Desert Steel Chapter 29


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Ansar and Pauly skulked down a dusty narrow street. The shacks and hovels were huddled close together. People hung around outside their doors on makeshift chairs, watching all passersby. The heat congealed in the narrow alleys, mixing with the sweat and sewage to make a cloying soup in the air. Raw sewage ran down the centre. Closer to the oasis the Casino had built a sewer system to keep the water clean, but the outer areas were left to wallow. Muggers, pickpockets and all other forms of thieves flourished in the cramped, poor environment, but they picked their targets. Two young men, one large and muscled, the other armed, repelled unwanted attention.

“Uhhh… Ansar, sir?”

“Yes, Pulley?”

“Why do you have a four hundred litre bounty on your head?”

Ansar smiled. “Because I stole four hundred and fifty litres from a powerful and angry man.”

“But why?”

Ansar laughed. “Because I am Arslan. Life’s a game and it was fun to steal from him. Maybe if I’m lucky, someone will compose an epic poem for me.”

“You’re a thrillseeker?” Pauly asked. “That’s all this is?”

“You know what they say about Terra Deserta: It attracts thrillseekers and killseekers. And all this is? This is life, Pelly. Anything is all this is.”

“I guess,” Pauly said, head down.

“Ah, you look like a bear shat in your stew. Cheer up, my friend, he who bends to death. Today is a day of triumph!”

“How so?” Paul asked, the colour draining from his tanned face.

“I have two Casino Platinums in my pocket, a canister full of champagne stolen from the VIP lounge, and I have cut off my trail with my pursuers. The latest game is over, and I’ve won.”

Pauly reminded himself of the message he’d scratched into the floorboards with a splinter, and hoped Sebastian was as smart as he thought. Ansar took him off the street they had been on, which was something of a main road, and down into a maze of narrow, filthy alleys that zigzagged through cramped houses. They finally stopped at a modest, unassuming shack with mud walls and a corrugated iron roof on the right side of the alley. Ansar opened the door, a board made of several uneven planks, and ushered Pauly inside.

The interior was well lit due to an open slit at the far end of the roof. The interior was larger than expected, due to the two side walls having doors knocked out into the next shacks along. The central entrance room was a square of hard earth with a round table and two chairs in the centre. Ansar took a chair with a satisfied groan. He tossed off his cloak, which trailed dust as it flew into the corner. His sawn-off remained on his back. He pulled out his water flask, now filled with champagne.

“In the room across there is a shelf with two wooden cups,” he said. “Bring them over.”

Pauly went into the next room. It was darker than the other one, with no slit. His eyes adjusted and he saw the shelf. It was laden with bottles of strong spirits, with two wooden cups huddled up at the edge. He took the two cups and returned to the centre room. Ansar indicated for him to sit down and he did, placing the two cups on the table. Ansar filled them both with champagne. He raised his hand in toast, and Pauly followed.

“To my hostage, never dull,” he said and drank. The champagne was warm and flat. He smiled at Pauly. “Now you.”

Pauly stumbled and stuttered over his toast. “To my captor, the lion that roars at death.”

The toast seemed to please Ansar and his smile was especially big as he threw back his second drink.

“To death, that spice of life.”

They both threw back another drink, Pauly’s hesitant.

“Say, Ansar,” he said, staring at his drink. “How about we have a real celebration?” He gathered up steam. “I mean, this is some low-level bullcrap. I’ve been to real parties, with swinging from the chandelier and all the spirits you can drink.”

“What do you suggest?”

“Drinking contest.” Pauly said. “Loser ends up under the table.”

Ansar looked thoughtful for a second. Pauly quelled the urge to break out into a sweat. Ansar smiled. “Okay, Pauly. Drinking contest.” He drained his glass of champagne. “Let’s crack open the strong stuff.”

He led Pauly into the room with the drinks, and carried an armful back to the tables. Pauly did the same. A baker’s dozen bottles of heavy liquor were now on the table. Ansar grabbed a bottle by its neck and pulled it towards him. It was labelled ‘Aquavit’, a Scandinavian alcohol. Pauly chose out a bottle of whiskey. He poured the amber liquid into his cup up to the brim. Ansar followed suit with his.

They both drained their cups in one gulp, and placed them upside down on the table. Pauly felt the familiar burn on his throat. His life of partying and binge drinking, along with his larger mass, gave him a high tolerance. He smiled grimly. Round two. They switched bottles. Drained their mugs. Slammed them down.

This continued until both bottles were drained. Pauly’s head felt light, and his face felt hot. It was nothing compared to how wasted he’d been before. They chose one bottle this time, of vodka from Poland. They filled both cups before throwing back the alcohol. Pauly’s bragging habit emerged from his tipsiness.

“Feeling a little unsteady yet?” He asked louder than was necessary. He puffed out his chest. “Not ready for big boy portions yet?”

Your eyes are dim, your face is flushin’

Silly words from your mouth are gushin’

Take heed! Never try out drink a Russian!” Ansar rhymed.

Fast car, crossing street,

Small dog, sausage meat.” Pauly countered. They poured more drinks and gulped them down. The third bottle quickly drained.

