Just realized I hadn't updated the thread here, 3 new chapters are out, each longer than the next one. The story is at 30 000 words so far and still in its exposition portion so expect more updates in the near future.
Chapter 2: Vicious Circle
There was the gentle rattling sound of the engine as the jeep cruised through the pitch black desert. Its headlights only illuminated ten feet ahead but there was no cause for concern. There wasn't much chance of coming across anything on the off-road terrain, much less crashing into it.
The two heroes of Farson hadn't stayed long enough to be thanked by its people. After stocking several containers with water from the town well, they had hopped into one of the vehicles formerly owned by the Misfits, filled the gas tank to the brim, and left without so much as a goodbye. They were now coasting the Continent at sixty miles an hour instead of walking at their usual three; a small reward for their good deed. An oil drum full of fuel in the backseat meant they would make it to their destination without interruption.
There was no moon that night leaving the stars as their exclusive source of light. Axel, the smooth talker of the duo, had taken the driver's seat leaving his stubby partner to gaze up while riding shotgun. They hadn't spoken to one another since leaving the derelict town.
Jim couldn't remember the last time he had observed the night sky so peacefully. He took the time to think about everything that had happened back at Farson. Some very painful memories had resurfaced during his time there and he was having trouble forgetting them. If he hadn't been exhausted, he may have been up all night.
It was within the blink of an eye that he awoke to the bright sun of a new morning. His head was leaned back to where he was still looking up at the blue. Judging by the position of the sun, it was only a few hours to noon. A full night's rest and he didn't feel the least bit refreshed.
He rubbed his neck which had been feeling sore for days and turned to his driver.
"It's morning." He was confused about the whole situation. "I thought we were going to switch once it was time to refuel."
Axel looked as though he'd fall asleep at any moment. "You hadn't had a decent sleep for days." He explained. "And I didn't feel too tired when it was time so..."
Jim felt a tad guilty as he watched the man's tired expression, but saying anything at that point would detract from the thoughtful gesture. He reached into one of the pouches on the right side of his military vest, pulled out his aviators and slid them over his eyes.
Ahead of them, no more than a mile away, was the town of Starkhaven. One of the largest one could find on the Continent, its population of over a hundred and eighty thousand people within a ten square mile area was a stark contrast from Farson.
They drove the vehicle deep into the town passing several streets which bustled with activity. The buildings were in far better condition than any that Jim had seen so far. Built mostly from sandstone and lumber, the homes were sturdy enough to withstand the harshest of dust storms.
As they reached the edge of the commercial area, Axel pulled the automobile into a vacant spot before shutting off the overheating engine.
"Wow, Roads…" Jim exclaimed with the slightest bit of fervor as he hopped from the jeep and felt the asphalt beneath his shoes.
"They've also got running water here." Axel spoke from experience. "We could both use a shower."
"Maybe later," His partner shrugged it off. "I'm gonna scope out the area a little bit. Stretch my legs… See if anything is going on."
Reins, sleep deprived, couldn't care less. "Just stay out of trouble. We just got here. 'Don't need anybody kicking us out. I'll be getting a room for us here." He waved his arm towards the nearby inn. "Just let me get a few hours of sleep before you come barging back alright?"
He didn't even bid his partner farewell before heading into the two-story establishment. Jim didn't mind. He was still enthralled by all the commotion around him and was eager to see what he could find. He reached into the back seat of the parked vehicle and removed the only object of value.
Unbeknownst to the two, Jethro, a local pimp and drug dealer, had caught a glimpse of them while going about his usual business on the opposite side of the street. He was known around the district for his abusive nature towards his girls. The belief was that due to his short stature, he had developed a submissive personality during his youth, and though he was servile to any potential customers or associates, he would often lash out in frustration against the prostitutes he was supposed to be employing.
He didn't think much of the two when he first saw them pull into the street. But as he continued observing the pair, he began to feel that there was something important he needed to remember. When it finally clicked in his brain, it confused his regulars who watched him stumble and run off in a panic.
Jim carried his massive rifle through the busy streets of the commercial district hoping to find a place that sold ammunition. He'd been lugging around the weapon for weeks despite Axel's disapproval. It was too heavy, too cumbersome and too flashy for travelers such as themselves. On top of that, the blanket he had wrapped around the weapon wasn't even an actual blanket; it was a large brown rug that added another five pounds to the load he had to carry. But regardless, Jim had decided against abandoning or pawning it off. For him, it carried some sentimental value.
"Do you sell fifty caliber rifle rounds?"
"Heh!" The chubby man behind the counter chuckled at his naiveté. "Not much chance of finding any around here. Government production is strictly for military use so they don't trade it with us outlanders. You'd be better of selling that thing."
Jim had heard that several times already. "I know!" He let his head drop and placed his fingers to his temple.
After passing through a number of stores that didn't sell bullets of any sort, he had been directed to one that specialized in ballistics. The shelves were packed with all kinds of rounds for all kinds of weapons. If he hadn't restocked on 9mms back in Farson, he would have easily been able to purchase them there.
The owner felt a little sorry for the young man who seemed quite desperate to find what he was seeking. He reached for a nearby drawer and placed something on the table.
"Two rounds?" Jim wasn't overly excited. "That's all you have?"
"Well, if you don't want it…"
After a sigh and a quick negotiation of price, he purchased the bullets and left with a shred of satisfaction. He stared down at the rounds for a few moments before stuffing them into one of the many pouches on his vest.
He knew the likelihood of finding additional ammo was slim. He figured it was time to tour the town and pin down the interesting locales.
Starkhaven was an impressive place. Its population was one of the largest found outside of the government controlled cities. Its inhabitants were mostly employed and responsible for its existing economy. People there were actually living their lives, not just surviving to see the next day.
A large portion of the Continent was covered by desert, most of which was found on the eastern coast where Starkhaven was located. Due to the infertile terrain, most towns suffered the greatest difficulty when cultivating. Agriculture was a key component to the survival of a town. For this reason, they had to be established on top of water veins that ran for miles beneath the surface before reaching the ocean. Starkhaven had been established upon a hub; a specific point where they all met to form a single, massive body of fresh water. This gave the town its fertile terrain, eventually turning it into an oasis filled with vegetation and other life.
Women were for sale on every street corner. There appeared to be no anti-prostitution laws since the girls were all making it very clear to Jim that they'd sell their services to him for the right price. His opinion of them varied.
"Anything you want for fifteen." Far too ugly.
"Suck your dick for twenty." Too expensive and ugly.
"Any hole you want!" Very likely diseased.
He hadn't seen an attractive woman yet. But when tempted, he realized how badly he wanted to get laid, even if it was with an overused hooker. He checked his pockets thoroughly for money.
"Can I get anything for three bucks?" He asked the posse of the least repugnant women.
"Oh! Fuck off shorty!" One of the girls snapped at him right before the group turned their backs in unison.
Jim had miscalculated the amount of cash he had been carrying around. The cost of his two bullets would have been enough to cover their asking price. Too little, Too late.
He was now more frustrated than ever. At least a minute ago, the thought of sex was far from his mind. Now, it was all he could think about. He left the hookers feeling as horny and ungratified as a teenager. It would be hours before his body would calm down.
He was also beginning to feel rather hungry. The events back in Farson had done a great deal to ruin his appetite. But a diet of only salty water and crusty bread for two days had kept him teetering on insanity.
Two hours had passed and although Jim wanted to see more of the town, his rumbling stomach would hear nothing of it. Regretfully, Axel was the one with the required cash and it was far too soon to be waking him up. He'd have to endure.
"Nice day for a walk isn't it?"
In his daze, Jim hadn't noticed the rugged man who had stepped in his path. He appeared to have no ill intentions with the greeting but was clearly stopping him for a reason. Although his hand was nowhere near it, the grip of a semi-automatic stuck out from the holster at his right side. He was also wearing thick body armor which was visible under a clean grey shirt.
