Jarek Slater, and the Ballad of the Broken Glass Kids
A Harvesters Series short by Luke R. Mitchell
PART I - JAREK AND THE BROKEN GLASS KIDS
Jarek Slater took one last wistful glance down the bleak, sunbaked alleyway and sighed. It still looked too much like an escape route. He took one last pull from the dark bottle on hand and welcomed the fire that tickled its way down his throat, leaving traces of oak wood, cherries, and Pryce’s own handmade love dancing across his tongue in the aftermath.
“One last pull, sir?” came Al’s smooth English robot judgment in his earpiece.
Jarek scowled, then relented when he remembered his disembodied AI companion could no longer see such affectations. Not without Jarek deliberately raising his comm camera to face level first, at least. It hadn’t been easy for either of them, acclimating to Al’s new handicaps since they’d lost Fela.
“Personally, I blame the alcohol, buddy,” he said, frowning instead at the bottle in his hand. Almost empty. Maybe Al had just a smidgen of a point. It had been his seventh or eighth one last pull in the past two minutes.
“Not to mention our current surroundings,” he muttered, looking back at the old Victorian house that’d once been a lowdown inn for those in dire need, and a home for Jarek, too, albeit for a too-brief moment in history.
Someone had been taking care of it.
“Did I mention this is the worst idea you’ve ever had?”
“You did, sir. Multiple times.”
“Right.” Jarek frowned at the bottle, then downed the defiant last drops like the ruthless conqueror, Alexander the Drunk. “And where did we land on that one?”
“I believe right at the part where this was in fact your idea, sir.”
“You can’t prove that.”
“To you? Never.”
Jarek grinned, wiping his mouth, and appreciating the warm buzz that tingled through his brain as he did. “They can take my suit, but they’ll never take my sassy robot.”
“Stirring, sir. Perhaps we can have matching T-shirts made, after we’ve seen to business here.”
That alone was enough to bring the sober sauce oozing down on his head like a murky cloud of regrets and poor decisions, new and old. This was where it had all started—where Conner and his Iron Eagles had gotten their hooks into Jarek, and tugged him along on his first inevitable steps to the Soldier of Charity. This was where Rose had done the same, in her own far gentler way.
What in Palpatine’s spirit had possessed him to actually come back here, Jarek could hardly say—other than that there’d been another bottle involved, and that Al had seemed to be making a whole hell of a lot of sense at the time.
What if we didn’t find Fela, sir? his friend had asked a few nights earlier, when they’d been watching The Dark Knight Rises aboard the ship, and Jarek had bared his emotional throat—or his drunken one, at least—just an inch too far. What if we hung the cowl up while you’re still alive? What if you found something else out there?
Keep dreaming, Mr. Robot, he’d told Al. You’re stuck with me for life. Us against the world, buddy. No girls OR garden hoes allowed. No happy endings. I’m gonna die in the black armpit of this world, and you’re gonna like it.
He’d really only been ribbing Al, he’d told himself. Testing the AI’s waters for a rare rise, and all that. Except now, a few days, a few drinks, and one persistent Mr. Robot later, having somehow come—seemingly by magic—to be sitting outside his first and only teenage love’s home, Jarek couldn’t help but wonder if maybe he’d also been subconsciously ribbing himself right into this ill-planned madness.
Who knew how that twisted noggin noodle of his even worked anymore, after all the shit it’d seen? Christ, after all the shit it had done, with its own two meaty Jarek Hands.
Frankly, the thing was borderline out of control.
Case and point, Jarek Slater—fully dysfunctional and borderline alcoholic slayer of Grade-A Certified Assholes, of whom there’d been more than he could count, by the by—sitting here on an abandoned back alley stoop across from his ex-girlfriend’s house like he actually thought maybe there was some version of reality in which this didn’t all end in an epic, fiery, slow motion car crash.
“What the shit, man?” he muttered to himself, setting the bottle down on the ledge, and preparing to hop down.
This was bullshit. Rose was dead for all he knew, and even if she wasn’t, what the hell had he been thinking, coming here?
It was high time he got the hell out of here and back to the real world. Back to Fela. Back to control.
“Nice try, Noodles,” he muttered to his sneaky little subconscious, looking back to the old house one last time. He started to hop down from his perch.
Then he saw her, and the very world shifted beneath his feet.
It wasn’t really the magic moment Jarek suspected Al and his own subconscious noggin noodle had been hoping for. Then again, that might’ve had more to do with his drunken surprise than with the moment itself.
Jarek Slater was no stranger to being blitzed—not in any sense of the word. He did some of his best work that way. So really, if it was anyone’s fault that he suddenly found the world spinning out of control, he could probably lay the blame on the pile of empty bottles and other broken things that’d drawn his kindred soul to this particular alleyway perch in the first place. Or on Al.
Whatever the case, all he caught of Rose was a fleeting glimpse through parting blue window curtains before he was consumed by a jarring crash, a brief but holy hell of a racket, and a nice string of concussive impacts that left him lying on the pavement with a single aching buttock and the hard line of his sword sheath pressed insistently into his back.
“Son of a…”
“Cat got your dignity, sir?” Al chimed in his earpiece.
“… Horse’s rectum,” Jarek finished for posterity, wincing as he righted himself and looked around at his new intimate neighbors, Mr. Garbage Pile and the Broken Glass Kids. “This seems about right.”
“Perhaps you could use another drink,” Al suggested.
“Oh, bite me,” Jarek groaned, easing clear from the pile of sharp-edged bottle children and rising to his feet. “I was startled. When have you ever seen me bite it just because of the booze?”
“Would you prefer I list the incidences chronologically, sir, or by location?”
Jarek just scowled at his wise-ass companion and focused on brushing himself off, wondering if he should bolt for the ship or go knock, wondering if she’d seen him, recognized him. He frowned at his hands, noticing a few small lacerations from the glass.
Christ, maybe he was drunker than he’d thoug—
“Oh my god.”
