Rest for the Wicked
NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Jackie's Storyline.
I. The Death of Him
Fisco paused, a bottle of whiskey halfway to his glass, at the chiming of metal against metal. With a sigh, he set the bottle and glass down. Today was supposed to be a good day. He had finally gotten the good end of a trade with some corpse runners in Fiora, and was presently attempting to celebrate. His golden bowl, mercifully empty, had recently been invaded by one of his beacon coins.
No rest for the wicked, he supposed.
He eyed the bottle of whiskey speculatively before walking across the lounge and picking up the coin.
Brief images flashed across his mind. Blood, dark and stained, a shadowy figure, two red-eyes… Gods, this was DeCoeur’s coin, what had happened?
Fisco pocketed the coin, and Diana was by his side before he even had the presence of mind to call for her.
“My coat.” He ordered, and then, less like an order and more like a request. “...And my gun.”
Diana stared at him, expression unreadable.
“...Trouble’s brewing on Jakkard. Something’s gone down with DeCoeur and I need to get there, armed and fast.” Diana folded her arms. Fisco growled impatiently. “Look, do you want to come along? Will that make you happy?”
Diana went to retrieve Fisco’s coat and gun without a word. Fisco massaged his temple, feeling the beginning of a headache forming behind his eyes. Had he not already resolved not to start drinking, he would have certainly gone for the bottle now.
That angel would be the death of him, but she was busy, for now.
Fisco Vane did not keep many things from Diana on purpose. Most of his dealings that were outside of her awareness just were not important enough to mention, and posed no danger to either of them. Of all his employees and contract holders across the multiverse, Diana was his most trusted, if for no other reason than her loyalty was unfailing and her questions few. She understood him, and he understood her. It was refreshing to be able to communicate with only a few words, but the downside was that it was difficult to keep a secret from the angel if she was determined.
Fortunately for Fisco, he was more determined to keep this from her.
He produced a coin from his pocket. Like the rest of his beacon coins, it was a small thing with a hole in the center. Unlike the others, it was cracked along the center. The enchantment - usually self-sustaining and impenetrable - had been infiltrated and tampered with. Something that had never happened to him before. He scowled, lit the coin, and tossed it on the ground.
Presently, a woman appeared before him, hovering above the coin. He nodded deferentially.
“Mister Vane. To what do I owe the pleasure?” The woman murmured, eyes narrowing. She was an ageless creature, and it reminded Fisco briefly of his old foes, the Dual-Walkers. Of the two, Syl had been the most ruthless and crafty, and she held herself with similar eternal contempt. She, however, was more likely to put on a pretense of humanity.
The Duchess was not.
Instead, she wore the face and body of a regal and icy woman, petite, young, and beautiful. But where one might see a spark of faint warmth in her eye, there instead was a deep and dark cunning. An alien mind as foreign to Fisco as the depths of the ocean. Even this illusion which he was speaking to caused him to feel uneasy - his first encounter had been far more hair-raising, and in person.
“...Something’s gone wrong on Jakkard - I haven’t been there for a while myself, but my last reports from Mal and Lucy were-” The Duchess cut him off.
“I am aware of the situation on Jakkard, Mister Vane. It has no bearing upon our bargain. My magnanimity has limits, however, and I grow tired of waiting.” The Duchess’s face betrayed no expression, but she folded her hands. “I agreed to allow you to settle accounts as you saw fit because it would cause little commotion and tie up several loose ends rather smoothly. Instead, certain parties have been made aware of my plans and moving to counteract them. This was not potentially unforeseen, but nonetheless, I am…” She fixed Fisco with an unearthly stare that chilled the Shark. “Displeased.”
“...I’ll go to Jakkard to handle it myself.” He offered, averting his gaze and stifling a stab of irritation. When The Duchess did not respond, he added, “...by any means necessary.”
There was another tense silence as Fisco felt The Duchess’s gaze upon him.
“...See that you do, Mister Vane. Complete the task at hand and you may consider your debt repaid, and your… assets, safe.”
The illusion winked out of existence.
Fisco spun around and swiped his golden bowl of the nearby table with a frustrated shout. Diana entered the room as the bowl spun listlessly on the ground. Fisco did not look at her.
“...Something is wrong.” Diana stated. Fisco took a deep breath. Gods. Gods, he hated this.
“No, Diana. Everything is fine.” He lied. He lied, and he would do so again, because it would keep her safe, damn it all. There were not many things, in the Multiverse, that Fisco feared. As Diana gave him his gun, and he holstered it beneath his coat, she placed her hand on his shoulder in anticipation for their travel to Jakkard. There were few things that Fisco Vane feared.
Losing any of the people his black heart still beat for was one of them.
He stepped into the eternities, and made for Jakkard.
Fisco stared down at Malzeth’s body.
Last time he had been to his own shop… Gods, it had been a lifetime, it seemed. He knew Mal and Lucy were using the place as a center of operations, but… Well, he had never thought to return here. No need. Just a bundle of old memories that would not do him any good.
...Of course, he had never thought it would have all this blood.
“...How long was I away, Diana?” Fisco muttered, reaching into his coat for a cigar. Diana responded as he lit it, and put it between his lips.
“Your last visit to Jakkard was six months ago, Fisco.”
Fisco snorted, and shook his head.
“I told him this plane was more trouble than it was worth.” He mused to himself, then sighed out a lungful of smoke. “...Get him up, Diana. I have some questions.”
Diana immediately crouched next to the expiring demon, and assured Fisco that he was, in fact, still alive. If only barely. Fisco would have sworn halfway across the multiverse that it would take more than a handful of bullets to bring down Malzeth. He was pleased to find it he was right - but less pleased to find out he had to intervene. Finding the demon next to DeCoeur’s lit coin, however…
This smelled like a set up.
There were several bright flashes of light as Diana patched up the unconscious demon. Fisco watched on with mild interest. Diana was always a fair hand at healing magic - her previous… employers had used her almost exclusively for that purpose. It was a facet of her capabilities, however. Though it had been a long time since she had been called on to do anything besides heal a few wounds or cast a few wards, Fisco had had plenty of opportunities to see her… less genteel side. Which was why he had asked her to come along. Things were going to get messy.
And unlike last time, this time he was going to be prepared.
“Soul warden!” Came a low, angry hiss from Malzeth. Fisco, lost in thought, had not noticed the demon coming around. Almost faster than Fisco could follow, Malzeth was on his feet, pushing Diana away and swinging at her with his claws. Fisco sidestepped the angel as she retreated backwards, stony faced, and promptly backhanded Malzeth across the face.
His hand stung, but Malzeth’s head jerked backwards with the force of the blow. The demon fell back against the wall.
“She’s with me, Mal.” Fisco informed the demon coldly, rubbing the back of his hand. “Swing at her again and I’ll do more than bruise your cheekbone.”
Malzeth raised his head to glare at Fisco, eyes smoldering with rage. And not Malzeth’s normal rage - Fisco was used to seeing the low frustration of impotence burn in the demon’s eyes - no, this rage was towering and deadly. Fisco could only remember seeing it once before.
So he knew exactly which question to ask.
Malzeth screamed, spun around, and put his fist through the wall behind him. Fisco raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t know!” He roared. “I can’t… I can’t feel her, Vane!” Fisco puffed at his cigar as Malzeth extricated his hand from the hole in the wall, and leaned his forehead against it. Fisco glanced back at Diana, who was watching the demon suspiciously, and nodded at her. This was followed by a mental command to secure the perimeter, and the angel went to obey. Fisco returned his attention to Malzeth, who had clawed a few gashes into the wall, but was otherwise only breathing heavily.
“Got your temper under control?” Fisco asked mildly. Malzeth said nothing, but at least nothing was destroyed. It was a step in the right direction. “Tell me what happened.”
“...It was your partner.” Malzeth spat, finally turning around, his face a mask of spiteful anger. “I’d heard she’d started shooting up any demons she could find - was planning on thanking her for thinning out the competition.” He reached forward with one hand, his eyes far away. “Now I just want to rip out her heart.” His fist closed, and his arm shook.
“DeCoeur attacked you.” Fisco stated, for clarification. Malzeth nodded, arm dropping to his side. “...And you didn’t provoke her?”
Well, this was a fine mess. Fisco was seriously, sincerely beginning to regret skipping out on that whiskey. How had everything gone to hell so quickly?
Jackie had seemed like the sensible sort. Interested in a good time and excellent profit, the kind who was in it more for the thrill and less for the money. Negotiating for her assets should have been a breeze - and it had been, so far. She had taken the ‘business partnership’ and ran with it. Last Fisco heard, he was sure to turn a profit and convince DeCoeur that retirement was her best option. All without any conflict or bloodshed.
Fisco glanced at the blood that was cooling all over the room. So much for that plan.
“...She’s been shooting up demons?” He asked Malzeth.
“Yes.” Malzeth growled. “Nightstalkers too. Any thralls that work for the demons as well. Plenty of targets to pick from - word never got around that she was looking for us. Or why.” Fisco threw his cigar on the ground in disgust. It sputtered out in a pool of Malzeth’s blood.
There was nothing to do about it. He would have to hunt down DeCoeur. She had… Well, she had literally everything he needed - the most important of which were answers.
“And Lucy?” Fisco asked, more cautiously this time. Malzeth bared his teeth, and his shoulders tensed, but he kept it civil. For the most part.
“She’s not dead.” Malzeth muttered. “I’d… know. Your partner must be hiding her.” Fisco scratched his chin. Jackie had taken Lucy… But why?
“...Do You have a lead on DeCoeur?” Fisco asked, and Malzeth was halfway to shaking his head when his eyes narrowed thoughtfully.
“She was gathering up her old gang.” The demon muttered, scratching his crooked nose. “Last I heard she had most of them in this abandoned boarding house to the west. New Progress. If they’re still there, they might know where Jackie’s gone.”
Well, that was good news at least.
“Let’s get on, then.” Fisco ordered as Diana re-entered the shop. He glanced at the angel, who only nodded tersely, eyes flickering to Malzeth. For his part, the demon immediately made for the door, ignoring the angel. “Mal.” Fisco called, giving it the weight of an order. Malzeth stopped. “...When we find DeCoeur, if Lucy’s alive, you let me talk to Red-Eyes.”
Malzeth did not turn around.
“I don’t have to give you orders if it turns out Lucy’s dead.” Fisco elaborated, pulling another cigar out of his coat.
Malzeth stalked out of the shop, and did not even bother to growl at Diana. Fisco rolled the cigar between his fingers, thinking.
“...I had not thought demons capable of love.” Diana commented to Fisco once Malzeth was safely outside. Fisco hummed.
“I think it’s more complicated than that.” Fisco murmured, then sighed, and put the cigar back into his coat. “I need you to steer clear of Mal for a while. Stay close by, but out of sight. Best not to rile him.” At his words, Diana nodded stiffly, and Fisco cast a few spells to keep her concealed, as long as she stayed off the ground and in the shadows.
When he was finished, Diana vanished, and Fisco followed Malzeth into the stale Jakkardian night.
II. The Edge
At long last, the demoness stirred.
Jackie leaned forward in her seat and stared across the dark room. The air was thick with dust, and stringy cobwebs hung down from rotting wooden rafters overhead. The shutters had been drawn across the only window, so that just a few thin strips of light filtered through the gaps between the old slats into the half-lit gloom beyond.
In the center of the room was a low, wooden table. Jackie had dragged it up the stairs from the dining hall below. It was old and roughly made, but sturdy – Jackie had made sure of that before she had tied Lucy down to it with thick, baloth hide straps.
The red-eyed woman watched stone-faced as the demoness slowly came to. First a low, painful moan escaped from between Lucy’s dry, chapped lips. Then her black eyes blinked a few times, and she shook her head back and forth a bit, as if to clear it.
Then she tried to sit up, only to be held down by her restraints.
Jackie saw the demoness’s black eyes widen a little bit at that. But, if Lucy was overly concerned, her face didn’t show it. Instead, the demoness closed her eyes again, and her face seemed to tighten in concentration.
“It won’t work, you know,” Jackie said, her voice flat.
Lucy’s black eyes snapped back open again, and this time Jackie could detect a trace of fear in them.
The red-eyed woman stood up and walked slowly over to the table, dragging the wooden chair along behind her.
