He called himself O’Keefe and he was the biggest, baddest bounty hunter there was. I called myself Quincy Randall and I was an outlaw with a price on my head. Thirty-thousand dollars the last time I checked. O’Keefe had come halfway across the universe to find me. I would have been flattered, but I think it was just the money that attracted him. I wasn’t keen on him taking me in – for the obvious reasons and some others that we’ll come to. He’d come close to catching me up on the Ocean Road a week ago but luckily an explosion had come between us. My choices right now were run away, surrender, or stand and fight. Surrender wasn’t an option. And fighting should always be your last option. Especially if the other guy is bigger than you and carries a gun. I decided to run, knowing that he would chase me again and that I’d have to keep running. Maybe that makes me an idiot.
I’d been hiding out on Saphira for more than two years. It was a frontier planet. The furthest point you can get from civilisation. If you can put up with the back-to-basics lifestyle, it’s not so bad. And some days I could forget that I had a price on my head and that both the authorities and the bad guys were after me.
But mostly, I had that nagging feeling. Like a toothache that won’t go away. I knew that one day I would find myself facing a man with a gun. Maybe O’Keefe, maybe someone else. And that would be the end of my freedom. Perhaps even the end of my life.
I’m sure there are men who can live like this. But I didn’t want to be one of them. I wanted to get back to civilisation. Somewhere that indoor plumbing wasn’t regarded as a luxury. And where I didn’t have to keep looking over my shoulder.
Being wanted by the police wasn’t the worst part of it. If that was all I had to deal with, I wouldn’t have gone to Saphira. I could have let them take me in and taken my chances, accepting whatever jail term the judge handed down. I’m a thief, not a murderer. They don’t lock thieves up forever. On a civilised world, they’d put me away for a couple of years in a minimum-security facility and do their best to see that I was rehabilitated. I wouldn’t enjoy that, but I could survive it.
But the authorities were the least of my problems. I was much more concerned about being caught by someone hired by Bastian Durant. I’d once taken something from him and he was very upset about it. Upset enough to have people hunt me from one end of the galaxy to another. He wanted me captured alive – because he wanted to watch me die. And he intended to be watching for several days. It had been a big mistake to cross him, but – given the circumstances – I’d do the same thing again. Like I said, I’m an idiot.
If the police arrested me, Durant’s people would get to me before I ever reached prison. But if I did end up behind bars, he’d have another prisoner kill me and send him a video of my suffering. That’s the reason why I couldn’t allow O’Keefe to capture me. The main reason, at least.
As I drove away from New Grimsby, my plan was to hide in some far off town that no one had ever heard of. Saphira is littered with abandoned settlements – places where the local mine ran out of precious metals or where some other grand investment failed. There were whole towns where the buildings still stood but the people were all gone. Some of them weren’t on any maps, and I had picked out one that I thought was an ideal spot to hunker down. I’d wait for O’Keefe to find me – and I was sure he would – and then I’d deal with him. In a place where no one else would get hurt. I’d try bribery and threats and if they didn’t work, it would come down to a shoot-out. It would be self-defence and I hoped that I’d be able to live with that.
I drove almost non-stop for three days. Covered over a thousand miles – almost as far as the Dragon’s Tooth mountains. My ghost town was just beyond them. But I didn’t quite get there. I’d gotten to the point where I didn’t think I could drive anymore. I needed coffee, good coffee, and time to think. Driving on flat desert roads hypnotises you so you can’t think properly. I was about to call up a map so I could find a roadside diner, but something else caught my attention. A vehicle coming up behind me. Fast. I flicked on the rear-facing camera and zoomed in on it. Trouble always seems to drive a pick-up truck. This one was purple and had those monster-sized tyres. I took my gun out of its holster and put it on the seat next to me.
We were on a long straight stretch of desert road with flat scrubland on either side. Nowhere to turn off, nowhere to hide. The mountains were at least two days drive ahead of me and the closest foothills were hours away. My options were limited to run or stand and fight. The pick-up was heading towards me at almost a hundred-and-twenty. I could have tried to outrun it, but I didn’t want to risk running my batteries dry and being stranded in the middle of nowhere. As far as I could see, there was only one guy in the pick-up. Not overwhelming odds. I’d let him catch up to me and see what sort of move he made.