Jarek froze at that voice, like a ripcord yanking his brain backward nine years, back to the wondrous sight of Rose nestled up in his arms, both of them so young, so afraid, so hopelessly desperate to believe they could save one another from this terrible world. He saw the Eagles. Saw the bodies. Saw Conner’s sneering face, and his cold, dead eyes.
Jarek blinked to clear his head, and looked up at the face he’d once sworn he’d never forget. She didn’t look like he remembered. Still the same flowing copper hair, still the same gentle grace and angelic beauty, but also different in a way he couldn’t describe. Different like it simply wasn’t the same person living behind those pale green eyes. It probably wasn’t. Maker knew it wasn’t the same man she’d known, facing her now.
Maybe that was why she was staring at him like she’d seen a ghost.
“What are you—”
“Doing here?” he asked, finally finding his tongue. “Ah, you know”—he shrugged—“just happened to be flying by, taking in the old sights, thinking about Frank’s pancakes and the good ol’ times. Definitely not stalking you.”
It was her turn to blink. She did it like she half-expected he might simply evanesce into thin air, her gaze shifting from his face to the sword strapped across his back, to the pistols holstered at his thighs, and lastly to his hands.
“You… You’re bleeding,” she finally said.
He frowned down at his hands like he was consulting a map, and realized he was indeed bleeding more than he’d thought. “Hmm. Hazards of perching in dark alleys.” He squinted up at the sun. “Bright alleys. Whatever. Look, uh…”
He searched for a tactful—or possibly tactical—way of saying, This was definitely a huge mistake, so why don’t you go have yourself a nice life and maybe I’ll see you for the big five-oh midlife crisis in the highly-unlikely event either of us is still alive by then? Somehow, though, he couldn’t seem to find the words. Possibly, he highly suspected, as he looked at her and she looked at him, because some part of him suddenly didn’t want to.
“It’s really you,” she said softly.
He raised a bloody hand, trying to smile. “Guilty.”
“I… don’t believe it.” Her brow furrowed. She looked caught somewhere between asking him to come in or telling him to get the hell out of here and never come back. Which is to say, in that moment, he had absolutely no idea what was actually going through her head.
It was an unfamiliar feeling, for a man who usually took pride in his uncanny ability to read the deep, dark intricacies of the human spirit and psyche. But maybe those abilities didn’t extend so well to decent, well-adjusted human beings. Maybe he’d been living too long among the savages of the post-Catastrophe world. Maker knew there were enough of them.
“Rose?” called a voice from inside the house. Frank? Jarek couldn’t tell. “Is everything okay out here?”
The man who appeared in the doorway was not Frank.
Clean cut. Dignified bearing. Strong jaw that had probably never taken a proper punch. His dark brown eyes scanned Jarek, alert and weary, lingering on the sword hilt for a pause before moving onto his bloody hands. Some kind of understanding set it. “You need help?”
Not Rose’s dad. And probably not her plumber, either, judging by the apprehension that’d appeared on Rose’s face, and the territorial tension wafting off of the guy like bad aftershave—which the guy probably totally used, by the way.
“What, these?” Jarek replied, holding his bloodied hands up in question. “Just a minor misunderstanding with some edgy youths. I was just, uh…”
Just going. Say it, dammit.
He was half-certain Rose was thinking the exact same thing. Then again, when their eyes met, he was also half-certain she wasn’t. Jarek’s mind was adrift with muddled thoughts of ambiguous ocular tractor beams when Prince Aftershave’s voice cut in.
“Sorry, do you two know each other?”
“He stayed here once,” Rose said, “back when my dad was… running things.”
Definitely not her plumber. Defensive lie of omission. Jarek was more focused for a moment on the other undertone, though. Grief for the fallen. Frank had passed. Too damn bad. The man had been one of the good ones. But passing was just the thing to do these days.
“Right,” said Prince Aftershave. “Well, if you want to come in, I can get those hands cleaned up for you, at least.” He glanced at Rose as he said it, maybe just asking if hospitality was a good idea, but likely as not gauging her for some kind of guilty tell. “I’m Rory, by the way,” he added, focusing back on Jarek.
“Ooo…” Jarek shuddered. “That name would’ve put me in a cold sweat when I was a kid…”
That earned him a blank look.
“I had trouble with my R’s,” he explained.
Al cleared his “throat” in Jarek’s earpiece.
“That is to say, hello, Rory. Name’s Jarek. I’d shake your hand, but…”
He faltered, bloodied hand halfway raised in evidence, fixated on the clear recognition—and equally clear discontentedness—scrawling across Rory’s brow.
“Jarek,” Rory repeated, glancing at Rose with something like accusation in his eyes. Quickly as it came, though, he regained his composure, drawing up a little straighter for good measure. “Great. Well, let’s see about those hands, Jarek.”
And with that, Rory dipped back into the house in what Jarek took to be a clear and concise broadcast of, Follow if you will, Fuckface.
Rose watched the man that was most assuredly not her plumber vanish into her house—their house—before turning back to Jarek like she still didn’t quite believe he was here.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly.
He wasn’t entirely sure why he said it. Not that there weren’t several thousand decent enough reasons floating through the stale, nine-year-old air between them. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d said those two words so sincerely.
Maybe that’s why the hint of old softness touched her eyes then. Or maybe not.
“You’d better come in,” was all she said.
Jarek glanced down at his bloodied hands and back up to her slowly retreating form, eyes tracing where they knew they shouldn’t, delusional brain noting for the first time that her dark trousers and maroon tunic were practically matching the pants and shirt he was wearing—his favorites. Like it was all freaking meant to be.
That thought, above all, cued him in to the fact that he’d finally gone and lost his mind. His feet, though, didn’t seem to care.
“Worst idea you’ve ever had,” Jarek murmured to them under his breath, as those eager little feet stepped forward to follow.
