The Bounty Hunter
by J. C. D. Kerwin
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
The Shadow Man’s hideout was where Dirken had said: an unimpressive, rundown shack in the middle of the desert. A small sand rider sat out front. I rounded a corner, suspiciously eyeing two wide-open windows before tapping the tip of my blaster on the front door. I heard a familiar humming sound, and then a hole exploded in the middle of the wood, inches from my abdomen. Shrapnel sailed through the air and then to the ground.
I blindly blasted through one of the open windows. I heard wood splinter and glass shatter. My target returned the favor as I scrambled across the porch and dove into the sand.
“This is an awfully rude way to welcome a guest!” I shouted.
“You ain’t no guest, stranger!” came the response, followed by a hole in the side of the building. I managed to roll out of the way before the electric blast vaporized a small cactus-like plant to my left.
We volleyed shots around for a good five minutes: him, dodging my blasts around whatever furniture was still intact inside his small cabin, and me, dancing around his charges in the dust outside.
“This would be easier if you just came out and talked to me,” I suggested after I heard a loud crash from inside. I thought I had finally hit him. I hoped so; my gun was out of charge.
He didn’t respond, and I debated my next move. Eventually I crawled on my stomach to the edge of the porch. I whistled and then called out.
“Hey, you still alive?”
I stood up, tiptoed across the floorboards, stuck my gun in the doorway. Nothing. I cautiously peered around the doorframe. Furniture lay overturned and destroyed. Wood splinters littered the floor; blaster holes dotted the walls. The Shadow Man wasn’t there.
“What the—” I started but caught a flash in my peripheral vision.
He was no more than a dot on the horizon, hazy waves in the high suns. I took off after him, toward the Severed Mountains. The chase was on.
* * *
I have been weaving in and out of the boulders for hours. I can’t seem to locate him. He must be watching me from somewhere up high, following me with the barrel of his blaster. My head will blow up any minute, I’m sure. Every now and then something scatters out of my direct path. I think of the Lilocks sleeping somewhere in their caves, waiting to emerge and feast on whatever unsuspecting creatures are foolish enough to spend the night out in the open on Tannin.
The rock to the right of my head explodes. It booms through the canyon. I twirl around.
“I coulda shot your head clean off!” The Shadow Man says with a laugh. His voice echoes.
I slide behind a grouping of rocks. “You should warn a man before you do that,” I say.
“Aw, but then it ain’t fun!”
I frown, look up at the rocks. It’s hard to judge where his voice is coming from. “So now what?”
“What d’ya mean?”
“Who’s going to come out first?” I ask.
“I ain’t,” he answers.
“Well I certainly don’t trust you not to shoot me,” I say back.
“And you shouldn’t.”
I glance at the purple-blue sky. I click my tongue. “It seems we’re at an impasse then!” I call, my voice echoing across the rocky crater.
“Well, yes, it would appear so,” my target answers, “and what should we do about it?”
I bluff. “I could just come blow your head off.”
His voice rings, “You don’t know where I’m at, and your gun ain’t got no charge, pal.” He doesn’t know about my rifle.
“All right. Well, there’s about two million bits with my name on it back on Halo Seven, so how about you just make like a good sonuvabitch and surrender?” I call.
“Mighty tempting, but I’ll pass,” comes the cool reply. “Two million? You don’t say?”
“It’s a hefty bill.” I watch a rot worm slink in and out of the soil. No answer. “Y’know, it’s getting awful dark out here.” Maybe he doesn’t want to be out with the Lilocks either. I had to try.
“You haven’t figured it out yet?”
“Figured what out?”
“You really don’t know who I am, do you?”
“Can’t say I do, stranger,” I reply, shaking my head indifferently.
His voice carries back. “Why don’t we properly introduce ourselves then? Get acquainted? Or reacquainted, as it were?”
I pause at the phrasing. “That’s quite fine. I’m pretty sure I’m happy being as acquainted with you as I am with a Lilock’s tail,” I say. I look at my blaster. Useless.
His laugh echoes through the canyon. “Well that’s no way to treat an old friend.”
Again, I pause. “I’m afraid you got me mixed up with someone else.”
“Nah-uh. You just don’t recognize my voice. Shame.”
I think hard. It is familiar, but why? Where have I heard it before?
“I think you must’ve blocked it all out,” he says. “Too painful for you? The whole thing tear you to pieces?”
I blink dumbly, the pictures slowly take shape. “Clarence,” I say, loud enough for it to carry.
He laughs. “You remember!”
“Clarence? What the hell are you doing here?”
He laughs again. “Living life, man. How are you? Last time I saw you, you handed in your gun and walked the hell out of Captain’s office. You didn’t even say goodbye!”
“Yeah, well, I didn’t exactly have anything nice to say to you at the time.”
“Hey, I didn’t kill your girlfriend.”
I twitch, scowl, change the subject. “What made you choose the life of crime, Clarence?”
“Why not? Do you know how easy it is to swipe stuff from unsuspecting losers?” he sneers. “I’m rollin’ in it now.”
“You’re a very popular guy and not in the good way,” I say.
I almost see him shrug. “At least everyone knows about me!”
“Clarence, give up. I can take you direct to the I.P. and vouch for you, maybe say some things about your military career,” I offer. I feel dirty for suggesting it.
His laugh rolls like thunder. “Because that part of my life went so well!”
“Well, hell, what do you want me to do?”
“I don’t want you to do anything! I want us to have a good old-fashioned shoot out.”
“Clarence, I can’t do that. We were friends.”
He snorts. “God, you’re just like her. You and your moral high ground. I should just leave you, too, and go find some other scuz cleaner who’ll give me some excitement,” he says.
