I had to dunk my whole head in a trough of water meant for apple fishing to get the stinging out of my eyes, which earned me an earful from the guy minding the stall. He chased me off with a birch cane, but it didn't matter; I could at least see proper now. I shuffled off and sat behind a carnival tent. Inside, I could hear people throwing rings onto milk bottles. They were quickly drowned out as I became absorbed in my own thoughts.
Gorman was here. I hadn't felt this excited for anything for so long, it was like it was my birthday back when my birthday was actually something I could look forward to. This was the best chance I had for tracking down Jonathan Teleute. Before, I told Daniel that torturing was out of the question, but in this moment of anticipation I felt like I was ready to make an exception. And then I felt ashamed of myself just for considering it. Only the worst kind of scum was willing to do that.
I pushed the thought out of my mind. First things first though, I had to find Daniel.
I'd barely stood up when I heard, "Are you feeling better?"
Gods! In a single motion, I whirled around and had a Buzzer in Incapacitation Mode at Daniel's throat. He didn't so much as twitch.
"I thought you heard me approach," he said, pushing the Buzzer away with a single finger.
I retracted it back into its pod and gestured to my cauliflower ear. "Did you find him?"
My heart skipped a beat. "And?"
"He has agreed to meet you in the White Horn in ten minutes," he said. "The bar we were at yesterday."
I felt my legs turn to jelly beneath me. I slumped to the ground and ran my shaking hands through my hair, telling myself not to get so anxious and excited over this, but I couldn't help it. I'd done it! I was so close!
"Reese?" said Daniel. "Are you all right?"
I took a deep breath and looked up at him, giddy as a hyena. "What did you tell him? How'd he listen to you?"
"That he used to call you 'Junior.'"
"Heh heh. Wished I could have seen the look on his face for that." I imagined a yawning lion and giggled.
Daniel offered his hand to me, and roughly pulled me to my feet again by my wrist. "I will expect that he has a lot of questions for you," he said. "Assuming he does not bash us both on the head with a mallet like cartoon characters the moment we go through the door."
"He won't," I said.
"But what if—"
"He won't, all right?" I assured him. Sometimes, I found it really annoying that Daniel just seemed to refuse to take my word for it. Everything had to go wrong, everything needed some kind of backup plan. It was such a cynical way of thinking; why couldn't he be at least the tiniest bit optimistic, at least for me? "He's not the type."
"He is a Rider."
The hell was that supposed to mean? I'd been a Rider too. I almost reminded him of that, but I didn't want to bother weaseling a clarification or an apology out of him. I just turned away and started walking.
"Come on, jackass," I said, refusing to look at him. I was afraid if I did, I'd break his nose. And what sort of monster punches a guy with glasses?
The streets were packed with people either making their way to the Faire or coming back from it. For the most part, they made way for us, especially for Daniel, but there were still enough of them to slow us down, and give me time to fret on what I was about to do. I'd given 'the talk' to bounties before, but never to anyone I actually knew. I hadn't been looking for revenge with the others, either. They were never threats either. They were never a problem. They...
"I can't do this," I moaned, to my horror. Were my knees buckling? Oh gods, they were. My feet were glued to the ground. My heart was pounding, blood roared in my ears. Every single nerve was shooting more signals than my heart could keep up with. It was like my whole body was shutting down on me in a last, desperate act of self-preservation. And as much as I didn't want to, I listened to its desperate screams. "I can't." I couldn't.
Daniel's voice brought me back from the void. "Thought so."
I heard what he said, but I wasn't sure if I had. "What?"
"I said thought so."
I just stared at him, open-mouthed. I don't think a swear word existed that could express how I felt at that moment. Which left me with only one option at that point.
Spittle flew from Daniel's mouth as I dug my fist a good couple inches into his gut, making sure to twist it around a couple degrees. He made a sound like a deflating balloon and collapsed onto one knee, clutching himself and wheezing like he'd just run a whole bloody marathon. "When I want your opinion, I'll ask for it!" I shouted at him.
Clutching his gut and groaning, he looked me in the eye and hissed, "How is this for an opinion? You hit like a girl. Sir."
As I wound back my arm to deck him again, it occurred to me that he was trying to get me really pissed off. And he'd succeeded, with flying colors. So, the million drachma question: what in Hades was I going to do about it?
I left him there and marched straight on into that goddamn bar past over two dozen men relieving themselves from the scorching sun with bitter drink and went right up to the bartender, slamming two gold drachma onto the gleaming counter. I told him, "I want your most expensive drink, I don't care if it's candy-flavored liquor or what. Give it to the jackass with the glasses when he comes in."
"He know his prayers?" asked the bartender. I gave him another coin to overlook the matter.
