He paused for a moment at the entrance to the Iron Pony Tavern, his thoughts about the coming confrontation falling aside for a moment. Now that he had time to stop and take a good look at it, he already regretted the fact that he was probably about to wear out his welcome in this neighborhood before he left. Mounted above the front door was what at first appeared to be a rusted-over sculpture, but closer inspection revealed it to be a contraption that looked like a mechanical pony on wheels.
“There’s got to be a tale behind that…” he remarked as he stepped inside.
Gathering his wits, as he was not entirely sure what sort of scene he was about to walk in on, he could feel the tension in the air even as he entered. He saw Roxy standing at a table near the middle of the floor, with a small, but unwelcoming crowd. Already he was quite certain the two of them were outsiders in the midst of a gathering of regulars.
“…and you think we’re just gonna turn around and play nice with someone who threatens to torture one of our crew?” one of the men at the table, presumably the leader, demanded. “You’ve got some big brass ones, just walkin’ in here after what you did yesterday.”
A puzzled frown touched the bounty hunter’s lips.
“A little bird lit on my shoulder,” the man told her, “and it tells me things. You didn’t think you could hide that for long in our town, did you?”
“And here, I even gave him a chance to save face with you guys… For what it’s worth, he put a knife to one of my contacts, useless as he was,” she replied flatly. “I gave him a chance to cooperate, but he made a mountain out of a mole hill. I was hoping perhaps you had more sense, and maybe knew something more useful about the Cray Sisters’ mystery dealer. I pay good coin for reliable info.”
“Assuming we even know what you want to know,” the Stockade lieutenant shot back, “it’s not for sale, and we sure as hell don’t need any of your help puttin’ those bitches in their place.”
“A little insurance never hurt anything,” she suggested. “I would get the bounty on the contraband, and you get to take back your turf and keep the spoils. Everybody wins.”
“ ’Cept the Crays,” he pointed out. “Why would I expect a Cyexian to sell out a Pactra?”
“I’m not Pactra,” she snorted. “I’ve always been a free agent, and I think we can both agree that this current dispute is going to be bad for business in the long run. The Cray Sisters are a bigger threat to Anchor Point’s balance, so I’m willing to work with you this one time, in exchange for a little information. This is your town, isn’t it?”
“Damn straight!” Pounding the table for emphasis. “And we’ll handle our own goddamn affairs, thank you very much. We’re not scared of you, Hunter. You don’t fuck with the Stockades and just walk away like it’s no big deal. Just who the hell do you think you are?”
Roxy turned to walk away, and several other patrons of this Stockade hangout stood up to oppose her.
“Yeah! You’re on our turf, bitch!” another at the table seconded. “What makes you think you’re goin’ anywhere?”
“Because in two minutes, I’ll be the only one at this table still standing,” she informed them.
“Yeah right,” scoffed one of the other gang members. “When we drag your bleeding ass upstairs, we’re all gonna—”
Was all the farther he got before Roxy kicked his chair out from under him.
“And in another five, I’ll be the only one in this room still standing.”
“That does it!” shouted one of the enforcers as he sprang to his feet and lunged at her, even before his boss could give any signal. “Stockades stand for their own!”
Roxy was now the center of attention, and Shades took full advantage of that. Up to this point, he very studiously kept his hands away from any of his weapons, playing the role of the slack-jawed bystander. Which seeing her in action already made him feel like anyway. Now that push came to shove, he slipped into gear, tossing in a pair of flash-bangs she gave him before they parted ways. Telling him, Use these if things get ugly, or to escape if things go bad. Leaving him only a moment to wonder where she got these things anyway.
Whipping out both stun sticks and skirting the room to sweep up any of the Stockade sentries around the edges as she went to town on the ones surrounding her. Most of the gang members at the edges had drawn, but hesitated to shoot at their own crew in the thick of things, making Shades’ job easier. By the time they realized what was happening, only a few were left standing, which Shades took out with a barrage of stun beams Justin would have been proud of.
He was fast beginning to reassess regulars here to pretty much mean gang members, the Iron Pony clearly being Stockade turf, with the few other patrons being little more than decoration. Those few who were not affiliated with them already scrambling for the door with understandable haste.
In the midst of the brawl, Roxy fired up her laser staff, making short work of the enemies who made the mistake of crowding her. It looked like she had things well in hand, nearly finished mopping them up, when one of the remaining enforcers, a big, burly hulk with huge arms, actually hurled a table at her. Though she managed to dodge it, she tripped over a fallen chair, fumbling her weapon as her elbow hit the floor hard enough to loosen her grip.
Meanwhile, some shifty character, the very one they had questioned at the Timbers, who had hit the deck behind the counter the moment things went sideways, now popped up behind Shades, hauling him around by the shoulder and stabbing him.
“That’s for yesterday, ass… hole…”
Unfortunately for him, he drove his blade into the left side, where Shades’ still-holstered backup power pistol was strapped, deflecting the edge and merely gouging his jacket. The blow would still leave a mean bruise along his ribs, but Shades would only notice that later. Right now, he elbowed his would-be killer in the face, nailing him several times with his stun blade before he hit the ground.
He had only a moment to marvel as his lucky break before he noticed Roxy was in trouble.
While he was distracted, the same thug who threw the table also lunged at her while she was trying to retrieve her weapon, and now straddled her with both huge hands around her throat.
Her weapon still lying a couple feet out of reach, as she gave up fumbling for it and focused on her attacker instead.
