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The Sincerest Form of Flattery

The Sincerest Form of Flattery


NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Jackie's Storyline.


     “It’s a little bit sad, isn’t it?” the demon asked in her cheery, sing-song voice.

     Jackie DeCoeur didn’t immediately answer the question. She was seated in the dining car of her personal train, neglecting both the half-drunk glass of whiskey which was slowly rising to room temperature in her one hand and the half-smoked cigar which was slowly burning itself out in her other hand. She was staring out the window at the parched, cracked landscape of the sun-blasted Waste as it swept past outside, and feeling the steady, rhythmic rumble of the train below her as it chugged along over the endless railroad ties. Each little bump made the ice in her glass jump and jingle.

     There was something peaceful – almost meditative, even – about life on the train. She had moved onto the rails for practical reasons at first: It kept her from being tied-down, kept her on the move. Life was safer that way. She wasn’t afraid of her enemies – numerous and powerful though they might be. But dealing with them was tiresome. Dealing with polite, settled society was tiresome, too, for that matter.

     The train kept her away from those complications. It helped her stay sane as much as safe.

     From behind her, she heard Lucy clear her throat. “It’s a little bit sad, isn’t it?” the demon said again. If she was irritated about being ignored, her tone of voice didn’t betray it.

     Jackie finally turned away from the window to face the black-eyed, leather-clad woman who was lounging casually on a nearby banquette, smiling the same broad, empty smile which she always seemed to wear when she was in one of her playful moods.

     “Isn’t what sad?” Jackie asked.

     “Life,” the demon said. “Your life, specifically. Knowing that you were born on the wrong side of the bed, knowing that you could have been so much more than what you are. If only, if only, if only.” She traced a circle on the leather upholstery with a thin, clawed finger. “It must be a little sad, a little depressing, I would think. I know I’d be sad about it, if I were you.”

     A wry smile crossed Jackie’s face, and she gave her head a little shake. She looked down at the whiskey in her hand and drank it, wiping her lips on her sleeve when she was finished. Then she took a few final puffs from the cigar before dropping its remainder into her recently-emptied glass, where it sizzled and sputtered as the melting ice drowned it.

     Setting the glass down on the table, she turned to look back at Lucy, who continued to stare over at her with an expression of amusement, black eyes meeting red ones.

     The pair of demons which Fisco had left at Jackie’s disposal had been exactly as the crafty little man had promised: ruthlessly capable and unfailingly reliable, if not exactly loyal. But each demon dealt with her differently. Mal, although he appeared when she called for him, and although he followed her instructions to the letter, seemed to hold her in a kind of suspicious disregard, and took no pains to hide his displeasure at their current arrangement. He never lingered beyond the conclusion of whatever business they had together.

     Lucy, on the other hand, would often appear unbidden, and would loiter around in Jackie’s presence, smiling, asking questions, playing little games. Jackie wondered what the demon got out of it, or what exactly she hoped to accomplish.

     At first, she had assumed that the demon was keeping tabs on her for Fisco.

     Lately, though, she wasn’t so sure.

     Either way, she tended to indulge the black-eyed woman – to a point, anyway. There didn’t seem to be anything to lose.

     “I don’t know about that,” Jackie said, leaning back slightly in her seat. “I’d say I’ve done fairly well for myself.”

     “Oh, don’t misunderstand me,” Lucy said, “I’m not impugning your accomplishments, and I have only the greatest respect for your many talents. But I look at you, and I can’t help but see wasted potential. All those souls lost when you just shoot men dead. All those pesky human hang-ups holding you back.”

     The demon’s smile widened, and she rolled over on the banquette so that she was balanced on all fours in a kind of feral, predatory posture.

     “And I was going to say that it’s a shame that you’re going to get old and decrepit, except I think we both know that’s not the case.”

     Jackie arched an eyebrow. “This is a first,” she said. “Of all the people who’ve given me grief about my parentage, you’re the only person to complain that I don’t have enough demon in me.”

