Stare Down the Basilisk
NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Jackie's Storyline.
I. A Train to Catch
Jackie DeCoeur lay on her stomach at the edge of the bluff, watching the headlamp of the oncoming train. What had appeared at first as a tiny speck of light on the dark horizon had grown in size and intensity as the locomotive rumbled its way towards the rocky overhang where Jackie and a pair of her scouts lay in wait.
Jackie silently counted off the seconds in her head, and tried to line them up with the approaching headlamp as it scattered light over bits of the rocky wasteland terrain before dropping them back beneath the cover of night. She did a little math, then rolled over to one side to face the viashino who lay crouched next to her on the dusty ground.
“I thought you said the train slowed down on this curve?” she said in a voice just above a whisper, one eyebrow slightly arched.
“It is going slow,” the viashino whispered back through the folds of his bandana.
“I guess slow is a relative term,” Jackie said. She hoisted herself up onto one knee and dusted off the front of her black serape as best she could. “Now I’m remembering why I haven’t done one of these in a while.”
The viashino chuckled. “You’ve been letting us have all the fun.”
“You boys are so good at this. I’m rusty.”
“Don’t worry,” the vash said. “This is one of those things that, once you know how to do it, you never really forget. It’s like making love – you pick your spot, you wait for the right moment, and then you just jump on and you don’t let go.”
“Maybe that’s what I’ve been doing wrong all these years,” Jackie said. She grinned in spite of herself. The train was almost underneath them now; she could feel a great onrush of air well up from the canyon below. “Any other words of advice?”
“Yeah. Land soft.”
“Thanks,” she said, her voice almost drowned out by the metal-on-metal squeal of wheels on rails as the locomotive whooshed past. Jackie and her scouts moved to the edge of the bluff, and she scanned the dark outlines of the passing train cars below. She chose a spot, fixed her eyes on it. Without looking away, she stuck her hands out to her sides and started counting down with her fingers.
“Go on one,” she said, shouting to be heard above the clatter of the passing train. “Three. Two. One!”
And, with that, she jumped.
The fall seemed to take forever; that part was just like she remembered it. Although the top of the boxcar couldn’t have been more than a few yards below her, time seemed to slow to a molasses crawl as she descended through empty space. The noise of the train vanished, so that the only sound she heard was the wind whistling past her ears as she fell. Her mouth went dry, and she tasted the familiar, sour taste of adrenaline. She saw her spot on the top of the boxcar – just a slightly darker patch against the black mass of the train – grow larger and closer as she fell, sliding just underneath as her feet struck iron and wood.
Missed it by maybe a pace or two. Not too shabby, she thought, in the final second before the world returned to full speed.
She felt the roof of the boxcar flex beneath her, felt it seem to slide away as her inertial body crashed heavily down on top of it. She flexed her knees on impact and tried to land soft as she allowed herself fall over and roll a little bit while friction and her grasping limbs fought jointly against the train’s momentum. After a tense second, she caught hold of an iron crossbeam and grabbed on tight, arresting her lateral movement.
She lay still for a second, gathering her breath, feeling the steady, rhythmic rumble of the train beneath her.
“We all on-board?” she called out.
After hearing two separate grunts of reassurance, she clambered up to her feet, leaning slightly forward in the direction of the train’s movement and against the rushing wind which whipped at her hair and stung her blood-red eyes. She checked herself up and down for damage, and, finding bumps and scrapes aplenty but nothing too serious, she looked back over her shoulder to assess her two scouts, who were likewise dusting themselves off.
“From now on,” she said, “we are awarding an additional danger share for train jumping. I am not paying you guys enough.”
The two scouts pantomimed a little cheer, and Jackie smiled.
“Now, let’s do some business,” she said.
The trio picked their way carefully across the roof to the end of the boxcar, where the viashino lowered himself down into the gap between the car and the one in front of it. After finding his footing on the coupling, he looked back up at Jackie and asked: “Loud or quiet?”
“Loud’s fine,” Jackie said.
The viashino drew his revolver, aimed it, and shot out the lock on the next boxcar’s rear door. He slid the door open and climbed inside, then offered a helping hand to Jackie and the other scout as they lowered themselves down and climbed in as well. From there, the trio advanced quickly and quietly through two more empty boxcars and a barren passenger carriage until they reached the rear door of the locomotive.
There they paused for a second. The scouts adjusted their red bandanas up around their faces and drew their pistols, but they held the guns casually down at their sides. Jackie’s revolver did not leave its holster. She met each scout’s eyes in turn, and each scout nodded at her.
“Okay,” she said, and she opened the door to the locomotive.
Inside the engineer’s compartment, she walked straight past the various spinning gears and whirring belts of the locomotive’s mana engine and moved to stand directly behind the driver’s seat, where a slightly mousey-looking noggle in blue dungarees and a pinstriped engineer’s cap sat in front of a glowing bank of dials and controls. Jackie’s two scouts fanned out behind her, but the noggle seemed not even to notice the intrusion.
Jackie cleared her throat. “I hope you don’t mind my friends and me letting ourselves aboard,” she said. “I’m going to be straight with you: We don’t have tickets.”
The noggle started forward in his seat. He threw his hands up in the air, and his cap fell backwards off his head. “Please don’t kill me!” he said.
“Kill you?” Jackie laughed. “We haven’t even met yet. I believe you’re a Mister Wacha. Am I correct?”
The noggle nodded. “That’s me,” he said.
“Well, Mister Wacha, my name is Jackie DeCoeur. I’m very pleased to meet you.”
As Jackie said her name, a kind of strangled little rattle came from somewhere deep inside the noggle’s throat, and he clasped his hands over his eyes, even though he was still facing towards the instrument panel.
“Please don’t scrooch my brain!” he said.
Jackie laughed again. She took a step forward and put a hand on the back of the driver’s seat, swiveling it around so that the engineer faced towards her. She knelt down so that her face was roughly level with the noggle’s.
“Now, Mister Wacha, there’s no need to be worried about that. I don’t scrooch the brains of people I’m friends with, and I am very much hoping that the two of us are going to be friends.” She reached down and picked up the engineer’s pinstriped cap off the floor, and set it back atop the noggle’s shaking head.
The noggle lowered his hands by a fraction to look at the red-eyed woman, even if he didn’t quite make eye contact.
“What do you want from me?”
“How long have you been pushing iron for Brax? Five years?”
“Six years,” the noggle said. “Well, five and three-quarters, if you want to be specific. But that’s basically six.”
“That is basically six,” Jackie said. “Let’s call it six. Now, I have a good friend who tells me that you are the best driver in the whole northern Waste, and my friend has very good judgment. He tells me that you could stop a train on a fox’s whisker. He tells me you could do it blindfolded. Is he right?”
The engineer was still shaking in his seat, but Jackie thought she could see the first signs of a smile begin to form around the corners of his mouth.
“It depends,” he said. “How big is the fox?”
“I bet it depends who the fox is, too,” Jackie said. “I bet there are some foxes you wouldn’t want to stop your train for.”
The engineer nodded his head.
“Brax, for example?”
The engineer nodded his head again.
“Well, should you be looking to affect a career change, I happen to have an opening at the moment for a very good train driver.” Jackie reached beneath the edge of her serape, and extracted a modest-sized leather pouch, which she held out towards the noggle. She gave the pouch a little shake, and a clinking sound came from inside. “If you say yes, and I do hope that you will, then we can consider this your signing bonus.”
After about a second’s consideration, the noggle took the pouch from her. He loosened the drawstring and peered inside. Jackie saw his eyes widen. His hands were steady, even as the rest of him seemed almost to vibrate in place.
The engineer slipped the pouch into the pocket of his dungarees. Behind her, Jackie could hear her scouts holster their pistols.
“Welcome aboard, Mister Wacha,” Jackie said.
“My friends call me Shakes,” he said. “On account of the shaking.”
“Well, Shakes,” Jackie said, extending her hand, “my friends call me Jackie.”
The noggle shook her hand.
“When do I start?” he said.
“Right now,” Jackie said.
The noggle looked confused. “I’m just running this train back empty from the roundhouse at Hickle Gully. The boxcars needed some framework done. Reinforcing, stuff like that. I’m not carrying any cargo.”
“That suits me just fine,” Jackie said. “I’m not here to steal your cargo.”
“What do you want, then?”
Jackie smiled. “I’m here to steal your train,” she said.
* * *
After a quick search of his makeshift workshop, Jackie eventually spotted Presto, her artificer. Or, more accurately, she spotted his legs sticking out from beneath the massive contraption he had been working on for the past dozen fortnights. The device, an ungainly-looking amalgamation of copper tubing and gears and flywheels, with thick baloth-hide belts coiling around them like a nest of vipers, had been hoisted off the ground and then lowered back down atop heavy wooden blocks, giving the artificer access to the contraption’s underside. At one end, a wooden chair was bolted to a platform in front of a confusing array of levers, switches, and turncranks. At the other end of the device, a massive, open-mouthed copper tube protruded outward by several feet. It was girdled at various intervals by belts of hide and silver, and the flared opening at its end was just wide enough for Jackie to fit her head and shoulders into it if she had wanted to, which she decidedly did not.
