I was out of bed and pulling on my clothes before my eyes were fully open. Outlaw reflexes. I didn’t even know what had woken me. I slid open the window as quietly as I could, listening for some clue to the danger my sleeping brain had recognised. There was the creak of a floorboard in the hotel corridor outside my room.
I leaned out of the window. No one in the dusty street below. I tossed my old kitbag up onto the roof and climbed up after it. There was a loud knocking on the door, but I was gone.
Do you choose this kind of life or does it choose you? I’ve often wondered this and I don’t know the answer. I don’t do this because I’m lazy – it’s harder than any real job I’ve ever had. And I certainly don’t do it for the money. At least not recently. But I do like being my own boss and giving the finger to the taxman.
On the downside, you risk becoming a target for law enforcement officers, bounty hunters, and disgruntled gangsters. I, Quin Randall, was a wanted man. I wasn’t sure which of those three interested parties were responsible for today’s morning wake-up call and I wasn’t going to hang around to find out. I picked up my bag and ran across the rooftop. The alley between the hotel and the next building wasn’t wide and I jumped it easily.
Escape routes are something I identify without really thinking about it. There are always options and you learn to recognise them. Rooftops are an obvious choice and have all sorts of advantages. But in a little town like this one, they only get you so far. As soon as I could, I wanted to get down to street level and double-back for my Trekker. You can escape faster in a vehicle, especially if you’ve got a head start.
I jumped across another alley onto a lower roof. I could hear shouting somewhere behind me. My pursuers had discovered that I’d escaped upwards and were coming up after me. I needed to get down before they began giving instructions to their colleagues on the ground. I dropped over the edge of the building and scrambled down the drainpipe. It wasn’t as firmly attached to the building as I might have liked.
Reaching the dusty street, I kept close to the wall and jogged in the direction of the Trekker. If they had my car staked out, I would need Plan B, but I’d stashed it some distance from the hotel so hopefully they hadn’t found it.
“He’s here!” Shouting behind me.
Scrack! I ran. So much for my head start.
I looked back. The man running after me was dressed in black – tee-shirt, boots, combat pants. He looked like he was private security. Or maybe an assassin. He had a bulky pistol in a shoulder holster.
I’ve been chased by guys like him before. They’re like robots, they don’t give up. I much prefer being chased by old cops with beer guts and bunions. This guy’s biceps were as big around as my thigh and his thighs were the size of my waist. He was a big scracker. He had dark auburn hair tied back in a sleek ponytail. I wondered what it would look like spread across a pillow. I’m not sure why my brain does that.
I heard the engine-whine of something big and risked another glance back. It was an ex-military 4×4, one of the BRZs, affectionally known as Bruisers. The chunky black tyres looked like they could crush anything. Including me.
Driving the Bruiser was a big guy wearing mirrored sunglasses. He slowed the vehicle and threw open the passenger-side door so that the big scracker with the ponytail could clamber in. Then he jammed his foot down on the accelerator and the Bruiser shot towards me. I ran faster.
My Trekker was a couple of streets east of us. They would be on top of me before I reached it. Perhaps literally. The Bruiser was big but it wasn’t slow. There was no way I could outrun them. But maybe I could use its size to my advantage.
I tried to recall how I might have drawn the attention of these two, but nothing came to me. I’d only arrived in town yesterday. The only real interaction I’d had was with someone who tried to pick me up in the hotel bar. Her name was Lydia, she was dressed like a biker, and she’d been even more drunk than I was.
“I’m a Medusa,” she said, slurring her words. Or maybe it was my ears that were blurred.
I thought a Medusa was something red and spicy that you ate with rice, but apparently that’s a Madras. Medusa, she told me, was a mythological creature with snakes instead of hair. If a man looked at her face he was instantly turned to stone. I knew someone like that. The local motorcycle gang had taken their name from this Greek demoness and Lydia showed me her tattoo of the gang’s logo. She also offered to show me her piercing but I told her she probably shouldn’t be flashing something like that in public.
“Do you want to go upstairs for a private viewing?” she asked, breathing whiskey fumes into my ear.
