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Blood on the Tracks

Blood on the Tracks


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


I. Prologue

 

     “...Bit ugly for a fox, aintcha?”

     Beneath a hood, beneath a cloak, alert ears twitched. The minotaur who had spoken stared down at the sorry bundle of rags that was dragging itself towards the door. The inhabitant of the bundle chuffed several times, and offered up a scabby paw, showing the minotaur a single, red marble. The minotaur sighed, rolling her beady black eyes. “Never understood what this one wants with all the freaks…” She grumbled, and pushed the door open to allow the ragged bundle entrance. She pointedly ignored the hairless, wormlike tail that slithered in after it.

     The odorous bundle of cloth and fur found itself, snickering, inside of a dimly lit hallway. Oh, this one was keeping himself to himself, yes. The bundle of rags had kept his ears open, had heard things about this one. He was rather… crafty.

     The bundle cackled and scurried down the hall, nose twitching. This plane smelled of sand and crime. He, the bundle, was much more accustomed to the latter. He, the crafty one, was nowhere to be seen. Not yet. But perhaps soon? Or… perhaps not. It was difficult to tell with powerful people. Difficult, difficult indeed.

     The hall led the skittering pile of rags to a small room, with a single light. He chuckled silently to himself. How very ominous! Such theatrics, such adherence to form. He liked this crafty one already, and he had not even met him! And, he doubted very much that he would. That was not how this sort of thing worked, after all.

     Someone materialized on the other side of the room. The raggedy bundle pulled down his hood, revealing a crooked snout, two beady, yellow eyes, and a grinning mouth full of sharp teeth, not unlike a particularly diseased sewer rat. His, the raggedy rat’s, ears twitched excitedly, perpetually. He bowed respectfully, giggling occasionally to himself, as the person who he had come here to meet finally, and fully, arrived.

     “You wanted a meeting - well, here it is.” The crafty one said, and the rat continued to snicker, though he did his best to hide it.

     “Oh, oh, yes, thank you, thank you!” The rat half-mumble obsequiously, bowing lower. Honestly, (and he never was) he was not certain if he was being sincere or not any more. “I would have hated to keep you waiting, and I’m only glad I got here on time, oh yes, very punctual.”

     He chanced a glance at his crafty friend. It was a human man, handsome, and a little smug. He wore a thin mustache, and his dark hair was fluffed into an enviable pomp and combed back with painstaking care. His eyes were brown and welcoming, though the smile that played his lips was anything but. Oh, but this was not the man he had heard of. An illusion, perhaps, cast to hide a true face? A true face, that was still perhaps false. Like the crafty one was lying, but with their body.

     The rat could appreciate that.

     “I’m afraid we still have not been introduced properly!” The man stated, sweeping his arm forward. Oh, no, they had not been introduced, perhaps, but the crafty one already knows his name.

     And the rat knows that the crafty one knows that the rat does not know his name!

     “Ingvald!” Not really. “A pleasure, truly, truly… now… business?” It would almost be a purr, but his large, yellow teeth clack together over the sibilant sounds so it comes across as more of a chitter.

     “You had something to offer me, I was told.” The crafty man rose an eyebrow. “Offer away.” The rat, for his part, nodded enthusiastically and rubbed his claws together. The sound was unpleasant, and so, the rat chuckled.

     “Just a little something, oh my, oh my.” The rat muttered, reaching into his voluminous rags. “Oh dear, someone must have dropped… this!” He produced and displayed a cigar, not looking directly at it. The rat kept his eyes firmly on the shadow, and willed his hands not to shake. “From one Red-Eyed woman, pushing product for a certain Smokey someone, oh dear, oh my.”

     The man was silent, though amused, and it was very telling. The rat coughed, laughed, and continued.

     “Just, ah, proof, oh dear… of their connection.” The rat dropped the cigar with little ceremony, grinning madly. “One certain… Smokey and the Red-Eyed Jackie DeCoeur, some information, a bit of a peace treaty, I’m certain you’re familiar with their reputation, oh dear… But… more importantly…” And once more, the rat reached into his rags. “I have this… oh my…”

     And he produced a letter. And sniggered.

     “Addressed,” the rat went on, “to one Mr. Trotter. From Jackie DeCoeur herself. The contents of which show a rather, ah… interesting relationship, between the two. Oh dear, how very clumsy, for him to have left it out in that locked drawer of his…” The crafty one extended a hand, and though his smile was friendly, the rat knew an order when he saw one. Or, he knew when someone was pretending they were not ordering people about. The rat skittered forward, bowing low, and handed the man the letter.

     Briefly, he read it.

     “And?” He prompted, and the rat smiled.

     “Oh, the Shark has left some rather nasty fish with Miss Jackie. Rather nasty fish, oh dear, two demons gotten fat off the sharks chum!” The rat chuckled darkly. “But Jackie does not trust them any further than she can throw them. And she cares for Mr. Trotter very much… She has that demon blood. Oh dear, such violent, red, demon blood. A little nudge, and she could cause… problems. For anyone trying to… build something.” He chuckled at his own euphemisms, and imagined that the crafty one was smiling. “Oh my, if she causes problem, and we throw in a Shark while there’s blood in the water…”

     “...then we’ve got a recipe for disaster.” The man finished for him smoothly. The rat cackled. “And what do you get out of this?”

     “Oh, nothing much…” The rat picked at his claws idly. “A little gold coin of Miss Jackie DeCoeur’s, to call the Shark to the sea. Let the Shark swim around for a while. Keep his mind here, oh my, oh my… and a vial of blood.” The rat’s voice lost all levity. “From a safe in the demon’s hideaway.”

     The man contemplated this.

     “There are… plans in motion. Ones that don't belong to me and they involve the Shark.” He stated, and the rat’s eyes flashed.

     “Oh dear, oh dear then we haven’t much time to lose! Take the fox, poke the half-demon, chum the waters, summon the Shark!” He chanted, dancing from foot to foot. “Cause enough mayhem, and everything is bound to fall to pieces. Oh dear. Oh my.”

     “...Too risky.” The shadow muttered. “Can’t do it. Get out.”

     And all at once everything stopped being funny to the rat.

     “No!” He screeched. “No, it will work it must work! I must have this, I must-” Before he was aware of what he was doing, he had produced a dagger from inside of his rags and lunged at the shadowy figure, foam flying from his mouth.

     It took a few seconds for the red to clear from his eyes, and when it did, he saw a corpse in front of him with multiple perforations. The shadows of the now dispelled illusion were slowly creeping off of the poor man. The rat giggled. No, that could not be-

     A very strong hand closed around the rat’s throat, lifted him up, and slammed him against the wall. He was staring into the face of the female minotaur who had greeted him at the door. She was grinning. The rat tried to laugh, but it came out hoarse and barely audible through the vice grip on his throat.

     “Y’know I’ve heard of you.” The minotaur said, as her face began to pop and change. “They call you the Liar, and you may have escaped the notice of Fisco Vane, but you haven’t escaped mine - it takes more than a filthy rat to get under my nose.” She hissed, as her horns vanished and her face softened. “But you’ve given me an idea! And the only reason I’m going to let you live…” She - he - growled, as he became shorter, and the fur vanished. The rat hands scratched uselessly against the inhuman might of the crafty one’s forearm. “Is because you are completely, obsessively, out of your mind.” With an iron grip still around the rat’s neck, the man completed his transformation.

     It was the man the rat had just stabbed. With his free hand, the crafty one grabbed at the rat’s fingers, and pulled them away from his arm. The force of it nearly wrenched the rat’s arm out of his socket, and he would have laughed about it if he could just breathe-

     Oh dear.

     Oh my.

     “No one,” the man grinned slowly, “in their right mind, attacks me.” With incredible ease, the crafty one crushed the Liar’s fingers, and dropped him on the floor.

     The rat gave a weak chuckle, long since incapable of reacting to even the most terrifying and painful of situations with anything other than laughter. This… this was the being they called the Shifter.

