine. She doesn’t look quite pristine, though.”
“Don’t jerk, lawdog. She’s all she is, unspoilt. Two hundred says the deal.” The dealer’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly, and his left hand edged a fraction of an inch closer towards the inside of his coat.
“She is real pretty,” Boss answered. He pretended to think it over. Didn’t really matter, since he couldn’t afford it anyway. But supply was scarce lately, and he couldn’t afford to lose this one either. “Call it one-ninety, no more questions asked.”
The dealer rubbed the fingertips of his left hand together, either like he was already counting the money or he was getting ready to draw down. Boss leaned forward, like he was just shifting in his chair, and stretched his fingertips out to brush the grip of the weapon under the desk.
The dealer snorted something thick and nasty and made a little grunting noise in his throat, and then swallowed. Boss almost gagged at the sound.
“Fine enough, we’ll call it.”
“Excellent. I’ll have one of my boys handle the transfer. You can leave her with me.”
The dealer barked a laugh. “Not so, lawdog, spendies — then she stays.”
Of course Boss had known that’s how it’d go, but it was always worth a shot. The trick now was just figuring out which of his crew he needed in the room to keep things from turning into a bloodbath, and how to get them in without making him suspicious. Wing was a little faster on the draw, but Cauld was a deadeye who could shoot the flame off a candle and not even spill the wax. Probably couldn’t get both of them in the room without tipping the dealer off, though.
Just then Wing poked his head in. “Hey, Boss, you got some guy out here wants to see you.”
“He’ll have to wait. We’re in conference.” Boss said. That made the decision for him. Wing was already here. He should stay and help with the dealer.
“Said it’d just take a second.”
“What’s he want?” Boss asked Wing.
“To see you, I reckon.”
Boss dropped his gaze ever so slightly and clenched his jaw just a bit more. “Yeah, I figured that part. But what for? He selling or buying?” he asked.
“Beats me, Boss. Just said he had a message.”
“Not the kind where he walks in and tries to kill me.”
“Nah, Boss, he ain’t gonna hurt nobody.” Wing chuckled. “He’s all old and beat-up lookin’. Beats all I ever seen. Got a blindfold and everything.”
Boss scratched between his eyes with his thumb knuckle, but then it occurred to him that this might be just what he needed. A good distraction, an excuse to bring in both his guys. Just had to be careful not to give anything away. “You won’t mind I hope. Shouldn’t take long.”
“Your house,” the dealer said. “Just don’t jerk.”
“Alright,” Boss said, and then added a heavy sigh, like he was doing everyone a favor. “Bring him in, but stay on him. Hey, and while you’re at it, get Cauld in here so we can pay this man.”
Wing scrunched up his face for a second, clearly trying to work out why Cauld would have anything to do with paying anybody, but then he figured it out. Thankfully the dealer was too busy watching Boss.
“Sure, Boss. What’s the amount?” Wing asked.
Wing whistled, and then looked the girl up and down. “Yeah, I guess I could see that. Usual package or secure?”
“Secure.” It was their internal code: The usual package was for when someone might have some use alive. Secure meant drop the hit fast and hard. Wing nodded and disappeared.
Boss raised his hands in mock exasperation. “Sorry for this. I have at times been overly kind to beggars. Guess word gets around.” It was true. Boss tried to help the less fortunate out when he could. Just hadn’t been able to all that much of late. The dealer didn’t respond, except that he pulled on the leash and drew the girl closer.
A moment later, an older man shuffled through the door, his hand partially outstretched and head slightly bowed. Wing and Cauld followed him in. The dealer, wily as he was, slid over — slick as oil — and put his back to the wall, his eyes on the three arrivals while he kept the girl between him and Boss.
Wing trailed close to the old man and put a hand on his shoulder to stop him from getting too close to Boss. Cauld was a pure professional. He rolled in casually with a case in his hands and took up a spot next to Boss, one that just happened to have a real good angle on the dealer.
“You wanna handle the pay first, Boss?” Cauld asked.
“Best to keep that private, I’d think?” Boss answered, looking at the dealer.
“Fine that,” the dealer said, his eyes roving smoothly between Boss, Cauld, and Wing.
The old man hadn’t raised his head or stirred since Wing had stopped him in place. He just stood there, head bowed, hands folded in front of himself — like a child waiting to be punished. His hair was long and wild, a dirty grey, his face dusted with a wispy matted beard. He really did look pathetic, and Boss thought for a moment it might be kindest to just put him down. But Boss was a businessman, not a murderer.