“That little parlor trick won’t work in here,” Jackie said. “Hush-Hush sealed this place up tight for me. No popping in, no popping out – unless you just walk out the front door, that is. And you won't be doing that.” She moved to stand directly over Lucy, and a kind of terrible smile formed on her face as she looked down at the tied-up demoness. “You know, I never did get the chance to thank you properly for finding my husher twins. But then you missed our meeting out in Aureg, didn’t you? Guess you had better things to do.”
Jackie slid the wooden chair up next to the table and sat back down on it. She leaned forward, so that her head was about level with Lucy’s.
“Where’s Mal?” Lucy asked. The demoness’s voice was thin and dry, and she winced as she spoke. The whole left side of her face was swollen and purple where Jackie had kicked her.
“Wrong question, Lucy,” Jackie said. “Though I’m intrigued that’s where your mind went first.”
She gave Lucy a pat on the shoulder, which drew a snarl from the demoness.
“Last I saw Mal, he was bleeding to death on the floor of Smokey’s old store. Now, as sure as I am that I killed him, I won’t flatter myself by taking it for granted. I know he’s one tough customer. So I’ve been trying to operate under the assumption that he’s out there somewhere, hopping mad and all fired-up to rescue you. Which suits me just fine, because it means I’ll get another chance to finish what I started, and I don’t like leaving a job half-done.” Jackie stood back up again, and rested a hand on the back of the chair. “But he shouldn’t be here for some time yet, which gives you and me the chance to have a little chat first.”
Lucy was silent for a moment. Then, suddenly, the demoness began to thrash atop the table, kicking with her legs and pulling with her arms, straining against her restraints in a desperate attempt to break free. But her movements were unnaturally slow and weak, and the thick hide belts held her fast.
“What did you do to me?” she said.
“Wrong question again, Lucy,” Jackie said. She could hear her own voice growing louder, feel the rage that was simmering inside her straining to burst through the cracks in her cool façade. “The right question is: What did you do to me? You always said that you wanted to see just how much demon I had in me, just what you might be able to unlock inside me if you found the right button to push? Well, you’re about to get your answer.”
“What are you talking about?” Lucy bared her teeth at the red-eyed woman. “I didn’t do anything to you. You’re the one who barged-in and just started shooting. Why are you doing this to us?”
“Wrong question!” Jackie shouted, causing Lucy to flinch. Her voice was trembling now, and she could feel her anger close to boiling out of control. “I told you that this would happen, Lucy. I told it to you as plain as I could, but maybe I didn't make myself clear enough, or maybe you didn't believe me. Because here we are, and now this ends in tears.”
Jackie was about to say something else, but she stopped herself. Looking down, she saw that her hand had curled itself around the grip of her revolver, and that the gun was halfway out of its holster. She stared down at her hand and blinked once, then twice. She could feel her own blood pulsing hot behind her eyes, and she had to look away from the gun in her hand.
Then she took a step to one side and lashed out with her booted foot, kicking the low wooden chair across the room. As she did, her mouth opened, and out came a kind of wailing growl. It was a deep, visceral noise somewhere between a sob and a scream, and it echoed strangely in her ears, as though it had come from someone other than herself.
Jackie DeCoeur had to close her eyes, had to force herself to take a few slow, deep breaths. She had to keep herself under control – she couldn’t afford to kill Lucy. She needed the demoness alive.
Slowly, she opened her eyes again. The racing of her heart seemed to have subsided a little, and her hand no longer seemed to have a mind of its own.
She walked over to where the chair had come to rest on the floor and picked it up. She dragged it back across to the table and sat down on it again. Then she drew her revolver and held it up above Lucy’s face.
“My whole life,” Jackie said, “I’ve made an effort to kill men clean when I had to kill them. Always in the heart or the head, nothing slow or painful. That was part of those ethics of mine which always seemed to disappoint you so much.”
Jackie swung out the revolver’s cylinder. Then she held the gun up over Lucy so that the bullets slid out of their chambers and fell down atop the demoness’s face. She watched Lucy’s black eyes squeeze shut as the bullets bounced off of her forehead and eyelids before rolling off to each side and falling noisily to the floor. Once that was done, Jackie snapped the cylinder back into place, and she bent over to set the empty revolver down on the floor.
Lucy reopened her eyes just as Jackie was sliding her knife out from inside her sleeve.
“But I think we both know those old rules don’t apply anymore,” Jackie said, shifting the knife slightly in her hand while her fingers found a good grip. “I have you to thank for that.”
Lucy’s mouth opened to speak, but Jackie clamped a hand down over it. Leaning in close, the red-eyed woman held the knife up in front of the demoness's face, turning it slowly so that the blade glinted ever so slightly in the dim light.
“Now's my turn to ask the questions, Lucy," she said, her voice seething, any trace of composure long since vanished. “And you'd better answer me truthfully, because, if I think you're lying to me – if I even suspect it – I am going to start cutting on you."
Jackie held the knife under Lucy's neck, and she pressed its point up against the demoness’s skin.
“Truth be told, I've never cut anyone up before – remember those ethics I used to have? So this is going to be a learning experience for me. But I'm usually a fast learner, and I swear on my mother's grave that I will make you beg me to kill you before I'm done. So, when I ask you a question, I want you to think really carefully before answering, okay?"
Jackie could feel the demoness trying to nod her head.
“Okay, then,” she said. She took her hand off the demoness’s mouth and used it to grab a handful of Lucy’s black hair instead, which she used to hold the black-eyed woman’s head in place. “First question: What did you do to Trotter?”
“I didn’t do anything to him,” Lucy snarled. “I don’t even know who that is!”
“I don't believe you,” Jackie said. She pressed the knife in harder beneath Lucy's chin, so that the point of the blade broke the demoness’s pale skin, and a small trickle of blood started to flow out from around the tiny wound.
“Next question,” Jackie said, her voice rising dangerously. “Where is he? Where did you take him?”
“You’re not listening,” Lucy said, her black eyes flashing with anger. “I didn’t take him.”
“I don't believe you!” Jackie said again. Her face was flushed, and she was shouting. She took the knife away from Lucy's neck and held it up so that the point was just inches away from the demoness's eye. “Where is he?”
“I don’t know – I didn’t take him,” Lucy said again. Then the demoness laughed a low, sadistic laugh which sent a shiver down Jackie’s spine. “But I wish I had. Because I do know a thing or two about cutting people up, and I’d be happy to give you some pointers. I’ll demonstrate on him, and I’ll make you watch. You wouldn’t believe how loud people can scream, red-eyes. I know ways to hurt people that you’ve never even dreamt of.”
Jackie had to fight the urge to drive the knife through the demoness’ eye. She knew that Lucy was trying to provoke her, trying to get her to kill her before it was time. But, even with that knowledge, it took every ounce of strength Jackie possessed to keep her hand still.
“It had to be you!” Jackie shouted, the knife quivering in her hand. “You were the only one who knew. There was a black-eyed woman at the casino, and a black-eyed man. It had to be you!”
Lucy laughed again. “That’s what this is all about? You’ve been played. Somebody played you like a fiddle, and look at you dance!” The demoness’s tone turned mocking. “After I kill you, I’m going to find whoever it was that played you, and I’m going to shake their hand. Then I’m going to kill them, too.”
“You really expect me to believe that? That you’re innocent in all this?”
“Why not?” Lucy said. “Seems like you’ll believe anything.”
Jackie hesitated for a moment. The demoness had no reason to lie to her, and nothing to gain from it. Was it possible – just possible – that she was telling the truth?
She shook her head.
“Time’s up, Lucy,” Jackie said. Again, she brandished the knife. “Last chance, and I mean it: Where is my friend?”
“I. Don't. Know.”
The red-eyed woman put the knife down on the table. Bending down, she picked up the revolver from the floor, along with a single bullet, which she snapped into the cylinder before poking the end of the barrel into the spot between Lucy's black eyes.
“Maybe I’ll get a little more honesty from Mal when I see him again,” Jackie said. She pulled the hammer back with a click. “Any last message you want me to give him?”
Looking down the barrel of her gun at the demoness, Jackie expected to see fear, or panic. Instead, Lucy’s face contorted into a look of rage, and her black eyes flashed with a feral, almost animalistic anger. The demoness snarled like a cornered animal, and she strained beneath her bindings, as though she wanted to rip Jackie’s neck out with her bared, pointed teeth.
“I’m going to make you suffer,” she said, her voice a kind of rasping snarl, her words laced with sadistic malice. “Even if you kill me, I’m going to make you suffer like you never even dreamed was possible. So go ahead, pull the trigger – it won’t do you any good. Because I’ll be waiting for you, down in the deepest and darkest of the seven Hells, because that’s where demons like us go, and I doubt I’ll be waiting long. And when I get my hands on you?” Lucy laughed her high, mirthless laugh, and she flexed her thin, clawed fingers. “I’m going to have fun with you, red-eyes. I’m going to have some real fun.”
Jackie felt her jaw clench. Her finger tightened around the trigger, and she was just about to squeeze it when she took one last look at Lucy’s eyes.
She looked right, straight down into the black depths of Lucy’s soulless, demonic eyes. She searched deep inside them for anything resembling humanity, any trace of compassion, or empathy, or understanding. She saw nothing like that.
Instead, what she saw was herself.
She saw her own red eyes reflected back up in Lucy’s black ones. But she saw something more than that, too. She saw herself teetering on the edge of a deep, dark pit of elemental blackness, saw herself with one foot over the edge, just a single step away from falling down into a darkness from which she knew she would never escape.
It was that darkness which Lucy had claimed to see inside of her, which the demoness had been so eager to baptize her in.
It was that darkness which people had accused her of harboring her whole life. The darkness they said lurked in her blood. The darkness they said marked her from birth.
She had always believed them wrong.
But now her anger had taken her to within an inch of proving them right.
All she had to do was pull the trigger. Every single fiber of her being wanted to do it. Her feelings of rage – still very present, still very real – screamed at her to do it. Her sense of justice clambered for it as well. How many lives had Lucy cut short, after all? Whether or not she and Mal had taken Trotter, and she was starting to wonder if maybe – just maybe – they hadn’t, what right did either of them have to ask for mercy, much less to expect it?
Wouldn’t the Waste be a better place without the snarling, sadistic, black-eyed demoness – whose life she held in her hands – in it?
Jackie DeCoeur’s finger hovered over the trigger for a second, then two, then three, as she searched inside herself for the signs of humanity which had been so conspicuously absent within the demoness.
Then, slowly, the red-eyed woman closed her eyes, and her finger slipped away from the trigger. Carefully, she removed the revolver from Lucy’s face, and she let the hammer back down onto an empty chamber. Then she let her hand with the gun in it fall limply down to her side, and she exhaled slowly through her nose.
“I guess you were right after all, Lucy,” Jackie said. “I guess I do have a soul.”
Then she turned and walked away from the table. She walked towards the open door which led out of the dark, dusty room.
From over her shoulder, she could hear Lucy screaming at her.
“I’m disappointed, red eyes!” the demoness called. “You were so close – so close!” Lucy let out a harsh cackle. “Oh, But don’t worry! I’ll make a proper demon out of you yet! Just you wait until I get loose!” Lucy’s voice devolved into a throaty and malicious hiss, and Jackie paused with her hand on the knob. For a moment, she thought she would say something, but...
Instead, Jackie ignored the black-eyed woman’s taunts as she stepped out of the room and closed the door behind her.
“...This is the place?” Fisco muttered around a cigar. Mal glanced at him, leaning heavily on his left leg, and nodded. The sky was overcast - more with smoke than clouds - and everyone in the district for miles was either locked up tight or not breathing. No one dared to leave their homes, not after DeCoeur set fire to half a dozen buildings and put bullets in twice as many bodies.
He puffed at his cigar.
“How many are in there?” Fisco asked.
“Three… No, four.” Mal replied, shaking his head. “Something strange about two of them.”
“...Strange how?” Fisco pressed. Malzeth just shrugged, and returned his attention to the run-down bordello. Fair enough.
“Stay here.” Fisco ordered, and though Malzeth bared his teeth, he complied. The demon had been on tilt since Fisco had arrived, and it was unnerving. Malzeth was never on tilt, never off center. He was… Malzeth. He was a demon. Fisco supposed losing Lucy had hurt more than the old soulsucker had anticipated.
He could relate.
Fisco approached the building, and swung the door open.