     “Souls can make people so narrow-minded,” Lucy said, with just a trace of sadism creeping in around the edges of her cheerful tone. “Of course, I know a very effective cure for that.”

     “So my half of a soul makes me what, then? Moderately-minded?”

     “Now that’s what fascinates me,” Lucy said, shifting again, this time into a seated position. She leaned forward towards the red-eyed woman. “You’ve got the full package. One soul, intact, grade-A prime.” A kind of hungry look passed over the demon’s black eyes, so that Jackie had to fight off a shiver.

     “I’m sorry to disappoint,” Jackie said.

     “We all have our shortcomings,” Lucy said. “Now, I’m something of an expert on souls – a connoisseur, you might say. They’re all of them unique, you know. Each has its own texture, its own character, its own flavor.” Her smile turned almost carnal. “But yours is different somehow. It’s like there’s a kind of veil around it which I can’t quite see through. It makes me wonder what’s inside, just what it is you’ve got locked away in there, just what we might be able to make out of you if we ever managed to unlock it.”

     Jackie stiffened a little bit. “As fascinating as this is, I trust you’ll restrain the urge to pick my soul up and rattle it around to see what’s inside,” she said. “Because I might just get a little territorial about that.”

     Lucy made a face of mock horror. “Oh, perish the thought,” she said. “You’re the boss, and what’s yours is yours. But, were you ever to decide that you wanted to be rid of that pesky thing, I merely hope that you would think of me first.”

     Jackie sighed and stood up. “If I just pretend like you’ve succeeded in hurting my feelings, would that give you what you’re looking for?”

     “You have me all wrong,” Lucy said, placing a hand over her chest. “I’m just interested to know what makes you tick. I want to understand you better. We are distant relations, after all.”

     “Even if I felt like unburdening myself of all my deepest hopes and fears – which I don’t – I don’t think you’re the person I’d choose to confide in,” Jackie said.

     The black-eyed demon’s smile reappeared. “You can rest assured that anything you tell me will be in the strictest confidence,” she said. “I’m like a doctor, or a priest.” Lucy laughed a little, mirthless laugh. “I like priests, you know? Goodness knows I’ve had enough of them, I ought to count as one by now.”

     Jackie opened her mouth to reply, but, before she could speak, the whole dining car seemed to lurch around her. She heard the angry squeal of wheels as the train screeched to a stop, and she had to brace herself against the table to keep from being thrown out of her seat. Glasses and plates flew through the air around her, shattering against walls in an atonal symphony of breaking crockery and crystal. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Lucy digging her claws into the banquette to prevent herself from being similarly dislodged.

     After a few tense, stomach-churning seconds, the dining car shuddered to a halt.

     “I take it this wasn’t a scheduled stop?” Lucy said, looking aggrieved as she stood up and dusted herself off. “Want me to have a word with the engineer?”

     Jackie shook her head. She pointed out the window, where a group of acridians had appeared alongside the halted train. Men with black bandanas tied up around their faces sat atop the large insects, most of them with pistols visible in their hands.

     “Well, I’ll be damned,” Jackie said. “We’re being robbed.” Standing up, she drew her own pistol. “Which means that those men outside are either incredibly unlucky or incredibly stupid.”

     The black-eyed demon stretched her arms and smiled. “I was wondering when we were going to have some fun,” she said.

     “Well, that remains to be seen,” Jackie said. “First, I have some questions for our uninvited guests. Then I’ll decide what sort of fun we’re going to have.”

     Lucy gave an exaggerated pout. “That sounds drearily familiar.”

     Jackie shrugged. “What can I say? My human hang-ups are holding me back.”

     “Can I at least invite a friend?” the demon asked.

     “Feel free. But the rules apply to him as well,” Jackie said. With a flick of her wrist, she flipped open the cylinder of her revolver and checked each of the chambers, before giving the cylinder a quick spin and snapping it back into place. She held the gun at eye level and looked down its sight as she spoke. “As far as you two are concerned, my gun is a starter’s pistol. Unless it goes off, you both stick to the shadows. Understood?”

     “I want to note my disappointment with this plan.”