The walk to the North East of the city had sobered up both Tanaka and Sebastian, leaving them thirsty and tired. They were on the main street, but the district fragmented into a maze of alleyways. Civil planning had clearly not been present in the construction of the shanty town.

“How are we supposed to find them in this fuckfest?” Jax asked.

Sebastian nodded at the bored inhabitants sitting outside their shacks.

“These guys have nothing to do but people watch. If Ansar took the main street, they’ve seen him.”

Jax regarded them, and sneered. “You won’t get anything out of them unless you pay through the nose, and even then they’d just lie for the cash.”

“Nonsense,” Timmy said. “I think you’re underestimating the basic decency and cooperation of humanity.”

Sebastian, Tanaka and Jax all burst out laughing. “At least try and make it believable,” Jax said.

Timmy turned up his nose at them and went to the nearest watcher.

“Excuse me, sir, but have you seen two men walk by here? We’re looking for them.”

The watcher stared at him, spat on the floor, and then stared past him.

Sebastian sighed. He pushed Timmy out of the way. He pulled out one of his Casino Platinums.

“Two men. Describe them to me.”

The man eyed the silver metal poker chip. “One short, heavily muscled, browned. Other average, cloaked, leather hat, colourful shirt.” he said hurriedly, before anyone else tried claim the money.

“Where’d they go?”

The man pointed up the street. “They turned off onto that side street there. That’s the most anyone will be able to tell you.”

Sebastian went to hand him the coin. Jax grabbed his arm. “We’ve already got the info. Fuck giving him the money.”

“I’ll take it out of my share,” Sebastian replied, “Christ.”

Tanaka reached over, plucked the coin form his hand, and gave it to the man. “Take it out of mine,” he said. “Let’s go. Pauly is waiting.”

The side street led to a jumble of alleyways and dead ends.

“Well, great,” Jax said. “How does this help.”

“It’s a much smaller area than before,” Sebastian said. “We might be able to go door to door.”

“Still a lot of doors,” Tanaka observed. “Could lead to a lot of angry villagers.”

“Let’s explore the alleyways first,” Sebastian suggested. “See how far it goes.”

Pauly and Ansar were into their seventh bottle, this one a cheap brandy. Pauly’s vision was bleary and he had trouble stringing together coherent thoughts. Old ideas and memories were bubbling up in his mind. His speech was heavily slurred and he kept repeating the same things over and over. His upper torso was swaying where he sat.

It was as drunk as he’d ever been.

Ansar was calm and smiling like a cat. He lounged in his chair.

“I must say, Pauly, I’m mighty impressed. You hold your drink as well as any man I’ve ever met.”

“Itsh eashy if… If… Drinksh a lot.” Pauly said. He felt really tired.

“Of course. You knew you had a high tolerance for alcohol. I guess your plan was to challenge me to a drinking contest, get me passed out, and escape. A brave plan, I’ll give you. Not exactly subtle, but brave.”

“It’sh not ov-over.” Pauly took another shot. Ansar laughed.

“Drinking more isn’t going to make me drunk, my friend. I haven’t been drinking since halfway through the first bottle.” Ansar took his cup and poured its contents on the floor.

“Not me,” Paul said. “Coward. Losht the contesht. Gonna… Gonna sleep now.”

Ansar smiled. “You do that.” He got up as Pauly’s head lolled forwards. He needed to pee. He’d still drunk a reasonable helping of alcohol.

He got up and went outside. He unbuckled his belt, opened his fly, and let out a stream of steaming piss onto the shack across the way. He sighed with relief. It was happy days. He’d hold onto Pauly for a few more days, then cut him loose and head off. Maybe somewhere in the East. There was always fun to be had and he’d heard rumours of a religious cult up that way. He zipped up his fly and buckled up his belt.

“Hey Ansar, where’s Pauly?”

Ansar looked up the alleyway. His pursuers were there, all of them. He grinned.

They walked the paths, often hitting dead ends and having to return. With each one, Sebastian’s heart sank. There were just so many shacks, with so many escape routes. The instant they kicked down one door Ansar would know about it and disappear. He kept walking. It was better to doing nothing, if only because it made him feel like he was trying.

They rounded a corner. Near the end of the alley, peeing onto a wall, stood Ansar. Sebastian was reminded of their first encounter, the sheer luck of walking into him right after choosing his bounty poster. He had to strangle the urge to laugh.

“Hey Ansar, Where’s Pauly?” Tanaka asked, like he was talking to a friend he’d just run into at the supermarket.

Ansar looked up and grinned.

“In the shack there. And in desperate need of rescuing. You can only take one of us alive.”

Tanaka drew, his gun a line of quicksilver. Timmy grabbed him.

“No, we need him alive!”

Tanaka cussed him out and elbowed him away, but the chance was gone. Ansar had vaulted a shack and was running on the rooftops away from the shack holding Pauly. The group rushed up the alley to where he’d stood. Timmy and Gwendolyn leapt up onto the roof to the left, pursuing Ansar. Jax went to follow, but Sebastian stopped him.

“No! We’re getting Pauly first!”