A bullet embedded itself in the doorframe beside his shoulder. The crack of the gunshot faded, and the dusty, mostly empty room fell into silence once more. Fisco cocked an eyebrow at the shooter, who was sitting across the room with a smoking pistol and seven empty bottles. In between Fisco and the minotaur were several overturned chairs and tables, and on the far side, away from both of them, a caved-in stage. Must have been a bustling center of night-life. Once. Now, just a haven for a few bandits. Fisco glared at the shooter.
“I have standin’ orders to shoot whatever walks through th’door.” The minotaur slurred, leaning her head back against the wall and peering owlishly down her snout at Fisco. “Though I reckon I’ve made’m sittin’ orders since then.” She fired the pistol again. Not even close. The bullet might have hit the ceiling.
“Dazie, what’s-” A rattler burst through a door in the back, brandishing a pistol. He appeared to be in a greater state of sobriety, and looked Fisco up and down, before his eyes rested on the faint glow of Fisco’s cigar. “...I don’t get paid enough for this dung.” He grumbled, dropping his pistol on the ground resignedly and putting his hands behind his head.
The minotaur - Dazie - fired another bullet, and the rattler nearly slid out of his skin. Fisco chuckled.
“Sharps, it’s just like Jackie said!” Dazie exclaimed, finally losing control over her weapon and dropping it. “Ol’ Smokey himself come to burn us away.”
“I’m not here to kill you.” Fisco pointed out. If this was the sort of gang Jackie was running with, she needed to find a more capable posse. This was just sad. Granted, the minotaur had probably filled all four of her stomachs with whiskey, and the rattler drooped exhaustedly. They both looked so… defeated.
“...That so?” Sharps muttered, folding his arms. Dazie, for her part, appeared to have blacked out. The rattler glanced at her. “...really wish she hadn’t washed away all the whiskey. I could use a stiff drink right about now.”
“Look,” Fisco began, “I just need to know where Jackie is.”
The rattler stared at him.
“So you can kill her.”
Fisco pulled the cigar out of his mouth.
“She’s gone off the deep end.” He pointed out. “Now, I’m normally fine with letting her do her own thing, but she’s recently…” He held up a finger, and brought to mind the sort of things Mal had told her Jackie had been up to. “Set fire to a railhouse,” he put up another finger, “A brothel,” another, “and a casino.” Fisco dropped his hand. “And she’s shot more people in broad daylight than I have fingers for. Didn’t she pull the teeth out of someone’s head while she was at it?”
Sharps was no longer looking at Fisco, he was just hanging his head. Fisco put the cigar back into his mouth.
“Now she’s got some of my property.” Fisco continued to explain. “And she should know better than to try and take from Smokey, now shouldn’t she?” Fisco punctuated this statement with a billow of smoke from his mouth - far more than the cigar would have produced.
“G-gods, you really…” Sharps straightened, but still did not look directly at the Shark. “Just… Look, I’m obligated to ask...” He sighed. “Do you know where Trotter is?”
Fisco blinked, and then, several pieces fell into place.
“...You’re telling me Jackie has kidnapped my employee and set fire to half of Verkell…” He pulled the cigar out of his mouth with a sneer. “Because someone kidnapped her old beau?”
“You know who Trotter is?” He managed to stammer. Fisco sighed in disgust.
“Of course I do!” He snarled. “I’ve known about the silvercoat for as long as I’ve been dealing with Jackie - a liability like that was bound to be exploited, but I couldn’t spend the resources to watch the stupid kit!” All at once, the anger fled Fisco, and his head hurt. He put on palm on his forehead, and sighed deeply. He… had not thought that one through.
Trotter was someone Fisco had found out about almost immediately, but had decided it was not worth his time to interact with. He had gone to Presto instead, and put the fox out of his mind. He had no reason to believe that Trotter - who, he had heard, used to spend more time with Jackie than anyone - still knew anything about DeCoeur. Or that they even corresponded anymore.
But if Jackie had torn a bloody swath through the city to find him…
...Gods, this was The Pit all over again.
Fisco clenched his teeth.
“Tell me where Jackie is.” Fisco growled, pointing his cigar at Sharps. Smoke began trailing out of the end of it, to curl along the floor towards the rattler. Sharps put his hands up.
“A-alright!” He stammered. “You’ll want to talk to Hush-Hush.” Then, he slid around, and beckoned for Fisco to follow him into the back room. Fisco raised an eyebrow, but knew better than to look a gift acridian in the mandible and followed Sharps, picking his way around the scattered and overturned furniture.
Once back there, he blinked at the two people he saw sitting quietly, eyes shut, on a closed chest. They were perfectly identical, and as he entered the room, their eyes snapped open simultaneously to regard him with patient coldness. Fisco glanced around the room to make sure there was nothing funny going on, but it looked like an abandoned preparation area, and he supposed that was all it was.
“Hush-Hush, this is Ol’ Smokey.” Sharps introduced wearily. “I know you’ve been interested in keeping to your names recently, but I’d like for you to tell him where to find Jackie so he doesn’t spread our blood all over this fancy carpet.” Fisco scowled and blew a stream of smoke from his nose. For their part, Hush-Hush just watched him. Fisco watched them right back, and he was both a little proud and very irritated that they seemed unfazed by his introduction. At least Jackie knew how to keep at least one unflappable person around - even better, two. He hoped it would not be an issue, though. He did not feel up to torture at this very moment, and Mal was feeling under the weather. He really, really, did not want to have to call in Xeran for this.
It was Sharps who broke the silence first.
“Hush-Hush!” He snapped, a growl in his throat as he leaned forward. “Jackie’s gone sun-addled mad, and you being tight lipped isn’t going to help her none!” The twins blinked placidly at the rattler. “Now you know she’s gonna get herself killed if she keeps this up - you saw what I saw! This isn’t about professionalism anymore, this is about Jackie! So unseal your damnable lips before she does something she can’t take back!”
Fisco removed his cigar from his mouth, and gazed at Sharps with something like respect. He tapped a few ashes off the tip of the cigar, and looked expectantly at Hush-Hush.
A beat of silence.
“There is an abandoned orphanage south of here.” They spoke together, in harmony, and Fisco suppressed a shiver at the strangeness of it. “It is on the corner of Jingle Street and Providence - though the street signs have worn away. It has been marked 'condemned.' If we were to guess, she would be there, as our services were utilized on that building.”
“Thank you kindly.” Fisco muttered, and turned on his heel to leave. He felt a clawed hand on his shoulder, and whipped his head around to gaze balefully at Sharps. The rattler recoiled his hand as if he had been burned, his tongue flickering out of his mouth nervously.
“Look, I don’t know what mess Jackie’s gotten herself into with you. She talked a big game about dealing with Smokey, but I just thought she was bluffing.” His voice was controlled, but Fisco could see fear in the rattler’s eyes. “I don’t got much to offer you, but I figured I might as well beg - if you can bring her to her senses…” Fisco glared up at the snake, who refused to meet his gaze, his tail coiling about as he shrunk beneath Fisco’s stare. Smoke crept out from the corner of the Shark’s mouth.
“...And if I can’t?” Fisco asked slowly.
“...Then she’s as good as dead anyway, Smokey.” The rattler hissed. “Because that’s not the Jackie DeCoeur I signed up with.” Fisco let those words hang in the air for several tense moments as he mulled it over.
Then, he nodded tersely, and without another word, left the bordello.
Fisco could not be bothered to laugh as he looked down at the wooden plank. Before him stood an old, decrepit building, with a gate that had long since rusted and fallen away. A short path led up to the doorway, cracked and broken by the Jakkardian sun and lack of care. Where the gate had been, there was only a toppled sign, which was what he was staring at now.
"Sisterhood of Angelic Mercy’s Home for..."
Fisco snorted and kicked the plank out of his way. Behind him, Malzeth twitched.
“We’re taking our time because Diana’s checking the place over for traps.” He told Malzeth before the demon could begin asking questions. Graciously, Malzeth only growled and began pacing. The trip around Verkell had worn thin the patience of the demon, and Fisco was uncertain how much longer he would be able to appeal to Malzeth’s sense of rationality before he had to start invoking compulsions.
He would rather not walk into someplace where those strange “Hush-Hush” women had worked their magic without checking it over, though. He sent a mental impression of impatience to Diana, who was around the other side of the orphanage, and she replied with the mental equivalent of a disapproving stare.
Well, a few more minutes, then. Fisco held four fingers up for Malzeth, who only grunted and continued to pace. Fisco just put his hands into his pockets, and stared at the distant doorway. He had not seen any movement between the wood of the boarded up windows, and no one had tried to shoot him yet. Either Jackie knew he was here and did not care, or she was too busy… well. She was busy.
At least there was not any screaming. Or witnesses. Maybe they could still get out of this clean. Because he needed to wash his hands of Jakkard, and soon - but he could not do that unless Jackie cooperated.
And it was all because of that… woman. The Duchess. She had roped him into all this. Manipulated him. She… knew things. That Fisco was certain nobody knew. He had a certain amount of grudging respect for how easily she had outmaneuvered him, but mostly, the constant pressure of the threats she had made… Well, he was itching to get off of Jakkard like she wanted.
But he knew her type, and he knew she would never let him go without turning a profit. She had made her demands. And Fisco had no choice but to meet them.
Diana took that moment to reappear by his side. He cocked an eyebrow, and she nodded her head.
Fisco felt for the gun inside of his coat.
“Alright, let’s get this over with.” He muttered, and marched down the dirt path towards the abandoned orphanage. When he got to the door, he motioned for Malzeth and Diana to stay outside, then locked eyes with Malzeth. Malzeth returned the gaze furiously, but eventually, averted his gaze. Satisfied, Fisco knocked on the door.
From inside, he heard a hollow laugh.
He took that as an invitation, and opened the door before stepping inside.
The room was dark - it was just after sunset, and the entire area had been thrown into shadows and fire. The central room of this building appeared to be an exception - there were only shadows here. Still, from the light that filtered in from behind him, Fisco saw a figure sitting against the far wall, one knee up.
The fading sunlight caught one red eye, which shone like anger made real.
Fisco took several steps towards Jackie DeCoeur.
She pointed her gun at him, and he stopped in his tracks. He had not even seen her holding it.
“Alright, Smokey.” Jackie rasped, and then cleared her throat. “Not another step forward.” Her eyes flicked to his feet. "See that line there on the floor?"
Fisco looked down. Beneath the years of accumulated dust and decades of scuff marks left behind by the restless heels of tiny shoes, he could see the ghost of a white stripe painted across the length of the rotting wooden floor.
"Sure. What about it?" he asked.
He could see her red eyes staring at him through the gloomy halflight from across the long room.
"Every morning, before we ate our breakfast, the sisters made us line up there," she said. Her voice sounded tired and distant. "Partly it was to make sure we all came down on time. If you weren't in line when the bell sounded, you didn't eat that day. But also they were lining us up for a kind of inspection. Each day, the Supreme Mother would come down from her office, and she would parade past us, looking at us, judging us. She would look every single child in the eyes, like just to look at you she could tell if you'd been up to no good."
The woman turned away from him and stared up at the ceiling.
"Except for me," she said. "Every single day, when the Supreme Mother got to where I was standing, she would just look right up at the rafters, and she would hold up two fingers in front of my face, to ward off the evil eye."
Jackie looked back down at Fisco, and she imitated the hand gesture that superstitious foxes made for protection against malign creatures.
"Very touching," Fisco said. "I'm not saying it isn't a gripping story, or a fascinating look into your formative years." Inside his coat, his hand still rested on the grip of his pistol. "But what's it got to do with me."
"It's got to do with the fact that, if you take a step over that line, I'm going to stop talking and I'm going to start shooting," Jackie said. "At which point, one of us isn't walking out of here. And, believe me, I know how bad my chances are, given who I'm talking to." He saw her shoulders shrug slightly. "But you never know. I've gotten lucky before."
Fisco grunted. But he didn't try to move any closer.
"I talked to Mal," he said. "He swears that they didn't lay a finger on your missing friend."
Jackie was quiet for a long moment.
"And they can't lie to you, can they?"
"No. They can't."
"You can lie to me, though."
Fisco sighed. Inside his coat, he took his hand off of his gun and, reaching inside a different pocket, found a cigar instead, which he lit and put into his mouth. He sat down on one of the low, wooden benches which ran along either side of the long table which dominated the center of the room.
"Sure I could," he said. "But why would I?"
