Brig chewed on a soggy cigar and squinted across the table at the pair of mercs scowling behind their cards. One, a shifty-eyed vaquero named Flat-nose Florentez. The other, a gawky poncho-wearing son of a bitch in an eye-patch. His partner, Attila.
Blue Streak Bill stalked ’round the table snapping his suspenders. A phantom in suit and top hat, with scarves of blue smoke drifting behind him. Blue Streak stopped between Flat-nose and Attila, looking over their hands. He nodded at Brig with his wide banker’s grin.
Brig pushed a heap of gold and copper marks clinking to the center of the table. “Call.”
Flat-nose sniffed hard, swallowed a lump of phlegm, then grimaced at Attila. “What about you, pendejo, you in?”
“Me?” Attila’s face twitched behind his eye-patch. “I… I friggin’ fold, man.” He slammed down his cards, overacting a touch. When he had too much drink there was no telling what that madcap would do.
Flat-nose sneered, all brown teeth and rotting gums. “Your hand, let’s see it, cabron.”
“Two pair.” Brig laid down his cards and took a drag from his cigar. “Aces and eights.”
“Chingada!” Flat-nose drew a Bowie knife. A murderous thing that was damn near a sword. He buried it in the table, rattling the coins. “Between the two of you, how many hands now?” He counted to himself on fingers black with grit. “Ocho? Nueve?”
Attila hiccupped. “Ten.” He lifted his filthy mug. Waited for the last drop of whiskey to roll onto his tongue. Always had a way of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, that one.
Brig shrugged, prodding the cigar with his tongue. “Luck’s a fickle mistress. You’re bound to have a good hand sooner or later.” When shit got thick, there was a sure science to keeping losers at the table. “Let me buy you another round.” Keep him drunk. Keep him happy.
Blue Streak Bill pulled a gold chain from his waistcoat, fished out his pocket watch. He tipped his top hat to Brig and dissolved. A faint apparition of blue mist, then was gone.
“I wouldn’t mind another.” Attila lifted his eye-patch, revealing his cybernetic eye. Son of a bitch, Attila! The bottom of Brig’s guts dropped out as he waited for Flat-nose to notice.
The ugly merc stared sidelong at Attila for a heavy moment. Gears turning in his rat brain. “I knew it!” He tore his knife from the table.
“Merc Rule 42. Que, no?” Juan, Flat-nose’s thickset partner, creaked over from the bar, snapping open the breech of his double-barrel shotgun. “Never trust a man in a poncho.”
“I ain’t wearing a poncho, boys,” Brig replied. Did his best to sound amicable, cool.
Juan stuffed two shells into the breech and snapped it closed. “Rule 42b: never trust anyone who consorts with a man in a poncho.”
“Brig, they know Rule 42b. Abort… Abort.” Attila whispered out the side of his mouth. About as conspicuous as you’d expect from a drunk.
Brig worked his cigar in his teeth. “Son of a bitch…” His partner was always getting them in some shit.
“Cheatin’ bastards, the both of you!” Flat-nose growled, spit flying from his mouth.
It didn’t matter that Attila’s eye ain’t how they were cheating. Didn’t matter that no one could see Blue Streak Bill but him. They were just as caught.
Juan leveled the shotgun at Brig. “Move and I blow your head off, comprende?”
“Well, we’re real scared… Right, Brig?” Attila sidled the table and his hands disappeared into his poncho. “I hope you’re packing more than that pea shooter.”
Juan spat on Attila’s boot. “You might watch who you talk to like that, pinche idiota.” He sat his shotgun on Brig’s shoulder, barrel kissing the side of his head.
Flat-nose laughed at Attila. “If the two of you have a pair of huevos between you, you ain’t got either one of ‘em.”
Well, shit. Brig knew damn well his partner wasn’t gonna stand for that. “Attila… relax.” Maybe he could still placate them.
But Attila cut him off. “Okay, tough guy. How ‘bout we up the friggin’ ante? Double or nothing. Next hand clears the table, and the losers have to leave. Or are you greasy turds too chicken?”
Problem was, they didn’t have the money to pay double or nothing. And any fool could see that Juan was more apt to put an extra hole in his head than cough up that much coin.
Brig shook his head. “Attila—”
“Just you and me.” Flat-nose pointed his heavy knife at Brig. “Juanito deals.”
Brig sighed. “Fair enough.” It might be his only chance to settle things without violence. If not, well, we all gotta die of something.
Juan dealt the cards. Brig slid them across the table and held them close to his chest. Three kings, a six, and a seven. “I’ll take two.” He slid the low cards away and Juan spun two more toward him. A king and an ace.
Attila watched, grinning like a Cheshire cat. His cybernetic eye—as Flat-nose deduced—had x-ray vision.
Brig looked across at Flat-nose. That greasy merc was sweating bullets. Bastard was so bad at bluffing Brig didn’t need Blue Streak’s help to beat him. He cursed himself. There was only one way out of this without violence.
“What you got, cabron?” Flat-nose showed a pair of jacks.
“I fold.” Brig pushed his cards away. Sometimes losing was the smartest option.
Attila scowled and turned over his cards. “That’s friggin bull, man. You just let them win?” The gangly man reached inside of his poncho again. “You two losers are still gonna pay up.” His hands emerged, both thumbs looped through the pin of a grenade.
“He folded, amigo. Fair and square.” Flat-nosed backed away baring his rotting teeth.
Brig’s heart hammered. Things were about to get messy. “Violence ain’t the answer.”
“Maybe it is, no?” Juan leveled the shotgun with a dark smile. Brig’s heart leapt into his throat. He caught the nose in his grip as the gun went off. It bucked wildly an inch from his head.
His ears rang. His head swam. Dust and debris fell from the ceiling, muted in that ear-splitting silence following every too-loud noise.
Brig’s face twisted with sudden rage. Violence. Was not. The answer. His teeth ground into his jaw, painful tight. The metal barrel groaned in his powerful grip as he wrenched the gun away. He smashed the stock to splinters on the floor. Easy as breaking a match under his thumb. Caught Juan’s fat neck up in his other hand. His fingers clamped on their own, a pair of vices. Juan’s knees buckled.
Tendrils of black smoke edged into Brig’s vision. Send him to hell, Old Man Death whispered. A drunken feeling washed over him. He squeezed tighter.
He shook his head, fought back the stupor. Violence was not the answer. “My apologies.” Brig hauled Juan back to his feet and straightened his crushed collar. “We owe you gentlemen 500 marks, but we ain’t got it…” A thought occurred to him. “We do have a tank, though.”
Attila’s one eye bulged. “You’re not giving them my friggin’ tank, Brig. I swear to god—”
But it was Brig’s turn to ignore his partner. “The tank is worth at least two grand. Pay us fifteen and we’ll take you to it.”
Flat-nose licked his lips nervously. “You take us to the tank. Then we pay you the fifteen.”
Brig studied them a moment. The wild look in their eyes told him his face was still screwed up. He consciously relaxed his brow, unclenched his jaw. “Deal.” He smiled. Felt the skin of something in his teeth. It wasn’t the first time he’d gotten excited and swallowed a cigar.
Juan rubbed his chins, five dark fingers where Brig choked him. “Where is it?” he croaked.
Attila frowned, tucking away his grenades. “Not my tank…”
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