A small beam of light penetrated the curtains and hit Oliver Cavanaugh in the eyes. He squinted in return, turning his head away to postpone the break of noon.
A brand new day had finally crept into the young man’s life.
The tired make-shift bed he lied in decorated the middle of the hotel room. A modest place that had been home for the last year.
Oliver was a ripe man of 20 years, and in the community viewed as “ready to settle down”. He, on the other hand, had no interest in acquiring neither a house nor a wife. His place in the Shelby Gang was far more important. Not to mention fun.
He relished a job that involved plenty of weeks on the road—sometimes at the drop of a hat—with the unstable lifestyle it brought, not to mention the women.
Reasons like these were why Oliver enjoyed the luxury of a modest hotel apartment that was regularly cleaned by the owners.
As the quickest draw in the gang—and indeed the town—he received more than his fair share of the bounty from the adventures work they did. Of course, he could make the step up to a leadership job, take care of others around him. If he had to…
And he very much did not.
The young gunslinger picked up the work-shirt thrown carelessly onto the floor the night before, then grabbed his revolver-belt and got ready.
Adjusting his belt had taken several days. He had sanded the inside of the holsters until it was slick and smooth, curved to an angle to which he could easily slip the pistol muzzles over the top and fire within a fraction of a second.
Freedom Arms.454 Casull revolvers—he had found a matching set back at a weapons dealer in Second. They had been expensive, but with some tuning and work they had turned out to be supreme weapons—given of course the limitation of only ten bullets.
The belt buckle was of an old-world motive. Shelby had once told him was the insignia of the men who ran this land before the Dark Times, before the Ghedes. Oliver himself didn’t care much for the old stories. Shelby would often preach to them about the life before. All Oliver knew was how awesome the metal bird spread its wings over the leather on both sides of his belt. Its body hidden behind a colorful shield. It looked prideful, fearless against man. Just like him.
He slid the old shirt over his head and down his thin, yet muscular body. The kind young men have, when they can drink until their bellies burst, and still wake up with the figure of Apollo.
He studied himself in the mirror hanging in the hallway—His blond hair was greasy and scruffy, his blue eyes shining through his dusty but beautiful face. No matter what he wore or what he did, the girls of the outskirts would notice him. He blamed it on his glacier blue eyes and smiled awkwardly to his own reflection.
Then he walked outside.
The 5th was the last outskirt that had been founded and constructed under the Ghede family’s vigilant watch. It bore an uncreative name, considered merely the next in a long line of towns—a dream that had never come to fruition. Built 10 years ago on the ruins of old, out of the brick foundation sprung wood housing. The shacks usually had tin roofing, or the equally popular rawhide, and the houses were never particularly big. The hotels, bars, stores, and other landmarks were a different matter. Those were built out of lumber, or located in the old buildings that had survived mostly intact.
Dusty roads ran through the town in straight, intersecting lines. The sun would rise in the west and shine on the border-houses first—all crammed together—then the old train station where the train should have arrived yesterday. Then lastly the light would hit the tents and caravans preparing for the trip east. A long and risky voyage only the East-Traders would undertake.
The 5th had a population of only 6000. To most it was nothing more than the last stop before the coast. Before the old man who lived there.
Oliver sauntered down the street that made up his adopted town, glancing back over his shoulder at the wooden sign written above his window. It read; “Swan’s Hotel” in crudely carved out letters painted red. The owner of the place was a large woman nicknamed Swan. Rumor had it she used to be a somebody in Babaco, before trouble had found her in the form of a bigger somebody. The solution had been to escape to the far south. Out of sight, out of mind.
In honest Oliver paid little attention to the circumstances people found themselves in, nor the paths that led them there. In this town most folks had fled from somewhere else. That was the life that they led; one of silent desperation.
Even what Jonny had told him about Strawberries did not really surprised him.
As much as anyone, Oliver had seen his own share of shit, and out of it all he had honed a skill. He knew something few men did, and so they paid him for it: He knew how to hit a target—how to hit it fast, and how to hit it well. That was all a man could really ask for in this world of dust and dirt: Food and a steady job. And with luck and ability he had gained both.
