The Dread Fox and the Down-home Dandy, part five

James_Garner_Jean_Willes_Maverick_1960A swashbuckling wild west space opera romance in seven parts, culminating in an absurd extended mathporn nod to M John Harrison.

Part 1, 2, 3, 4

 

Brett just could not settle. He was in no state to play another hand, he knew that. He had already won enough to cover the extra insurance on the cargo so, technically, he could just walk away from the game. It was what Fare Thee Well would have wanted, and advised. But he hated to leave such rich pickings unpicked. He looked over at the table. The cat-faced man seemed to be winning. Money that should be going into his pocket. It was frustrating.

He sipped at the drink he did not really want, and wondered what to do.

And wondered what she was doing.

He was not so green as to think that just because he liked the look of her, and he really liked the look of her, that she would be of a moral and upright character. In fact, he rather hoped she wasn’t. But there is pleasure, and there is business, and back in there, where Spiker ran his trade, there was plenty of business that was no pleasure at all.

The only sensible thing to do was to finish his drink, cash in his chips and return to the ship.

He cashed in his chips. One out of three wasn’t bad.

At the back of the bar room, leading into the hotel proper, was a broad corridor, its walls papered in scarlet and gold. On one side, there was a dining room; on the other, a casino, its gaming tables more formal than Brett cared for, and more varied. He scanned both rooms, hoping that he might be mistaken about her. Nothing.

At the end of the corridor, there was an arch partially covered by a thick red curtain. It seemed the best place to start looking. He stepped through it and took a sharp turn to the left.

Ahead, he could hear sounds of a scuffle. The sound of a heavy blade striking something solid. The air was rich with the smell of burned flesh. He broke into an incautious run. In what Fare Thee Well would consider the wrong direction. Towards trouble.

His eyes grew accustomed to the dim glow of the few lamps lighting what looked like another bar, only more private and upmarket. It was empty. As long as you did not count the corpses, or the two silhouettes.

One was huge, a shifner he guessed, like the two on the floor. It wielded a pair of short swords with some measure of competence, although little elegance. The other, he recognised her immediately. She, too, brandished a pair of blades. They whipped and darted with great speed, carving flexibly through the air and occasionally the outer flesh of her opponent. But her weapons looked so slender, so fragile in comparison, and they could not block any of the rain of blows falling around her dancing figure. Unless she could deliver a killing stroke through the shifner’s robust guard – and thick hide – it was just a matter of time until its brute strength became the deciding factor.

Brett’s foot found one of the corpses. He recoiled momentarily, then looked down to see if he could spot a weapon. The dead shifner had not even drawn his gun, which seemed like an invitation.

‘Hey, big fella,’ he said, ‘drop the swords. I’ve got you covered.’

He knew the attempt was in vain. Whatever had gone down in here, the shifner’s pod-mates had taken the worst of it. Whether tank-born or flesh-born, or some combination of both, once a pod formed, its members were bonded. The last shifner standing always takes death or revenge, often the latter until the former is achieved.

But Brett had to try.

*****

She liked, first, that he made the effort and, second, when it failed and the creature lunged at him, that he took the time to make sure the shot counted and that, third, he spoke a blessing over fallen dead, even Spiker, to ease them on their way and that, fourth, it was done from respect for life not fear of death nor belief in a hereafter. And fifth, well, he was a great big handsome man…

‘Okay, stranger, we need to go. Separate ways, right away. Trouble’s a-coming, you don’t want to get caught up in it.’

Eliane whirled her blades one last time and threw them hard into the wall. They each sank in a couple of inches. He watched as their quivering slowed. She followed his gaze.

‘If you leave them lying around, someone’s bound to hurt themselves.’ She retrieved the containment case from where it had fallen during the fight.

He was still staring at the blades. She had used weapons like them before. They must have rung a bell. Which meant, sixth, even if he was dumb enough to walk in on a fight with a shifner, he was at the very least smarter than Spiker.

‘You’re the Dread Fox.’

She smiled and nodded.

‘You’re a woman.’

Maybe she was going to have to revise point six. ‘Mostly,’ she said, ‘and at the moment, yes. A woman in a hurry to get out of here. As should you be. In a hurry, I mean, not a woman. Not that I have anything against women…’

Maybe Spiker was the smart one, after all. She hated it when she rambled. She never rambled.

‘No offence intended, ma’am. It’s just that they always talk of you as if you were some big burly bloke with scars and an eyepatch.’ He broke into a grin, a beautiful grin. ‘Not that I have anything against big burly blokes with scars and eyepatches…’

‘Go,’ she said. ‘Get out of here. Be safe.’

She made herself turn and walk away. She wanted to tell him that she hadn’t done one tenth of the things they said about her. She wanted him to know. She did not say a word. She had to find a way offworld.

*****

TO BE CONTINUED     Part 6

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