She could hear hammering noises and mild oaths emanating out from underneath the contraption, which Presto and the others took care to refer to as “The Machine” in spoken conversation. She walked over to the protruding legs and used a booted foot to nudge the human artificer on the calloused sole of his four-toed foot; for reasons he had never meaningfully articulated to her, Presto always preferred to work in bare feet, despite the obvious safety deficiencies that entailed.
Both the hammering and the cursing stopped, and the artificer shimmied his way out from underneath The Machine. His coveralls and face were stained deep brown with some foul-smelling lubricant, and when he shoved his goggles up to rest atop his matted hair, his fingertips left greasy smudge marks on the sides of the lenses.
Presto tried to wipe his hands clean on the front of his dirty work clothes, to little noticeable effect.
As she gave the artificer a moment to collect himself, Jackie thought about what Dazie, her second-in-command, had told her earlier that morning during their regularly-scheduled briefing: “Presto’s grousing about supplies again. Can you shut him up before he starts getting everyone else antsy?”
Jackie had given her minotaur friend a pat on her massive shoulder, and had gone off to find the artificer herself. Handling Presto required a light touch, and Dazie’s touch was, well… not light.
So, now that Jackie was face-to-face with the oily artificer, she rephrased the minotaur’s comment slightly.
“Dazie said you wanted to see me,” she said. “What’s on your mind?”
“I’m going to need more copper after all,” Presto said. He scratched the tip of his nose as he spoke, leaving an oily smudge behind. “More hides, too. Basilisk, if you can possibly get it.”
Jackie shook her head. “Not on our timetable, no. Can you make do with baloth?”
Presto frowned, but he nodded. “Probably,” he said, “but I’ll need twice as much, and good quality, too. Not like those cheap ones we hoisted out of Verkell.”
“Don’t worry,” Jackie said. “How much copper?”
“At least another thirty stone.”
“I’ll have a word with acquisitions, see what we can come up with. It should be manageable. And I’ll talk to Shakes as well, tell him to prepare for a heavier load.” Jackie leaned back against a nearby workbench. A pile of empty copper canisters was stacked neatly on its surface. Jackie picked one of the canisters up, turning it over in her hands. It was about the length of her arm and the width of her fist. It had a riveted cap fixed on one end, where the other was covered by a thin layer of stretched oilskin. “These’re lighter than I guess I was imagining,” she said.
“They’ll be heavier when they’re full of crystal,” the artificer said.
Jackie put the canister back down. “When we had our meeting last week, I got the impression that you were set for material. What changed between then and now?”
“My judgment,” Presto said. “When I fire this thing up, the stresses on The Machine are going to be massive, and I mean massive. It’ll be hard enough to maintain stability, to say nothing of directionality.” He scratched at his nose again. “I figured I had designed enough counterbalancing in around the compression chamber, but, as I’ve been finishing up, my gut’s been gnawing at me. Now I’m thinking I didn’t build enough damping in around the torsion springs. I can fix it, no problem, but I need more metal and more hide.”
“What’s the risk involved if I can’t get you the goods?” Jackie asked.
“Remember what happened when the scale model overloaded?” Presto asked.
Jackie winced. “How could I forget?”
“Well, for that test, I used less sangrite than you could fit in a thimble,” Presto said. He pointed to the copper canister which Jackie had set back down on the workbench. “I’ve got the feeder mechanism on The Machine emptying one of those canisters every sixteen minutes. If the torsion springs fail,” the artificer shrugged, “only thing left of us’ll be a smoking hole in the Waste wider than the day is long.”
“I’ll get you the goods,” Jackie said.
“Much obliged,” Presto said.
“Let me know if you need anything else.”
“I’m not shy,” Presto said. With that, the artificer slid his greasy goggles back down in front of his eyes, and crawled back underneath The Machine.
Jackie walked down to the other end of the workshop, where the husher twins stood together in a kind of quiet vigil over a contraption of their own design, known simply around the railyard as “The Device.” Where The Machine was imposing and massive, The Device looked fragile and delicate. It consisted mainly of a blown globe of clearish-blue glass which was divided into quarter sections by two gold bands. Beautiful, snaking runes had been etched along the length of the bands, and they hummed and pulsed with an ethereal cerulean light. An opening in the globe’s top was capped with a silver lid, and the sphere itself, which was nearly as big around its midsection as a cask of noggle ale, rested atop a nest-like silver trellis.
“What about you, Hush-Hush?” Jackie asked. “Sounds like I’m making one last provisioning trip. You need anything else?”
At the sound of Jackie’s voice, the husher twins both looked up and turned to face the bandit leader. Braided, snow-white hair framed their pale faces, and four expressionless blue eyes stared unflinchingly into the bandit’s two red ones.
“No,” the twin sisters said in unison, their two identical statements merging together into one single voice. “We have all that we require.”
Even after years of working with the husher twins, the effect of their perfectly-mirrored speech still sent a little chill corkscrewing down Jackie’s spine. She had never seen the two of them apart, and each twin’s words and actions were an exact reflection of the other’s.
Jackie had once asked them if they both thought the same thoughts, but they had claimed not to understand the question.
The twins always referred to themselves jointly, and if they had names, they had never mentioned them. So, after some initial awkwardness, Jackie had come to address her two hushers collectively as Hush-Hush, an appellation which they appeared to accept – although, in truth, it was hard to tell. The twins seldom expressed any outward emotion more pronounced than a furrowed brow or the ghost of a grin.
“When do we load it?” Jackie asked, motioning to cases of cielesune which were stacked nearby.
“At the last possible moment,” the twins said, a look of shared concern flitting briefly across their faces. “The Device is stable, but caution is warranted. Accidental activation would be unwise.”
“How big is this thing going to go when it goes?”
“Be at least a half-mile away when it goes off,” Hush-Hush said.
“So, big, then?”
“We understood that to be the intent.”
“You understood correctly,” Jackie said. “I’m just impressed, is all.”
“We enjoyed the arriving at this design,” the twins said. “The problem you presented us with included several interesting challenges.”
“I knew you were up to it. Presto, too.”
“We appreciate your confidence,” the twins said. “But we wonder, when will we be activating The Device? Dazie was evasive with us on the subject. We are eager to see The Device at work.”
“Soon,” Jackie said. “Very soon.”
It didn’t look like much, but, in as much as they ever did, the husher twins smiled.
II. The Encore
Trotter was perched in front of the mirror in his dressing room and was doing a minor repair to his mascara as he listened to the waves of applause which cascaded backstage from the standing-room-only crowd out in the theater beyond.
As he fussed with his makeup, the white fox tried to decide what he would perform for his second encore. “Centaur Wine and Noggle Ale” was always a crowd pleaser, and it made for a good closer, but, frankly, the forty-four-piece band which backed his shows these days had been a little bit off all night. The human who played the timpani, in particular, must have been back in her cups again, he reckoned, what with the way she’d been banging on those drums, always coming in a note early, always going a bit too loud. Like she thought the audience had paid their three bits at the door because they wanted to hear timpani or something.
Trotter put down the mascara and picked up a nail file, started fixing the point of a blunted claw. He’d go vocals-only for the second encore, he decided.
But first he’d make them all wait just a little bit longer. His sense of timing for these things was impeccable, and he knew that he had this crowd. He had them. When he walked back out, they would explode.
Just the thought of it gave him a little rush.
A small knock at the dressing room door brought Trotter back from his reverie. “Enter,” he said, starting to file a second claw.
The door creaked open, and the little red fox who ran errands backstage slipped in. She had only been working at the gambling hall for the better part of a week, but Trotter could tell that she was smitten with him – he would catch her staring at him out of the corner of his eye when she thought he wasn’t looking, and he had seen her stick her muzzle into one of his costumes and inhale deeply one night when she’d been taking his things back down to wardrobe. She’d nearly fallen over backwards when she’d realized that he’d seen her do it. Since then, she had mostly avoided making eye contact with him.
If only he could remember her name.
“These came for you, Mister Trotter,” she said, handing him a bouquet of flowering desert sage wrapped-up in red paper, her eyes fixed intently on a knot in the wooden floorboards as she did.
“Thank you,” he said. He held the pale purple flowers with their aromatic leaves under his nose and took a deep breath. The smell brought memories flooding back.
“This note came with the flowers,” the red fox said, handing him a small, folded card.
Trotter put down the flowers and opened the card. As he read the short message inside, he nearly slid off of his stool, and had to catch himself at the last possible moment by grabbing hold of the dressing table.
The note was not signed, but no signature was necessary. He would always recognize her handwriting.
