Not Such A Bad Life [Part Two]

In her dream, Layla was in a tumble dryer on a fast spin cycle. Someone must’ve left some coins in their pockets because their was an awful smashing sound with every spin. Metal screaming across metal. There must’ve been some people in here too and they weren’t too happy about it from the way they were screaming.

Except for one guy who was laughing about it.

All in all, it was about the third or forth weirdest dream Layla had had this week.

Opening her eyes was a chore. It always was, of course, but today it was like she had lead weights one the end of her eyelashes. She managed it in the end though, as always. Any other day she’d have considered that her daily cardio and rewarded herself with something alcoholic and/or deep fried. But today she wasn’t in her bed, she wasn’t even in her house.

She was upside down, that was her first clue. Her house almost never did that. Second clue was that she was sitting down, the only thing keeping her from smashing down to the ceiling was the seatbelts strapped across her shoulders. The ticking of the engine echoed against the metal walls and the air stank of engine smoke. Definitely not her house. Either that or it’d been one hell of a party.

It came back to her, along with a monstrous headache and a dizzying pain shooting up and down her entire body. She had been hired onto a last minute job by Helena Billingsley, one of the captains in Layla’s mercenary crew. It was a straightforward security job, pick up a prisoner from Joulienne in southeast Oparis and bring him north, to the only airport large enough to support international flights. From there he was supposed to be picked up by some representatives of the Levinian justice system; soldiers or Gentle Guard most likely. Layla had never gotten along with those guys either, but she could tolerate them in exchange for the three grand she’d get from the job.

The prisoner, Jack Cobalt, was unconscious. He was also handcuffed at the wrists, elbows, and ankles; strapped to a rubber chair and then locked inside a cage in the middle of the truck. He wasn’t going anywhere for now, thankfully. They couldn’t afford for him to get loose, especially since Layla had seen how dangerous he could be. He’d managed to give Layla a little bit of trouble even when he was unarmed and fresh out of his prison cell.

Not much trouble, admittedly. But it got her heartrate pumping and left her with a few bruises, which was more than you could say for most of the chumps Layla scuffled with in this job.

Cobalt also wasn’t the sort of guy you wanted to be unconscious around. He was wanted for a shopping list of the worst crimes you could commit without being a politician. The kidnappings and murders were the least of what he’d done. Layla had seen photos of some of the crime scenes he’d left behind and even with her strong stomach she’d nearly puked up her breakfast. Most recently he’d gunned down Lamond and Edward DuChard; a father and eleven year old son before apparently murdering the family of Sheriff Indira of Joulienne.

He wasn’t going to stay unconscious forever and the blood was rushing to Layla’s head. It was time to go right way up and get back on her feet again.

Easier said than done. The truck’s ceiling was maybe ten feet from her chair and made of reinforced steel. As soon as she released her seatbelt she was going to fall headfirst towards it unless she could find something to hold onto. She reached over her head and ran her fingers along the back of her headrest, probing for something to grab. Her aching shoulders chafed against the seatbelt, but right now they were the least of her worries.

The back of her headrest was completely smooth. No lumps or safety bars or handholds of any kind. She tried to seat in front of her. Her back creaked and her ribcage felt like it was wrapped in barbed wire and it wasn’t even worth it, the back of the chair was completely flush with the floor.

This bit of the truck was built solid, unusual for a piece of requisitioned gear. Layla supposed she shouldn’t complain, if the seats were loose they would’ve all been killed in the crash, even with the seatbelts on.

Layla got an idea. She tugged on the seatbelt, it clunked against its metal brackets and held fast. If the belts could hold her weight while they were flipping and smashing down a hill then they could survive this.

Even if they couldn’t, there was nothing else in reach that might help Layla down. She gripped the belt tight with one hand, took a deep breath, and unbuckled it.

Layla dropped from her seat. The seatbelt tried to retract back into its holster but Layla kept tight hold as she fell and yanked it taut.

The good news: the seat belt held. The bad news: Layla’s shoulder didn’t. The pain hit hard and her grip opened up.

It was only a few feet to the ground. Not much of a fall, and Layla was always good at landing on her toes. She would’ve stuck the landing if her back hadn’t crumbled like a pile of sugar cubes. Layla stumbled forward, overbalanced and face planted right into the metal ceiling of the truck.

