The hunter and the hunted
"The Americans used hovercraft—that's what they call these flying machines, in the Mekong delta, in Viet-Nam. At first they made mince-meat of the other guys. Then some bright spark thought of putting mines on the tops of bamboos. You can armor the topside of a hovercraft, but under the skirt, there is always this nice, soft spot." Squigs glowed a dull red, realizing what he'd just said. He knew he was just talking to hide his own nervousness. But there were several females in his audience, which guaranteed his foot-in-mouth disease. He glanced at his watch. Twenty seconds to go. He noticed Kate was having a quiet canoodle with the Crum. "Get ready. On the count of twenty they'll be here," he said loudly.
Dead on time, the hovercraft appeared. Unfortunately, not dead on target. A good mile off. In a thunder of small-arms fire. Just behind it came a second hovercraft. And they were heading off the wrong way. Suddenly, above the raft, a green flare exploded. The hovercraft both slewed around in wide circles, the second craft making the turn quicker, heading back. Both bearing straight down on them. And the air was full of the heavy shudder of machine-gun fire.
There was a boom as a pipe-bomb was triggered by a stray shot. A flash and a cloud of black smoke. The hovercraft swerved away. The wrong way away. Into the mine-marsh.
The air rippled with explosions. There was a sound of tearing, screaming metal. As Squigs had intended, the pipe-bombs sent fragments of steel up into the fans, chewing great hunks out of the rotors. Like a drunken rollercoaster car, the hovercraft lurched, bucketed and slewed, and then nosedived into the swamp. A shower of fetid swamp water and rotting reed fragments arced upwards, along with the sound of impact. The heroes cheered.
Machine-gun fire stuttered across the reeds, as the second craft banked furiously. A pipe-bomb exploded, ripping at its skirt. It lurched, but the pilot managed to swing away. Arrows bounced harmlessly off it. "Down!" yelled Squigs. He'd triggered a couple of smoke bombs, which he'd placed about sixty yards off. The smoke was drawing fire, but somebody on the hovercraft had plainly also seen the raft. A few seconds and other, more accurate shooting would follow, "Go! Swim into the mine-field! They can't get to us there," he yelled. Some people jumped.
There was a powerful twang next to Squigs' ear. The second hovercraft nearly followed the first into the water. "Got 'im!" Korg said with vicious satisfaction. "Come on! Into the water! Let's finish off what we've got, let the rest come to us!" Squigs however, stood fast. He aimed his crude bazooka at the lurching craft. Applied his Bic to the fuse. Wished like hell he could be elsewhere. . . .
Damn. The thing wasn't working. The fuse must have gone out. He didn't have a spare, did he? He was about to take it off his shoulder and have a look when . . .
Somebody with an explosive buzz-saw had just removed his ear. His head vibrated like a base drum. His retinas were seared by the afterburn. On his knees, Squigs was unable to see that his attempt at armor-piercing had worked, although a bit too well. The soft lead projectile had struck the hovercraft door. The impact had transferred all the projectile's momentum into the five steel dagger-blades inside it, which ripped through the armor-skin like a four-year old through Christmas wrapping-paper.
Something hit the hovercraft with sledge-hammer force. Mario had a brief vision of a bright steel screaming through the cabin. And screams and blood.
Later, they found out how lucky the four survivors had been. One of the blades had ricocheted around the cabin. The others however, had simply gone straight through. Fortunately the co-pilot wasn't one of those injured or killed. He got them the hell out of there, fast.
". . . he's lost half an ear and singed most of his hair off. It's a pity. That twisty bush was kind of cute." Kate's voice, or so he thought, although at the moment his ears were giving all sounds a strange burr. His head was going up and down. Aha. Definitely Kate. He'd recognize that shake anywhere. He groaned.
"Ah. He's making his favorite noise. Come on, you cross between a giraffe and a stomach-ache. The danger's over. Crummag threw a sword into the other flying-machine, and they cut and ran."
"Awk. Bullshit. Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!! CRACK!"
"Oh, shut up, you bloody useless bird," said Kate waving at the dive-bombing spectral parrot. "I wish I could wring your neck. Go on, go away!"
"No, Kate. Honestly, I think it's trying to tell you something!" said a blurry version of Venus's voice. "The noise was just like that weapon of Squigs. I thought he hit the flying machine too."
