CHAPTER SEVEN: Viva, New Pegas
"Hail to the King, baby."
It wasn't that I felt particularly dashing or altruistic in heading out alone. It wasn't even that I felt this was something I had to do myself, though it kind of was.
It was just that finding the future geldings who stole my bottlecaps called for a little subtlety, which Pink-E was pretty much the antithesis of. If I'd been acting like the clever pony I'm supposed to be, I'd have had her stay outside Freemane while I searched for Benny to begin with. Instead, I'd gotten sloppy in my haste to make the collar, and gone running around with what amounted to a giant pink bobble-head strapped to my tail.
That was unprofessional of me. Which was not the way a bounty hunter earns his pay.
According to the tracking telemetry downloaded to my PipBuck, the sons-of-bitches had run a couple of blocks into the old warehouse district, paused for a while just inside one of the buildings, and then split off in three directions. Since there'd originally been four muggers according to Pink-E's data, I had a good idea of what I'd find at the warehouse itself...
The hangover was still roaring along when I reached the streetside loading dock of a wreckage pile that didn't look like it could house a rat, let alone a quartet of conspirators. Which was, of course, what made it perfect for just that purpose. I ducked under a large sign, propped up too-casually against a ruined wall with weathered letters too far gone to read. Sure enough, there was a scrabble-hole behind, barely large enough for a pony to squirm through.
I did just that, the ten-mil held in my mouth, praying I wouldn't have to actually fire the damned thing. My head was already trying to hammer itself apart, and I didn't need the recoil and loud noise helping it.
Once out of the sunlight, my eyes quickly adjusted to the much more comforting gloom. Somepony had hollowed out the rubble, shoring it up with chunks of concrete and rusty rebar, a cozy enough hideaway that had clearly seen a wide variety of tenants and visitors over the years if the litter and graffiti was anything to go by. Enough sunlight filtered through patches of debris to dimly illuminate the room in a patchwork fashion, revealing the form of a pony laying against the far wall in a wide pool of congealing blood, his breathing fast and shallow.
He was in a bad way. First they'd pounded him down, his red hide still showing numerous purple baton-shaped bruises from that go-around, and then stabbed him repeatedly once he was defenseless. He'd been lying in his own blood long enough that it was impossible to tell what color his mane had started out as.
"A friend. Or, at least, I was last night." I could see the whites of his eyes go wider.
"I'm... I'm sorry..." The apology trailed off in the face of the obvious: he was sorry he hadn't gotten away with it. Sorry his friends had turned on him. Sorry he wasn't getting high or drunk or laid in the swankiest spots on the Strip right now, at my expense.
"I know. Now tell me where the others went. "
He seemed to deflate. "I'm gonna die, aren't I?" As though to punctuate the observation, he coughed.
It was a bit of work to keep my voice even and deliver the lie convincingly. "Depends. I just want my money back. Good info's worth a little assistance."
He swallowed so hard I could hear it. "They... we hit ya to pay off debts. Tag-End owes a guy called Espresso on the west side, deals heavy weapons under the table at his place. Ess-Mart, can't miss it, right there on the main drag.
"Jerky Buck got caught running an insurance shakedown in Lords turf. He'll be meeting up with their coolio this afternoon about a block from here at Fourth and Mane... heh. Good luck on that one. Dunno where ya'd find Jerky before the meet, and Lords don't share." The buck coughed again, harder, spitting up blood. When he got his breath back, he gave me his best imploring look. "If ya got a healing potion or something, now's the time..."
I kept the ten-mil trained on him and hoofed a vial out of my saddlebags, shoving it across the floor in his direction. When he moved for it, I made a show of re-aiming the pistol. "You know the drill. Payment before delivery."
His brown eyes went to the vial and he licked his lips, one hoof pressed to a wad of dirty shirt he was using to try and stanch the worst of his wounds. He wasn't doing very well at it. "Word of honor, right...?" I nodded.
"...okay. The last buck ya want is a bastard named Riposte Gallant. New Coltifornia hotshot, likes to pretend he's high-life, wants in with the Silver Slipper Society. Buying his way in tonight... the whack on you was his idea. Fucker's the one put all these holes in me, swiped my share to pay his way, while the other guys just laughed... fuckin' laughed..."
I motioned to the vial, holstered the ten-mil, and pulled the combat knife right next to it as he fumbled across the floor for his salvation.
It took a while longer than I'd hoped to give it to him.
* * * * *
Ess-Mart was one of those weird anomalies where some buck had got it into his head that the War never really happened --- or at least wanted to act that way. Maybe the schtick was to play on somepony's nostalgia for a life they'd never lived, a safer time when all the violence and death happened on a conveniently faraway battlefield. To my view, letting your guard down in favor of a fantasy world was a bad idea all around.
But I had to hoof it to them: the place was clean. Espresso had picked out the least-damaged storefront on the block, patched up most of the cracks, whitewashed the outside and scrubbed the scum off the windows. A bright red-on-white sign over the double doors proclaimed, "Ess-Mart - for Especially Smart Shoppers!".
The place even had a bell that dinged, more than thunked, when I walked in.
"Hello, sir, and welcome to Ess-Mart, where especially smart shoppers always find the best prices!" The combination security staff and door greeter was a tall, thin unicorn buck with the most --- intense --- smile I'd ever seen. Even Pink-E would have been impressed with that expanse of flawless white enamel, set off by a light grey coat and slicked-back black mane.
Not even shit-eaters had a grin that high and wide.
Which he maintained perfectly as he kept the biggest, nastiest-looking shotgun I'd ever seen trained on me, gleaming with the sort of polish only possible through maintenance borne of true love. A large red nametag on his crisp white work-shirt read "ASH - Housewares".
"All weapons into the collection bin, sir, for your safety and our security. Ess-Mart apologizes in advance for any inconvenience, concerns, or mental anguish our policy may cause." The firmness of that unyielding smile told me just how apologetic Ash ever felt towards anyone, let alone me. I nodded my assent, unloading my obvious kit into the indicated bin and tossing in most of what I had in my saddlebags as well, leaving those open for his inspection. After a quick look-over and a nod, Ash gestured me past his checkpoint.
"Thank you for your cooperation, sir. Enjoy your time here at Ess-Mart!" I made it a point to remember how to mimic the musical tones rolling off his tongue... not that I felt particularly insulted, but quality sarcasm is a learned skill. Besides, he'd missed the slip-pouch I'd mounted on the backside of my left saddlebag. Sneaky beat sarcastic any day.
Ess-Mart might have been nice-looking on the outside, but inside it was sparkling. No lie: the linoleum checkerboard-pattern floor carried not a single visible scuff and shone with layers of fresh wax. The walls and ceiling were spotlessly pristine. Orderly aisles stocked with a wide variety of goods, ranging from practical firearms to mostly-useless home appliances, were marked out with hanging signs that helpfully directed the shopper to their goals. Along the left wall was a long counter with several registers, behind which stood a racked array of two-hundred-year-old snack foods and a dark tan unicorn with a creamy-white mane, big paunch and even bigger smile. Bold red embroidery spelled out his name across an immaculately clean apron : Espresso.