Jax hesitated, watching Timmy, Gwendolyn and the rapidly disappearing Ansar. “Fuck!”

He turned back and joined Sebastian and Tanaka.

“It might be booby trapped,” Sebastian said. “Hold on.” He clambered up onto the roof and slid along. He found the slit letting light in, and peered inside. He saw Pauly slumped in his chair, not moving. He slid through the gap. The smell of alcohol was strong in the air. He saw Pauly was breathing. He opened the door, letting Tanaka and Jax in.

“He’s fucking fine,” he said.

“Fuck me,” Jax said, taking in the room. “It was a total fucking bluff.”

“It’s my fault,” Sebastian said, pissed. “God damn it.”

“You did the right thing,” Tanaka said. “That’s what matters.”

“No, I did the good thing,” Sebastian said. “That’s not the same.”

“Maybe it’s better.”

“No, it’s not,” Sebastian snapped. “It’s my job to do the right thing. You can be the guy that does the good thing, Tanaka.”

“Can’t you do both?” Tanaka suggested, concerned.

“Not always,” Sebastian said. “Shit. Fuck. Piss. Come on. Let’s see if our dynamic duo have captured Ansar.”

Tanaka hoisted Pauly up. He woke up, confused.

“I eshcaped?” He asked. “I did good?”

“Yeah,” Tanaka said. “You did good.”

They came out to see Timmy and Gwendolyn returning with Ansar sandwiched between them. His face was one of extreme calm.

“We gotsh him?” Pauly asked. “Issh he a lion?”

“Yeah, yeah, we got him,” Tanaka said.

Timmy was all smiles. “We can take him back to Mikhail together and share the reward,” he said. “It’s time for him to face justice.” He pulled Ansar’s cloak aside. “I mean, look at the lack of remorse. He’s even wearing one of Mikhail’s waistcoats!”

Ansar just stared off into the distance.

“How’d you catch him?” Sebastian asked.

“The roof he was running on collapsed. Guess it goes to show justice always catches up to you in the end.”

“Jushtice?” Pauly repeated.

Sebastian face was an expressionless mask and his eyes pale blue river stones. “Time to go get our reward then.”

“You betcha,” Timmy said.

“I am the lion who roars at death,” Ansar intoned, his voice deep and sonorous. Everyone started. Gwendolyn tugged him sharply and started walking him away. Timmy followed to his rear.

Pauly, slumped over on the ground, tugged at Sebastian’s jeans. Sebastian turned and looked down at him.

“I think… I think that he wantsh to die,” Pauly slurred.

Sebastian knelt down and looked Pauly straight in the eyes. For a moment Pauly saw the depths to his eyes behind the shield, like a deep dark lake beneath a thick frozen surface.

“I know,” Sebastian said. He stood back up and drew his gun at Ansar’s, Timmy’s and Gwendolyn’s backs.

“Hey Ansar,” he said.

Ansar turned around and died with a smile on his face.

Timmy and Gwendolyn both recoiled, leaping away from the now corpse. “Jesus Christ!” Gwendolyn shrieked.

Timmy turned to Sebastian, his face white. “You’ll regret this.”

“No,” Sebastian said, “I won’t. Because I’ve figured it all out.”

He holstered his weapon and gave a smug smirk. “Even once you knew about the dead and alive bounty you still insisted on taking Ansar alive. You talked up justice, but let’s face it, we both know that was a load of horseshit. Once I found out you were the employees of the bounty issuer, it all made sense. Mikhail had given you a mission to bring Ansar back alive. You’d taken too long so he issued the bounty, dead or alive. For you, returning Ansar dead would be a failure of your mission, which I doubt Mikhail treats kindly. For us though, we’ve achieved the bounty. By the way, I reckon if we did carry Ansar in with you, you’d have Mikhail kill us and take all the credit.”

Timmy took a shuddering breath. He was shaking with rage.

“So by killing Ansar, I’ve won. Which actually means I’ve won twice, because I’ve also figured you out. Your ‘holier than thou, goody two shoes’ schtick, and Gwendolyn’s harpy impersonation. You two play it up off each other, to try piss people off and make them look like bad guys to bystanders. In Portal City, I’m sure it works a charm. Big crowds for an audience, and half the people there are new jumpers, fresh from Earth. They’ve just come from a world where they help old ladies cross the street and where they have the luxury to do good. You probably are really good at it, have people jump in to help you all the time. The problem is, you’re city folk. You’re out of your depth here. Half the time, you haven’t even had an audience for your lectures. The time you did, that whole ‘why don’t you care’ routine in Dune’s End, maybe ten people stopped, and one stayed. And he was probably just there to watch the show.”

Timmy’s eyes, usually so innocent and serious, could have burned holes through inch thick steel.

“I don’t even think you can navigate in the desert! The other side of your act is that you get people annoyed, really annoyed. Jax was always going off at you, insulting you, breaking your things. You never got mad. It’s because when we’re mad you’re winning. You have us off balance. What gets you angry is losing.”

Sebastian leaned in close, with a shit-eating grin.

“You hate losing, and you. Just. Lost.”

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