     “We’ll carry out your plan, little rat.” The Shifter continued to smile. Without changing his expression or even blinking, be brought a foot savagely down upon the rat’s clawed hand, which still clutched the bloody knife. The Liar shrieked and cackled as his bones shattered further, and attempted to wriggle out from beneath the impossibly heavy force of the Shifter’s boot. “Don’t forget who you’re dealing with, though.” The Shifter finally removed his foot from the rat, who scurried back to the wall, giggling and nursing his broken hand. The Shifter snorted, and shook his head. “Lure the Shark here” He ordered. “I’ll take care of the rest.”

     And the Shifter walked out of the room.

     The rat - the Liar - blinked after him. Then, uncontrollably, he began laughing. He clutched at his sides with his good hand, and rolled in the freshly pooling blood from the freshly murdered corpse, shaking with laughter. His broken hand lay limply on the floor. After a while, the Liar ran out of breath, and in a dim room lit by only a single lamp and covered in blood, the Liar silently shook until tears mingled with the blood on the floor.

 

II. The Breaking Point

 

     As Jackie DeCoeur’s train rolled up to the platform in downtown Aureg, steam billowed in great gouts from between the slowly-turning iron wheels, and the engine’s whistle let loose a high, reedy wail. It blew four times – once short, once long, twice short.

     Staring out at the bustling platform through the window of her dining car, the red-eyed woman reflected that the code wasn’t strictly necessary. Hush-Hush always had an uncanny ability to sense her presence; there was no question of the husher twins boarding the wrong train by mistake.

     And there they were, standing together on the platform, their faces placid as they watched Jackie’s train pull to a stop. Their four blue eyes caught Jackie’s two red ones through the window glass, and the twins’ heads moved up and down, almost imperceptibly, in a small, perfectly-synchronized nod of acknowledgement.

     Looking at Hush-Hush, Jackie had to smile.

     It was the height of the day, and Aureg’s Grand Station was teeming with activity. Crowds of foxes, humans, centaurs, minotaurs, and noggles jostled for position along the thronged platforms, craning their heads to get a glimpse up at the arrival boards, or using their elbows to clear a path as they struggled against the current of moving bodies to make their way to this train or that. The packed station seemed ready to burst at its seams.

     There was just one exception to this crowded state of affairs: Where the husher twins stood together on the platform, a small circle of open space had formed all around the white-haired, white-robed, pale-skinned human twins. Both women stood silently with their arms crossed in front of their chests and their hands tucked into the sleeves of their robes, each’s posture a perfect mirror of the other’s. Had they wanted to, the sisters could have extended their arms out in any direction and touched only empty air. The otherwise chaotic throng of people throughout the station appeared united by one single, shared thought: that it would be prudent to leave some space between themselves and the otherworldly pair of mages waiting together on the platform, silent and still.

     So, when Hush-Hush walked across the platform and climbed aboard the waiting train, people in the crowd around them started, as though they had just seen statues spring to life.

     Jackie waited until both sisters were aboard the train, then she held her arms out wide and hugged the twins collectively. She had once tried to shake their hands individually – the experience seemed to make both twins profoundly uncomfortable.

     “Where’s Lucy?” the red-eyed woman asked. “I figured she’d be here with you.”

     The demoness had appeared briefly several days earlier, just long enough to announce that she’d found Hush-Hush, that Jackie ought to go to Aureg to collect the twins, and that she would keep an eye on them in the meantime. Then the black-eyed woman had disappeared as quickly as she had appeared.

     It had been a strange encounter, Jackie thought – totally devoid of Lucy’s usual variety of predatory playfulness. It had been much more like the curt, abbreviated interactions she usually had with Mal. That had set her wondering whether the demons had taken a collective decision to change the way they dealt with her.

     After all, she reckoned, her last playful exchange with Lucy had ended with her threatening to kill the black-eyed woman. The demoness had laughed the threat off. But she would also have told Mal about it. And Mal, Jackie suspected, had a less indulgent sense of humor than Lucy.

     In the meantime, Hush-Hush shook their heads.

     “The demon in question merely told us that you were coming, and to await your arrival,” the twins said. “We have not seen her for several days.”

     Jackie frowned. “Did she say where she was going?”

     Again, the twins shook their heads.

     “Merely that she had matters to attend to.” The twins seemed to reflect for a moment. “Our encounter with the demon you have called Lucy was somewhat unpleasant. We were initially unaware that she was in your employ, so we took certain steps to subdue her, which she did not appreciate. It is possible that she did not wish to remain in our presence.” The twins each inclined their heads slightly, and Jackie saw something flash across their four eyes. “We were not sorry to see her go. The demon made a hurtful comment about us.”

     Jackie had to suppress the urge to laugh. “What did Lucy say?”

     “She stated that we were strange,” Hush-Hush said. Their voices remained flat and without intonation, but Jackie could sense that their feelings had been hurt.

     “Well, that wasn’t very nice,” Jackie said. “But demons tend not to be very nice.” She sighed. “Anyway, I’m sorry that I sent Lucy to find you, but I needed to see you, make sure you were okay. When you up and disappeared, it didn’t worry me at the time, but I’ve been given reason to worry of late. Would it be rude of me to ask where you got yourselves off to?”

     The twins shook their heads.

     “There were certain questions which occurred to us,” they said. They spoke in perfect unison, giving an eerie stereo quality to their words. “Since you appeared to have no need of us at the time, we took our leave and attempted to seek answers.”

     “And did you find them? Answers, I mean?”

     Hush-Hush’s brows furrowed ever-so-slightly.

     “We did not,” they said. Their cool, blue eyes held Jackie’s gaze in a way that few other living souls were brave enough to. “In fact, we acquired yet more questions.”

     Jackie gave the twins an apologetic look.

     “Just send me a postcard next time, okay? I know you two can take care of yourselves, but you know how I am,” she said. “You’re my people, and I care about my people.”

     The ghost of a frown crossed the twins’ faces. “Communication by postcard would have been impractical from the places we traveled to,” they said.

     Jackie shook her head. The twins sometimes struggled to grasp figurative speech.

     Jackie’s next thoughts were interrupted when she heard heavy, uneven hoofbeats coming up behind her. She turned to see Dazie walking over from the rear of the dining car. Arriving at where the other women stood, the big minotaur rested a hand on Jackie’s shoulder.

     It was partly a gesture of affection, Jackie thought. But Dazie also lowered some of her substantial weight onto the red-eyed woman’s shoulder, and Jackie knew that her hobbled deputy was leaning on her for support as much as for solidarity.

     “Not that this reunion isn’t touching, or anything,” the minotaur said. “But maybe we ought to get down to brass tacks?”

     Jackie’s smile disappeared. “Such as the person or persons unknown who are trying to kill us?” she said.

     Dazie snorted. “Does it get any brassier than that?”

     “It does not,” Jackie said. She motioned towards the interior of the dining car, which she and Dazie had reorganized into a makeshift command center. “Why don’t we all sit down and put our heads together, see if we can’t figure out just what in blazes is going on.”

     The husher twins stepped into the interior of the car, seeming to glide as much as walk. Jackie moved to follow them. Dazie was just about to bring up the rear of the procession when there was a small knock at the door to the platform.

     Jackie stopped walking. The husher twins stopped and turned as well.

     “I wasn’t expecting any other visitors,” Jackie said. “Were you?”

     “No,” Hush-Hush said. “We were not.”

     “Want me to see who it is?” Dazie asked. There was a gun in the minotaur’s hand.

     “Why don’t you let me do that,” Jackie said. Her own gun was out as well.

     Dazie snorted. “I’m closer,” she said.

     “I’m healthier,” Jackie said. She had to turn sideways to sidle past the big minotaur.

     “I can still shoot straight,” Dazie said, an indignant note in her voice.

     “Of that I have no doubt,” Jackie said. “But you’ve already been plugged four times on my account. Any more, and I worry you’ll start to question the value of our friendship.”