It was like somepony had ripped a chunk of pre-War Equestria out of time and space to plunk it down in this sewer pit of a town. Even the prices seemed to be reasonable, if a bit steeper than the norm... just enough to run off the bit-pinchers, I supposed. Which, at the moment, seemed to be everypony given the lack of other customers. Ash kept his smile, and one eye, on me as I sauntered over to the counter.
Espresso took the initiative. "Good morning, sir! How can I serve you?"
"Phased plasma rifle in the forty-centimac range."
His face went stony. "Just what you see, pal."
I adjusted mine to match. "I see you're out of Tag-Ends."
Espresso snorted and glanced behind me. "Never in stock. Last shipment went out this morning, as soon as we opened."
That was my first cue, though I kept my expression straight. There'd been nopony else in the store, and the bell at the door hadn't sounded. "Figured as much. Not that I expect you'll care, but my caps paid the freight on that shipment. Just let me know where I can find it, and I'll make sure accounts're properly settled." I shuffled slightly to my right, keeping Ash in my peripheral vision as the lanky unicorn began to move in what he apparently thought was a casual fashion.
"Ah, well," huffed the pudgy Espresso, "I'm afraid that as much of a punk as Tag-End may be..." His horn began glowing a soft white.
As a rule? Once it's apparent they're trying to pull a fast one, never let anypony finish their monologue. I snapped my head left and mouthed the ten-mil pistol from its hold-out pouch, managing to bring it back around just in time to see Espresso's assault carbine levitating up from behind the counter.
What he'd intended to be his last words to me trailed off: "...he's still... family. Well, crap. Back off, Ash. Looks like you missed a spot when he came in."
My eyes glanced left. As fast as I'd been, the door-pony had covered the distance in a moment, his shotgun now close enough to tap my left temple with a cold-barreled nudge. Odds were good that he'd've been able to put me down before my brain could have told my tongue to trigger down on Espresso. But Ash backed up, smile gone and a world of grim satisfaction in his face. The shotgun's yawning twin barrels dropped back with him.
"Just as well. I hate cleanin' brains off this floor."
My eyes went back to his boss. "That's a bad wrinkle, family owing family so much that they have to jump somepony to pay it off." Espresso lowered his carbine back behind the counter, and I reciprocated by turning my pistol away. Not that I let it slip from my jaws for even a moment, just in case things went south again...
"Yeah, it is. Thought putting the colt on notice for all the loans I've made him would get his flank in gear to start being productive, but..." He turned his head and shouted at the back. "TAG! GET OUT HERE!"
There was a smash, some scrabbling noises, a yelp, and then a lime-green unicorn buck came stumbling up with Ash right behind, helpfully tapping his head with the shotgun's butt-stock now and then to keep him moving in the right direction.
Tag-End was barely older than a colt, dressed just like Espresso had described him: a punk. Everything about his clothing (shiny leather), choice of accoutrements (dozens of studs and buttons), and weaponry (inscribed brass hoof-knucks hanging from a ring) shouted how rebellious and street-wise he wanted to look. He'd probably paid somepony good caps to create his individualism for him. Hell, he didn't even have a cutie-mark yet.
He turned to snarl at Ash's last tap, putting his best face on it. "Fuck you, Ash, you wanna kill me? You fuckin' do it, you pussy!" There was all the bravado in him of a pony who knew he was addressing an underling.
Ash just smiled that wide, tall smile, curving one lip just enough to make it a sneer. "Listen, cupcake, I'd love to drill you a new set of buckshot dentures, but we're a little busy at the moment. Let me get you a rain check on that... unless you'd like to try running again?" Tag-End visibly quailed, turned to Espresso, and saw the proprietor's cold stare. The punk with the tough-guy image suddenly looked ready to wet himself.
Espresso coughed into one hoof. "When your pop dumped you here, I told you outright that you cover your debts and pay your own way. You've paid what you owe me, but this gent says now that you owe him. That true?"
The punk's sneer reasserted itself. "This fucker? I don't owe him shit. Ain't even never seen him before."
I grinned. Nothing better than an opponent already on the ropes when your tussle starts. "There's a friend of yours in a warehouse hidey-hole that might say different, colt. Red coat, lots of holes, axe to grind?" Tag-End couldn't know I'd finished the job he and his other buddies had started, but without any sympathetic faces to lean on, he didn't have the brass to brazen it out.
He turned to plead with his foster father. "C'mon, 'Spresso, just waste this bitch! You -"
Espresso's assault rifle came floating back up over the counter --- pointed at Tag-End. "I what, Tag? Tell me again what you think I should be doing here."
It was rare that I ever got to see a pony actually blanch, so I took a moment to savor the punk's response. He even sputtered a little before his brain re-engaged --- priceless. Simply priceless! "O-okay! Yeah! I got what I owed you from this guy... I couldn't think of anything else! But that's ALL, Espresso! I only took that much, the others got the rest! Jerky and that prick, Rip! They've got it!"
Espresso and I exchanged glances. In my eyes, he read that Tag hadn't said much of anything I didn't already know. In his, I saw the balancing of books. He turned and nodded to Ash.
With a grin that outshone any he'd had on display before, the unicorn levitated something heavy, round and shiny out of a saddlebag and effortlessly snapped it around Tag's neck. The slave collar whined briefly, energizing its "deadswitch". If anypony but the collar's owner tried to take it off now...
With a mocking bow, Ash floated the collar's talisman key over to me. I stared as its tiny gem gave a little flash of green, binding its power to my will.
As Tag-End stood there in shock, and Ash practically danced with glee, Espresso completed the expression trifecta by being absolutely deadpan.
"I've done my familial duty trying to cover your ass, nephew. As a Mocha, you're owed that much by blood, but that's all you were owed." He sighed out and shifted that dead-eyed look to me. "His property and his life are just about enough to cover what he paid me, which is what I was going to take if he hadn't. So those are yours now. I don't care if you sell, kill or fuck the little bastard until his legs bow out. But nopony's going to say Espresso Mocha ever tried to cover up for a deadbeat, not even when they're family."
Tag-End discovered the only possible way to make the moment more uncomfortable and awkward: he dropped to the floor and started bawling. He probably would have worked himself into a nice little drama act, if Ash hadn't started kicking him in the belly until the colt subsided into a snifflefit. The memory of my doing the same to Shotgun surfaced in the back of my brain, poking what little conscience I could admit to having, but Ash finished administering his beating before the conflict in my mind even started. I'd never seen a sneer like the one he turned on Tag-End now:
"Oooooh, how I have dreamed of this day. Always pushing, always fucking around and fucking with me when you thought nopony was looking. I kept this place spotless just to spite you! And now you get to go live the life you thought everypony should be living under your hooves." He jerked his head around with a mad grin. "Hey boss, can I rent that camera over there for just a minute?"
Espresso's expression didn't budge. "No." He turned back to me. "Now, sir, my apologies, but Ess-Mart will be closing early today in order to take stock. Thank you for your patronage, our Customer Service Representative of the Month will see you to the door."
To Ash, the only "customer service representative" the place likely had, this was as good an excuse for a parade as any. He snapped to attention, saluted, barked out a "Yes, SIR!", and took up a cheery whistling tune on the way back to the store's lockbox. He returned every single item to me, one at a time, with perfect military precision and that unstoppable grin. When all was back in its place, he opened and held the door with all the respect an NCR embassy guard might dole out to President Thimble. I was thoroughly impressed at his ability to be sarcastic without even opening his mouth.