I reached for my gun and put it in my lap, making sure to point it away from my groin. The purple pick-up came up behind me, towering over the Trekker on those massive tyres. I braced myself, half-expecting it to ram me. Then it swung out to my left, drawing level. My hand closed on the pistol, but the other driver didn’t even glance in my direction. He pulled ahead and sped off down the road. His cab had been so high up in relation to my position that I hadn’t got a good look at him. Maybe he was just a local who liked to drive fast.
I saw the wind-turbine before I saw the diner. It stood up out of the scrub, arms reaching for the sky. It wasn’t a big structure, but scale is hard to judge in this landscape. The buildings didn’t come into view until sometime later. And then I saw the sun reflecting off a field of solar panels. A weathered sign told me I was approaching Futtock’s Bend. There was a slight curve in the road ahead, so I suppose the name was appropriate. Sitting off the curve was an old-fashioned mom and pop place that was a diner, store and charging station. It boasted a total of three rapid-chargers at the rear, one suitable for big trucks. That was probably more than enough in this out of the way location. There were no vehicles on the front lot so I wouldn’t have to wait long to get served.
The main building was a log cabin that had probably stood on the same spot since before the war. There were a few wooden outbuildings behind it. No accommodation as far as I could see, but that was okay, I wasn’t planning on staying long.
I went inside and stood blinking, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the gloom. Then I remembered to take my sunglasses off. A white-haired man with a deeply-lined face stood behind the counter. One of his arms was a prosthetic, modern-looking but with no artificial flesh covering the metal and cables. He had a friendly twinkle in his eye. Beside him was a woman who was a good foot shorter than him. Her dark grey hair was bound up in a neat ponytail and her cheeks were flushed pink.
I looked around the place. The tables were all empty and the racks of items on sale looked like they had been frozen in time a couple of decades ago. A chalkboard behind the counter said: Today’s Special – Chili Con Carny. Maybe it was an old fairground recipe.
“Good day to you,” I said, remembering my manners.
“Henry Chadburn,” the old man said, nodding a greeting. “My wife Milly. This is our place. Been in the family three generations.”
“My daddy was a Futtock,” the old woman said proudly. There wasn’t a lot you could say to that so I just nodded.
“You want a hot drink or a cold one?” Henry asked.
“Coffee,” I said. “Please.”
“Coming right up.”
“Do you want a slice of apple pie with that?” Milly Chadburn (nee Futtock) asked hopefully.
“I think I will,” I said. “But first I’d like a serving of that delicious-smelling chili, if I may.”
She positively beamed at this. “Why surely,” she said and hurried off into the kitchen alcove. She turned up the heat under two big black saucepans.
“Best chili for a hundred miles,” Henry said, setting down my coffee.
Unless the coyotes were out there cooking up a pan, it was the only chili for a hundred miles but I nodded politely. I watched as Milly got down two bowls and set them on the countertop. Maybe they served the rice separate from the meat in Futtock’s Bend.
I was going to take my coffee and sit at one of the tables, but Henry wanted to talk so I hopped up onto a stool at the counter. I guess he didn’t see many people to talk to.
“Where you headed?” he asked.
“Visiting a friend up near Cobblepot Crags,” I said, nodding in the direction of the mountains.
Henry frowned. “Can’t say I know it.”
I’d have been surprised if he did, I’d just made it up.
“Slow day?” I said, looking around at the empty tables.
“Are you kidding?” Milly said. “I’m rushed off my feet! Two people in at the same time.” She was joking and didn’t expect to see me frown. “What’s wrong?”
“Two people?” I asked.
The door opened behind me and I heard someone cock the hammer on a pistol.
“Keep your hands where I can see them,” a voice said.
I raised my empty hands to shoulder height.
“What’s going on?” Henry asked.
“Button it old man,” the voice said.