He reached down into his brown pouch and finished rolling himself a South-Babaco cigarette. He lit it and drew the smoke into his lungs, letting the dry taste linger on his tongue as he did so. It was not as good as the coast-brand, nothing ever was, but it was a lot better than that Le Choix crap, and it reminded him of home.
He closed his eyes and dreamed of Babaco—his hardworking parents, and the smell of the herd as the sun rose over their little farm. Then he released the smoke out into the air, watching as a man on a horse rode by pulling a cart filled with old vegetables. The town had started rationing their food, and Oliver was getting increasingly worried about the delayed train.
He drew another puff from his cigarette as he looked up at a familiar building. It was a bar bearing no name and on the outside hung only a plain sign that read: BAR.
The owner could not be bothered with fine points such as titles—or cleaning the glasses for that matter. These where minute details too small for a businessman to be concerned with. People had been getting drunk for ages and would continue doing so in the future, regardless of pesky names, signs, or hygiene.
The saloon door swung open and a round, stocky figure appeared in the doorway. He sported a thick brown beard and a well-used green cap, covering his eyes from the sun as he walked out into the street.
Folks around these parts called him Jonny Ghetto—for reasons that evaded Oliver.
He waved and yelled out,
“Get your ass in here, kiddo! We have beer!”
Oliver, in return smiled awkwardly and nodded.
The two men had been good friends, going back to Oliver’s first day in Shelby’s service. The change to hired gun had been intimidating for the young man, but Jonny had made it a lot easier by showing him the ins and outs of the job. They had trekked many miles together—Fought together, drank together, got paid together.
“Any words on the train yet?” Jonny asked. “From Mark? From Strawberries?”
“I just woke up,” Oliver admitted. “I hope they’re all right.”
“Yes, this is a most serious matter. Hopefully, our friends are all right.” He grunted, then shifted his eyes around nervously before whispering, “If Shelby lost that train, and he is NOT dead, I fear he’ll soon wish he was.”
Oliver’s first thought was of the Baron and he swiftly shut it out.
As the two friends entered the bar, the sweet scent of barley struck him instantly. The place was usually packed, but now it was almost empty. There were only two other men in the establishment; the lanky bartender—and weary owner, pretending to clean a glass as he wiped the bottom of it with a dry towel. And on the far side of the bar, in the corner; sat another man. He looked to be in the early 40s, balding, with a thick twirled mustache on his face, and sporting, as always, a set of black round shades.
The man leaned back into his chair and a much too familiar grin appeared on his face.
”Oi! Fuckin’ ‘ell’d you cunts make me wait this long for?” He shouted.
His accent unmistakable, as well as his name: Gavin Morrison. His nickname: The Englishman, for obvious reasons.
“The beer they serve ‘ere is warm enough to scorch me tongue off.”
He lazily leaned further back, so that the chair now balanced on its hind legs, then he slammed his feet upon the table.
The bartender scoffed in return, Oliver just chuckled and grabbed a seat next to him.
Jonny Ghetto had emigrated to town when it first opened to the public. He had dragged his family along in the hope of building a better future for them. As a result he did not see them very often. ‘Always busy running errands for Shelby’ as he put it.
For everything Oliver knew about Jonny, it was the opposite with Gavin: The man was a wild card, a joker. No one, but Shelby knew how to rein him in, and he often had to do so quite firmly.
Oliver had gathered—from the short time they had ridden together—that the man originated from the distant East, that he loved to sing horrible folk songs, and that he was a raving lunatic.
“I met this bird once, yeah?” Gavin flicked a bottle cap at Oliver to break him out of his spell. “She was fit; Thick lips. Black, curly hair blowing in the wind. Perfect tits. The whole works.”
Jonny glanced over to Oliver and rolled his eyes.