“We’re in the middle of something here, old man. What’s the message?”
The beggar didn’t raise his head or move at all, but his voice came out stronger than Boss expected. “An old friend seeks you.”
“Oh yeah? Who’s that?”
The old man was silent long enough that Boss opened his mouth to prompt him again. The old man drew a breath and said, “You were an agent once. A man of noble purpose and profession.”
Boss snorted. “I was an agent, yeah. Don’t know about all that other.” He didn’t care for how often that’d been mentioned today. Boss briefly wondered if maybe the dealer and this old guy were partners in something. The dealer was on edge, though. If they were in on it together, he was doing a masterful job of acting.
“You have strayed.”
“Livin’ll do that to a man. Do I know you?” Boss asked.
“You knew me once. Long ago.”
“Yeah? What’s your name?”
“Today,” the old man said, “I am Honor.”
Boss couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. But Boss’s name was Boss, so he didn’t have much reason to doubt it. Still, it sounded funny, and so he let out a little non-committal chuckle that he hoped could be taken as either polite amusement, or simple acknowledgment. There was a too-long moment of silence afterwards.
“Look here,” the dealer finally said, “clocks is spendies. Sum me out and chat after, or me and merch is scoots.”
Boss was still trying to work out whether there was some connection between the two degenerates that stood before him — when all of a sudden the old man moved all easy and casual, like he was stretching after a nap. But in the movement he somehow covered the distance to the dealer and in the same motion, he swept his hand out in a graceful arc.
Maybe he touched the dealer; Boss couldn’t tell exactly what happened. He just saw the dealer flinch. And just as smooth, the old man returned to his spot as calmly. And even as if he’d never moved at all, with his hands folded in front of him again. It’d all happened in less time than it took Boss to inhale. Everybody just stood there stunned for a second.
Then the dealer made a little gurgle, and he let go of the leash and reached up to his neck with both hands, and all of a sudden it looked like he was trying to tie a crimson silk neckerchief on, the way his hands were going, and all the red. Boss’s brain wouldn’t process what he was seeing because he couldn’t comprehend what had just happened. The dealer fell on his knees and gurgled some more, and Wing said something that Boss didn’t quite catch.
The old man was as still as if he’d turned to stone, even when the dealer went on over and fell, and leaked out everywhere. Standing there with his hands in front of him. But now Boss saw the blade; some sort of knife, though he had no idea where it’d come from.
“What’d you do?” Boss heard himself say. The old man didn’t answer. Wing reached out and grabbed him by the shoulder, and Boss could’ve told him that was a bad idea if he’d just asked. It looked like the old man just kind of shrugged and brushed Wing’s hand, but somehow the next thing anyone knew, the old man had Wing’s hand flipped over palm up and bent the wrong way back, and Wing was howling like a woman with her hair on fire.
A sudden motion caught Boss’s attention, and he saw Cauld had pulled out his little pocket popper, and almost had it aimed — when the old man flicked his other hand out. The knife came sliding out — flying straight like a dart — and stuck right in the middle of Cauld’s chest. Cauld stumbled back, and tried to get the pistol up anyway, but he acted like it’d gotten too heavy all of a sudden.
Boss looked back in time to see the old man slam a fist into Wing’s throat. Wing choked up and stopped screaming then. The girl was just standing there, watching the whole thing happen, and Boss knew if he pulled the trigger, he was going to hit her and probably Wing too. But at that point she didn’t seem so valuable anymore, and Wing was probably dying anyway. He reached under the desk and grabbed for the grip of his short-barreled two-gun.
The old man took a funny little half-turn and kind of windmilled like he was doing a dance, and Boss realized the old man had produced a sword from somewhere and was bringing it down in a surprisingly fluid arc. He’d obviously misjudged the distance, though, and was coming down well short of his target. Boss almost felt sorry for him as he squeezed the trigger. Almost.
The two-gun thundered and Boss was caught off guard by the recoil. He completely lost his grip on the massive weapon, and his arm flew backwards with surprising violence. Strangely enough, the old man hadn’t reacted at all. He was just standing there with his sword extended, having apparently cut Boss’s desk through the middle. The girl seemed to be alright too. She just had her hands over her ears.