"Remember to shop smart --- shop Ess-Mart!" Then the door slammed shut, a "CLOSED" sign was flipped up in the window, and I was left out in the streets of Freemane with my sniffling, whimpering unicorn slave.
What... has just happened?
* * * * *
The sniveling began the minute after we'd left Ess-Mart and hadn't let up since.
"...c'mon, buck, just lemme go, I'll pay you back, I swear I'm good for it -" It was at this point, nearly back to the warehouse, that I rounded on Tag-End and pointed a hoof at the ruins.
"If you don't knock off the pity party, I'm going to drag you in there and leave you with your friend. You forget that I've seen what you're good for." I gave him a kick in the shin as a form of punctuation and turned away, pulling my beaten old stormchaser hat down another notch.
Well, at least his whining dropped away to another round of sobbing and sniffling. Not that I expected he'd come to grips with his new situation anytime soon, but I was still on the hunt and I didn't need another noisy attention-getter tagging along in Pink-E's absence.
A quick sideline down an alley, blow the collar, and this is done with. Easy-peasy.
So why didn't I? We passed one likely alley after another, a few with mayhem already underway. It wasn't like anyone in Freemane would care. It wasn't like I cared, especially not about this punk-ass thief whose lack of a work ethic had gotten him into the slave trade from the wrong direction.
After a bit of introspection, I decided it was because he represented a big investment of my stolen caps. Killing him would just be a write-off without benefits; I needed to find a slave dealer and pawn him off. Kind of obviously, Espresso wouldn't buy him back, and I wasn't entirely sure that he was actually a slave trader himself. He just as obviously knew where to find one, but until he was open for business again, it was no use going back to ask...
No. No, that rationale wouldn't seat in my brain, no matter how I worked it over. I'd never dealt in slaves. Dad had hated the slave trade to his core, though after his death I ended up tolerating its existence for the sake of chasing down the occasional slave bounty. It put food in the saddlebag, after all. But it had never sat well with me.
I looked back at the lime-green unicorn following me, his head hung so low that his muzzle occasionally scraped the street, looking as though he bore the weight of the world. There was no swagger, bravado or lustre left in him --- not on the road to a fate he no longer had a choice in. At his core, he was a useless coward who'd never have had the courage to strike out on his own unless somepony kicked him in the balls to get him moving.
So I guess, in the end, I did the only thing I really could do.
* * * * *
"Ha ha ha! Oh, this is too rich! Hey everypony, come get a load of this shit!" The minute we rolled into Lords territory, that being Freemane's main drag and most of the streets crossing same, the catcalls and jeers began. Not for me, oh no... I actually got some "atta-bucks" and even a few stomps of approval.
They trotted alongside and behind, dressed to the nines in glossy black leather jackets over white shirts and wearing their manes in identical dyed-black pompadours, every bit of their scorn reserved for Tag-End as we moved down the street.
"Always knew you'd end up on somepony's chain, Tag-Ass!" yelled somepony in the back, prompting a round of laughter.
"Here comes a new mule!" shouted another.
"HEY!" brayed a protest.
"Er, no offense meant, Hefty... wait, put that down, be cool!" Aaaaaand one brawl, right on cue.
We kept on walking, collecting more Lords and locals that didn't have anything better to do on a late Freemane afternoon. Before long, Tag's sobbing had dissolved into helpless tears of anger and shame, pouring down his cheeks to sizzle on the hot asphalt. But he said, and did, nothing else to draw attention to himself, aside from existing.
So, he does still have some pride... and he can be taught, too...
As far as I could tell --- and that much, from various of the crowd's shouts and insults --- the whole reason for this little road-show was that Tag had tried to weasel his way into the Lords at one point. Not only did he not make the cut, but he'd tried to undermine several of the more popular members of the gang in order to make himself look better. They'd never forgotten that, nor had any of their admirers, of which there were many in Freemane.
After all, the Lords were just cool. They kept what little order there was in the suburb, as long as you paid respects to "The King", and they didn't go out of their way to mess with anypony. If ever there was a gang that could make a claim to having collectively good karma, the Lords were it.
When we finally arrived at Fourth and Mane, there was a good-sized pack still behind us, though the locals had lost interest after a few blocks and the Lords were starting to tire of their sport. The only reason Tag hadn't already been lynched was probably because they liked him better as a slave than dead... so far.
But my concern, at the moment, was not for Tag's welfare. It was for the wrinkled-looking unicorn ghoul with the stringy white mane and --- was that a set of bacon strips he had for a rump-rash? --- talking animatedly with one of the Lords' lieutenants. The "coolio" looked up at the approach of our rather noisy mob, cutting off the conversation with a grin.
"My, oh my, oh my, if it isn't little ol' Tag-End, wearin' a nice fancy leash. I always knew ---"
Here, the slickster paused to put on some shades.
"You ain't nothin' but a hound dog." As if on cue, every Lord within earshot yelled:
I blinked for a couple of seconds, the joke (at least, I think it was a joke) flying so far over my head I would've needed my binoculars to see it. Well, whatever. I gave the ghoulicorn a look.
"You're the buck they call 'Jerky', I take it?"
Perhaps it had been the late afternoon sun heading for the skyline behind me, or maybe he hadn't gotten a good look when his baton had been doing a number on my noggin last night, but a furtive glance at Tag-End and his new style in technomagical necklaces brought recognition to his face. In short order, it was replaced by a cunning leer.
"Yeah, I am." He turned his withered face back to the coolio. "Tag there's the reason I can't pay you in full, Pacer."
Pacer arched an eyebrow. "Really."
Tag-End seemed ready to blurt something out, before I shushed him with a side-kick to the hindleg. It was Jerky's ball, and I needed to see where he would run with it.
"Soon as we met to divvy up, him and Riposte killed Red and chased me off, takin' all the caps for themselves. I'll bet Tag's uncle took his caps and then sold him off... serves the little bitch right to end up as a newfoal's trick pony, dunnit?"
I gave Tag a pre-emptive shush and stepped forward a pace. "It was all secrets and lies with you four, wasn't it, Jerky? The first of you I found was a red pony full of stab wounds --- and covered with big baton-shaped bruises to boot. So how about we head over to where he's starting to rot, and you can measure the size of your whacky-stick against his hide?"
Ghouls might not be able to flush real well, but they sure can look angry when they need to. "How about fuck you and the scirocco you blew in on? Red was a friend of mine, motherfucker." Now he stared at Tag. "And friends don't fuck over friends."
When I looked back, Tag's head was hanging down again, but his eyes were staring fire back at Jerky. Still, he managed to keep his silence. I nodded and turned back to the coolio.
"At least one friend fucked over another here. What's important is that you aren't getting what you're owed. And I'm not getting my money back from this little fuck," I added with a hoofwave at Tag, "because he wasn't worth a third, let alone half, of what I got mugged for. Look at him. Would you pay eleven large?"
Pacer's eyes widened and his ears perked up. "Yeah, I thought I recognized you from that lollapalooza at the Bronco last night. Word was you broke 'em outta more than twenty grand..." His gaze shifted to Jerky, who realized where this mathematical train was heading and tried to derail it.
