It was during the second song that Hollis Marshall felt he may have to shoot the man on stage.
What the young musician was doing was a travesty to what any sane individual would call music. The lanky fellow was hollering out a series of cliché lyrics in a warbling voice that lacked any sort of sincerity, his shabby wooden guitar not so much playing notes as it was screaming out in protest. Hollis wondered if anyone else in here was as offended as he, and looked around at the other handful of patrons in the bar. His scowled when he saw that he was the only one giving the spectacle on stage any thought at all. He should have expected that, as no one came to the Liver’s Bane to enjoy the atmosphere or take in the sights. But with Jimmy being a no-show for over an hour now, the dank saloon’s ambiance was starting to damage his calm. The fool on stage began singing a slow, mournful ballad about his mud hound wandering off, and Hollis was abruptly aware of his hand squeezing the grip of his revolver. He couldn’t remember moving his hand to his holster in the first place, but now that it was there, he gave careful consideration to ending this immediate irritation…
An impatient female voice intruded into his focus. Hollis tore his eyes away from the unknowingly fortunate young lad with guitar, his hand falling away from his weapon. A serving girl was standing next to his table, tapping her foot. “Pardon?” He asked.
She spoke as one might to a child. “Do you want another?” She indicated his empty mug on the table next to him.
The server wasn’t a bad looking girl, and who was to tell if Jimmy would ever arrive at this point. It wouldn’t be the first time Jimmy had failed to show up to a meeting, so perhaps some female companionship would distract him from casual murder. Gods knew alcohol wasn’t doing the trick by itself. He had to admit, though, the warbler on stage was putting him in a decidedly un-romantic mood. He waved her off wordlessly. The girl moved on to another table without a look back.
“Hey, it’s the boss man!”
“And he’s low on booze!”
Hollis cursed underneath his breath. He had hoped to wait till after meeting with Jimmy to gather the rest of the crew. They had dispersed into Parthis over a week ago, as they tended to do between jobs. It was as much an opportunity to spend their ill-gotten gains as it was a break from one another. So far, the minimal contact policy seemed to be working, as in-gang shootouts were currently at an all-time low. Two hulking figures stood at the Liver’s Bane’s entrance, the gaslights outside throwing their outlines in sharp relief. Anyone who knew the Simurgh brothers would recognize those silhouettes anywhere. That is, if their booming voices hadn’t given them away first. The two brothers moved toward Hollis’s table, pausing only to yell for a round of ale. Mikello sat first, on Hollis’s left, and Markin sat at Hollis’s right.
A jab in his shoulder from Markin. “What’s going on, boss man? You look like your mud hound just ran off.”
Hollis gave Markin a dark look. Damn his eyes thrice for reminding Hollis of that performer’s terrible song.
Mikello reached over and picked up Hollis’s long empty glass. He made it dance upon the tabletop, and, raising his voice to a falsetto, said, “Oh me, oh my! Cheer up, boss man! You think you’re low on spirits? Look at me; I’m an empty beer glass!”
“Damn, that’s clever stuff, brother.” Markin said, laughing.
Hollis leaned back in his chair, briefly deciding that one town wouldn’t be big enough for the next dispersal. “What brings you boys in here? We don’t have a job lined up, yet.”
The serving girl arrived, putting fresh mugs of ale in front of the two brothers and Hollis. “Heard you were gonna be in the area,” Mikello said, grabbing his glass and taking a long draught. “Drink up, boss man!”
Hollis wondered how they had found out, as the only person who had known his whereabouts today would have been…
“Jimmy found us down at Missy Lou’s, told us to meet up here,” Markin scowled. “Only reason we didn’t put a bullet in him for interrupting our, uh, private reflection time with the missies was because he offered to pay for all our drinks. And more private reflection time later on.” He saw Hollis glaring the glass of ale. “So, drink up, boss man!”
Hollis scowled at the ale. He was a lager man, himself. Ale tasted like urine to him, or at least what he imagined urine to taste like. Maybe it was just the color of the liquid in the glass that invited the comparison. “Did he tell anyone else?”