     Holding her revolver casually down at her side, but with her finger curled around the trigger, Jackie DeCoeur slid the door open.

     Whoever or whatever she might have been expecting, it was not the small centaur boy who looked up at her from the platform. His face was smudged with dirt, and the hair on his flanks was knotty and matted. He wore a pair of heavily-patched overalls, and he stared up at her with unconcealed, wide-eyed amazement. He couldn’t have been a day older than ten, she figured.

     “You’re Red Jackie,” he said, his voice a kind of awed whisper.

     Jackie slid her revolver back into its holster.

     “In the flesh,” she said. “Question is, who are you?”

     That seemed to startle the boy out of his reverie.

     “I’m supposed to give this to you.” He fished around in the pocket of his overalls and came back out with a small, sealed envelope. There was no name or address on it.

     Jackie did not reach down to take the envelope. Instead, she kept her eyes on the boy. “Who told you to give it to me?” she asked.

     “A lady,” the boy said.

     “There’s all sorts of ladies,” Jackie said. “What sort of lady was this?”

     “A funny one,” the boy said. “She smelled kinda funny, and she wore dark glasses.”

     “She still around?” Jackie asked. “In case I wanted to thank her personally?”

     The centaur shook his head. “It was three days ago I met her. She told me you was coming to town, and asked me if I’d like to meet you. And I said I sure would. So she gives me this letter,” and again he offered the envelope to Jackie, “and she tells me to give it to you. She tells me when you’ll be coming, and she tells me which sort of train to look for. And she weren’t lying, neither, because it’s really you, isn’t it?” The boy was practically beaming up at her. “Are you here to rob a bank?” Then he hastened to add: “You can trust me. I won’t tell.”

     “I wasn’t planning on it,” Jackie said, “although I guess you never know. But tell me more about this lady friend of yours. What else do you know about her?”

     “Nothing,” the boy said, “except that she gave me two bits to give you this letter, and she said you’d give me two more bits when I did.” He gave the envelope he was holding an impatient shake.

     Jackie took a second to look up and down the length of the platform. She wasn’t really expecting to see a woman in dark glasses watching her furtively from behind a three-day-old newspaper. Sure enough, she didn’t.

     Finally, she reached out and took the envelope from the boy. Digging around in her own pocket, she found a coin which was worth substantially more than two bits, which she dropped into the boy’s outstretched hand.

     “Can you keep a secret?” she asked, dropping her voice down to an urgent whisper.

     “Sure can,” the boy said.

     Jackie nodded at him. “Good,” she said. “If anybody else asks you about this, you never saw me, okay?”

     The boy nodded back. “I won’t tell a soul,” he said, and he held a pair of crossed fingers over his heart.

     Jackie smiled down at the boy. “I know you won’t,” she said. Then she winked at him before closing the door.

     Once the door was closed, though, her smile evaporated.

     “Besides the people in this room,” she said to Dazie and Hush-Hush, “who all knew I was going to be in Aureg today?”

     Dazie held up her good arm and started counting off on her fingers. “Besides the three of us? Your crew, my crew, and the soul-suckers.”

     “That’s no good,” Jackie said. “I rule all of them out.”

     “You vouch for the soul-suckers?” Dazie asked, sounding skeptical.

     “No,” Jackie said. “But I know the man who does. I don’t believe they’d cross him up, and I don’t believe he’d cross me up.” She walked across the dining car to sit next to the minotaur and the husher twins. The envelope the boy had given to her was still in her hand.

     “So what’s this all about anyway?” Dazie asked. She pointed at the envelope.

     “Only one way to find out,” Jackie said. She tore open the envelope’s flap and extracted its contents.

     As she did, her blood ran cold.

     It was a single sheet of paper. It had been folded into thirds. It had once been sealed with wax. Years ago, she herself had written a single word on its cover: “Trotter.”

     Jackie DeCoeur’s heart felt as though it would burst out from inside her chest. Her mouth went dry as the Waste, yet she felt a cold sweat beading on her forehead.

     Slowly, with shaking hands, she unfolded the sheet of paper. As she read, her mouth silently formed the words which she herself had written inside:

 

My dearest Trotter,

I will be brief. For that, I apologize. After all these years, you’ve got the right to expect more from me. I certainly feel like I have a lot to say.

Trouble is, I don’t know how to say it.

Besides, you know that I’m no writer. It takes so much effort for me to get the letters onto the page. And I have to look up the long words in that lexicon you gave me, just to be sure I’m spelling them right. So I hope you’ll understand.

Anyway, I haven’t ever figured myself for a coward. But I figure I’ve done two cowardly things in my life. The first was leaving you. The second was letting you leave me. Not a day goes by that I don’t look back on those moments with regret. I wish that I had found the courage to fight for us.

Regret is a strange thing. As a rule, I don’t put much stock in regret. I’ve lied. I’ve cheated. I’ve stolen. I’ve killed. I don’t regret a one of those things. Giving up on us? That’s what I regret. That’s what I think about when I lie awake nights.

Some nights you come to me in my dreams. I wake up, and I half expect to find you there, sleeping next to me. When I realize I’m alone, I feel an emptiness in my heart that I don’t have the words to describe.

I don’t know that this matters much. But, for what it’s worth, you were my one and only. You were the only person I ever let into my heart. Not that I had much choice. You danced your way in there the day I met you. You stole my heart, plain and simple. I’m a thief, so I ought to know.

You were the best thing about me. Please never forget that.

I don’t claim to know what happens to our souls after our bodies turn to dust. Maybe there are seven heavens and seven hells. Maybe there aren’t. Just know that, wherever I am, I will wait for you. Maybe I can get right in death what I got wrong in life.

Just don’t be in any hurry to come join me. I want you to live enough for the both of us. I want you to have all the happiness that I didn’t know how to give you.

When you’re done with all that, maybe then you can come see about me. But there’s no rush. I’m yours forever.

-Jackie

 

     At the bottom of the page, another hand had left the following note, written in a florid, looping script:

     “Forever is shorter than you think.”

     Next to those words, tied together with black string and stuck to the note with what looked like dried blood, there was a small lock of white fur.

     As carefully as her shaking hands would permit, Jackie folded the note back into thirds and set it down on the table. She felt like her head was being squeezed in a vice. She could barely see straight.

     She looked up at the husher twins, whose faces bore what by their standards amounted to a concerned expression.

     “Hush-Hush,” Jackie said, “what’s the fastest we can get to Mainstrike?” She could barely hear her own voice over the sound of the blood pounding behind her ears.

     “We do not currently have any beacons in that vicinity,” the husher twins said. “Travel by rail is likely to afford the fastest journey.” Jackie strained to understand them through the pounding in her head. She had to read their lips as much as she listened to their words.

     “Then go up to the engine,” Jackie said. “Get us rolling.”

     Hush-Hush nodded their assent and made for the locomotive.

     “Jackie, what’s going on?” Dazie asked. The concern on the minotaur’s face was much simpler to read.

     Jackie couldn’t speak. It was taking every ounce of concentration she possessed just to keep from screaming.

     She put her arm in front of her mouth, and she bit down on her sleeve.

     Then, without saying a word, she slid the note across the table to Dazie.

 

* * *

 

     Jackie DeCoeur burst through the front doors of the Mainstrike Casino like a rampaging baloth. With her head down, her red eyes blazing, and her un-holstered revolvers gripped in white-knuckled hands, she stormed across the lobby to the front desk, with Hush-Hush and Dazie trailing behind in her wake.

     The finely-dressed fox behind the desk stumbled backward as she approached, until he bumped up against the wall behind him. As the sight of Red Jackie, guns drawn, bearing down on him like a woman possessed, his knees seemed to buckle, and he held his paws up in front of his eyes as he cowered under her gaze.

     “Trotter,” Jackie said to the fox. Her voice was almost a growl, and her body was tense, like a spring ready to snap. “Which room is his?”