“You were marvelous tonight,” it said. “I’ll be up in your suite for the next hour. I would really like to see you. I’m not even here on business this time.”
Trotter stared at the note for a second, before folding the card in half, then folding it over again, and slipping it inside the waistband of his leggings.
“Yes, Mister Trotter?”
“Have the band play something with plenty of timpani, then tell the emcee to clear the room. No more encores tonight.”
* * *
Jackie DeCoeur was lying on his bed, facing up at the ceiling with her eyes closed when Trotter stood up, stretched, and walked over to his armoire, where he picked up a silver-handled brush and tried to work out a knot he could feel in the fur at the base of his neck.
“I miss you, you know,” he heard Jackie say from behind him.
“I miss you too,” he said. “Of course, I always missed you. But it’s easier to admit it these days.”
“Maybe we’re both getting older and wiser,” Jackie said.
“Maybe we’re both just getting older,” Trotter said. “Wiser, I don’t know.”
He heard the red-eyed woman laugh. “There’s a little too much truth in that,” she said.
Trotter watched her reflection in his mirror as she slid out of his bed and bent over to retrieve her trousers from the ground. She slipped them back on, and her boots followed after. Next she picked up her black shirt. She turned away from him as she raised her arms up and slid the shirt over her head, and, as she did, Trotter’s eyes were drawn to the trio of raised, white scars in the center of her back, just below where her heart would be.
“Do they still hurt?” he asked.
“Only when I breathe,” Jackie said, pulling her shirt down to cover the markers of a debt since settled.
“You never told me what happened to you, when you were out in the Waste,” the fox said. “How you survived.”
The red-eyed woman turned back towards him again, and he heard her sigh. “It’s not a memory about which I reminisce fondly in my idle time,” she said. “And besides, you never asked me.”
“Is it a good story?”
“It’s not bad. But the truth is probably less interesting than whatever else you may already have heard.”
Trotter smiled. “Don’t tell me, then. I like you with an air of mystery about you. It’s one of your ineffable charms.”
Jackie pressed her lips together and drew a finger across them. She sat back down on the edge of the bed.
Trotter turned around to face her. “On the subject of awkward questions,” he said, putting down the brush, “are you going to tell me about the business you’re not here on, or would I be better off not knowing?”
“I may have been slightly less than honest about that,” Jackie said. “I was worried that you wouldn’t see me, after what happened the last time.”
Trotter sighed. He walked over to the bed and sat down next to her. Her hands were at her sides, and he put a hand on top of hers.
“Did you really think I wouldn’t see you?”
“No. Not really. But I couldn’t chance risking it.”
He looked up at her blood-red eyes, and suddenly he felt a twinge of real concern.
“What have you gotten yourself into?”
“That’s a very good question.”
“I’m perceptive like that,” Trotter said. “It’s one of my ineffable charms.”
Jackie looked back up at the ceiling. “Remember when we first met, all those years ago, and you asked me what the key was to being a good bandit?”
“Don’t stare down the basilisk if you don’t have to,” Trotter said.
“Don’t stare down the basilisk,” Jackie said. “The small job you can pull is always smarter than the big job you can’t. Because, as long as you stay alive and stay in the game, you can always pull more jobs.”
“You’ve stayed in the game this long,” Trotter said.
“That I have,” Jackie said. “To be fair, I’ve been dealt a very good hand. But I played it smart, too, up until now.”
“I don’t like the sound of ‘until now’ in that sentence,” Trotter said.
“Trotter, I’m on the verge of something big,” Jackie said. “I’ve been planning it for so long, it’s like I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t. I’ve been thinking about it day and night – I’ve been dreaming about it. I’ve been over it in my mind a thousand times, and I swear that I’ve got every angle covered from back to front. I feel like it’s just sitting there, sitting right in front of me, just waiting for me to take it.” She reached out in front of her, as though the scheme were literally present. “And, if I do it, if I pull this off, it changes everything. I’m not just talking about money – although, mind you, there’ll be enough of that to set me and the whole crew up for the rest of our lives, and then some. I’m talking about putting my mark on the Waste in a big way, doing something that people who haven’t been born yet will be telling their grandkids about long after I’m dead and dusted.”
“I’d rather have you poor and alive than rich and dead. You can’t be any poorer than dead, Jackie.”
“I know,” Jackie said. “And that’s why all the sense in my head is screaming at me not to do this, to listen to my own rules and just walk away.”
“But you won’t, will you?”
Jackie closed her eyes and shook her head. “I’m not sure how I’d live with myself after if I did.”
“So this is what, then? The Red-Eyed Woman’s last score?”
Jackie gave a rueful chuckle. “I’ve known plenty of bandits who made one last score. The thing they all had in common? Lavish funerals.”
“How about old bandits?” Trotter said, standing up and taking a few steps away, not trying to hide the undertone in his voice. “Know many of them?”
“Can’t say as I do,” Jackie said. “There are times I wish I could change, or that both of us could change. But you and me? We’re not the changing type. I know that, and you knew it even before I did.”
“Then let me help you,” Trotter said. He turned back to face her. “I’d kill for you, Jackie. You know that.”
“That I do,” she said. “And I do need your help, but not like that.” She reached underneath the bed and pulled out a battered leather satchel. Then she unbuckled its flap and extracted two items from inside.
One was a stack of neatly-folded papers tied-round with red string, with a wax-sealed envelope on top.
The second was a single sheet of paper, folded into thirds, and also sealed with wax.
Holding one in each hand, Jackie walked over to where Trotter stood. She offered him the tied-up bundle first.
“I need you to hold onto this for me,” she said. “Don’t let anyone else see it, don’t let anyone else know you have it.” She paused for a moment while he took the bundle from her. “You know how you watch the papers for me? Well, keep doing it. If you see my pretty mug headlining an obituary within, say, the next year or so, open up the envelope. It’ll have instructions for what to do. If you follow them as best you can, I will be eternally grateful for it – to the extent that a dusted soul can be grateful, anyway.”
Trotter looked down at the bundle of papers he held and nodded his head. “You know I’ll do it. But why me?”
“Because you’re the only person in this whole wide Waste who I really trust.”
“Says the woman who lied to me at the start of the evening.”
Jackie shook her head. “Trust is a complicated thing,” she said. Then she offered him the single sheet of paper.
“This is another one for you to open in the event of my demise.”
Trotter took the folded sheet from her. “What do I do with this one?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Jackie said. “That one’s for you.”
Trotter stared down at the folded sheet, partly to avoid looking up at the woman who had given it to him.
“You know I may open this one a little before its time, right?” he said.
Jackie flashed her gold tooth at him. “I can’t think of any present I ever gave you that you didn’t peek beneath the wrapping, so, no, I won’t be surprised. Or hurt, for that matter.”
In spite of himself, Trotter smiled back. “Just so long as we understand each other.”
“Understanding each other was never our problem,” Jackie said. “Anyway, I’d better go.”
“Places to go, people to rob?”
“Something like that.”
“Will I see you again, after this is all done?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “If this thing goes wrong and I’m still above ground – heck, even if this thing goes right – I’m going to be a marked woman. I’m going to be the most marked woman in the history of the Waste. It won’t be safe to be around me for some time.”
“I honestly don’t know. As long as some powerful, petty people can hold a grudge for. If I can, I’ll send flowers. I was hoping you still liked desert sage.”
Bending down a little, she kissed the white fox on top of his head. “Thank you, Trotter.”
Trotter gave Jackie a hug. As he held her, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. She smelled like he remembered.
Then he let her go. “Go do what you need to do,” he said. “Go be a bandit.”
“That’s the only thing I know how to be,” Jackie said. She put on her black gambler’s hat and dark-tinted glasses, and turned to walk to the door.
“Keep yourself alive,” Trotter said.
“I usually do,” she said. “It’s another one of my ineffable charms.”
And, with that, she was gone.
After standing in place for a few seconds, silent and still, Trotter walked back over to his bed and lay down on it. He looked at the bundle of papers he held in one hand, then at the single folded sheet he held in the other. Then he put the bundle down on the bed, and looked back at the folded paper.
His name was written on the outside in Jackie DeCoeur’s distinctive penmanship: each letter small and thickly-lined, pressed too firmly into the paper by a hand that moved slowly but with concentration.
Trotter closed his eyes and allowed his mind to drift back to days long past. He recalled the look of stubborn determination on Jackie’s face as he’d placed his fingers around hers, his hand helping to guide her pen as she learned to write. The first word she’d ever written on her own had been his name. He remembered her uncomplicated expression of pride as she’d shown it to him: The Red-Eyed Woman, already feared, already a kind of whispered legend, moved nearly to tears by the act of writing his name.
The same name which she’d written on a folded sheet of paper all these years later, before giving it to him and telling him not to open it unless she was dead.
He opened his eyes to discover that his vision was blurry, and he realized that he was crying.
Wiping away tears, he broke the wax seal and unfolded the note.
