Vail

 

A long time ago, before my writing was good and the state of current creativity wasn’t so appallingly awful, I wrote a little story called Intersections. I had the self-indulgence to write personal reviews of my own work, which, while finished, ended up becoming a mess of plot holes and lacklustre characterisation.
 
Then, I wrote a second draft. The plot holes were better this time round, but it all still felt a bit flat on the whole. You’d probably have gotten more enjoyment from an episode of Neighbours than what that had to offer.
 
Well, they say the third time’s the charm.
 
***
 
The place smelled like shit.
            That’s the only thing that warred in my mind with the desire to finish my job; this place really stank. The plaza, fashioned of sandstone and crowded with milling patrons, gave off an odour that made my slimy old CO smell like fresh milk. I could never work out why he kept using that fucking cologne, it made my nose want to bleed out in protest.
            I wasn’t supposed to be focusing on that pungency, nor the baking Tezra sun burning down on my back. There are times and places where leather body armour isn’t economical to wear, and this was fast turning into one of them. A couple more hours and I’d be a human-sized baked potato.
            No, I wasn’t supposed to focus on that. I was intent on my target, that slippery little bastard somewhere within the throng of gormless shoppers. You’d think civilisation would’ve reached this place by now, with the great and glorious MD running shit these days, but everything still looks and smells like the place is run by camels. It should’ve been way easier right now to find the Prisoner here than it was trying to track him on one of the Civilised Worlds – after all, unless he’s wearing a potato sack he’d be hard to miss.
            Not that I wasn’t sticking out like a sore thumb with the aforementioned leather outfit, but no-one seemed to care. Thank God for ignorantly-oblivious sheep-people.
            I moved through the plaza between yellowed buildings that almost blended into the sand Tezra’s wastes were known for, spreading across the city limits like arid fungi. It was unusually busy for this time of day, given the heat, but I guess this close to Christmas it’s important to get your gifts early. If they even had Christmas here. I dunno, it’s not like I study every little cultural facet on planets I do a job.
            In hindsight, probably not a very diligent thing to do.
            Shoppers and sellers tried hailing me but I ignored them, my eyes darting around looking for him. My right hand flexed near the concealed Bulldog pistol hidden inside my armour, though if he was close by that’d be a moot point. It was why the left hand tensed near the holdout knife pressed blade-flat against my stomach. The electromagnetic sheath meant I could whip it out within point-eight-seven of a second without so much as nicking an artery. Handy in situations like this.
            Come on, you sack of shit. Come get what’s comin’ to you. I got bills to pay.
            Wait. There.
            He was moving in the muted green jumpsuit that inmates of his severity wore. God only knew why he hadn’t raided a clothes shop after bailing from prison, since that would’ve made tracking him infinitely more difficult. Maybe he was attached to that prison smock – perhaps he’d lost his inmate virginity in it. Who knew. People like him were all nutjobs anyway.
            I didn’t waste time with any of the usual derivations of ‘You have the right to remain silent!’, instead opting for a silent move forward like an arctic panther with hand poised at the Bulldog. He didn’t turn, didn’t notice me until I was right on top of him, gun already being drawn.
            Then, his mate got involved.
            Whether they were together or just together eluded me, but the six-hundred-pound sack of bone and muscle knocked me aside before I could aim at the hundred-and-fifty-pound slender fuck in front of me. I went flying, crashing into a stall selling what I prayed were spices and not hallucinogen powders. I was in for a hard fight as it was, I didn’t need help.
            I got a better look at my immense assailant, similarly-clothed as the man he was protecting, as the Prisoner bolted from the scene. My Bulldog was out and I managed a shot that went wide, looking like it hit some random slum-dweller who happened to be on the side of the Prisoner’s path.
            Collateral. The client wouldn’t be happy about that.
            The fat sack in front of me took the opportunity to knock the Bulldog from my hand with one of his own fleshy mitts while using the other to throttle me awkwardly. Between his fat fingers, my wide neck and the leather making his grip slippery it was a tough job, but damn it if he didn’t give it his best effort. That’s something you really don’t see enough of these days, such commitment to the art of killing, however ill-advised.