Again, the woman looked away from him.
"I have no idea," she said. "Believe me, I have been asking myself that question over and over again for some time now. And I have no idea. That's why we're trading words instead of bullets right now."
Fisco puffed at his cigar, letting his shoulders droop. At the very least, DeCoeur seemed to have burned out of her anger. He glanced at the red-eyed woman, who was watching him, and… gods, did she ever look miserable. The eyes took away from it, but the dark circles around them were deeper than most graves Fisco had dug.
He remembered seeing dark bruises like that in the mirror.
...He was about to do something stupid.
“DeCoeur.” He grunted, pulling the cigar out of his mouth. “I’m going to level with you, here. I don’t think anything but honesty is going to get us very far.”
Jackie shifted where she sat, eyes narrowing. Fisco just shook his head.
“I’ve been had, red-eyes.” Fisco muttered. “I’ll spare you the details - but do you know what a planeswalker is?” Jackie shook her head. Fisco hummed. “The rattlers call them ‘Star Folk’.” Jackie shifted her weight, placing her arm on one knee, her gun hanging loose in her grip.
“...Sharps mentioned that.” She murmured. “Never put much stock in myths.” Fisco cocked an eyebrow, and snorted out a puff of smoke.
“Just ghost stories?” He asked, and that got him a weary sort of chuckle. Fisco coughed. “Well, they’re no myth, and I’m one of them. How old do I look to you?”
“Not a day over fifty.”
“I’m somewhere along the lines of one-hundred and thirty.” He sucked on his cigar. “Being a planeswalker… you look up into the sky, DeCoeur, and you see all those stars. All those bits of light you’ll never reach? I can just… walk. Right up to them. And there’s people, and worlds, all across that great blackness, and I’ve sunk my claws into more of them than I can rightly keep track of. Jakkard.” Fisco stubbed out his cigar on the bench. “Is just one bit of sand in the wastes of the eternities.”
There was a long silence.
“...You’re talking over my head here, Smokey.” Jackie told him. “Not that this isn’t a gripping story, or a fascinating look into your formative years…” Fisco snorted.
“My point is, for all the power I’ve got, I’m not the biggest baloth in the pen. Not by a long shot.” Fisco sighed, and ran a hand through his hair. “There are others like me - planeswalkers, star folk - and they’re… older. More powerful…”
“...Something’s spooked Ol’ Smokey.” Jackie murmured, almost in awe. “Somethings got you set to running.”
“Someone.” Fisco corrected. “...I’ll keep the details to myself, for your own safety. But this someone was mighty interested in your assets, and… persuaded me to get them from you.” When the pistol whipped upward, Fisco did not flinch.
“You set me up?” Jackie growled, eyes flashing dangerously. “You set me up this whole time?”
“Gods, get it together DeCoeur!” Fisco snarled, jumping to his feet. “What makes you think I couldn’t have just killed you and dumped your corpse into a ditch, huh? What makes you think I couldn’t have moved everything you own into my accounts so fast your head would spin? Someone very powerful, and very dangerous, wants what you have, and it was my idea to make sure you hand it over peaceably! You are alive because of me, red-eyes! I’ve been covering for your sorry hide for months!”
Fisco was breathing heavily, and Jackie did not lower the gun. Both their eyes were narrowed, both their mouth set grimly.
“Then who took Trotter?” Jackie hissed. “I know you, Ol’ Smokey. You’ve got more blood on you than a slaughterhouse. You killed minotaurs in the streets. You burned people so quick their souls vanished. I know you, Smokey, and you ain’t never been one to forego violence - why should I assume Trotter’s the exception?”
Fisco set his shoulders - and then let them droop. He sighed heavily, and turned around.
“You don’t know me half as well as you might think.” He whispered. “People tell those stories, but they don’t know why. All they remember is Smokey, and they forgot why he turned north Verkell into a graveyard.”
Fisco heard the sound of the hammer clicking back on Jackie’s gun.
“Why then?” She demanded. “Make me understand, Smokey, because you’ve always been a killer to me!”
“...Her name was Cosette.” Fisco told her. “And they took her from me.”
There was a heartbeat of silence, then the sound of a gun clattering to the floor. Fisco glanced over his shoulder, and saw Jackie DeCoeur with one hand over her eyes, with her head towards the ceiling. For a moment, she just shook. Then, with a thick voice, she spoke.
“...Will you help me find Trotter?” She pleaded. “I don’t want to be a ghost story.”
Fisco took a deep breath.
“Yeah, DeCoeur. I can do that.” He grunted. “I’ll need you to sign your rails over to me when all is said and done.”
Jackie did not move.
“Anything.” She managed.
Fisco looked away once more, and it was several minutes before either of them spoke. In the interim, there was just silence, and if Fisco heard the occasional muffled sob, he did not comment on it. Finally, he spoke.
"Is Lucy here?" He asked.
After a moment’s hesitation, he heard Jackie sigh, and so he turned around. The red-eyed woman was more red-eyed than before, but her face was set with a look of grim determination. This was reassuring, even if Fisco was not sure how much of it was for show. "She's upstairs," Jackie explained, and gestured towards a narrow staircase off to Fisco's side.
"She in one piece?"
Jackie nodded again.
"If Mal comes in here to get her, can you play nice, or do I need to keep you two separated?" Jackie’s red eyes narrowed.
"I won't do anything to Mal," Jackie said. "I don't know how he feels about things."
"He knows the rules," Fisco reassured her tersely. "He'll follow them."
Fisco turned around to face the door, which had remained open by a crack since he'd let himself in. Briefly, he wondered how much of this exchange Malzeth and Diana had heard. The pair had remained silent this whole time, though Fisco was unsure what exactly that meant. He was pretty sure they had not killed each other, though. Small mercies.
"Mal, you can come in," he called out. "A ceasefire is declared."
The door opened slightly, and Fisco could see Mal's shadowy figure appear, lit from behind by the fading light from the street outside, so that the demon's silhouette was dark and distinct. The demon took a few hesitant, suspicious steps into the room.
"Where's Lucy?" he asked, making no effort to hide the agitation in his voice. Fisco nodded his head in the direction of the nearby stairs. Malzeth looked over at the waiting staircase. Then he looked out across the room, where Jackie's red eyes were watching him from her seat at the wall.
"This isn't over," the demon said, his gaze fixed on the woman who had shot him.
Jackie closed her eyes wearily, briefly, and then directed a piercing glare at Malzeth.
"Yes it is," Jackie said firmly. "I've done you a wrong, which I can't undo, and you've got the right to want three things from me in return. The first's an apology, which I'm giving you now, full and unreserved. Like I said, I did you and Lucy wrong, and I'm genuinely sorry about that. That doesn't make either of you whole, I know, but there it is."
The red-eyed woman looked away from the demon to stare down at her own hands.
"Second thing's restitution. And the restitution I can offer you is this: If I lay hands on the man or woman who did all this, I will settle that debt. Of that you have my solemn assurance."
Jackie looked back up at Malzeth again.
"Third thing you want from me is revenge," she said, "and you're within your rights to want it. But that is one thing I can't give you. I'm not saying that's fair, but I am saying that's the way its got to be." She sighed. "If you really want to try for revenge, then I guess I can't stop you. But, for all the damage the three of us have done to each other, we're all still alive and breathing, which is a near enough miracle the way I figure it. I think it would be a shame to throw that away."
For what felt like minutes, Mal simply stood where he was. He stared at Jackie DeCoeur, his expression stuck somewhere between a grimace of pain and a look of contempt.
Finally, without saying a word, he turned to one side and strode over towards the stairs. Fisco and Jackie watched silently as the demon swiftly ascended the steps, their eyes on his back until it disappeared around a corner, and his footsteps faded away.
Fisco turned back to look at Jackie.
"Right," he said, "You and I, we've got a mess to clean up." He started to walk towards where the red-eyed woman was sitting.
Faster than Fisco could blink, the woman was on her feet and holding an arm out towards him. "Stop!" she called out.
Fisco drew up short. His face furrowed into a frown. "What is it now?" he asked, annoyed.
"You might want to look where you're about to step," Jackie said.
Fisco looked down at the painted white line on the floor a few paces in front of where he stood. "You've got to be kidding me, DeCoeur," he grumbled. "I figured we were past all this."
"Not the line," Jackie said. "Look a pace or two past the line. Look real carefully."
Fisco's eyes swept forward across the floor. Then, slowly, his eyes narrowed.
The tripwire was so thin, it was hard to see, even once he knew to be looking for it. In the heat of the moment, it would have been dangerously easy to miss, especially after the nearby white line had been made the focus of his attention.
"Oh, very clever," he said. "Very clever indeed." He looked at Jackie. "Just me, or both of us?"
A faint grin crept across the red-eyed woman's face. "The sangrite is mostly below your side of the room," she said. "But I stacked enough of it down there that I suspect they'd be finding little pieces of both of us for weeks to come."
In spite of himself, Fisco gave a low chuckle.
“I’m not sure how Diana would have taken that.” Fisco mused. Jackie cocked an eyebrow.
“I’ll introduce you on the way out.” He turned on his heel, away from the deadly trap. “We wait any longer, and the trail is going to go cold.” He heard Jackie’s footsteps behind him as she skirted the explosives, and glanced at her as she approached. Her gun was holstered, and her face was grim, but calm. She nodded at him.
“Right.” Jackie walked past the Shark. “You and me have got a fox to find.”
Lucrecia, as it turned out, was perfectly fine. She glared daggers at Jackie, who refused to look at the demoness, but Fisco could hardly fault her for that. At least Lucy had less objections to Diana’s presence than Malzeth had. Fisco had to constantly stop Lucy from trying to kill Jackie, and he was not exactly willing to baby sit Lucy if she was going to be childish. He took her to one side.
“Lucy, I need you to focus.” Fisco hissed, and Lucrecia growled.
“She shot Mal, boss. You’re going to let her get away with that?”
“It was a set up!” Fisco snapped. “You know that as well as me - so what say we turn our anger to who’s responsible instead of trying to rip each other’s throats out?”
“...S’long as I get to kill something, boss.” Lucy muttered sullenly, dark eyes flashing.
“You will - but first, I need you to find Trotter. Dig up whatever you can. Take Mal. If the fox is dead, just point us in the right direction and we’ll blanket the area in flames. If he’s alive, I want his prison cased.”
Lucy gave him a funny look.
“Almost feel like I should thank whoever did this.” She remarked. Fisco raised an eyebrow, and Lucy just shrugged. “This is more action than I’ve seen in years, boss.” And with that, she trotted over to Malzeth - after sending a hateful glare at Jackie - and the two demons vanished. Jackie watched them go, but did not say anything. Fisco noticed the red-eyed woman was keeping her distance from Diana, who, of course, was as impassive as ever.
Fisco informed Jackie that they were going to fetch the rest of her posse, and the color drained from the woman’s face. She asked if they could skip that part, but Fisco would not hear of it - they were going to get all the help they could. And if Jackie had to face up to the people she had put through the ringer, well, it would do her some good.
It was more accountability than Fisco had ever had.
Dazie was still unconscious when they returned to the bordello in the early hours of the morning, but she was also in the same spot. Jackie laughed helplessly at the Minotaur’s fallen state, and set about to rousing her crew. Though Diana standing behind him earned a few discreet glances, mostly he just watched DeCoeur apologize for her behavior. Her crew was loyal, though, and forgave her instantly. Fisco became reaquainted with Presto - the old man avoided Fisco like he was diseased - and met a jittery noggle by the name of Shakes who was supposed to be the best train engineer under the sun. Hush-Hush stood to one side… watching. Jackie only exchanged a few words with the twins.
Sharps nodded in Fisco’s direction, reptilian face plaintive. Fisco began smoking a cigar.
Then, he shut everyone up and got down to planning.
Lucy and Mal would be back with their information soon - with any luck. Fisco took stock of their supplies, and the capabilities of each member of this motley crew of misfits. It was decided that Presto and Shakes would stay behind - unless Trotter was so far out that they needed to take a train. Dazie left to go “rustle up some acridians” despite her hangover, while Jackie caught a bit of fitful sleep in one corner of the bordello.
Lucy and Mal ended up returning before Dazie did.
Fisco woke Jackie, whose eyes flew open wide. Lucy was hanging back in the shadows, but Mal stepped forward to address Fisco.
