The Mute Bounty Hunter

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She came down from the hills on a big bay horse with the two corpses rope-tied to the twin skinny pack mules she was leading. Blood had dried over the wounds and the corpses swayed as the mules stiff-walked down the dusty street. Some people watched from porches or windows. She rode up to the US Marshal’s office next to the Dry Goods Supply store and got down from her big horse, at least fifteen hands high, and looped the reins around the railing. The mules stood there in the cold, shifting a little. She didn’t hesitate. She walked up the creaky wooden steps, her boots clunking, and opened the door and went in. A bell on the door rang as she entered. Jack Ryles, the US Marshal, was sitting by the stove with his boots up on the desk, smoking a cigarillo. It stank of cigarillo smoke in the little office. The stove was giving off intense warmth. He looked at her evenly without blinking with his blue eyes as she came in. She touched the brim of her straw hat — it was a Mexican sombrero that would have looked silly on anyone but a beautiful black haired woman, which she was — and stood there returning the Marshal’s bold empty gaze with her own bold empty gaze. Aside from the sombrero and riding boots she was wearing a colorful serape thrown over one shoulder and a leather coat and a man’s white shirt under it and also a man’s riding trousers, and two Colt Navy pistols were stuck into the frayed black leather belt holding up the trousers.

-Well now, said Jack Ryles. What have we got here, young lady?
She took the folded wanted poster out of her coat pocket on the side that didn’t hold clinking rifle and pistol shells and unfolded it and held them out toward the Marshal, who didn’t move to take it but sighed, glanced at the wall where the exact same bill was posted (The Natchez Brothers, Extremely Dangerous, Wanted for Horse Thievery. Fifty Gold Dollars For Each Brother, Dead or Alive) and said, drawling his words a little:
-Where are they?
She raised her chin toward the window giving onto the dusty, near-empty street.
The Marshal swung his legs down until his bootheels touched the floor. He pushed back his chair with a squeak. He stood and crushed out his cigarillo in a clay dish full of ash and other spent cigarillos and went slowly to the window. He bent to peer outside through the warped and discolored glass panes. He saw the mules shifting in the cold and the bodies tied to them with lengths of rope, blood drying on the wounds. He rubbed his jaw. He hadn’t shaved that morning, and there were thick bristles, some frosted white by his advancing age.
-Well. You got them horse thieving fuckers. I’ll be twice god damned, he said.

Wearily, the Marshal walked from the window back to his desk. He pulled open a desk drawer and took from it a gray cloth bag that clinked when he set it down by his pistol. He opened the bag and counted out gold coins, placing them in a careful stack. Then he used the barrel of the Colt pistol to move the stack over the desk toward the silent woman. He tore a sheet of paper off a pad and scribbled a few words on it with a quill he plucked from a small jar of ink that sat open and pushed the slip of paper over next to the stack of gold pieces. He laid the quill on the paper. He said:
-Sign here to claim your bounty. I am content that you have earned every dollar of it.
She stepped up to the desk as he sank back into his chair and tilted it on its back legs against the wall. She bent over the desk, picked up the inky quill and signed in a rapid series of scratches. She slipped the quill back into the ink jar.
-Just leave the corpses of these poor sons of bitches lying there in the street if you like, and I’ll have the coffin maker come by with his wagon and pick them up later today or tomorrow after he’s made the coffins. It’s fiesta day for our local coffin maker. Oh, and by the bye. In future you don’t need to bring in the bodies of miscreants to secure your bounty money. Just the heads will do fine. Easier that way, no?
The woman nodded. Then she picked up the stack of gold pieces and placed them into a yellow chamois pouch and shut it by pulling its strings. She tucked the pouch into an inside pocket of her leather coat as the Marshal looked on with one eyebrow cocked, his boots back up on the desk and his hands folded in his lap. She nodded to him and went out, down the creaking wooden steps to the cold and dusty street where she unroped the corpses and took them down from the shifting wide eyed mules. She dragged the corpses up close to the bare wooden sidewalk and propped their bloodied shaggy heads against its edge. Then she wound the rope tightly into a bundle and tied it together and put it in one of the big stained leather saddlebags hanging over the bay horse’s withers. Inside, the Marshal had tilted his chair back down and now bent forward a little to watch her through the window. She felt his gaze, glanced up and touched the brim of her hat in Adios, then she swung up on the bay and clicked her teeth and the bay backed up four steps, turned and set off at a jog, the mules giving a few dry bleats of anguished resistance then following meekly on behind pulled by the lead-rope. She was gone in a few seconds, turning sharply at the end of the street to head back out into the arid desert with her pack mules under the vast incessant blue sky. In his office, the Marshal tilted his chair back again and rested his head against the wall and shut his eyes.
-I’ll be God damned to hell, he said.