Kat snorted. "He couldn't hit a barn door from inside. How's your dad?"
"I think he'll be all right." Venus sighed. "I just wish I knew why he has these fits."
"Awk! Ghost toasties! Bloody ghost-toasties!" shrieked the parrot, perching on a rail, peering at them from between its legs.
"Well, do you still think it's trying to tell you something?" Kate asked, scathingly.
Venus walked into view, shaking her head. "It doesn't make much sense, does it?"
Squigs sat up. "Hello," said Kate. "You're back with us. Oh, how thrilling for all of us!"
Squigs was saved from having to come up with a snappy piece of repartee—which was eluding him totally—by Korg pulling himself out of the water and onto the raft. Then, reaching down he hauled a water-logged three-piece suited man out of the water and up onto the logs. "Hello. You awake again, tall 'un? Didn't you get enough sleep last night?" This was said with a broad grin. He turned a more concerned face to Venus. "How's the baron, M'lady?"
"Just concussed, I think Korg. He's lost a bit of blood, but thanks to you he's still alive."
"Least I could do, M'lady. Funny, that fit coming on just then. You'll forgive me knocking him into the water just then?"
"Of course," said Venus. "How were you to know there was a submerged log there? At least you kept him afloat. I'm not sure I'm going to forgive you knocking me overboard, though."
The dwarf looked sheepish. "Heat of the moment, M'lady. My first thought was for your safety. After all, you did say I was a gallant, nights. That 'shevalley ear' thing. I just thought I'd extend it to daytime."
"I'll thank you to remember that I'm quite capable of looking after myself," Venus said with a hauteur that was at odds with the twitching edges of a smile she was trying to restrain. "Now, what's happening over there?"
Korg shook himself from rapt contemplation of her face. "Oh. Yeah. I forgot. Miss Kate, your dad says to bring the boat-wagon over to him, or to hitch the hippos to the raft, and bring it rather. And if you ladies would like to have a look at this guy? He's the only one who is still alive. I got to him before Vila. She was cutting throats left, right and center."
They pulled the raft across to the wreck of the hovercraft. As they arrived a noisy flock of weaver-birds flew across the reeds. A pipe bomb exploded. Korg stood there, looking at all the tortoise-necked people. He shook his head, and with a gesture that took in the distant column of smoke and the wrecked and twisted metal coleslaw which had once been the hovercraft's fans. "As Frenchy would have said, 'Say magnifeek, may say nay pa la gay.' Give me an honest fight any day."
"It is magnificent, but it isn't a ford," Squigs translated, and nodded. "Dead right for once, Korg. It's actually made by GM, I think."
Isaac Levieson stared at the crystal ball. He patted it with gnarled old hand, waiting for the cloudy inside to clear. He chuckled to himself. Never had any device been quite so misunderstood. Fortune-telling! Ha. Mind you he got a crossed line with a fortune teller on earth once. She had been more than a little surprised.
A face began to appear as the crystal resonances matched. "Isaac,"
greeted the tall, liveried man on the other side of the void. "How are things that side?"
"Pretty bad, Samur. But I have just met someone with Sadie's hand. The hand was still alive . . . it has been grafted onto the boy."
There was a silence and a long sigh. "That's the only piece to have turned up so far. You still believe her dead?"
"She hasn't been in contact for more than a year, Samur. She's dead. The stories we got from Fire are true, I think.
There was another long sigh. "She'll have to be replaced, you know. We can't afford just to let Hell go to hell in its own way. The EPA reports that we're getting toxin leakages here. So is Earth. Hell needs to be overseen."
"There is still some morphic resonance about that hand."
Samur shrugged. "There would be. Cellular memory, too. She was from Sylvan, after all."
"Do you think it would be possible for her to communicate from limbo through it?"
Samur shook his head. "Not really enough for us to find out what she was doing. But she may retain some control over the limb if the current owner is weak- willed."
"He isn't, but Sadie was unusually strong," said Isaac. "There's no certainty . . . Anyway, what do you know about computers?"
Samur shook his head. "Not much. Earth technology was something we left to Selby."
"We'd better start finding out more. Selby is dead," said Isaac, shortly. "And we have something here that could overturn the old order."