Maybe it was just the half-bottle of Pryce’s finest doing the talking, but Jarek wasn’t quite ready for the gut punch combo of random nostalgias and radically unresolved teenage traumas that leapt out at him as he stepped through the rear pantry entrance after Rose, through the kitchen, and into the main floor of the old home and low-down inn. Not that it looked like much of an inn anymore. If anything, it looked more like a homemade medical clinic—complete with a gurney, what looked like an operating table, and a few simple beds for recovering patients.
“I need to grab a few things downstairs,” Rory said, shooting Jarek a cursory frown before turning his attention back to Rose, “if you want to get our patient situated.”
He disappeared through the basement doorway and plunked off down the creaky steps before either of them could reply.
“What happened to Frank?” Jarek asked quietly once he’d gone, looking around the room, eyes lingering on the bar where Conner had once recruited him to the Iron Eagles while Frank had served them all pancakes.
Rose shook her head, not meeting his eyes. “He got sick, about a year after you…”
She looked up at him, cocking her eyebrows as if to say, Your word, not mine, but now that you mention it…
“Sit,” she added, tilting her head toward a chair over in the corner, near the putative operating station.
Jarek didn’t move, lost in a memory, and in the sight of her now, in this place. He’d forgotten that he’d even forgotten, the way her brow scrunched up like that when she was peeved with him—every little facial tic that seemed so bizarrely familiar on this virtual stranger’s face.
“Look,” he said. “About before. Back then. I didn’t… It wasn’t really by choice that I…”
“Stop.” Her eyes had hardened. “We were kids, it was a lifetime ago, and I don’t care. I don’t know what you came here for—”
“Kinda makes two of us.”
“—But I have a life here. A good life. A loving partner, and…” She glanced at the open basement door, as if remembering they might be overheard. When she turned back to Jarek, she looked tired in a way he didn’t understand. Tired like she hadn’t slept in years. “Where’s Al, Jarek?”
The abrupt swerve in topic caught Jarek off guard enough that he might’ve been nearly as startled as Rose when Al spoke up quietly from his comm.
“Present, ma’am. And might I say it’s lovely to see you again, so to speak.”
Rose stared down in surprise at the speaking comm on Jarek’s wrist, then back up to his eyes. “Did something happen to Fela? Why’s Al stuck in a comm?”
“Long story.” He frowned. “Several long stories. And he’s not really in the comm, so much as…”
He trailed off at the creak of approaching footsteps on the stairs, wary by default when it came to alerting outsiders to the rather mind-blowing fact of Al’s existence. Jarek’s artificial construct of a buddy was one of a kind, after all. Just like Fela.
“Who’s not stuck in a comm?” Rory reappeared in the doorway so quickly one might’ve thought he’d had minor reservations about leaving the two of them alone in a room. He looked at Jarek. “Is that your AI friend?” Looked to Rose. “Alfred, was it?”
Jarek turned to Rose, feeling equal parts surprised and betrayed that she would’ve told anyone about Al. Feeling it right up until his Big Boy Brain reminded him that his very existence had probably graduated to ghost story status in her mind years ago, and that this childish feeling of betrayal was probably exactly what Rory was driving for.
Al didn’t answer Rory’s call, waiting to see how Jarek wanted to play it. Rory didn’t seem to care all that much. His point was made. He was watching Jarek with a kind of quiet challenge, though challenge was probably too strong a word for it. More of a subtle, Look, Fuckface, I know her better than you. Na-na-na-na-na, and shit, coupled nicely with the superior air of a presiding savior, bearing his tray aloft, loaded with decidedly homemade-looking medical supplies—rags and sutures and other joys.
“I hope you don’t mind a bit of pain, Jarek,” he said, watching Jarek eye his wares.
Coming from Dr. Straightnose McShinyjaw, the statement nearly startled a yip of delighted laughter from Jarek’s Disillusioned Happy Place.
“Lucky for us, I had a drink before I came in,” he said, noting that the glass bottle on Rory’s tray was clearly marked, “Ethanol,” and kind of half-tempted to inquire what a man had to do around these parts to procure another.
At least until Rose murmured, “I smelled.”
“You know what?” Jarek said. “I think I just remembered I left the oven on back, uh, somewhere. Whatever. I’m gonna go and let you two get back to—”
“Please,” Rory said. “Sit.” He looked between the two of them. “I’m not entirely sure what’s going on here, but please, let me help you.” It wasn’t quite clear if those words felt righteous on his tongue, or tasted like a donkey’s ass. “It’s what I do.”
It was both, Jarek thought, looking down at his hands, and realizing he’d dripped a few drops of Jarek Juice on the floor. Definitely both.
“Go on, sir,” Al said in his earpiece. “I’d rather not listen to you bicker about infected lacerations for the next two weeks.”
Jarek heaved a sigh, and went to sit down.
The burn of ethanol on exposed lacerations was hardly the most painful thing about the following fifteen minutes. That distinguished honor undoubtedly went to the awkward silences. And to the awkward conversations. And to pretty much everything to do with the general fact that he, Jarek Slater, had somehow wound up on his old flame’s boyfriend’s—or husband’s, or whatever’s—operating chair, receiving the morally superior but undeniably professional care of a man who clearly thought he was some kind of worthless drunk.
And shit, maybe he was.
What had he been doing since Boston, nine years ago, they wanted to know? Just fighting—and on a few rare and hauntingly emotionless occasions, fucking—his way across these United States, trying to make things right in the world, never coming anywhere close. Just playing house with Al, sometimes holed up in their ship for days or weeks at a time, living on nothing but beans and booze and marathon movie sessions that had all felt pretty damn satisfying right up until Dr. Holier-Than-Thou had come to work on Jarek’s wittle boo-boos, with his questions and his copper-haired goddess, Rose the Willing-and-Admiring Assistant.
Jarek didn’t tell them any of this, of course. Didn’t answer Rory’s prodding questions with much more than ambiguous vagaries. He’d been around, you know? Fighting the good fight. Yada, yada, and all that.