"Junior!" came a jovial roar that sent a nostalgic tingle up my spine.
Slowly, I turned, and there he was. The key to my absolution, a normal life, my revenge, was sitting in a snug, lonely little corner of the bar beneath a mounted bear head, his feet propped up on another chair and a cigar bobbing between his teeth in cheesy fashion. It was clichéd perfection.
As I met his eyes, Gorman Gree grinned at me like he used to back in the good old days. It was the kind of smile that made you feel just so damn good about yourself, no matter what mood you'd been in. He just had that kind of a presence about him, this jolly sort of feeling. I once heard about an old mythological figure who would bring presents to children and had this big hearty laugh. Maybe Gorman was that god reincarnated.
The doors creaked as Daniel limped in. He regarded Gorman, then me. I motioned for him to head to the bar. He obeyed, albeit reluctantly. I felt a twinge of regret for clobbering him, but I squashed that feeling. Now wasn't the time to be sentimental; this was business.
Carefully, like I was walking through a minefield, I walked over to Gorman's table, keeping my eyes on him the whole time. I pulled open a chair and sat down across from him.
"Well, you sure got tall," he said through the cigar. He put it out against the perfectly circular black scar on the back of his hand. I winced at the hissing sound his blackened skin made. "So," he said, flicking a meaty finger in the direction of my partner. "The human toucan over there says you want to take me in."
I had to pinch myself very hard not to laugh at that. Come to think of it, Daniel did have an absolutely gargantuan nose. Like, big enough to stick a whole arrow up of. "Without a fight, if possible," I said. "I wouldn't want you to get hurt." That wasn't me trying to put on bravado: all Manhunters were responsible for the injuries of their prey. I had little desire to pay any medical bills incurred.
But Gorman, of course, thought I was just trying to rile him. "Oh ho ho," he chortled, grinning at me like I had just given him a sack full of gold drachmas. "Now there's your papa talking."
If that had come from anyone else, it would have been an insult. "Thanks." Before I could stop myself, I asked, "Seen him lately?"
"Nice try," he said.
My fingers and toes curled into painful little balls. "Well, had to give it a shot."
He looked over his shoulder at some men down the way playing cards at a table. Following his gaze, I noticed that they were all wearing spurs just like his: shaped like a crescent moon, with horses embroidered into the leather. Blacknight Riders. He observed them with an almost furious scrutiny. I realized that he was trying to read their minds, figure out which one of them had betrayed him. That, or he was furiously attempting to discern what sorts of beer they'd ordered.
"None of them were your Jason," I said.
Gorman tore his eyes away from his goons. "Then, who was?"
"My last pickup," I said. "Floyd Agnes."
'Jason' was a Manhunter term for whoever had given the target up and informed on them. It was a reference to Jason of the Argonauts, who left his wife Medea for another woman. That's actually the secret to most Manhunting: you find whatever person really hates the target's guts, give them a nice little palm sweetener, and you're in business. It's a lot like detective work. But this was one of the few cases where we just got the name of a town, and not a specific address.
"Floyd," Gorman growled. He ground his teeth together through a grim smile. I swore I saw flecks of power dotting the surface of his lower lip. "He were any more of a weasel he'd have a tail." He sighed. "What'd you do to get it out of him? Something tells me it wasn't a whole lot."
"I told him I wouldn't turn him in if he told me where you were."
"Good," he said, cracking his knuckles together. It was like listening to burning wood snapping. "Then I can hunt that runt down and smash his teeth in."
"Can't," I said. "He's on his way to the Panopticon right now with a Retriever." Upon arriving at the Registry's private prison, he'd be put in an isolation cell with a one-way see-through door, fed via tubes that would dispense nutritional pills to him at set intervals. He would never get any leisure time, receive any visitors or get a chance at parole. It would be just one long wait until his release date. If he tried to take the fast way out, the guards would know instantly and have him in a straitjacket before he could even finish untying his shoelaces. This was the fate that awaited every bounty captured by a Manhunter.
"On paper," I went on, "it was Daniel's catch. His very first. Of course, I did the legwork. Literally; I tripped Floyd as he got up from his table and he went out like a light."
The whole building seemed to shake as Gorman threw back his head and laughed, slapping his profound gut with a meaty hand. "Sly move, Junior," he said once he regained his breath. He wagged a sausage finger in my face. "But I ain't as stupid as Floyd."
"That's not much of an accomplishment," I blurted. D'oh.
He smirked as he leaned back, twirling a fresh, unlit cigar in his hand. "Word of advice, kid. Don't speak like that to people bigger than you. It's liable to get you a black eye at best, your skull turned into a bobby pin at worst."