“Sure. The whole gang. Jimmy told us if we wanted in on the next job to find you here.” Mikello thumped his now empty mug on the table to get the serving girl’s attention.
“Did he now?” Son of a bitch, Hollis thought. He should have known something like this was going to happen. Hollis had to wonder at Jimmy’s audacity. Did the man think Hollis was going to step aside and let Jimmy take the lead, simply because Jimmy had tracked down the information this time? Not likely. He grabbed the mug of ale and got over his dislike of the pale liquid within a few gulps. Get far enough into a glass, and all of the stuff tasted the same.
The other members of the Terrus gang filed in, Phillio and Alek, and sat at the table. Still no Jimmy. Alek sat next to Markin, throwing a cursory greeting at Hollis before grabbing a mug and draining it in one gulp. Phillio glanced at Hollis in acknowledgment, his dark eyes betraying no emotion as he took the seat next to Alek. The two were close, but not as inseparable as the Simurghs.
Drinks were drained in record breaking amounts, with Alek and the Simurgh’s going punch for punch. Hollis eventually relented and had one last lager. He didn’t want to be slurring his words when Jimmy arrived and the planning began. Phillio ordered whiskey, as he always did, but only nursed the small glass. Now that he thought about it, Hollis wasn’t certain he’d ever seen Phillio actually drink. Curious. Hollis checked his pocket watch, and rolled his eyes. Over two hours now. If Jimmy didn’t show up, Hollis figured he’d be stuck with the gang’s tab. He could almost hear his wallet crying out in pain. Never again, Jimmy.
A few gun shots sounded from somewhere outside. The people in the Liver’s Bane showed about as much interest in the shots as they had with the regrettable entertainment; a few faces glanced over at the door, and then returned to their various shady dealings. Hollis shared their indifference, as long as the cause of the ruckus didn’t insert itself into his business. The guards of most of these little towns were more than sufficient to take care of violent undesirables. More shots were fired, this time much louder. The door to the saloon slammed open, and a figure rolled through, pistol drawn and at the ready. The figure jumped to his feet, swearing loudly at something or someone outside of the bar as he hid by the door. Hollis recognized that voice, and grimaced. Of course, that would be Jimmy.
“Fellas, back exit. Go. I’ll cover Jimmy here.” Hollis stood, drawing his weapon. The other members of the gang moved without hesitation. “Regroup at the house.”
Jimmy yelled, “No, Hollis, the house is compromised!” He leaned out and fired two shots out the door. Answering shots blasted in from outside. A glass mug shattered, eliciting a scream from one of the serving girls as they fled out the back exit.
Damn your eyes, what did you do, Jimmy? “Okay, change of plans. Get the horses, try and run the gate before it closes. Mind the guards, they’ll be out in force by now.”
The few patrons in the bar who refused to evacuate flipped over their tables, ducking down behind them to hide from the rain of projectiles. A couple whoops and a few hollers were thrown about. Hollis saw one of them still drinking, clutching a mug in one hand and a weapon in the other. Apparently, even a deadly shootout was preferable to the awful acts on stage tonight. Hollis crouched and moved past him. He took up position facing Jimmy from the other side of the door.
“What about you guys?” Alek yelled from the back exit, his rifle in hand.
“Don’t worry about it, just go. Soldier’s Bay.” He waited for Alek’s nod of understanding before turning his attention to the problem Jimmy had brought down on them.
“Well?” Hollis asked, eyebrows raised.
Jimmy smirked at him. “Well, I finished the job. But there were… complications in the final phase of the plan. Situation became fluid.”
Finished the job? He couldn’t be serious… “Fluid? No, this,” Hollis waved toward the direction of the shooters outside, and continued, “isn’t fluid. We’ve been over this before.” Hollis moved away from the door toward the window. He poked his head out, trying to spot the attackers. He saw nothing but the darkened empty streets of Parthis. “What good is pulling off a job when you’re not alive to enjoy the rewards?”