I was tempted. But despite the fact that I’d been flying solo for months, my heart wasn’t really in it. And it was nothing to do with the alcohol. The flesh was willing. Eager even. But I was still getting over my last ill-judged brief fling. Besides which, becoming entangled with someone from a biker gang seemed like a bad idea even to my drink-fuddled brain.
Lydia quickly picked up on my lack of enthusiasm and drifted away. The last time I saw her, she had her hand inside the barmaid’s blouse – perhaps checking her for piercings. I’d gone up to bed soon after.
The two guys in the Bruiser didn’t look like people Lydia would hang around with. The lack of motorbikes was a bit of a clue there. No, these two were hired muscle. But there was nothing to indicate who might have hired them.
I have been told – more than once – that I have an uncanny ability to swazz people off. It’s not a deliberate thing. Usually. It just seems to happen. Without meaning to, I humiliated an ACID agent and she is now trying to catch me and lock me up. There is a bounty hunter called O’Keefe on my trail and he’s also conducting a sort of personal vendetta. And then there’s a certain Mister Big who is unhappy because I accidentally took something belonging to him. Well, I took it on purpose but I didn’t know at the time that it was his. There are probably others, but you get my drift. Add to that the various folk I have scammed during the two years I’ve been on Saphira and you begin to see why it’s hard for me to guess who is currently trying to run me down with a Bruiser. For all I knew they might be working for my ex-wife. Or my ex-husband. Or my other ex-wife.
Despite several abrupt changes of direction and other attempts to shake them, the pair in the Bruiser were right behind me. Close enough that I could smell the rubber of their tyres. Just ahead of me was a big old warehouse and the alley next to it was too narrow for the Bruiser to enter. I ran towards it.
I stopped in the mouth of the alley and turned to fire a shot towards my pursuers, hoping this would discourage them from following me into the alley on foot. The shot hit the ground in front of the Bruiser, sending up a spray of dirt. Apparently afraid that I would fire at them again, the driver jammed on the brakes and the Bruiser swerved. It slid past me and crashed into the wall of the old warehouse, turning the dry wood to matchsticks. I didn’t wait to see if they were okay – I ran. The sound of falling debris behind me suggested their car was still moving which meant the collision with the warehouse hadn’t been fatal.
I kept running. There was a crash off to my left, somewhere inside the warehouse. And then another. Through the gaps in the old boards, I could see the Bruiser running parallel to the alley, keeping pace with me. It didn’t slow when it approached an internal wall, it just smashed through it.
The Bruiser picked up speed, pulling ahead of me. There was a squealing of tyres at it spun through a half-circle and then it crashed through the wall sideways, coming to rest in the alley just ahead of me, blocking it completely. They sat facing me. I skidded to a stop. They would have to demolish more of the brittle wooden wall to reach me, but that would hardly slow them down.
To my left, there was an ominous creaking and then the sound of snapping timbers. The warehouse wall leaned inwards and then the whole building collapsed in on itself, filling the alley with dust.
The cloud thinned and there was more sunlight than there had been. Stretching out beside me was a wasteland of broken lumber.
In front of me, the Bruiser’s windshield wipers came on, cutting two clear shapes in the snow-like layer of dust.
There is only so much running away that a man can do. Eventually you just have to stand and fight. I planted my feet, raised my pistol and aimed it at the windshield.
We faced each other in a classic standoff. Me with my arms stretched out in front of me holding the big dull grey revolver, them with the dust settling around their vehicle. I was close enough to see the expressions on the faces of the two men. And read their lips.
“What’s he doing?”
I expected the driver to stamp down on the ‘go’ pedal and head straight towards me. It was a bit of a surprise when the wheels spun in the dirt and the Bruiser shot backwards.
What the heck, I thought, and fired the revolver anyway. I aimed for a point just above their front bumper.
Vehicles don’t normally blow up when you shoot them. Especially ex-military ones. Except in the movies. But very occasionally a lucky shot will hit a battery or the hydraulics or something technical like that and then you get fireworks. Of course, this is only lucky if you’re far enough away to avoid being caught by the blast. Which I wasn’t.