"Brahminshit! We don't even know Tag hoofed it all over to his uncle anyways... he could've hidden the rest anywhere!"
I took out the slave-collar trigger. "Think I wouldn't've gotten it out of him by now if he had? You were right, his uncle did sell him to me, but if he'd squirreled that much away beforehoof, he could've just bought his way out of the mess he's in right now. With that collar on, he's got no reason not to offer it to me to let him go." Leaving Tag behind, I began to advance on the ghoulicorn, who took a step back.
"Now, I think you're just holding out on Pacer, there. Or maybe this Riposte Gallant cut you out of the deal, like you and him cut out Red. Maybe we should all go pay him a visit. Hm?"
For the second time today, a pony I was after bolted for it. But in this case, the collar wasn't mine.
"TAG! YOU'RE IT!"
Tag-End hadn't been hanging his head in shame. He'd been readying himself, like a racer in the starting blocks, for the inevitable chase scene. Now he blew out of those imaginary blocks, custom brass hoof-knucks cutting divots in the street, in hot pursuit of the pony I'd set him upon.
I don't know where the song came from. Maybe it was something Pink-E'd been playing on the run in from Big Rock. It just seemed --- I don't know. Appropriate. The words came naturally, even in front of Pacer and the crowd of Lords:
Twenty years of crawlin'
Was bottled up inside him...
The ghoulicorn wasn't in what you'd call top physical condition. Then again, ghouls are irradiated abominations of necromancy, whether from being doused in it by the balefire bombs that fell centuries ago, or from the various pockets where evil still lingered from the past sins of the old world. Tag-End, by comparison, was a young buck still coming into his prime. The fire in his eyes could still transfer speed to his hooves, and did.
He wasn't holdin' nothin' back,
He let 'em have it all...
Jerky tried levitating a dumpster into Tag's path, but his dark brown aura was ripped apart by an opposing bright green glow. Tag took over, shoving the empty bin in the opposite direction, forcing Jerky to dodge.
When Tommy left the barroom,
Not a Gatlin boy was standin'...
That was enough to let Tag close the gap, as Jerky hadn't had much of a lead to begin with. He leaped, snarling something feral, the ghoul fumbling at the last moment for his police baton. Tag took his mark straight to the pavement, the impact sending Jerky's weapon skittering away across the street. The ghoul cried out for mercy...
He said, "This one's for Becky,"
As he watched the last one fall.
Tag was a slave now. Slaves couldn't afford mercy. Not when they'd been ordered, on pain of explosive death, not to show any. And especially not when they'd been given one last chance at redemption, right in front of just about everypony who hated them.
Redemption's an important ideal to me. One of the few I have, really. If you don't give a pony the chance to redeem themselves, whatever you do as payback isn't justice. It's just vengeance. I killed Red because I saw in him only sorrow for himself and what he'd lost, not for anypony else he'd wronged, not even the one who could have saved him. I didn't owe him anything at that point but the consequences for assaulting me. With Shotgun, I left him on the crucifix because he'd joined up with raiders and done nothing I knew of to deserve anypony's help.
Tag, on the other hoof, owed me money which I'd never see if I just killed him or sold him off, so I made him my apprentice instead. He'd learn a real trade, I'd have a little extra fire support, and I'd kill him in a heartbeat if he ever made me regret the choice. But he still owed a debt to his old friend, Red... a debt for helping Jerky and Riposte murder him.
And I heard 'im say,
'I promised you, Dad, not to do the things you've done
I walk away from trouble, when I can.
Now please don't think I'm weak, I didn't turn the other cheek
And Papa, I sure hope you understand...
Sometimes you gotta fight, when you're a man.'
One body-lacerating smash at a time, Tag paid Jerky his due.
Ev'ryone considered him
The Coward of the County...
As the song on my lips died away, so did the half-pulped ghoulicorn, with one final, shuddering wheeze. Pacer gave with a surprisingly approving look, considering that my slave had just killed off a buck who owed him money.
"Not bad, not bad... your choice of musical accompaniment's off, but hey, looks like you got Tag-Ass to finally grow a pair. That's gotta count for somethin'. Nice to see Jerky got what was comin' to him, too. But I'd sure like to see the rest of those caps he owed for pulling his little insurance-scam stunt on my turf."
He turned to face me directly, lowered his shades, and smiled.
"So howzabout this: you just rented yourself a whole lotta Lords for the night, and you pay us outta what we-all drag off this 'Gallant' sucker."
Looking around at the dozens of grinning Lords, I realized that it might have been more financially advantageous to have had Tag-End --- as a newly-indentured apprentice bounty hunter --- leave his first mark alive.
* * * * *
At first, I was worried that Pacer and his bunch would be following me around like a small army, completely negating the entire point for leaving Pink-E behind. It was already bad enough that I'd let myself get saddled with Tag-End, who even after his "attitude adjustment" cut a flashy figure with his customized street look. His profile wasn't reduced any further by the fact that his hooves were now stained with red gore up to the fetlocks.
Fortunately, the Lords weren't stupid. They ruled Freemane by knowing its back-alleys and its denizens, by knowing everypony anypony should know. I'd been planning to find out where and when Riposte Gallant was going to meet with the Silver Slippers by carefully asking around, testing the waters and making the right bribes to the right ponies --- but the Lords took care of that in spades. They scattered like radroaches into the town's cracks and crevices, ferreting out leads one by one without my having to lift a hoof.
Handy help to have... if damned expensive.
Pacer made a point of noting the obvious: that sticking my own muzzle into things, especially with Tag along, would just raise the risk of tipping off Riposte without adding appreciably to the search effort. He also wasn't planning to just stand there in the street while waiting for word to come back.
I had to admit I'd never seen a nicer gang hideout.
As with everything else about the Lords, style came first, from the roccoco style of the old theatre they'd taken over to its refurbished sign composed of sequential flashing red-white-and-blue bulbs: "Kingdom of Canterlot Musical Revue". Not a lick of graffiti marred the building anywhere, not even on the well-preserved poster marquees outside (which anywhere else in the Moohave would at least have those little inked-on mustaches nopony seemed to be able to resist adding). Almost all of those were variations on a single particular pop-artist of the pre-War era "singing and swinging his way into the hearts of Equestria", usually with a big backup song-and-dance ensemble and always referred to as "The King".
I'd also never met a more polite gang leader, even when he was looking askance at my personal property.
"Can't say Ah cotton t'slavereh, Mister Shot. We call it Free-mane fer a reason." He wasn't that big of a stallion, but boy-howdy, could he project. Just sitting at his front-and-center theatre table, doing nothing but relaxing, he dominated the room effortlessly. The gloss-black pompadour that everypony else in the Lords tried so hard to mimic was completely natural on him. Instead of leather jacket and linen shirt, he wore a leisure suit of cool-blue suede embroided with black-and-silver musical notes, right down to the hoof-covers on his horseshoes. Even his expression remained cool and aloof, yet he had no problem getting across his clear displeasure at Tag's situation.
It wasn't like I was all that happy about it, either. "Well, Mister King, you'd have to talk to his uncle at Ess-Mart about that. He's the one who ordered the collar, had it put on, and stuck me with the controller instead of paying the cash this kid stole from me in the first place. Me, I'm letting him work it off and then he can go his own way."