When the questions persisted, Jarek turned them back on the source, asking Rory and Rose about their burgeoning little clinic here—how many patients they typically took in, and how in the hell they thought it wasn’t eventually going to land them in the servitude, willing or otherwise, of whatever teeming armpit of humanity had laid gangland claim to this region of suburban Oak Square ruins.
“This place isn’t as bad as it used to be,” Rory said, clipping off the last of the four stitches he’d decreed were required by Jarek’s right palm. “Civilization’s returning faster than some people like to think.” He leaned back from his work to fix Jarek with a serious look. “And I know what I’m doing.”
Jarek wondered if he should tell him how many poor bastards he’d heard say those words over the years, shortly before their do-gooding had gotten them killed.
“I’m going to check on Phoebe,” Rose said quietly—maybe because her assistant duties were coming to an end, or maybe because the rising levels of testosterone smog hadn’t left enough room for her to breathe. She stood and moved for the stairs before either of them could argue about being left alone with one another, and well before Jarek could manage to open his mouth and ask who the hell Phoebe was.
Then again, that last bit might’ve been more thanks to his own reticence to hear the answer, and to the growing, wobbly amoeba that’d suddenly appeared in his stomach with a rather overwhelming theory of its own.
Rose had a life here, after all.
Mightn’t she also have a Phoebe?
Before that thought could properly take hold, a sharp intake of breath drew Jarek’s attention to the adjoining parlor, where Rose had frozen, staring out the front windows, tensed in a way that instantly flipped the switch on his combat instincts.
The sting of alcohol and unanesthetized stitches fell away right along with the better part of the buzz in his brain—insignificant input evaporating like fog from the windshield, clearing the way for the low rumble of the twin diesel engines pulling up out front.
“Rose?” Rory’s hands paused at the gauze wrap, noticing her distress if nothing else.
The engines sputtered to silence out front, accentuating the clunks and clacks of opening car doors.
“Shit,” Rose whispered.
Jarek eyed his sword where he’d set it down in the corner.
“It’s fine,” Rory said, leaning over on his stool to glance out the window behind Jarek. He nodded to himself, confirming his own assessment at whatever he saw. “I’m almost done here anyway. We can take another.”
But that wasn’t the issue. Jarek could see it plainly on Rose’s face. Whoever was out there, she didn’t think it was a good idea to mix them with a wild Jarek. Why, exactly, he didn’t know.
Judging by the sound of approaching voices and boots on the front porch, though, he was about to find out.
PART II - AN ARMADA OF ASSHATS
The men were regulars here at Rory’s humble clinic. That much, Jarek could tell just by the way they walked in. It wasn’t that they acted like the owned the place—wasn’t just that, at least. It was more that they moved as if they were already plenty familiar with the lay of the land, and of the soft, copper-haired treasures therein.
“Careful,” Rory said, frowning down at Jarek’s tensing fists as he set the gauze roll back on the tray. “You’ll tear your sutures.”
That was hardly the most pressing of Jarek’s concerns, but Rory was already standing to go greet his repeat customers, his smile friendly, his words easy.
Maybe Dr. Oblivious was right, and Jarek was misreading the situation. Maybe the looming depravity he smelled on these men and the quiet terror in Rose’s subtly hunched shoulders were just figments of his violence-warped imagination. But he doubted it. Because he could see what he had a feeling Rory could not.
These men were killers.
Not the worst he’d seen. Not by a longshot. These ones could at least still pass themselves off as normals to anyone who hadn’t taken one too many bloodbaths. But Jarek had. He couldn’t not see the predatory prowess in the way they strolled in, subtly checking corners, keeping hands close to weapons, naturally falling into formation so as to cover one another’s blind spots as they all surveyed the domestic—and fleshly—trophies they might like to claim, if and when the time was right. Like they’d raided similar homes a hundred times before.
That, or Jarek was just totally full of shit.
It was hard not to wonder sometimes. Jarek was hardly the kind of guy to rattle the spirit gems and spout claims of dark auras and bad jujus. But he had known enough killers by now—known them as friends and foes and everything in between—to trust that his subconscious mind was sufficiently equipped to recognize patterns and pass the message up the ladder when he saw a fellow homicide jockey. Or six.
“Got hit by bandits out on 95 coming back from a supply run,” one of them was saying out in the parlor. “Bastards came outta nowhere.”
A likely story, whispered Back-of-the-Brain Jarek.
“We’ve never heard that one before,” Al said, almost as if in agreement to the unspoken thought.
It was exactly the kind of warped tales—AKA outright lies—Conner had fed them in this very room back when he’d been recruiting Jarek to his star-spangled Iron Eagles.
Heaping bullshit or not, though, Jarek kept his mouth shut as a few of them filed into the larger makeshift operating room. Not that the silence helped.
Maybe it was his own damn fault—some underlying field of sarcasm and generally insulting airs he unwittingly broadcast into the universe. Or maybe it was simply the nature of the predator’s instinct. Damned if he knew. Whatever the dysfunction, more often than not, if he could smell the violence on a pack of hard men, they had a funny way of taking a sudden interest in him. Like they could feel his goddamn murder radar pinging off their dirty hulls, and it set them on edge.
“Who’s this guy?” asked the one who’d been speaking for the group in the parlor—a slightly shorter model off the Assholes with Hats assembly line—while one of his taller, beefier compatriots clomped over and picked up Jarek’s sword in the corner, turning it over under his beady-eyed scrutiny.
“Just a lucky drunk,” Jarek said, leaning into the slur on some subconscious instinct, and taking control of the narrative before Rory could open his mouth and imply otherwise. “Did’joo know this guy’s a doc?” He held up his neatly bandaged hands in open wonder. “Din’n know they even made gauze anymore.” A snort, and a meaty burp. “Or docs, either! Get a load’a all that!”
“Maybe dial it back a notch, sir,” came the voice of reason in his earpiece.
