NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Jackie's Storyline.
A pair of strong hands dropped Jackie DeCoeur down onto a hard seat, and she heard a voice say: “I’m excited to finally meet you, Miss DeCoeur.”
Jackie did not recognize the voice, but she had a pretty good idea who it belonged to. There was really only one person it could be. And besides, she could smell the old fox’s cologne – his own brand.
She smiled, even though it hurt her swollen jaw.
“I’d love to say the same, Brax,” she said, “but honesty prevents it.” She tried to gesture upwards to the blindfold which covered her eyes, but she could only raise her manacled hands about halfway up to her face before the chains which bound them pulled taut. “Is this strictly necessary? I prefer to look at a man when I’m talking to him.”
From a few feet away, Jackie heard the fox chuckle. His voice was high and reedy – not how she had imagined it.
“You’ll have to forgive me, Miss DeCoeur, but I hear the stories which uneducated folk spread about you. They call you the ‘Red-Eyed Woman.’ They say you came back from the dead. They say that you can hypnotize a man just by looking at him. Now, as a rule, I don’t put much stock in campfire tales. But when I find myself actually seated across from one, well, can you blame me for taking precautions?”
“I’m not here to judge,” Jackie said. “It just seems a little impolite, is all.”
“Be glad that you still have eyes,” the voice said, its tone changed – sharper now, with just a trace of sadism at the edges. “The thought of taking more permanent action had occurred to me.”
“Like I said, I’m not here to judge.”
“No, you’re not. That’s my prerogative.” The voice fell silent for a moment. When it spoke again, its playful, if slightly-forced, bonhomie had returned. “These necessary indignities aside, I trust you’ve been well-treated?”
“Well, if you put a gun to my head, I would have to say that your staff has an interesting concept of wasteland hospitality. That rattler in particular packs a mean punch,” Jackie said, nodding her head to the side where she knew the snake was standing guard.
“You should choose your turns of phrase more carefully, Miss DeCoeur; you’re liable to give Mister Sharps here ideas. I gather he doesn’t much care for you.”
“Really? I can’t imagine why.”
“He tells me that you shot his father some years back, during a prison break. Shot him square between the eyes, in fact.”
As much as her bindings allowed her to, Jackie shrugged. “It’s certainly possible. I’ve shot more than my share of snakes, and between the eyes is where I prefer to shoot them.”
As soon as the words left her mouth, Jackie heard fabric rustle and felt the air off to one side of her head move. Then she felt something much more substantial as the rattler’s fist connected hard with the side of her jaw, just below the ear. The force of the blow knocked her over sideways, along with her chair, sending both to the ground with a loud clatter of iron chains.
“That’s enough of that,” the fox growled. “You’ll break her jaw, and I need her to be able to talk.”
Jackie chuckled through a mouthful of blood as the rattler picked her up off the floor and set her back upright again. She swallowed, tasting iron and salt.
“See, that’s what I was talking about,” she said. “Not exactly the hospitable type.”
“Let me waste her now, sir,” Jackie heard the snake say. “You can’t trust a word that comes out of her mouth.”
“You’ll get your chance later, Mister Sharps. For now, you can leave us.”
“Are you sure that’s wise?”
“Yes, dammit, I’m sure. Now get out.”
There was a prolonged pause before Jackie heard the rattler’s voice say, “I’ll be right outside the door if you need anything.” Then she heard scales sliding across the wooden floor, followed by the metallic squeal of a door opening and closing on unoiled hinges.
“I get the sense that your Mister Sharps puts more stock into campfire tales than you do,” Jackie said.
“Snakes are a simple people,” the fox said, “and superstitious by nature.”
“And yet you made a rattler your chief of security. Isn’t that a little unusual?”
“Mister Sharps is capable enough. And, like all snakes, he knows to submit to the will of a greater authority when he encounters one. They’re really very reliable that way.”
“Are you expecting submission from me as well?”
“Not exactly, although you will give me what I want before I’m through with you.”