A small part of my brain catches the words and tells the rest of the mushy grey slop to pay attention. I sit up straight. “What did you just say?”
“You’re a lousy hunter. I’ll go find one who’s worth a damn.”
I shake my head. “No, you said something about leaving me, too. What do you mean ‘me, too’?”
He is silent.
“What did you mean?” I ask again. “Clarence!”
His voice comes low and steady, and rumbles across the dirt and rock. “Your girl — Mickey or whatever — she was too soft for the job.”
My jaw clenches on its own. I stare at the pebbles at my feet.
“Christ,” he says with a scoff, “the bitch was so damn insistent...”
I force out the words. “What happened, Clarence?” I wonder if he even hears me.
“What happened was I did what I had to do!”
I let his echo fade and remain still.
“She’s the one that wanted to go back for that stupid old woman,” he says. “She’s the one that would’ve gotten me killed, too.”
My eyes widen. “She went back for someone?”
“Yeah, she swore she saw someone. Told me to wait; to hold the escape pod,” he says. “Yeah, right.”
I am not sure if I want to cry or punch the boulder in front of me. Then I realize it’s not the boulder I want to punch.
My voice is shaky. “You left her?” I ask.
“No one would’ve stayed. I did what anyone would’ve done!”
“You did what you wanted!” I shout. “Anyone else would’ve gone back; would’ve waited!”
“It was who we were. That was SAR. That’s what she was!”
“Oh whatever, Jack!” He is angry.
I roar, “You killed her. You’re the reason she’s dead!”
“If that’s how you want to call it, fine!” he shouts back. “Yeah, I left her, and I would do it again!”
“She helped people, Clarence. She was good—”
“Shut up! To hell with all that!”
I realize I am breathing faster. I no longer want to bring Clarence in and vouch for his military record. I think of Mickey, her face, her eyes, her braids.
I want Clarence to come out from hiding. “Asshole,” I say.
“Don’t you judge me!” he roars. His voice is clearer.
“I’m going to kill you,” I say.
He laughs. “You think so?”
“I think I’ll make you eat your own hands,” I suggest. I swivel my head, searching for his location.
I hear distant rock crunching. “And I’ll make you eat your words, you scuz cleaner!” His voice is at a normal level. He is near. I tilt my head. “I think—”
I dive out from my hiding place and tackle him. The breath escapes him as he hits the ground. In his surprise and confusion, I’ve got the upper hand and land a fist squarely onto his nose. He flails at me and reaches for his gun at the same time. I knock it away just as he pulls the trigger. Rock bursts behind us, and the explosion echoes through the ravine.
He gathers himself and lands a few punches in my ribs. For three minutes, we are a mess of limbs rolling in the dust, punching and kicking at each other. All I can think of is Mickey. Suddenly he kicks me off. He goes for his lost gun; I crawl for mine. We spin around toward each other, blasters outstretched.
There is silence except for our heavy breathing. There is blood running from his nose; I can feel blood trickling over my lips, as well.
Presently Clarence lets out a small laugh.
“What’s so funny?” I ask from the ground.
He smiles and nods to my gun. “You’re out of charge.”
I grin. “So are you.”
His smile fades, and he looks at his own blaster. The red light blares the truth into his eyes. He scowls and tosses it. I drop my own gun and lean on my elbows.
“Looks like we’re both out of luck,” I say.
He looks down at me. “Looks that way.”
“So, what do we do now?”
“Well, you should run.”
“Because I know something you don’t know.”
I raise an eyebrow. “What’s that?”
His lips part into a hideous grin. He goes for his ankle. “I’m still armed!” He pulls out a blade and lunges at me.
I am up and scrambling to my former hiding spot. I reach behind the boulder; my fingers touch the metal, and I whip my rifle in front of me. Clarence freezes. He drops his knife, swallows.
“That wasn’t fair,” he says after a second.
I cock my head. “No, this isn’t fair.”
I point at his legs and pull the trigger. His legs below his knees appear to buckle and ripple, and then suddenly they explode. Clarence falls onto his back with a scream. His blood, tissue, and bone are splattered on the dirt around him like a Rorschach test.
“What did you do? Look at me! Oh God!”
I watch him roll around in the dust, reaching for his nonexistent shins. He gets his hands covered in blood, and it makes him scream louder.
“That’s for Mickey,” I say.
“Oh, God! You gotta help me!” he roars.
I watch him and think of her. Mickey used to help people in his position. She calmed people without fingers, feet, arms, legs. She told them jokes and hummed them songs they remembered from their childhoods. She was good; she was kind. She was beautiful. Mickey was another breed of soldier, another breed of human.
I am not.
I retrieve my gun and turn away.
“Hey! Where are you going?” Clarence calls. “Help me!”
I look back at him. His eyes are wide; his cheeks are smudged in dirt and tears.
“You can’t just leave me here!”
I look up at the sky. “Don’t worry, you won’t be alone for long,” I say. I start to walk.
His voice echoes. “Come back!”
I ignore him.
“What about your bounty?”
I don’t answer. He’s right: his bounty is now void. I can tell the I.P. a dozen stories about how he got away. No matter what, I won’t get paid, but he’ll get a tidy “case closed” he doesn’t deserve. So instead I won’t say anything. I know Dirken will shout empty threats at me, and George will croak that he has me in his pocket. I don’t care; I just hope the Lilocks will clean up the mess.
I know they will.
Screams fade behind me as I make my way out of the Severed Mountains. I throw my rifle over my shoulder and glance at the setting suns. I think of tomatoes and her.
I walk across the wasteland. I leave the Shadow Man far behind.
Copyright © 2019 by J. C. D. Kerwin