Al probably had a point. Rory was already looking at Jarek like he thought he might’ve had a psychotic break. Luckily, though—or unluckily, depending on how one looked at it—with the exception of the two who were still ogling Rose, the goon squad was too focused on Jarek now to notice anything was off from Rory’s expected baseline.
Jarek couldn’t even say why he was so sure the drunk stranger routine was the right play here. He’d learned to stop questioning his instincts on these things a long time ago.
“Oh, hey,” he gushed, as Rory led the burly man with a shredded shoulder, a face full of winces, and what looked like a good bit of soaked blood on his too-dark shirt over to the operating table, “are you guys here for the doc, too? Shit, what happened?”
“Someone shut this idiot up,” muttered their Napoleonic leader.
The Neanderthal holding Jarek’s sword looked up, like he was trying to parse if it had been an idle comment, or a genuine order.
“That won’t be necessary,” Rory said quickly, eyes darting rapidly from his disrobing patient to Napoleon, to the Neanderthal, and finally to Jarek. “He was just about to—”
“Leave,” finished Napoleon, directing the word at Jarek. “Thank these good people and get out of their hair. Go on.”
“But…” Jarek looked around the room, eyes wide. Innocent as baby Jesus. “But I’d love to stay furra chat, though. ’S been a while since… you know. Not much chattin’ out there, these days.”
Napoleon marched over in dramatic, stompy-boot fashion and leaned right down in Jarek’s face, bearing the gifts of a megawatt man glare and a startling dose of does-a-bear-shit-in-your-mouth halitosis.
“Get the fuck out of here, and don’t come back.”
It took considerable willpower not to burp in the man’s face—surprisingly more than it took for Jarek to raise his hands in doe-eyed surrender, and start to stand from his chair. “Okay, okay,” he said, in appeasing tones. “I get it.”
“Wise move, sir,” Al chimed in his ear, kind of making him wish he would’ve let that burp fly on principal alone.
Napoleon was already turning back to the operating table, like Jarek had ceased to exist. Jarek followed his gaze and saw that the show had begun.
As Rory helped his groaning patient the rest of the way free from his bloody shirt, it was clear enough the guy had taken a shot to the left shoulder. Almost certainly from a shotgun, which alone wasn’t necessarily damning to their claim of a wild bandit attack.
But the devil was in the details.
Birdshot. That was the best explanation Jarek had for the pins-and-needles shit show that’d had its way with the guy’s flesh from arm, to shoulder, to chest. A bloody mess, it was, but fairly superficial.
Birdshot. It would’ve seemed odd, if Jarek hadn’t already found their entire story suspect. Most bandit outfits rolled with more hefty buckshot in their shotgun loads, after all, if not full on slugs. Birdshot implied hunters, implied homesteaders, and judging from the spread of the impact, this guy’d been taking aim at his shooter when the birdshot had hit.
“What’s he still doing here?” someone asked, but Jarek only half heard, absorbed as he was in scanning the rest of the crew, searching for something to more tangibly confirm or deny whether he’d lost his mind.
Gleaming pocket watch there. Owner fiddling with it in admiration. A new acquisition? Maybe. A pronounced limp from his friend as the man quit ogling Rose long enough to cross to a bar stool—no visible wound. Blunt trauma? A fall? Scratch marks on his face. Human nails, probably. A struggle. Strangulation? Maybe.
And there, on Neanderthal’s neck, where he’d missed wiping them off: flecks of spattered blood. Blunt trauma, probably. Close range.
All possible signs of a handily survived scrape with the baddies.
All more likely evidence of the fierce but ultimately futile defensive struggles of the poor bastards whose home these six had just finished cracking like a delectable egg.
That, or Jarek really was totally full of shit.
“Hey!” said one of Rose’s blonde-haired, square-jawed gawkers. “Door’s right there, bucko. Believe you were told to vacate the premise.”
Jarek blinked dumbly at the guy, trying to gather his mildly drunken thoughts, trying not to point out that surely he meant vacate the premises, and mostly just struggling to move past that one glaring snag instead:
Who the hell even called people bucko, anyway?
He took a step toward the parlor, wishing to Christ that Rose would at least meet his eyes and give him something to go on here, but she was far too tense. All things considered, that was probably about all the answer he really needed here.
“Many marauders out there on 95?” he asked, pausing from his retreat long enough to look around the room like a lost puppy.
“Bandits,” corrected the Neanderthal holding his sword, as if that distinction were somehow important. Maybe it was, to them and their internal narratives.
“Was headed that way m’self,” Jarek slurred on, like he hadn’t heard or understood the correction, “before me ’n’ my bottle went’n had a lil misunderstanding.” He swiveled his gaze around to their fearless leader. “Was jus’ wonderin’ if I’m gonna be havin’ trouble out there.”
Napoleon Asshat held Jarek’s drunken gaze with cold scrutiny for an uncomfortably long stretch, suspicion flickering back in, back out. Then he came to some decision, and shrugged Jarek off once and for all—another drunken idiot, no longer any of his concern. “Nothing to worry about,” he said, turning back to Rory and his wounded man, “so long as you don’t piss off the wrong people.”
“Speaking of which,” said their blond Bucko in the Parlor, eyes flicking to Rose, “I could use a drink.”
He said it in a tone that plainly suggested that, in Bucko’s World, a pretty thing like Rose would’ve already had the decency to have offered them a round by now. He said it in a way that made Jarek want to shoot him on the spot. But now wasn’t the time.
The room had gone too alert at the not-so-casual edge in Bucko’s voice—six hardened men, two innocent civilians, and a tipsy Jarek all suddenly riveted to the silent tension clinging to the charged air like someone had rigged the room to explode and set the detonator to the first one to breathe.
Jarek saw the looks passing between the crew—a few of them slightly put off that their Bucko would be so forward in this place where they’d not yet agreed to leave civility behind, the rest of them visibly excited at this daring new territory. Like a bunch of junkies all silently querying if the time had come for their next fix.