"You must be new to Starkhaven." He said with a bright smile. "I'm Tanis. Town sheriff."
"Nice to meet you." Jim's reply lacked all sincerity. "What can I do for you officer?"
"I'll need you to surrender those weapons sir. Firearms in Starkhaven are restricted to law enforcement officers. This is hard for all newcomers, but I hope you can understand that it's to ensure that no one causes trouble."
Any other situation and a gun fight would have broken out right then and there. For Jim, relinquishing his weapons to anyone was out of the question. They would have had to kill him first. But Axel had made it very clear that staying out of trouble was very important to their current situation. They wouldn't be able to make it to the next town with the few supplies they had left over.
It bothered Jim that this person was so relaxed and behaved as though there was no danger to him.
"You know, If I was inclined, I could have shot you by now."
Tanis didn't take offense to the comment. He just grinned and pointed out the two deputies that were hanging back behind the boy with rifles in hand. They had been trailing him for quite some time, but had only acted when he moved into the less populated areas. These men clearly knew what they were doing. If need be, they would shoot without much risk of civilians being caught in the crossfire.
"You don't need to surrender them to me though." The sheriff became a tad serious. "The mayor prefers to do the meet and greet herself in these situations."
Jim could care less. "I'd rather just give them to you and be done with it."
The officer smirked at him. "Sorry. I think I made it sound like you had a choice." He turned and began walking. "Don't worry. It's close. And we won't take up much of your time."
The sheriff was well reputed among Starkhaven residents. Tall, handsome and with a full head of short black hair, he was considered a poster boy for the community and was known for his tough but fair treatment when it came to enforcing the law. Not only was Tanis sheriff of the entire town, he was also one of the closest aides to the present mayor with whom he would meet regularly to discuss current affairs.
After two blocks, they reached a building that was far larger than any other in town and built mostly from massive stones and concrete. A pair of heavy wooden doors led into the entrance area where a receptionist would usually assist with whatever people needed. In this case, a slight nod from Tanis was all that was required to get past.
Climbing several flights of stairs, the two made it to the fourth floor. The long corridor they had to walk through was narrow and void of people. Jim figured they had passed twenty closed doors and took three turns without him seeing or hearing anything. Then, from a distance, there was the faded chatter of someone speaking, although it was too weak to overhear and lasted a few seconds before it ceased.
The noise had come from the room at the end of the hall.
"Wait here a sec." Tanis stopped him just a few feet from the open door and walked in by himself. Jim could hear the faint yammer of the man who had dragged him a very long way. "Yeah… Well, he's… Yeah… But you told… I didn't! You said…!"
It sounded like an interesting dispute.
"You can come in now." The voice that invited him to enter was not Tanis'. In fact, it wasn't even a man's.
The traveler walked in feeling rather out of place. He was sweaty, dusty and carried with him the unsavory smell of rotten eggs. The office, on the other hand, was a clean, well organized and well lit chamber that was furnished with expensive looking chairs and a fine cedar desk. Black and white art hung across the white walls of the spacious room. One frame in specific had a certificate of some sort inside and hung behind the head of the mayor.
He took cautious steps towards the woman who was comfortably seated behind the wide desk.
"You can sit if you'd like." She gestured to one of the chairs in front of her.
"I'm fine thanks." Jim rolled his eyes from beneath his shades.
"Now," She scratched her brow. "Could you tell me why you're here?"
Her guest had no hesitation in pointing at Tanis. "He told me I had to come meet you."
"So you never protested to surrendering your firearms?"
She shifted her gaze to the sheriff who presented a weak shrug in reply.
To Jim, the mayor looked as though she were in her ninties. The short sleeved blouse she wore exposed the saggy skin and creepy blue veins one would normally see on a person who had one foot firmly planted in the grave. She was wrinkled and worn but appeared to lack the sensibility to acknowledge how old she really was.
"Well… It appears we've wasted your time." She was blunt and to the point. "I have to apologize on the part of Tanis. He's sort of… an idiot. My instructions to him had been to bring someone to meet with me strictly in the event that they felt uncomfortable relinquishing their weapons to an officer. Given my age, you'd expect me to be the senile one. But, now that you are here," She sighed. "I suppose the least I can do, is welcome you to Starkhaven. My name is-"
"Rook!" Just then, a shout came from outside the office. "Get out here you heathen bitch! Rook! I said get the hell out here!"
It was obvious from her expression that she recognized the unidentified voice. It was also clear that she was neither disconcerted by it, nor did she plan to do as it commanded.
"It's Bill Strenner." Said Tanis as he looked out the window.
"I'm aware. Could you please go down there and shut him up?" Her request sounded more akin to an order.
"The Republic will never be allowed to poison this town. You won't win!" The bizarre ramblings from outside continued.
Seconds after the sheriff exited the room, Jim's curiosity got the best of him. "Who's that?"
"Not important." She motioned with her hand to forget about it. "Now listen… What's your name?"
There was a brief pause. "No last names where you're from Jim?"
He showed a small reluctance. "Garrick."
"Well listen Garrick, this is a pretty peaceful town and we manage to keep it that way due in no small part to the police being the only ones packing heat. This gives them the unfair advantage over the syndicates in town and we can easily stop them from killing each other… In most cases. But that law doesn't mean anything unless it's enforced for everyone. So, to avoid any unnecessary accidents, I ask that you tolerate this minor inconvenience during your stay here."
It was hard to tell what Jim was thinking with his eyes shielded by the mirrored sunglasses.
He lowered the rifle off his back and leaned it against her desk, then pulled the semi-automatic from his belt holster, removed the magazine and tugged back on the chamber to remove the bullet inside. Everything was set neatly on her desk, including the extra magazines and shells from each and every pocket. He was stopped when removing his knife.
"You can keep that." She explained. "We don't permit firearms but that doesn't mean you have to be defenseless."
It was a carbon steel blade seven inches long and spray-painted black to reduce reflected light. Jim had suitable skill with it, but it was never his first choice during a fight. He mainly used it as a tool to cut rope or open cans.
"Great…" He mumbled as he stuffed it back into its sheath. He was halfway out the office when he received the mayor's final words.
"Tell Tanis when you want all this back. You'll be escorted to the city limits first, of course."
* * *
Jethro, the pimp and drug dealer, had already made his way to a two story building located in the slum part of town. A pair of large men posted at the entrance had given the little man a very difficult time before allowing him to enter.
The outside of the building made it seem like a rundown villa similar to the many others found in the district. Once inside, it looked even worse. Furnished with a few wooden chairs, a beat up couch and dim lights, it was familiar to a crack den. The walls were worn down from mold and the roof leaked water from the rain they had received a day ago.
Jethro kept his eyes to the floor avoiding eye contact with the many intimidating men glaring at him as he walked past. Everyone in town who peddled drugs or women had to have an employer. It was common knowledge. There was a never-ending turf war in Starkhaven and the local crime lords were all struggling to expand their operations; all with meager success.
Working alone was impossible. If you weren't being muscled into giving up your profits by the larger organizations, you were being taken advantage by the local denizens who wouldn't feel nearly as threatened by a lone enforcer.
Jethro, a born coward, would never dare work solo. Instead, he had entered the employ of the person who would give him the largest percentage of profits. Out of the half-dozen crime lords in town, Vargas was at the very bottom of the list.
Another built individual obstructed the path into his office. This was Horace, right hand to Vargas and his main muscle for when he needed it. The peddler knew better than to open his mouth. If the way was blocked, it meant the boss was busy and he would have to wait. A minute later, a voice from the other side let them know that they could enter.
Everyone had to use the honorific title of "Boss" around Vargas which wasn't common among the other leaders who were content with just "Mister". His organization had fallen on harsh times. The old criminal who was once a feared and respectable head had become a laughing stock among other groups. To maintain whatever dignity he had left, Vargas demanded a higher level of respect from all his subordinates. This was the cardinal rule when meeting with him.