That look of his didn't change a bit. "I'm bettin' there's no setcha thing in yer vocabulary as 'compassion'?"
"Oh, I've got compassion, Mister King. For ponies that don't beat me to the ground and steal twenty-two thousand caps out of my saddlebags. In place of that, I've got enough honor not to just blow his head off, and enough sense of right to let him earn back what he owes." Neither he nor I budged until Pacer made a show of coughing into one hoof. He thumped his chest a few times to boot.
"Damn this lung infection! Anyways, you tell us what to do and we'll do it... want us to break contract, we can do that. Want us to follow through on it? We can do that too. You're the King."
There weren't enough lemons in the NCR to make a face like the King's just then. "No, I s'pose we can't break our word've honor. That's what it's all about, y'know, all that sets us above bein' jus' another buncha wasteland thugs." He stood up to face me, his dark green eyes boring into mine. "But'chu do raht by that colt, an' let 'im go when he's paid up square. Savvy?"
"Like I said." I knew better than to openly take umbrage at having my own honor called into question. The King didn't know me from any other roamer. From his point of view, I could just as easily be lying through my teeth. It cost me nothing to bear in mind a little respect for his concerns.
That seemed to at least nominally satisfy him. "Then alla you go ahead, take a seat, enjoy th' show. Pacer, go ahead an' take a load off, yerself. Get that chest looked at, whydon'cha." The soft-spoken suggestion might as well have been an order barked out by a drill sergeant, the way Pacer trotted out of there. I nodded to Tag and we each took up one of the low-slung stools near the table while a bunch of Lords spilled out onto the polished wooden stage to do their thing.
We gonna throw a party for the Overmare!
We gonna get drunk until we just don't care!
We got the Stable door wired up, ready to blow!
An' when it goes off we're gonna go, buck, go!
Now let's rock! Ev'rypony, let's rock!
Ev'rypony in the Resident Block!
Is dancin' to the Stable Nine Rock!
If I never see another production of "Stable Studs" again, I'll die a happy pony.
* * * * *
It wasn't really a problem for the Lords to find out who exactly Riposte Gallant was, or where he would be meeting with the Silver Slipper Society. In fact, he'd been bragging about his "inevitable and immediate induction" to his workmates, his drinking buddies, and just about anypony in earshot, for most of the day. The real problems were where he worked, and where the meeting was going down.
Lowering my binoculars with a hissed curse, I scuttled backwards from the upper-story window on my belly until I was positive that sitting up wouldn't put me in some watchful sniper's line of sight.
The sonovabitch wasn't just a "New Coltifornia hotshot".
Situated in a cul-de-sac just outside the Strip, the NCR's New Pegas embassy normally didn't get a lot of attention. Today, however, that cul-de-sac had been completely taken over to create extra space for a large open-air gathering. Ribbons, bunting, and balloons in New Coltifornia colors festooned portable fences and armed checkpoints, beyond which several hors d'oeuvre tables were arrayed around hordes of well-dressed minglers. Beyond that was yet another checkpoint into the embassy grounds proper, where the real hobnob was already well underway.
And why all the commotion? Because, according to the huge white-on-blue banner hung across the entry to this little hoe-down, Captain Celestia-Blow-Me Gallant was to be honored at a ceremony dedicated to his entry into the Silver Slipper Society, an event expected to signal more cordial relations between the secretive casino magnates and the NCR.
Intellectually, I understood just how big of a political coup this could be for New Coltifornia: they hoped to tease one of the powerful Casino Families, upon which so much of New Pegas power rested, out from under the iron hoof of their patron saint Mr. Horse. Internally, I felt my guts corroding at the notion that Gallant might actually prove to be untouchable, simply because of the number of warm bodies doting upon him with the pride and merriment he didn't fucking-well deserve.
Oh, but it got better than that! An event program filched by an embassy worker sympathetic to the Lords revealed the very capstone to this high-society affair: Gallant would be hoofing over "token proof of personal well-being" --- my caps --- to the Slippers' bigwigs. Even Ambassador Cropper was expected to be in attendance. The only way security could be tighter would be if President Thimble himself showed up to crash the party.
Hmm... now, who do I know that's good for crashing parties...?
* * * * *
This was a horrible idea. I'd said so. It wasn't even my idea. How did I get roped into this?
The steel-gray unicorn with the dappled back, spiraled horn half again as long as his head, and suede blonde mane cropped to the exact edge of military tolerances turned and executed a courteous half-bow towards our meal ticket. I swear that he managed it without even creasing his perfectly-tailored khaki officer's uniform. The clashing silver sabers forming his cutie mark practically flashed in the light, as did the fancy fencing rapier at his side.
"My dear lady, allow me to say I am delighted to see you once again. Wherever were you afflicted with such a frightful injury?"
I could have told Captain Cock-Biter where, but that would have required dropping my "roadie" disguise and leaving the gang of workers setting up the orchestra pit to do it. Besides, our dear lady knew what would happen if she didn't deliver the con-job convincingly enough.
Her hoof went to the wrappings about her throat. "Oh, this little thing?" squeaked the lithe young lily-white mare, all polite innocence wrapped in a perfectly winning smile and baby-blue eyes, framed by the droop of a seafoam-streaked mane. "Why, just yesterday I did the most foalish thing I've ever done! Mountain climbing, darling. A terrible fall, but the doctors say my neck and shoulder should be right as rubies within the month... if I refrain from over-straining myself, of course."
A lovely little lie, from the just-as-lovely Miss Butter Tart, starlet of New Coltifornia's newly-burgeoning film industry. The truth hidden beneath her bandages and brace was of the steely and explosive sort, on "loan" from Tag-End while he stayed back at the theater as a strangely-honored guest of the Lords (who just yesterday had hated his guts). It seemed that starlets aren't above being wooed by other charming entertainers, especially those with "delightfully rustic" accents, into a few harmless minutes of chatting over a sociable drink or two in a cozy local setting.
Extra sedatives were, of course, provided free of charge. As was the wake-up, and a bit of the usual screaming. Hence the shoulder padding covering several otherwise telling bruises.
The good captain gave Miss Tart's bandages a critical eye. "Mountain climbing? Near New Pegas? Why, the only hill around here worth the name is Mount Morgan, more of a ski resort... unless you were speaking of the more treacherous inclines of Black Mountain...?"
Butter Tart's laugh sounded forced, even from across the way. "Yes, yes of course! Silly me, I allowed myself to be coaxed by The King's siren song of adventure --- wasn't it simply ludicrous of you to bring me along on your little escapade, darling?" She didn't need to add the hindleg kick to The King's back hoof, though he didn't show any indication of noticing.
"Yes, ma'am, it surely was, you betcha."
I fought not to facehoof. This was his plan, not mine, and he, the well-known leader of a local street gang entirely outside of NCR authority, hadn't even bothered wearing a disguise to a party at the NCR embassy. There was no way...