III. The Devil You Know
Presto was the last one to arrive, rushing barefoot into the old roundhouse well after the meeting had begun with a wrench still in one hand and mumbling apologies. Punctuality had never been the artificer’s long suit.
“Sorry,” he said, sitting down in the one empty seat around the large wooden spool which had been repurposed as a table. “Sorry,” he said again.
“Now that we’re all present,” Dazie said, standing up and walking over to close the roundhouse door, which the artificer had left ajar, “maybe we can get down to brass tacks.”
“Let’s,” Jackie said, turning to face each of the principles as she spoke – Dazie, Presto, Hush-Hush, and Shakes. “Preparations for Little Forks are complete. I got the final word from our inside man, and the word is go.”
This news was greeted with silent nods from around the table.
“I’m not one for big speeches about this sort of thing,” she said. “I’m sure I don’t need to remind any of you that the risks here are significant. But the rewards?” Jackie didn’t try to stop herself from smiling. “Well, I’m sure I don’t need to remind you about those, either.”
Jackie could sense imaginations hard at work around the table, and she gave her deputies a moment to picture spending the riches which they hadn’t yet earned.
“The one piece of business left is simple,” she said. “We have to make a call: do we run Little Forks or not? I want each of you to give me a go or a no-go, and I want you to think hard before answering. Anyone here says no-go, we scrap the timetable and we go back to planning. And no one here has to justify their answer to anyone else. I want each and every one of you to check with your head and your gut, and I want you to trust what they tell you. Okay?”
Nods all around.
“Okay,” Jackie said. “Dazie, go or no-go?”
“Go,” the deputy said.
“Presto, go or no-go?”
“Go,” the artificer said.
“Hush-Hush, go or no-go?”
“Go,” the husher twins said.
“Shakes, go or no-go?”
“Go,” the engineer said.
“Alright, then,” Jackie said, standing up from the table. “We have a package to deliver.”
* * *
Sharps was surprised when, upon arriving in the reception area outside Brax’s personal office, the young fox who served as Brax’s secretary immediately got up from her desk and opened the paneled door to show Sharps inside.
That was unusual; Brax usually liked to make people wait.
“Mister Sharps, come in,” the old fox called out. Brax, seated in a high-backed leather chair behind his massive wooden desk, did not look up as he spoke. Hazy light filtered through the lace curtains drawn across the window behind him, so that backlight shrouded the fox in a kind of heavy darkness.
The self-proclaimed King of the Rails was wearing a maroon velvet waistcoat and slacks, and a periwinkle tailcoat lay draped over the back of his chair. The fox’s fur was a deep slate gray and was impeccably groomed.
Except, of course, for the fur around his ruined fingers. There it turned charcoal black and patchy, before it stopped altogether and only bare, blistered skin remained. Some of the fingers were missing their tips; others were gone below the knuckle.
Sharps knew that Brax had been to see every doctor in Verkell, and that the damage to his hands was functionally irreversible. He also knew that the damage to Brax’s vanity was even more substantial still. In public, the old fox had taken to wearing gloves.
But it was a façade which Brax did not bother to maintain among his inner circle. So, as Brax’s chief of security, Sharps was privy to moments such as this one: With his head down and a fearsome look of determination of his face, Brax was attempting to screw a bulb mister onto one of his bottles of cologne. But the burned and twisted remnants of his hands would not cooperate.
“Can I be of assistance, sir?” Sharps asked.
“That won’t be necessary, Mister Sharps.” Brax fumbled with the bottle for a few more seconds before tossing it aside in disgust. “Now, sit down and tell me what this is all about. Your message sounded dire but was a mite lacking in detail.”
Sharps cleared his throat and slid over to stand next to the low wooden chair in front of Brax’s desk.
“I don’t want to cause undue alarm, sir, but I’ve been getting some strange reports from the patrols out near Little Forks.”
Brax was silent for a long moment. It almost seemed as if he had stopped breathing.
“What sorts of reports?” the fox finally said, his eyes suddenly fixed on the rattler.
“Nothing definitive,” Sharps said. “Just small things. Things which we shouldn’t be finding, in places with no reason for them to be there. Some acridian tracks, and spots where other tracks look to have been wiped away. A bit of metal off of a saddle buckle. Those sorts of things.”
“What does it mean?” Brax asked.
“It could mean nothing at all,” Sharps said.
“But you don’t believe that,” Brax said.
“No,” Sharps said. “I don’t.”
“What do you think it means, then?”
“I think someone is scouting the stockpile, sir.”
“Impossible,” Brax said, sounding like he was trying to convince himself more than the rattler.
“Unlikely, to be sure,” Sharps said. “But too many things have been happening recently which are hard to explain otherwise. Like our train that went missing from Hickle Gully, or that pair of guards who got their badges stolen when they were on leave in New Progress.” Sharps adjusted his own badge as he spoke. “Now, the important thing to consider in all this is that the stockpile is secure as can be. A mouse couldn’t get in without our knowing. But, over the next few weeks or so, I think it would be prudent to undertake a discreet investigation into—”
“—It’s her,” Brax interrupted. “It’s got to be her.”
“Got to be who, sir?”
“Who? That demonic bitch of a bandit!”
Brax shoved his chair back and tried to stand up. But he did it too fast, and the chair tumbled over with a crash. After he found his footing, he held his ruined hands out in front of his face and stared at them for a second, as if discovering them for the first time. Then his lips pulled back to reveal his teeth, his whiskers twitched, and he swept one hand across the top of his desk, sending papers and pens and the unfortunate cologne bottle flying. Sharps winced as the bottle shattered against a paneled wall and the room began to fill with the floral, over-fragrant smell of Brax’s personal scent.
“With all due respect, sir, we don’t know that.’’
“Don’t we?” Brax said, sounding incredulous. “Who else could it be? Who else would come after me like this? Who else would even know about the stockpile?” He shook his head. “Only her. It has to be her.”
“Even if it is her, sir, what can she do?”
“I don’t know, Mister Sharps!” Brax said. “And that’s what worries me.” The old fox stood in front of the window, drew the curtain slightly aside, and stared out through the glass. After what felt like nearly a minute of silence, he said: “I want to move the stockpile.”
“Beg your pardon, sir?”
“I want to move the stockpile.”
“Where would we move it to? Little Forks is the most secure location we have.”
“Not right now, it isn’t,” Brax said. “Not if she’s there.”
“With two hundred men and two dozen trains, it would take a week to move the whole lot.”
Brax spun back around to face the snake. “Then you’d best get started, hadn’t you?”
Sharps cleared his throat. “If those are your orders, sir.”
“They are.” Brax walked back behind the desk, stooped down, and righted his chair. He did not sit down, though, but merely stood to one side and leaned against it. The rattler thought he could see the fox shaking. “Round up the best men you can get your hands on,” Brax said, “and take the fastest train out to the Forks. I want you to lock the facility down – nothing comes in, and nothing goes out, without my express say-so. And I want you to supervise the move yourself.”
“I’m holding you personally responsible for this, Mister Sharps.”
Sharps bowed his head a little bit, then turned to go.
“One more thing, Mister Sharps.”
The snake turned back around to face the fox, who was now seated again, with his arms crossed in front of him.
“If the Red-Eyed Woman is there, I would consider it a great personal favor if you would kill her for me.”
“Good. Bring me back her head. Or don’t bother coming back at all. Am I clear?”
“Splendid. You won’t let me down again, will you, Mister Sharps?”
* * *
“Guard towers every fifty yards,” Dazie said, adjusting the focus on her binoculars. “Three guards in each tower. Rifles, for sure.”
“Probably some hotshots among them, too, I should expect,” Jackie said. She and her crew were situated atop a low, scrubby ridge about a half mile east of Little Forks. From there, they could keep a steady watch on Brax’s compound in the valley below.
The combination of altitude and distance made the facility look like a toy model, with row upon row of long, rectangular warehouses interrupted only by the occasional bunkhouse or mess hall, plus the large wooden water tower which rose up from the center of the compound.
It would all have looked very neat and pedestrian – unremarkable, even – if it weren’t for the dozens upon dozens of heavily-armed guards. The place seemed to be crawling with them.
“How many do you make down there?” Jackie asked her deputy.
“Hard to get an exact count,” Dazie said. “But, once you’re up into ‘small army’ territory, the exact number doesn’t seem so important.”
Jackie allowed herself a chuckle. “How do they look?” she asked.
“Twitchy,” Dazie said. “Something’s got the wind up them, that’s for sure.”
Jackie smiled. “I wonder who could have done that?”
“I wouldn’t want to have to take them all on,” Dazie said. “Twenty of us against that whole lot.”
“Maybe it’s time we levelled the playing field, then?” Jackie said. She pointed off to the southeast, towards the single railroad track across the barren, blistering wasteland which connected Little Forks to the mining town of New Progress, far to the south.