     “He’s not here,” the fox stammered. “He disappeared last week. These people came and—”

     “Which room?” Jackie thundered. She pointed both her pistols at the fox’s head.

     “Top floor!” the fox shouted. He slid down the wall until he was sitting on the floor, and he wrapped his arms around his head. “Top floor, last door on your right! It’s broken off at the hinges – you can’t miss it!”

     Jackie was halfway to the stairs when she looked over her shoulder and barked out orders.

     “Hush-Hush, you come with me,” she said. “Dazie, you get every last piece of information out of that fox, and I don’t care how you do it.”

     Then, without waiting for any reply, she was flying up the stairs, taking them two at a time.

     When she got to Trotter’s room, she found that the door had been broken off, just as the terrified manager had said. The door itself was on lying on the floor across the hallway, propped-up against the wall by whoever had left it there. The wooden doorframe was splintered into jagged shards around where the hinges had once been.

     Stepping across the open threshold, Jackie found the inside of the room in a similar state of disarray. Tables had been overturned, and all the drawers had been pulled out from the dresser and the bureau, with their contents emptied out onto the floor.

     It looked less like the aftermath of a struggle, and more as though the room had been rifled.

     Jackie knelt down on the floor and started sifting through piles of Trotter’s clothes. She didn’t know what she was looking for, or if she was really looking for anything at all. It would be impossible to tell if anything had been taken. She hadn’t seen him for years – she had no idea what he owned in the first place, let alone what might be missing.

     Finally, with nothing better to do, she started picking up his clothes and folding them, putting them back into drawers, and sliding the drawers back into the furniture. She felt herself getting angry that no one else had already done so, that Trotter’s things had just been left lying there on the floor, as though he wouldn’t be needing them again.

     The husher twins stood unobtrusively off to one side and watched her silently. She was immensely grateful for their silence.

     After a few minutes, Dazie hobbled into the room. Jackie stood and turned to look at her.

     “Manager didn’t know much,” Dazie said, scratching beneath the bandages around her waist. “Says he wasn’t here when it happened, and I believe him. The way he tells it, the only person who saw anything was this girl, name of Priscilla, who runs errands around the place. She’s the one who brought them up here. The kidnappers, I mean.”

     “Then get her up here,” Jackie said, “and let’s have a word.”

     “Manager says she’s been locked inside her room for days, refuses to come out for anything.”

     “You’re a big girl,” Jackie said. “Break the door down.”

     “He says she’s cracked, that she hasn’t talked any sense at all since it happened.”

     “Then let me deal with that,” Jackie said, anger creeping into her voice. “I can be very persuasive.”

     Dazie regarded Jackie in silence for a moment. Then she trudged back off downstairs. A few minutes later she returned with a blonde human in tow. The human woman looked gaunt and disheveled. There were deep, dark bags beneath her eyes, as though she hadn’t slept for days, and she shook like a leaf as Dazie prodded her forward into the room.

     Jackie DeCoeur walked across the room to stand in front of the quivering girl. She put her hand beneath the other woman’s chin and lifted it up, so that the blonde had no choice but to look her in her red eyes.

     “Do you know who I am?” the red-eyed woman asked.

     “Yes,” the blonde said in a kind of terrified whisper.

     “Good,” Jackie said, her voice low but pointed. “So you’ll believe me when I tell you that, if you don’t tell me exactly what happened to my friend, it will be the last mistake you ever make. Understand?”

     The blonde gulped. Her eyes were wide with panic. “But I don’t know anything!” she said.

     “That would be very unfortunate for you,” Jackie said. She slid one of her pistols out of its holster and pulled the hammer back. As it clicked, the blonde practically jumped out of her skin. “So how about you tell me what you do know, and we’ll go from there?”

     The blonde appeared to be fighting back tears. “These two people came to the hotel,” she said. “They had a bouquet of flowers. They told me to take the flowers up to Mister Trotter, and to take them up with me.” The woman’s voice shook. “They said that, if I didn’t do what they told me, they would do terrible things to me. There are worse things than dying – that’s what the woman said. She said, there are worse things than dying, and that I’d get to experience every single one of them if I didn’t do what she wanted.”

     “One of them was a woman?” Jackie asked. Her eyes narrowed.

     The blonde gave her head a short, sharp nod. “One man, one woman,” she said. “And there was something else, except that no one believes me about that part.”

     “Try me,” Jackie said, her voice dropping lower.

     “You’ll think I’m crazy,” the woman said.

     “Try me,” Jackie repeated.

     The blonde was silent for a long moment. Then, finally, she spoke.

     “At first, they had on dark glasses,” she said. “Then they took them off, and their eyes were black.”

     Again, Jackie felt anger forming like a haze inside her mind. It clouded her vision. It tried to strangle her thoughts.

     “What happened next?” she asked.

     “I don’t know,” the blonde said, choking back fresh tears. “That’s the last thing I remember.” She looked terrified. “But I think they did something to me, because I have this terrible pain inside me now,” she said, pressing her hands against her temples, “and it won’t go away. I can’t make it go away.” She gave Jackie a desperate look. “They had black eyes, I swear. Black eyes.”

     Jackie turned away from the blonde.

     “Get out,” she said.

     “What did they do to me?” the blonde said, her voice trembling. “I can’t sleep. What did they do to me?”

     Jackie spun back around. She leveled her gun at the blonde.

     “I said, get out.’’

     “But—”

     “Out!” Jackie shouted.

     With a startled cry, the blonde woman turned and ran out of the room.

     After she was gone, Dazie started to walk towards Jackie.

     “Was that really—” the minotaur started to say.

     “They set me up,” Jackie interrupted.

     “Mal and Lucy?” Dazie asked.

     “They set me up,” Jackie said again. “They sent me to Aureg, just to make sure I was out of the way. They set me up.”

     “But why?” Dazie said. “What could they possibly get out of this?”

     “I don’t know!” Jackie said, the anger plain in her voice. “Maybe Smokey told them to do it. Or maybe this is just all some sick game to them – a chance to have some real fun, to find out just how far they can push me before I’ll break, or what will happen when I do.”

     “That doesn’t make any sense,” Dazie said.

     “No, it doesn’t,” Jackie said.

     The red-eyed woman was quiet for a moment.

     Then, she screamed.

     She screamed a long, high, piercing scream that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. It was a scream that had been building inside of her for days, and, as she let it out, she felt her inhibitions fall away, and she felt her anger take hold.

     It was a pure, powerful anger, and she welcomed it into her body with open arms.

     She was standing next to Trotter’s bed. Suddenly, she bent down, hooked her arms beneath the bedframe, and pulled up as hard as she could, flipping the bed over with a loud crash and sending the mattress tumbling to the floor. Then she picked up a nearby table, which had been lying on the floor, and she carried it across the room to the mirror above the dresser. Screaming again, she smashed the table into the mirror, sending wood splinters and glass shards flying in all directions. She kept screaming as she bashed the table into the wall again. The wooden tabletop broke off and went crashing to the floor, leaving her holding one the table’s broken legs in her hands. Her breath came in great, heaving gasps as she slammed the table leg into the wall again and again, until blood poured out from her split knuckles, and her mashed fingers throbbed with pain. Even then, she kept swinging her fist at the wall again and again and again until the last bit of shattered wood slipped out of her hand and fell to the floor with a dull, echoing clatter.

     Then, slowly, Jackie DeCoeur lowered herself down onto the floor amidst the bits of broken furniture and shards of broken glass. She stared down at her hands for a second. She flexed her bleeding knuckles, then stuck the one which stung worst into her mouth and sucked on it for a moment.

     She closed her eyes.

     Gradually, her breathing became less audible, and the heaving of her chest subsided.

     Finally, without opening her eyes, she spoke.

     "Hush-Hush, how many demons you figure there are out there, all told?" Her voice had grown eerily calm.

     The husher twins blinked in unison.

     "We do not know the answer to that question," they said.

     "Take a guess," Jackie said. "You two notice practically everything that happens in the Waste. You must have a guess."