Jackie smiled again, which hurt even more this time. “Let’s just see.”
She heard the scrape of chair legs as the fox stood up, followed by footsteps pacing back and forth across the room.
“By my reckoning, you and your associates have robbed seven trains over the past two years. Am I correct?”
“I count six. But then I’m not including your goods train which we hit in Verkell while it was being unloaded. That’s a very different sort of job, from a planning perspective.”
“While I appreciate your attention to detail,” the voice said, “let’s stipulate to my accounting. You and your associates have robbed seven trains in the past two years. Of those seven trains, five have belonged to me. You have become quite a thorn in my side, Miss DeCoeur. And, while your chosen avocation is problematic enough in isolation, I feel rather as though you’ve singled me out for special attention. Am I correct in that assumption?”
That seemed to shut the fox up for a moment. He stopped pacing as well.
“I suppose I appreciate your candor, if not the underlying sentiment.” An edge had returned to the voice now. It wasn’t cold, exactly, but the pretense of joviality had fallen away, leaving the words beneath the affectations freer to speak for themselves. “What have I done to deserve you?”
Jackie leaned as far forward as her situation would permit, and angled her face towards where the fox’s voice was coming from. “Tell me, what else do the uneducated folk say about the Red-Eyed Woman?”
The fox’s footsteps moved towards her. The smell of his cologne filled her nostrils. It was unpleasantly floral; it reminded her of the mourning bouquets at a Verkell gangster funeral.
“The papers make believe that you’re some sort of outlaw hero, a crusader for the downtrodden,” the man’s voice said.
“It makes for good copy, doesn't it?” Jackie said. “Plucky bandit preys on people like you. People who made their fortunes at the point of a gun, or through the corrupt stroke of a pen. People who can afford to give a little bit back to hardworking folk, like myself.”
“And is that how you see yourself? An avenging angel for the put-upon Waste?”
Jackie laughed. “I may be many things, but ‘angel’ is certainly not among them.”
“What are you, then?”
“Smart,” Jackie said. “I’m going to let you in on a little trade secret, something I learned back when I started robbing banks. You see, a lot of first-timers make a mistake, and they go for the richest-looking bank in town. They figure, that’s the place to score big. But the smart play isn’t to look for the biggest score. The smart play is to make sure you get out with the money, because it doesn’t matter how stuffed your pockets are if you end up caught or dead. So you know what I learned? You ride into town, and you visit each bank. You spend a little time inside, and you watch the employees. You watch the tellers, you watch the guards, you watch the noggle who empties the dustbins. You pick the bank with the saddest, tiredest-looking workers you can find, and you rob that bank. Know why?”
The fox cleared his throat. He was close enough now that Jackie could hear him breathing, low and slow. “Enlighten me,” he said.
“Because whoever owns that bank is one mean son-of-a-snake,” Jackie said. “He treats his workers like dirt, so they hate him. He knows that they hate him, too, so he doesn’t trust them. So half of his security is devoted to stopping his own staff from robbing him blind, instead of me. And, if I have to pull a gun in that bank, ain’t a body in there going to lay down his life to protect that old cuss’s gold. Add those up, and I’m walking out of that bank with the money. That’s the smart play.”
“Should I take this to mean that you consider me a mean son-of-a-snake?”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Brax. You’re not mean – you’re the meanest. And what I said about robbing banks applies double to trains. You can hit a train the dumb way – ride up alongside, guns blazing, spells flying, stop a bunch of hearts and carry off what you can before the law arrives. I’m not saying that never works. But once the bullets and magic start flying, anything can happen. Me? I prefer the smart way. I’d rather detach the crew compartments as the train leaves the station. I’d rather sneak aboard that train when it slows down on the grade. I’d rather have the key to the armored carriage’s door in my hand when I’m getting ready to unlock it. And doing things the smart way takes time, and patience, and a lot of inside information. Timetables. Cargo manifests. Crew rotation schedules. Security protocols.”
Jackie checked the list off on her fingers as she spoke.