Jethro hadn't met face to face with him in six months, but he knew the rules. He would not speak unless spoken to first.
The boss hadn't even looked up from his seat to know who it was. He appeared busy filling out a document with an expensive looking pen. With his head tilted down, one could see he was balding on top but his hair on the sides was black without a hint of grey. The man wore a white dress shirt with blue pin stripes that made him look less overweight than he really was. The sleeves were rolled up and the collar was unbuttoned which meant that he had already been sitting there for a few hours.
After placing his signature on the piece of paper and handing it to an aid, his big, round face with its flabby chin and cheeks finally popped up. Vargas always had the same tired, annoyed expression on his face. It made people wonder if he did it on purpose to throw them off what he was thinking or if he really hated every moment of his life.
"So?" He stared at the lesser man from whom he expected no interesting news.
Jethro had run halfway across town and begged his way into the chief's office to speak to him. Now, standing before him, it seemed like a very bad idea to say anything.
After a second of being stared down, he just blurted it out. "Axel Reins just drove into town."
Their eyes locked instantly. Jethro's were full of fear but Vargas' just lacked any interest whatsoever.
"You bothered me for this?" The crime lord appeared completely unfazed. He pointed to Horace and inched his finger towards the pimp. "Get him out of here."
He was being dragged out with one hand when Jethro built up the courage to speak once more. "I'm telling you Boss, I saw him with my own eyes."
There was an unexpected halt of all movement in the room.
"Saw him?" Vargas frowned as he repeated the words. "Axel Reins is dead. He's been dead for seven months you stupid drug addict." His eyes flared with anger. "You didn't see Axel Reins so stop wasting my time."
The dealer had no further heart to convince his boss. He lowered his eyes down to the ground once more and left the room of his own accord.
"Have a couple of boys tag along with him." Vargas told his right hand man who raised a brow as though confused. "Doesn't hurt to be sure."
* * *
Three hours and Jim found himself marching back towards the inn. His stomach had been growling for awhile but it had become unbearable to wait any longer. He needed food. The weight off his back put a nice spring in his step allowing him to move at a faster pace, but this was offset by the fact that he didn't fully remember where the inn was located. Not only that, he hadn't even checked the name of the place in order to ask for directions.
He'd been trying to memorize key locations in town all day, yet couldn't spot a single familiar sight on the populated street. It took him another fifteen minutes just to find the commercial area. He knew the inn was near the marketplace, which was one of its subsections. Finding one meant finding the other.
As he reached the end of the block, he let out a sigh of relief. West of his position, past the bazaar, was the two-story lodge in plain view. He had been walking towards it the entire time.
From where he was standing, Jim could see straight into one of the rooms on the second floor and he continued to look through the window even while moving through the crowds. What had captured his attention was the faint figure of someone moving inside. He had a feeling it was Axel but it would have been odd of him to be up and about so soon. It would have been even stranger since this person appeared to be engaged in a conversation, although Jim's line of sight made it impossible to be sure.
"My friend got a room here a few hours ago." He told the elderly woman behind the counter. "'Guy in a red vest..."
"Oh yes!" She remembered. "He said to give you the extra key."
Due to her age, a number of minutes went by before she returned. The whole time, Jim had been eyeing the stairs; still curious about what he had seen from outside. He thanked the woman after lifting the key to room two and heading up the narrow stairway.
He approached the door marked with the number having been careful not to make any noise on his way up. Quietly, he placed his ear to it and tried to listen for anything on the other side.
There was nothing.
The whole deal reminded him of what had happened in Farson and he didn't like it one bit. He pulled his head back from the door, readied his key and with one quick motion opened it and moved inside.
Axel was snoring with his face down on the bed. He hadn't even bothered to take his boots off and they dangled off the edge. It was a small room with an even smaller bathroom to one side. Jim walked around trying to see if anything was out of place. He stopped and peered out the window.
It overlooked the market and the spot he had been standing earlier. He thought about it for a full five minutes and realized that he hadn't really seen anything. He was making strange assumptions, drawing insubstantial conclusions and acting overall paranoid.
"Hey!" He nudged Reins who was still snoozing. "Hey! Come on! Wake up!"
With his face muffled by the mattress, Axel let out two words. "Go away."
"I can't. I'm starving."
"How can you sleep on an empty stomach?"
As if to reply, Axel's belly grumbled. There was no exchange of words between the two following it, but it grumbled again. Another ten seconds and it began grumbling non-stop.
He finally propped his head off the bed. "Alright, let's get something to eat."
At the same time, Jethro was escorting four of Vargas' men through his turf. All were dressed in nice suits and wore similar, slicked back hairstyles. They were recognized by the townsfolk who immediately stepped out of their way when seeing them approach.
"What are we suppose to be doing again?" One of the men asked.
"You didn't hear?" Another answered. "Jethro told the boss that he saw Axel Reins come into town. Can you believe that?"
The pimp was overhearing everything from the front of the group but continued his march without speaking or looking back.
"Man! Why does he always waste our time with this shit?"
"Remember the time he saw someone spying on his operation? So we had to stakeout for three days…"
"Yeah, then it turned out to be some homeless perv beating his meat to the hookers."
"That was nasty."
"We were so pissed we beat the crap out of him."
"You weren't around back then right Les?"
Les was one of the younger recruits within the Vargas crew. New help had been hard to find since the other organizations were paying far more than they ever could. This wasn't a problem for Les who was more interested in proving his worth than receiving a big paycheck.
"No," He replied while scratching his neck. "But it wouldn't surprise me if this turned out to be the same kind of shit." He grew annoyed from watching the little man's back. "Hey Jethro! Stop with the junk! It's messing up your brain."
The others cackled while steam vented from the dealer's ears who tried his best to ignore the taunts. Just then, a civilian was stepping out of a store, not watching what was in front of him. when he passed into the group and brushed shoulders with Les.
Before the man could word the apology, a full body haymaker caught him across the cheek and sent him careening into the floor. The new guy was known for his heavy hand and short temper, but so were all the others. Cocksure, violent, abusive bullies: To be a gangster in Starkhaven meant you could get away with nearly anything but murder. The police had struggled to work out a truce between the organizations and they would overlook minor offenses in order to maintain it. The gangsters made sure to take advantage.
"'Should have watched where you were going." One of the other men chastised the unconscious victim while horrified onlookers, including Jethro, tried their best not to get involved.
Arriving at the inn, they questioned the old lady at the front desk. She told them everything she knew without feeling the least bit threatened.
"Shit!" Jethro screeched. "We just missed 'em!"
Nearby, Jim and Axel were already seated at a table. The Starkhaven Steakhouse was a popular restaurant located only a short distance from where they had parked their jeep. The place was open on all sides, similar to a gazebo, built strictly out of wood and supported three feet off the ground. The kitchen could be found at the center of the structure, while outdoor tables were placed all around it. It was its simplicity that made it an attractive spot for tourists, but the food wasn't bad either.
"Go nuts." Axel told his young partner who seemed reluctant to order.
"Aren't we short on cash?"
"This is a special occasion. Don't worry about it."
Jim faced the waiter who had a pen and pad ready. "Steak; the biggest you've got in the house."
The man wrote it down. "How would you like it?"
He looked at the waiter and gave a deadpan response. "Edible."
The waiter tweaked his head and added the extra note.
After finishing with their orders, the waiter head into the kitchen area leaving the two to talk.
"Well?" Jim was curious about what his friend had mentioned earlier. "What's the special occasion you're talking about?"
"Are you kidding? We're finally here!"
His partner wasn't impressed. "Yeah, well I'm still not sure why."
"Listen, this town has a lot of opportunities for guys like us. We can start putting the gears in motion."