“So she worked at the local stable, yeah? Tending to the ‘orses an’ what ‘ave you. Then, one day, a lot wetter an’ darker than this day. ‘er father, who ran the stables, told ‘er she ‘ad to go all the way to the field to fetch the ‘orses, seeing as the rain and thunder was gettin’ worse, yeah? So this young bird. Did I mention she had black curly ‘air?”
Jonny sighed. ”Does this have anything at all with the situation we find ourselves in?”
A finger and a shhss emitted from Gavin in reply.
“Right, so this young lady legs it to the field to save these bloody ‘orses. ‘owever, on the way she passes a titchy scorpion. It was fighting for its life, grabbing at a leaf, floating in a large pond. So this buggered thing calls out for ‘elp.”
Jonny slammed the beer down on the table. “Talking scorpions? Save these damn fairytales for the youngsters.”
Gavin shot them both a look and the light in the room seemed to dim, the bartender further away than ever.
“I’ve seen quite a lot of shite in my lifetime” Gavin said. “Dead wankers who walk the earth, dark beings that prey on mortal men. Even the fuckin’ goat-geezers. I don’t think a talkin’ scorpion is too much to ask, yeah?”
Jonny knew the Englishman better than Oliver, and he did not seem too impressed with his skill of tongue, however, he nodded, and let the man have the floor.
“No!’ The lady cried out. ‘You’re a scorpion, an’ you’ll stab me with your fuckin’ tail…’ The lady knew she had to rescue the ‘orses; running around outside as the storm raged. ‘owever, this scorpion continued to beg; ‘please! I beg you.’ It cried out, ‘You ‘ave me word that I ain’t stabbin’ ye!’ The black-’aired lady ‘esitated at first. A Scorpion is a dangerous thing, innit? But love for all life won out in the end, an’ the brave lady walked out into the water an’ picked it up.”
The men sat in silence.
Gavin used the dramatic pause to pour himself another glass of beer.
“So what happened?” Oliver asked. “Did she save the scorpion?”
“She got stabbed by the bloody thing is what.”
The room was dead quiet.
“The young lady tumbled into the water, an’ the scorpion with her, an’ she spent her last dying seconds asking it; ‘Why? Now we are both going to die.’
‘Because I’m a bloody scorpion is why!’ Gavin put the glass down.
“The. fucking. end.”
“Wow..“ Jonny replied. “I must say… That’s a shitty story.”
Oliver burst out laughing, “Who taught you storytelling? That was awful.”
“You Yanks wouldn’t know good storytelling if it bit you up the arse.”
Oliver was well used to Gavin uttering names that neither of the guys knew. Shelby regularly did the same thing. He reckoned it was part of why the captain liked him so much.
“So, we’re the girl in this story? Is that what you’re trying to say?” Jonny replied, his patience growing thin. ‘Just say what you mean’ was his motto. Not the worst ideology Oliver had heard.
“I would imagine we are the ‘orses” Gavin replied, “an’ storm, lightnin’, an’ the ‘ole rottin’ Greek tragedy is headed our way.”
”You’re referring to the Baron.” Jonny’s voice was at a near whisper.
“Bloody right I am!” Gavin shouted. “We don’t go looking for that train, an’ the you-know-who will be searchin’ for us.”
Oliver knew exactly what he was talking about. Shelby would never steal the train, it would be too far a ride with the cargo. However, if he had lost it, the Baron could be looking at the rest of the crew for an explanation.
“Could it be bandits, the East-Traders, or maybe the Tunnel men themselves?” Oliver knew he was reaching for straws, The Tunnelers stood for a lot of trading with the 5th, perhaps they wanted more for their troubles, maybe this was the start of a war with the Ghedes.
“No,” Gavin peeked over his shoulder as two figures entered the bar. “It’s somethin’ else…. And it’s ‘eaded our way.”
The characters observed them from the far side of the room. Gavin, being the least gracious of the group, turned around to face them. The first one was a woman. She looked well-trained. Wearing pilot glasses to hide her thoughts from the outside world. Oliver could still make out a stern face with black hair curling down on both sides.