Samur gave a recognition signal of the recent and much mocked order . . . and an almost-smile. "That's what we do, isn't it?"
Isaac shook his head. "Not when it's our old order."
"New disorder, you mean," said Samur.
Isaac shrugged tiredly. "As Sadie used to say, enough disorder is a kind of order."
SLAP! The sound echoed around the smoky room.
Vigo Carpaccio's lips were peeled back, exposing brown stained teeth. His dark skin was flushed, and he was in danger of biting right through that cigar.
SLAP! He blew a cloud of smoke into Smooth Mario's face. A trickle of blood started out of the corner of Mario's lips. He stood still, statue-like. He didn't even move a muscle when the ash from that cigar cascaded down his silk tie. Behind him stood Danny. Big Danny. They'd been together a long time. Since kindergarten. Just now The Man was going to tell Danny to downsize him.
"Enough." The word was quiet. But the force of it stopped the Don's hand mid-swing. Smoke coiled from the hood of the figure sitting at the desk. "I warned you, Mister Carpaccio, before we started, that this . . . James Harkness-Smythe, was dangerous. There is no point in killing Squidfoot, because he has proved that I was right."
Mario moved. He didn't care if it got him shot. He looked down at his foot.
"Stand still." A quiet rumble from behind him.
The Man turned to the hooded figure. "He is making me a laughingstock. I want him dead. And I don't like executives who fail in my organization."
"M'lord. Forget again, and I'll make an example of you. Remember, you have failed me. And I don't tolerate failure. Do you understand?" The voice would have cooled liquid nitrogen.
There was a long pause. The figure sitting behind the desk began to stand up. As the arms pressed against the desk, Mario could see that there was one joint too many.
"Yes . . . M'lord." The Man seemed to shrink. "What should we do then?"
"Kill Harkness-Smythe. No more playing around. Harkness-Smythe is using military techniques. So we fight him with better military skills and better technology than he will be able to obtain. But at least now we can find him—because he is looking for us."
"M'lord. We don't have an army. I can recruit more good executives . . ."
"Mercenaries. We will hire the best."
It seemed strange, this idea of recruiting from outside of the business. Still, outsourcing was the vogue in corporate circles these days. "Danny. Who do you know who was in 'Nam?"
But M'lord had ideas on this too. "Not Vietnam. If my memory serves me correctly, Harkness-Smythe is, by blood, a black South African. We'll get the antidote to that." A wicked laugh. "There are plenty of ex-special forces soldiers on the market. From the old Apartheid regime I approved of. Let's give him a belated taste of his birthright. I want three helicopters too. In the meanwhile, I've got another line of attack from the dark-side of Sylvan. She has never failed."
"So you say it'll be five days before the devils can attack again." Mungo rubbed his hands, looking cheerfully at the raft piled high with wrecked hovercraft. In a non-mechanical world, it represented considerable wealth. "Well, by that time we'll have these 'pipe bombs' of yours awaiting. And not just a couple of hundred this time . . ."
"It's no use," said Squigs, shaking his head. "They won't attack that way again." His head still throbbed. The brew that Mungo seemed to think would help was clearing his sinuses. It still wasn't doing anything for the pain in his ear.
"I fear the boy is right." Baron Ashill looked thoughtful. "Only a fool would repeat their last venture, especially knowing that we have further time to prepare."
"'Tis a pity, to be sure," Mungo said, with a wistful look in his eye. "I really liked those bangs! My word! Be thinkin' o' what a fella could do with a dragon-harpoon with one o' those on the end . . ."
Squigs raised his eyes heavenward at the ecological possibilities of this kind of Norwegian whaling-style dragon hunting. "Not possible, I'm afraid," he said, hastily. "But, to get back to the poachers, we're fighting them with weapons they can understand. They were just surprised this time. They'll just get better weapons, better than anything I can make in a blacksmith's shop with chemicals I can buy at an apothecary's. We've got to use Zoar's own potential and whatever exotic ideas I can dig out of alchemy. And then we've got to strike back. We're chopping at fingers. Let's go for the head."
"Now that's the sort of talk I like to hear!" Korg slapped one fist into the other palm with meaty force. "Let's take the fight to the sods. How long do you think it'll take us to conquer all of Mud?"