 

The Sea

(This is a small excerpt from THE TATTOOED ASSASSIN — an Akiko crime novel in progress.)

It’s late afternoon when the ferry docks on the little island. Akiko crosses the wobbling gangplank. Then she’s standing on the volcanic soil of Kamijima. Gulls are skreeking. The cold breeze smells and tastes of salt. She doesn’t look around for the taxi. She’s already laced up her hiking boots while still on the ferry. She starts to walk. It feels good to be away from a city. There’s no car traffic on the narrow dirt road between low houses and shops — nothing but a few rattling bicycles. Soon she’s walking through thick green bamboo forest. The road turns steeply uphill. Sweating, she climbs, carrying the luggage bag slung over one shoulder. The sunlight is hot and blinding. She stops in the shadow of a big pine to drink water from a plastic bottle. Carefully, she screws the cap back on and sticks it into her bag. It’s a long walk up the mountain, colder and steeper with each step. Finally she’s there — at the base of the mossy winding steps to the temple. She can see the soaring wing-like eaves, the dull red lacquer of the walls and pillars dappled with sunlight, through black branching pine foliage. Home.

She climbs the steps slowly, her eyes shut.
At the top step, she opens her eyes.
There. The temple. The smooth black pillars. The green-tiled roof.

Takagi steps out onto the porch. He’s bearded. In blue jeans and a torn t shirt. He’s holding a wooden sword lightly. He stops and turns his head toward Akiko. His blind eyes look at her. His nostrils widen. He begins to tremble. He sits down on the smooth boards, like a marionette suddenly cut from its strings. Lays the sword flat.
Akiko strides forward in flowing steps. She lifts the bag from her shoulder. Sets it down on the thick pine needles.

Molly, he says.
Jiro.
Ah, Molly.
She goes to him. He takes her head in his hands. Kisses her brows, her cheeks, her lips. Smells her sunwarmed hair.
You’re here. Alive.
Hai.
I wondered.
Akiko smiles. He’s still kissing her. She shuts her eyes. His lips are dry and soft and the kisses cool and delicate.
Nothing kills me, she whispers.
I know that. I love you.
I love you, Jiro.
He’s shaking again, as if seized by panic. She helps him to stand, lifting him up by the elbows.

The sun is low. Almost drowned in the Sea of Japan. Cicadas buzz-buzz. It’s cold here in the shadows. Autumn. The great change of seasons that rebukes all vain human conceit and ambition. One finally feels it — the light is weak, the cicadas near-silent. Pine needles are falling. The small red squirrels jump in the thick foliage, their tails twitching. The few maples are a blaze of crimson. The oak leaves are edged with yellow.

She helps Takagi inside. Goes back out for her bag. When she comes in again carrying the bag, he’s lit a kerosene lantern. He replaces the soot-smudged glass chimney and turns down the flame. She sets down her luggage and kneels in seiza. It’s musty inside the temple. Takagi hasn’t bathed in a while — she can smell the layers of dried sweat under his clothes. The odor is not unpleasant. His beard is thick and his blind eyes, when she glimpses them under the sagging lids, look wild. It’s as if he’d aged a century. Then she realizes, no, he’s still youthful. His arms and shoulders are powerful — she doesn’t recall him being this muscled. He’s clearly been working out with the bokken every single day. She touches it with her fingertips. It’s stained dark at the handle by the oil and sweat from Takagi’s hands.