“...Old rivals of mine took him.” Malzeth explained. “A coven of djinn and demons that always thought I hadn’t earned what I got. Banded together a few years ago, which made it tricky to take them down. They’d been quiet recently - I was only beginning to wonder why.” His eyes flicked over to Jackie. “I should’ve wondered sooner.”
“Trotter’s there?” Jackie demanded. “He’s alive?”
Mal nodded, sneering.
“Didn’t get a good look at him, but I felt his pulse. They got him locked up tight.”
Jackie’s shoulders fell with relief.
“Where is it?” Fisco asked, and Lucy stepped forward.
“Far north - no trains run out that way. It’ll be a few days of hard riding for those of us…” She glanced at several of the mortals. “...less suited to travel. It’s an abandoned mining town, their operational hub. The entire place is crawling with nightstalkers and djinn mindlsaves. This… won’t be an easy run.”
“If we may offer our services.” The husher twins spoke, and everyone turned to look at where they had been watching, silently, for the past several hours. “Given appropriate descriptions and directions, we can transport the majority of those gathered here to the location of our choosing, after a few hours of preparation.”
“...Dazie’s not going to be happy she went out for nothing.” Jackie remarked with a dry chuckle. The twins bowed their heads.
Jackie turned her attention to Fisco.
“Well? Do we have a shot at pulling this off?”
Fisco puffed at his cigar, and glanced at Malzeth.
“Give me thirty seconds alone with any one of those thrice-damned bastards.” Malzeth growled. “You’ll never forget the screams.” Lucy was nodding along with a dark look. Fisco turned to Diana.
She simply nodded.
“DeCoeur.” Fisco said, nodding at the red-eyed woman. “We’re going to make these sorry cusses wish they’d never been born.”
Jackie grinned savagely.
Dazie lumbered in through the front door.
“I’ve got the bugs.” She called, and stopped to blink at the gathering in front of her. “...Did I miss something?” Jackie laughed, and walked over to clap her old friend on the shoulder.
“Not much, Dazie, but I’ve got some bad news…”
Fisco watched as Jackie’s crew, Malzeth, and Lucy all prepared to leave. Diana stood beside him, her presence familiar and comfortable. Still…
He could not shake the uneasy feeling in his gut.
IV. No Room Left
The Husher twins were as good as their word - Lucrecia provided the location, and the twins provided the magic. It was not long before Fisco, Jackie, Diana, the twins, Dazie, Sharps, Mal, and Lucy, were all standing behind a ridge, out of sight of the abandoned settlement below, under the cover of night. The town itself was settled into the crook of a mountain, and surrounded by slabs of rock taller than the buildings. There was only one way in, and one way out. Luckily, they had already bypassed the entrance.
Mal pointed to a building, almost directly beneath them.
“He’s in there.” Was all the demon said.
“Alright. Mal, me, you, and Lucy are going to run in and grab trotter.” He glared at Jackie as she began to protest. “Jackie, Diana, Dazie, Sharps - we’ll need a distraction. Hush-Hush…” The twins gazed at him quizzically. “You keep them quiet.”
“We will endeavor to do so.”
“I don’t like this, Smokey.” Jackie growled. “I should be making sure Trotter’s alright.”
“You want him alive, or do you want to get shot before you get to see him again?” Fisco retorted, and stared down the red-eyed woman. Eventually she looked away. “Play to our strengths, DeCoeur. Go do some damage.”
Red-Eyed Jackie DeCoeur stared down at the mining town for several long moments. Then, she drew her gun.
“...Right, Dazie, Sharps - lets’ go see what we can do.” The minotaur hefted her large weapon, and followed Jackie and the rattler down the back of the ridge.
“...Make sure they don’t get into much trouble.” Fisco told Diana as he watched them go. The angel nodded, and took wing, before vanishing into the still night.
The Husher twins closed their eyes.
“How do we know when to go in?” He asked.
Several minutes later, Jackie, Sharps, and Dazie were crouched behind a particularly large boulder, with the rattler peering around one side. They could not see much with only the stars out, but Sharps could see better than any of them.
“I see two vash. Slaves, probably. If there’s demonspawn about, though, I’d imagine the nightstalkers are hiding in the shadows.”
“...Could be tricky fighting things we can’t see.” Jackie muttered. “But then, we don’t got the easy part of this operation. Dazie - care to remind me how much of a wallop that peashooter packs?” The minotaur hefted the enormous barrel of her gun, and shook her horns.
“Gladly, Miss DeCoeur.” The minotaur agreed.
She stepped out from behind the boulder, aimed for half a second, and pulled the trigger.
As Jackie heard the explosion, she leapt over Sharps and drew her second gun, spotting the two slaves that Sharps had pointed out in the flare of Dazie’s weapon. One was already flying off of his feet, and she could not readily see where his arm had gone, but she aimed and put a bullet in the scaled head of the second one as he was reacting to the noise.
Sharps slithered out behind her, pistol at the ready and a long knife in his other hand.
There was no clattering of an alarm, but Jackie was not about to think they had gone unnoticed.
That was when the first of the nightstalkers showed up.
They were horrific creatures of thin limbs and sharp angles. Every corner of their bodies was pointed and shadowed, awful parodies of their mortal forms. They had no weapons but their wickedly sharp claws and their sharp, grinning teeth.
There were dozens of them.
“Fill em’ full of metal!” Jackie roared, and the night was filled with gunfire and the acrid smell of smoke. Dazie laid into the advancing nightstalkers from the hip, not bothering to aim. Several scattered in varying states of disrepair with every shot. Jackie flung bullets with the precision of a surgeon, making each shot count while slowly backing away from the menacing claws. Sharps - that crazy snake - dove right into the melee, mouth agape and hissing, filling the nightstalkers with lead and removing limbs with his knife. Several times his whip-like dexterity saved him from a lethal blow as he flowed through the nightstalkers like a predator.
Unfortunately, there was just too many of them.
A long, metal staff descended from the heavens crushing a screeching nightstalker just as Jackie needed to reload. She staggered back from the force of its fall, as something else struck the ground beside it. This time, she felt the ground actually shake, and in front of her, two enormous white wings unfurled.
“Begone, creatures of the night!” Diana shouted, and the world exploded into radiance.
Jackie had to cover her eyes, but all around her she heard the strangely muted screams of the nightstalkers - before they were abruptly cut off. When the light finally faded, and Jackie could look directly at the angel, Diana continued to glow, illuminating her surroundings. Dazie looked dumbstruck, and Sharps was nursing a large cut on his ribcage, but they were both fine otherwise.
Diana pulled her staff out of the ground.
All around the angel, black smudges of ash indicated where the nightstalkers had been obliterated.
“...The master comes.” Diana informed them, folding her wings. Jackie caught sight of the look of passive determination on the angels face, and began numbly reloading her gun.
She wondered what had ever possessed her to get on Smokey’s bad side in the first place.
Then, a figure appeared, shrouded in darkness.
“...That’s probably the signal.” Fisco remarked mildly, watching as the other side of the town exploded in a large ball of light. Lucy cackled, and Malzeth grunted. “Let’s get a move on, you two.” He glanced back at Hush-Hush, but they had their eyes closed and appeared to be… humming. ...Alright. Malzeth touched Fisco on the shoulder, and suddenly, they were rushing along the shadows, towards the house below.
Fisco stood back and watched as Lucy crushed the throat of two mindslaves, who were watching the slowly dimming light to the south. Fisco drew his gun as Malzeth kicked down the door of the small building, and followed the demon inside.
Fisco felt a wave of magic rush out to meet them, but called up a shimmering, effervescent ward in time to block it. Across the small room, standing above what appeared to be a trap door, stood a shirtless, blue skinned man. His eyes glinted gold in the fading light.
Malzeth growled as he fell to his knees, overtaken by whatever spell the djinn had cast. Fisco pointed his gun at the djinn, but Lucy ran screaming past Fisco, and pounced…
...into empty air, directly to the right of the djinn.
Then, the djinn vanished, and Fisco blinked. Lucy was in the process of throttling the djinn, bright red blood spurting out from beneath her fingers as her other hand dug into his golden eyes. Malzeth was getting to his feet, rolling his shoulders, and watching Lucy work. Fisco shook his head in disgust.
“Lucy watch our backs - Mal, down the hole.” Fisco was not sure if Lucy heard him, engaged as she was in her… work. Mal threw open the trap door, and hurried down the steps beneath. Fisco followed.
The tunnel had the unpleasant aroma of sulfur, and the silence of the grave. It must have been directly connected to the abandoned mine, somehow. Fisco muttered a brief spell that would allow him to see more clearly in the dark, and followed as Mal stalked down the tunnel. There were no branching paths, and the walls were slick with some sort of condensation.
It was almost a full minute before someone appeared to stop them. Black eyes stared out from above an angry sneer.
“Malzeth.” The demon growled. “I’d given you up for dead.”
“You’ll excuse me,” Malzeth told the demon dryly, “if I don’t remember your name.” The demon roared, producing a curved, black knife, and charged at Malzeth with blinding speed. All that speed did not save him from the grasp of Malzeth's magic, however.
Mal raised his hand with a growl of contempt, and the demon abruptly stopped with a strangled shout. The knife fell from his nerveless grip, and the he began floating in the air. The demon's eyes widened in panic.
Malzeth sneered, and curled his hand into a fist.
Fisco put up a minor barrier to shield himself from the explosion of blood.
Malzeth just grinned darkly. Fisco saw something black and smokey writhing in the demon's hand.
“Oh, I’m going to have fun with this one…” Malzeth muttered.
“...Go check on Lucy, I’ll go on ahead.” Fisco told the demon, who regarded him with a flat look before nodding. The smokey thing in his hand vanished, and he pushed past Fisco to walk back down the tunnel.
Fisco went forward.
Jackie was breathing heavily, and this demon was stoically refusing to die. Not even Malzeth had been this hard to take down.
The opening few moments of the fight had cost them Dazie, and Sharps had gone down shortly after. Jackie reassured herself that they were only unconscious, but that was mostly because she needed to focus on bringing this thing down before she could even think about that. At the moment, she was reloading her gun behind some rubble, while Diana and the demon went at it.
Diana was deadly. Jackie had never seen anyone move so fast, or do so much damage with a blunt object. The demon matched her blow for blow, however, and that was with his claws elongated to about a foot in length. Diana was holding her ground, but every blow she landed cost her a long gash, and the demon did not appear to be slowing down.
Hell, Jackie had seen the demon’s arm snap in half like a twig, and then snap right back into place.
This needed to end, and soon.
Jackie slotted the chamber back into her revolver, and leapt over the rubble to join the fight.
If Diana or the demon noticed Jackie running in from behind, they did not show it. It became evident, however, that Diana was aware, as she let out another burst of light that left the demon screaming, and Jackie half-blinded. Still, through her muddied vision she could make out the dark form of the demon. Diana took the opportunity of the demon’s blindness, and slammed her staff through his chest.
With a howl and a blast of malignant darkness, Diana was thrown off her feet, landing in a heap a few yards away. The demon struggled to extricate himself from the staff just as Jackie reached him. Bullets appeared to bounce off of his skin - but she hoped something a little closer to home would do the trick.
She kicked the demon off balance, and he fell into the staff with a roar. Then, she placed the gun directly against his temple-
She felt something long, sharp, wet, pierce her stomach-
Jackie pulled the trigger-
The demon’s head exploded in a shower of blood.
Jackie fell to the ground, clutching her stomach. She dropped her gun, apparently, and couldn’t rightly feel her fingers. Everything was sort of… blurry at the edges of her vision.
Dimly, in some far away place, a cold hand touched her shoulder.
There was a door at the end of the tunnel.
Fisco had lit a cigar as he approached it, and it smoked idly as it rested on his lips. Patiently, he checked his gun over. Six bullets in the chamber. Looked clean. If there was anyone in there - besides, ostensibly, Trotter - he was going to need to save his ammo. He had some questions.
So instead, he holstered his weapon, and fell into the old, familiar spell that made his body mostly immaterial. Then, he opened the door.
Predictably, there was a gunshot, and a bullet went through his throat. He puffed at his cigar as there was an explosion of smoke, and the bullet passed harmlessly through him. Two more gunshots, one through the eyes and the other going wide, and the hand that held the gun was shaking violently. Fisco looked around the room.