I turned and threw myself forwards, wrapping my arms over my head and burying my face in the dirt. I felt a wave of hot air waft over me.
“Squee-it!” I heard one of my pursuers shout.
“I skinned my scracking knee,” complained the other.
They had both escaped from the exploding Bruiser. That was a relief. Probably. Killing people isn’t really my thing. But as a priority, it’s one step below staying alive.
I could hear footsteps approaching. I spat out dust and blinked to clear my vision. Scratched grey metal feet stopped in front of me.
“Graceful as always,” a familiar voice said.
I tilted my head, looking up. From my perspective, he looked very tall, even though he was shorter than he used to be. His metal face seemed to be scowling – even though I knew this wasn’t possible.
“When you’ve finished examining the dirt, perhaps you’d like to get up and meet our client,” Floyd said.
I looked past him and saw a handsome white-haired man in an expensive suit looking down at me. Behind him stood the two men who had chased me. Behind me, I could hear the crackling flames coming from their wrecked Bruiser.
I got to my feet and dusted off my clothes.
“Client?” I said.
“I am sorry about the car,” I said.
The white-haired man sat opposite me and I saw him try not to smile. If he found me amusing we could salvage this situation. Possibly.
We were sitting in the dining room of the hotel having breakfast. Well, I was having breakfast. He was watching me eat, a glass of bourbon in his hand. I’d never really thought of whiskey as a breakfast drink, but I wasn’t one to judge the habits of others. He had a deeply lined, craggy face that was still handsome. I found myself wondering what he’d looked like as a young man. There was a hint of mischief in his eyes and when he smiled he had a lot of broad white teeth. He either had good genes or a great dentist. I think he probably smiled a lot – when he wasn’t trying to intimidate people. Not that I felt intimidated. Much.
Floyd had introduced the man as Jacob Flint and at first glance I took him to be a big-shot crime boss, but Floyd assured me he was a big-shot businessman. Flint, it turned out, was a pig farmer. Among other things. My breakfast came from one of his pigs. Not the eggs, obviously. I didn’t ask if he’d given the pig a name, I just wanted to think of it as bacon.
Mister Flint’s two goons, Sunglasses and Ponytail, were standing by the door and Floyd occupied a space on the other side of the room. There were no other guests in the dining area. I guess it wasn’t yet peak season in Gizzard Creek or whatever this hick town was called.
“I like to see a man who can handle himself,” Flint said.
Had he been spying on me last night? No, he was talking about this morning. Perhaps I’d passed some sort of test.
“Again, sorry about the misunderstanding,” I said.
He nodded. “You’ll do.”
Jacob Flint’s voice was a deep rumble and I bet he had a great laugh. He looked like someone who knew how to have fun. I just hoped he wouldn’t have it at my expense. Presumably, he’d already discussed a business arrangement with Floyd. I had no idea what it might be. But since me and the robot now had a truck, it seemed a fair bet that he was looking to have us transport some cargo. I felt sure Floyd wouldn’t have mentioned any of my other skills. He didn’t think I had any.
“Talk me through it,” I said, wiping egg-yolk off my chin and trying to sound business-like.
Mister Flint set down his glass and leaned back, the chair creaking. “It’s a long-distance run,” he said. “I want you to pick up twelve hundred crates from the depot over in Roslyn and deliver them to New Grimsby.”
“Twelve hundred crates of what?” I asked.
“Let’s say that it’s medicine.”
“Illegal pharmaceuticals?” I asked. I let my scowl tell him how I felt about that.
“Not recreational drugs,” he assured me. “Just a linctus that is urgently required in New Grimsby.”
“Fourteen days from pick-up to delivery – not a day more.”
I thought about that. New Grimsby was a city on the opposite side of the continent from where we were sitting. To get there in two weeks would mean covering something like 180 miles a day. Every day. Not impossible, but on a planet like Saphira you have to factor in the wild terrain and the fact that paved roads are the exception rather than the rule. And then there are the highway robbers who prey on vehicles out in the wide-open spaces in the middle of the country. I could see why he wanted a driver who could look after himself.