They sat in silence for a minute, reflecting on their long journey to the town and the obstacles that had blocked their path. The mood became serious and almost depressing the more they thought about it. It had not been a pleasant journey.
"What happened to your guns?" At last, Axel realized what had been bothering him since leaving the inn.
The mere mention of it seemed to throw Jim into a fit. "They were confiscated. You never told me they were restricted in town."
"And you just handed them over?"
"I wouldn't have but you told me not to start any trouble." Garrick snapped at him but maintained a low tone.
Remembering what he had said in his sleeplessness, he couldn't help but laugh. "I guess I kind of screwed you huh?"
"Yeah, real funny…"
"Come on! You may not be packing, but neither is anyone else." Axel did his best to raise his spirit. "Besides, this is a town with law enforcement. We'll be fine." He rocked his rickety chair back and forth while looking up at the ceiling. "So… You just had to order the most expensive thing on the menu…"
Jim was still wearing his shades but Reins knew he was glaring at him from underneath. "I'm going to use the bathroom."
Reins was rather satisfied with his timing and execution. He grinned as he watched the man head towards the toilets which were located next to the kitchen; a room that looked like it doubled as the restaurant's main support beam.
Several minutes later, the waiter returned carrying both plates in hand and placed them across the table. Looking at their respective meals, Axel was beginning to feel that a steak may have been the best choice. Still, he was too hungry to complain and decided against waiting for his friend.
Within a few short moments, he devoured his order of potatoes and left very little of the peels. He didn't even care that the inside of his mouth was burned due to them being fresh from the oven. Full and satisfied, he eased into his chair and placed his hands behind his head.
"I don't believe it…"
The sound of footsteps slowly moving towards his direction didn't shake him from his relaxed mood.
"I see it. But I don't believe it." The same voice continued.
"That's him?" Another asked.
"Oh! That's him alright. I can recognize that vest anywhere." Stepping into Axel's view were several well-sized men who looked at him as though he were a ghost. "Axel Reins."
"Can't believe that little fucker was right…" One of the others mumbled.
"We all thought you were dead Reins." The main man spoke directly to him. "Seven whole months."
"I was on vacation." He replied as casually as a person can.
The joke fell flat but the gangster kept his smirk. "Boss Vargas wants to see you."
"I don't know who that is."
"It doesn't fucking matter if you don't know him. He knows you and he wants to see you. So get up and walk or we'll do this the hard way."
Axel brought his hands up. "Look guys, I'd love to go with you but I just ordered this really big steak for my friend and it would be a total waste-"
Les, the young upstart, swiftly grabbed one side of the table and flipped the whole thing across the room. Plates and utensils were flung around the hall covering the floor in a big mess. The place went from deafening noise to silence in an instant as all the other customers and employees watched the events that transpired.
"Okay," Axel sighed before standing up into the now empty space. "But uh… I feel I should warn you guys, I came to town with my new enforcer and uh… he's pretty strong. He could probably beat all four of you up."
Jethro hadn't gone up the three steps that led into the steakhouse. Instead, he watched the thugs do their work from the safety of the street. He always admired the gangsters and dreamed of one day being an enforcer himself; able to muscle people and intimidate them into doing what he wanted. When he saw Les toss the table, he could almost picture himself doing the same thing. His whole body was jumping with excitement. That or he had done taken to many amphetamines that day. As the crew was getting ready to drag Reins out, he noticed another man who had approached from the bathroom but had settled down near the kitchen counter.
Jim looked at the overturned table momentarily then crouched down several feet from the gangsters. He lifted the broken plate off his steak, picked it up and began chewing into it like a wild animal. By that point, he had gained the attention of everyone around him.
"Who the fuck is that?" The lead gangster was asked everyone that watched him.
Axel answered without a shred of embarrassment. "That's my muscle."
There was a guffaw among the thugs as they looked at each other and could instantly see the humor.
The man was even shorter than Jethro.
Letting out his last tear-jerked chuckle, the gangster went back to business. "Okay, let's go." He turned to the newcomer of the crew. "Les, make sure he doesn't follow us."
As he spoke the words, Jim stood up and turned towards them in a calm, casual manner. He still had the well done steak in hand and ripped another piece from it. With two steps forward, he was blocked off by the violent goon.
"Try it!" Les dared him. He was already psyched up and ready to throw down.
The short man in the military vest continued eating his meal. He didn't appear willing to make the first move and instead just stared at the much taller man.
The young thug, who was always eager to pick a fight, figured the man was afraid to strike first. He didn't care to give him a chance to. With all his strength, he swung up with an uppercut at close range. It surprised him that the man had evaded the punch by pulling his head back at the right time. He was ready to follow up with another attack when his body suddenly locked up and he fell to the floor.
There exists an early warning system for being struck in the genitals. Out of instinct, a majority of people will glance down a split second before delivering the kick that will assuredly incapacitate any male opponent. By noticing this small gesture, one can easily avoid the hit. On the other hand, the trick is useless when the attacker is wearing highly reflective sunglasses.
Les was down in the fetal position, cupping his damaged jewels in both hands and moaning in half-gasps. The rest of the gangsters took notice only after the kick but were able to get a decent idea of what had just happened. Two of the more experienced men stepped forward to handle to job. They moved from beyond his range and ended on opposite sides.
Jim finished his steak and sucked his fingers clean while watching them inch their way closer. He shifted his gaze constantly between the two who would be sure to attack simultaneously.
At three feet's distance, he pounced at the thug on his right and delivered a short left that caught him flush and sent him wobbling back. A split second later, the other man grabbed him from behind and placed him in a half nelson hold.
The gangster who was punched in the face was now out for blood. His eyes were flaring as he stepped towards his captured prey and cracked his knuckles. Jim struggled to get free while the larger man behind him had no trouble keeping him in place. He could see the man with the wide grin in front of him wind up a big punch as though he were pitching a ball. When he threw his fist forward, it connected with a sick thud.
Stepping back, the gangster screamed in pain. "He broke my god damn hand!"
His strike had been too obvious. As it was coming in, Jim had braced his neck and thrown his head forward. Keeping his head down, the punch had collided with his much harder forehead and subsequently crushed his knuckles. Garrick had effectively stopped a punch with his face.
He had only an instant to admire the accomplishment.
Bringing his feet back, Jim wrapped one behind the leg of his captor who still had him in the powerful hold. He then thrust his upper body forward, lifting the six foot man entirely off the ground before slamming him head first into the wood floor. The drop released the hold on him and he was set free. He didn't want to touch it, but his head was now pounding and making him feel dizzy. The other thug was still grasping his hand, not paying attention to his surroundings, when Jim spun him around and hit him with a right cross that almost dislocated his jaw. It hurled him halfway across the room before he fell over a table and made another mess.
Standing next to the kitchen counter, Jim then turned to an empty metal tray lying on top of it, grabbed hold and twisted his body in the other direction. The lead member had made an attempt to sneak up behind him but to no avail. The tray dented as it slapped him hard across the face and disoriented him long enough for the smaller man to grab him by the collar. He took a second to aim carefully before striking him in the exact spot necessary to break a person's nose then tossed him over the counter onto a lit stove.
The young man took a few steps towards the kneeling gangster whom he had tossed down a moment ago and kicked him in the face to put him out of commission.
"Hey Axel," He finally said. "Whose fault was it that I had to eat my lunch off the floor?"
By this point, Reins had taken a cigarette out and was puffing away. He pointed to Les who was still recovering from having his testicles smashed.
Jim picked the steak knife off the ground which had been tossed along with his meal, double paced towards the winded thug who was now on his knees and drove it into his shoulder. A quick jerk broke off the wooden handle leaving the blade embedded in his flesh without much chance of being pulled out. Les went back to moaning in pain.
"Thanks for all the help man," He said to Axel in a sarcastic tone while rubbing his forehead. "'Really appreciate it."