The impact knocked her dizzy but she had to laugh. She felt like she’d just been fed into a trash compactor and lit on fire, but she was alive, nothing was broken, and she healed fast so she’d be up and walking under her own power in no time.

She rolled over onto her back. Jack Cobalt’s gunmetal grey eyes fixed on her.

He winked. “They’re coming for you, tattooed woman. Remember my promise?”

“It was somethin’ to do with eatin’ my skin or wearin’ my skin or somethin’ like that. Skin was involved. I dunno. I kinda tuned it out.”

“I’ll cut out your tongue first and–”

Layla yawned. “You done?”

A smile widened on his face. With his olive skin, square jaw, and high cheekbones he might’ve been somewhat attractive. But he was also a lunatic who shot children and tortured families to death for fun. Obviously, that sort of thing was a bit of a turn-off.

Jack Cobalt reared back, hawked deep in the back of his throat and spat at her face.

Her hands still knew their trade even though the rest of her was in agony. Layla whipped her sword out from its sheathe and held it across her face just in time to catch the phlegm against the blade.

Even if she hadn’t been a trained and experienced mercenary, she imagined she might’ve done something similar. Nothing annoyed Layla more than being spat on. It reminded her too much of high school.

She swept her sword across, through the bars of Cobalt’s cage, and bounced the flat of her blade against the side of his skull. His eyes rolled and bloody drool trickled down on her, which only made her angrier.

Being pissed off is nature’s alarm clock. Layla rocketed up onto her feet, pain be damned, and gave Cobalt another hard crack from the flat of her blade. This time she hit him on the crown of his head. He hung a little lower in his chains. Layla considered giving him another whack, maybe on the nose or on the back of his head. At this point she didn’t mind sending him back to Levinia with brain damage. They wanted him alive, they didn’t specify what kind of condition he needed to be in.

But the very act of thinking about it slowed her down. He was already out cold. Any more hits and she risked killing him. Not that the world wouldn’t be better off, but Layla’s wallet would suffer.

Someone coughed behind her. She whipped around, sword still inhand. But it was only Bertie. He was still hanging upside down from his seat, much like Layla had been.

Bertie coughed again. The air tasted of engine fumes which probably wasn’t doing him any favours. “I feel like shit.”

“Well, you look fantastic,” Layla said. “You need help getting down?”

“Down from where? Oh shit.” Bertie tugged on his seatbelt. “I thought you were just walking on the ceiling.”

“Techically you’re not wrong. Just grab your seatbelt with one hand, unclip it with the other an’ try to hold on.”

“Fuck. No. What? I’ll break my gods blessed neck.”

“You won’t. I’ll catch you.”

“Even after what I did back in Joulienne?”

The people in Joulienne hadn’t been too keen to just hand Cobalt over to the authorities. They wanted some good old fashioned hang ’em by the neck, frontier justice. Nobody could blame them. But when Layla had brought Cobalt out of the prison, the crowd had rushed for them. Helena had told Bertie to fire if the crowd made a move. He did and a woman went down bleeding.

“Helena gave you an order an’ you followed it. It’s a conversation for later.” Layla held out her arms and tried to smile. “C’mon, get your bony ass down here before all the blood pools at the top of your head an’ you never get an erection again.”

“When you put it that way…fuck it.” Bertie unclipped his belt and fell, much like Layla had done. Except he seemed a lot more graceful. He even managed to hang onto his belt with one hand. Layla was tempted just to let him drop, just as a joke. But instead she caught him around the waist and hauled him down onto his feet. It was like moving a bundle of twigs, he wasn’t exactly a heavy man.

Bertie found his rifle amongst the detritus at the back of the truck. He checked the ammo, the safety, and slung it over his back.

“What now?”

“Help the others down, get Cobalt outta here, then figure out what to do next.”

Like so many things, that wasn’t easy. The frontseat airbags had deployed on impact, so Layla and Bertie had to wrestle through about three feet of inflated rubber just to reach the other two. To make matters worse, Robin was six foot four and carrying what felt like a solid tonne of muscle.

The big guy tried to help out as much as he could, but he could only use his left hand after Cobalt had smashed the right one with a rock. So Layla and Bertie had to shoulder most of the burden.