     “So noted. But you never answered my question.”

     Lucy sighed. “Understood,” she said.

     “Much obliged,” Jackie said. “Now you can call your friend, if you want.”

     Lucy nodded. A moment later, the air next to her seemed to darken, as though cast beneath the shadow of an unseen figure. The darkness formed tendrils which coiled in on themselves and solidified, coalescing into a recognizable outline. Then, with a little puff of smoke and whiff of brimstone, the shadow took physical form, and a black-clad, black-eyed man was standing next to the black-clad, black-eyed woman.

     “Who are we not killing today?” Mal asked. His voice was flat, and his expression wavered somewhere between boredom and contempt.

     “Train robbers,” Lucy chirped.

     Mal frowned as he turned to look at Jackie.

     “The next time you need someone not killed,” he said, “feel free to lose my invitation.”

     “Now, now,” Lucy said, “let’s be optimistic. The line between a standoff and a shootout can get so blurry. One of these days, we’re going to get lucky.”

     Jackie gave the female demon a wry smile. “It’s always nice to be reminded that you have my best interests at heart,” she said.

     “Who ever said we did?” Mal asked. Then he turned back to Lucy and gave a terse nod in the grinning demon’s direction.

     And, with that, the two of them vanished into darkness.

     Jackie had to shake her head. Working with demons presented a whole new dimension of personnel management challenges.

     Then, turning to the business at hand, she walked down the dining car’s central aisle – stepping gingerly over the few unbroken plates and glasses as she went – and slid open the door at the end of the car. A wave of hot, dry air washed over her as she jumped down to the ground below, holding her revolver casually at her side as she did.

     She counted six gun-toting, bandana-wearing riders some twenty or so paces in front of her, with maybe another half-dozen approaching quickly from up nearer the train’s locomotive.

     “Gentlemen,” Jackie said to the gathering ranks of bandits, “you either have no idea whose train this is, in which case you’re making a big mistake, or you do know whose train this is, in which case you’re making a very big mistake. Either way, if whoever is in charge of this mistake wanted to offer me an apology, now would be the time.”

     “That would be me,” said a familiar voice.

     A gap opened amid the front rank of bandits so that a massive acridian bearing an equally-massive rider could pass between them. The big rider nudged her mount forward towards the red-eyed woman, removing her bandana as she did.

     “And I do owe you an apology,” Dazie said. “Believe me, these are not the circumstances I would have chosen for our reunion, but I was running low on options.”

     As she spoke, the minotaur slowly and delicately lowered herself down from the saddle, wincing visibly as her hooves hit the ground.

     The smile which had formed on Jackie’s face vanished. Holstering her pistol, she walked quickly over towards where her old friend half-stood, half-slumped, with a tired, painful grimace on her face. Jackie could see that Dazie was in bad shape – her left arm was done-up in a sling, and wide bandages were wrapped tightly around her midsection and right calf. In several spots, the rust-colored ghosts of faded bloodstains showed through the white gauze.

     “Blazes, Dazie, what happened to you?” Jackie asked as she drew near. Looking her big friend up and down, she hesitated when she was about a step or two away. “Goodness knows I’m glad to see you, and normally I’d shake your hand or give you a big pat on the back, but I’m afraid that I might knock something loose.”

     “I’m a big girl. I can take it,” Dazie said. The minotaur extended her free hand, and she only cringed a little bit when Jackie shook it. “It’s good to see you, too.”

     “I take it from the state of you that this isn’t purely a social call?” Jackie said.

     Dazie shook her head. “Let’s get out of this infernal heat,” she said, nodding towards the idling train, “and I’ll tell you all about it.”

 

* * *

 

     Once Dazie was situated as comfortably as possible on a low sofa in Jackie’s sleeping car, with her bandaged leg stretched out on a nearby ottoman and a generous glass of good whiskey in her hand, Jackie sat down across from the minotaur and gave her a knowing smile.

     “Where, and how many?” the red-eyed woman asked.