"It looked like you needed the stress relief."
"Yeah right..." He was breathing heavily. "What did these assholes want anyway?"
Reins looked as though he were about to remember, but came up with a blank stare. "I have no idea."
Their antics had attracted the unwanted attention of everyone in the vicinity. It amazed them that one person, so small, had single handedly beaten the four larger adversaries who were known criminals. Jethro had also witnessed the whole scene but chose against running in to assist. Instead, he backed away from the scene and, as he always did, ran away.
From the other side of the restaurant, Tanis and three of his men entered in a hurry. They were responding to a call about a disturbance at the Starkhaven Steakhouse. When they stopped at the sight of all the carnage, the sheriff recognized the man at the center of the scene.
Jim mimicked his shrug from earlier in a mocking gesture.
* * *
Chapter 3: Grim Reaping
Jim had settled into a cozy chair for less than fifteen minutes when he noticed the individual leaning against the nearby support beam.
While most parts of town bustled with activity regardless of time or day, nights in the residential district of Starkhaven were always quiet. The people would sleep shortly after the setting of the sun and remain undisturbed until morning.
Garrick had been keeping his eyes low and paying scarce attention to his surroundings. Before he knew it, someone had appeared just a few feet's distance from him. The figure was too deep in darkness to make sure, but something told Jim it was a man. What bothered him most was how he had gotten so close to him without making a sound.
There was a long period of insecurity as he wondered if he had been caught with his pants down. He was half naked, wearing only a pair of torn up jeans, and carrying with him the knife that was left as his only weapon.
It was noon of that day by the time he had been escorted to the mayor's office. He and Axel had been seated on an uncomfortable bench for ten minutes while Tanis talked with Rook no more than a few doors down the hall. When he came back to fetch him, the stubby man was swinging his feet up and down as though he were a restless child. He didn't appear too bothered by the whole ordeal.
Reins was fast asleep with his head resting in his palm. The nudge from his friend failed to wake him. A second later, Jim was explained that the mayor wanted to meet with him alone.
It had taken a while for the sheriff to buy the story the duo were feeding him. The steakhouse was a mess and there were bodies scattered in every direction. What convinced him were the customers who leaped to their defense after having witnessed the whole scene. Though the two wouldn't be arrested, what with them not inciting the fight, given the involvement of a crime syndicate, Tanis figured it would be best to inform his boss.
Jim's foot was barely through the door when he heard the familiar voice.
"Well God damn you're fast…"
Rook was perched over her desk like a hawk; a nasty, vicious glare on her face as she kept her eyes fixed on the small man who entered her office. There was no offer for him to sit down and no kind greeting this time. Her next words were spaced and enunciated. She took her time.
"So you haven't been in my town for more than a few hours, you meet with me, we have a nice talk and then you decide" At that point, her voice exploded. "TO TRASH A FUCKING RESTAURANT!"
"I don't care that they started it!" She spoke through her teeth. "I like that place. I eat there three times a week. I don't appreciate a tourist that can't remain civil in my town for more than a day." She pushed herself off the table but maintained her scowl. "I mean, where the hell do you think this is? Dax?"
"No," Jim gave the smallest of smirks. He had already been to the criminal town. "THEY let me keep my guns."
The fire in her eyes would have melted steel. "Is that supposed to be funny?"
His grin vanished. "Uh… No?"
After a brief stare down, she signaled the sheriff who left the room. The young man stood around a couple of seconds without speaking a word. He knew anything he could say or do would make the situation he was in worse than it already was.
But he couldn't stay quiet for long. "What's going to happen to those other guys?"
"They're receiving medical attention right now." Rook explained in a less aggressive tone. "You hurt 'em pretty bad but they'll be fine. After that, we'll send them on their way."
"You don't like it? That's your problem. I've got enough to deal with without a crime syndicate breathing down my neck."
It took Jim a second to raise a brow from beneath his shades. "Those guys were mobsters?"
Their talk was interrupted when Axel was led into the room. He was just up from his short nap and still trying to keep his eyes open. It took him a few minutes to even realize where he was. The mayor didn't even waste a second inspecting the man.
"Is this your responsibility?" She asked him while pointing to the stubby man he was standing next to.
Axel was so lost, he actually had to look over to his friend and eye him up and down. "I suppose he is."
"Well, starting right now, it's going to be your job to make sure I never have to see his face again. 'He starts shit in Starkhaven one more time and I'll cut his balls off. Y'Hear me?"
Reins didn't seem to comprehend the seriousness of the threat, instead choosing to laugh and tease his comrade. He paused rather abruptly when he noticed the framed document that was hung on the wall behind her desk. His expression turned serious as he looked at Rook.
"Y-You're a citizen!" He said in astonishment.
The Continent had seen better days.
While some towns were large enough to sustain themselves, most were in the same position as the one they had just recently passed through. Increasing number of gangs made civilian life either difficult or impossible in many areas. Ghost towns were everywhere; either due to the population relocating or more common, through their extermination. Moral code was almost non-existent. Those with superior force would take what they please, killing women, children and elderly in the process. Often, they were lined up and shot. Other times, they were subjugated to far worse.
Though there were places in the world considered safe from such threats, the unquestionable havens belonged to the sole remaining nation on the Continent. The Independent Free-Citizens Republic, or IFCR, was formed just over two decades ago after a revolution that replaced the previous government. Their territory and influence in the world was continually expanding and made them the only true superpower. Suffice it to say, finding a citizen outside the safety of government controlled cities or towns was rare indeed.
"I'm impressed." The stone cold Marla Rook actually smiled. "Not a lot of people figure that out by themselves."
"I don't understand." Jim wasn't keeping up with the conversation.
"It's a certificate of citizenship. They used to give them out back in the day." Reins educated his simple-minded friend.
"Now they just give out pass cards with your picture on it. Classless bastards…" Marla cursed beneath her breath. "And believe me; I did everything in my power to repeal that idiocy."
Axel was surprised again. "You were a government official?"
"I was a Praetor for seven years. Almost made Consul."
"Holy shit! So what the hell are you doing all the way out here?"
Rook scratched her head. "Well, my folks used to be big players in the political scene. Naturally, I found myself on the same path. They passed away when I was in my thirties. 'Wasn't until I was in my forties that I realized how little interest I had in following in their footsteps. So I left. Found this place when it was still an overlooked territory. I figured I could do more for the people here than I could ever do with the FCR. Started organizing, developing, eventually found myself in the mayor's seat and they've been re-electing me ever since."
"Wow," The man in the leather vest was genuinely interested. "That's pretty incredible."
Jim was not. "Yeah they oughta sell it on audiotape-Can we get the fuck out of here now?"
The two were getting along so well that his plea fell on deaf ears. What didn't was the shout that came from outside the building a second later.
"Rook!" A drawn out call of her name appeared to vex her greatly. "I know what you're planning you traitor!"
Jim and Axel both approached the window to see the origin of the noise. An old, worn looking man was standing on the street corner, yelling directly at them. His hair was all but gone save for a few white strands and he was holding himself up with a wooden cane. A distinguishing feature among the rest of the populous was that he was wearing a long sleeved, dark green jacket. Marla lacked any desire to see the man and instead signaled to Tanis once more to go put a stop to him.
"Seriously," Jim recognized the man's voice as the same from earlier in the day. "Who is that?"
"It's Bill Strenner." She answered. "He's a nut who thinks I'm conspiring against the town. Don't stare. It only encourages him."
The two backed off from the window as per her request. Not long after, the sheriff was outside to escort the man away from the building.
"What's that guy's deal with you?" Reins asked her.
"Please," Marla stopped them. "I'd like to just finish this up and let you both go. I've got a lot on my plate today." A nod from the man acknowledged her request. "What exactly did Vargas' men want from you?"