He hasn’t rolled up the bedding. It’s still disarranged from the morning. He tries to straighten it, feeling his way along the edges. Akiko, who has meanwhile unlaced and pulled off her hiking boots and wool socks, laughs, stands, and strips off her dark sweater and the t shirt under it in one movement. She drops these things on the floor, unsnaps her blue jeans and steps out of them. She goes to Takagi in her thin panties, kneels by him, and places his hands on her breasts. He begins, again, to shake as if with cold. She kisses his face, his hair. The kisses are like flames. Takagi groans. He sits on the bedding. Akiko bends forward, her hair covering his face. She unsnaps his blue jeans and wrenches down the zipper and takes him out hard and pulsating and she whimpers a little from her own desire as she kisses it and licks the swelling crown. Takagi moans. He lies back. Akiko’s head goes up and down. He feels her tongue playing with him, her warm saliva dripping on his balls. Then she takes him out of her mouth and goes lower. One by one, she sucks on and softly bites his testicles while holding his cock like a sword. Takagi feels the sensations begin to surge. Wait, he says. Stop. She stops biting him. Silence. He can hear her breathing. Also his own. They’re both breathing deeply as if in a sword match. Come up here, he murmurs. He hears the cotton rasp as Akiko tears off her panties. Throws them away. Then she climbs up his body, kissing hard and open-mouthed as she goes. She strips away his t shirt. He raises both arms over his head as she yanks it from him. His skin is silk-smooth, warm and sunbrowned. She straddles Takagi and inserts him in the searing heat and moisture underneath her bristling soft pubic hair. Takagi sobs. It’s so good. Ah, he says, beautiful Molly. She strokes his face with her long fingers as he holds her elbows. They’re a little rough, as always, from her constant practice with the wooden sword. She begins rocking. He’s trying to form an image of exactly what she must look like now. Above, below and around him is only darkness. His mind blazes, but there are no colors. Akiko is gasping. She shudders in her orgasm and he feels a surge of heat and thick wetness on his cock and balls. He’s cradled inside her, in the searing womb. He cries out — his semen shoots up into the all engulfing darkness.

The sea. Glittering. Infinite.

Night. Akiko opens a barrel of sake. It gurgles pleasantly into the earthenware jar. She sets down the full sake jar and takes out the cups, which she cleans out with splashes of water followed by a few wipes with a faded blue-striped dish towel — one of the ones she brought with her three years ago when she arrived on the island. She returns to bed with the jar and cups on a bamboo tray. The kerosene lamp throws her shadow — the intimate nudity of her shadow — hugely on the whitewashed wall. She picks up one cup and hands it to Takagi, who smiles and bows. He’s seated crosslegged, naked, on the futon. He holds out the cup. She fills it with a snap of the wrist, not spilling a drop. She fills hers next and sets down the sake jar. They drink. The sake is cold and subtly sweet. It’s refreshing, after the heat of the day and the almost painful joy of their lovemaking. Was it joy? Or pain?

Takagi took her three times. Akiko climaxed twice. Harshly and completely, both times. She almost came the third time but held back to fully appreciate the beauty of Takagi’s climax. As he mounted toward it, he fucked her more and more slowly — delicately, even. She shut her eyes to feel him shoot inside her — a flare of heat. He gasped and choked and his body went rigid. She held him around the ribs, tightly, and also embraced his legs with hers, crushing him into her, her bare feet stroking his white buttocks. Life is empty. A dead flower in the surf. An owl’s strange, insistent hoots in the dark pine forest of the mountain on Kamijima. She smiles as she drinks, her lips smiling on the rim of the cup — she sees that he’s erect again.

(For more like this, see 10th & Crime.)

Score

Sabine, hiking fast. Torn by brambles, whipped by fir branches.

When she hears the crack of a twig she drops and lies flat. screened by dense-growing ferns.

Two more men. She smells them before she sees them. They stink of fear-sweat. And gun grease. And nylon cloth. And fear-sweat again. Sweat is shining on their grease paint darkened hands and faces.

They’re in the same dark Ultra paratrooper Nazi type uniforms as the previous team, gliding through the primaeval forest.

Sabine peers at them, through the fronds of the lush fern that screens her, as they move softly in the fog. In the diminishing rain and the reek of metal and sweat.

They’re holding their light automatic rifles at ready and are using signs to “speak” to each other.

It seems they sense Sabine might be near but they are looking in the wrong direction.

Sabine hears it: a rattle of branches. A swishing in the ferns off to her left.

She shuts her eyes. It sounds like a deer. Yes. Probably. That.

The Ultra agents are too stupid to suspect it is a deer based on the gliding rush and the tapping of fern fronds — how could it be a human being? Even a little girl? It’s too swift, too sudden, too glissando, like musical notes played by an accomplished musician.

The agents are stupid, and fearful, and jumpy. They make tense hand signals to each other and jog double time toward the glissing rushing ferny sound.

To head it off. Off at the pass. Idiots.

Tense, their eyes wide and staring out of the smears of black grease they’ve layered on for camoflauge.

Sabine wants to laugh. To laugh herself sick. She doesn’t. She rolls over very quietly, unslings the rifle from her right shoulder, and lays it flat beneath the fern. Then she rolls back onto her belly, meantime reaching down to grasp the hilt of her combat knife, which slides from its sheath in total silence.

