© Daniel Landerman 2011
Cover by Daniel Landerman
Story by Daniel Landerman
Interiors by Daniel Landerman
The Second Book
by Daniel Landerman
“Think little filly’s gone south.” Ghost’s voice was thick with static. The weather patterns bounced the signals all over the moon.
“Ghost, where the fuck’ve you been? You got something for me?”
“Got the weasel here sittin’ in his own blood.”
“South end of town. Guess Princess is a fuckin’ prophet after all.”
Seth signaled a halt and brought his chopper around. The other hover crafts followed suit. “South? Her ship’s north. What happened?”
“Think filly shot his fuckin’ balls off. He’s mostly bled out. Think the cunt’s gone south. Perseus.”
“If that little bitch gets ‘way again.”
“Stork. Shut up.”
“En serio, jefe.”
“Francisco. Shut up.” Seth took a breath. “Perseus. Plenty of hiding. Damn.” He heaved a sigh.
Jube pulled his chopper alongside. “Gonna be a damn snipe hunt, boss. We dally ‘round, we’ll miss the hook-up.”
Seth looked south. It was easier than looking at Jube’s scarred face. “Heading back to the city anyway. And if we get Rawhide we’ll have a hell of a pay day.”
“We can’t just hang, lookin’ all over the fuckin city, boss. If the choice is sure-pay or maybe-pay, I’ll take sure-pay.”
“Yeah, we gotta get some fuckin’ pay, boss. I been thinkin’ that-”
“Well stop thinking, Stork. You suck at it. We’ve got some time still. Might be able to make double-pay.” Seth turned to Prince Chuck. “Move ‘em out.”
The posse opened the throttles and their choppers blasted south, kicking up powder as they double-timed back the way they’d come.
“Ghost, fall in at North Central.” Seth made a beeline for the distant glow on the horizon. They could make Perseus in less than an hour if the terrain staid decent. A girl on a horse would leave a trail. Hoof prints or dung mounds or people talking. A trail one way or another. Seth cursed as he jammed down on the breaks. The posse crowded in behind him and they all looked into an icy gorge several hundred feet deep. They would have to go around. Seth cursed again and signaled the posse to head west. Every minute was time Seth didn’t have to waste. Plans had already been altered and cancelled and moved and every timetable was growing uncomfortably tight. Seth was more of a planner. Spontaneity could be appreciated, but good planning is what kept everything from going to shit. These bounties, however, never seemed to get the memos. Seth took a deep breath and hunkered down and opened the throttle. The chopper whined across the tundra like a banshee with four more waling on its tail.
Ghost Keener fell in with the group on the north end of the Mercy borough. “Took your sweet fuckin’ time.”
Seth offered no explanation. He wondered how the albino could stand the cold with a clean-shaven dome. He suspected bushy muttonchops did little against the frigid weather. But then he often wondered if Ghost was capable of feeling at all. Shitty weather was the least of it. Bastards and brawlers and brutes: Seth’s posse. Chopped down to six by a half-pint girl flying blind. Damned if Seth didn’t hate the way his stars were lined up. He could feel the tension. They hadn’t caught a good bounty in two months. They wanted pay, they wanted success, or they wanted mutiny. That was the nature of the freelance business.
The hoof prints were clear as plaster casts in the snow. Seth slowed the posse down to a crawl. In some places the trail broke where a vehicle had hovered over and blown the snow away. The tracks cropped up again a few yards on, but if the girl had veered off on a side street or down an alley, Seth didn’t want to miss it so they kept a slow pace, but it seemed she kept south. Then she was gone.
* * *
Dakota let Amrit trot along the road unguided. It played like a strange tableau burned behind her eyes as she rode south. Her shoulders scrunched up and her body gave sudden shudders. The surrounding tundra went unnoticed. She could still feel him on her back. Snow melting and soaking through her shirt, cold against her breasts. Her cheek crushed against the icy ground near to bleeding. That snarling, pungent man. He appeared wiry, small and too high-strung. In a sense harmless. She could still feel his hands though. Her belt so deftly unclasped as his rough calluses scraped down the soft skin of her belly. He had not been gentle. Her skin was raw. She hadn’t been gentle either. He was back there somewhere. In Red Rock sitting in a pool of his own blood. Bastard. Another duster blasted over her as she topped a ridge. The wind and snow died back down and revealed the sprawl of Perseus with its first outbuildings strewn across the bottom of the slope. They quickly congested and gave only one entrance into the city. The wide boulevard left Dakota feeling vulnerable. She thought she could feel eyes in every dark window, every derelict building that stared at her with empty sockets. She shuddered again. She was in the small hours of the morning and the few folks on the street were generally too drunk or high to pay her any mind.
Dakota’s body ached. She was tired. The neon holo-signs hurt her eyes. The constant flash of the adverts projected on the terraforming cloud caused her to squint and keep her focus on the road. She had to stop at every intersection and keep to the shadows. Too many people. A few was too many. She let them pass out of sight then eased out across the streets. It was slow. More so with her nerves on edge.