From amid the rippling heat shimmer on the distant horizon, a tiny black shape could be seen trundling its way along the tracks towards Little Forks. A moment later, the stillness of the air was broken by the screech of a train whistle.
Dazie lowered her binoculars for a second and turned to look back at her boss.
“Here comes the special delivery,” she said. “Knock, knock.”
* * *
As the train slowed to a halt outside Little Forks, two burly-looking centaurs with rifles held at the ready stepped out from the gatehouse and moved to flank the locomotive on each side. Meanwhile, a bespectacled fox in a vest with a gold watch fob followed after them and made his way over to the train’s engine compartment. He was carrying a clipboard and wore an expression of permanent distaste.
Sharps opened the locomotive’s side door and stuck his head out. He had to adjust the brim on his hat to block out the reflected sun – it was almost the height of the day, and the temperature was fearsome.
“Ah, Mister Sharps,” the fox said. He pulled out his pocket watch and consulted the time, then scribbled a note on his clipboard. “A runner arrived this morning to inform me that you were coming. I have to say that the message seemed most irregular.”
“Special orders, Mister Booker,” the rattler said. “Security overhaul. Short notice. I’m sure you understand.”
“I’m sure that I don’t, Mister Sharps. Our security is fully accounted for. I’ve seen to it myself.”
The fox barely glanced up from his clipboard as he spoke. Sharps knew that it wasn’t so much that Booker wasn’t fond of him, or didn’t trust him, as it was that Booker felt that the rattler didn’t really require his full attention.
Sharps got that sort of attitude a lot. He was expert at ignoring it.
“I’m sure that you have things well in hand,” he said, “but orders are orders, you know, and I wouldn’t want to have to explain to Brax that I didn’t get full cooperation from your men.”
The fox returned his pocket watch to his vest. He took out a handkerchief and dabbed at the perspiration on his forehead.
“You can rely on the full cooperation of my men. Of that, you have my personal assurance.” The fox turned and waved back at the gatehouse. The rifle-toting centaurs shouldered their guns and started back towards their posts while a third centaur emerged from the little building and raised the iron gates which barred the track.
“I’ll be sure to mention you by name for commendation, Booker,” Sharps said. “Hop on and ride with me up to the loading dock. I’m going to need some help unloading my special cargo.”
The rattler extended a hand which, after a moment’s hesitation, the fox took. Sharps pulled Booker up into the engine compartment, then signaled for the driver to proceed once the way was clear.
“What kind of cargo are you carrying?”
“A few dozen extra men, for starters,” the rattler said. “Real mean cusses – you’re going to love having them around. Guns, ammunition, some extra stores. And some big piece of magicmajiggery which Brax’s slingers cooked-up. Supposed to create an extra layer of defense if we need it, or something like that.” Sharps waved a hand airily off to the side of his head. “I confess I didn’t understand half of what those spark-shooters were trying to tell me about it. I haven’t got the head for that sort of thing. But they won’t be here for another day or two anyway, so it hardly matters in the meantime. Us, we just have to unload the thing, and it’s heavy as all get-out.”
“I see,” the fox said.
They passed the next minute or so in not-quite-companionable silence while the train sidled-up to the loading dock. After its wheels ground to a halt, the snake and the fox jumped out and down onto the platform.
The fox put his fingers to his lips and whistled at a trio of minotaurs in overalls who were bunched together in one of the small patches of shade on the otherwise exposed platform.
“Hey, lollygaggers,” Booker said, “how’s about you hoof it over here and do some work?”
The minotaurs shot each other sidelong glances, but they made their way over to where the fox and the snake stood.
Sharps slithered to the nearest boxcar, where he unlatched the door and slid it open. Sunlight flooded into the car to reveal The Device, its blown glass globe now filled to the brim with cielesune shards. The sphere appeared to pulse rhythmically with a faint, otherworldly blue light, and it seemed to emit a low, high-pitched hum as well.
“What in blazes is that?” Booker asked, adjusting his spectacles.
“I didn’t build it, I’m just delivering it,” Sharps said. He motioned to the trio of minotaurs. “Give me a hand, here, fellas?”
Four sets of hands grabbed The Device and lifted it gingerly. With slow, careful movements, the minotaurs and the snake eased the humming, pulsing blue orb out of the boxcar and down onto the weathered wooden surface of the loading dock.
“Where are we supposed to keep that thing?” Booker asked, looking uncomfortable about the whole situation.
“Just here ought to be fine,” Sharps said.
As he spoke, the humming coming from The Device suddenly seemed to grow louder and higher in pitch. The ethereal blue light which emanated out from the glass globe grew brighter and started to pulse more quickly. The runes carved along the globe’s golden bands burned bright white, and violet flashes of electricity seemed to arc between the silver trellis beneath the globe and the gold bands around it.
“What the blazes?” the fox said, taking a step back. The minotaurs did likewise.
The rattler, meanwhile, stuck his hand into his pocket, where he found the ring that the husher twins had left for him aboard the train which Jackie DeCoeur had delivered earlier that week, per instructions. He slipped the ring onto one finger, and felt a strange tightening sensation creep over not just his hand, but his whole body.
Then Sharps closed his eyes and held his breath.
* * *
Watching through the binoculars, Jackie DeCoeur saw The Device appear to pulse with flashes of static and bright blue light.
Putting down the binoculars, she turned to face the husher twins, who were chanting softly. They stood facing each other, with their palms pressed together and their eyes closed. The air around them seemed to have grown cool and to vibrate with a kind of strange energy, and Jackie knew just enough magic to be able to sense the massive quantities of mana which the twins were gathering.
Still, while she wasn’t totally sure what she had been expecting from The Device, she had been expecting something a little more, well, dramatic.
“Is that—”she started to say.
Suddenly, the husher twins opened their eyes, and Jackie heard a siren-like shriek from behind her that was so loud and so high that she had to stick her fingers in her ears.
She spun back around just in time to see a thin shaft of impossibly-bright blue light emerge from the top of The Device and shoot upwards into the sky.
Then, suddenly, there was a great, concussive boom which nearly knocked Jackie off her feet. The Device itself seemed to vanish into a flash of bluish-white light, and a blue wave of energy rippled out from it in circles which expanded in size and deepened in color as they spread outwards faster than a man could run.
Guards and workers in the compound below, most of whom appeared to have been frozen in place as they watched the strange spectacle unfolding before them, turned and tried to run in all directions. But the great blue wave which swept out from The Device caught up with them and seemed to crash over them like light given physical form.
And, as it did, they vanished. They vanished with a little sucking sound amidst a burst of white light. They went from being there to not being there, with their clothes and anything they had been carrying falling to the ground in a heap.
As they vanished, pulses of violet-white energy seemed to travel up the shaft of blue light in sporadic intervals, rising skyward until they vanished out of sight with crackles like thunder. All the while the blue wave of light grew and expanded, washing over the fence around the compound, rushing over the barren wasteland outside the fence. It passed over buildings and structures without any noticeable effect – only the living seemed to be caught up in its ethereal tide.
Finally, as its circumference grew and grew, the wave’s advance started to slow, and its light began to dim. The high-pitched whine faded away into nothingness, and the great column of light stretching up into the heavens began to flicker and dissolve. Just a hundred yards or so away from the ridge where Jackie and her crew stood in awed silence, the dispersal wave seemed to dissolve, vanishing back into the air itself.
The valley below them was startlingly, strikingly quiet. The stillness was nearly palpable. Nothing moved, nothing made a sound. The compound, formerly buzzing with activity, had been swept clean of all traces of life.
Jackie was startled to realize that she had been holding her breath. She exhaled softly, then turned back around to face the husher twins, who were surveying their work with unusually expressive looks of satisfaction on their faces.
“Hush-Hush, have I ever told you how much I love you?” Jackie asked?
“You have expressed admiration for our skills,” the twins said.
“Admiration doesn’t begin to cover it.”
“We are pleased that The Device performed to expectations,” the twins said.
“And then some. I feel bad for poor Sharpy, though.”
“If he used the tether as we instructed,” Hush-Hush said, “then he should emerge from the Aether in the vicinity of the beacon we placed yesterday.”
“Where was that?”
“In the basement of the New Progress saloon and bordello.”
Jackie found herself grinning. “Then I’m sure that Ruby and the girls will take good care of him for now.”
“We did inform them to expect his arrival,” the twins said.
“What about the others?”
The husher twins gave identical shrugs. “The fluctuations of the Aether are difficult to predict. The possible dispersal range is wide.”
“Well, wherever they are, I’m sure they can take care of themselves,” Jackie said. “Meanwhile, we’re still here, and we’ve got some business of our own to take care of.”
Jackie DeCoeur motioned for her crew to saddle-up. A few minutes later, they were riding through the empty gatehouse and onto the deserted streets of Brax’s secure facility.
Formerly-secure, more like, Jackie thought to herself with a grin.