The other one was a tall, muscular man in full combat attire—black boots, black army fatigue, even a black kevlar vest. He had a rugged face with black stubbles to match. He must have been born with a cigar in his mouth and a gun in his hand.
”Listen up, maggots!” The buff man yelled. “The Top-hat man wanna have a couple of words with you!”
Oliver had traveled a lot in the southern parts of the Line and was accustomed to the different names the deities would have: ‘The Top-Hat Man’ in The 5th, ‘The Baron’ in Babaco, ‘Mr. Petrol’ at Second, and of course: ‘Baron Kriminel’ in most of Le Choix.
”Sod off, you bellend.” Gavin grunted and flipped him the finger. An unwise move and fitting to his character.
The buff man showed no emotions in return. His face chiseled from stone. The woman next to him, however, pulled out a rifle.
In a gunfight Oliver would have had his gun out by this point. Cocked, with the crosshair aimed at her head before she could take another breath. However, she took her time. Her face calm, her glasses reflecting only the sorry state of the three men back at them. She slowly cocked her rifle and aimed it at Oliver and Jonny. Panning the muzzle rhythmically between the two.
Oliver could still take her out. If he reached for his gun while she was aiming at Jonny he would have a clear shot. The dilemma was that everyone worked for the same boss.
The buff man walked up to the table and placed his hand firmly on the back of Gavin’s head. He smiled, before ramming his head straight into the table.
Jonny leaped out of his chair with a horrified look on his face. A weak moan resonated throughout the saloon.
“Aaaah!... Bloody ‘ell, whatchu gonn’ an’ do that for?” Gavin braced his hands against his nose. The shades on his face holding on for dear life.
“Shut up!” The buff man then shifted his attention to the other two men. “you jokers wanna give me some lip too?”
Oliver and Jonny stood there, eyes wide open, much to his satisfaction. He grabbed the still moaning Gavin by his shirt collar and yanked him out of the chair
“Top-hat man, now!”
The march over to the Baron’s headquarters was a bit of a blur for Oliver. His head filled with the outcomes of several scenarios, most of them ending in death. Jonny was blabbering on about how they had nothing to do with the train missing, until the buff man had first told him to: ‘Tell it to someone who gives a shit.’ and then threatened to shoot him in the foot if he did not shut up.
The Baron’s Headquarters was situated in the middle of the town; all in accordance with the rules of the Pact. It stood there, menacingly in front of them. A red, 3 story building made out of brick. One of the few structures that had survived intact, and as a result the highest building in all of The 5th. Every hole and damage was covered with fabric and wood, with extensive repair to the facade. The windows were draped, and blocked the outside viewing in. On the front it read in big official letters: ‘The House of the representative of the Pact’.
”When we get in, let me do the talking.” Jonny whispered. “I might just be able to get us out of this one.”
Comforting words that calmed him somewhat. Jonny had a knack of talking himself out of situations. He had a kindness most found hard to ignore.
Oliver had never been inside the House of the Baron and doubted if even Shelby himself had been allowed there. Perhaps when he was first hired.
The stairs leading to the top were the longest he had ever climbed. He spent the time wading in doubt.
Inevitably, they reached the 3rd floor and the buff man led them into the main office. It was a dark and claustrophobic room. All the windows were covered, the only light were from the candles placed haphazardly around, and a few rays finding their way through the cracks in the window.
The interior was built to accommodate one another. The chairs had curvy decorating lines carved into them, with a big desk in the corner appearing to be the cherry on top. A solid chunk of mass, radiating a sense of authority.
As Oliver sat down, he cast a glance at Gavin next to him. He seemed fine, with his shades firmly on his face. He gave Oliver a gentle smile in return and nodded.
As he was about to say something, the door burst open and in pranced a dark figure. It was dressed in a dusty and dirty suit, underneath it danced a bare, slender body. Its face was covered in white paint, outlining a skull, covering all but the eyes, nose, and cheeks. On top its head sat a tall hat that had seen better days. Oliver wondered if he had once been a mortal man. Long ago.
He squinted back at Oliver and smirked, before giving out a big hardy laugh: A powerful bass sound rumbled through the room.