Squigs cringed. He imagined the dwarf, Crum and Vila loose on the streets of New York or London with mayhem in mind. "We'll have to be a bit more precise than that, Korg," he said. "I'm hoping that the prisoner you took will be able to tell us."
"Yeah. It's a pity I hit him so hard. Silly bast . . . sorry ladies, silly beggar called me 'shorty,'" Korg muttered.
Squigs managed not to smile. "Well, it's a pity that Kate hit him so hard when he woke up again."
"He insulted me. Besides, if Vila hadn't cut the throats of other five . . ." Kate protested hotly.
Vila shrugged, unconcerned. "I'm a warrior, not a nurse. Anyway nobody said anything to me about wanting prisoners."
The bar was empty. Down at that end anyway . When someone like Smooth Mario comes in, and hasn't even combed his hair . . . When he starts ordering triples, then it's a good time to go and drink somewhere else. "Hey, barman. Same as before." There was a very slight slur to the voice. Smooth Mario was very drunk. The barman could tell because he sounded more Irish than Italian. Mario prided himself on the traditional accent.
"I'll have one too, Sammy," said a voice Mario knew well.
Mario lounged against the bar, his tie pulled skew, his shirt collar open. "You come to kill me, Danny?" He was drunk. Drunker than he'd been since he was a punk of sixteen, when Danny and he had robbed that Chink, and they'd got a bit hasty and killed the old guy. His Uncle Sal had taken them to the Old Man after that. One black kid and one Irish Mick, going to see the Old Gent. Sal had said they'd end up like all the other punks around there otherwise. Yeah. Look where it had got him instead. Wondering if he could reach for his gun and kill his oldest friend.
"You look like a bum, Mario. Not like you. What would the Old Man have said, hey?" Vigo Carpaccio's father was five years in his grave, but his shadow still hung long over both men.
Mario sat up. Sighed. With difficulty buttoned his collar, straightened his tie. Shit! Couldn't Danny leave this to the undertaker?
Danny sat down. The barstool groaned. He sighed, too. Took his drink and downed it. The barman, who had retreated as far as possible, raised his eyes and began to pray softly. "The boss . . . is not happy, Mario." Danny sounded unhappy himself.
For the sake of the Old Man, Mario made the effort with the accent. "So, Danny. Me I'm not-a happy either. De Old Man he wouldn't have got involved in dis shit. Don't play about wid' me, old friend. Shoot me. Get it finished."
Danny sighed. "I thought that's what I would have to do, back there at the office. I wasn't happy, Mario. But, The Man, he's been thinking. This shit. It ain't your fault, Mario. It's the guy in pajamas. The Man's decided he wants him downsized instead. Gotta look like an accident, in case it goes wrong, huh, or he's got friends . . . Hey, what's wrong?"
Mario was laughing. Almost crying from it. Finally he shook off the hysteria. "You know why I'm sitting here, Danny? Sitting getting drunk?"
"No. Not like you."
"It's not because I nearly got killed back there. No. It's because I got no honor. That's why I'm glad you're gonna kill me. See, the devil, yeah let's call him what he is, he come to see me after what happened in de boss's office . . . He said he wanted someone dead. Gotta look like an accident. He thinks money's shit-paper, so what do I want? Five mil . . . ten . . . fifty? Only, I better accept . . . otherwise I could find myself enjoying life in the aquarium. They always lookin' for a squid or two." Mario shuddered. Looked owlishly at the big man. "So you better kill me. What kind of man would accept a contract for his own boss?"
Big Danny blinked at him. Rubbed his chin. "Barman. What are you hiding under there for? Make it another two. Goddamn! Lemme think." A tomb-like silence descended over the now otherwise empty bar.
Finally Danny slapped Mario on the shoulder. "Let's get you some mean coffee. Then we go and talk to your Uncle Sal. Let him talk to The Man. The Man's not gonna be happy . . . but maybe we can get something good outa it. We'll get Sal to put it this way, better a hit called that The Man knows about, and ain't gonna happen, than one he don't know about, that is gonna happen."
Mario stood up, unsteadily. Looked at his shoes. Couldn't see his reflection "Yeah. Sal knows how to call it de right words too. Don' let The Man hear you talkin' about hits.'Termination of fuggin'contract,' or 'downsize,' Danny. Yeah. Let's talk to Sal. But I gotta get myself a shine first."