     “Once in the arm, once in the leg, twice in the breadbasket,” Dazie said, draining her glass in one go. “The arm and the leg were through-and-throughs, mercifully. Sawbones looked at the two in my middle and said they didn’t hit anything I couldn’t live without. Side benefit of having a few extra stomachs, I guess.”

     Jackie held the whiskey bottle up and gave it a little shake. Dazie nodded, and Jackie refilled the minotaur’s glass.

     “Anyway, doc patched me up well enough, and he tells me I’ll mend, but he left the bullets in there. Said it was more dangerous to remove ‘em than not.” This time, Dazie sipped at her drink. “Fortunately, I don’t jingle when I walk or anything like that.”

     Jackie sighed. “Welcome to the heavy metal club,” she said. Then she poured a drink of her own, and the two women clinked glasses.

     “Anyway,” Dazie said, “I’m real sorry about all this.” She gestured around the room at the toppled bits of furniture and the general state of disarray.

     Jackie shrugged. “Nothing that can’t be replaced,” she said, “and I’m confident that the treasury can bear the expense.”

     Dazie opened her mouth to reply, but suddenly Jackie put a hand up to stop her, and the minotaur remained silent. Jackie, too, fell quiet as the grave; she tilted her head ever so slightly and just listened intently for several seconds.

     Then she looked over at the dressing screen in the far corner of the car and said: “If you’re going to be listening-in, Lucy, then you may as well just come out here and join us.”

     A second or two passed, and then the black-clad demon stepped out from behind the screen.

     “You must have fiendish ears,” the demoness said, her voice cheerful but hollow. “That’s twice now. I’d hate to think I was losing my touch.” She perched herself on the corner of Jackie’s bed. “Keep it up and you’re liable to hurt a girl’s feelings.”

     At the sight of the black-eyed demon, Dazie gave a startled sort of grunt. Her eyes widened, her nostrils flared, and she had started to make a painful effort to stand up when Jackie motioned for her to say seated.

     “It’s okay,” Jackie said to the minotaur. “She’s with me.”

     Lucy gave Dazie a chilling smile. Dazie gave Jackie a frightened look. Jackie sighed.

     “Lucy,” Jackie said, turning to the demon, “this is Dazie. Dazie used to be the best deputy I ever had, before I accidentally wound up semi-legitimate and her devotion to larceny compelled her to seek the greener pastures of self-employment.”

     Jackie turned to Dazie.

     “Dazie, this is Lucy,” she said, nodding over at the black-eyed woman. “Lucy is something of a sub-contractor at the moment. She’s exactly what you’re thinking she is, but she doesn’t bite unless I say so, so you don’t have to worry about her.”

     Lucy looked daggers at Jackie. Then she swiveled atop the bed to face the minotaur and bared her teeth, making a quick chomping motion.

     “Charmed,” the demoness said, her face relaxing back into its typical painted smile.

     Dazie stared at Lucy for a long, hard minute before snorting again and lowering herself gingerly back down onto the sofa.

     “If it was anyone other than you making the introduction,” the minotaur said to the red-eyed woman, “I’d be going for my gun.”

     “You should give it a try,” Lucy said. “It’s getting terribly boring around here with no one to play with.”

     Jackie gave Lucy a hard look. “You can trade barbs with me all you want,” she said, “but if you start needling my friends, we’re going to have a problem, and you’re going to get disinvited from these sorts of occasions. Anyway, where’s Mal?”

     Lucy sighed. “He took off once it became clear that this was a talking-and-hugging sort of non-robbery. Said he had better things to do.”

     “I’m sure you’ll fill him in later,” Jackie said.

     “Do I want to know?” Dazie asked.

     “Probably not,” Jackie said. “But forget about that – how’d you acquire your new holes?”

     Dazie threw back the rest of her drink and set the empty glass down on the floor. “Someone took a run at me,” she said.

     Jackie’s red eyes turned hard. “Now, isn’t that a funny coincidence?” she said. “Someone took a run at me a couple months back, too.”

     Dazie snorted. “What are the odds?”