Well, Layla had to shoulder most of the burden. Bertie tried, bless him. But he wasn’t nearly strong enough for this job.

Helena was worse. She was much smaller than Layla and tiny compared to Robin. But it was a struggle peeling Helena out of her seat, even with the two of them working together. There was a bloody red hole in her left bicep and it was gushing blood. They had to handle her like a box of glass ornaments to keep from making it worse.

“Are you okay? That’s a lot of blood outside o’ your body there, boss.”

“I’m fine, really. Look.” She made a fist with her left hand and curled it up to her chest and back down again. That meant she hadn’t broken anything or taken any serious nerve damage, all in all one of the better results you can expect from a bullet in the arm. But Layla reckoned Helena hadn’t been this pale earlier on.

“You should get yourself some orange slices or somethin’,” Layla said. “Or some Panacea would be better. Did you bring any?”

“Sure, Gregory won’t let us leave without a Panacea kit. But I prefer to save it for emergencies.”

“How much blood qualifies this as an emergency?”

Helena found the black hold-all tucked between the two front seats and pulled a red and white first aid kit from inside. “Whoever shot me is still out there. We don’t want to waste our resources on a through-and-through when one of us could take a bullet to the heart any minute. Or worse.” She wrapped a gauze bandage tight around her arm. “We’re probably going to have to pay to get the truck picked up, too.”

Layla scoffed. “Gotta look after that bottom line, right?”

“I know you’re being sarcastic but you’re right. I’m not going to put us out of pocket unless I have to.” Helena winced as she fastened the bandage in place. Blood was already blooming on the bandage.

Layla still wasn’t convinced but it was Helena’s wound, she could treat it how she liked. Layla wouldn’t have been so quick to take a dose of Panacea herself if it came down to it.

“Now, first order of business,” Helena nodded up at where Cobalt was hanging, “how do we get him down?”

It turned out to be easier than expected. Layla managed to scramble up one of the walls and catch hold of a seatbelt to haul her up to Cobalt’s level. Then it was a simple matter of unlocking his cage, climbing inside, and unchaining him from his chair. He was either out cold or faking it well enough for it to make no difference, he didn’t resist.

Layla was tempted to let him just drop on his head, but he’d already been unconscious for more than five minutes. That was never a good sign. Instead, Layla carried him across her shoulders for a moment before feeding him back out the cage to where Robin was waiting to catch him.

“Eventually someone other than me an’ Robin is gonna have to do some work.” Layla dropped back down to ground level. Her back didn’t crumble this time, she was getting stronger. “Up high, big man.”

She held up her hand and Robin slapped it with his good palm, hooting with laughter. Layla’s arm was only numb for a second or two. Worth it.

“We’ve spent enough time here,” Helena said. “Grab everything you need and get moving. Robin, remove the prisoner’s leg shackles please.”

“Why? So he can run away?” Layla asked.

“We need to go on foot and him shuffling around behind us is only going to slow us down. Unless you plan on carrying him?”

“Another sane, rational point.” They were maybe thirty or forty miles from Fleming’s Falls and the airport that marked the end of the job. A long distance to clear on foot, especially with a chained prisoner in tow. “But how long before we’re so sane an’ rational we’re just trustin’ Cobalt to turn himself in.”

“Somebody shot at us, Layla. We don’t have time to stand around here arguing. Get your stuff. Just the essentials.”

Layla was glad she’d packed light. Everything she needed to survive was already on her. Sword, p-cannon, and her mp3 player wrapped up in her side pocket.

Bertie tried to feed rifle bullets into his coat pockets but his hands were shaking so bad most of them tinkled to the floor. “Should we call Gregory? Get some reinforcements?”

Layla, Robin, and Helena all burst into laughter at once. Layla clapped him on the back. “Yeah, good one, man.”

“It’s a good idea,” Bertie said to his shoes.

Helena wiped tears from her eyes. “It is a good idea, Bertie. But any extra spending comes out of the job budget and I don’t think Gregory is going to sacrifice his cut. If we want any reinforcements we’ll have to pay for it ourselves.”

“We’re only gettin’ three grand, dude. I ain’t goin’ through this for a penny less. Besides, we don’t need anyone else.” Layla squeezed Bertie’s shoulder. “We’re the four most badass mercs in the business, who could stop us?”