Boss noticed his hand had gone numb from the blast, and when he flexed it to check for damage, he noticed his hand wasn’t there anymore at all. Just a ragged mess of bone and pulpy flesh hanging where his wrist used to be.
“What in the world?” he said. Then he saw under the desk where the two-gun was all mangled and blown out, and it dawned on him that the old man hadn’t been so far off the mark after all. He’d cut clean through the two-gun and blown it up in Boss’s hand.
The old man finally relaxed from his stance and walked casually but confidently around Boss’s desk. He knelt over Cauld and whispered something.
“Who are you?” Boss asked. Or at least, that’s what he’d wanted to ask, but the words came out slurred and with too many syllables. He tried again with the same result.
“You’re going into shock,” the old man said quietly. He stood, and Boss saw he was holding his knife again. “There isn’t much time.”
The girl, sadly, was stranger neither to the violence she’d endured, nor to that which she’d just witnessed. And she knew in this case, as in most cases, the very best thing to do was to stand very still and to be very quiet. She kept her head down, and watched carefully out of the corner of her eye. The old man with the blindfold was crouching in front of the big man behind the desk. The one that was going to buy her. She couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it looked like Old Guy was talking and the buyer, well… if she didn’t know better she would’ve said he was crying. He looked over at her once with wet eyes.
After a minute or so, Old Guy stood up with his hand on the buyer’s shoulder. The girl had to see what was going on then. She dared to raise her head — just enough to get a better look. The buyer had Old Guy’s knife in his remaining hand and was just staring down at it. Old Guy stood over him, head bowed a bit. Maybe it was some kind of honor thing… not wanting to kill an unarmed man. Or maybe Old Guy was giving the buyer one last chance.
From that close, the girl figured the buyer could stick Old Guy pretty quick. Either way, she was feeling pretty good about her chances of escape; couldn’t be too hard to outrun a one-handed fat guy in the process of bleeding to death, or a blind old man — no matter how good he was with a sword.
She saw the buyer shift his weight and sit up a little straighter. He looked at her one more time and then nodded to himself. The buyer took a strong breath, exhaled sharply. He nodded again. And then plunged the knife into his own abdomen. In the next instant, Old Guy brought his sword up. The girl squeezed her eyes shut before it had a chance to come down again, but she heard the sound of steel through flesh and bone, and the thump of something falling to the floor.
That was the time to run. But the girl found herself frozen in place, not wanting to open her eyes and see what she knew she’d see. There were soft sounds she couldn’t identify, and the next thing she knew, she could feel the old man standing in front of her. And then he was kneeling.
“Don’t weep, child,” he said. “You are safe.”
His voice wasn’t particularly deep, but it was warm and kind, like a grandfather’s. She dared to open one eye. He was there, on a knee in front of her, his head tilted back slightly, looking up at her. Though he had the blindfold on, so obviously he couldn’t be looking up at her.
His hands moved up and she flinched reflexively. In response, he held his hands open, palms out, for a moment, before reaching out for her wrists. With skillful fingers, Old Guy went to work on the cords that bound her hands together, and she wondered at how well he could apparently feel the knot.
“Will your parents be looking for you?” he asked.
“Have you any family left?”
“Friends? Anyone to care for you?”
She said, “I take care of myself.” Old Guy reached up and began gently removing the collar. “You’re gonna let me go?”
“Of course, child. Do you have somewhere to go?”
The girl thought about that. It’d been three days since that man had caught her the second time, after she’d escaped the first. “Yeah, I know lots of places,” she lied. She’d figure it out. Always had. She walked over to the corpse of the man who’d caused her so much pain and sorrow over the last week. His eyes were still open. “I appreciate what you done.”
“It was necessary.”
“Yeah, well,” she said. She nudged the dead man with her toe, just to make sure. Then she bent and went through his coat pockets, taking back what was hers and some of what wasn’t. She found her eight-kilojoule pistol and checked the cylinder. Still had all eight rounds. “I don’t reckon you’re headed back south?” the girl asked.
She flicked the cylinder shut with a snap of her wrist and slid the weapon into her waistband. When she looked, she realized she was alone with a bunch of dead men. Old Guy was just gone.
She sniffed once and thought about checking out what was in that case on the desk. But then she remembered what was behind the desk and thought better of it. Better not to push her luck. Better to move on and find a place before nightfall. For one final time, the girl looked at the man who’d tried to sell her.
The girl cleared her throat. Spat right on his face. And set out once more on her own.