“What are you offering?” I asked.
“Four thousand upfront,” he said. “That’s a demonstration of my trust in you and it should also cover your energy and other expenses for the journey.”
That was a fair offer. The panels on top of our trailer sucked in juice from the sun but we’d also need at least a couple of overnight stops to top-up the batteries, especially on the mountain stages. The four thousand would also allow me a few nights in real beds rather than the bunk in the truck’s cab.
“How much on delivery?” I asked.
“Ten thousand if you’re there within fourteen days.”
“And if we don’t make it on time?”
He stared straight into my eyes. A challenge. “You get nothing.”
“Ten thousand Alliance dollars?” I asked, just to be sure.
He nodded, his eyes never leaving mine.
Ten thousand was a nice payoff. But I had to weigh that against the risk of failure and a big fat zero.
“The deadline is pretty tight,” I said.
“That’s why I’m offering ten thousand dollars.”
I looked him in the eye. The deadline wasn’t the only reason he was offering it. Despite what Floyd might say, I’m not stupid. I knew there were things Flint wasn’t telling me. And that meant there were unknown additional risks to be taken into account. His opening bid told me there was more to this than met the eye. But how much more?
“Tell me the rest of it,” I said.
“There is no more.”
“Then I’m not interested,” I said.
Mister Flint leaned forward and unveiled his teeth again. “Yes, you are. You’re broke.”
“Why would you think that?”
“I’ve done my research,” he said. “I know all about you.”
That set me to wondering how much he really did know. Probably nothing. I was staying in a fleabag hotel so saying I was broke wasn’t even a lucky guess.
“You’re not telling me the truth,” I said. “Not all of it. I won’t work for a man that I can’t trust – and who doesn’t trust me.”
Flint leaned back and stared at me, probably trying to decide whether he could trust me. He nodded.
“All right, I’ll level with you,” he said. “Delivering this cargo, meeting the deadline, is important to me. And there is someone who would like to see me fail. If you agree to haul it, people will try to stop you. It will be dangerous.”
His eyes said this was the truth – but perhaps there was still more he was hiding. Flint was too good for me to know for sure. That made things interesting. But I’d already learned one thing – he wasn’t just a pig farmer.
“Now we’re closer to the truth,” I said, letting him know that I knew there was still more he hadn’t said.
“Then you’ll do it?” he asked.
“Ten thousand isn’t enough,” I said. I got to my feet. “I’ll pay for my own breakfast. Good day to you.”
The two thugs didn’t try and stop me when I walked out which was a relief. Floyd came hurrying me.
“What are you doing?” he asked. “Is this a bluff?”
“We’re not doing it,” I said.
“You should go back in there and negotiate,” Floyd said. “Ask for more days. A bigger fee – he may go as high as twenty thousand. We need that money.”
“You want it, you go and negotiate,” I said. “I don’t trust him and I don’t want to work for him.”
“Something’s wrong,” Floyd said. “What is it?”
“I’m fine. I need some air. And don’t worry about the money, I have a plan.”
I walked out into the sunlight. Floyd followed me. Sometimes it was like having a dog. But at least he didn’t squit in the street.
I thought Floyd would keep badgering me to take the job, but he didn’t mention it again that morning. He was probably hoping I’d come around to it if he left me alone. A few weeks back he’d been reading a book on human psychology, one of those pseudo-scientific things that claims to reveal the secret of persuading other people to do what you want. He hadn’t told me he was reading it and was surprised when I called him out for trying the techniques on me. You should never try to con a conman. I wondered if he’d been reading about more subtle approaches.
There was a deep rumbling sound behind us and I turned to look back. Two guys on motorcycles were cruising down the street. They appeared to have dressed up as members of their favourite rock band. I figured they were retired dentists, or maybe one was a condo salesman, having a midlife crisis. The nearest one scowled at me as they rode past – he looked mean but not too bright. Probably not the dentist then. His bike seemed to have been welded together from parts found at the side of the road. But the other one was brand new and gleaming – all bright chrome and candy-apple red paintwork. These weren’t skinny dirt bikes with big springs and knobbly tyres, they were full-fat old-style hogs. There was a big motor in the hub of each wheel and their battery packs were slung low.