“Welcome to my humble tower! I hope my men were polite to you.”
His voice was heavy, his accent thick. Oliver could not place it. It seemed as exotic as Gavin’s but a world apart. He felt the urge to speak, but the Baron locked his black pinhole eyes upon him.
Jonny saw this and immediately jumped in.
“Look, Mr. Kriminel, sir. There’s been some kind of misunderstanding. We’re only hired-work for Mr. Shelby. We don’t know what…”
The Baron snapped his fingers and gave the buff man a little nod.
“Alan, get Miss. Ritter, and hang dis man by him neck in de town-square.”
He then grinned back at Oliver with a calm and cold expression on his face.
Jonny was in a mix of panic and denial as their captors, Alan and Miss. Ritter dragged him by his shoulders out of the office.
Thus, only three remained in the room.
Oliver thought about where his guns were being kept. If he could take down a mighty Ghede with only his wit and some hard bullets. He thought about Jonny, and felt the urge to say something. Something profound. That this was a waste of time, resources... that this was madness.
Gavin must have noticed this, because he gave him the universal ‘shut up’ signal.
”Where was I, now?” The Baron smiled. “I run a small business; Dis town. For it to work I need dat train.”
Oliver shrugged, unsure of what to say, or rather what he dared to say.
“And I can’t let people see dem men responsible for de coming hunger, drinking and laughing in a bar, can I?” He paused momentarily only to acknowledge Miss. Ritter entering back into the room. They exchanged a quick glance, and Ritter nodded.
“Dis train, I would like it back. I have mouths to feed.”
Oliver swallowed, as he attempted to answer for the crime of the century, one in which he knew nothing of.
“I.. I’m terribly sorry, sir. I have no idea what could have happened. Bu.. but, we have nothing to do with it. I.. I swear.”
The Baron smiled, amused.
”You swear ‘pon what?”
“Always be begging, and praying. Never dem know to whom.” His white teeth shone brightly as he grinned, reminding more of an angry dog that once bit Oliver as a young child.
Things were going from bad to desperate now.
“But, I would like to volunteer to any rescue mission, Sir! Honestly…”
”Good!” He slapped Oliver on the back. “But maybe we find better use for you... Maybe we hang you up next to your friend.” He held up his hands mimicking a sign. “Telling de rest of de worl’ what happen when you fuck me.”
Oliver’s world started to spin, he felt dizzy. Thoughts jumbled together. All he could think about was getting out of the chair, out of the room.
Gavin’s voice cut the tension in the air like a knife. Ritter, in response seemed less than impressed.
“Ever been with a proper bloke? Betcha a tenner my cock’s bigger than Nightmare the Clown over here.” He grinned. The round shades on his face creating the illusion of a skull, an uncanny mirror to the Baron himself.
Ritter’s face—a statue of stone—was unchanged, save an eyebrow of which she raised in disgust.
“Ritter?” the Baron spoke calmly.
The cold-blooded woman drew her gun. Gavin’s grin quickly turned sour and Oliver closed his eyes as a loud bang rang out, the ringing in his ears could not hide the sound of a sack of meat awkwardly sliding out of the chair and hitting the ground.
All of Oliver’s fears had now materialized. He carefully opened his eyes in the opposite direction of the body. Jonny was undoubtedly getting strung up as they speak, and now Gavin lay dead on the floor.
A queasy feeling overcame him. His stomach tightened and his head started spinning. Never had he crossed anyone, not really, perhaps a few girls. Never borrowed something from the wrong man, nor let his mouth run loose in front of the wrong crowd. And now, here he was, ready to be executed for something he knew nothing about. Just for the technicality of it.
“Now where was I?” the Baron scratched the top of his forehead with the smoking revolver he had taken from Ritter. The top-hat tilted further down its crooked angle.
“You see, I need one of you, de good shepherd Shelby might be coming back.”
He casually jumped up on top of the desk, produced a cigar from the drawer, and snickered.
“And since your friends seem a bit dead..”