He had a point, but I wasn't just gonna say out loud he was right. We silently stared at each other for a few minutes, sizing one another up. I'd seen him in action before, dozens of times: with a single blow, Gorman could shatter a man's skull, and that was with maybe a quarter of his own strength. Me though, he didn't know what sorta training I'd had at the Registry. I had that advantage, at least.
"So," I said. "Wanna come with me? The weather's really nice in New Athens this year."
"Oh? Are you gonna install a window in my cell?"
"I can get you one," I lied. "If you're nice."
"Thanks," he said. "But I'm good as is." He splayed his hands out towards me like he was welcoming me home. "C'mon, Junior. Quit playing lawman. Get a drink, let's catch up. Where've you been? What're you doing with that owly string bean? I'm dying to hear the whole story."
"I'd love to Gorman, believe me," I said. And I meant it; I'd missed him along with the rest of my 'uncles,' but I still had a job to do. "But I'm gonna ask one last time, because I'd feel bad if I went and killed that nice beard you got going on there." I cricked my neck and put on my best serious voice. "Surrender and come with me. This is your final warning. If you come now, I promise you'll get preferential treatment at Panopto."
"Hoo," he said with an asthmatic snort. He sounded like a pig choking on a chicken bone. Don't ask me how I know that. He looked like he was seriously considering my offer, putting a hand to his chin and nodding his head up and down and humming. "Hmmm...hmmmno."
I'd been expecting this, but I'd still been hoping for otherwise, because I wasn't wholly certain that I could actually beat him in a fight, fair or otherwise. And the thought of taking Gorman head-on scared the living crap out of me. "I guess we're doing this the hard way, huh?" I found myself saying, despite that in my head, another voice was screaming at the top of its imaginary lungs Reeseyoutotalmorongetthehellouttathere!
"Looks like," he said. I swore that there was an excited gleam in his eyes. It was almost...hungry.
My entire body tensed up as I went into defense mode. I kept eye contact as I, trying to keep as calm as possible, pressed my index finger into my palm. Buzzer 1 slowly emerged from the dispenser strapped to my wrist. It slid down my gauntlet into my hand, where it formed into a dagger.
Then I heard what sounded a lot like somebody wheezing, and something sharp dug through my leather jacket until it punctured my shirt and pressed up against my skin. As I froze up, I realized Gorman's arm was also under the table.
Oh, damn. Damn damn damn! I hadn't been paying enough attention, and now he'd gotten the jump on me. Heavy beads of sweat started to trickle down my forehead. It took all my restraint not to wipe them away.
"I got fancy toys too, kiddo," he said. "Benefits of being on your pappy's payroll."
"Of robbing from the Confederacy, you mean," I shot back.
"Oh, come on, Junior," he said, rolling his eyes at me like I was some stupid little kid. It made me want to throw my knife right at his face. "Like you care about those buffoons."
There was something like a gasp, and whatever was just about to gut me retracted under the table. Phew. Then Gorman held up three fingers at me. When he didn't say anything...I couldn't resist. "That how many you can count to?" I realized then I was in desperate need of a verbal filter.
"Ha!" He wiggled all three digits. "Give me a couple more hours. I want to see the tonight's preview of the Odyssey. After it's over, we can have this fight you seem so dead-set on having. But I'm warning you, kid," he said. "Even if you beat me, which is a one in a thousand chance, my boys sure as hell won't take that lying down."
"And I'll warn you," I said, "even if by a one in a million chance they can beat me, my boy won't rest until your goons are all strung up by their guts over the walls of New Athens."
"Mr. Langdon?" Gorman chuckled. "Please. Kid's so skinny, an ant could probably knock him over."
As much as I hated to admit it, he was right. I could beat Daniel any day of the week arm-wrestling with my pinkie. But I wasn't about to try and refute that. All my life I'd known Gorman, his way was always the 'strength conquers all' approach. To him, 'cunning' might have been the name of some kind of salad...or something. I don't know, there aren't really any good analogies to be made there.
He stood up and bowed to me, his fist curled over his heart with the thumb sticking outward: the traditional Blacknight farewell. "Good seeing you, Junior."
"It's Reese, now. Reese Holliday."
He winced. "That's spitting in your pappy's face, changing your name."
Now it was my turn to grin. "No one agrees more than me."
"I bet," he said, returning the smirk, although now it looked considerably forced. Without another word, he walked out of the bar, his hands in his pockets. And the moment he was out the doors, the rest of the bar collectively followed him. The whole building rattled as over two dozens pairs of spurs clanked against the hardwood flooring. Then they were gone, and the bar was empty.
All apart from the bartender and Daniel, who remained rooted to his chair, his mug (of what smelled a lot like chocolate soda) trembling in his hand. He carefully set it down when I joined him. "Well," he said after a long moment, "I suppose that was his way of telling us that we are well and truly screwed," he said.