I turned around slowly on my stool, keeping my hands in the air.
The man with the gun was pale and skinny with a beaky nose and eyes that were too close together. His hair was stringy and needed barbering and he looked like he was wearing his big brother’s clothes – the crotch of his jeans was hanging down like harem pants. He’d been the one driving the shiny purple pick-up truck, I guessed, and that probably belonged to his brother too.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“The bounty hunter.” His voice seemed to come out of his nose rather than his mouth. And he obviously had delusions of grandeur.
He looked at me, trying to figure out if he could get away with a lie. He decided against it.
“Calvin Dewsbury,” he said. “Folks call me Dewey. You’ve probably heard of me.”
“No,” I said.
He turned to the old couple behind the counter, but they shrugged and shook their heads.
“I don’t usually work this far out,” he muttered. I wasn’t sure if he meant Futtock’s Bend or Saphira.
“Why don’t we take this outside?” I said. “No point disturbing these nice folks.”
“What about your chili?” Milly asked.
“Keep mine warm for me,” I said. I got up off my stool, keeping my hands up. “Let’s go.”
Dewey looked confused. He was the one with the gun, shouldn’t he be giving the orders? He backed out into the sunlight, keeping his gun trained on me. I walked towards him.
“Will you want whipped cream or ice-cream with your pie?” Milly called after me.
“Ice-cream, please.” I closed the door on my way out.
“You’re not going back in there to eat,” Dewey told me.
“I’m the one with the gun,” he said.
“Do you know how to use it?”
“Do you want me to show you?” he asked, trying to make it sound menacing.
“Okay,” I said. “See that cactus across the way? See if you can hit the smallest branch.”
I didn’t know if cacti had branches. Maybe they were arms. It didn’t matter.
Dewey glanced behind him and squinted at it. “I’m not shooting at a cactus.”
“Because you can’t hit it?”
“I can hit it, right enough.”
“Prove it. The small branch. You only get one shot.” I raised an eyebrow. Would he accept the challenge? Or was he smarter than he looked?
He tried to stare me down. He was nowhere near as good as my cousin. He blinked before I did. Dewey turned to look at the cactus again.
“One shot,” I said.
He turned to face the cactus. Not that smart then. He spread his legs as wide as the baggy crotch would allow and raised the pistol in both hands. He shut one eye and squinted the other. I thought he might stick the tip of his tongue out when he aimed, but he didn’t. It seemed to take him about twenty minutes to line up his shot, but it was probably only two. He squeezed the trigger. A spark from the barrel of his gun, a jet of smoke, and the bullet sped towards the cactus. It knocked a chunk of green flesh out of it.
“Yes!” Dewey pumped his fist.
“You only hit the trunk,” I said.
“No way! I hit the branch,” he insisted.
“Look closer,” I said, “it was the trunk.”
“It was not!” He began walking towards the cactus.
I drew my pistol and aimed at the cactus. My shot zipped past Dewey’s ear. The small branch on the cactus exploded and vanished.
Dewey whirled towards me, his face red with anger. “You damn near shot my ear off!”
Then he noticed that my gun was aimed at his head. Only then did he realise his mistake. “You tricked me.”
“It wasn’t difficult. Toss me your gun.”
He glared at me defiantly, keeping the gun down at his side.
“Do you want me to shoot it out of your hand?”
His eyes flicked back towards the cactus and then he threw the pistol into the dirt at my feet.
Keeping my gun on him, I bent and picked it up. “It’s not very big,” I said. I tucked his gun into my belt. “My girlfriend has a bigger one.”
Harmony’s gun was even bigger than mine. And she wasn’t officially my girlfriend. Dewey didn’t need to know either of these things.
“I’ll buy a better one when I take you in for the reward,” he said.
Bravado in the face of humiliation and adversity, you had to admire him for that.
“Where’s your car?” I asked.
“It’s around back.”
I waved the barrel of my gun, indicating he should lead the way. He stared at me defiantly but then moved. He dragged his heels in the dust like a sulky teenager.