“You know why I can get all that information?” she asked. “Because you treat the poor linemen who work on your railroad so bad, they’ll sell you out for a handful of coins and the chance to know in their heart-of-hearts that they stuck it to you but good. Your organization leaks more than a cheap hat. So, yes, I single-out your trains. I’d be crazy not to. You do half of my job for me.”
The fox was quiet for a moment.
“No one else is putting you up to it? It’s purely a business matter?”
“Not purely. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t give me a nice, warm feeling inside, knowing that I’m taking you down a peg or two.”
The fox harrumphed. “You think you're so smart? I built the Waste up from nothing,” he growled. “I brought industry, and progress, and civilization. I turned the sand into gold. People have tried to stop me before – short-sighted people. You can find their bleached bones all across the Waste. If you think that you can destroy me, well, then you’re gravely mistaken.”
Jackie laughed again. “Destroy you? I make so much money off of you, we’re practically partners.”
The fox sighed. “As edifying as this has been, I confess that I grow tired of these provocations. No more games. No more evasions. I’m going to ask some questions, and your continued existence is contingent on my getting some straight answers. Do I make myself clear?”
“Who gives you your orders?”
“The little devil on my shoulder.”
“Why do you really rob my trains?”
“That’s where the mana is.”
“And what have you done with my mana? You can’t have sold it all. What could you possibly want with that much crystal?”
“That’s my little secret. You’re just going to have to wait to find out, along with everybody else.”
“Watch it, Miss DeCoeur. Your current attitude does not bode well for your longevity.”
“I’ve been dead once before. It didn’t take.”
She heard the fox exhale deeply. His footsteps circled around behind her chair, and he spoke slower than before, placing careful emphasis on each stressed syllable.
“Last week, when you robbed my Great Northern Express, you removed a small safe from my personal compartment.”
Jackie made no response.
“Well?” the voice said, sounding irritated.
“Sorry, I didn’t hear a question.”
“Did you open it?”
“It’s on my to-do list.”
“Did you try to open it?”
Jackie could tell that the fox was holding his breath. She bristled at the question.
“Give me some credit for professionalism. I know an enchanted burn safe when I see one, and I don’t try to open it unless I know I’ve got the key.”
She heard the fox exhale.
“Sensible enough. I’m going to make you an offer, Miss DeCoeur. This is a limited-time deal and is not open to negotiation, so I suggest you think carefully before answering. Do we understand each other?”
“If you unchain my hands, I’ll be happy to shake on it.”
“How droll. I’m offering you the chance to walk out of this room alive, provided you accept two conditions. First, my men will accompany you from here to the location where you have hidden my safe. You will retrieve it and return it to me, intact and unspoiled. Second, from this day forward, you will work for me. Naturally, you will keep this arrangement secret. You will resume your normal criminal activities, with the proviso that you are to leave my interests unmolested. Periodically, I will specify a target for you to attack. You will comply with all such instructions, meticulously and to-the-letter.”
The fox’s footsteps echoed around the room as he moved to stand in front of Jackie again.
“Do we have a deal?” he asked.
“As much as I appreciate the job offer, I’m going to have to pass. I’m really more of the be-your-own-boss type. And, as I think I mentioned earlier, your managerial style leaves something to be desired.”
“Wrong answer, Miss DeCoeur.”
“If you kill me,” Jackie said, “you’ll never find that safe of yours.”
This time, it was the fox who chuckled.
“I already know where my safe is. You see, my organization isn’t the only one to have sprung a leak. Surely you must have suspected as much? Or maybe you’ve started to believe in your own legend?”
Jackie had no response.
“It would have been much simpler had you agreed to retrieve my safe, since I know you trapped the mineshaft. But I will get it back, with or without your help. It may cost me a little money and time, but I have both in abundance. I’m a patient man.”
Jackie listened to the fox’s footsteps as he walked over to the door, which opened with a protest from its creaky hinges.
“Come in, Mister Sharps,” the fox said.