It was kind of disturbing, how readily such men were beginning to fall into Jarek’s Hierarchy of Wild Monsters. He was a regular goddamn academic sociopathologist, sorting them into neat little columns. Oh, they’ve killed in self-defense, but not yet in cold blood? Oh, they’ve murdered in cold blood, but not yet raped their victims?
Oh, Johnny Two-Machetes in the corner over there has done all of it and more in a past life, and is kinda wondering now if his new marauder fam is gonna be down with the dirty when he finally lets his true freak flag fly?
Maybe disturbing wasn’t a strong enough word.
Careless, on the other hand…
Jarek realized he’d let too much murderous intent creep onto his face, his hand drifting a little too close to the Glock at his right thigh by its own free will. Mr. Bucko and his friends hadn’t missed it.
“Please,” Rose said, the weak half-gasp somehow managing to give pause to the faint rustle and creak of four or five men all shifting their full attention to Jarek, and preparing to draw. “Please, just go. We don’t want any trouble.”
“I might,” grumbled Bucko, cracking his knuckles and eying Jarek like a ham sandwich. The rest of them just sneered. No trouble. That’s right.
“All right, all right,” Jarek said, patting the air with his bandaged hands. He glanced over at the Neanderthal holding his sword. “Any chance I could ask you to pass me my sword, friend?”
Jarek didn’t really expect him to hand it over, and in a way, he wasn’t wrong. Neanderthal didn’t lay finders-keepers claim to the weapon, though.
He just opted to hurl it at Jarek’s face instead.
Were he to recount the tale later, Jarek might’ve been tempted to insinuate that he’d restrained his freakishly quick reflexes and taken the shot merely to solidify his charade as the harmless drunkard. Maybe some part of him even did. Whatever anyone wanted to claim about the motives in the room, though, the only thing Jarek could attest to without question in that moment was that a loaded sword sheath to the head was no way to calm the nerves.
Pain flashed across his face in a clap of red lightning, begging him, as his bandaged hands reflexively caught onto the rebounding sheath and hilt, to rip the sword free and start slicing. He dropped his hilt hand and slung the weapon over his shoulder instead, turning for the house’s side exit—the one that would take him past Rose—without a word. No reason for words, now. No reason to pay any mind to the dumb round of laughter that followed him, or to anything but Rose, waiting for her to meet his eye, to give him the sign.
Only there was no help us in her eyes, when they finally flitted up to his. Thanks, but no thanks, that downtrodden look said. C’est la vie, and hopefully they don’t get too greedy.
“Safe travels,” she said quietly as he passed.
He almost grabbed her then and there—right hand draw, Bucko and Johnny Two-Machetes dead in a blink; left hand draw, Neanderthal and the Strangulator joined them.
“Don’t come back,” came Rory’s voice from behind, dissipating the momentary daydream.
Jarek didn’t need to look to hear the tense edge in Rory’s voice as he hovered beside his patient. If nothing else, at least Dr. DoGood was finally beginning to grasp that these harmless regulars of his might be less easily managed than he’d previously thought—even if he did believe that was by fault of Jarek’s rowdy presence, and not simply the inevitable lay of the land.
Walk away, said the voice of Jarek’s inner survivor. Walk away and don’t look back. Not your problem. They don’t want your help.
Jarek slogged through the parlor, down the hallway, ignoring Bucko’s derisive call to be careful out there, now. Black anger roiling. He was almost to the side entrance when the faint whisper of a creaky old floorboard above drew his eye up the stairs, through the banister rods, to the only sight that could have given him pause right then.
She was watching him through the top line of banister rods, just out of sight of the clinic gang below, head pressed to the dark wooden dowels, hands grasped on like she was looking out through prison bars. She couldn’t have been more than five. And she had Rose Atwood’s copper-red hair.
Jarek stalked past his alleyway perch from earlier, heart pounding, face throbbing, murderous intent set two clicks short of full on berserker mode.
There they had it. There it was.
“Sir,” Al said in his most cautious of tones, “I do feel inclined to remind you that ‘no’ means ‘no,’ and to point out that Rory and Ms. Rose might well have the situation under control more than you are willing to admit in your…”
“In my what, Al?”
“Your emotional state, sir.”
“Emotional state,” Jarek grumbled, only barely reining himself in from kicking the empty bottle in the middle of the pathway ahead. “You’re an emotional state.”
“Sir, I only—”
“You didn’t see her, Al. You didn’t see that little girl. Or Rose. I don’t give a damn who asked for what. I’m not leaving until I know they’re safe.” He frowned back at the old house over his shoulder. “Hell, I might even like to see Dr. DoGood in there live to douche it up another day.”
“Well, at least that rules out the grounds for gross sexism in our vigilante ways.”
“You want me to do this every bit as much as I do, Mr. Robot.”
“I never claimed otherwise, sir. I’m merely attempting to help you clear your head and think about this like—”
“Like a less-drunk you.”
Jarek reached the far end of the alleyway and peered around the corner, a few houses down, to where the clinic gang had parked their rides. As expected, they’d left two men standing guard over the two vehicles—a battered red truck and a muddy black wagon-style Humvee.
“I dunno, buddy,” he muttered, squinting at the vehicles’ windows and wishing to hell he had Fela and all of her glorious scanners and bulletproof armor. “Drunk me might be just what the doctor ordered.”
“Or explicitly didn’t order,” Al pointed out.
It’d be the Humvee, if anything. Not that he really expected these men to be hauling obvious trophies around in their oh-so-girthy combat wagon. They were still careful monsters keeping up appearances, after all.
“You got anything on the ship’s scanners, Mr. Robot?” he asked anyway.
“Not unless you’d like me to shed cover and move closer.”
“Not yet,” Jarek said, briefly checking both of his guns. “Be ready, though.”
Jarek nodded to himself, wondering whether he should jump the rickety fence behind and circle around the long and cautious way, or maybe even go the exact opposite approach and play the wayward drunken shuffle card again. If those two sentries drew and fired on him just for walking up… well, at least he’d have his answer about what kind of outfit they were running here. And probably a few new holes, to boot.