“Hollis, buddy, as much as I’d love to regale you with tales of my heroic exploits, I think we have more pressing matters to attend to at this time.”
Hollis could see his friend was right, and decided to let the subject drop for now. “Fine. How many?”
“Four.” Jimmy leaned out and fired again. A strangled squawk was heard from outside. “Three.”
“Not yet. These are, uh, private investors.”
Hollis shook his head in disbelief. “Were these private investors aware of their donation to our affairs?”
Jimmy grinned, and Hollis had to wonder if this isn’t how Jimmy had wanted the job to turn out from the beginning. “You’re kidding, right? Are they ever really aware?”
He fixed Jimmy with a dead stare. “Not when it’s planned right.” Hollis ignored Jimmy’s dismissive head shake, spying one of the shooters crouch running toward an abandoned produce cart. Hollis aimed and squeezed off a round, nailing the man in the knee cap. Firing again, Hollis ended the man’s screams of pain. Two now.
He didn’t hear any answering shots. In fact, it was noticeably silent. What were they waiting for out there? Jimmy fired again, breaking the stillness. “Jimmy, stop firing.”
“Why? We got ‘em on the run!”
“I don’t hear anything.”
“Exactly. They’re moving around. Probably trying to outflank us. Might be trying to cover the back door.”
Jimmy glanced back at the exit. “I hadn’t thought of that.” He looked over at Hollis, his grin still in place. Typical Jimmy. “Well, at least it gets fun now. What do we do?”
“We could sit tight and let them move around all they want out there. Wait ‘em out, till they make a mistake.”
“You don’t think the guards are on their way now? They’ll have heard the shots.” Hollis watched Jimmy reload and wondering how anyone could simply be that content to spin the wheel of fate and then just go with it. “Jimmy, they aren’t going to care who started the fight. They’ll just drop the gate and deal with the agitators.”
“Okay, so we go. Cover of darkness should work in our favor if we’re fast.”
“Right, but we need to—“
Jimmy pushed away from the door, quickly glanced around, and then dashed to the back exit, shouting, “How’s this for planning ahead, Hollis?” He disappeared into the darkness behind the Liver’s Bane.
Hollis sat there, mouth open, letting his unfinished sentence fade into the silence of the now vacant tavern. With a shake of his head, he collected himself and followed Jimmy out into the darkness. As he moved, he kept expecting to hear the sharp report of the attackers’ weapons signaling a premature end to his life. He crouch ran through the vacant bar, taking care to stay behind the overturned tables as he moved. He passed a few bodies in the darkness, unfortunate fools caught in the crossfire.
Hollis ducked out the exit and dropped behind a barrel for cover, listening for the sound of incoming death. He saw a few more bodies strewn about the alleyway, but gave them no more than a brief thought. A dark form stirred from its place on the ground, coughing and groaning. The warbling timbre of the young man’s voice was unmistakable. He remembered his earlier irritation with the kid, and how he had considered putting a bullet through him simply for his singing. Nausea rose through him as he realized his dark wish had come true. The younger man sputtered, blood dripping from his mouth, joining the growing puddle of crimson surrounding his fallen body from his wounds. Jimmy hissed at him from an alleyway further down the street, waving his hand to get Hollis’s attention. Hollis gave the wounded kid on the ground one last glance, the young man’s tenacious grip on life disturbing Hollis in a way he couldn’t figure out.
The boy looked up at him, eyes wide with fear. “Please…”, he gasped, reaching for Hollis.
Jimmy hissed again. Hollis gave himself a tap on the forehead with two fingers and pointed toward the sky, then moved on past the dying boy.
As they made their way through the alleys toward the town’s gate, Jimmy gave him a sidelong glance. “Did I just see you-“ he imitated Hollis’s forehead prayer, then continued “-for that waste back there?”
Hollis hadn’t thought Jimmy would have noticed that. If he was being honest, even he wasn’t sure why he had done the prayer. “That boy deserved a scrap of peace in his last moments. Not his fault he caught a bullet.”