Axel rubbed his neck while thinking. "Well… I think they just wanted me to pay for their meal. When I told them I didn't have the cash they got pissed and flipped the table. You know how the rest went."
"So you're saying this confrontation was spontaneous?"
"I sure as hell had no prior association with 'em."
The mayor looked skeptical. In front of her was a report that she had filled out shortly before meeting with the pair. It was a summary of the events that took place as described to her by Tanis. She spent a good minute reading over it, then looking up at Axel's expression again, then back down to read some more. Finally, she added what appeared to be an extra sentence to the document before signing the bottom.
"You can go." She said to the two. "But I want you both to keep a low profile for the remainder of your stay. Those boys aren't in any condition to fight you anytime soon but try to avoid them. They'll be likely holding a grudge."
The travelers made no attempt to stay any longer. They made their way downstairs, exited out the front doors, and kept a steady pace while heading towards the inn at which they were lodged.
"So why lie to her?" Jim asked as he tried to keep his friend's pace.
"If we told her they were after me, she would have forced us to leave town. For now, we should grab whatever supplies we've got left, hide the jeep and find another place to lay low." There was a general look of concern on his face. "This isn't over yet."
They managed to cover their tracks and disappear into the residential area of town. Reins was well aware of the hospitality offered by many of the townsfolk when it came to food and shelter. It wasn't something he wanted to take advantage of, but lacking alternative options meant they had little choice.
The people of Starkhaven led peaceful, uneventful lives and although this was a step up from many of the other parts of the world, boredom was a common issue. A traveler's story, even a gang member's, was a welcome source of entertainment for the residents. Sometimes, all you had to do was ask and their doors would open to you.
Being confined to a small room for several hours, Garrick had been eager to step out and take a stroll around the peaceful neighborhood. He had spotted a welcoming chair on the front porch of a house and figured no one would mind if he sat for a short while. Unfortunately, it appeared that his night would become anything but relaxing.
A few hours earlier, the four men assigned to look for Axel Reins had returned to Vargas' hideout. Horace had not been amused by the sight of them. Each was injured and less inclined than the next to explain what had happened. The worst off of the four looked to be the man who was leading the group. His nose had been badly busted and his arms bandaged due to third degree burns he had sustained when he landed on a hot stove.
When it came to the actual management of the syndicate, it was Horace who did most of the work. Vargas was too emotional or easily distracted to handle difficult problems with a level head. On the other hand, Horace was cool and calculated. Everyone would say how he was better suited to lead the group than their broken down Boss Vargas. Everyone of course, save for Horace.
"You morons!" The muscular lieutenant spoke without much compassion. "You were told to check it out. I don't remember ever telling you to move on him."
"But Boss," The group leader pleaded. "He was sitting all alone. We thought we'd save you the trouble and bring him right away."
Horace wasn't appreciative. "And now he knows we're looking for him… You've made finding him that much more difficult."
The gangsters had no real excuse. For all their tough talk and intimidating behavior, they had failed one of the most simple and easy jobs that could have been asked of them. If the organization could have afforded it, they would have been kicked out. Fortunately, help was very hard to find those days.
"Tell me more about the guy he was with." Horace reached into his pocket and pulled out a small notepad with an attached pen. "You said he was the one who did all the fighting right?"
At that point, Les, the new blood of the crew, stood from the couch he was on. "Yeah but Boss, this guy was a real slimy fuck; 'knew all the dirty tricks to win a fight." His arm had been placed in a sling after the grueling hour it took to remove the broken blade from his shoulder. "If I find that guy… I'm gonna pay him back big time."
"That's great." His boss lowered the pad and stared at him. "But I'd prefer physical features if you don't mind."
"He's short." One of the other men who was lying down took a hint.
"We don't know exactly." The leader of the group spoke again. "How short is Jethro?"
Horace shrugged his arms. "Five-foot-seven… At the most…"
The four answered him in unison. "Shorter than that."
He jotted down every last bit of detail they could give him; hair color, nose, mouth, ears, clothes, build, skin tone. With their memories combined, they managed to put together an accurate picture of him; except for the eyes. When they were done, it was time for him to break the news to his boss and see how he would want to deal with the issue. For Horace, this was, by far, the most difficult part of any day.
Vargas used to be one of the prime bosses in Starkhaven. For a while, he controlled over ninety percent of all drug traffic within town. But it wasn't only about product. His organization's men were the most loyal out of all the syndicates. These were men whose allegiances extended beyond money, beyond power. There was never any question as to who they worked for.
It was for this reason that his sudden fall from glory had such a deep rooted effect on everyone around him. Gone was the genius businessman who even distributed to the major cities. Gone was the progressive thinker who helped create the present day Starkhaven. Gone was the money, honor, respect and with it, his devoted men.
Horace was, in fact, the only remaining member from those days. The rest had either changed sides or died during the rapid shift in power. This was why Vargas had kept him close but also why the two would never see eye to eye. While the Boss was a changed man; his decisions always rash or unreasonable, his underling had tried his best to maintain the old way of doing things.
He knew the news he was bringing to him that day was extremely volatile. Likewise, he was aware that he couldn't keep it hidden from him.
Vargas was leaning back in his chair. His eyes were slow to shift and glare towards his right hand who watched him for a minute before opening his mouth.
His eyes couldn't get any bigger. The boss moved away from his desk and leaned back into his chair with a complete look of shock on his face.
"Baby, get out."
The blonde who had her head in his lap popped her face up. "But I'm not finished yet."
"Take a walk!" He exploded.
As she was ejected from the room, Vargas continued to chuckle at the new development. It bothered Horace. He hadn't seen that kind of expression on him for quite some time. Still, he went ahead and explained what had happened including the obstacle that was in their way.
The mob leader listened but didn't care. "So? Send the boys out to find 'em."
"Sending that many people out to look for him can attract a lot of unwanted attention." Horace tried to reason with his boss. "It would give him a chance to slip away again."
Vargas appeared to agree with him and his face contorted with frustration. Then, he came up with solution. "Get the Grim Reaper to do it."
Horace seemed visibly bothered by the order. "I don't think that would be a wise decision. Besides, we don't even know if Reins is still in town."
"What the hell am I paying him for?" The fat man glared at him. "Tell him he has a job to do. I want Reins!"
The experienced gangster was given his orders and knew there was no point in arguing further. He left the building immediately and headed towards the commercial district. On his way, several of the syndicate's men volunteered to tag along but were talked into staying put. Where he was headed, he didn't need any escorts.
Horace kept a low profile. Few recognized him on the streets and fewer still feared him. He was the ideal criminal whose code of honor and conduct almost made him one of the good guys. At the same time, he was a methodical planner who knew full well the weakened state of their organization.
The firearm restriction in town meant that what few guns they had in their possession couldn't possibly be used in the event of a turf war. If the larger syndicates decided to make a move against them, a close quarter encounter was assured. But all sides were amateurs when it came to that sort of combat. They were all big, muscular thugs without any real fighting experience. This meant one simple thing; the side with the most men would ultimately win.
For this purpose, Horace had prepared a trump card. The Grim Reaper was a mercenary whose skill with a blade was considered top-notch. When he had first arrived in Starkhaven, he had issued a duel to any person who accepted. After killing three men in singles combat, he found himself lacking in challengers.
His reputation among the residents established, he was offered large sums of money to work for the criminal lords and help them seize more power. But Horace had been the only one to figure out the man's real desire. Because of this, the Grim Reaper went into business with Boss Vargas.
The mobster came to a stop in front a light blue, three story building. He took a moment to read the sign hanging above the entrance before heading inside.
The first level was a grocery store that specialized in domestic goods both canned and fresh. The owner, operating the cash counter, noticed the man enter his place of business and gave him an understanding nod before signaling him towards the stairs at the very back of the room. This was one of the few places in town that still paid Vargas for protection and also helped with under the counter drug dealing. The entire building belonged to its owner who rented out the other two floors for profit.