So maybe somewhere in between, then.
Watching from the corner, Jarek waited until both sentries were looking elsewhere, then darted out across the street, keeping low and quiet. He paused for a moment behind a rusted old heap that had once been a truck, peering to make sure he hadn’t set off the alarms, then slipped behind the dilapidated house behind, and cut over through a few overgrown patches of fenced wild grass that had once passed as the city equivalent of yards.
He came back to the main street just in time to hit the dirt at movement off to the right, but it was only a few painfully thin pedestrians wandering by at the next intersection, a few more houses down. Two men and a woman. All with backpacks and tattered clothes. Local scavengers, probably. Non-violent sorts, judging by the way they appraised the two armed sentries posted outside of Rose’s and Rory’s clinic and skedaddled right the hell on, posthaste.
Jarek let out a charged breath and crept forward from the cover of the rampantly overgrown hedges, approaching the dark Humvee at a slinking crouch, viscera tingling with two parts dread, one part morbid anticipation. He didn’t want to know what was in that Humvee. Probably, it was nothing—though tinted windows didn’t exactly instill confidence in their owners’ moral uprightness. He didn’t want to know.
But he couldn’t help himself.
“Sir, I believe I’m detecting faint vocalizations inside,” Al said, as Jarek closed on the rear passenger side.
He cupped his hands around his eyes, forming the closest thing to a daylight seal he could with the darker interior as he peered inside, and…
Faint vocalizations, whispered some goddamned clinically psychopathic part of his brain. Less faint now, as the ones making them caught sight of the stranger gaping in, and the baseline struggles intensified. Gagged. Bound.
“You hear that?” asked one of the sentries on the other side of the boxy vehicle, where Jarek couldn’t see him.
The words should’ve sent a pulse of combat adrenaline racing through his veins—and he supposed maybe they did. He was just too lost in the darkening storm inside to really care.
“How much clearer can you get?” grumbled another voice. “I told ’em, man, one more peep and—”
“Just shut them up, will you?”
A muttered curse. Footsteps approaching on the dusty asphalt. Jarek’s hand tightened around the hilt of his sword, stitches threatening to tear, peals of blackened thunder cresting through his insides, ushering in a killer’s calm fury.
He quietly drew his sword and went to work.
Rose had known from the start that it would eventually come to this—that it had always been coming to this, and always would be, so long as men like Jeb and his so-called deputies ran amuck in the streets, unopposed by any central power. The world had gone well and truly mad, and good as his spirit was, Rory had never been capable of understanding that, deep down. But Rose understood.
It was why she’d nearly died of fright five and a half years ago, when she’d first realized she was pregnant with Phoebe. It was why she managed to restrain herself now, as the one who’d insisted on a drink—she didn’t know his name—slid into the pantry behind her and wasted no time in violating her personal space.
“You’re not trying to hide, sweetness?” he asked, just quietly enough that the others wouldn’t hear out in the old living room.
Rose swallowed, acutely aware of the weight of the tiny Colt she wore at her groin like a religion, and knowing just as well that she couldn’t reach for it. She’d made a mistake, even coming back here on the pretext of checking. Allowing one of them to catch her alone. She’d only wanted a moment to rein in her nerves and steel herself for the rest of this unpleasant episode of Marauder Clinic with her naive husband, the impartial healer.
She hated it when these guys rolled through. Hated it so much she would’ve forbade it, had they not already been in too deep to safely walk away from this particular arrangement. Damn Rory and his unshakeable code—his unflappable moral creed to help anyone, everyone, no matter what. Damn the fact that she loved him for it. That it might’ve even been part of what had kept them safe here this long.
But this time was different. Something had changed. Jarek Slater had walked back in like he’d forgotten his keys and taken nine years—and more than a few drinks—to remember, and the world had taken a sudden and grimy turn for the madder.
“I told you I’d check if we had any liquor left,” she said, her voice impressively level despite her thundering heart. “We don’t.”
He came closer. Laid his hands on her.
“Maybe it ain’t liquor I came back here for.”
The tears in her eyes were almost instant, and she hated them for that. Hated herself for the fear and the weakness. Hated the world for making this man. Most of all, she hated her trembling hands, and how powerless she felt, incapable of reaching for the gun, of reaching for control.
If it were only her and Rory—if it weren’t for the sweet, fragile angel who was probably peeking down through the banisters right that moment, even though they’d told her a thousand times not to—Rose might’ve gone for it then and there. Maybe she’d take him by surprise. Maybe she’d kill the man. But even if she stopped one bastard, she couldn’t get rid of all of them. Not even close. She’d be lucky to take two of them before the rest took her right back—in every possible meaning of the word. But that wasn’t what truly mattered.
What truly mattered was that, if she ever dared to raise her hands in self-defense, she knew in her soul that they’d take it out on Phoebe every bit as cruelly as they would on her. That was all that mattered. The only thing that mattered.
So she settled for sliding away from the bastard’s appalling touch—not defensively jerking, not reacting like startled prey, only shifting toward the door like nothing had happened, and like she was simply going to rejoin her husband, where her assistant hands would shortly be required anyway.
The bastard stopped her. A quick step and a strong arm barring the doorway.
“Rose?” Rory called from the operating room. It wasn’t hard to hear the concern in his voice.
“Answer,” whispered her brutish molester, sliding a shameless hand down to her right breast, looping the other around her waist to pull her closer.
She never should’ve come back here.
“Rose?” Rory’s voice was more worried now. Slightly urgent. Just like this animal’s filthy hands. “I need your help, Rose.” A pause. Then again, with a hardening edge. “Right now!”
“Answer him,” whispered the sick bastard growing noticeably hard against her right hip, all the more excited for this little game of his. “Do it.”