“Now, Hollis,” Jimmy began, “As long as I’ve known you, I never had you pegged for being a believer. Have things changed? Are we going to don some wooly robes and drag Triarcs through the town streets on the holy days now?”
“Shut it, Bariss,” Hollis ignored the other man’s raised eyebrows and clenching jaw. Hollis realized he had taken to using that tone with his old friend more and more these past few months. He took a breath, not wanting to escalate the situation further. “Look, just keep quiet, the guards will be on the lookout for suspicious persons. We match that on a normal day, so let’s not make it too easy for them.” He sped up, passing Jimmy and taking the lead. A small doubt tugged at the back of his mind, asking him how wise it was to turn his back on Jimmy. How long would the decaying memory of their friendship stay final violence? Hollis put away that troubling thought and kept moving.
They traveled in silence through the dark alleys of Parthis, the time for words having passed. Hollis had a feeling that he and Jimmy weren’t so much watching out for each other any longer, as much as just covering their own respective backsides. He guessed it didn’t matter who was watching out for what, as long as they were still doing it.
Eventually, they came upon the gate out of town, or rather, the gate that would have led out of town had it been raised. And surrounding it were half a dozen of the town guard. Each guard was stopping random townsfolk as they passed by, asking questions about the altercation at the Liver’s Bane. One guard was on horseback, taking notes on the various citizens’ responses.
Jimmy elbowed Hollis’s side. “Well, now what?”
“We can’t get through there as things stand.”
“Naturally. Another gate?”
“I’m sure they’re all closed by now. Seems a shame to waste any more time running around the town when we have the exit right in front of us.”
“Agreed. But how do we get those guards away long enough for us to lower the gate and get through without them finding us out?”
“I think…we need a distraction.” Hollis winced as he said it. The plan sounded so flimsy, it practically invited disaster. However, he couldn’t think of anything better. The only other option he could think up involved a rather foolhardy jump from the roof of the guard house to the wall, and then over the other side. How they were to scale the three story guard house from the outside, what they were to do about the three story drop back to the ground on the outside of the walls, and how they were to escape through the desert on foot without any provisions when the next town was over three days ride in any direction, though, were just a few of the massive bumps in the plan he couldn’t reconcile. “A big distraction.”
“Too bad we don’t have any explosives with us. That’d free up the area right quick.”
“Yes, that’d be the ideal lure. An explosion somewhere further into town would keep them occupied more than long enough for us to lower the gate and get through.” Hollis wondered if Jimmy was thinking of the various supplies now abandoned at their hideout, including an obscene amount of explosives. He still found it incredible how much Jimmy’s recklessness was continuing to cost them. And what did Hollis or the Terrus Gang have to show for it? Nothing. There would be an accounting for this situation, Hollis vowed. But only after they got out of this mess.
“Lure? I was talking about tossing the explosives at the guards themselves. We could just waltz through afterward, amongst the tiny people pieces.”
The dying singer’s face flashed through Hollis’s mind. He felt his stomach churn, but decided it had to do with that foul ale he’d drunk earlier. Regardless of his stomach’s feelings, Hollis saw a massive flaw with Jimmy’s plan. Hollis pointed at the gate. “Do you see how close they are to the gate? And how spread out they are? Anything powerful enough to take out all six of those guards would damage the gate, as well. We’d be trapping ourselves in.”
‘Ah’ was a bit of an understatement. Regardless, this discussion was over a moot point. “It doesn’t matter anyway. We don’t have any explosives, so we’ll have to—“
A thunderous rumble shook the ground beneath Hollis and Jimmy, followed by a wave of hot wind blasting through the alley behind them. Hollis turned and watched as a massive orange fireball lifted toward the sky from a few blocks back. Back in the direction their hideout…
Hollis caught Jimmy’s eye. “’Compromised’, was it?”
Jimmy smirked. “In a way.” He pointed past Hollis. “Check it out. The guards are leaving.”