Jackie heard the massive rattler slither back into the room and move to stand behind her. Strong hands gripped her by the shoulders.
“How do you want it done?” the rattler asked.
“I leave that matter in your hands, Mister Sharps,” the fox said, “on the condition that, whatever you elect to do to Miss DeCoeur, you don’t tamper with her face. I intend to hang her body in the public square, and I want every piece of filth in this Waste to be able to look her right in her dead, red eyes, at least until the carrion kites peck them out. I want people to see what becomes of campfire legends.”
“Splendid. I will have someone sent round to collect the body. Now, Miss DeCoeur, I’m afraid that our time together is at an end.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Brax,” Jackie said, her voice low and level. “You’ll be seeing me again. Not tomorrow, or the day after that, or the day after that. You’re too useful to me at the moment. But we will meet again. And, when we do, I'm going to be the last thing you ever see.”
Jackie waited to hear the fox’s retort. But all she heard was the sound of footsteps walking out the door.
“Let’s go,” the rattler said, pulling Jackie up onto her feet. She felt the point of a pistol press up against the base of her spine. “Just walk forward, nice and easy. No quick movements. If we pass anyone in the hallway, you don’t say a word.”
Jackie nodded. The gun barrel jabbed her in the back, and she started her blindfolded march.
She listened carefully as they walked, noting the different sounds in the various corridors they traversed, counting her paces and remembering her turns as she went, storing the information away more out of habit than anything else. All the while, the rattler said nothing, and made no attempt to communicate with her except through rough shoves to one side or the other when they reached a turn.
Eventually, they stopped while the rattler opened a heavy-sounding door, and Jackie felt a blast of hot, dry air rush over her as they stepped out into the Waste.
“Keep moving,” the rattler said, and Jackie obliged. The going was a little slower now; the ground was uneven, and Jackie had to pause from time to time to find her footing.
After what seemed like an age, the rattler put an arresting hand on her shoulder.
“That’s far enough,” he said.
“So I guess this is the end of the line?” Jackie asked as she slipped out of her manacles and rubbed her sore wrists.
“For the time being,” the rattler said as he holstered his gun and reached up to untie her blindfold.
Jackie had to blink as the black fabric was pulled away and the searing Jakkard sun hit her squarely in the eyes. She threw a hand up in front of her face as her vision adjusted to the sudden brightness.
“Here,” the rattler said, pressing a waterskin into her hand. “You’re going to want this. It’s a scorcher today.”
“Much obliged,” Jackie said. She took a greedy gulp from the skin before handing it back. Wiping her chin afterward, she winced as her arm brushed against the spot where the rattler had punched her. She gingerly probed the swelling bruise with her fingertips, assessing the damage. “I meant what I said back there, Sharpy. You pack quite a wallop.”
The rattler smiled and shook his head. “Sorry about that. I thought about pulling the punch some, but I figured I’d better just sell it.” The big snake bent down slightly to get a better look at his handiwork. “I hope I didn’t break anything.”
“It’s going to hurt like blazes for a couple days, but I’ve still got the same number of teeth,” Jackie said. “And you played it perfectly. Very menacing. Very heavy.”
The rattler gave a little bow. “It’s nice to be appreciated,” he said. “I hope it was worth it, your little meeting with Brax. Did you find out what you wanted to?”
“I did,” Jackie said. She sighed, and her face grew momentarily distant. “And I learned a little about Brax as well. I was actually worried for a second there that I might have overplayed things a bit, pushed him a little too far. Thought he might try to take matters into his own hands.”
The rattler smirked. “Brax is too scared of you to try anything himself. You remember that line he gave you, about how he doesn’t believe in campfire tales?”
Jackie nodded. The rattler, who was still holding the blindfold, passed the piece of cloth over to Jackie.
“Take a look at that.”
Jackie turned the blindfold over, and was surprised to see glowing runes painted on one side of the fabric. She let out a low whistle.
“Like you mentioned,” she said, “it’s nice to feel appreciated.”