     “Wrong question. The odds don’t matter when the game’s rigged,” Jackie said, swirling the whiskey around in her glass as she spoke.

     “How’d they come after you?”

     “I was at a fancy-dress party, when the building it was being held in became slightly more explosive than is generally preferable for those sorts of frivolities.”

     Dazie whistled. “Guess I’m not sad that you didn’t invite me, then.”

     “It wasn’t your scene, anyway. Hells, it wasn’t my scene. I miss being infamous,” Jackie said. She finished her own drink. “What about you?”

     “I went to make a little withdrawal at the bank, and I got a warm reception of my own.”

     “You think someone tipped them off?” Jackie asked.

     Dazie laughed, which prompted a brief fit of coughing. “Jackie, the way they set me up? It was beautiful.” The big minotaur shook her head. “You know it’s been tough working banks these days, given how hard it is to find a bank vault that’s stuffed with someone’s money other than yours – or mine, for that matter.”

     Jackie smiled in spite of herself. “Now that I really am sorry about. I swear I tried, but it just wouldn’t all fit under the mattress. Price of success, I guess.”

     “I’m not complaining too loudly,” Dazie said. “Anyway, I thought I had finally stumbled on a good lead. Got a tip about a branch out near Dayko that was going to be holding a big payroll in the vault. Sounded like a good job. Now, in retrospect, someone planted that tip for me, but they did it real smart. Didn’t just drop it into my lap – really made me work for it, you know? Had to sweat it out of a couple of pretty tough customers.”

     Jackie gave her head a little nod. “That’s how I would have done it,” she said.

     “I had the same thought, and we’ll come back to that later,” Dazie said. “Anyway, my crew and I ride out to Dayko and we case the bank – again, looks like a good job. Not a cakewalk, mind you. Enough security to have to do some planning, but nothing we can’t handle. So, the day rolls around, the payroll gets delivered, and, that night, at closing, we all mosey on inside. Everything goes nice and smooth, just like in the plan, until we’re inside the vault. Then, faster than you can blink—,” and Dazie snapped her fingers for dramatic effect, “—suddenly there is more law swarming over that place than fleas on a fox.”

     “But only after you’re in the vault, which makes getting out a mite tough,” Jackie said.

     “See what I mean?” Dazie said. “Very neatly done. If I hadn’t been too busy getting shot half to pieces, I would have tipped my cap to whoever set it all up.” She was silent for a moment, and her gaze turned distant. “Lost a bunch of men in that vault, Jackie. Good men. It’s not right.”

     “I don’t suppose you have any idea who planted the breadcrumbs?” Jackie asked.

     Dazie shook her head. “Not a clue. I figured it must have been someone I crossed was crossing me back. But then, the next day, I get a runner at my safehouse from Presto, saying that his fancy new workshop burned down, and that it’s only by chance he didn’t burn down with it – although he is apparently down to seven toes now.”

     Jackie looked startled. “When did that happen? I didn’t hear about it.”

     “A couple nights ago,” Dazie said. “I’m not sure Presto knows you’re living on the rails these days. The note was addressed to you, so I figure he thought the safehouse was still yours. Sorry I opened your mail, by-the-by.”

     Jackie shrugged.

     “Anyways, when I find out that it’s just not me, that Presto had a close scrape, too? Well, that changes my thinking. Whoever this is, they’re not after me.”

     “They’re after me,” Jackie said. “And they’re using my friends to get at me.”

     “That was my conclusion as well,” Dazie said. The minotaur tried to change her position on the sofa. But, as soon as she was finished squirming, she gave a sharp wince, and shifted back to the way she had been sitting before. “So I figured I owed it to you to give you a heads-up, and in person. After all, you never can tell who’s reading your mail these days.”

     “You’re a good friend, Dazie,” Jackie said. Then she was quiet for a good, long moment. “I’m sorry you got dragged into this, whatever this is.”

     Dazie snorted. “Jackie, please. I’d ride through all seven hells and back for you. I just wish I was in any kind of shape to be of help.”