     "We have not made any particular study of the issue at hand," the twins said. But they turned to face each other slightly, and they appeared to be considering the question. "Based on our knowledge of reported demonic activity, we would place the number in the low hundreds," they said.

     Jackie opened her eyes. "A couple hundred, then?" she asked.

     Hush-Hush hesitated for a moment, then the twins nodded. "We believe that to be a reasonable estimate, yes. Bearing in mind, of course, that we have a significant margin for error."

     "A couple hundred," Jackie said. Then she nodded back at the twins. "Good. I should have enough bullets for that."

     Dazie snorted.

     "That's your plan?" the big minotaur asked. "You're going to kill every demon in the Waste?"

     Jackie nodded. "It’s a start."

     Dazie scraped a hoof across the floor. "You'll forgive me for saying this, but that doesn't seem like much of a plan."

     "I don't know," Jackie said. "I thought it had an elegant simplicity to it." Her voice was flat and affectless, like she was discussing the weather, or asking the time. "Besides, if it puts your mind at ease, I have two very specific soul-suckers at the top of my list, and I'm hoping that I can get what I want from them."

     "And if not?" Dazie asked.

     "Then I start piling up black-eyed bodies," Jackie said, "and I'll see where that gets me."

     Dazie limped towards where Jackie was sitting. Her nostrils flared, and her eyes were wide.

     "Jackie, do you have any idea how crazy you sound right now?" the big minotaur asked. "Can you even hear yourself?"

     Jackie fixed the minotaur with her red eyes. "I don't recall putting this up for a vote," she said. The edge reappeared in her voice. "If you don't like my plan, your participation is not required. You can walk at any time."

     Dazie flinched, and drew herself up straighter. "Don't you put words in my mouth," she said. "I'm not saying we don't go after these fiends, and I'm not saying we don't take them apart, piece-by-piece. I'm saying we slow down for a second, take some time to think about this, make sure that, when we make our move, it's the right move. Walking into a trap and getting ourselves killed won't get Trotter back."

     Jackie shot to her feet. "Take some time?" she said. Her hands balled into fists, and she was shaking. She stepped over to where Dazie was standing, and got as close to the tall minotaur's face as she could. "How much time, Dazie? They've got Trotter, and I don't know how long I have to get him back. How much time do I have before they kill him, or worse? How much?"

     "I don't know."

     "Neither do I. Which means I have to act, and I have to act now. So the only question is, can I count on you?"

     There was a long moment of silence. Jackie and Dazie stood inches apart, staring at each other. The minotaur's breathing was heavy. Jackie could feel it on her face, wet and warm.

     "You can always count on me, Jackie," Dazie eventually said. "You know that."

     The red-eyed woman ignored the hurt in her old friend's voice.

     "Good," she said. She turned to look at the husher twins, who had been watching the confrontation between Jackie and her old deputy in silence, with their arms crossed and their faces blank. "What about you, Hush-Hush? Can I still count on you, too?"

     "We will endeavor to assist in any way possible," the twins said.

     "Good." Jackie turned back to Dazie. "You're in no shape for a shootout, so here's what I need you to do. I need you to round up everyone we trust, everyone we're close enough to for them to be a target. You sweep them all up, and you take them all north to New Progress. Open up the old boarding house, keep everyone there. Until this is over, you all stay together in the same place. No one else gets caught alone and picked-off. Anybody wants to take a run at us, they have to come at all of us at once. Understood?"

     "Sure, boss," Dazie said. Her voice was quiet. Her eyes avoided Jackie’s.

     Jackie turned and pointed at the husher twins. "Everyone except for you two, that is. I have work that needs doing, and I need you two to do it."

     "What would you have us do?"

     "Remember that old fixer-upper I picked up in Verkell a couple years back? The one we discussed doing some renovation work on?"

     The twins nodded.

     "Well, how fast could you do it?"

     "We could complete the work in as little as a day," Hush-Hush said. "Provided we had the requisite materials."

     "Gold is no concern, and we should still have plenty of crystal left."

     "We will proceed at once," the twins said.

     "Good," Jackie said. Her red eyes seemed to smolder. “Do the place up right. If things go my way, I'm going to be bringing company home with me."

 

III. The Short Forever

 

     Once, when he was a pup, Trotter had read in a book that rattlers could kill themselves through pure force of will. The book had claimed that snakes could lower themselves into a sleep so deep that their hearts would actually stop beating.

     As he grew older, he came to realize that this wasn’t true. It was just the sort of thing which foxes liked to write about snakes, and the savage, superstitious way they lived. It helped to justify why the agents of civilization needn’t worry themselves too much about whether snakes – or other Waste dwellers, for that matter – seemed to want to become civilized or not. They didn’t know any better, and couldn’t be expected to understand.

     But, as a child, Trotter had been fascinated by the story. He came across the book when he hid inside a musty library in Verkell. He ducked into the library because he was running away from someone, and he holed himself up inside a little reading cubby down in the reference area while he waited for the danger to pass. It was there that he found the book on snakes, which he read to pass the time.

     He had not thought of that strange book about rattlers for many, many years. But now, as the reality of his captivity began to sink in, he suddenly remembered the story about snakes stopping their own hearts, and he wondered if there might possibly be some grain of truth to it.

     Maybe, he thought, if a snake could do it, he could too.

     He had woken up several days ago – it was impossible to know just how many days, though – to find himself spread-eagled atop a hard, lumpy bed, with each of his limbs bound tightly to one of the bedposts with thin but strong cords. He had no idea where he was; he was blindfolded, and the only sound he could hear was the slow, steady dripping of water somewhere off in the distance. Wherever he was, the air was hot, dry, and stagnant, and it was laced with a vague but unpleasant aroma – like sulfur, almost. Or rotting eggs.

     He wanted to scream, to cry out, but his mouth was stuffed with a dirty cotton rag.

     At first, he strained against his restraints, thrashing from side to side, pulling against them as hard as he could, trying somehow to lever himself free. But his bindings held, and all he succeeded in doing was rubbing his wrists and ankles raw, so that they burned and bled where the cords cut into them. The pain was excruciating – far worse than the dull, lingering ache he still felt at the base of his skull, where he’d been hit. But the pain didn’t stop him from trying to slip out of the bindings, or at least to loosen the knots a little bit. He gave up only when sheer exhaustion forced him to lie still for a while.

     Eventually, he heard the sound of a door opening, and heavy footsteps moved in his direction. Then he was startled to feel clawed hands take hold of him and apply a salve of some sort to the spots where the skin had rubbed off from his wrists and feet. As the balm took effect, he felt the worst of the pain dampen and fade away, and he hated himself for the sense of relief he felt as the hurt subsided.

     After the unseen hands had finished tending to his wounds, the footsteps walked away, and he heard the door swing closed.

     Lying there, as the pain subsided and his mind cleared, it slowly dawned on him that whoever was holding him hostage wasn’t trying to kill him. They were trying to keep him alive.

     He knew there could only be one reason for that.

     That knowledge made him shudder.

     With his eyes blindfolded, and with nothing familiar for reference, it was basically impossible to track the passage of time. The ache in his head didn’t help, either, and he faded in and out of consciousness, often waking with a start from some half-remembered fever dream only to slip fitfully back into another.

     Eventually, the door opened again, and the footsteps returned. This time, the clawed hands pulled the gag out from his mouth.

     “Eat,” a deep, syrupy voice said, and he felt the rim of a bowl being pressed up against his lips.

     Part of him wanted to resist, to mount a show of defiance for defiance’s sake. But, to his chagrin, a sudden wave of hunger overwhelmed his will to resist, and he opened his mouth.

     The bowl tilted upward, and a thin, lukewarm porridge started to pour down his throat.

     Thin as the mixture was, he still almost choked on it. The unseen hands had to pull the bowl away while he coughed and sputtered.

     This time, when the bowl was pressed back against his lips, he turned his head away to one side. Then, with as much conviction as he could summon into his thin, cracking voice, he spoke.