"He's dead." There was a thin edge of panic in Venus's voice. "I thought he was lying awfully still, so I put a hand on his cheek. He's . . . he's cold!" The rest of the party at the breakfast table stared at her.
"Who?" Mungo had risen to his feet, as had Korg and the baron.
"The prisoner," said Venus. "I . . . I just went in to see how he was doing this morning. He's dead!"
"Calm down, dear." The Baron led her to the table. "Sit down. Korg'll get you some tea, eh?"
Venus shook her head fiercely. "I'm all right. It was just . . . such a shock. I just can't see why he died? It was only concussion, surely? Oh, all right, thank you, Korg. No, I really don't think I could eat a thing right now," and she fended off a platter of muffins, while taking the tea-cup with a shaking hand.
Squigs looked down at the dead man. Funny. A week ago he couldn't have done this without turning green. A week ago he would have been running already. Now, instead, he calmly surveyed the corpse. The late prisoner had been a big man in life. Swarthy. The shave-twice-a-day kind. With a shoulder holster, a knife in his sock, and some brass knuckles in a pocket. Not exactly a soft touch. He had probably killed other men. But it still wasn't right that he should be murdered here in cold blood.
It was murder. Yes, it had been artfully concealed, but it was still murder. The man had been killed to stop him talking.
A good thing that whoever had done it hadn't known they were too late.
He looked at the black hand. Wiped the blood on his lab-coat. It was so stained no one would notice. A week ago that would have made him shudder . . . now it was just blood. Was he growing callous, or just growing up? He shrugged. But why had that hand reached for the dead man's ear? Weird. He looked at the corpse again. The fellow had been bouncing between consciousness and cloud-cuckoo land for half the night. He probably hadn't even been aware of his murderer.
Well, at least it had made questioning him easier. He hadn't known what he was saying or to whom. Now Squigs knew who his foes were, and what they were doing, if not why. A hooded, cloaked, daemonic figure called M'lord . . . no place to tie him to, or more of an identity. But the suited types were the minions of a Mr. Carpaccio, also called The Man, a once minor "corporation" boss from Chicago . . . Squigs even had the address. The Man who now had more money than he knew what to do with. The Man who had offered a million dollar bounty for his, Squigs Harkness-Smythe's, body. The Man who was gathering dragon teeth frantically before releasing the dragon equivalent of myxomatosis. And The Man had known about the explosives before the last attack. There was a spy in their midst, a spy who was prepared to kill to keep his or her identity secret.
Squigs wondered just who he could trust? While he was still thinking about it, Mungo came into the room. "Well, boyo. It's a shame he died, and that we'll not be getting the answers we needed out of him. But there's no point in hanging about here with the corpus. If I'd had my brains screwed on, I'd have sent him into town when the wagon went this morning. We could have claimed the reward, and got rid of the body too."
"He didn't die," said Squigs quietly.
Mungo smiled crookedly. "My, but he's an awful quiet sleeper. He's dead, boyo. Come an' give me a hand gutting that wrecked craft."
"He was murdered, Mungo. Someone came in early this morning and pushed a spike through his ear. Look." Squigs stripped all traces of emotion from his voice.
The big man bent and examined the victim. When he finally spoke it was without his usual cheery bombast. Just one quiet word. "Who?"
Squigs stood silent. Shook his head. Finally he asked, "Who went into town?"
"Kate. The Crum. The baron's daughter. So, of course, the dwarf went. Leggilass."
Squigs sighed. "Vila stayed?"
"She was my prime suspect. She volunteered to join us. She killed all of the survivors except for this fellow."
"True," agreed Mungo. "But that's the Amazon Corps way. They don't usually take prisoners, and when they do, the poor beggars don't last long. They say it's a hell of a way to die."
"That's as may be," said Squigs, "but we know from this one's ramblings that the enemy were told we were waiting for them, and buying explosives. But they didn't know what we were going to do with them."
Mungo was no great thinker. But he could work this out. "We've known for the last couple of days what you're doing. Ever since you started workin' on the pipe-bombs anyway."
Squigs nodded. "So it was somebody who was in town the day I saw Ziklevieson. Which is why I thought of Vila. But Venus was there too. Also trying to find out what we were doing."