Hopping off her mount, she jumped up onto the loading dock and walked over to some crumpled overalls which lay in a heap on the platform. She nudged the fabric with her boot, as if waiting for something to happen.
Nothing did happen. She wasn’t really sure what she might have been expecting.
In another pile of clothes nearby, she found a handsome gold watch on a nice fob, which she picked up and pocketed.
Dazie, who was standing behind her and watched her do it, gave Jackie an inquiring look.
Jackie shrugged. “I’d say that today represents the end of Sharpy’s many years of dedicated service to Brax’s railway,” she said. “Seems like he ought to get a gold watch for his troubles.”
The minotaur laughed. “You think of everything, don’t you?”
“No, but I try my best to make it look like I do.”
“As nice as it is to see everyone having such a grand old time,” Presto said, “maybe someone could help me with this?” The artificer was struggling to release the catches on the special boxcar which he and Shakes had modified.
Dazie gave a little snort and walked over to where the artificer stood. “Your problem,” she said, “is that you don’t take any joy in your work.” She brushed the nine-toed human aside and grabbed hold of the metal pin. Powerful muscles tensed and a strenuous look crossed the minotaur’s face as she put her back into pulling on the stuck pin. After a few seconds of effort, she was rewarded with a sharp metallic squeal as the pin dislodged.
Dazie took some quick steps back and out of the way as the boxcar’s four walls collapsed outward, revealing The Machine perched atop accordion-like scaffolding mounted to the boxcar’s reinforced floor.
Presto walked over and clambered up into the little seat attached to one end of The Machine. As soon as he was seated, he started pulling levers and turning cranks. The Machine began to rattle and hum as its two great copper flywheels began to turn, one clockwise, the other counterclockwise. Meanwhile, the baloth-hide belts which, at a casual glance, appeared to be snarled together into a hopeless tangle, instead sprang to life, racing neatly past each other along long, looping pathways as they spun The Machine’s other components to life. The various silver and copper tubes which protruded from The Machine’s top and sides started to vibrate, with little bursts of hot air escaping every few seconds from their vents.
Presto spun one of the wheels protruding from his control panel, and The Machine swiveled in place on its platform, rotating about ninety degrees so that its wide-mouthed copper barrel pointed towards the nearby row of warehouses. Then the artificer spun another wheel, and the accordion-like platform began to telescope upwards, raising The Machine and its operator several yards up into the air. From its new, elevated vantage point, the bizarre contraption looked even more ungainly than it did on the ground, and for a moment Jackie was gripped by concern that, with all its rattling and vibrating, The Machine would topple over, or literally shake itself to pieces.
But, somehow, the various forces which seemed to push The Machine one way or the other appeared to cancel each other out, and the contraption was remarkably steady given the amount of clattering and clanking noises which it generated.
“Someone check the feeder line,” Presto said, with a little extra vibrato in his voice from the vibrating seat he was perched atop. “I would hate for this thing to run out of juice, and for all of us to get extremely dead as a consequence.”
Jackie walked over to the base of The Machine, where a chute with a wide, sectioned belt inside it ran between Presto’s contraption and the next boxcar over. The belt’s path was clear and unobstructed. Then she poked her head inside the neighboring boxcar, where Dazie now stood next to a towering hopper filled with long copper cylinders of sangrite.
“Just keep an eye on the dispenser?” the red-eyed woman said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Dazie said. “I plan to die rich, and we’re not rich just yet.”
“Let’s do something about that, then,” Jackie said. Stepping back outside, she gave a thumbs-up to the waiting artificer. “Whenever you’re ready,” she said.
“Can’t get any readier,” Presto said. Then, with a little flourish, he pulled one more lever.
For a tense second, The Machine convulsed, and the artificer had to hang on to his seat to avoid being thrown off. Jackie was about to order her crew to run for it when The Machine steadied itself and a loud whirring noise seemed to spin up from somewhere deep inside it. An orange-red glow began to form around the opening of the wide copper barrel, crackling and sparking like a hot fire, and Jackie could have sworn that she felt a strange prickling sensation in the tips of her fingers and toes.
“Magnet on!” the artificer said, and he turned a wheel.
The orange-red light leapt out from the barrel and shot towards one of the long, wooden warehouses. Jackie heard wood splinter and crack, like a stand of trees being felled, and suddenly the wall of the warehouse which had been struck by the beam exploded outward. In a split-second it became clear why, as a veritable torrent of metal seemed to erupt from the warehouse and come flying down the length of The Machine’s crackling, orange-red beam.
And finally, at long last, there it was: Brax’s iron. A veritable horde of it, Jackie knew. Not just a fortune’s worth of the stuff, but fortunes upon fortunes. Rows upon rows of iron bars, stacked up in rows upon rows of warehouses, tucked away in a little corner of the corner of the Waste and kept under more locks and keys than all the banks in Verkell.
And now it was all coming right to her, almost literally.
The hail of iron seemed to accelerate as the magnetic force of The Machine pulled it in. Jackie could feel the air move as iron rushed over her head towards the yawning copper barrel, and she could even make out some of the individual items in the speeding stream of metal: countless iron bars, to be sure, but also things which looked like door latches, padlocks, nails, and bolts. The wooden warehouse was being torn apart at the seams in front of her very eyes, and every scrap of iron that the beam touched was sucked up and pulled along it as though on a string.
Where the stream of metal met the open mouth of The Machine’s barrel, it seemed to compress and shrink in upon itself in an intense vortex of swirling light and heat, until all that remained was a kind of glowing thread the width of a hair, which then vanished back inside the barrel as if drawn by an unseen hand.
Presto had tried to explain the forces at work inside The Machine’s compression chamber to her – how, with the right amount of sangrite for fuel, the powerful magnetic pressures it generated could reduce a warehouse full of iron down to the size of a man’s finger, and hold it in that state until the process was reversed. She had tried her best to follow his run-on sentences and accompanying gesticulations, but most of what the artificer had said had been lost on her. What had not been lost, though, was his confidence that The Machine could be built, and his description of what it could do:
“Get me inside Little Forks,” he told her, “and I’ll strip the place bare. I’m not talking about stealing from Brax. I’m talking about cleaning him out.”
When it was just words, it had sounded impossible. Now she was watching it happen, right before her very eyes.
She couldn’t help smiling.
One by one, Presto swept the beam over the rows of warehouses, and one by one the structures shattered to splinters as The Machine sucked them dry of their contents. Every few minutes, as The Machine whirred and whined, it would eject a spent canister of crystal out from its side. Jackie poked a head into the boxcar where Dazie was watching the crystal hopper, and the minotaur gave her boss a big thumbs-up.
“We nearly done?” Dazie asked.
“Just about,” Jackie said.
“We should have plenty of crystal to get us back and unloaded.”
“Hopefully you’ll get to watch that part. You’re missing one heck of a show.”
“You can describe it to me later, when we’re counting our money.”
Finally, when Presto had picked the levelled remnants of the warehouses clean, he turned his attention to the water tower that dominated the compound. He swung The Machine around to point the beam up at the tank. As iron rivets and bands were sucked into the beam, the wooden walls of the water tank buckled and then exploded outwards, with a cascade of water showering out in all directions in a kind of three-hundred-and-sixty-degree waterfall.
“That was dramatic,” Jackie said to Presto, yelling to be heard over the noise.
The artificer looked down at her with a goofy grin. “Just trying to take some joy in my work.”
Jackie took a moment then to sweep her eyes over the shattered remnants of Brax’s facility. The compound looked as though a tornado had blown through it.
She regretted that she would not be present to see Brax’s face when he heard about it.
Finally, she returned to the business at hand. “Are we good to go?’ she asked the artificer.
“No time like the present,” Presto called back.
Presto turned one of the control wheels, and the red-orange beam retracted back into the barrel. The Machine still rumbled and hummed, flywheels spinning, belts whirring, hot air venting, and the red-orange glow sparked and crackled at the tip of the barrel, but the contraption appeared to be in as stable a state as could reasonably be hoped for. So the artificer pulled a lever, and The Machine began to sink back down as the accordion-style platform beneath it folded up. Meanwhile, Jackie and a handful of her men ran around the outside of the boxcar, lifting its folding sides back into place and locking them in position. With the platform lowered and the boxcar walls secured around it, The Machine was ready for transport.
Jackie hustled over to the locomotive, where Shakes was busy warming up the train’s engine.
“How fast can we go without causing too much shaking in the back?” she asked the noggle. “I don’t exactly want to dawdle, but I also don’t want to find out what happens if we run that contraption over any big bumps.”
The noggle pulled down the brim of his engineer’s cap and smiled.
“With most drivers, you get fast or smooth,” he said. “With me, you get fast and smooth.”
“See? I always knew we were going to be friends.”
Dazie poked her head in through the locomotive’s open door. “We ready?” she asked.
Jackie nodded. “Get everyone on-board,” she said, “and we’re ready to roll.”