     “This doesn’t feel like business to me,” Jackie said. “This is a little more personal.”

     “On that we agree. And, whoever it was set me up, they did it real smart, real sly. It’s like you said before,” Dazie said, looking over at her former boss. “Whoever this is, they remind me of you.”

     “They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” Jackie said, her voice devoid of its usual humor. “But I confess that I don’t feel flattered at the moment. My thoughts run in a different direction.”

     “Such as?”

     “Such as wondering what he, she, or they are going to do next.”

     “I take it Sharpy and Shakes are fine?” Dazie said.

     Jackie nodded. “So far as I know, although I’m going to make doubly sure, after what you just told me. But they ought to have enough friendly eyes around them to keep them more or less safe.” Jackie had put the rattler and the nog in charge of the day-to-day operations of her railroad, which both men supervised from the firm’s headquarters in Verkell. As long as they stayed where they were, it would take a bold ploy to do them much harm, Jackie hoped. “And what about Hush-Hush? I don’t suppose there’s any chance you’ve heard from them?”

     Dazie shook her head. “I haven’t seen neither hide nor hair of them since the day they just up and disappeared. It’s possible someone got to them, but it’s more possible that they’re still wherever it is they are, doing whatever it is they do. Besides,” the minotaur said, “if anyone can take care of themselves, its Hush-Hush. They give me the willies – always did.”

     “I suppose that just leaves my friend from Verkell,” Jackie said, careful as she spoke not to break eye contact with Dazie or to call attention to Lucy’s presence in any way. Not that any such reminder was needed; the minotaur just nodded sagely at the mention of Jackie’s codename for Trotter.

     There were few living souls who knew about Trotter and Jackie’s connection to him, and Jackie always took great pains to keep it that way. One of her iron rules was that he was never referred to by name if anyone outside her small circle of confidants was present, and the demoness – who had been feigning disinterest but listening carefully while Jackie and Dazie talked – was certainly not privy to that confidence.

     Jackie was dangerous to Trotter, she knew. And it seemed like that danger was now greater than ever.

     “Nothing to report on that front,” Dazie said, “so far as I know. Want me to have some inquiries made?”

     Jackie shook her head. “No,” she said. “I don’t.”

     “I didn’t think so, but I figured I’d ask,” Dazie said. “So, what’s the plan?”

     “That,” Jackie said, “is what I need to figure out, and fast.” Her mind was racing. There was too much she didn’t know, too much she needed to find out.

     That, plus she was angry. People coming after her she could deal with – she’d had plenty of practice. And she understood that she’d put down more than her fair share of markers over the years, and it was always just going to be a matter of time before one of them came due.

     But now that people she cared about were getting hurt, too, that changed things. For one thing, it redoubled her determination to get to the bottom of things and to put a bullet into the brain of whoever was behind it all. But it also meant that she was emotionally involved, and that meant that she would have to guard against doing something reckless.

     Which, she thought with a rueful smile, was probably exactly what whoever was pulling the strings was hoping for.

     Well, first things first, she thought, and she tried to turn her mind to practical matters.

     “How long did you and your crew ride to catch up with me?” she asked Dazie.

     “Two full days and one long night,” the minotaur said.

     “After that, I’m guessing that you could all do with a hot meal and a stiff drink.”

     “Make that several stiff drinks,” Dazie said, “and you’ll make about twelve new friends for life.”

     Jackie smiled. “Why don’t you go and tell your crew to get their gear and themselves on board and to meet me in the dining car in half a bell. I’ll tell the cook to get cooking and – assuming that we can find a dozen or so unbroken plates on this train – we’ll get some good food into everyone. Then we can figure out what to do next on full stomachs.”

     “Of which,” Dazie said, “I still mercifully have a few unperforated ones.”

     Jackie walked over to the sofa where Dazie lay and helped her get gingerly back up onto her hooves. The big minotaur wobbled unsteadily for a second or two, but soon enough she found her footing.

     “Putting everything else aside,” she said to Jackie, “it’s nice to be working with you again.”