Oliver wondered how old he was. How many men he had heard pleading for their lives. He decided to shut up, to let this beast finish his little plan, then pray for the best. The fastest gun in town is not a match against a god.
The Baron lit his cigar, and Oliver in return coughed at the bitter smell of smoke filling the enclosed, dim room.
”You know, I told him once.”
“Shelby.” He replied. “I told him could get whatever him wanted in dis place, him be a clever man.”
Oliver nodded and stared down at the floor. The room smelled of vomit. Vomit, cigar smoke, and fear.
“Den him tricks me. Me, de Loa of violence and death. Who would dare to trick me?”
Ritter took her seat in the corner of the room, just behind Oliver.
“So you want de job, boy? Working for me to find de train and murder ol’ Shelby?”
Was he given a way out of this room? A second chance at life? He was about to answer when he heard a pathetic cough coming from the meat sack that used to be Gavin. It slowly moved and gave out a moan.
“Bugger me, that stings.”
Baron Kriminel laughed out in delight, “Haha! welcome back, Mr. Morrison!” He leaped from his desk and started prancing around. “It took you long enough.”
Gavin turned his head. It was clean of blood; the shades were in perfect condition and had been tossed to the side. That’s when Oliver realized he had never actually seen Gavin Morrison’s eyes before. They were, horrifyingly a haze of frosted white. An ocean of milk. His hair stood up on his back.
“I knew you be a ghost, Mr. Morrison. I can smell your rotten kind a mile away. If I couldn’t, den what be de point of De Pact?” Baron was a kid frying an ant under a magnifying glass.
Oliver knew that Shelby had been tight with Gavin. Or rather, that he kept to himself. Why out of all the places in the world was he was hiding here? In this town? Everyone knew that the Flatliners fought for the Banner..
A loud gunfire rang out and Oliver fell out of his chair from the sheer shock wave. He hit the ground and rolled behind the toppled furniture, his ears ringing.
The fear of death had tensed every muscle in his body. He gathered up the nerves and raised his head above his newly found fortress.
There he saw that Gavin had been shot again. This time by the Baron, and this time in the head. The smoke slowly curled around the revolver.
“But ghosts are in de flames, Mr. Morrison.” He licked the tip of his revolver. “Or belong to dem.”
Again, the body slowly began to move,
Oliver was unsure if the next sound coming from the body was laughter or wheezing.
“What be your secret, dead boy?” The Baron leaped through the air and landed in front of him, squatting down and lightly tapping the revolver on Gavin’s forehead.
“They let me out,” Gavin replied.
“Fuckery!” He pulled back the trigger on the revolver. “I can hurt you all day, dead boy.”
Oliver felt the cold tip of a muzzle resting on his ear. Ritter had moved from the corner and was now right behind him, pointing her rifle at him.
“Don’t you get any bright ideas now, Cowboy.”
He slowly raised his hands in submission.
“None escape from Hell, Mr. Morrison.” The Baron declared. “I should know. Dere be something big at work with you. A bargain made?”
Gavin lowered his gaze to the floor. His clothed were in perfect order. The hole in his face had vanished.
“Hell doesn’t make bargains.” He replied. “At least not with the sorts of us.”
Ritter, in response, shifted her aim towards Gavin as he stumbled back on his feet. The look on her face reflected an uncertainty at the whole situation.
The Baron on the other hand, was still locked in with the same joyful and fearless curiosity.
Oliver shivered. There were no escape plans. Jonny was dead, Gavin was a cursed Flatliner, and the Baron Kriminel was wrapping up the meeting.
“Well dis was fun. One of you will go get my train.” He opened the chamber and silently counted the bullets left in the revolver. “And you, Gavin Morrison, be a person of a rare skill.” Then he pointed it at the young gunslinger.
Oliver hoped he would see his parents again. Hand-in-hand on their farm as he helped bring the herd in. But he also knew that the action of closing his eyes would not cause the outside world to halt to a stop. The cylinder of the revolver would slowly rotate, the hammer would strike down, and the powder ignite.