"Please," I said. "I could beat those guys blindfolded with one hand behind my back."
Daniel tapped his fingers nervously against the surface of the table, looking like he was trying desperately hard to believe me. "The fact remains, we are outnumbered by the dozens. And these are Riders, Reese."
"Not just common street toughs."
"You know, you know," he muttered. He rubbed his eyes under his glasses. "Look, I know this is very important to you..."
Was he about to say we should give up?
No...don't you dare...
"...We ought to leave for now and ask the Registry for further—"
I slammed my fist into the table so hard it nearly knocked his drink over. I gave Daniel the hardest, meanest stare I could muster. And damn him, he just kept up that stupid stoic look on his face. Couldn't he, just for once, have the decency to look just a little shocked? Maybe even annoyed? Whatever. I was expecting too much at this point.
"I am not, I repeat, not, missing out on this chance," I said. "It's the best one I've had. Anyone else finds out Gorman's here and they get to him first, I lose the lead. I lose my father. All these guys are, Daniel, is meat. Meat with spurs."
Daniel was still as a statue. For a moment, I thought I'd finally managed to shock him. But when he did speak again, he still spoke with a deceptively smooth, measured tone. He'd just been taking the time to think. "You are throwing your life away, Reese," he said. "Do not be stupid. Just call in for backup."
"Not a chance," I said. "I do this with you or by myself."
"Are you really so proud that—"
"Damn it, pride's got nothing to do with it!" I cried. "Every time I step into the lobby of HQ, every single person there looks at me like I'm a leper. They taunt me, they ignore me, all for things I never even did! Bunch of prigs. So the day I ask any of those self-righteous bastards for help is the day I burn myself at the stake!" I pointed a finger straight at Daniel. "And don't you dare telegram the Registry for backup, or so help me I'll—"
"I have something I need to do too, Reese," Daniel said in a tone so soft it took aback. He said it like he was admitting to wetting the bed, as if the idea of having his own goal was inherently shameful.
I found myself befuddled, but nevertheless, I found myself pitying him. "I know," was all I could think to say. I wondered, not for the first time, what exactly his goal was. All I knew was that it had something to do with his family. Outside of our profession, it was maybe the one thing we really had in common.
"I cannot die here," Daniel affirmed matter-of-factly, his composure returning to that of a robot. "And if you challenge those men, even if they do not kill you...Gorman will have told them who we both are by now. All it takes is for one of them to get to me and one of us will be finished."
He thought I would save him? Well, that was flattering. And maybe a tad optimistic. "Then you need to leave town," I said. "Right now." I withdrew several coins from my money pouch and set them on the table across from me. I didn't bother checking how much they worth, I just knew it was a lot. "Get a horse and go. I survive this, I'll meet you at New Athens."
He picked up the coins and examined them in his palm before looking up to gaze at me. "I swore I would not abandon you."
"Did you?" I racked my brain, and I remembered the day we met. The smell of blood mixed with cement was still fresh in my nostrils, and if I strained I could still hear the shrill cackling of the White-Eyed Angel. "You did," I recalled.
He hissed through gritted teeth. "I guess I am staying, then." He slid the coins back across the table to me. "I would be a poor partner if I did not."
"Butler," I said. I hoped I wasn't smiling as big as I thought I was. "Butler's a better word for it."
"Don't push it, Junior," he said.
"Same to you, Toucan."
"Toucan?" he said, confused. He touched his nose and came to the realization pretty quick. "You little bitch."
"That's no way to talk about your mother," I shot back. Damn, I was good.
He sighed. "Perhaps after you lose your limbs, you can travel around the country on a comedy tour. I can throw pies at your face."
"C'mon, loyal butler o'mine," I said, standing up from the table. I picked up a nearby abandoned bottle of cognac and took a healthy swig of it. The burning booze seared my throat and burned its way through my chest, giving me strength and the desire to go and shred something or someone to pieces. I tossed it across the room for no other reason than I felt like it, watching it explode against a wall, the alcohol dripping down the portrait frames crudely nailed below. "Let's go get our tickets for this preview or whatever the hell it is."
"Are you sure there is nothing I can do to dissuade you from this course of action?"
"Very well. One last thing, then," said Daniel.
I stopped. "What?" I noticed him rubbing his stomach. "Is it about the punch? Because I'm sorry, but you were absolutely asking for it—"
"No, not the punch," he said. "Although I stand by what I said, obviously." He ripped a page out of his notebook, jotted something down in it and handed it to me. "If I do die, and you survive, please make sure this is inscribed as my epitaph."
I looked down at the meaningless words. "What does it say?"
"Here lies the world's greatest fool. Died following the 2nd." And with that, he walked off, the saloon doors yawning together in his wake.