     “I hope you still feel that way in a week,” Jackie said. She smiled at her old friend.

     Dazie smiled back. Then she hobbled out of the sleeping car and went off to collect her men.

     From her perch on the bed, Lucy cleared her throat. Jackie turned to face the black-eyed woman.

     “How was my behavior, boss?” the demoness asked, layering on the false cheer even thicker than usual.

     “Exemplary,” Jackie said. “What do you make of all that?”

     “I make of it that you have quite the secret admirer. One whose style, I must say, tickles my heart.” Lucy smiled and drew a little heart on Jackie’s bedsheet with a clawed finger. “However, since I’m under orders from my real boss to keep you alive and breathing, I suppose we’ll have to unmask this admirer of yours. And, when we do, as much as it will break my heart to do it, the thing I’m going to do to his – or her – heart is going to be much, much worse.”

     And, with that, Lucy’s claw cut a sharp path down the middle of the cartoon heart she’d traced. She looked up at Jackie with a predatory smile, and winked.

     “For once,” the red-eyed woman said, “I believe you and I are on the same page. And I can promise you that, if you and Mal help me out with this, there’s going to be a soul in it for you.”

     “Aw, just one?”

     “At least one. But let’s not get too ahead of ourselves. In the meantime, I have a job for you. I need you to try to find my husher twins. If nothing else, I need to warn them that they’re in danger. But I’m probably going to need their help, too, before all is said and done.”

     So Jackie proceeded to describe Hush-Hush to Lucy, who nodded her head.

     “They sound like a fun bunch,” the demon said. “Consider it done.” Then she slid off the bed and walked over to stand in front of Jackie. “Is there anything else you’d like me to do? Anything at all?”

     “Such as what?” Jackie asked.

     “Oh, I don’t know,” Lucy said, putting her hands behind her back and giving Jackie a coy look. “Maybe you’d like me to check up on this friend of yours from Verkell, too?”

     “That won’t be necessary,” Jackie said. She tried to keep the tone of her voice unchanged, but she knew she had failed.

     “It’s not nice to keep secrets, you know,” Lucy said. “And just when I thought we were really starting to connect.”

     “Lucy, don’t go there.”

     “I bet I could find out who this friend of yours is, if I put my mind to it. I’m very good at finding things out.”

     “I have no doubt that you could,” Jackie said. “But you won’t.”

     Then, with slow, purposeful movements, Jackie reached down, took her revolvers out of their holsters, and placed them atop a nearby bedside table. She slid her knife out of her sleeve as well, and it too joined the revolvers on the tabletop.

     Then she took a step forward to close the distance between herself and the demoness, so that they were standing face-to-face and so close that Jackie could see her own red eyes reflected in the demon’s black ones.

     “You’ve been around for a long, long time, and you’ve probably killed more men than I’ve known to nod to,” Jackie said to Lucy, her voice low and quiet. “So I’m going to skip the usual threats and speak frankly to you. I figure you and I owe each other that much respect, if nothing else.”

     Lucy just stared back.

     “Remember what you said earlier, about wondering what I might be capable of if nothing was holding me back?” Jackie said. “Well, if you go down this road, we’re both of us going to find out, because I will make it my singular personal mission to end you. You, and your friend, and anyone else who tries to peek behind that particular curtain. Now, I know that you and he are tough as they come, and I’m sure that you’ve had plenty of folks come after you before, and that you’ve dusted them all. And I can’t promise that I’ll end up any better than they did.”

     Jackie stared hard into the demon’s eyes.

     “But, you know what? I kind of like my chances. Because I can count on one hand the number of people in my life who I’ve really, really wanted to kill. And they were a pretty tough bunch, too. And you know what else they all have in common?”

     Jackie spoke slowly, taking care to enunciate each of her next words clearly:

     “They’re all dead.”

     She paused for a second to let those words sink in.

     “So, when I say drop it, I mean drop it,” she said. “For both our sakes. Because, if not, the only way this ends is with one of us dead, and even then I suspect your Old Smokey’ll finish off whoever’s left.”