Captain Bust-My-Balls gave The King a long sidelong look with pale green eyes whose lids hung just short of half-mast, then broke into a winning smile. "But here I am holding you both up, when the lady is clearly not at her best. Please, please, show yourselves around --- but may I first thank you again, Miss Tart, for using your connections to provide a replacement orchestra and crew. It would have been a shame to have to cancel this evening's entertainment." He bent low and slid a forehoof behind her foreleg, lifting it to gracefully plant a respectful kiss as a true gentlecolt might. She blushed, as a true lady might be expected to do in response, and then the two actors parted.
I was willing to bet she was blushing more over the memory of seeing her personal orchestra and their handful of bodyguards hustled into the theater by the Lords at gunpoint, than at any wanton display of courtly manners.
Meanwhile, various of those same Lords now pulled and tugged at their ill-fitting orchestra tuxedos while trying to look like they knew what they were doing. Most of them had absolutely no experience with the instruments they were ostensibly warming up and tuning, a scene made more ridiculous by the fact that, to a buck, they had refused to get rid of their signature pompadours. A number of admirers had amassed about the edges of the pit, convinced the musicians were a comedy troupe performing an avante-garde opening act for the real orchestra. Several pre-War bits sailed through the air from time to time, along with the sound of polite applause and laughter.
The whole mess reminded me of everything I hated about people.
Everypony had their fake faces, false words, forced smiles and faux mannerisms, all designed to fool their fellow pony into thinking they would make a good friend or ally... or, at least, to allay suspicions of enmity, which were probably justified to begin with. This was especially true of the Silver Slipper Society, each and every one of whom stood out in their ultramodern fashions, decorative masks of crystal and filigree, and utterly impeccable grace. Not one step was taken without consideration for the audiovisual impact it would have upon any potential viewers; not one word was uttered without consideration and measured tones. They looked and acted like creatures invented by the brilliance only possible beneath a mad sculptor's chisel.
Secrets and lies. If all of these ponies actually knew what the others were thinking at any given moment, this place would be a war-zone. At least if it were, they'd just kill each other and be done with it. A nice, cathartic baptism of fire and blood...
Mental images of merry little equine bonfires (far too personalized to have any similarity to those I'd seen in Nipton, I assured myself) helped me get through the evening. And that was with me avoiding everypony else by skulking around backstage, occasionally watching Captain Thunder-Bollocks from the cover of curtains through my dismounted sniper scope. I might not have had a chance of smuggling in the whole rifle, but that didn't mean parts of it couldn't be useful!
My quarry spent most of his time in brief conversations with as many Very Important Ponies as he could manage without seeming rude. A few comments, a joke, some laughter, and he'd use the break to trot right over to the next gaggle of overdressed goofballs and chat them up. Clearly, he believed he was a pony everypony should know... and from the responses he got, most of the gala crowd was in agreement.
This was a buck whose star was on the rise, from whose saddle everypony wanted their stirrups hanging.
The sun went down as the embassy's courtyard lights went up, their positions strategically illuminating every sequin and medal in attendance. Up on stage behind the orchestra pit, notable after notable took the podium to give short speeches in honor of the Buck of the Hour --- each one followed immediately by rather longer speeches about whatever pet projects or issues they could jam in sideways. It was as though they believed their points and beliefs could only be accepted by others through constant repetition, the act of talking at ponies instead of to them.
Politicking. Politicking never changes...
When it seemed like the crowd could finally take no more, somepony graciously suggested that it was time to hear from Captain Enter-Vile-Reference-Here before folks began retiring for the evening. The mild joke unleashed a torrent of relieved laughter, not the least of which came from all of us backstage. It seemed no one had thought to reserve so much as a port-a-potty bucket for the working stiffs...
The "orchestra" streamed out into their seats for Phase Two of the grand plan, probably trying like me not to think of streams, waterfalls, rainstorms, oceans... dammit. I found a moment to make use of a cast-off milk bottle while everypony was still settling in. Meanwhile, they were all readying the instruments they couldn't even play for "The Big Number", whatever the hell The King had in mind for that. I reminded myself to haggle Pacer for a lower price tag on mercenaries who didn't bother letting their supposed employer know what shenanigans they were about.
To either side of the podium, the brass section arranged itself with trumpets, cornets and trombones, while the woodwinds and percussionists sat in the orchestra pit arrayed around the front of the stage. For all intents and purposes, the podium was surrounded by tux-clad Lords, with The King and Miss Tart standing just off to the side, and me still behind the curtain with the other "roadies" --- in theory, our reserve muscle.
It occurred to me that, just perhaps, I'd been talked into taking a position that kept me conveniently on the sidelines.
Too late now. To the cheers of the posh, Captain Riposte leapt nimbly to the stage, landing with a horn-swept flourish despite his formal attire. His display of panache having spiked the applause to new heights, he strolled to the podium, donned a pair of dark glasses, and quickly brought silence across the assembly with a single raised hoof.
At which point, every flood-lamp in sight focused directly on the stage and orchestra pit, blinding everypony caught in their glare but him. Even behind the curtains, enough raw actinic light got through that I reflexively raised a hoof to protect my night-sensitive eyes, biting back a curse.
"GO GO GO!"
NCR troopers poured in through the back of the stage, charging past us "roadies" like we weren't even there, shoving the barrels of rifles and pistols into the Lords and yelling at them to get down. From every surrounding rooftop sprang the night-combat targeting beams of numerous snipers' rifles, focusing in on the Lords still struggling to recover their wits down in the orchestra pit. Only once the situation was completely under his control did Gallant signal for the lights to return to their original positions, pocketing his protective eyewear with a smile.
We'd surrounded Gallant, and then he'd surrounded us. Cool as a lake-pony, he adopted the same casual stroll towards the opposite side of the stage where Miss Tart stood, looking dumbstruck. She was leaning against The King for support; he had a foreleg around her good shoulder, looking more concerned for her immediate well-being than his own.
Gallant gave with a deep, happy laugh that might as well have been off a script. "Fillies and gentlecolts! This has got to be the evening's kicker. I present to you none other than 'The King' and what looks like most of his band of gangsters, the so-called Lords of Freemane!" He waited a moment for the expected boos and hisses before motioning for quiet once more.
Butter Tart looked up and grimaced. "You're Special Service, aren't you, Riposte? You need to know -" Simultaneously, The King kicked her shin and Gallant turned up his nose at the filly's protests.
"There is nothing an obvious traitor can tell me that I do not already know, Miss Tart. Yes, you are now in the hooves of the S.S... my hooves, to be exact." Stepping down from the stage, secure in the presence of the several rifles trained on his two captives, Gallant took the time to gloat, milking the moment for all he could get.
"Seriously, 'The King'? Waylaying the hired help and wearing their uniforms? That old chestnut? When none of you can even hold a double-bass right, or wear formal attire correctly? And with those arrogant punk hairstyles?" Now he seemed to laugh genuinely, taking a few moments to get it out of his system while The King just watched with dispassionate aloofness. He finished up his act by rounding on Butter Tart with an accusing hoof, she having no better defense at the moment than to glare right back.
"And you. You waltz in here with him at your fetlocks, expecting me to believe you injured yourself climbing up a mountain which our intelligence shows is covered with Diamond Dog tribals? You don't carry half the injuries our armored troops have sustained just trying to get close to that damned hillock!" His mane tossed with theatrical contempt. "What did you think you were going to do, walk in here and just kill everyone, like the herd of madponies you are?"