     “You won’t get it,” he said.

     There was a moment of silence. “Won’t get what?” the voice asked.

     “Whatever it is you want from her,” Trotter said. “Gold, iron, crystal – it doesn’t matter. You won’t get it, so you might as well just kill me now.” He laughed a little bit, which made his head hurt even worse. “The only thing you’ll get from her is a bullet.”

     The voice just chuckled.

     “I don’t want gold, or iron, or crystal,” the voice said. The voice was quiet, and calm, and all the more terrible for it. Listening to it was like stepping on eggshells. “I want to see the Waste run red with blood. As long as she’s looking for you, I am going to get what I want.” The voice chuckled again. “If I don’t, I’ll start sending her little pieces of you in the mail. That ought to keep her working.”

     Trotter spat his next mouthful of porridge back out in the direction which the voice had been coming from. That act of defiance earned him a sharp slap across the face. Then the rag was forced back into his mouth, and the owner of the voice stormed off, slamming the door behind him.

     That was when Trotter suddenly found himself thinking about rattlers, and whether or not they could will themselves to die. The book had neglected to explain exactly how rattlers accomplished the feat, which was problematic. Trotter wondered if it was just as simple as closing your eyes and wishing as hard as you could for your own death. If it was, that would be a tremendous stroke of luck.

     In that moment, he felt a powerful urge to die himself, if for no other reason than to spite whoever it was that was doing this to him. He wouldn’t be used, he vowed. He wouldn’t let them use him to get to her.

     Because he knew that the voice was right. As long as he was alive, she would come for him. And that apparently meant she would be furthering his tormentor’s purposes, whatever those purposes might be.

     But, once he started to think about her, he forgot about wanting to stop his own heart. Instead, he found himself thinking about another time he had been inside the little library in Verkell: the time he had gone there with her.

     It had happened not long after they met. They had gotten kicked-out of a saloon after he had complained about the music, and she had tried to retune the piano with a barstool. So they had stumbled out onto the street, laughing and drunk and looking for something to do, and – on a lark – he had dragged her into the library.

     It had seemed to him like a funny thing to do. Once they were inside, though, she had looked around at the rows upon rows of shelves groaning beneath the weight of their accumulated books, and her eyes had gone wide as saucers. She had sort of frozen in place, and had seemed so out of sorts that he had asked her what the matter was.

     And that was when he had learned that she couldn’t read. She couldn’t read or write.

     That had floored him. She was the quickest thinker he’d ever met – she always seemed to know just the right thing to say. She could crack a safe, or derail a train, or shoot the hat off a lawman’s head at a hundred paces. But she didn’t know how to read or write.

     “The sisters didn’t teach me, and I never learned,” she said. “I can recognize important words, like ‘bank,’ or ‘gun,’ or ‘whiskey.’ But anything more than that, and the letters just kind of get all mixed-up inside my head.”

     As she spoke, he had seen the shame on her face. He had never, ever seen her look ashamed, either before or since.

     So he’d taken her by the hand and gestured at the shelves all around them.

     “Pick a book,” he’d said. “Pick any book, and I’ll read it to you.”

     She had run her hand across a nearby shelf, and had pulled out a tome seemingly at random. It was a thin book, bound in dark green leather, with the words “A Practical Guide to Baloth Husbandry” stamped on the cover in gold foil.

     When he’d read the title to her, she had laughed.

     “My favorite subject,” she’d said with a gold-toothed grin. “Let’s steal it.”

     He had explained to her that you didn’t have to steal books from a library, that you could just borrow them. That concept had seemed to fascinate her.

     In the end, though, he never did return the book, so the distinction had been an academic one.

     Later that night, as they were lying together, his head facing hers, her arms folded over his, he had seen her red eyes staring at him through the darkness.

     “Read me our book,” she had said.

     He had laughed. “I’ve got better books than that,” he’d said. “Tall tales, folk songs – I have a book of romantic poems, even. Why don’t you pick one of those instead?”

     Her face had turned serious. “I don’t want to hear those books,” she’d said. “I want to hear our book. I want you to read me the book we picked.”

     So he had lit a lamp and gotten up to retrieve the little green book. Then, once he was back in bed, he’d propped his head up on a pillow, and she had curled up next to him, so that he could feel the gentle rising and falling of her chest as she breathed, and the soft inhale and exhale of her breath on his neck as he began to read:

     “While a potentially rewarding source of sustenance or profit, the care and keeping of domesticated baloths is no trivial chore, and ought not to be undertaken lightly.”

     The book went on and on in that same vein, but he kept reading. As he did, he felt her breathing grow slower, and her breaths came further apart. After a few minutes, he’d looked over at her, and saw that she’d fallen asleep with a smile on her face.

     So he had put the book down and doused the lamp. Then he’d closed his own eyes, and, soon enough, he too had fallen asleep in her arms, with a smile on his own face.

     As he remembered that moment, he felt a remarkable sense of peace come over him. Blindfolded, bound, and gagged though he was, he found himself smiling.

     As long as he was alive, she would come for him.

     He banished all thoughts of dying from his mind. He would keep himself alive. If he could keep himself alive, she would find him. He just needed something to help him focus his thoughts, to keep his mind free of fear and pain.

     So he focused on his memory of the little book with the green leather binding. He tried to remember what it had said.

     “While a potentially rewarding source of sustenance or profit, the care and keeping of domesticated baloths is no trivial chore, and ought not to be undertaken lightly.”

     He couldn’t remember much beyond that first sentence, so he simply repeated it to himself over and over. He repeated it over and over as the minutes slipped indeterminately into hours and the hours slipped indeterminately into days, as he swung between consciousness and oblivion, as he gritted his teeth against the pain and waited for deliverance.

     He would repeat it to himself for as long as it took, he thought.

     He would repeat it to himself until she came.

 

IV. Feeding Frenzy

 

     It was almost pitch dark, and the only sound came from the clicking of her acridian’s feet on the worn-down cobblestones as Jackie nudged the big insect across the invisible threshold which divided the derelict neighborhood up ahead from the rest of the bustling city.

     On official maps of Verkell, the abandoned blocks were marked as the Old North Ward. But no living soul called them that. Few respectable Verkellites acknowledged the neighborhood’s existence at all. When they did, they tended to do so in hushed tones, and with two fingers held up to ward off evil. Not the usual devils, either. Something worse.

     They called the neighborhood Smokey’s Patch.

     As she rode into Smokey’s Patch, Jackie swept her red eyes across the empty streets. She listened to the dull echo of her acridian’s clicking as it ricocheted between leaning, abandoned buildings, and she found herself thinking about Fisco Vane – thinking about what he had done on those very streets decades before she had been born, thinking about the lives he had taken, and the city he’d changed. Thinking about how he had transformed himself from a man of flesh and bone into a shadow, a scare story that Verkell parents threatened their children with.

     Behave, or Old Smokey will get you.

     She wondered if they would say the same things about her by the time she was done.

     When she had met the scare story in the flesh, she had told Fisco Vane that the two of them had more in common than she would have guessed.

     She had been right. She had been more right than she ever expected.

     She found herself wondering yet again whether he was somehow behind everything that was happening to her, whether he had set her up for all of it. He might have done it. He could have done it.

     It would have been easy for him.

     Trouble was, she couldn’t think of a reason why. What could he possibly stand to gain?

     The demons? Their motives she could fathom. They fed off pain and suffering the way that mortals lived on bread and water.

     But Fisco? He had the willingness to knife her – she had never doubted that. But he wouldn’t do it for no reason. And she had never figured him for the sadism to twist the blade.

     She shook her head.

     She would probably see Old Smokey again, after all this was done. And he would probably kill her.

     Maybe she would get some answers from him before he did.

     It didn’t really matter, though. What mattered was keeping him out of the picture for long enough that she could do the one thing she cared about doing, which was finding Trotter and getting him to safety.

     Once that was done?

     Well, if Old Smokey wanted to kill her, he could get in line.