The pick-up truck looked even bigger parked next to the old charging station. Those tyres were almost the height of a man. Bright chrome work and metallic flake paint. It was very purple. And it was obviously someone’s pride and joy.
“Did you rent it?” I asked.
“Borrowed it. Why?”
“You’re going to have some explaining to do,” I said. I used his gun and shot out one of the tyres. Then I shot out a second one, in case he was carrying a spare in the back. I wanted him delayed as long as possible. With two tyres gone, the nose of the pick-up was tilting down into the dirt.
“Are you crazy?” Dewey wailed. “Do you know how much those tyres go for?”
Twice what I paid for those on the Trekker, I would guess. I’d have been upset too.
“What is wrong with you?” He was wandering in circles, pulling his hair with both hands.
“You came after me with a gun,” I said.
“It’s my job!”
I don’t think he’d been doing it very long.
“You should use a dart gun,” I said. “If you’d shot me in the back, knocked me out, none of this would have happened.”
“I don’t have a dart gun. Someone took it.”
Definitely an amateur.
“Let’s go back inside,” I said. “I’ll buy you dinner.”
It was a mistake to turn away from him.
“I don’t want any stinkin’ chili!” he roared. He leaped on my back and wrapped his bony arm around my neck.
“Don’t you know when to quit?” I croaked.
Dewey was skinny but he was wiry. His grip was strong and he was crushing my windpipe.
“You don’t… get the bounty… if I’m dead,” I reminded him.
“You shot my tyres!”
“I’ll shoot your head if you don’t let go.”
He jumped up and wrapped his legs around me, pinning my arms to my sides. I couldn’t bring up either of the guns. I staggered around with him on my back.
“Let’s talk about this,” I gasped. I was starting to feel light-headed.
“I’m done talking. No more tricks.” His hot breath was close to my ear.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” I said.
“You shot my tyres!” Apparently we weren’t going to move on from that anytime soon.
I ran backwards, slamming him into the side of the pick-up, hoping to dislodge him or at least distract him when he saw we’d left a dent. He released his legs, putting his boots back on the ground to steady himself, but his arm tightened around my neck like a boa constrictor.
I dropped my gun. I wasn’t going to shoot him. I reached up with both hands, grabbing his arm and trying to pry it loose. It felt like I was pulling on a tyre-iron. I slammed him back into the pick-up again and jerked my head back at the same time.
I felt warm blood splatter the back of my neck. He loosened his grip but only very slightly. It was enough for me to get my fingers all the way around his arm. I pulled on it as hard as I could, twisting to try and get out from the stranglehold. He fought me as hard as he could. Until I felt and heard bone break, then he released me. I felt a little bit sick in my stomach. He was screaming in my ear.
Dewey backed away from me, cradling his broken arm. His eyes were wild and beads of sweat stood out on his forehead. The front of his shirt was stained with blood from his nose.
“We have to get you to a doctor,” I said.
“I’ll drive him over to Doc Mulaney,” Henry said. I hadn’t realised the old man was standing behind me. “You’d better go. Before the sheriff gets here. Milly’s phoned for him.”
“I’ll pay for the doctor – and the chili,” I said.
Henry shook his head. “Just go.”
I picked up my gun. I was sorry that I’d hurt Dewey. Sorry that I’d brought trouble to Futtock’s Bend. Chaos just seemed to follow me around. That’s why I’d left Harmony and Floyd behind. I didn’t want them harmed.
Milly came out as I was getting into the Trekker. She handed me a brown paper sack that had sandwiches and a cold soda in it along with a little white box with a big slice of pie inside.
“What will you do now?” she asked.
“Go back and face the music,” I said.
She didn’t know what I was talking about, but she smiled sadly and nodded as if she thought I was making the right decision.
Turn your back and run away, live to fight another day. I’d read that somewhere and it sounded like a good plan. Except it wasn’t. Being a fugitive, a hunted man, is no kind of life. I pulled back onto the road and headed back the way I’d come. Back towards the city. And O’Keefe.