            I decided to let the poor bastard think he was winning for a moment or so, even throwing in some believable choking sounds for good measure, before activating the magnetic grip on the Bulldog. Attenuated to the node surgically implanted in my palm, the gun flew back into my hand like a boomerang. He barely had time to acknowledge the movement with a dumbfounded noise before I blew half his brains out. The other half slowly dripped out of the cavity I’d blasted in his head, his thickset body sliding to one side limply.
            By now the plaza had exploded to life, with every civvie in range running, screaming and abandoning their precious wares as I calmly got up and dusted myself off. You’d think these people had never seen a gun before. Poor sods.
            I sprinted after the Prisoner, shoving aside idiotic runners as they tried to get in my way. After bulldozing through about a dozen of them I was standing outside a sandy building that looked identical to the other fifteen similarly-coloured apartment blocks in the plaza, which had a scrap of green fabric torn off on a loose bit of stone and blowing quietly in the wind. I put the Bulldog in front of me and walked in, ears open for any minute sound.
            When you got right down to it, the Prisoner was kind of a dumbass. No spare clothes, hopping across worlds in the Uncivilised, hiring fellow inmates as dumb muscle that went down faster than a hooker with a Glass addiction. How the hell had he gotten out of Llanfall MaxSec? And why was he so important to my client that they’d pay all travel expenses and a small fortune’s worth of ship upgrades and flexible currency for me to snatch him?
            I stepped up the first of four flights of stairs, still hearing nothing but the dull roar of fleeing marketers outside. There were at least five rooms on that level, and as if to save me the trouble of checking them I suddenly heard hurried footsteps above me. I tore up the next flight, hearing feet scuffing on the sandy stonework that made me think he was about to jump out one of the windowless portals the building had aplenty. I trekked up the last few stairs, not paying attention to exactly which floor he was on, and made it to the bare roof. I could see that he’d jumped from somewhere on the third level onto the building, a squat, lower version of the block he’d just exited.
            Not keen for any spur-of-the-moment gymnastic exercises I took careful aim with the Bulldog, firing a shot that pegged him square in the spine. I saw the edges of a chest bloom as his innards sprayed forward, the incredible stopping power of the Bulldog reducing him to a hollowed-out pumpkin in the blink of an eye. He fell flat forward, his arms lying outwards like a burlesque of crucifixion.
            I grinned. Easy money.
            I carefully dropped down from the roof onto his building, gun out but not aimed, and advanced on him slowly. Unless he was made of iron or a recently escaped lab experiment with super-regenerative lizard biology, there was no way any man on God’s sandy hovel could get up from that. Direct hits with a Bulldog usually elicited instant death and one hell of a blood spatter afterwards, hence the high price.
            I smirked as I tapped his limp form with my boot, garnering no response. It’s funny, usually at this point you’d expect some snapped-off snark as to how I’m superior to my quarry since I’ve got all my organs and he doesn’t. Admittedly I did enjoy that part of the job – the one part I never told any colleagues or clients out of possible embarrassment at the unbridled cliché of it all – but I didn’t get a chance this time around.
            Y’see, this time around, the bastard I’d blown a big damn hole in appeared behind me, completely unmolested by firearms, and thumped me across the back of the head. I staggered forward drunkenly, losing my grip on the Bulldog as he strode forward, showing me his complete collection of abdominal muscles on his un-smocked body. So he’d used a dupe – amateur trick I should’ve picked up on. My bad.
            I reached for the knife in my belly pouch but it seemed he had sleight of hand, too. Next thing I knew it was sticking out of my neck, and this time I was choking for real. I made a noise like a wounded animal and reached my gun-less arm over for a slug to his face. I was quickly losing equilibrium, though, and he seemed to realise that. It might’ve been why he chose that exact moment to slam a shoeless foot into my crotch.
            Well, armour or no, that bloody hurt. I saw stars right before I saw the sandstone roof rush up to meet me. Julian Vail, professional hitman, undone by a stupid berk in a prison smock with a fondness for dirty attacks.     
            I’d have to remember that for next time, when I got a golf club involved.
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