     She briefly took her hands off the reins and flexed her tender knuckles. Getting a lead on Mal and Lucy had taken more doing than she had expected. Even her most talkative Verkell contacts – men who would normally have sold-out their own mothers for less gold than you could fit in your pocket – seemed to lose their tongues at the mention of the two demons. So Jackie had done what she needed to do to loosen those tongues, until finally one of them had coughed up the name of Smokey's old shop.

     That was not the only thing her former contact had coughed up, Jackie thought grimly. She still had several of his teeth in her pocket, where they chattered against each other as her acridian loped along.

     That noise focused her mind as she slowed her acridian to a stop about a block away from the tall-windowed store with peeling paint which had once housed Smokey’s Cigars.

     As she climbed down from the saddle, she saw a slim figure materialize from the murky shadows at the base of an unlit lamppost. As the dark sentry crossed the empty street to where she stood, she could just make out his black eyes amid the dark blanket of night which hung like a pall over Smokey’s Patch.

     When the demon saw Jackie’s face, he offered a grunt of recognition.

     “Nobody told me you were coming,” he said.

     Jackie stared for a second at the demonic watchman, whose name she did not know.

     “Good,” she said. She nodded in the direction of the old cigar shop. “Your bosses at home?”

     A look of confusion crossed the demon’s face. “Maybe,” he said. “They expecting you?”

     “I hope not,” Jackie said.

     Then she shot the demon between the eyes.

     The sound of the shot reverberated through the empty streets, and the demon just dropped to the ground where he had been standing.

     Jackie DeCoeur walked over to where the demon’s body lay. She stood over it, smoking gun in hand.

     “One,” she said quietly to herself.

     She looked down at the demon’s face, which still bore the confused expression he had been wearing when she drew on him. His dead, soulless, black eyes stared up into her smoldering red ones.

     She expected to feel some sort of satisfaction, some sort of gratification over having killed him. But she didn’t. She felt just the same as she had before: angry. She felt an anger that was so urgent and so desperate, so all-consuming, that it seemed to occupy all the space inside her mind, so that no other emotion could gain a foothold. Her anger was like a physical presence. She could feel it as a throbbing tension behind her eyes, a constricting band around her skull.

     She pointed her gun down at the dead demon’s head and put two more rounds into him, turning his black eyes red.

     The demons had sent her a message, she thought as she reloaded the gun. Well, she would send one back.

     But first things first. She needed to move fast. If Mal and Lucy were there, they would surely have heard the shots.

     She didn’t know how many chances she would get at Fisco’s black-eyed thralls, but none were likely to be as good as this one. She needed to make it count.

     She crossed the street quickly to stand in front of the door to Smokey’s. The tarnished brass knob turned easily in her hand. She swung the door open and stepped inside.

     Mal and Lucy were both there, standing together in the center of the dark, dusty showroom. The two black-clad demons were conversing urgently in loud whispers as she entered, at which point they both stopped talking and turned to look at her.

     Mal’s hard, flinty face twisted into a look of contempt when he saw her.

     “I heard shots,” he said. He took a step towards her.

     Jackie DeCoeur took a split second to decide if she had anything to say to Malzeth.

     She decided that she did not.

     So she shot him.

     She knew she was fast. But she knew he was fast, too. So, as she drew and fired, she took the rare precaution of aiming for center mass instead of the demon’s head.

     Her respect for Mal proved justified – even though she had the drop on him, he somehow managed to twist out of the way as she was firing. Of the five shots she squeezed-off in quick succession, only three of them hit their mark, and she could tell that she had missed his heart because she heard him curse as he tumbled to the floor, wide-eyed, with one hand clutching his chest.

     Jackie dropped her empty revolver to the ground. Taking a long step forward, she turned her attention to Lucy. The demoness’s hand was extended in her direction, and Jackie was unsurprised when she went to draw her second revolver only to find crumbling ashes in her holster. So instead she flipped her knife out of her sleeve and closed the distance between herself and the demoness in one second flat.

     The red-eyed woman lunged forward, but her blade cut through empty air as Lucy vanished behind a swirl of shadows and a whiff of brimstone.

     Jackie anticipated Lucy’s reappearance behind her, and she spun on the balls of her feet just in time to see the demoness lunge at her. Lucy was all black eyes and bared teeth, and she swung her clawed hand in a vicious arc at Jackie’s eyes. Jackie just had time to duck beneath the demoness’s swipe, so that Lucy’s claws raked the red-eyed woman’s scalp instead of ruining her eyes. Then, as Lucy’s momentum carried her past the human, Jackie sprung up behind the black-eyed woman and caught her on the back of her head – hard – with a closed fist. The blow sent Lucy tumbling to the ground, where her head hit the wooden floorboards with a loud, sharp crack.

     Jackie turned her attention back to Mal, who was lying on the floor in a rapidly-expanding pool of his own blood. He had propped himself up on one arm, and, although blood dripped from his mouth and nose, and although his words came as a kind of wheezing gurgle, he had started to chant in some foul-sounding tongue as he looked up at her. Jackie could see black tendrils starting to form in the air around him.

     She wasn’t sure what spell the demon was trying to work, and she didn’t much care. She flipped her wrist, and the little two-shot backup piece which she had brought specially for the occasion slid smoothly into her empty hand.

     She had decided on the way to Mal and Lucy’s hideout that she only needed one of the demons alive. Based on the rate at which Mal was leaking blood as he tried to raise himself up off the floor, she figured that his ticket had already been punched.

     So she forgot all about center mass as she pointed the small gun at the black-eyed man’s head.

     In the instant before she could pull the trigger, though, she felt two rows of knife-like points pierce through the leather of her boot just above the ankle. Each of Lucy’s claws seemed to burn Jackie’s flesh like a hot needle as the demoness pulled Jackie’s leg out from underneath her.

     Jackie managed to fire both barrels, but she couldn’t hold her aim, and she saw both shots hit Mal in the leg, just above the knee. She was gratified to see the demon’s eyes glaze over with pain, and his mouth fall open in a kind of wordless gasp as the dark spell which he had been working collapsed with a puff of smoke and an audible pop.

     But, before Jackie could fully assess her handiwork, she lost her balance and tumbled forward. Instinctively, she put her arms out to try to brace herself; as she hit the ground, hard, both her knife and the empty two-shooter skidded away across the floor.

     Jackie reeled from the impact. She was lying on her stomach in a slippery pool of Mal’s blood when she felt Lucy let go of her leg. Frantically, she flipped herself over onto her back, just in time to see Lucy leaping on top of her. The demoness’s face was contorted into a kind of feral, frenzied snarl, and she screaming a kind of piercing, banshee wail. The leather-clad demon landed flat on top of the red-eyed woman, and in an instant she had wrapped her bloody claws around the human woman’s neck. Their faces were so close that Jackie could smell the sulfur on Lucy’s panting breath, could see the flecks of spit which sprayed from the demoness’s mouth as she screamed.

     Jackie wasted a few, precious seconds trying to pry the demoness’s hands away from her throat. But Lucy’s grip was surprisingly strong, and Jackie could feel the demoness’s thin fingers starting to crush her windpipe. So, instead, she let go of Lucy’s hands, she stuck her own arms out to each side, and she pushed down against the blood-slicked floor for leverage as she snapped her head upwards into Lucy’s as hard as she could.

     The women’s heads butted together with a kind of sharp, sickening crack. Jackie’s jaw snapped shut, and she felt her lip split open as her whole head seemed to explode with pain. But at least she had known the blow was coming. Lucy’s head snapped back like a whip, and her face seemed slacken, as though in a daze. Jackie felt the demoness’s grip around her neck loosen, and, before Lucy could return to her senses, Jackie got a foot up between her and the demoness and kicked the black-eyed woman off of her.

     As their bodies untangled, both the black-eyed woman and the red-eyed woman tried to scramble to their feet. Jackie made it up first, and she lashed out hard with her bloodied, booted foot, catching Lucy square in the back just as she was trying to rise up on one knee. The kick sent the demoness back down to the ground with a howl of pain.