How do you hunt a hunter? They know all the tricks that can be used to find someone, so they also know what precautions to take. And O’Keefe was supposed to be the best. New Grimsby was Saphira’s biggest city, making it effectively the capital of both the planet and its only inhabited continent, which people also called Saphira. I think they do it to confuse off-worlders. In fact, it is the only city. A few other towns call themselves cities but none of them are anywhere near big enough to qualify for the title. New Grimsby itself only had a population of around two hundred thousand, so we’re not talking about a mega-city. That being said, trying to locate one man within its twenty-odd square miles wouldn’t be an easy task.
During the years I’d been on Saphira, I hadn’t spent much time in the city. I preferred to keep to the smaller towns that bordered the desert. New Grimsby was the closest I’d come to civilisation in a long time. At least there’d be indoor plumbing.
I took a room in a private boarding house in a nice residential street a few miles from the centre of town. Mrs. McTavish let four rooms in a big house that she’d once shared with Mister McTavish and a couple of younger McTavishes. They had all moved on to other things. The children were married and Mr. McTavish had moved on to a ‘bleached blonde tart with thighs like a buffalo and good riddance to him.’
Mrs. McTavish looked very serious, almost school teacherly, except for the fact that her hair had been dyed the colour of carrots and her fingernails were a glossy pale green that almost matched the colour of her eyes. My new landlady hadn’t looked very closely at the fake ID card I showed her but she did show a lot of interest in the banknotes I handed over, paying for a month in advance. The room was spartan but scrupulously clean. There was a list of do’s and don’ts stapled to the back of my door and I read them carefully because I intended to be a model resident. Practising musical instruments was forbidden, so it was a good thing I hadn’t brought my sousaphone.
Normally I would just check into a motel, but when someone is tracking you, it is best to avoid all of your usual habits. Being predictable makes it more likely you’ll be caught. I’d even started wearing boxers instead of briefs. I’m kidding. But you do need to be conscious of all observable behaviours. Avoid the sorts of eating places that you usually go to. Don’t go and watch your favourite sport – easy enough for me because I don’t have one. Unless throwing slime-bombs counts, and that’s not really a spectator sport. And never visit any of your known contacts. When I came back to New Grimsby, I was tempted to look up Floyd and Harmony, but O’Keefe was almost certainly keeping them under surveillance. I was on my own for the first time in a long time. Who was I going to talk to? Who would not laugh at my jokes? I had my stuffed Bertie Bear on the bed but he didn’t talk much. I needed a new friend. Or an old one.
Before I met Floyd, I’d had a computer – Trixie. My box of tricks. She’d been shot by a robot and I’d never got around to downloading her back-up into a new ‘box’. With Floyd there, I didn’t really need her anymore. I felt guilty about that now, which is crazy. Trixie was a computer and she didn’t have feelings. She wouldn’t be upset that I’d abandoned her and taken up with someone new. And she wouldn’t resent the fact that I was only reactivating her now that I needed her again. Knowing this didn’t take away the feeling that I’d been unfaithful. Maybe that has something to do with my family history. My father had abandoned my mom before I was born. I had strong feelings about betrayal. One of my lifelong ambitions is to punch my father in the mouth. If I got nothing else out of him, I at least wanted a tooth that I could keep as a souvenir. But that was for another day.
I bought a new case for Trixie. I spent more on the hardware than I needed to – because of my guilt, I suppose. It was a slimmer design than her old one. A sleek lozenge shape a little bigger than my thumb that looked like it was made of quicksilver. I also bought a leather holster for her that I could strap on my upper arm. She’d been too exposed up on my shoulder.
Trixie’s last back-up had been made while we were on board the wreck of the battleship Celestia, so she knew about the trip into the jungle but had no idea that I’d teamed up with Floyd. I thought about not telling her but knew she’d find out eventually. I spent an evening going over everything that had happened to me since she was shot and she dug into various databases for corroborating evidence.
“It’s not that I don’t trust you,” she said, “I just need additional data points to update my knowledge base.”
