Desert Steel Chapter 25

-Confirmations

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Sebastian kept guard until sunrise, refusing to swap out shifts. He sat outside, deep in thought. When Tanaka came out for his shift and was refused he stayed anyway. They spent the whole night chatting and joking. With the rising sun the Water Store manager arrived. He unlocked the hefty padlock around the front door, and then unbolted the two windows. He went to the back door and unlocked another thick padlock. Then he unlocked the padlocked door to the windowless water storage room. He opened the pipe running from the barrels, allowing water to run from the tap out behind the counter. He checked the dipper stick, a plank of pale wood.

He stormed out the front door, furious. Sebastian and Tanaka observed him with bleary, sleep-deprived eyes. He swung towards them, pointing an accusatory finger.

“YOU! Did you take my water?”

“Yeah dude. Then we sat outside and waited for you to arrive,” Sebastian said.

“Well someone has taken ten litres of water!”

“Not us.”

“So then why are you dumbasses here?”

“Because we know who took your precious water.”

“He’s a bad man,” Tanaka added solemnly.

“Who?!”

Sebastian got up. The manager was actually quite tall, but Sebastian just edged him out and he made full use of those extra centimetres. The manager shrank away under his pressure.

“How’d he get in?” Sebastian asked.

“What’s it to you?”

Sebastian shrugged. “My friend here is the fastest hand in the East, and everywhere else for that matter. So what’s it to you why I wish to know?”

The manager laughed. “I’m a Water Store manager, prick. If we didn’t have protection we’d be overrun and killed daily. You shoot me and the Water Store Union will crush you like a mite, just like we’ll crush your burglar friend.”

Sebastian smiled. His eyes were chips of glacier ice. “I hope you find comfort in that when you die.”

Tanaka smiled too, his a full-on delinquent leer.

The manager blanched, spat, and set his jaw. “You think I became a manager by succumbing to base threats?”

Sebastian tried to look mystified but he was a terrible actor. “What threat? That was a blessing. We are merely offering our services of investigation because our interests align.”

The manager glared at them both. “Fine,” he said tersely. “Come and astound me then.”

The Water Store was dark and cool. The morning light had yet to filter through the windows. Sebastian inspected one of the windows. It had a heavy frame of expensive wood. It wouldn’t splinter easily like the average store’s. It dropped down onto the sill, and was bolted in two places. Sebastian slid it up and down once. He tried the bolts. They were well oiled and slid in and out smoothly.

“No bars?” Sebastian asked.

The manager scowled. “What’s it fucking look like?”

“The convenience store down from my house had bars on its windows,” Tanaka said. “Didn’t stop me.”

Sebastian left the window shutter down. He stomped on the floor. A lot of cheap Terra Deserta buildings had dirt floors, but a Water Store was never cheap. The floor was wooden planks. They gave a hollow thud. He walked around the counter. His boots thudded along the planks. One plank gave out a twang, differently pitched than the rest. Sebastian, who’d been scanning the wall to the water storage room, froze. He tried the plank again, with the same result. He waved the other two over. They huddled around him. He pressed on the board. It gave a little, sinking until it was flush with the rest. He got out his knife and tried prying the board out. The nails sprung out with no resistance. The holes they left behind were chewed up and splintered. They’d been pulled out and reinserted. The plank revealed a gap between the shop floor and the sandy ground. In the sand, a pattern of arcs had been swept out, as though someone had performed little snow angels over and over. Sebastian dropped the plank back into place.

“That’s how he got into the water storage room,” he said. “I think he came in through the window. The bolts are frictionless. Maybe a small magnet would be enough to ease them up.”

“Well how does this help me?” the store manager demanded.

“Dude, we found out how your store got broken into. Figure how that helps yourself,” Tanaka said. He paused, and looked at Sebastian. “Was that good?”

Sebastian shrugged. “Good enough. If you want to go the full mile tell him how it helps.”

“You can know fix the chink in your security, dumbass.”

“Maybe drop the dumbass,” Sebastian suggested.

Tanaka’s arm flashed out. The water store manager sank to his knees, sighed, and fell over backwards. “Dumbass dropped.”

Sebastian laughed. “Yeah, but now they’re multiplying.”

Tanaka shrugged. “I spent my whole life letting my fists take care of things. Dude was an arsehole. Old habits die hard.”

They walked out the door. Sebastian turned to Tanaka. “Hey, I just thought of a joke.”

“What?”

“You’re the chink in our security.”

They both laughed.

They found Jax, Gwendolyn and Timmy having breakfast in the saloon. Jax’s breakfast was liquid, which surprised Sebastian and Tanaka both. Jax wasn’t a heavy alcohol user. Then they saw that Gwendolyn was bitching into his one ear, and Timmy was moralising into the other. They sat down at the table.

“Please tell me this is over,” Jax begged.

“Nope,” Sebastian said. “Ansar robbed the Water Store. Probably when Gwendolyn left her post.”

“Oh fucking hell!” Jax exclaimed.

“Let’s not play the blame game here,” Timmy said quickly. “It will get us nowhere.”