Ignoring the rifles aimed at him, The King leapt behind Gallant and up onto the stage before turning back to face him, Tart, the rifles and the enthralled crowd.
"Aw naw, buck. Like we said... we're th' entertainment. A-ONE! A-TWO! A-one-two-three!"
Another problem with monologuing just to showboat: it gives your presumably-defeated opponent time to get their act together. And the Lords had one hell of an act to put on.
They didn't pull cleverly-hidden grenades out of lead-lined pockets designed to defeat magical detection. They didn't produce several heavy weapons which they'd smuggled in as disassembled parts and then reassembled during furtive moments backstage. They didn't produce a platoon of unicorn mage-prodigies which they'd been secretly training for decades in expectation of the opportunity for just such an occasion.
Nope. From a number of instrument cases which they'd quietly paid no attention to until now, about a quarter of the Lords pulled forth harmonicas, guitars, tambourines and bongo drums. Those which already had trumpets and trombones from their "orchestra days" just grinned and puckered up as the soldiers covering them stared.
In their eyes, I could see the collective: Wait, what...? When The King opened up his throat to belt out his signature ballad, their confusion was nowhere more clearly displayed than in the eyes of Guard-Captain Derp-in-the-Headlights Gallant.
[SPECIAL MUSICAL INSERT!]: A Strangely Appropriate Tune
The King kicked off by leaping to his hind hooves, shaking his pelvis in a gyrating motion. In seconds, he'd dropped a full dozen of the more matronly mares in the audience with fits of sheer apoplexy.
Old World city, gonna set my soul,
Gonna set my soul on fire!
Got a whole lotta bottlecaps a-ready t' burn,
So get those stakes up higher!
The Lords leaped into action, ripping off their tuxedos to reveal their usual leather jackets beneath and forming ad-hoc chorus lines. Their swaying hips and smoldering looks, both on stage and in the pit, started a round of spontaneous squeals from the less-decorous fillies who'd been dragged along to this previously-boring-as-hell shindig. All right! Somepony brought the real party!
Gallant shook his head with an audible wogga-wogga-wogga, fighting to absorb the concept of a hugely-successful-bust-turned-impromptu-rock-and-roll-concert. Meanwhile, The King turned his own soulful gaze on his nearest insta-fans, teasingly puckering his lips as he crooned:
There's a thousand willin' fillies, a-waitin' out there,
They're all livin' for that savoir-faire,
An' I'm a fallen savior, with love t' spare!
So viva, New Pegas!
Viva, New Pegas!
All three fillies fainted dead away, clutching their chests with another round of squeals and causing their theoretical escorts and paramours no small amount of immediate concern for their sanity.
Now I might wish that there were more
Than twenny-four hours in th' day!
A little bit of cash, an' I'll pop some Dash,
I won't sleep a minute of it away!
Recovering his military bearing at last, Gallant grabbed one of the troopers and pointed at The King. "Shoot him! Shoot, you idiot!" The soldier just stared at him. "At an unarmed civilian?! For what, sir? Trespassing?"
Oh, there's Black-Jack an' Poker,
An' th' Roulette wheel
A fortune won or lost on ev'ry deal,
So make sure your back is covered
With a length of steel!
Viva, New Pegas!
Viva, New Pegas!
By now, the more libertine of attendees were tapping hooves and bobbing heads in time to the wild combination of rhythm and melody, some of them even trying to dance to it in the middle of the packed crowd with mixed success.
Viva, New Pegas, with your
An' yer one-armed bandits crashin'
Gallant's face, looking across the assembly, carried the horrified look of a fame-hungry buck whose spotlight was being suddenly and thoroughly hijacked.
All those hopes, down th' drain!
I'll give him this, though: he was sure capable of turning that look into one that could scare small foals in two seconds flat.
Viva, New Pegas, bring the day into night-time
An' Celestia to my bed-time
If she shows up a-once...
You'll never go home again!
"Blasphemy!" shouted an old general, the fruit-salad of decorations on his uniform jiggling with fury beneath a huge white broom of mustache.
His wife, resplendent in black evening gown with a tastefully minimal number of well-placed diamonds, let him have it in the rump with a bump from the hip, nearly knocking the war hero over. "Get with the times, you old gray mare!" With that said, she dragged the poor bastard out into the growing maelstrom of dancing ponies.
I might be on the run,
But I'll have me some fun,
'Cause my liberty is in its prime!
If I wind-up broke-up, well I'll
Always remember that I
Had me a hell of a time!
With the officers joining in, why shouldn't the troops? At least, that seemed to be what was going through their heads. the Lords weren't fighting, weren't resisting arrest, weren't doing anything except what they'd been announced as --- the replacement entertainment for the evening. The tension in the air simply popped like a soap bubble, everypony joining in with the festivities.
I wouldn't really have been able to tell what happened next if I hadn't picked up some rudimentary ability to read lips in my years of stalking raider bounties. Gallant tried dragging the general off the dance floor, shouting at him to get the troops under control and arrest the Lords for --- for something! Anything! The general barked right back that if the Guard-Captain were smart, he'd play along like the whole thing had been staged and otherwise keep his big mouth shut, to which most of those immediately in the vicinity laughed.
Shamed, embarrassed and angry, Guard-Captain Riposte Gallant stormed off what had become the dance floor.
Well, I'm gonna give it ev'rything I've got,
Lady Luna please, let the dice stay hot,
Let me shoot a seven, with ev'ry shot!
Shame, embarrassment and anger are dangerous emotions in a soldier, especially one with a rather high opinion of himself; Gallant's green eyes blazed with the promise of revenge. He set course straight for Butter Tart, who stood by the stage gazing up at The King. Her rapturous smile was mirrored by the half-dozen other fillies crowding in for a chance to get closer to their new musical idol.
For their own part, The King and every Lord on stage were locked in the throes of the final thundering chorus:
Ah, viva, New Pegas!
Viva, New Pegas!
Viva, New Pegas!
The crowd, with a number of notable exceptions, exploded into wild cheering, throwing hats into the air and coins at the stage, yelling for more. Those notable exceptions, composed almost wholly of the entire Silver Slipper entourage, collectively lifted their noses into the air with a "hmph!" and departed, displaying all the grace and disdain of a sous-chef discovering a line of scum in a proffered saucepan.
So much for the hoped-for-alliance. Not that many of the NCR folks seemed to care; most of them, deep down, came from working-class roots. Farmers, miners, veteran soldiers, the sorts who understood the value of a good-old hoe-down... even if they might otherwise have pretensions to snootier lifestyles, someday.
I briefly lost sight of Riposte as the crowd surged forward to swarm the Lords, and their King, with requests and adoration. But I didn't lose sight of Butter Tart as she slowly got shoved back by the sheer press of ponies jostling her injured shoulder. Her, I watched, waiting in the wings...
From the back of the crowd a steel-grey glow emerged, wrapped tightly around the hilt of a rapier whose point flicked out to nestle beneath the bandaged neck of the hunted prey. With a start, Miss Tart backed up, trying to get away from the razor-sharp edge which nicked her throat, pursuing her pace-by-pace retreat with effortless ease. Riposte, drifting out of the crowd in a maddened dance all his own, followed in its wake.