There was practically nothing in here besides a ratty old bed, a tied up fox, and the djinn with the gun. There was something about seeing fear in the solid gold eyes of a djinn that did Fisco’s black heart good. Not all immortal creatures were immune to fear like demons or angels.
He took a step towards the djinn.
The djinn emptied the chamber, then threw the gun on the ground with a startled curse. It looked like he was making to flee, so Fisco dropped pretense, and caught him in a noose made of shadow. Several more tendrils wrapped themselves around the djinn’s legs and arms as he struggled to rip the noose from his throat. Fisco stared up at the creature, and loosened the noose.
“Who hired you?” He demanded.
“What are y-” The djinn choke as Fisco tightened the noose once more, narrowing his eyes.
“Don’t lie to me.” Fisco warned. He loosened the noose once more. “Who hired you?”
“...Someone’s out to get you, Smokey. And I’m not going to be here when they come to find you.” The djinn managed, and then kicked out at Fisco. Fisco cursed - he had not known his leg had gotten free - and stepped back, losing concentration and dropping the spells. He moved to bind the djinn once more, but the djinn produced a gold plated knife-
And slit his own throat.
The corpse fell to the ground, gurgling once before falling still.
Fisco cursed, and kicked the body in the head.
This whole blasted thing did not add up! Who had lit the coin? Who had wanted Trotter kidnapped? Why? Why send Jackie into a flying rage? Where was the motive?
He growled, and then heard a whimper from the figure on the bed.
The only other sound was the insistent sound of dripping water.
Fisco strode over to where Trotter lay, and ripped of his blindfold. The fox’s eyes were wide in the darkness, his fur matted and dirty, but he was alive. Well… that was good news, at least. DeCoeur would be happy. Fisco tore the cloth out of the foxes mouth, and began working on the restraints.
The fox's whole body seemed to shake as Fisco worked to free him. His eyes blinked unseeingly, and he seemed disoriented. Then, suddenly, he spoke, in a voice which was weak, dry, and cracked.
“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,” Trotter said. As the words left his lips, his body shuddered, and tears filled his eyes.
...Alright, the fox was clearly not all here at the moment. Gods, he hoped that was not going to be permanent.
“I’m a friend of DeCoeur’s.” Fisco told him gruffly as he removed the last of the bonds. He helped Trotter to sit up as the fox rubbed at his wrists. “You caused me a fair bit of trouble getting kidnapped like that.”
Trotter's eyes blinked. Suddenly, his expression turned frantic, and he struggled against Fisco's grip.
"Where is she?" he said, his words tumbling out in a kind of fevered panic. "I have to see her. Where is she?"
...Fisco was not in the mood for this.
So, he blew a lungful of smoke in the fox’s face. Trotter presently fainted, his eyes rolling into the back of his head, and his body slumping over.
Fisco hefted the fox over his shoulder, and made his way towards the surface.
Jackie awoke slowly, the dim light of dawn.
She was on her back in the dirt, staring up at the sky. Her hat was gone, and so was her gun. Her hand went to her stomach. There were holes in her jacket, but no wounds. She heard voices to her left.
“We deduced that at least one individual would attempt escape.” It was Hush-Hush. “Besides the suppression field we placed upon the area, we also managed to apprehend and a djinn who was seeking egress during the battle. They proved most beneficial to our research, until they were inexplicably rendered inert.”
“...Right, well, as long as you weren’t standing around doing nothing.” She heard Fisco grumble. At his tone, she made a coughing laugh, and sat up. She glanced over at the twins, who were watching Fisco coolly, but turned to regard her as she moved. Fisco nodded.
“Rise and shine, DeCoeur.” He said as she got her bearings. “I’ve got a present for you.” Immediately, head still spinning slightly, she looked around.
Diana was tending to the unconscious figures of Dazie and Sharps a few feet away. Malzeth and Lucrecia… were nowhere to be seen. She would handle that later. Where-
She laughed, choked, and fell to her knees. Gods, she had almost tripped over him.
He looked like he’d been put through the ringer, alright. The fur around his wrists and ankles was rubbed away, and the skin beneath pink and raw. His fur was filthy, and his face matted with dried tears. His eyes were closed, but gently, in untroubled sleep. And he was breathing. Gods, he was breathing.
Jackie wept over Trotter’s prone form, afraid to touch him in case he disappeared.
She wanted to wake him, to hear him talk, to…
...Slowly, Jackie stood up, and wiped her eyes.
“Smokey, I need to talk to you.” She said, and Fisco who was speaking lowly with Diana, glanced over. Stiffly, he nodded, gave another terse order to Diana, and walked over to Jackie.
“What’s on your mind, DeCoeur?” He glanced at the unconscious fox. “Thought you’d want a few more minutes.” Jackie shook her head.
“I… I can’t face him right now. Not after what I put him through.” She paused as she fought back another wave of tears. "He's alive, and he's safe. That has to be enough for now. Because, if I stay with him, if I'm here when he wakes up?"
She trailed off for a second.
"If I'm here when he wakes up, I'll never be able to do what I know I have to do next."
Fisco said nothing.
Jackie stared towards the east. The sunrise was still a few minutes away.
"The Waste is changing, Smokey. You and your star folk kin, you're all going to change it, and I don't think I have it in me to change with it."
She sighed, and a kind of wistful look came over her face.
"The Waste is a hard place. Always has been. But I loved it for that. I loved that it was dirty, and disorderly, and dangerous, because that meant it was full of possibility. That meant it was the sort of place where, if you were smart enough, and quick enough, and had enough grit, you could make your own terms, and you could turn the whole world upside down. And, it should be said, you could get filthy rich in the process."
She offered him a wry smile.
"But now the star folk are back, and they're going to impose their will on the Waste, and they're going to call it progress. And maybe it is progress of a sort. I don't rightly know. But what I do know is that I can't beat them, not in any real way, no matter how much hustle or grit I've got. Heck, they don't even have to kill me - they just have to outlive me. Then, once I'm dead and dusted, they'll just unpick everything I've done, piece-by-piece, if they really want to. I can't stop it."
She was quiet for a moment. When she spoke again, there was sadness in her voice.
"There's no room left for me in this new Waste they're going to make," she said. "There are only two ways I can end up: dead, or a pawn."
Then she looked right at him, making sure he could see the intensity in her red eyes.
"And I made my choice," she said. "I am not a pawn."
Slowly, Fisco Vane nodded.
“...I’ll see what I can do.” He told her.
The next day, in a silent, abandoned orphanage that had seen more suffering than any sort of building had a right to, Jackie DeCoeur looked down at a faded white line, and thought about judgment.
As a little girl, the line had filled her with a special mix of terror and resentment. Terror at the sure and certain knowledge that she would be judged and found wanting; resentment at the sure and certain knowledge that there was nothing she could do to change that fate.
She was marked, and she could never be unmarked.
She was the devil girl. The girl with eyes the color of blood.
Now, as she stood with the toes of her booted feet on the edge of the line, she thought about the life she had lived since leaving her childhood behind. She thought about the crimes she had committed. She thought about the corrupt order she had undermined. She thought about the legend she had built for herself.
She hadn't done any of it because she was a devil, or a demon, or even the Red-Eyed Woman.
She had done it because she was a bandit at heart.
She had lived the life of her own choosing, and she would be judged on her own terms.
So she looked up at the ceiling.
She took a deep breath and held it.
She stuck her hand into her pocket and fished around for a second until she found what she was looking for.
She exhaled as she slipped it onto her finger.
Then she took a step forward.
The next day, the Verkell papers reported that the explosion broke windows clear on the opposite side of town.
They never found her body.
Jackie never did say goodbye to Trotter. Fisco had Diana return the fox to his quarters at the casino with little fuss, to rest off his ordeal. Dazie and Sharps had returned to the Bordello to gather Presto and Shakes, heads hung and voices quiet. Hush-Hush had just vanished.
Malzeth and Lucrecia had asked him, later, to be removed from his service. Fisco warned the two of them about messing with Jackie, but set them loose. Very soon, he would not have much use for them, and doubted very sincerely he would ever see the demons again.
Red-Eyed Jackie DeCoeur, as unlikely as it seemed, inspired a day of mourning amongst the downtrodden of Jakkard. She was not the best person to walk the face of Jakkard, but in her own way, she had stood up for them, and she would be missed.
Fisco, of course, had made sure he got DeCoeur’s rails signed over first.
Which brought him to where he was now.
He stood in front of a rather large building, in a bustling rail town known as Aureg, the contracts and agreements that entitled him to the vast majority of the rails out of Verkell under one arm. In front of him stood a rather imposing vash with bright, red scales. Fisco cocked an eyebrow, and the Vash stepped to one side with a grunt.
Fisco entered the building.
Alone, he walked up a short flight of stairs, and knocked on the first door he came to.
“Enter.” A voice called imperiously. Fisco suppressed a frown. He did as he was told.
The Duchess was standing, with her hands behind her back, staring out the window. Fisco wondered what she was looking at - and had the uneasy thought that it was nothing he would be able to see.
“Mr. Vane.” The Duchess said without turning around. “You have done exactly as I’ve asked, and your services have been… adequate.” She motioned precisely towards the desk near her. “You may leave the papers there, and go.”
Fisco thought for a moment of something he could say, but nothing came to mind. Again, he did as he was told. He… could not do otherwise. It was not worth the risk. He turned to leave.
“Mr. Vane.” The Duchess called, and Fisco stopped in his tracks. “You shouldn’t be hearing from me again.” She informed him. “I trust I won’t be hearing about you?”
Fisco clenched his teeth.
“No, you won’t.” He told her.
“Very good. Bid Diana hello for me.”
Fisco stalked out of the office in a barely controlled rage, and promptly washed his hands of Jakkard. There was nothing for him here, now - For all he cared, it could fall into the eternities. A thousand planes could fall into the eternities, and the Duchess with them! As long as Diana…
Fisco Vane growled, and planeswalked away from Jakkard for the last time, with too many questions, and no way to get any answers.
Somebody, somewhere, had lied to him - and he was going to find out who.
V. Rest for the Wicked
The knocking at his door was getting louder. Trotter rolled over atop his unkempt bed. He pulled a pillow up over his head and wished desperately for the pounding to stop.
His head was killing him. The noise wasn’t helping things.
He pressed the pillow down over his ears. Maybe whoever it was would just go away.
“Mister Trotter?” came a frazzled sounding voice from outside.
He threw the pillow onto the floor.
“Go away!” he yelled back. “I’m not coming down, so just go away.”
His voice was hoarse. It hurt to speak. It hurt to do anything, really.
“But, Mister Trotter,” the voice said, “Carla said I have to bring you down. She told me to tell you, no more missed shows. She says, if you don’t perform, you’re in breach. She said to tell you that she’ll have you thrown out, that you’ll never work again – she’ll see to it, she says.”
“Just go away!” he said. It came out more as a scream than speech.
“You have to come out sometime,” the voice said. “Please come down. You’ll get both of us in trouble.”
Trotter didn’t feel like arguing anymore. He searched around blindly on the bed for something to throw. Eventually his paw brushed up against an empty whiskey bottle. That did nicely. It shattered against the closed door with a very satisfying crash.
It seemed to have made his point, too, because the knocking stopped.
He closed his eyes and tried for a minute or two to go back to sleep, but soon gave it up. Like it or not, he was awake, with all the related misery that entailed.
The headache really was bad this time. He felt as though his skull were trying to squeeze itself out through his eyes.
Well, he knew the cure for that.
Slowly, cautiously, he got to his feet. He was a little wobbly as he crossed the room to his dresser. Once he got there, he started pulling open drawers, tossing aside his clothes and makeup and anything else that got in his way as he fished around for an unopened bottle, which he couldn’t seem to find.
His head was killing him. He felt like crying.
Just the act of rifling through the drawers had left him feeling exhausted, so he sank down on his dressing stool.
Outside his window, the sun was either rising or setting – he wasn’t really sure. He’d lost track of time.
What day was it? He realized he had no idea.
Judging by the pile of empty bottles on the floor next to the dresser, he’d been shut in for days, plural.
He studied his reflection in the mirror. He almost didn’t recognize himself. His fur was a tangled, matted mess. His whiskers were bent and crooked. His eyes were bloodshot. His breath reeked.
Slowly, his gaze drifted down to rest on the newspaper clipping which he had wedged into the gap between the mirror and the frame. He read the headline again, for what must have been the hundredth time:
“’Red’ Jackie DeCoeur, outlaw turned rail magnate, dead.”