The minotaur nodded and disappeared back out through the door.
Jackie moved to stand next to the engineer’s seat, where Shakes was flipping switches and watching dials.
“How does it feel to know you just stared down the basilisk?” she asked him.
IV. Settling Accounts
The tension was palpable as four foxes and two humans all stared daggers at each other from across the small, horseshoe-shaped table in the center of the empty ballroom. Six plates of roast dragon marrowbone sat untouched, cooling and congealing, in front of the assembled tycoons. The decanters of centaur wine, on the other hand, were all empty, or near to it.
“She’s flooding the market!” one of the humans said, a bowler-hatted man in a black dinner jacket with red cheeks and a pencil moustache. He pointed angrily towards the center of the horseshoe, where Brax sat low in his seat, looking uncharacteristically rumpled. “I had runners from three banks at my office today! You said the facility was secure; you said the goods couldn’t be moved!”
“Obviously, we’re dealing with extraordinary circumstances,” Brax said, scratching nervously behind one ear. “I don’t think anyone could have foreseen this particular turn of events.”
“What does it matter now?” asked a female fox on the opposite side of the table, resplendent in a feather boa and silk blouse. “What matters now is what will happen to all of us if we don’t do something, and fast.”
“Precisely,” Brax said. “Our window for action is closing even as we speak. We need to intervene, immediately, both to stabilize the market and to recover our assets.”
“And just how do you propose we do that?” asked the red-faced human.
“I’ll answer that,” called a voice from the entrance to the ballroom, where the grand double doors flew open.
Jackie DeCoeur stepped into the ballroom, flanked by Dazie and Sharps on either side, with the husher twins following quietly behind them, and Shakes bringing up the rear. The red-eyed woman, the rattler, and the minotaur held pistols in each hand, which they trained on the six startled figures at the table as they made their way forward to stand in front of the horseshoe’s open mouth. The husher twins slid the double doors closed and leaned back against them, their faces expressionless, their white-robed arms folded across their chests. Shakes, meanwhile, who was carrying a heavy-looking stack of papers in his quivering arms, stepped aside to wait in a corner of the vast, high-ceilinged room.
Brax started to get up out of his seat and was pointing a gloved finger at either Jackie or Sharps, but his hand was shaking so violently that it was hard to tell.
“You—” he started to say.
“—In case I didn’t make myself clear,” Jackie said, speaking loudly over Brax’s abortive protest, “I have the floor just now, and I’m not taking questions yet.” She levelled the pistol in her right hand at Brax’s head and eased the hammer back with a cold, metallic click. “And, as the new chairwoman of this little board, I must confess that I’m going to be a stickler for the rules of order, and that means no more interruptions.” She swept her gaze across the silent, stunned faces around the table. “Anyone who has difficulty following my rules, my associates here will be more than happy to render silent for the remainder of this meeting, if not longer.”
Back where they leaned against the door, the husher twins each put a finger up to their pursed lips, and shook their heads slightly.
Brax’s mouth hung open for a moment, but he did not speak. His arm dropped back down, and he himself sank heavily back into his chair. The rest of the assembled tycoons appeared too dumbstruck to move, let alone speak.
After waiting another second to be confident that she had the group’s undivided attention, Jackie lowered her pistols back down to her sides and began to pace around the inside of the horseshoe, fixing her red-eyed stare on each of the startled faces as she passed.
“Speaking momentarily as one criminal to another,” she said, “I have to tip my cap to you all. This was a very neat scheme you all had running. The six of you control virtually all the rail lines connecting Verkell to the Waste, and business is good. You’re all making good money, but you put your heads together, and you figure you could be making really good money instead, with just a little extra effort. After all, iron is in short supply, and demand is rising every day. But no iron gets into the city without running on your rails. And that just presents you all with the opportunity of a lifetime, doesn’t it?”
Jackie stopped just across the table from Brax. She picked up his half-full goblet of centaur wine, swirled the contents around, held the glass under her nose, and sniffed. Then she took a small sip, let it linger in her mouth for a moment. “Nice legs,” she said. Then she put the goblet back down and resumed her trip around the table.
“So what do you all do?” she said. “You make a little informal agreement. You start choking off the supply of iron. Shipments go missing. Trains get delayed. You lean on the miners, tell them they have to sell direct to you at a rock-bottom rate, or you’ll refuse to carry their cargo. Now you’re buying low out in the Waste and selling high back in the city, and you’re making a killing, because the price keeps going up. But you all do one better than that, even. You start hoarding iron. You divert more and more of the shipments to your own stockpile, which you store out in a little fortress twenty miles north of nowhere. By my calculations – and I always had a good head for figures – you have a three-year supply stashed up there.”
Jackie paused in mid-stride for a moment, before turning to face Brax and smiling again. “Or, I guess I should say you had it,” she said, “but we’ll return to that point later.” Then she resumed her walk.
“Anyway, iron was scarce already, now it’s downright rare. It’s almost as good as gold. Except, for you, it’s even better than gold, because you can’t build railroads out of gold. You build them out of iron. And you all made sure that no one else could scrape enough of the stuff together to build a new railroad and challenge your cozy little stranglehold on things.”
Having reached one end of the table, Jackie turned and started back towards the other end again.
“Like I said, very neatly done, so far. Very neat indeed. But, here’s the thing: When you’ve got a good racket like that running, the smart play is to just keep it simple and let the money pile up. Because, when you start to get greedy, when you try to grab just that little bit extra, that’s when you get into trouble.”
Jackie motioned for Shakes, who scurried over and handed her a thin stack of papers. As she walked around the table, Jackie placed one sheet in front of each of the seated figures as she went.
“Now, this is the greedy part,” she said. “I guess you all weren’t getting rich enough off of stitching-up the rail concessions, or raising the freight rates, or gouging the miners, or selling your own ore, because you decided to game the market, too. See, my associates have been making inquiries at financial institutions around Verkell, and it turns out that you’ve all been making some very substantial bets on the price of iron, which you all seem awfully confident is just going to keep going up and up. And you’ve been making those bets with borrowed money, and lots of it.”
Jackie watched the assembled faces darken as they studied the figures on the sheets she’d provided.
“The numbers in the first two columns next to your names are your current reserves and liabilities. The numbers in the third column represent your potential losses were the price of iron to fall by, say, fifty percent. Now, I don’t claim to know the precise financial term for what those amounts add up to, but I’d be tempted to just call it a bloodbath and leave it at that.”
The bowler-hatted man, whose reddened face looked as though it might pop, opened his mouth, as if to speak, but Jackie swung a pistol around in his direction.
“Remember, Mister Hooper, I have the floor. Besides, compared to the rest of your colleagues, you’re not even that badly off. Miss Vanatter, over there,” Jackie said, gesturing towards the fox in the boa, “she’s about to be so deep in red ink, I’d be surprised if she has two bits left to rub together when her creditors get through with her. And then, of course, there’s my friend Brax, here, who somehow manages to make even Miss Vanatter look downright prudent.” Jackie turned back to face Brax again.
“What do you wa—” Brax started to say.
Jackie raised a hand in the air. Behind her, the husher twins started to chant softly, and each raised an arm in Brax’s direction.
Glowing white lines, crisscrossing like stitches, appeared from nowhere and threaded their way around Brax’s muzzle, tightening around his jaw and pulling it shut. Brax’s eyes drew wide with horror, and he clawed at his face with his gloved hands, but the threads which bound his mouth were incorporeal and his frantic, scrabbling fingers simply passed right through them.
“Remember, no questions just yet,” Jackie said, her voice growing low and level as she watched Brax struggle. “Although the one you wanted to ask was a good one: What do I want? Let me lay it out for you.”
Jackie motioned to Shakes, who trundled back over and gave her his remaining load of paperwork. Again, she rounded the table, placing a thick stack of documents in front of each of the seated oligarchs. Shakes followed around behind her this time, placing a pen down on top of each of the stacks.
“Let me explain the new facts of life,” Jackie said. “You used to have a three-year supply of hoarded iron. Now I have a three-year supply of iron. And that iron is about to hit the market in a big way. As you’ll all have heard by now, I started unloading my iron today – just a few tons, mind you – and the price is off by ten percent on today’s trading alone. Well, I intend to keep selling my iron, and I intend to keep that price going down, and down, and down. Which means sacrificing a little of my own windfall in the process, but we all have to make sacrifices for our art. Now, this leaves all of you in quite the bind. If the iron price goes down, your creditors will start calling your loans – loans which you can’t pay back. And, if I’m being honest here, I don’t see you all as the sort who are likely to thrive in debtor’s prison.