Mercy, the north borough of Perseus seemed a warren. A few pros stood around the entrance to a body house. Probably their home base. One was on her knees in the snow polishing off some john, both too fucked up after a night of sugar cubes, powders and drinks and drops to care about the public display. Dakota grimaced. In the next three blocks she passed four more vignettes that were no less sloppy. A woman bent over a trash can vomiting as some drunk trick took her from behind. Another woman backed against a dirty wall with her skirts hiked up. The whole scene left Dakota feeling rancid. She wanted a glass of red. She wanted a shower and bottles of shower gel. The homeless. The wretched. If there was an empty doorway or an awning or trashcan to use as a windbreak there were two or three people huddled together. They were like sculptures half-covered in snow. So still. Unmoving. Dakota wondered how many were still alive. How many would be hauled away in the morning when they didn’t wake up? A couple of catcalls from down the street. She ignored them but loosened her forty-one in its holster. She cocked the hammer and eased it back down. She repeated this several times. The clicks of the action were smooth and soothing. It hadn’t frozen and didn’t stick.
A stale and rank odor heralded the straunts two blocks before they appeared through the light mist. Greasy straunts. The grease blocks. Pots of boiling who-knows-what. Kitchens that were kept hidden. Hosts that didn’t speak a lick of anything civilized. Chairs that required tissue seat covers. Most simply used long counters along the front windows. Standing room only. They never closed and at 4:45 they were packed with drink-stained club wear. At 13:00 the counters would be lined with suits. The smells alone caused Dakota to taste bile. She wanted hot soup that she didn’t have to caution her way through. She heeled Amrit to a canter to leave the grease blocks behind.
Dakota shot glances back over her shoulder. No one followed. They would. Hounds on the scent. They would be back on her trail soon. She had to hole up. But keeping her mare out of sight in a city would be tricky. A couple cabbies nearly hovered their ways into closed storefronts, rubbernecking the girl on horseback. Anyone would be able to follow her trail with no more than a few pointed questions. She had to move unseen. All the streets seemed to be wide four-laners in this borough. Black alleyways. They beckoned to her. Empty and foreboding.
Dakota reined in. She cocked her head to listen and a moment later she heard it again.
“Miss Tayler.” It was pitched low for her ears alone, barely heard over the low rumble of the terraformer. Dakota looked around, her forty-one in hand. She saw the man huddled in a darkened doorway. She eased Amrit toward the stranger and stopped half a dozen paces away. The forty-one was trained on the man’s head, steady as stone. He appeared dirty, but not badly dressed. Simply used.
“You’re no hunter.” The man shook his head. “How do you know who I am?” Amrit sidestepped. She sensed Dakota’s nerves. The forty-one never left its mark.
“A pale horse, miss.” Dakota’s eyes narrowed and flicked toward Amrit’s moonstone sheen. The man shook his head with a sigh. “Should I say the Pale Horse?”
“Speak forward and spit it out.”
“A mutual friend.”
“Yeah, good. None of mine would know you.”
“A name, mate.” She cocked the hammer back.
The man straightened a little and studied Dakota’s eyes. His never wavered. He nodded. “You might do it.” He cocked his head. “Put it down, girl. Don’t think you got the rocks to deal with the fucking consequences. Subtlety is dying it would seem.”
Dorian’s words flashed in Dakota’s mind. “You’re the preacher. Dorian sent you.” Dakota lowered her gun.
“Bastard’s still calling me that?” The man shook his head again. “I’m no damn preacher anymore. Just a grease monkey works on whatever happens to get broke down. Preacher. Sometimes I hate that man. Well, he said to keep an eye out.”
“And here I am.”
“Guess so. Don’t strike me as a gimpy mind, but I don’t know as you’re worth stickin’ my neck out for. You obviously ain’t one of us.” He looked her over. “Nice life you’ve had, no scars or nothin’. I’d say he just wanted some ass, but that ain’t his way.” The man shook his head. “I’ll never understand what goes on in Graive’s head.”
Dakota looked at the grease monkey preacher. Her brows corrugated a bit. Her chest seemed to clamp down. Was it the cold? Her thoughts went to the weasel of a man that tried to rape her. The others that had succeeded. Nice life? She flashed on her past and could see nothing but blood and ashen faces. Ghostly with colorless eyes. Loved ones and their screams. She was it. A cornered panther, hounds nipping at her from opaque shadows. She looked up and down the street to hide the moistening of her eyes. “Is he here? Dorian?”
“Nope. Blew through in a hurry. Said you might need helping. Conditionally.”
“Seth remains intact.”
Dakota blinked and patted Amrit on the neck as the mare pranced sideways again. “The hunter? Bloody minge, are you serious?”
“Intact or you can make your own way.”
Dakota scrutinized the figure in front of her. She weighed him and tried to nuance the connections between a preacher-turned-mechanic, a bounty hunter and a whiskey-drunk outlaw chance-met in the Red Rock Saloon.
“It’s no secret. Dorian and Jesse Graives would be locked up or dead if not for Seth.”
“Your wayward flock.” A chuckle was on the tip of her tongue.
“Birds of a feather, but we ain’t no kind of flock. And kindly fucking refrain from anymore preacher japes.” Dakota opened her mouth to speak but just nodded instead. The man met her eyes with a flat look. “Intact. That’s the deal.”
“Don’t know if I can trust you. Don’t even know who you are.”
The man smiled. “She learns. Might be you got some brains after all.”
“How did Dorian know I’d come this way?”
“Ah, one of the eternal questions. ‘How does Dorian know?’” The priest shrugged.
“Yeah, what’s your connection to him?”
“No business of yours.”
“How do you know Seth?”
“I don’t. But the bastard’s got a rep.” The man shivered. “It’s cold. What’ll it be?”
“You’re not just going to bring the heat down, are you?”
“What’s her name?”
Dakota blinked before she realized he was referring her horse. “Amrit,” she told him with a smile and a firm pat for the mare’s neck.
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