She lies there, her breasts pressed flat, her heart beating. One of the man hurries past her only three yards distant — she sees the black clad legs moving briskly.

He’s jog-walking with his rifle pointed at the direction of the deer-gliding-sound.

Sabine’s eyes move. She takes in the location of the other man. He disappears behind a clump of pines. He’s about twenty yards off.

Silence. Silence, except for the drip drip of rain water from the massive branches above, and the shrills of a few distant birds.

Sabine adjusts her grip on the knife. Reverse grip. She braces her elbows.

The Ultra agent is now seven yards off, with his back to Sabine.

She pushes off the rain soaked leaves and runs fast and silently until she is directly behind the Ultra agent. She taps his elbow. He spins, eyes wide, and tries to hit her with the rifle barrel. Sabine ducks it and flows to his right side and with one smooth movement leaps onto his shoulders, wrapping her legs around his neck. Then she drops her body to one side — in the same direction the agent was moving — speeding up his spin to a whirl. He loses his footing on the mossy earth and they’re airborne. Sabine lands first on her left shoulder with the tight grip of her legs on the man’s neck, the momentum of the fall tossing him over her. He comes down on his back on a decaying log that shatters. He grunts. Sabine releases her leg grip and rolls onto his chest, smashing down with her knees as he gurgles and tries to scream. Whips her knife edge across his throat just under the ear twice, once for each artery.

She rolls off the twitching body, snatching up the rifle one handed and spinning as she rises. Putting her forefinger into the trigger guard, she brings up her weapon and sights the other Ultra man, who has turned at the noise and is standing there  looking amazed in a patch of sunlight. She presses the trigger three times, hitting the man twice in the chest and once in the wide open mouth. He falls.

Sabine runs to him, keeping the rifle steady, looking for movement. But he’s dead. Sprawled backward, blood pattering from the back of his skull. Sabine lowers the rifle and jogs back to the first man. He’s dead, too, his blind eyes staring at the canopy. She tosses the smoking rifle on his chest.

Ultra: 0. Sabine: 4.

The One-Armed Man in the Military Greatcoat

I talked with a young man in a military greatcoat. His right sleeve was pinned to the shoulder. He was rolling a cigarette one handed as I approached him. He offered me one. I don’t smoke, but I took it and put it in my dry lips. He lit it for me. I couldn’t follow how he managed that. He was holding a matchbox in his one hand, and then out came a match and his fingers struck it into flame. I bent to let him light the hand rolled cigarette for me. The yellow chamois tobacco pouch lay in his lap. He blew out the match and tossed it away smoking. Nearby us a Japanese girl was playing with a red ball. The man in the greatcoat said he’d picked her up in the Empty Lands. I asked what that was, and where. He said: It’s a barren place, mostly just grasses and low hills, but sometimes you see a broken tower, or even a dome that turns out to be a ruined astral observatory. I asked him what other creatures he had met there. He said: A blue eyed coyote. A big raven holding a red thread in its beak. A few white owls. And this little girl here. She was walking around dazed. I took her along with me although I didn’t know where I was heading. Eventually we reached a kind of ampitheater. We walked around it. There were old broken statues in niches. It was twilight, but it’s always twilight in the Empty Lands. I saw bats shooting overhead. Then I saw a shooting star. It was night. The starry sky was vast and it took my breath away. But it didn’t look real. It was different than the starry sky here on earth. I tried to find the constellations. Couldn’t. Where was the Big Dipper? Orion? Gone. In their place were other stars in other relationships.

I asked him where he’d lost the arm. He said: At the Somme. It was probably still there. In the mud. Maybe the rats ate it. He laughed. The little girl dashed to us and crawled onto his lap. I asked her name. The man in the greatcoat said he didn’t know; didn’t even know his own. I asked the little girl where her parents where. She said, In a car. In a car where? The girl’s eyes looked at me. Upside down, she said. Then she jumped from the lap and dashed off, her bare legs red from the cold. I sat down next to the man in the greatcoat. I asked: Do you feel anything strange is happening here? He laughed. Who knows? It was strange to see my arm lying in the mud. After that, nothing seemed strange.

I asked how he’d thought to come back. He drew in a hiss of air through his nostrils. Then laughed. Thought? Yes, I said, picking a shred of tobacco from my lips. He shook his head slowly. He bit his lower lip, released it. Then he said. I really don’t know. We walked around for what seemed like years. Then I saw a town. In the distance. There was a beach, a boardwalk, like Atlantic City. A big lit up ferris wheel. There were people, eating ice cream. They were strangely dressed. A man playing an accordion, with a monkey jumping around holding out a hat for coins. It felt like home. We walked into the ocean, the little girl and I. We stood there in the waves. It felt good. Clean. Cool. We were both laughing. When we came back we got on a small train. When we got out of the train, here we were.