     Jackie took a step backward, and waited for Lucy’s reaction.

     Much to her surprise, the demon didn’t look angry, or even upset.

     “See, this is what I was talking about earlier,” Lucy said. “You’ve got some real potential locked-up inside of you. I can feel it. We just have to figure out how to break it loose. Because, if we do?” Her black eyes flashed. “Well, then, I think we’re going to have a real good time.”

     And, with that, Lucy smiled what looked like the first genuine smile Jackie had ever seen on the black-eyed woman’s face.

 

* * *

 

     Trotter was lounging on the bed in his complimentary suite on the top floor of the gaming hall just outside of Mainstrike. That particular boomtown had been aptly named, he reckoned. With money from the mines pouring in, the new casino’s management had booked him for a three month run in their main showroom, and had provided his plush accommodations as part of the deal.

     Most days he played a matinee along with two evening shows. But he had negotiated to do a single after-dinner show on the final day of each week, which was why he was still relaxing in his room that evening even as the sun started to set outside his window.

     Occasionally he felt restless on his days off, but mostly he enjoyed the chance to get a little extra sleep and to catch up with the news. That day, however, had been a light news day, and he had dispensed quickly with the stack of papers which the blonde-haired attendant who ran his errands had brought up for him along with his room service lunch. So he was nursing a final drink and teasing away at the last acrostic when he heard a knock on his door.

     He looked at the clock on the wall, and felt a twinge of irritation. His wardrobe call shouldn’t be for another half hour. The interruption was unwelcome – he had been so close to solving the puzzle.

     “Yes?” he called out.

     “Mister Trotter?” asked a voice from outside – the blonde’s, he was sure.

     “Yes?” he said again, doing his best to hold his irritation in check.

     “Flowers for you, Mr. Trotter,” the blonde said through the door. “From an admirer.”

     “Bring them in,” he said, putting the acrostic away.

     “My hands are full, sir,” the voice said. “I can’t open the door.”

     Trotter sighed. Then, with a little heave, he levered himself off of the bed. After a moment spent searching for his slippers, he walked over to the door and opened it.

     Outside, the blonde human – whose name he could never remember for the life of him – was holding a big bundle of flowering desert sage in her arms.

     Trotter found himself smiling as he reached out and took the flowers from her. He dipped his muzzle into the aromatic bouquet and inhaled deeply, smelling the familiar, spicy smell, and allowing himself to think fondly about the admirer whom he knew had sent them.

     “Thank you, darling,” he said to the blonde by way of a dismissal.

     Except that the blonde human didn’t move. She stayed where she was standing, as though her feet were nailed to that spot.

     And that was when Trotter felt the first prickling of alarm at the back of his mind, and when he suddenly noticed two things that seemed amiss.

     First, the blonde woman’s eyes were red and puffy, and he could see the wet tracks of recent tears on her cheeks.

     Second, he realized that the bouquet was wrapped in dark black paper, instead of the customary red.

     “Mister Trotter,” the blonde said, with a rattle in her voice, “I am so sorry.”

     And then, suddenly, everything that could happen seemed to happen all at once.

     He felt powerful hands grab him by the shoulders. The desert sage tumbled out of his hands and fell to the floor. Something heavy and dark was pulled over his eyes, and a foul smell filled his nostrils. He heard the blonde human scream.

     He screamed himself, hollering oaths and threats at the top of his voice. He kicked and thrashed, lashing out in all directions with his claws, trying to catch hold of whoever or whatever it was that was grabbing him, trying to worm his way free.

     Then something heavy hit him at the base of the neck, hard. He saw sparks, felt an intense pain.

     And then he didn’t feel anything at all.


"The Sincerest Form of Flattery" by OrcishLibrarian was originally published as part of the Expanded Multiverse project.

To learn more, and to read more Expanded Multiverse stories, please visit the Expanded Multiverse forum at No Goblins Allowed.


Fisco Vane, Lucy, and Mal are original characters created by RuwinReborn for the Expanded Multiverse.

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. 

All works copyright their respective creators.


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