The second floor was rented to one of the only two dentists in town. Although, with all the current problems in the world, it wasn't nearly as successful as one would be led to believe. Horace had no dealings with him and continued up the stairs.
The third floor was a simple hall with two doors on opposing sides. He walked past the first door, which he knew was the owner's home, and approached the second one farther down. When he brought his hand up to knock, he paused for a moment as though considering what he was doing.
He tapped the door with his knuckles hard enough for anyone inside to hear, then waited ten seconds, then twenty with no result. He did it again; this time in greater length and force. Thirty seconds later, he turned the knob to find it was unlocked.
The loft was much bigger than he expected. Without any walls or separations, it made for a very roomy apartment. To further increase the sense of space, there wasn't a single piece of furniture to be found anywhere. The only evidence that there was someone living there was the strong stench of sweat and the food visible in one of the open cabinets.
Horace admired the emptiness of the room a bit longer before turning towards the closet on the far side. With a lack of doorways or tight corridors, it had been the only suitable place to install a pull-up bar. Hanging upside down from it and doing abdominal crunches was the man he came to see.
"You didn't answer your door."
An answer didn't come right away. From the looks of it, the man was straining quite a bit each time he pulled himself up. He wasn't wearing anything besides a pair of tight shorts and his slim body was soaked in perspiration.
Eventually, he began to show the he was reaching the end. He forced with every ounce of energy he had left to lift his upper body skyward but by the halfway point, it simply gave out and dropped back down. He then, rolled backwards off the bar and sat down on the floor with his back turned to his guest.
"You didn't wait long enough." He replied to the earlier question; still breathing heavily.
The two had spoken on several occasions but it was Horace's first visit to his home. He walked to the only window and peeked through the blinds to see a large section of town and the setting sun in the distance.
"I noticed you don't have a bed."
"I can't sleep lying down. I just lean against the counter." The tenant stood up and moved to the kitchen. "You came all the way here to ask about my sleeping arrangements?"
Horace looked at him seriously. "I've got work for you."
"Really?" The man grinned after taking a small drink of water from a plastic bottle. "That's unusual." He continued his conversation while heading towards the bathroom at the very back of the loft. "So who do I kill?"
"No one if all goes well." The syndicate member explained. "Axel Reins is in town. Ever heard of him?"
"Just stories." The sound of the shower running forced both men to raise their voices.
"Well, a while back, he caused us a lot of grievance. Now, Boss Vargas wants him alive."
"This sounds like something you'd want to handle internally. Why come to me?"
"Reins has a new guy with him. 'Managed to take down four of ours single handed."
"Any idea who he is?"
"No. 'Goes by the name Jim. At least, that's what the sheriff was calling him according to our boys." Horace pulled out his notes and began reading aloud. "Short, maybe five-foot-six or seven, brown hair, brown eyes… Muscular build… If he's Axel's new guy you should have no trouble spotting him."
"Uh-huh." The man turned off the water and stepped out of the bathroom. "What about this Axel person, what's he look like?"
"He's got a trademark. 'Wears a red leather vest."
"Right. Anything else?" The mercenary was incredulous. "What if he isn't wearing it?"
"Trust me. He will be."
The man finished drying himself off and walked back towards the closet where he had exhausted himself just a few minutes ago. He reached in and pulled out a black, one-piece skin suit that went down to his feet and cut off at the wrists. It fit firmly around his neck after zipping himself in. He then grabbed a pair of tan colored leather boots which he strapped on and tied with a double knot. What came next were sections of thick and heavy leather: a chest piece, knee and elbow protectors and a thick utility belt which had a codpiece. He even placed a pair of shin guards over his boots for extra protection. Finally, a pair of leather bracers finished the ensemble. Every one of them was strapped in tight and checked to see if it would move from its place.
"We don't know what you could be walking into." The gangster said to him. "It may be more than just the two of them."
The Grim Reaper was supposed to be used as a contingency. Horace knew how the syndicates operated and would have deployed him in delicate cases. This was different. There was no way for him to predict Axel Reins or the new muscle he was traveling with. At the same time, it left their entire organization vulnerable.
"You shouldn't worry so much." The merc grabbed his last article of clothing from the closet; a long leather duster that would conceal most of what he wore underneath. "I'll have him by morning."
At the door, he picked up the weapons he had been carrying when he first entered Starkhaven. One was some sort of collapsible staff which was folded up for easy transport. He placed it inside his coat where there was a specially designed pocket for it. The second was a sword sheathed in black leather and designed with a simple steel crossguard. He connected it to his belt using a small hook.
Horace couldn't help but grin. It was only when he saw the swordsman in full gear that he realized how foolish he had been to worry. Axel and his crew would certainly be unarmed. Whether he had one man with him or five wouldn't make a difference. The person hunting him down was the Angel of Death; a title the man had earned not only in blood, but sweat. This man had been training every day within the open space of the apartment; practicing technique, increasing strength and building speed. In a world filled with self-proclaimed warriors, he was the real deal.
"You might want to talk to Jethro." The gangster advised him. "He might know something."
* * *
The mysterious stranger hadn't spoken a word yet. The porch Jim was sitting on was one of the few that had lights installed for use in the nighttime. In spite of this, it was impossible to see enough of the man that lurked deep within the shadows.
Jim grew irritated by the long silence.
"Can I help you?" His question came as though he had nothing to hide.
"Yeah," The man replied in jest. "You can tell me what rock Axel Reins is hiding under."
Garrick wasn't sure of the man's identity but, given the fact that he had been recognized, guessed it was one of the thugs from the restaurant. The moon was out and allowed for some degree of visibility in the otherwise dark streets. Even this didn't help make out his features.
"You know," Jim moved his hand towards the knife which he had tucked into the back of his pants. "It's rude to make demands, especially without introducing yourself first."
"I see. How about we get straight to the point then?" The stalker slid away from the porch and stepped towards the street. "I want Axel Reins. You'd like to leave." He kept his back turned as he spoke. "To settle things, I propose a duel."
Axel's partner could now tell that this person was someone he had never met before. It meant they had left behind some trace that could possibly lead others to their location. He considered attacking while the man's back was turned but decided against it. The man was nearly a head taller than him and though he looked slimmer, the heavy clothes he wore made him look just as bulky.
"A duel?" Jim had a hard time believing someone could be so old-fashioned. "Are you serious?"
"I heard about your little brawl; 'Thought you might appreciate a challenge." The insult hadn't fazed him. "You can choose to run although I wouldn't recommend it." His adversary's silence was enough to tell him that he agreed to his terms. "I assume that knife stuffed into the back of your pants will be your weapon?"
It surprised Garrick that he knew about it. Instead of worrying, he just grinned as he pulled the blade from its sheath and gripped it firmly. "I assume the sword at your waist will be yours?"
His opponent finally turned to face him. The brown duster concealed whatever weapons he may have been carrying underneath but the hilt of his sword stuck out from his side. With his hand on it the whole time, even striking at him from his rear would have been suicide.
"Afraid not." He said with a faint chuckle.
He reached into his coat and pulled out what appeared to be a three-section staff polished with black lacquer. Durable looking hinges held the parts together that swung back and forth in a single dimension. The man clasped one end of the tool and lifted it back over his shoulder.
It wasn't a three section staff.
He delivered a swift downward jerk but snapped back at the last second. It forced the hinges to lock into place one after the other to form a long, straight pole. At the opposite end, a twelve inch curved blade slid out into place transforming the simple staff into a scythe.
"The name's Ballard." He twirled the weapon with one hand and used it to slice through the air. "People call me the Grim Reaper. Three guesses as to why."
His eyes glowed with a faint blue hue. If Jim wasn't about to have a fight to the death, he'd have asked him about it.