"But she found the corpse!" said Mungo, shocked. "And she looked like death herself afterward."
"Yes," said Squigs, grimly. "Maybe it's not so nice seeing your own handiwork. But she has gone into town. And what would it mean to the aristocracy if the dragons became extinct?"
Mungo looked astounded at the thought. "It'd mean a return of wealth if we went back to using explosive weapons. Take Long Ash for example. Used to have the virtual monopoly on sulfur, from the springs on their place."
"I see." Squigs simply left it at that. "I think we should stop any more trips into town." He took a deep breath. Should he tell Mungo that the prisoner had already spilt the beans in the early hours of the morning? No. Mungo was honest and tough, but he might let something slip. "I've made plans. But I can't discuss them with anyone but you. So, um, we'll just have to keep them guessing."
Mungo nodded. "And heaven help whoever it is, when we find out." He turned to leave.
"Er . . . Mungo. Just one last thing . . ."
The big man turned back.
"Er . . . just what do the Amazons do to their male captives?" Squigs felt himself blushing as he asked.
Mungo shook his head. "It's inhuman! They make 'em pick up used underwear which they scatter all over the floor, wash up mountains of greasy dishes, and then scrub the floors and do the ironing. Then they put the poor bloke into a big hot bath . . . and hang cold, dripping knickers above him. Barbaric torture, waiting for that next drop. No wonder the poor devils don't last long!"
"But I've got to get some things from town. I've paid for them," protested Leggilass loudly, and frequently, while refusing to divulge just what he was supposed to be collecting. Suspicion in itself—except, Squigs decided with regret, that he was too thick. Unless . . . was he a brilliant actor? No. No actor could do dumb that well.
The two main suspects seemed equally unconcerned. Vila shrugged, and said there was nothing she wanted from town anyway. Venus was still running on such a bubbling high from hearing what the Ashill bounty share was so far, and deciding what they could do to Long Ash with it, that mere murder was an irrelevancy. She was far more interested in pressing Squigs to come up with new and fiendish ways to kill off more poachers. With bounty on her mind, she seemed quite inured to the prospect of killing. Or was she just picking his brain in a most subtle way?
Squigs had imagined that the next hero's council would be vastly different to the first one. He was wrong.
Their eyes tended to glaze over when he tried to explain anything to them. Yes, he might be less squeamish now, but his ability to handle people hadn't improved one jot. After the first disastrous encounter they'd followed his lead, because he'd used Mungo to voice it. But he now realized they'd done that because they'd thought it would fail. They'd all been quite willing for someone else to be a scapegoat, but, if there was any credit going . . . when it came to conservatism the sword-swingers made the Ku Klux Klan and Afrikaaner Nationalists look like the looney left. Pipe-bombs on bamboos had worked. That was good enough for them, for now and forever after. Or at least for the faction of Vila, Leggilass, Crum, and by loyalty, Kate, and Mungo (because it worked, and he liked the bangs). Venus wanted pipe-bombs and whatever else Squigs or anyone could come up with. Korg supported her—which was hardly surprising. Only Baron Ashill stood against pipe-bombs.
He twirled his mustachios, a sure sign of deep cogitation. "Gentlemen, ladies. Even the chap with the parrot on his shoulder. When you attack a dragon, do you stick it in the mouth, or elsewhere, eh?" Squigs looked sideways. He couldn't see the parrot right now, thank goodness.
Mungo snorted. "If there was another soft spot I'd have found it by now, Baron. Anyway, what do you heroic types know about doing an honest day's work, then?"
The baron ignored the comment. "So, if you only prick him, does the drake give you a second chance?"
Mungo laughed outright. "If you miss your throw, you'd better get underwater and breathe through a reed stalk for the next half-hour."
"Exactly," said Ashill. "We killed our first dragon . . . but we only pricked our second dragon. We should be looking for reed stalks, not expecting to get a second poke in."
"So just what do you think we ought to do?"
"Argh!! get away from me, you devils! No! NOOO!" And even the semblance of sanity slipped away from Baron Ashill as he fought a vicious duel with unseen opponents.
"I think," said Squigs gloomily surveying the scene, "that I should join the French Foreign Legion."
"I know what you mean," said Korg sympathetically. "Want a partner? With my command o' the language we could go far."
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