Indeed they were. Hollis wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. They waited for the last guard to charge off down the street, and then approached the gate controls. Hand on lever, a thought occurred to Hollis. “Jimmy, we still need—”
“Stop where you are and step away from the gate!”
Hollis and Jimmy whirled. It was the guard on horseback. In a flash of motion nearly too quick to register, Jimmy drew his revolver and put a bullet between the guard’s eyes, the back of the man’s skull exploding outward in a spectacular display of blood and gore. Hollis was glad the commotion from the explosion masked most of the sound of Jimmy’s shot. The guard’s body slumped forward, and began slowly sliding off the side of the horse. Jimmy apparently found this too slow, as he stepped forward and yanked the dead man’s corpse off of the horse. He turned to Hollis, who still had his hand on the lever. “Let me guess, you were going to say ‘Jimmy, we still need horses’, right?” He reached over Hollis’s hand and yanked the gate lever. “Problem solved.”
Hollis looked down at the guard’s corpse, then back at Jimmy, who was climbing onto the horse. Jimmy caught Hollis’s eye, a look of cruel amusement on his face. “Gotta love those hard calibers, eh?” Hollis reached for the reins. Jimmy yanked them out of reach. “Not this time.”
Really? Now of all times? “Jimmy, we don’t have time to argue over this. I’m not riding passy.”
“You are so right.” Jimmy pointed his revolver at Hollis’s chest and backed the horse away. “We don’t have time to argue anymore.”
“Jimmy…” Whatever his thoughts earlier, he didn’t think he’d ever have had the heart to betray Jimmy. Jimmy, however, had no compunctions of the sort.
“Oh, come on, don’t give me that look. We both knew this was coming. Things aren’t what they used to be.”
“I can’t argue that.”
“Finally, we agree. It’s become clear to me, Hollis, that you don’t have the heart for this line of work any longer. The other boys are with me, they just never had the stones to say it to your face.” Jimmy face hardened, his eyes cold diamonds in the dark, shining from beneath the brim of his hat. “We’re done, Hollis.”
“Terrus put me in charge for a reason, Jimmy.”
“Terrus? That old goat was senile. By the end he was talking to his horse.”
“We all talk to our horses.”
“No, I mean full-blown conversations. Like it was talking back to him.” Jimmy frowned, as if attempting to imagine what a horse may have had to say on the subject. After a moment, he shrugged. “Hell, I’m surprised the other guys went ever along with his decision. Especially after seeing how far gone he was.”
Hollis remembered how bad it was, seeing the man who had taken in two orphans from the streets of Nurem and taught them the way of life in the Expanse, seeing him falling so far from what he had been. He wondered if that night Terrus had experienced any moments of clarity before the night he had wandered off into the shadows of the desert night, maddening bellsnake venom coursing through his veins. “Maybe they trusted the legacy of the man who made the choice, instead of the circumstances that forced him into it.”
“I don’t think trust factored into it with this bunch. Outlaws, remember? I think they were just happy they didn’t have to think things through for themselves. That there wouldn’t be a gap between jobs with an immediate successor.”
Hollis took a tentative step toward Jimmy, trying a different tact. He had to get that gun away from him. “Jimmy, listen, I know things have soured between us recently. But we grew up together. Just think about what you’re doing.”
Jimmy let the gun lower in his grip, considering Hollis’s words. Hollis let himself hope that his old friend could be brought to reason… until he saw Jimmy smile. Not the mask of cruelty he had worn after gunning down the guard, or the cocky grin he had flashed during the shootout at the Liver’s Bane. This was a real one, tinged with sadness, heavy with thought and purpose. “I am.” He lifted the gun again.
There was a sharp report throughout the desolate plain, and Hollis felt a searing pain in his stomach. He reached down and felt a slick wetness on his abdomen, and then felt his knees give out. As a blackness infinitely darker than a moonless night enveloped his vision, Hollis heard Jimmy quietly say one last thing as he walked back to his horse.
“When we finally meet again at the Gates of Surnoth, I’ll be expecting your apology, Hollis.”