Gone

As it rained harder, the cold drops plinking and hissing on the barrel of the automatic rifle and dripping from her bangs, Sabine jogged back to the other man she’d killed. She slung the rifle over her shoulder by its strap, crouched, and tore open the small knapsack strapped to the dead man’s back.

She tried to avoid his gaping eyes.

She was trembling from hunger. In the knapsack she found five foil wrapped energy bars, military rations. She ripped the foil on one and bit off a large square.

She shut her eyes, chewing. She could feel the energy of the food — a paste of high protein carob and nuts and dried fruit — enter her body like lightning, and tears flowed out of her squinted eyes, mingling with the cold raindrops. She tried to chew slowly, but within instants she was shredding the foil from a second energy bar. She stopped halfway from the end to drink a long metallic gulp of water from the dead man’s canteen. Gasping. Then she drank again, tilting her head back, shutting her eyes. Bliss.

Choking and retching a little, she screwed the cap carefully back onto the canteen. Then she rummaged further into the knapsack and found the back plastic box. It was a First Aid kit. Standard issue. She clicked it open. Scissors. Gauze. Alcohol swabs. Everything. She shut the box and laid it on the dead leaves.

Next? Amazing. Stuffed into its small plastic pouch, a waterproof rain poncho. Sabine wrenched it free, spread it, and slipped it over her head. She put up the hood. There. Although shuddering, she already felt warmer.

She found extra clips for the rifle, too, and a thin dark wool sweater, and a collapsible spirit stove and two small cooking pans. The other man would have exactly the same items in his pack. That meant seven more energy bars, another canteen sloshing full of clean water, another first aid kit — Sabine shuddered with joy. What luck. What stunning luck.

I’m off, she said to the corpse. I’m out of here. It was wonderful to hear her own radiant, singsong voice over the crackling rain. But first, one thing.

Searching the front pockets in the corpse’s Ultra issued military fatigues, she found it. The homing device. She pressed a button, and it flashed vivid red. It was picking up the signal from the chip in her ankle.

Sabine opened the first aid kit. She ripped apart one of the packages of alcohol swabs with her teeth, and wiped down the point of her combat knife.

Rain was popping on the rich foliage all around her. The Ultra agents must be spread out for a miles in the forest. It might take the next team up to twenty minutes to reach her position. No time, Sabine said. No time for fire, or boiling a pan of water. Pas de temps. Only time for this.

She sat back in the mulch of rotting leaves, pushed the plastic hood of the poncho back, wiped the loose strands of clinging hair from her face to get a better view, and braced her right foot on the left knee.

She searched for the little white scar and for the bump. Keeping her lips tight and trying not to clench her teeth too much, Sabine pushed the point of her combat knife into the flesh. Blood jumped out. She felt dizzy, then sick.

She worked the point in deeper, touched the microchip. She was whimpering now. She thought the voice in her throat sounded like a panicky animal. A wounded cat.

She cut deeper, keeping her grip firm yet relaxed, and then, with a grunt, levered the microchip out along with a splash of blood. She clamped a gauze pad on the wound. Hard. Panting, the breath whistling in her nostrils.

Then, just three times, she wailed. Wailed into the rain and fog.

Sabine wiped the knife blade clean on another gauze pad and sheathed it. The pulse throbbing in her ears. Blotting out most of the roar of the shattering rain.

As soon she trusted herself not to faint, Sabine sterilized the cut with splashes of antiseptic fluid and wound a bandage around and around the ankle, then taped it down tight. The pain was vivid, hot, intense. Use it, Sabine, she said. Okay? Use it.

She shut her eyes for a moment and breathed in and out slowly. Okay. She could use the pain to help keep her head clear. It was just a matter of breathing right.

Okay? Oui. Ca va.

She jogged back to the tiger pit. Stepped down into it, carefully avoiding both the sprawled body and the cruelly pointed stakes. She unbuckled the other small knapsack and slung it over her shoulder.

And the rifle? No. This was already too much weight.

She’d get far, far away from that deadly microchip and then discard whatever she could manage. She’d shed all extra weight. She’d travel light, like the rain and the wind. She’d get to a highway. Then, clearly, she’d be gone.