Out in the operating room, she heard one of his fellow roughnecks offering to help Rory in her stead. She heard Rory’s flustered reply. Heard the scrape of him hastily rising from his stool. The sharpening of tones. The prickly scrape of her molester’s stubble on her cheek, and his greedy hands on her body.
This was it.
Jesus Christ, this was it.
Rose reached for the gun.
A rushing woomph of sound slapped the air. A sucker punch straight to the thickening surreal haze clogging her brain. The room snapped back into focus. The rank and file of the dim pantry shelves around her. The plain old rank bite of her molester’s unbathed body odor. Men cursing outside. Startled. Angry.
“What the fuck?” muttered her predator against her ear, drawing back a few inches to shoot a curious look through the adjacent kitchen.
“Des, get the fuck out here!” someone barked—Jeb, she thought—and the blond-haired, blue-eyed walking shit-stain of a man straightened from groping her like he’d just been shocked.
“We’ll pick this up later,” he muttered, more to himself than to her, it seemed, until he gave her ass one last squeeze and stalked angrily off through the kitchen—nearly straight into Rory.
“Rose!” Rory cried, rounding the corner, wide eyes flicker from her, to Des, to her tears, to Des’ face—connections buffering. Des didn’t wait for him to figure it out. Didn’t make way either. No sharing the highway for a man like that. He pushed straight through Rory, and Rory let him, leaning hard up against the countertop to let him pass, the shock and worry on his face only then beginning to resolve into understanding and resultant abhorrence as he turned his gaping focus back to Rose.
“Watch ’em right here,” someone was saying, just around the corner. Rose only half heard. She was too lost in the rush of relief, too consumed by the crushing shame, and by how obscenely naked she suddenly felt.
Why was he looking at her like that?
“The resta you assholes, on me!” Jeb’s war cry broke through her spiraling thoughts on sheer volume alone.
There were hoots and hollers, and an entire orchestra of cocking weapons. There was the thunder of boots on wood, and the thud of the front door thrown open with violent abandon. Then the ruckus spilled out into the street, and she and Rory were staring at each other in what felt like silence, and their shotgun-shot patient—the man they called Vic—was leaning around the corner, wounded shoulder bleeding. Gun in hand. Pointed at them.
“Let’s go Doc,” he said, gesturing with the pistol barrel. “You and the lady come have a seat for a minute.”
“I…” Rory looked uncertainly from Vic to Rose, base shock finally fading from his eyes, the calm resilience of the impartial healer returning to the steering wheel. He reached for her, compassion and worry and a thousand other things returning to his eyes. Then Vic smacked him across the back of the head with the pistol and yanked him backward, shoving him around the corner into the operating room.
“Come on,” Vic said, keeping the gun trained on Rory as he nodded to Rose to join her husband out there.
She couldn’t seem to move. Just stood there, feeling the weight of her hidden handgun like a small moon, calling to her hand, voices outside shouting and—
“I said move!” Vic snapped, cocking the hammer of his gun—that metallic click shattering the ice in her legs.
Rose was gliding forward almost before she knew it, head whirling with what was happening out there, and with the gun she needed to use in here before she couldn’t. It was a minor miracle they’d never noticed the concealed weapon before, much as they stared. That luck wouldn’t last. Clearly hadn’t lasted.
The first chance she got—the first real chance…
“I’m trying to help you, Vic,” Rory was saying when she rounded the corner into the operating room. His hands were raised in surrender, begging Vic to see reason. “We are trying to help you. This isn’t—”
“Shut up, Doc,” Vic said, perfectly dispassionate. He leaned over to look through the window, then backed up to the mouth of the parlor, where he could watch them both with the gun. “That guy, the drunk one. You knew him?”
Rose was staring out the window, trying to make sense of the pluming black smoke wafting from the direction of the outfit’s vehicles. She leaned further and saw Jeb out there, presiding over two dark shapes laid out on the pavement.
“Hey!” Vic snapped. “Did you know him?”
That’s when it all started to click in her head. She opened her mouth, pieces still falling in place. But Rory’s look had already told all.
“I’ve never met him before,” her husband said.
Even telling the truth, he was a terrible liar.
“I saw him trip and fall in the back alley,” she interjected. “That’s it. He was drunk. He was bleeding. We wanted to help.”
God, let Phoebe stay upstairs. Let her hide. Please, let her hide.
“We help people, Vic,” Rory said, hands still raised in peace and submission. “That’s what we do. You know that. And if you’d just lower the gun, I’d—”
“I said shut the fuck up,” Vic growled, taking a threatening step forward. “I don’t care if you heal the lame with a touch of the dick, Doc, we’ve got no use for a pair of lying—”
A hand closed around his mouth from behind. A bloody, bandaged hand, Rose registered, right before a dark glint of rapid motion flashed across Vic’s front, and a river of blood spilled down his throat in slow, viscous motion.
Rose would never forget the look in Vic’s eyes in that moment. No more than she would forget the look of the man who’d just slit his throat.
The face, she recognized. It was Jarek’s face. But the eyes… Dear god, those eyes. What had happened to the hopeful boy she’d once thought she loved?
He’d been to hell and back.
Or maybe he was still there.
Neither she nor Rory could find words as Jarek held their struggling ex-patient, his struggles drastically weakening by the second, until Jarek finally lowered the limp body silently to the floor in a bloody, wide-eyed heap.
“What the…” Rory whispered. “What the fuck did you…”
He couldn’t finish. Silence settled in the room. Outside, the street was filled with the muffled calls of Jeb’s crew, sweeping the surrounding area for the dark-haired stranger who’d just walked in and set their collective world on fire before they could blink. And looking at Jarek now—shoulders heaving, sword dripping blood on the carpet, cold hellfire in those dark eyes—Rose had no doubt that he was only getting started, that he fully intended to burn each and every one of these men to cinders before the day was done.
“Get the girl away from the windows,” was all he said, hooking a thumb toward the stairs. Toward Phoebe.
Then he was gone.
PART III - THE RIGHT MURDERER
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