He skimmed the accompanying text, half reading it, half reciting it from memory. For such a long obituary, the actual facts were sparse. Born in Verkell. Age, unknown. Parents, unknown. Background, sketchy. Exploits, legendary. Death, sudden, but not wholly unexpected. No surviving family.
The article recounted robberies Jackie was known or alleged to have committed. It recounted the smashing of the iron cartel, and her usurpation of the rail franchises. It remarked on her unexpected entry into high society, followed by the explosive events of recent months, in which she was rumored to have played a part. It made thinly-veiled references to whispered rumors that there was something devilish about her, that she’d come back from the dead, or sold her soul, or possessed unholy powers.
It quoted a few prominent citizens calling her a hero. It quoted a few other prominent citizens calling her a devil. One old-money fox said he wouldn’t believe she was dead unless he saw the body himself – and drove a stake through the corpse’s heart.
Trotter knew that some of it was true, some of it was half-true, and some of it was as bogus as a three-bit coin.
She would have appreciated that, he thought.
The lithograph the editors had placed next to the article was an old one. Trotter was pretty sure it was actually from one of her early “WANTED” posters. He stared at her picture, felt it staring back at him. They got her smile right – wide, self-satisfied but genuine, with a kind of transgressive quality to it that he could never quite put into words.
But they got her eyes wrong. They always got her eyes wrong. In ink on paper, they looked soulless and dead.
In life, they had been beautiful. Fearsome, yes, and intense. But all the more beautiful for it.
He loved her eyes. Always had. From the moment he’d seen them, he’d never really had a chance.
Thinking about it, he realized that there were tears in his own eyes. He was crying.
He was sitting there, wiping away tears with the back of his arm and trying not to look at her picture anymore when there was another knock at the door.
“I told you to leave me alone!” he yelled between sobs. “What do you want from me?”
“Mister Trotter?” It was a different voice this time. Unfamiliar, officious. “I need to see you on a matter of official business.”
“Whatever you’re selling, I don’t want any,” Trotter said. “Just leave me alone.”
There was a moment of silence, then the sound of a throat being cleared. “Mister Trotter, I have legal obligations which require your attention and which cannot be dispensed with in any other way,” the new voice said. “You will forfeit a tremendous personal windfall if you do not open this door.”
“I don’t care. Leave a note downstairs.”
“My responsibilities require that I discuss these matters with you in person,” the voice said, sounding annoyed. “Face-to-face.”
“I don’t care.”
“Mister Trotter, I am required to speak with you. I will not be removed from this premises until I have done so.”
Trotter could hear a heavy shoe tapping impatiently on the floor outside. The sound grated on him.
Eventually, after a long moment of hesitation, Trotter got up and walked to the door.
As he put his hand on the knob, a part of him supposed that he ought to be more careful about opening his door for strangers. Especially after what had happened before.
But a larger part of him didn’t care. He turned the knob, and opened the door.
Standing outside, wearing a finely-tailored suit and a look of exasperation, was a rather dandy-looking red fox with pince-nez glasses on his face, a large briefcase in his hand, and white shoes on his feet.
“You wanted to see me?” Trotter said. “Here I am. What’s so damned important?”
“You are Mister Trotter, I presume?” the fox asked, sounding skeptical.
“Unfortunately I am. Now what do you want?”
The fox reached into his suit jacket and extracted a business card, which he handed to Trotter.
Trotter had to squint to read it, but he eventually deciphered that the card identified the fox standing in the hallway as one Karsten O. VanDoren, solicitor, from the firm of VanDoren, VanDoren, and Floogle, with a fancy Verkell address.
Trotter snorted a little bit as he handed the card back. “Which one are you?” he said.
“Beg your pardon?”
“VanDoren, VanDoren, and Floogle. Which one are you? VanDoren number one, or VanDoren number two?”
The fox adjusted his pince-nez.
“The VanDorens referenced in the name of the firm are my great-great-grandfather and great-grandfather, respectively.”
Trotter snorted again.
“So, what can I do for five generations of VanDorens?” he asked.
“Mister Trotter, my firm represents the estate of one Jacqueline DeCoeur, deceased,” VanDoren said.
Hearing that name made Trotter flinch.
"Jackie," he said, his voice quiet but firm.
The red fox looked confused. "I beg your pardon?"
"She wasn't Jacqueline," Trotter said. "She hated that name. That was the name the sisters gave her. She was just Jackie."
VanDoren shrugged. "Very well, then. My firm represents the estate of one Jackie DeCoeur, if you prefer."
Slowly, Trotter nodded. “That ought to keep at least three more generations of VanDorens in white shoes,” he said.
The red fox cleared his throat.
“Miss DeCoeur’s estate is substantial, yes,” he said. “It also contains a number of non-standard provisions, several of which concern you.”
“Nothing Jackie did was ever standard,” Trotter said.
“Yes, well, I am specifically instructed to give you three items,” the red fox said. He set his briefcase down on the floor and popped its latches open. Lifting up the top, he extracted an old handbag, which he held out for Trotter to take. “The first of which is this.”
When he saw the handbag, Trotter’s breath caught in his mouth. He stood still for several silent, dumbstruck moments, just looking at the object in the solicitor’s hands. The fabric had been worn by time and trail, but he could still recognize its pattern.
The red fox coughed a little. “If you would, please,” he said, nodding down at the bag. “It’s rather heavy, actually.”
Silently, Trotter took the bag from the other fox’s outstretched hands. He knew what was inside it without looking, but he opened the top anyway and peered down inside to see his own face reflected back up at him in the polished surface of a large gold brick.
Before he could start crying again, he snapped the bag shut and set it gingerly down on the floor next to him. He looked back up at the white-shoed fox, who appeared visibly relieved to be making some progress on his commission.
“The second item is this,” VanDoren said, and he handed Trotter a slim piece of thick paper.
Trotter took the object and looked at it. It was a round-trip railroad ticket to Verkell. First-class.
“What’s this for?” Trotter asked.
“In her estate, Miss DeCoeur established a—,” the fox paused a little as he cleared his throat, “—a substantial financial trust in your name. You are the sole beneficiary of said trust, with unlimited authority to draw upon it for income or to dispose of the principle in any other way you see fit. Its precise value will fluctuate with market rates, but I can tell you that it is considerable. You are a very wealthy man, Mister Trotter. Very wealthy.”
“But what do I need a train ticket for?”
“Before you can draw on the trust, there is certain preliminary paperwork which must be completed at our offices in Verkell. I am instructed to inform you that the train ticket is to facilitate your conveyance to our offices for this purpose. At your earliest convenience, of course.”
Trotter set the train ticket down atop his old handbag. “What’s the third item?” he asked.
VanDoren reached back into his briefcase and extracted what looked like another train ticket, which he also handed to Trotter.
A confused look crossed Trotter’s face as he studied the second ticket. This one was for some place called Fortune’s Folly. One-way, second-class.
“I don’t understand,” Trotter said.
“I have no additional instructions regarding that particular item,” the solicitor said, “save for what is contained in the note on the back.”
Trotter turned the ticket over. As he looked at its back, he nearly bit his tongue.
The note was short and to-the-point. “Talk to the station master,” it said. “Ask for Red.”
It was not signed, but it didn’t need to be. Trotter would recognize her handwriting anywhere.
Trotter must have been staring dumbly down at the note for some time, because eventually he heard the solicitor’s mirthless voice say his name. He gave his head a little shake and looked back up.
The solicitor was closing his briefcase. “That concludes this portion of our business,” he said to Trotter. “When you wish to execute your new financial arrangements, or should you have any other questions, it will be our pleasure to serve you at our offices in Verkell.” The solicitor handed Trotter back the business card which he had earlier returned. “Our address is on the card. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a train I must catch.”
The red fox bowed ever so slightly, then turned away and walked down the hall in the direction of the stairs.
For a few seconds, Trotter just watched him go. Then he called out: “She was a bandit, you know?”
The red fox turned around. “Excuse me?” he said.
“Your client, Jackie DeCoeur,” Trotter said. “She was a bandit, you know. Those things they wrote about her in the papers? Half of it’s complete snake spit, none more so than this idea that she straightened-out after she got rich, that she became respectable or something. She was a bandit, through-and-through. She was a thief, and a killer, and a bandit. She was the best. Always was.”
Halfway down the hall, the fox in the suit and white shoes just stared silently back at Trotter.
“Do you care?” Trotter asked. “Does it bother you that, every single scrap of gold in that ‘substantial’ estate, she got by stealing it from someone else? That VanDoren, VanDoren, and Floogle’s client was the greatest criminal in the history of the Waste? Do you even care one way or the other?”
From his distance away, it was hard to tell. But Trotter thought he might have seen the other fox smile.
“Mister Trotter,” the fifth-generation VanDoren said, “we’re solicitors. If we didn’t do business with criminals, we wouldn’t do any business.”
And, with that, the red fox turned around again, and a moment later he was gone.
Trotter couldn’t help but shake his head. That’s Jakkard for you, he thought. Some things change. Some things don’t.
Then he stepped back into his room, closed his door, and started to pack. He dug his old suitcase out from the bottom of his closet and dropped it at the foot of the bed. Then he went around the room like a whirlwind, grabbing just the things he would need for a few days on the rails, picking out bits of clothing which weren’t too wrinkled, or too soiled, or too soaked with liquor and shoving them into his case. He grabbed his toothbrush, his hairbrush, his scissors, and his little silver penknife, and he threw them in the bag on top of the clothes.
As he was making a final sweep around the room just to make sure that he hadn’t forgotten anything he couldn’t live without, his eyes came to rest on the obituary stuck up against the dressing mirror. So he pulled that down and threw it in the case, too, before he latched it shut.
He put one of the train tickets inside the handbag with the gold bar, and slipped the other one into his pocket.
Then, with his suitcase in one hand and the old handbag in the other, he flew out of his room and down the stairs to the gambling hall’s lobby. If he hurried, he would just have time to make it to the station.
He was dashing across the lobby at a trot when he saw Carla appear from behind the reception desk. She stalked towards him, arms crossed, murder in her eyes.
“You,” she said, pointing a bejeweled finger at him. “You have missed twelve straight shows.”
“I’m about to miss even more,” Trotter said. “I quit. I’m out of here. Thanks for the work, and it’s been fun, but I’m out.”
Carla blanched. “You can’t quit,” she said. “We have a contract. You owe me two more months, and that’s before we consider compensation for all the work you missed.”
She had moved to block his path, and he changed course to step to one side of her. Without breaking stride, Trotter stuffed the old handbag into her arms as he brushed past.
“I just bought out my contract,” he said.
Then he was out the door before she could react.
He regretted not waiting around to see the look on Carla’s face, but he had a train to catch.
Fortune’s Folly, it transpired, was a boomtown turned bust town that was as far out east as you could get on a railroad without having to lay the track yourself. The ride itself took several days, but they seemed to pass in a kind of strange blur, as Trotter’s mind and body readjusted simultaneously to the absence of whiskey and the presence of feeling.
His second-class ticket entitled him to a sleeping berth, but he mainly spent the trip seated in the dining car, drinking cup after cup of chicory and staring out the window as the long, undifferentiated Waste rolled by outside. The train was virtually empty – aside from the few, tired-looking crew members, the only other souls on board appeared to be a trio of wiry-looking vash, who he took to be salvagers based on overheard bits of conversation, and a scruffy-looking fox pup who didn’t utter so much as a word during the whole trip. The pup had patchy, reddish-brown fur and a straw hat, which she kept pulled down low over her face. She stayed on the other side of the dining car from the other passengers. Occasionally Trotter would catch her staring in his direction, but she always looked away whenever he looked at her.
There was very little to do during the trip. There was a battered, old player piano at one end of the dining car, but there was only one roll to go with it as far as Trotter could tell, and it was “Red Jackie.”
That seemed like an omen. Trotter just wasn’t sure whether it was a good one or a bad one. So he hid the roll beneath some seat cushions.
Instead, he mostly kept himself occupied by looking out the window at the hypnotic bareness of the landscape and trying – and failing – not to think too hard about what might await him at the trip’s end.
More than once, the thought crossed his mind that this might be an elaborate trap, that he might be walking into danger, or even going to his death. But, in the end, he decided that didn’t really matter much. If it was a trap, then she was dead. If not, then it meant there was hope.