And the harmless little Earth-pony roadie followed, at a distance, in his.
* * * * *
Barely a block away, Riposte decided, was far enough to serve. This far from the lit-up embassy grounds, yet not so close to the garish neon flaring out from the Strip itself, might perhaps provide a sufficiency of darkness for the deed. Which he might have been right about, if my profession hadn't long ago taught me how to be a sneaky little bastard. While I kept my silhouette to the shadows, he reversed the sword in his magical grip to bash at Butter with the hilt, driving her into the alley between a pair of office buildings. Their tenants, long gone for the night, were presumably expected to find her body in the morning.
If he had a lick of sense operating in his skull, Riposte probably had some idea for pinning the murder on the Lords, too. In his horseshoes, I sure would. But he was still taking his frustration out on Butter's face with his hooves when I sidled around the corner, my lips warm upon the grip of my favorite hold-out pistol. The courier's ten-mil was definitely a cut above its brethren, solid and unyielding and steady and easier to hide than you'd think to look at it.
Unfortunately, it was also a bit too shiny, and the alley a bit too well-lit.
Riposte surprised me; I'd thought him more of a grasping fop than a real soldier. He leaped backwards from Butter, magically thrusting his rapier down the alley at me, simultaneously throwing off my aim and forcing me to dodge aside.
I slipped into S.A.T.S. --- the odds displayed weren't good, nothing better than thirty-percent odds of a hit and that only for center-mass shots. I piled on as many as I could, four rounds, and let go. Three zipped harmlessly past him, leaving only one to strike home with the distinct spang of metal on metal.
Chestplate cuirass! Damn!
Something flashed in the periphery of my vision as I came out of the slow-motion trance, and then the vision in my right eye disappeared. In the next instant, I was clutching at my face, screaming like a --- like a --- there's nothing to compare it to. My throat simply opened and released a howl of primal anguish which I had no power to stop. The pistol fell from my nerveless, gaping mouth, my traitorous tongue too busy vocalizing the essence of sheared nerve endings to keep its grip on the trigger.
My eye. He slashed open my EYE.
One small problem of being a careful, intelligent and methodical bounty hunter: because I avoided putting myself into wildly dangerous situations, I didn't get shot very often. I didn't let my opponents, whom I usually outranged by as much as a quarter-mile, get close enough to stab or pummel me. And while I'd gotten somewhat used to blunt trauma from a long childhood of hoof-fights with bullies --- I'd never had the pleasure of being slashed open with a knife. And I'd never been wounded in such a horrible way as this.
Ever stub the inside of your hoof on a sharp rock? Okay. Imagine that the rock is a nail and that it just drove up the middle of your hoof. Now imagine your hoof is actually your fucking eyeball. I think that maybe gets it across.
In the barest instant after being initiated into a realm of such pain that the simple four-letter word didn't really begin to express it, I knew I was going into shock. I also knew I could do nothing about it. When the next moment finally ticked over, I realized I was going to die, right here, helplessly paralyzed by the reality of my very first crippling stab wound. Part of me screamed that I was a coward for not fighting back, regardless of debilitating injury, that I was a weakling for not plowing through the hurt, that I deserved this for being stupid enough not to try for the long shot instead of getting close enough to be stabbed in the first place.
I slumped as strength fled my legs, collapsing to my belly, still expelling that one long scream like --- projectile-vomiting agony! That was it! Heh... how could I laugh, even just inside, as that cruel blade-tip lined up with my remaining eye? As I looked up its length into the triumphant grin of a sonovabitch named Riposte Gallant, feeling bisected ruin grinding through my right eye-socket as what was left there habitually tried to track what the left eye was focusing on... a sudden wash of blinding tears, brought on by the motion, flooded the raw red meat with saline solution.
My throat locked up, unable to bring forth the sound my lungs wanted to force through it. A vast roaring noise filled my eardrums. Why couldn't he finish it? End it! One quick thrust to the brain, COME ON! I couldn't stand it anymore! My left hoof flailed madly, seeking the lost pistol; if Riposte wouldn't put me out of my misery, I'd do it myself! I...
...I felt the ground shudder with the thump of a pony's body landing next to me.
A moment later, a bottle was shoved into my still-gaping mouth. Someone's hoof clamped over my muzzle, forcing me to drink its contents out of sheer reflex. Sweet... it was sweet, and wholesome, and tasted --- purple?
"Ahh, shaddap, ya godsdamned pansy. All that screamin', I had to flip a coin. Potion, buckshot? Potion, buckshot? Consider this your favor for the day." I felt the prick of a needle against the right side of my face, saw the expended vial of Hydra cast aside to my left. "This too. Don't think I'm goin' all sentimental on ya, either. This barn door don't swing that way."
My vision slowly returned, the pain fading away until I found myself sucking an empty bottle and looking up...
...at Ash. Of Housewares. He was still wearing the nametag.
He was also floating that gargantuan shotgun of his, its double-barrel still smoking. I realized that I was partly covered with Gallant bits, fought not to retch as I hastily pushed the bottle away.
"Ee-yep," drawled Ash, taking a moment to inspect the firearm, "she's a beaut, all right. Ironshod Firearms' IF-88 Ironpony, made in good-ol' Hoofington. Ten-gauge, double-action twin-barrel autoloader, walnut stock, cobalt-blued steel assembly, ten-round internal magazine with an external port that's expandable to a full twenty. Ess-Mart's top of the line --- or it would be, if any damned son of a bitch but me ever found another one like it."
The light grey unicorn, his black mane shook out and wide grin gleaming, stood up and reached back to toss me Tag's disconnected slave collar. Its key followed shortly thereafter, with a clink.
"Need more firepower'n that, you shoulda brought your own damned army-of-darkness to do all the fightin' for ya. Speakin' of which, I've got some business back on the other side of town. But I thought I'd drop in, save your sorry ass and the dollface, and leave you with some parting words of wisdom for the next time some primitive screw-head stabs you in the face." He bent down close, close enough to whisper in my ear.
I'd just been whipsawed between the trauma of losing an important and sensitive body part for the first time, having it regenerate back to being as good as new in a matter of seconds, and having no choice but to be thankful to the most naturally-sarcastic prick I'd ever met. And I wasn't quite sure if I'd just been threatened by that selfsame savior into the bargain.
What could I do, other than lay there on my belly in a growing puddle of the NCR's finest, watching him trot off into the night with a brutalized and unconscious starlet slung over his shoulder like a sack of beans? Watching the mists of midnight slowly close around his shadow like seeking tendrils from another plane of existence? Watching that incredible, amazing shotgun (I want it! I need it!) levitate upwards in a final parting salute, hearing his words drift back across millennia and light-years...
..."hail to the King, baby."
And in the cold silence that followed, even this far from the embassy, I could hear The King shouting to his still-raving audience, as though calling to a pony he probably never even met:
"Thank ya! Thankyaverramush."
Footnote: Level Up.
New Perk: Commando -- While using a rifle or similar weapon, your accuracy in S.A.T.S. is increased by 25%. In addition, you can channel your innate desire to charge headlong into battle into a controlled burst of speed (Turbo +4, useable once per day), and your Poison Resistance drops to 10% anytime you are within three yards of a rusty tin can.
Skill Note: Barter (25)