“Oh fuck off,” Jax said. “I hate that fucking phrase. ‘Let’s just ignore someone’s total fucking incompetence and sweep it under the rug.’ Fuck that. We don’t need these two losers anymore.”

“Hey there…” Timmy began.

“No, he’s right,” Sebastian said. “We had you for tracking before. Why should we need you now?”

Timmy stuck out his chin. “We have a right to be involved. Ansar needs to be brought to justice.”

“You have a right to jack-shit,” Jax said.

“We’re leaving,” Sebastian said. He and Tanaka headed for the door. Jax got up as fast as he could, and hurried to join them.

Once outside, Jax spoke up again. “We say that, but how are we going to find them?”

“Ansar told me he was going to New Arusha.”

“Wait what!? You spoke to Ansar?”

“Better to say he spoke to me, then vanished.”

“Didn’t you try chase him?”

“Where? He disappeared. He could have gone anywhere, he was armed, and he must have had an escape route planned.”

“Fan-fucking-tastic. What if he’s lying to send you the wrong way?”

“He could be. But it’s all we’ve got. There’s about five possible towns he didn’t say he was going to. The odds aren’t any better.”

“So let’s go to New Arusha.”

“Where’s the old Arusha?” Tanaka asked.

“Tanzania,” Sebastian said without a moment’s hesitation. “Shall we go?” He paused, seeing the look on Tanaka’s face. “What?”

“Why the hell would you know that?”

“I just do, okay? New Arusha is placed in line with this street heading South. Come on.”

It didn’t take long, trekking through open desert, to notice they had followers. Not even secret ones. Timmy and Gwendolyn were brazenly keeping pace behind them, maybe thirty metres away. Sebastian allowed it until they were well clear of the town, and then took a soft left that took them out into a never before trodden path. It was one of the wonderful things in Terra Deserta for Sebastian. To walk on Earth never before sullied by human presence, and which, in the large expanse of the desert, could well never see it again for centuries. The isolation comforted him. Finally, he came to a stop and waited for Timmy and Gwendolyn to catch up. They didn’t, instead stopping short and watching. Sebastian walked towards them. They started walking away. He stopped and they stopped. This continued, in an intricate dance, back and forth, until…

“Hello.”

…Tanaka finished flanking around some dunes while they had their eyes on Sebastian. They were caught, and Sebastian and Jax joined Tanaka.

“What is it, gentleman?”

“The only gentleman around here is Jax,” Sebastian said. “I’ll let him tell you.”

“Piss off,” Jax ordered.

Timmy smiled. “It’s a free desert. We can walk we’re you please.”

“It is free,” Sebastian agreed. “Which means it is also free of security and law. I think you can understand what I mean.”

“You couldn’t possibly kill two unarmed travellers.”

“You have guns.”

“Not drawn.”

“True enough. Tanaka?”

“Yes?”

“If I advised you that it would be the good thing to do to shoot them both, would you do it?”

“I’d be happy to, but I wouldn’t. I judge for myself, even if I do respect your advice.”

“Of course. Would you stop me and Jax from killing them?”

“No.”

Sebastian turned back to Timmy. “There you have it.”

“It would be wrong, and you know it.”

Sebastian shrugged. “Let them go, Tanaka.”

“You sure?” Jax asked.

“I’m curious,” Sebastian said. “I know Ansar is a skilled thief. Timmy, this doesn’t come free. Tell me what Ansar did, or I’ll let Jax decide things for me.”

Timmy nodded. He knew a lifeline when he saw one.

“Ansar is a very skilled thief. Silent, fast, fearless. He stole something from a very powerful man.”

“Mikhail?”

Timmy started. He tried covering it by stuttering out a “who?”

“The guy we collect the bounty from on the poster, Timmy. I’m not stupid, the guy has a town named after him and he prints his posters on white paper. He must be powerful and rich.”

“Mikhail is involved in this?” Jax asked, incredulously.

“You didn’t read the poster?”

“Most of it… The big words.”

“So you know him?”

“Yeah, I ran a few jobs for him back in the day in Portal City. Extortion, loan collection, one hit.”

“Let me guess. Mikhailsburg is some small town within the sphere of Portal City from which he exerts his control.”

“Not really a town. More a fortified manor.” Jax was just catching up with the new information. “That means they’re that Timmy and Gwendolyn.”

“Employees of Mikhail, right?”

“Let’s just say if we kill them, the only question left will be how many pieces we’re buried in. Mikhail’s a sadistic bastard. Maybe one of the worst crime lords of PC.”

“If that’s true, why didn’t they say so?”

“Because he doesn’t want anyone to know about him or Mikhail wanting Ansar,” Sebastian said, staring at Timmy. “But Mikhail’s changed his mind. Maybe he got impatient. Hence the bounty posters. Ain’t that right?”

Timmy looked back at Sebastian with earnest, innocent eyes. “Ansar’s a bad man. We need to take him alive so justice can take its course.”

“Is that right?” Sebastian asked. He asked nothing further.

They walked on until the blazing sun left and the pale blue sky slipped on night like it was a comfortable black velvet dress.

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