“Fortunately for you, I’ve been in contact with your creditors, as I mentioned earlier, and they’ve all agreed to a deal. I know that, generally speaking, bankers don’t like me very much, but it turns out that they can be very reasonable people when their own skin is on the line. Anyway, the terms of the deal are this: I buy your debts off of them at a steep discount, which is a rough bargain for them but is better than nothing, which is what they’ll get otherwise. Now, me, I’m prepared to forgive your debts, in exchange for which you will sign your assets over to me, including your railroad holdings. As of today, you’re out of the railroad business. But you also stay out of prison, and you walk away from this table with whatever rainy-day gold you’ve got stashed under a rock somewhere, which is worlds better than you’ll do otherwise.”
Jackie motioned to the documents which had been placed in front of the cornered tycoons. “You’ll find all the specifics of our deal spelled out plainly in the contract,” she said. “And, as my friend Mister Brax once said to me, this is a limited-time offer which is not open to negotiation.”
Jackie returned to stand at the table’s open mouth, with Sharps and Dazie at her side.
“Now’s your time for questions,” she said. “But keep it brief. My offer comes off the table at the end of the hour.”
“You’ll never get away with this,” Vanatter said, pointing a finger at Jackie. “We’ll have you strung up.”
“That’s not technically a question,” Jackie said, “but I did have a response prepared for inquiries along these lines. I want you all to ask yourselves a question: All the favors you’re planning to call in, all the gun thugs and crooked lawmen and spellslingers you’re thinking you’re going to send after me, what makes you think they’re going to give you the time of day? It’s possible that they’ve been doing your dirty work up until now because of your friendly dispositions and winning personalities. But I’m going to guess that it had more to do with the fact that you could get them iron, and you could pay them off. Well, you’re all out of iron, and you’re about to be out of money. I’m the one with the iron and money now. Maybe they’ll do you a favor for old-time’s sake, go after the Red-Eyed Woman for you if you ask real nice. But I wouldn’t bet on it.”
The feathers on Miss Vanatter’s boa shook. “I’ll kill you myself, so help me, if it’s the last thing I do.”
“Better than you have tried,” Jackie said, “although you’re welcome to give it your best shot. But, in the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you that I’ve done some careful estate planning of late. Maybe you all didn’t know it, but my friend Brax has been keeping very detailed notes on all your meetings. Names, dates, prices – he has been nothing if not meticulous. They make for very interesting reading. If I hadn’t happened upon them in the first place, I wouldn’t even have known about your little arrangement, or where you were stashing all your iron.”
Jackie watched as the other foxes and humans seated around the table all turned to face Brax, who seemed to sink lower and lower into his seat with each passing minute.
If looks could kill, Jackie thought to herself.
“Anyway, I plan to live to enjoy the fruits of my labor. Should I shuffle off this mortal coil prematurely, Mister Brax’s detailed account of this cartel and its activities is going to wind up splashed across the front pages of every paper in Verkell. And, while I wouldn’t exactly describe you all as beloved by the public just now, once people find out about the ride you’ve been taking them for, I’d say that prison will be the least of your worries. So, unless you want to spend the remainder of your short lives being hunted from one end of the Waste to the other, I’d say that you all have a vested interest in my continued good health.”
Jackie surveyed the room, and was mildly gratified to see that most of the venomous glances which had previously been cast in her direction were now aimed at Brax instead.
“Any final questions?” she asked. “Your hour is almost up.”
A tense silence fell over the room. Then the bowler-hatted man spoke.
“Where do I sign?” he asked.
Jackie smiled. “Initial the bottom of each page next to the ‘X’ and sign on the last page where indicated by the red arrow.”
Low rumblings could be heard from those seated at the table. But, one by one, they picked up their pens and began scribbling on pages. All except for Brax, who seemed to be struggling to remove the cap from his pen.
“Sharpy, could you give your old friend a hand there?”
The rattler slithered up to the table and, with a sly smile, snatched Brax’s pen, unscrewed the cap, and pressed it roughly back into the fox’s ruined hand.
It took Brax some time and considerable effort, but he eventually managed to scrawl his signature on the contract.
“Shakes, if you would just collect those and give them the once-over? Make sure everything has been executed nice and proper?”
The noggle went around the table again, collecting the contracts from the defeated-looking tycoons and examining the signatures. After he nodded his approval to Jackie, the red-eyed woman turned around and signaled to the husher twins, who stepped aside from the ballroom doors and swung them open.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this concludes our business together,” Jackie said, motioning for those seated at the table to stand. “You’re all free to go. I hope you won’t take it personally, but I’d prefer to never see any of you again after today. If I do, I’m liable to get jumpy, and from there I won’t be responsible for what happens next.”
One by one, the silent tycoons rose to their feet. Brax was the last to stand.
“Except for you, Brax.” Jackie motioned to Sharps and Dazie, who both moved to stand behind the old fox. “You get to stay. We have some unfinished business.”
The rattler and the minotaur each put a hand on one of Brax’s shoulders, and they returned the old fox roughly to his seat. The rest of the former railroad owners filed quickly out of the room, and the husher twins closed the doors behind them.
“Hush-Hush, you can let him go,” Jackie said.
The husher twins nodded, and the pulsing white threads unstitched themselves from around Brax’s muzzle and disappeared.
“I’ll see you dead for this,” Brax snarled at the red-eyed woman who stood before him. Then, straining to look at the big rattler, he said: “And that goes for you as well.”
Jackie chuckled, and Brax spun back to face her.
“Really, I ought to be thanking you,” Jackie said. “You’re the one who made all this possible.”
Brax snorted. “You sold your soul for this, you red-eyed bitch.”
Jackie DeCoeur’s smile widened. She leaned forward towards Brax, leaned right down so that her face was just inches away from his, so that she could smell his floral cologne and his acrid sweat.
“When I was a little girl growing up in a Verkell orphanage,” she said, “the other kids used to tease me about my eyes all the time. They called me names like ‘devil girl,’ they said horrible things about my mother, said that a demon must have knocked her up, said that was why she died giving birth to me, and why I had these red eyes.”
She fixed her stare on Brax, her red eyes boring straight into his gray ones. She could tell he wanted to look away, but couldn’t. She watched as his pupils dilated, and his gaze became glassy.
“They used to shun me, pick on me. The bigger boys beat me up from time to time. Some of the girls, too. Until one day, when I decided I’d had enough. And the next time one of the boys called me ‘devil girl,’ you know what I did? I walked right up to him, and I said: ‘You’re right. My momma took a roll with a demon, and I got that demon blood in me. And the next one of you even thinks about laying a hand on me, I’ll fry his brain, and I’ll clean his clock.’ And that big bully, the one who must have knocked me around a dozen times before then? He just froze right up, he was so confused, and maybe a little bit scared, too. And while he was standing there with his mouth hanging open, like he was trying to catch flies or something, I sucker punched him on the nose as hard as I could, and he went down like that.”
Jackie snapped her fingers next to Brax’s ear, and the fox jumped in his seat. His eyes seemed to return to normal, and his whiskers started to shake.
“From that day on,” Jackie said, “if the other kids stepped out of line, all I had to do was stare ‘em down, and they backed off real quick. I learned a valuable lesson that day – what you are doesn’t much matter. What matters is what other people think you are.”
Jackie took a step backwards, so that she stood at arm’s length from Brax.
“One thing that is true about me, though? I’m a woman of my word.” She raised up her pistol, pointing it between Brax’s eyes. “Last time we met, I made you a promise. I intend to keep it.” She cocked the hammer. “Any last words?”
“I’ll see you in hell,” Brax said.
“Probably,” Jackie DeCoeur said.
Then she pulled the trigger, and shot the old fox dead.
Brax’s body jumped from the bullet’s impact. Sharps and Dazie let go of his shoulders, and he slumped over, his head landing face-down on the uneaten plate of dragon marrowbone.
Jackie holstered her pistol and walked around to the other side of the table, where the rattler and minotaur stood waiting.
“I bet that felt good,” the snake said.
Jackie shrugged. “Setting him up felt good,” she said. “The killing, I had a promise to keep. Two promises, really. One to Brax, and one to Tishia. Brax I frankly couldn’t care less about. But Tishia? Well, I owed her this much, if nothing else.”
Dazie nodded at that. Then she gave the dead fox’s body a little push, so that it slid out of the chair and landed on the ballroom’s parquet floor with a muffled thud.
“Even split up so many ways, this ought to leave us all with enough to live on,” the minotaur said.
“More than you can spend in a lifetime,” Jackie said, “although I won’t begrudge you if you’d prefer to hang up your guns and give it your best possible shot.”
The minotaur snorted. “I wouldn’t want to try living honest. It wouldn’t suit me.”
“Me neither,” Jackie said.
“Though, I suppose we won’t be robbing any trains any time soon, seeing as you own pretty much all of them now,” Dazie said.
Jackie smiled at her deputy, flashing her gold tooth. “I guess we’ll have to find a different way to make a dishonest living,” she said.
“How will we do that?”
Jackie sat down in Brax’s chair. She picked up his goblet of wine and drank it down.
“I’m not sure yet,” the red-eyed woman said with a smile. “But I have some ideas.”
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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