“Have you ever ridden one of those things?” Floyd asked as the bikes rumbled away from us.
“I stole one as a getaway vehicle. I rode it to the first corner and then I fell off. And before you say anything, I was nine years old.”
Floyd just shook his head and we walked on.
“Are you still unhappy?” he asked.
“I’m not sure what I am,” I said.
“Am I still not allowed to mention her name?”
“This isn’t about Harmony,” I said. “I think I’m having a midlife crisis.”
“Based on recent census returns and your medical history, the probability is that you are presently less than one quarter of the way through your total lifespan,” he said. “But I understand that ‘midlife crisis’ is a figurative term. Humans suffer psychological and sometimes physical symptoms as a result of significant changes in circumstance at various points in their lives.”
“Are you reading that?” I asked.
“I’m summarising what I’ve read. Circumstances which may trigger these symptoms include relocation, a change in employment, the death of a loved one, financial loss, or the beginning or end of a relationship.”
“I told you, this isn’t about her.”
“I was referring to your relationship with me,” he said.
That caught me by surprise. I’d never really thought of us as being in a relationship. We were just together.
“Before we met, you were a lone wolf, surviving by your wits and beholden to no one,” he said. “I am concerned that I may now be… cramping your style.”
I shook my head. “If you were, I’d tell you, I promise. This is something else. Something I have to work out for myself.”
“I want you to know that if you feel a need to talk about it, anything you tell me will be treated in the strictest confidence.”
“Okay, you’re definitely reading that part,” I said. “Cut it out. I don’t need an amateur psychiatrist. And you can drop that soothing non-judgmental tone. It makes you sound like a psychopath.”
“That’s a relief,” Floyd said. “Because faking all that touchy-feely stuff makes me feel nauseated.”
“Let’s agree that you never need to do it again,” I said.
“Great,” he said. “I’m glad we were able to talk about this. And if you ever need anyone to kick you up the ass and tell you to pull yourself together, I’m your non-human friend substitute.”
“I’m really touched, I want you to know that,” I said. “Let’s head down towards the bank.”
“Are you going to rob it?”
“No, I’m hungry.”
“How can you be hungry? You had breakfast fifty-seven minutes ago.”
“That was spoiled by business talk,” I said.
“It didn’t stop you clearing your plate.”
“Yes, but I didn’t have time for seconds.”
Just up from the bank was a little hole in the wall place that sold nothing but hotdogs. The smoky scent of the meat and the smell of frying onions made my stomach rumble. I handed over a dollar, local currency, and bought two of them.
“I haven’t had one of these in ages,” I said, biting into the first one.
“You do know what’s in those things?” Floyd said.
“Yes and I don’t care, it’s delicious,” I said, chewing noisily.
We headed off down the street but both stopped and turned when we heard a cry behind us.
It was the hotdog seller. He was leaning out of his hole in the wall and waving his hands. But not at us. A giant of a man was walking away from the hotdog stall with one of the foot-long dogs loaded with chili and sauerkraut and dripping ketchup. The big man was dressed in jeans and a black leather jacket. No shirt. One of the bikers we’d seen earlier.
“You have to pay for that!” the hotdog man called.
Floyd stepped up and blocked the big man’s way. I’m sure he still thought he was a much bigger robot.
“You forgot to pay for your hotdog,” Floyd said.
“What?” the biker said.
“You owe the man seventy-five cents,” Floyd said.
“I’ve got coins in my pocket,” the brute said. “Why don’t you come and get them?”
Floyd stepped forward, reaching for the pocket. He’d rip the guy’s jeans off if he got hold of them.
The big biker tossed the remains of the hotdog aside and reached for Floyd’s shoulders. He picked Floyd up off the ground and tossed him aside. Then he flexed his muscles and moved towards the fallen robot.
“That’s enough!” I said.