“True. But that also means he’ll be coming for you, with everything he has. He won’t stop. After today, if anything, it’ll get worse.”
“I’m counting on it,” Jackie said.
“Anyway, your things are over there, behind that rock,” the rattler said.
Jackie walked over to the rock which the snake pointed at. There was a burlap bag nestled behind it, disguised beneath a thin layer of sand. She shook it off, undid the drawstring, and pulled out her gear: A revolver holstered to a leather belt, which she buckled around her waist. A black, knee-length serape, which she pulled over her shoulders. A black gambler’s hat, which she perched atop her head. And a pair of dark-tinted glasses, which she slid in front of her blood-red eyes.
“You have far to go?” the rattler asked.
Jackie shook her head. “Not too far. My scouts are just across that ridge with our acridians. You sure you’re going to be okay with Brax after this?”
The snake nodded. “I was very vocal in my opinion that we should have just killed you, so I think your escape vindicates my judgment. As for letting you get away? Well, you’re the Red-Eyed Woman, and I’m just a simple, superstitious snake.” The rattler grinned. “Besides, Brax trusts me, if only because he thinks I’m too stupid to be a threat to him. And, after the poison you just sowed in there today, I suspect he’s going to lean harder than ever on those few people he thinks he can trust.”
“Nice how that works out, isn’t it?”
“It’s almost as though you planned it that way.”
The woman in black smiled. “Stay safe, Sharpy, and keep in touch.”
“Now, I’m going to have to bust you up pretty good,” Jackie said, flexing a fist. “You ready?”
The rattler nodded. “I can take it.”
Jackie was just about to take a swing at him, when she paused with her fist in midair and cocked her head slightly to one side.
“Is it true what Brax said back in there?” she asked. “Did I really shoot your dad?”
“Yeah. He was a warden out by Wumpus Flats, where you busted a couple of your men loose.”
“I think I remember that. He pulled on me, just as we were leaving, and I shot him.” Jackie’s fist dropped back to her side. “Sharpy, I’m genuinely sorry. I had no idea.”
She waited for an admonition, but, to her surprise, the snake just smiled. “My old man was the meanest cuss who ever blighted the Waste,” he said. “He drank away every scrap we ever put by, and when he wasn’t drinking, he was knocking us around. As far as I’m concerned, you did the Waste a favor when you put one between his eyes.”
A smile blossomed on Jackie’s face, and she flashed her gold tooth.
“In that case, you’re welcome,” she said, and she punched the rattler hard on the snout.
* * *
Darkness had well and truly fallen by the time Tishia finished digging the hole. The only light came from the flickering of a nearby lamp, which she had lit as day turned to dusk.
Feeling bone-tired, she lowered herself down atop the freshly-turned pile of dirt while she caught her breath. Her arms were sore, and her fingers were raw. The ground in this part of the Waste was heavy red clay once you got down below the thin layer of sand and loose dirt. The digging had been hard work. It had taken longer than she expected.
As much as she wanted to rest, she figured she needed to wrap things up quickly. If she was gone for much longer, it would be bound to raise questions.
She was wiping sweat from her forehead with the back of a dirty hand when she heard a familiar voice come from so close behind her that she could feel the breath which carried its words.
“This hurts me, Tishia. It really does.”
Tishia’s hand shot downwards to the handle of her pistol, where it landed atop another hand – a hand which had already gripped Tishia’s gun.
Tishia exhaled slowly and let her own hand fall away as the other woman slid her pistol out of its holster. From behind her, she heard the sound of the hammer as it clicked into position.
“Stand up,” Jackie DeCoeur said.
Jackie’s long-time deputy tried to keep her breathing steady as she stood up. It felt like her heart had stopped beating, and there was a ringing in her ears that hadn’t been there a second ago. She turned around slowly, fighting the impulse to put her hands up as she did. When she spoke, the surprise in her voice was genuine enough.