Less than a few blocks away, Axel was sitting in the room which had been prepared for them earlier. After showering and eating, he had gone back to it and was now sitting quietly on one of the beds with an expression on his face far more serious than usual.
A knock at the door brought him back to reality.
When he opened it, a middle-aged woman walked past him and brought in a stack of clothes.
"Sorry Mister Reins," She said as she placed the items on the bed. "We tried our best to remove some of the stains but they wouldn't come off."
Axel smiled. "Don't worry about it. It's more than enough that we'll be wearing washed clothes for a change."
Out of the pile, the woman grabbed Jim's combat vest and lifted it to show her guest. "I sewed up the tear in the pocket and the broken strap but can your friend wear it to see if it'll hold?"
"He stepped out for a little while." Reins explained. "I'll have him try it on when he gets back. I promise we'll let you know if it needs reworking."
The two men hadn't looked far to find a suitable place to stay. A man and his Mrs. were living alone in a house large enough to support an entire family. After their children had moved out to start lives of their own, the guest house, which had been their room, was converted back to its original purpose; open to anyone who needed a place to stay. Their room was, in fact, separated from the rest of the home and allowed them a large degree of privacy.
"Sorry for intruding." Feeling a little ashamed, Axel lowered his head to the woman.
"Don't even start with that." She reassured him. "You're not the first people we've had and you won't be the last."
She closed the door behind her as she left. Axel fell back on his bed and stared up at the white ceiling. He remained still for a long period and enjoyed the absolute silence around him. He listened closely and could swear that there was the faintest of sounds coming from the distance; the distinct echo of clashing metal.
* * *
Another strike pushed Jim towards a wall. Sweat slid down his face as he took a deep breath.
Ballard had been keeping him on the defensive from the very start. With every attempt to attack, a tap from the much longer weapon against his own would force him to retreat. His failed efforts were not only taking a toll on him physically, but also on a mental level.
"I think you should know," The mercenary said to him with a cocky smirk. "You're not blocking my hits. I'm just aiming for your knife."
He followed up the verbal abuse by slapping his scythe across the man's outstretched arm and forcing him to retreat again. Jim knew the fight was one-sided. He'd used his blade in fights before, but never when his opponent had a bigger one. In an ideal case, he'd have just shot the man.
In fact, his one real advantage was that his assailant was toying with him. Being a short, he was used to being underestimated. He preferred it that way. And as long as his opponents weren't taking him seriously, he'd have time to exploit openings.
"What the hell do you guys want Axel for anyway?" He asked the swordsman hoping for time to catch his breath.
"Don't ask me." The Grim Reaper responded with a shrug. "I'm here because I heard you were tough."
Jim wasted no time in pressing forward. If his opponent wasn't going to kill him, he figured he may as well attempt a different approach to see if the results would be any better.
He slashed in a wide arc with his knife and hit nothing but air as Ballard hopped back. When he moved to strike once more, the duelist spun around to his rear and slammed the blunt end of his staff into his back. This sent him reeling to the ground.
"This is pathetic." The mercenary continued to insult him.
A rock thrown by Garrick flew towards his head less than a second after finishing his sentence. The man effortlessly deflected it using the wide blade on the scythe, but that temporary distraction opened a path for Jim. He spared no time leaping into it. For the first time in the fight, Ballard felt pressured.
The butt end of his weapon struck the smaller man in the solar plexus and sent him flying backwards.
The impact hadn't hurt him as much as it could have, but Jim was still winded by the attack. To make matters worse, he had dropped his weapon in the dirt when hit by the stunning attack.
Ballard picked it off the ground. "You dropped your knife."
He held it straight up by the tip of the blade and threw it at the man.
The knife hit Jim in the forearm and embedded itself into his muscles. It had penetrated almost an inch and only stopped when it had reached the bone. When he grabbed the handle and jerked out the blade, blood spurt from the wound sending Jim into a tantrum.
"Motherfucker!" He shouted at the top of his lungs almost forgetting how the air had escaped them just a moment ago.
His attitude changed instantaneously. Jim was no longer biding his time or trying to find an opening. He rushed the man without regard to his own life and slashed at him in rapid succession.
At first, The Grim Reaper humored him by dodging each attack. He was predicting every move made by the less proficient fighter, but as the man pushed consistently deeper into his defenses, a slash cut across his leather chest piece and took him by surprise.
Jim had less than a split-second to react to the counter. Ballard brought down his scythe with maximum force as retaliation for the earlier attack but missed and promptly destroyed a corner of a building. Garrick watched as pieces of wood and siding flew through the air from the relative safety of the ground. He then picked himself up and ran away.
His opponent was now trying to kill him.
Ballard Rinkov hadn't entered Vargas' employ for the pay. He had been offered power and wealth many times by the other syndicates but had declined them on every occasion. There were only two things that interested him, and one was his desire for challengers.
He had spent years looking for the strongest people to fight. In a world filled with thieves and murderers, Ballard had chosen a different path. Some men tried to live peaceful lives and raise families. Others joined the IFCR and fought in its name. The Grim Reaper wanted to be the best fighter alive.
In his life, he had dueled and won countless times, but it hadn't been enough. Being on the outnumbered side of the war promised him a satisfying amount of people to fight. The fact that they would all be criminals meant he wouldn't have to hold back either.
It didn't take much effort to force his opponent into a corner. With a few simple moves, he also managed to knock the knife from his hand.
Jim was tired. He backed into a wall without anywhere to run.
"I guess this was kind of fun." Ballard seemed disappointed. "But I can't spend all night doing this with you."
"Don't worry," Jim grinned despite his current situation. "I'll kill you way before sunrise."
The man's ignorance amused Ballard. "Why don't you tell me where Reins is hiding?"
"Sure." Garrick chuckled. "You know, he would probably do worse against you than I did… Good thing he knows how to sneak around."
The Grim Reaper realized, in that brief moment, that he had been caught.
Axel slammed the mercenary's head with a log he had picked up from one of the nearby houses.
His partner could see his eyes roll back as he fell to one side. At first, he assumed that his friend had arrived just in the nick of time to save his life. He would later learn that Reins had been watching much of the fight and had only moved on the swordsman when the opportunity presented itself.
"Thanks." Jim eyed his friend and immediately went for his knife.
His partner watched him walk towards his opponent, crouch over him and bring the blade to his throat. "Jim. You're not going to kill him."
Garrick's face showed his disbelief. "I'm sorry?"
"That's the Angel of Death. A man like that, you don't cut his throat when he can't even defend himself."
The stubby man was irate. The agonizing hole in his arm continued to bleed. "Yeah? Maybe we'll invite him over for fucking tea then-"
"You're not killing him!" Reins snapped at him. "This is not open for debate!"
Jim glared while holding the weapon up against Ballard's jugular. A few seconds later, He pushed himself off the downed man and stepped towards Axel with knife in hand.
"You deal with him." He pushed the blade into its sheath and marched towards their cottage.
When gone, Axel let out a sigh of both relief and disgruntlement. Despite the ruckus, it looked as though they hadn't gained the attention of any of the locals. He grabbed the scythe and was able to quickly figure out how the weapon folded back into its compact form. After disarming the man completely, he lifted him onto his shoulders with a fireman carry and began his long trek back to the house.
Unbeknownst to everyone on the ground, another pair of eyes had watched the events that had transpired. This person had been following Ballard since the moment he had heard of his assigned task. Upon witnessing his defeat, the shadowy figure switched on an ear piece that was plugged into a short frequency radio.
"It's me." He said as though he would be recognized by his voice alone. "Your boy just got taken down. I thought you might want to hand this job over to a real professional." He listened to the answer before speaking once more. "Of course, given that you went to someone else first, I'm expecting nothing less than double my normal asking price… Uh-huh. I'll have him for you by tomorrow then."
Last edited by Mortar
on Mon Aug 30, 2010 12:12 pm, edited 1 time in total.