“I oughta take you down right here…” he snarled, as she kneed him in the ribs several times, to no avail, for his stance also prevented her from reaching with any groin shots, either, as he could block with his other knee. “Just like those other stuck-up cunts… Show the whole crew you’re not so—”
Roxy, seeing no other options, as he was built like a brick shithouse, and his grip was too strong to break, while her vision was already starting to blur, simply reached out with her free hand and casually broke his collarbone between her fingers.
Seeing that stopped Shades in mid charge, cringing in spite of himself as he recalled something Master Al once told him. Something about it taking only five to ten pounds of pressure to break the human clavicle. Not that he needed to take his sensei’s word for it, having broken his own in a swivel-chair accident when he was only five years old, the memory of it slamming into him like a physical blow as he watched her turn the tables on him.
“Fuckin’ bitch…” the man groaned, his stranglehold completely broken. As he crumbled to his knees, she leaned on his injured shoulder as she stood back up. “We’ll get you for…”
“If you can still talk,” she told him over his weak squeak of a scream as she shoved him gently to the floor, never taking her hand off her handle on him, “I haven’t hurt you enough.”
When she released him, he fell flat on his face with a barely audible moan.
“All the other stuck-up cunts send their regards, too.”
She then fetched her laser staff and turned her attention back to the Stockade lieutenant leading this group, who was trying to crawl away in the confusion, shoving him up against the counter.
“Where is it?” she grated, her voice still raw from being choked only moments ago. “Where is the pickup point? I’m through playing games.”
“I don’t know!” he blurted, “I swear!”
“I gave you the chance to aid me, even to your own benefit. I should have known better…”
“I mean it! I don’t know!” he stammered. “Boss didn’t say. Just rounded up a posse and headed out to go put his foot down on their bullshit. Wanted to catch ’em by surprise, he says…”
“Coulda saved yourselves a lot of trouble and just told me that in the first place.” The bounty hunter shoved him down, and he scrambled out the back with a frantic cry. Muttering, “Total waste of my time…”
“Um… yeah…” Shades mumbled, looking around the joint. And to think, Max and Justin weren’t even in on this one. The whole scene putting him in mind of an Old Western bar fight. “Uh, let’s get out of here, before that guy brings his friends.”
Thinking, You just can’t take this gal anywhere…
Roxy nodded, and they stepped outside.
Where Constable Dennis Naysmith and several of his men were waiting for them.
“Please tell me you actually learned something useful after interfering with my investigation,” he moaned, shaking his head.
“ ’Fraid not,” she snorted.
“Wonderful. Just wonderful. Now you’ve just given me an extra mountain of paperwork, and nothing to show for it. Are you satisfied?”
“No,” the bounty hunter replied. “They didn’t know jack shit, so you would’ve questioned them for nothing.”
“But that’s our job, not yours,” he shot back. “We may have our troubles, but this is our town, and we’re getting by just fine without you.”
“Except that part about a turf war that’s about to destabilize your town’s underworld.”
For his part, Shades wondered for a moment when this turned from Wild West to detective drama, and just how hardboiled it was going to get after that tavern brawl.
“And you’re not helping. It’s not just this, either. Your friend is having a hard enough time finding a new crew without you making trouble all over town.”
He turned his stern gaze on Shades as he finished speaking, then sighed and turned his attention to the mess awaiting him inside the Iron Pony Tavern.
“Maybe we should go back to the ship,” Shades suggested. “We’re all out of leads unless Justin managed to—”
“Guys!” Justin panted, running up to them as fast as he could, now that the officers had gone inside. “Follow me! We’re running out of time!”
“Well, speak of the devil…” Shades remarked.
“Running out of time until what?” Roxy raised an eyebrow, but was already following him back the way he came from.
“Until we miss the deal,” Justin told them. “It’s goin’ down any time now, I just barely managed to sneak away… That job I took, they work for the Cray Sisters, but that’s not the half of it! You won’t believe who their supplier is.”
“Please tell me it’s not Striker…” Though Shades saw no way that could even work out.
“No, it’s even worse,” Justin warned him. “I saw it docked near the warehouse… Checkmate!”
“Oh shit…” Shades groaned. “Not him!”
“You know that name?” Roxy couldn’t hide her surprise at that last.
“All too well…” Shades shook his head. Both at the memory, and at the sinking feeling that he actually had met someone who fit all of the clues in this case. “But what do you know about it?”
“I know it was a professional job. Security cameras disabled, signals jammed, no living witnesses… But you know something about that heist, don’t you?”
“We know who did it,” Shades admitted.
“And here I was hoping he was dead…” Justin hissed.
“Well, we survived, didn’t we?”
“They never did find a body, or his ship…”
“You’re sure about this?” Shades pressed. “And where are we going?”
“Back to the harbor,” Justin replied, “and I’m sure you’d know better than anyone, having been aboard and all…”
“You had to remind me.”
“The warehouse is on the docks, and they had us loading a ship called the Queen of Night.”
“But that’s where Max said he was meeting Galford today!”
“No way!” Justin gasped. “We’ve gotta find him before he finds Max!”
“Or worse,” Shades reminded him, “Maximilian.”
“Who?” Roxy demanded. “Who are you talking about?”
“You’re the bounty hunter,” Shades answered, “I’m sure you’ve heard of him.”
“No time!” Justin dragged them along. “We’ll explain on the way!”
“Cooped up with Mercer’s murderous crew for days, and we completely forgot to tell you about that battle…” Shades facepalmed. “Well, you said you wanted a big bounty. Let’s just hope we’re up to this one.”