     Jackie looked over at the spot on the floor where Mal lay bleeding. Mal was making one last effort to get to his feet, so Jackie kicked him on the knee of his crippled leg. She heard bones snap. Mal collapsed into a heap.

     Jackie DeCoeur spat on him. She swore at the top of her lungs.

     Then she turned her attention back to Lucy, who had managed to make it back up onto all fours, and was making a wobbly attempt to stand.

     Jackie took a quick step to one side in order to get a better angle. Then she drew her foot back and kicked Lucy as hard as she could on the side of the head. The force of the impact made an awful crunch, and Lucy fell to the floor, where she lay flat on her face and did not move.

     For a horrible, gut-wrenching second, Jackie DeCoeur stared down at the immobile demoness. Then, gasping for breath, her vision a kind of fuzzy blur, she dropped down to one knee next to the black-eyed woman’s sprawled body.

     “Don’t you dare die on me, Lucy!” she growled as she rolled the demoness onto her back. “Don’t you dare die on me just yet.”

     Jackie held her hand just beneath Lucy’s bloodied nose. After a long, anxious moment, she felt the demoness’s hot, dry breath between her fingers.

     Lucy’s breathing was weak and ragged, but she was breathing.

     Slowly, Jackie got back up. She bent over, so that she stood with her hands braced against her knees and her elbows out to each side. As the adrenaline began to ebb, she began to take stock of her own condition. Her ankle burned. Her wrists were sore. When she closed her eyes, sparks flashed in front of her eyelids. Her throat hurt each time she breathed. Her split lip hurt. Her head hurt. Her jaw hurt. Her mouth was full of blood, and one of her teeth felt loose. Her knuckles were bloody and sore. She was covered in blood.

     Slowly, painfully, her mouth set into a grim smile.

     She was covered in blood, but the blood wasn’t hers. Not mostly, anyway.

     As a test, she took a few steps. Her movements were slow and groggy at first, but, with each passing heartbeat, her vision started to come back into focus, and her feet felt sturdier beneath her.

     After wiping away the blood from her throbbing forehead, she made a quick search around the shop, just in case Mal and Lucy had been stupid, or careless. She didn’t find Trotter, though, or any sign that he had been there.

     That was disappointing, but it was to be expected. It was the outcome she’d been prepared for.

     Jackie looked down at Mal, who lay face-down on the floor, where he was bleeding out from the quintet of holes in his chest and leg. His arms were outstretched, and he was making a feeble attempt to drag himself across the ground to where Jackie stood next to Lucy. But there wasn't enough strength left in his limbs to shift his weight, so he just pawed ineffectually at the floorboards, his claws pulling little furrows through the congealing mess of blood.

     Jackie stood there and watched the demon struggle. As she did, Mal tried to crane his neck up to get a better look at her, but even that small act seemed to challenge the limits of his ebbing strength.

     He tried to say something to her, but his words were drowned beneath a fit of wet coughing as he hacked up blood. His sharp teeth were stained red with it. His black eyes looked glassy.

     The red-eyed woman's face twisted into a look of contempt, just like the one Mal so often gave her. She knelt down next to the dying demon, and she patted his cheek in a facsimile of concern.

     "You're not looking too good, there, Mal," she whispered into the demon's ear. "I didn't know demons even had this much blood in ‘em."

     Mal tried to speak, but all he managed was a kind of strangled gargle.

     Jackie held a blood-smeared finger up to her lips and made a hushing noise.

     “I wouldn't talk if I were you,” she said. “I'm pretty sure I got you twice through the lungs. Now, I'm no sawbones, but I do know a thing or two about getting shot. And I can tell you that talking isn't the thing to be doing in your condition.”

     She patted the demon’s cheek one more time before she stood back up.

     "I'd do the humane thing and finish you off," she said, "but I seem to be clean out of bullets." She shrugged her shoulders, and her red eyes glinted in the darkness. "I guess you really ought to blame Lucy for that. She did dust one of my guns, after all, and I was about to kill you clean when she jogged my aim."

     Jackie glanced over her shoulder at Lucy, who was still lying motionless on the floor. She turned back to Mal, whose eyes flitted between the two women.

     "Anyway, don't you worry about us," Jackie said. "I'll take real good care of Lucy. After all you two have done for me? It's the least I can do."

     Mal's mouth opened one more time, but no sound came out. His head drooped, and he lay still.

     Jackie nudged the demon's broken leg with her foot. At the contact, his body spasmed slightly, but he made no purposeful attempt to resist her.

     He wasn't dead yet. But he would be soon.

     She decided to leave him to it. She had more pressing matters to attend to.

     Walking back to where Lucy lay on the floor, Jackie bent down and hoisted up the demoness’s limp body. Tossing the unconscious woman roughly over one shoulder, she carried her surprisingly light load over to the door.

     “Let’s you and me go back to my place, Lucy,” Jackie DeCoeur said through gritted teeth as she kicked the door open and stepped back out onto the dark, deserted street. “Let’s go back to my place, where we can have a real heart-to-heart.”

 

V. Shark Bait

 

     The rat observed Jackie leaving Mal and Lucy's hideaway placidly. He was not seen, he assured himself, he was not known. Not yet, he was not known. The moon was pale and only half-full. He waited, silently, as Jackie mounted her acridian, slinging an unconscious Lucy over the second thorax. Not before spitting on the ground, however. The rat smelled blood, his nose twitched, and he smiled.

     Oh my, she was a feisty one.

     So angry about her little fox, if only someone had not taken the poor thing from the poor girl! It would have been so much better for her, with her trains and her money. She would not have had to fight those nasty demons. Those nasty demons who belonged to... to...

     Him.

     He shook his head to clear his thoughts, ears twitching rapidly. This was not the time, though the time was soon. He had sneaked ever so stealthily over to Jackie's little bug and pilfered something of interest to him. He waited for her to disappear, far into the distance, before removing the prize from the folds of his coat and watching it glint in the moonlight. It was one of his - damnable, vile, blasted - coins. He allowed himself a chuckle, and peered through the hole in the center of the coin with one bright, yellow eye.

     Yes, this would do nicely.

     He entered the demon's hideaway.

     Oh my, Malzeth, you're in quite the pickle! Did she break your leg? Did she shoot you in the gut? Poor thing. Poor, poor thing.

     The rat shook his head again, laughed, and set the coin next to the slowly expiring demon. Malzeth would not die today, oh no, he still had stories to tell. People to see. Lovers to save. Sharks... to distract.

     But first...

     Malzeth was some of the best security the rat had ever had to face. If the demon were among the wakeful at the moment, he would never have been able to skirt around all that blood and mess, and into a secret room off to one side. He would never have been able to trick all the locks off the safe that was in the secret room. He would never have been able to reach, with trembling (and one shattered) hands and shining eyes, for the stoppered up little vial that read only "FV".

     But Malzeth was sleeping. So he did all of those things.

     The rat left the secret room. He giggled to himself as he lighted the coin in a pool of Malzeth's blood and fled the hideaway. He was done here - at this place, on this plane - and he had other demons to visit. He was so very happy that everything was going according to plan. Just as he planned. For so, so long.

     The rat licked his teeth, and felt the pull of the eternities. Soon, so very, very soon... He would say he was lucky that Malzeth had a taste for sangromancy. He would say that he was lucky that the demon kept a vial of his employers blood, just in case the contract ever... slipped. He would say he was lucky that a certain shifty someone had wanted to frame the demons for kidnapping Jackie's little fox, and he would say he was lucky that someone had tipped her off as to where the demons were.

     He would say that, but he would be lying.

     The rat vanished, the sound of laughter fading into the still, night air.


"Blood on the Tracks" by RuwinReborn and 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, Mal, and The Liar are original characters created by RuwinReborn for the Expanded Multiverse. The Shifter is an original character created by Barinellos 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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