“Blazes, Jackie, you near enough scared the life out of me,” she said, trying to ignore the fact that the red-eyed woman was pointing her own gun at her. “We’ve been worried sick about you. I had the scouts casing Brax’s compound all afternoon. We were afraid that–"
“–Tishia, let’s spare ourselves the indignity of playing this game,” Jackie interrupted. “It doesn’t become us."
Tishia trailed-off in mid-sentence. Her shoulders slumped, and she seemed to visibly deflate.
“How much?” Jackie asked.
“I don’t know what you–"
Tishia sighed. “Too much, Jackie. Just too damn much.” She pointed at a leather-bound wooden chest which lay on the ground next to the hole she’d been digging.
Jackie DeCoeur took a few steps. Without lowering the pistol, she used a booted foot to lift up the lid of the chest, looking down for only the briefest of seconds to see what was inside.
Tishia knew that, if she wanted to make a move, this was her opportunity. But she also knew there was no point. She was unarmed, and Jackie DeCoeur was too fast.
And, even now, she wasn’t really sure if she could kill Jackie DeCoeur, even if she got the chance.
Jackie whistled softly as she allowed the chest’s lid to fall closed. “I guess I should be flattered,” she said, “to know that I’m worth that much to Brax.”
They stood together in silence for a while, just two old friends looking at each other, Tishia’s blue eyes not quite meeting Jackie’s red ones. Finally, Tishia had to look away.
“If it means anything, Jackie, Brax promised me he wouldn’t kill you. He said we’d wind up working for him, that it would be like nothing had even changed.”
“And you believed him?”
Tishia hesitated before answering. “I wanted to,” she said.
“I suppose it means something. Not much, mind you. But not nothing.”
“It’s been chewing me up inside, Jackie. I felt so bad about it, I haven’t eaten in days. I barely slept. In a strange way, I’m almost glad it’s over.” Tishia sighed. “When did you first suspect?”
Jackie sighed, too. She lowered Tishia’s gun and let the hammer down gently. “You've been so quiet for weeks. Too quiet, frankly. Too reserved. So I asked you to help me stash the safe, and, as we were making our way through that old mineshaft, I could practically hear the gears turning inside your head, you were working so hard to memorize the path.”
Jackie took a step towards Tishia, who had once again lowered herself down upon the pile of upturned dirt, and was holding her head in her hands. Jackie sat down next to her.
“But, honestly, you know what the biggest thing was? Ever since that day we stashed the safe, you haven’t once looked me in the eyes.”
Tishia nodded her head slightly. Then she looked up at Jackie, looked up at the friend she’d betrayed, looked her right in her blood-red eyes.
“I told Brax where we hid the safe,” she said. “If you leave now and ride as fast as you can, you might be able to get back there in time.”
“Let Brax have his safe,” Jackie said. “I already got what I wanted from it.”
Tishia looked startled.
“I thought you couldn’t open it?”
“I may have been slightly less than honest about that,” Jackie said.
In spite of everything, Tishia found herself smiling. “Brax is going to get an awful lot of men killed over an empty safe.”
“The safe’s not exactly empty,” Jackie said. “I left a surprise in there for our mutual friend.”
Tishia shook her head. “I picked the wrong side,” she said.
“That’s true,” Jackie said. “But we all make mistakes.”
“Some of them bigger than others.”
“That’s also true.”
“What was in the safe? It’s going to kill me, not knowing.”
“That’s not what’s going to kill you.”
“I suppose not,” Tishia said.
“Brax is going to die for this as well, if that gives you any comfort.”
Tishia just shrugged.
Jackie DeCoeur stood up, motioning for Tishia to do so as well, which she did.
“We both know this only ends one way,” Jackie said. The red-eyed woman held Tishia’s pistol back out towards her, handle first. “But, as for how it happens, that’s your choice.”
Tishia looked down at the pistol, then back up at Jackie, then back down at the pistol.
Then she reached out and took the gun.
That night, beneath a moonless sky, Jackie DeCoeur buried her old friend’s body in the hole which had already been dug.
Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use.
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