Either way, he reckoned, he would be seeing her soon.
So, when the train finally pulled to a stop at the Fortune’s Folly station, Trotter had prepared himself for either a warm or a hostile welcome. But there was no welcome to speak of at all. The distracted-looking noggle conductor simply shooed his meagre bunch of passengers off the train and onto the otherwise empty platform. Then, just as soon as the final bits of luggage had been accounted for, the nog hopped back on board and gave a loud whistle up towards the locomotive, which sprung back to life and carried the train back off west, presumably towards greener pastures.
Trotter took a second to look around at Fortune’s Folly. It didn’t take him long. What remained of the town appeared to be clustered entirely on the few blocks around the train station. There was a saloon, a general store, a post office, a jail, and, well, that was it, really. Beyond that tiny, living core, blocks upon blocks of derelict, boarded-up buildings stretched off in either direction.
The dining car attendant had told Trotter that, years ago, a big luxite strike had been reported in the nearby hills. The railroad spur had been built in a hurry, and prospectors had rushed in, building the new town of Fortune almost overnight.
Except the luxite ran out. The initial strike was smaller than expected, and subsequent efforts to dig up more had produced only dirt and disappointment. Fortune became Fortune’s Folly, and the town had been abandoned almost as quickly as it had been settled.
It gave the place a strange, eerie atmosphere, and it left Trotter feeling on-edge.
He picked up his suitcase and walked over to the little ticket booth where a uniformed noggle sat, leaning back in his chair and chewing on what looked and smelled like bitterroot seeds. The noggle looked up as the white fox approached; if the nog was expecting someone, Trotter noted, then he was doing a good job of not giving anything away.
“Are you the station master?” Trotter asked.
“Sure am!” the noggle said. “What can I do for you on a fine day like today?”
Trotter wiped sweat from his brow and reflected to himself that he would not describe as “fine” any day that was so infernally hot. But he kept that thought to himself.
Instead, he said: “I was told to ask for Red.”
The noggle’s face didn’t change. Nor did his tone of voice when he said: “Can I see your ticket, please?”
Trotter fished around in his pocket for the slightly-crumpled ticket, which he smoothed-out on the wooden counter before handing it to the nog.
The station master examined the ticket’s front, whistling to himself a little as he did. Then he flipped the ticket over and read the handwritten note on the back. Then he folded the ticket in half and slipped it into the pocket of his uniform.
Then he reached beneath the counter and came back with a red wooden chip, which he handed to Trotter.
“If you just step right out back of here,” he said, nodded over his shoulder at the steps leading down from the platform to the street below, “you’ll see a big-looking rattler with a cart. Just give that chip to him, and he’ll take care of you.”
The noggle leaned back in his chair and went back to chewing seeds.
“Thanks,” Trotter said. He walked down the stairs and turned in the direction which the noggle had indicated.
A little ways down the dusty, packed-dirt road, he saw a couple of acridians roped-up to an old wooden cart. The biggest rattler Trotter had seen in his life was sitting in the driver’s seat. The snake wore a broad-brimmed hat and had two pistols dangling from his belt.
Trotter walked over to the snake and held out the little red chip, which the rattler took.
“Climb in the back,” the snake said, which Trotter did. Turning around, the snake held out a water skin to the white fox, which Trotter took.
“You’ll want that,” the rattler said. “We’ve got some way yet to go, and it’s a real scorcher today.”
“Thanks,” Trotter said.
He was taking a long, greedy drink from the water skin when, to his surprise, the scruffy-looking fox pup from the train also climbed up into the back of the cart. The little pup also handed a red chip to the rattler, who also handed a water skin back to her.
Then the rattler snapped the reins and gave a little call to the acridians, and the cart started off down the road and out of Fortune’s Folly.
It didn’t take long at all for the trio to pass out of the derelict town and into the dry, scrubby Waste beyond. There were no roads or trails that Trotter could see, but the rattler seemed to know where he was going, and Trotter decided it was wiser not to bother the big, gun-toting snake. So he just sat quietly in the back of the cart and waited to arrive at wherever it was he was going to.
After an hour or so had passed in silence, the fox pup, who had been keeping her head down the whole time, finally looked up at Trotter.
“Are you running away, too?” she asked.
“I guess I don’t know,” he said back. “Maybe I am.”
For whatever reason, that answer seemed to satisfy the pup, because she simply gave Trotter what seemed like an unusually knowing nod for someone so young. The pup had already drunk her water skin dry. So Trotter held his out to her, which she took with a thankful smile. And the two of them passed the remainder of the trip in companionable silence.
The low, orange sun was just beginning to set fire to the western horizon when, after hours of passing through featureless terrain, the cart started to approach what looked like a wire fence. As Trotter looked east and squinted, he could see what looked like a stand of fruit trees coming into view in the distance, and the sandy ground had turned grassy beneath the wheels of the cart. On the wind, he thought he heard the sound of baloths growling. There was another sound, too, which it took him a second to recognize – it sounded like the laughter of children.
All around him now the ground seemed to slope slightly upward towards a low, grassy bluff a few hundred yards away. Atop the bluff, Trotter could see buildings – stables, it looked like, and a smithy, or a workshop of some kind. And a big, sprawling ranch house, with a long, wooden porch and a red tile roof.
As the snake turned the cart onto a little dirt path which led up the hill towards the house, they passed by a sign posted next to the gate in the wire fence:
“Red’s. All friends welcome. All others will be shot.”
As though he could read their minds, the snake turned around to look at his passengers and said, “Don’t worry, you’re friends.”
The cart drew up closer to the ranch, and that was when Trotter started to see all the children. They seemed to range from about eight or nine at the youngest to about thirteen or fourteen at the oldest, and they seemed to be everywhere. Boys and girls. Foxes, humans, centaurs, minotaurs, viashino, rattlers, and nogs. They chased each other around, they lay on the grass, they climbed up the branches of the stubby fruit trees. One little group was gathered around a centaur girl of twelve or so who was twirling a lasso while the others watched with fascination. Over on another little hillock, a human boy and girl were carrying big buckets of water to fill the troughs in a baloth paddock.
And, just up in front of him, he saw an acridian pen. He saw a handful of children milling about and watching as a woman helped a fox pup up into the saddle and showed her how to hold the reins. He saw the woman put a steadying hand on the pup while saying something to the gathered crowd.
Then he saw the woman turn to look in his direction. He saw her knee-length black serape, her black gambler’s hat, her short black hair, her gold-toothed smile.
He saw her red eyes. Her beautiful red eyes.
He didn’t wait for the cart to stop. He leapt over the side, stumbled, fell, got back up, and ran towards her, even as she started to run towards him.
He was crying before he even got to her.
When he did, he leapt up into her arms, and she swung him around, pulled him in tight against her. Her hat tumbled off the back of her head, and for a long moment she just held on to him, held him close to her, his muzzle tucked in at the base of her neck, his feet dangling just a few inches above the ground.
He took a deep breath, inhaled her scent. She smelled like he remembered.
Eventually, she put him down, and he just looked up at her face, with her mischievous smile and eyes the color of fresh blood.
It took him a moment to speak. When he did, his voice cracked a little as it formed the words.
“I thought you were dead,” he said.
“You can’t believe everything you read in the papers,” she said. Then she laughed, and it was the most wonderful sound he could ever remember hearing.
“You have no idea how much you owe me, for what you put me through,” he said. But he smiled as he said it. “You are going to have to get creative to make it up to me.”
“Trotter, I am so sorry,” she said. “I am so sorry for everything that happened to you, for everything that happened because of me.” She put her hands on his shoulders. “If I could take it all back, I would. If I could take it all on myself, I would.” He saw tears in her eyes as well. “I never meant to cause you pain.”
He shook his head. “I don’t care about any of that, Jackie. Not anymore.” He wiped his eyes. “You’re alive. I’ll take that. No questions, no reservations.”
A little human boy ran past them off to one side, and a minotaur girl brandishing a wooden pistol chased after him. Trotter waved a hand in their direction.
“What is this place?” he said.
“If I was dead, I would say heaven,” Jackie said. “Which is a place I never expected to see. But here I am. Here we are.”
“Where are we really?”
“A little spot so far beyond the back of the beyond that it’s barely on the map. Prospectors gave this place up for dead years ago, said the land was bad.” She chuckled a little. “Well, the land is bad if all you care about is trying to dig easy money out of it. But, turns out that, with enough clever machinery and just the right amount of magic, you can find water.” She swept her arm across the green surroundings. “And, once you’ve got the water, all it takes is time and a healthy helping of ill-gotten gains, and you can end up with this.”
“It’s beautiful,” Trotter said.
“It’s a nice place to run away and hide,” Jackie said.
“I never thought I’d hear you say that.”
Jackie shrugged. “Me neither,” she said. “But then I always assumed that I would catch a bullet sooner rather than later. Like you pointed out to me before, you don’t see many old bandits. And that didn’t bother me too much, because I just figured I’d rather be a dead bandit than a live anything else. But, it turns out, you look death in the face enough times, you start to reconsider that sort of thinking. And after death spit me out one last time, I finally got it through my thick skull that maybe that’s because I’ve got something I’m supposed to be living for.”
He thought he saw a look of sadness flicker across her face. But it was only there for a moment before it was gone.
“The Red-Eyed Woman wouldn’t have run away,” Jackie said. “She’d have died in her saddle, with her guns in her hands. But she’s a ghost. She’s a campfire tale.” Jackie shrugged. “So I let her die. It’s better for everyone that way. Red Jackie gets to live on in songs and legends, and real Jackie gets to live out her days without half of Verkell trying to cancel her retirement with a bullet.”
“And the kids?” Trotter asked. “Who are they? Where do they all come from?”
Jackie grinned at him. “They’re us, Trotter. Orphans, urchins, runaways. Kids who’ve been knocked around, kids who’ve been tossed away. You and me, we both know what that’s like. Well, even from beyond the grave, I’ve still got plenty of friends in low places. So they find those kids before they can get into too much trouble, and they send them to me.”
“One train ticket. Ask for Red,” Trotter said.
“Ask for Red,” Jackie said.
She looked happy, he thought. Happier than if she’d robbed every bank in Verkell.
She took his hand and they walked over towards the acridian pen, where the fox pup whom Jackie had helped up into the saddle was now leading the big insect around the dirt track in slow, loping circles.
“This way, when they’re ready to get into real trouble, they’ll know how to do it right,” Jackie said.
“Red Jackie’s finishing school for the next generation of outlaw masterminds,” Trotter said. He laughed. “That ought to shake things up a little bit.”
Jackie DeCoeur’s red eyes were practically glowing. "I teach them to ride, to rope, to shoot," she said. She smiled, and Trotter could see both of her gold teeth.
"You going to teach them to rob banks, too?" he asked.
"I don't know," Jackie said. "I think they're a little young for that. When they get older, we'll see where their interests lie."
"Well, if that's what they want to learn, I can't think of anyone better to learn from," Trotter said.
He had expected that to draw a smile, but instead Jackie's face turned serious. Her head dropped down, and she seemed to stare at her boots for a minute. When she looked back up at him, he thought that she looked nervous.
"Yeah, well, that's true enough," she said. "But there are some things they can't really learn from me."
"Like how to read and write, for starters," she said, shuffling her feet a little awkwardly as she did. "And how to dance. Which didn't seem very important to me when I was their age, but it turns out that it can save your life." She smiled weakly at him. "I'm not the right person to be giving those sorts of lessons."
As she spoke, her cheeks reddened, until they nearly matched the color of her eyes.
Trotter tried to stifle a laugh and failed. "Jackie DeCoeur, I do believe you're blushing!" he said.
"Are too. I never thought I'd live to see the day."
"Me neither, I guess," she said. "But here I am, and here you are, and we're both still alive and kicking." She took a step closer to him, and took his hands in hers. "So, what do you say? Maybe the third time really is the charm?"
He smiled back at her. "Only one way to find out," he said.
The red-eyed woman bent down a little bit and kissed the white fox on the top of his head.
“I love you,” she said.
“I love you, too,” he said.
And she held him in her arms as the sun sank below the horizon behind them, turning the big Jakkard sky the color of her eyes.
Fisco Vane, Lucy, Mal, and The Liar are original characters created by RuwinReborn for the Expanded Multiverse. The Shifter and The Duchess are original characters 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.