Personally, I think she didn’t trust me. And she probably was miffed about the whole Floyd thing. But she’d get over it. I think she was pleased to discover that I hadn’t lost Mozzie and Gnat while she’d been away – she didn’t even mention the scratches they’d gained during those months.
I knew roughly when O’Keefe had arrived on Saphira, so I had Trixie look through the passenger lists of arriving flights. There weren’t that many interstellar flights coming this far out, so it didn’t take long to narrow down the list. O’Keefe had arrived on the Starlight space station under the name Eduardo Hammond. He boarded the shuttle down to the planet and after that, he disappeared. Trixie accessed every database we could think of, but there was no trace of him down here. O’Keefe was good.
If we’d had his biometric profile, Trixie could have scanned data from surveillance cameras all over the city, looking for anyone with his body proportions and who moved like him. But we didn’t have any video footage to build a profile. The best we could do was use facial-matching based on the few photos that we could find. We left the program running and set up an alert that would tell us if his features were spotted anywhere, but I wasn’t expecting a hit. O’Keefe was like me, he’d developed almost a sixth sense that made him aware of security cameras and he’d move in a way that meant they rarely got even a halfway decent look at his face. If I wanted to find him, I was going to have to do it the old-fashioned way – brains, legwork, and a whole lot of luck.
To stay off the radar, O’Keefe would have to conduct all of his financial transactions with cash. Electronic transactions leave a trail and you can use them to build up a pattern of activity. Off-worlders, for example, tend to spend their money differently to locals. Younger people spend their money in different places to older ones. Cross-reference enough of these differences and you can begin to tighten the net on an individual. That’s why criminals like cash. And why politicians have been blocking the move to all-electronic payments for a couple of centuries. It happened once, before the war, but it didn’t last long.
Either O’Keefe brought wads of cash with him or he had a way of getting some. My hunch was that he wouldn’t want to live solely on his reserves. He’d find some way of topping them up. And given his talents and experience, he would either hire himself out as an assassin or he would work as a freelance bounty hunter, taking in local criminals for the rewards. I asked Trixie to look out for any reports of professional killings or any sudden upswing in arrests of Saphira’s most wanted. The bounties offered for locals weren’t going to be huge so O’Keefe would have to target those with the biggest prices on their heads – and he’d have to take down a few of them.
It took a few days, but eventually Trixie spotted something. Small spikes in arrests at a couple of police stations in neighbouring districts of New Grimsby. The numbers weren’t statistically significant yet, but they suggested the two stations were worth keeping an eye on. If it was O’Keefe bringing in the crooks, he would have to deliver them in person to pick up the reward money in cash.
I’m not big on sitting around in once place so the thought of staking out a police station didn’t fill me with glee. Luckily I had a computer and two drones who could do the job for me. Mozzie and Gnat were so small they could sit on a window ledge and no one would notice them. Me sitting in a car outside a police station for hours would have been sure to attract attention. And I’d have likely fallen asleep while I was supposed to be watching.
I could have rented a room overlooking one of the police stations, but I had to be ready to follow O’Keefe as soon as he appeared. Mozzie and Gnat could do that and I could then rendezvous with them at my convenience. Plus there were two of them so they could watch both locations full-time for as long as their batteries lasted. Man created machines for jobs like this.
Bounty hunters didn’t take their captives in through the front door of the police station, they went to the back and rang a bell. I’m not sure if this is because the hunters preferred to keep their identities hidden or because the police didn’t like ordinary folks to see freelancers being paid to bring in crooks that cops are supposed to catch. It’s probably a bit of both.
Stakeouts take time and patience. Machines can handle the waiting but I kept pacing up and down waiting for something to happen. I could have gone surfing at the beach, I suppose, but I wanted to be ready when the call came. I would only get one chance at this.
Ironically, it was while I was trying to track down O’Keefe that I discovered I was being watched. I’m hypersensitive to anything out of the ordinary and tend to sense such things subliminally. It gives me a weird feeling in my gut, like the anticipation of something unpleasant, and I’ve learned to trust this feeling. Once you suspect something is going on, you can go and look for it. In this case, it wasn’t very hard to find.