“My gang for one.” Cobalt was up on his kees, lips pulled back to expose his brown-yellow teeth. “They’re out there. Closin’ in on you bitches like a noose. I wonder which one o’ y’all will be first to cry? My money’s on the little Nymese faggot, although the tattooed bitch prolly ain’t as tough as she likes to think. The retard is likely too dumb to know what’s happenin’ to him, even as we peel the flesh from the soles of his feet with a razor blade. As for the old cunt–”

“–she has a gun to the back of your head, so I suggest you watch your mouth.” Helena wasn’t lying, either. She even pressed the barrel of her pistol into the crown of his skull just to prove it.

“You won’t shoot me.”

“Are you sure about that?”

Cobalt stopped talking. Evidently, he wasn’t sure about that at all. But he still had that damn smile on his face. If there was profit in it, Layla would’ve loved to smash a few of those teeth out of his head.

Helena took a few steps back. “On your feet and march, Cobalt. You’re going out first. Try to run and I’ll shoot out your ankles.”

Cobalt gave a mock shudder, but he still got on his feet afterwards.

Helena nodded at Robin, who flipped the switch on the dashboard and got the back door open. Layla was glad to see daylight, it meant they hadn’t been in here long.

The walk to the door was too narrow. They had to go through single-file. Layla stepped aside to let them past as Helena shuffled Cobalt forward. He winked at her.

“I’m gonna save you ’til last tattooed lady. We’re gonna have some fun.”

“Oooh, we gonna play laser tag?”

“Don’t antagonise him.” Helena kept the gun level at the small of Cobalt’s back.

“Sure thing, boss.” Layla filed in behind her. “By the way, that was a great line earlier. Great timin’ too, you pulled your gun right at the best moment. I just wish he’d threatened you first so you could’a gotten it out faster.”

“Don’t antagonise me, either.”

“Aww, who can I antagonise? I like those other two guys too much.” Layla had more but they were almost at the exit now.

She hadn’t heard them when they were in the truck and with the engine clunking away. But now they were close to fresh air she heard the click and rattle of plastic. Bootfalls on soft grass. Sunlight glinted off metal in the distance and Layla yanked Helena back as the rifle boomed. The shot pounded into the dirt, kicking up dust and a confetti of dried leaves where Helena was just standing. Another step and Helena would’ve lost a leg.

She probably would’ve gotten the Panacea out then, wouldn’t she?

Cobalt hadn’t lost a leg, more’s the pity. He’d managed to throw himself clear of the bullet and scramble behind a nearby oak tree. He winked over his shoulder at them and charged off through the trees. Helena fired after him, but all she managed to do was whick some bark off the tree trunks. Cobalt was already gone.

Machine guns let rip from above, slashing through trees and pumeling the underside of the truck. Layla thought all the fire was concentrated on the right side of the truck, but it was hard to tell. It was like somebody sticking a metal bucket on your head and whacking it with a stick. Layla had to stuff her fingers in her ears to block out the noise and it still made her dizzy.

They couldn’t go out the back way after Cobalt, not with all those bullets flying.

Layla scrambled through the seats and Helena went after her. They must’ve had the same idea.

The driver’s side door was big enough to get them all through, but the handle was up high next to the seat. It’d be in a fine position if the truck was upright, just within reach. But now it was about ten feet above Layla’s head. She wedged herself between the driver’s seat and the wall and shimmied herself upwards, with bullets drilling closer all the while.

She caught hold of the handle with one hand and pulled. Nothing happened. She tried with both hands and her back pressed tight against the seat, but the door wouldn’t budge. It must’ve been one of those ones you had to pull outwards then push in the other direction. Again, a great idea if the truck was upright. You wouldn’t even think twice about it. Just pull, push and you’re out.

But it’s a little trickier when you’re suspended more than ten feet above a hard metal floor. Layla didn’t have the leverage to pull and push at the same time; it was one or the other, either that or a hard landing.

She called out to the others but it was too loud outside. Layla couldn’t hear her own voice. She may as well be trying to signal to them with interprative dance.

She gave one last pull but this time Robin pushed on the door with his one good hand. The door slipped open a crack, just a crack, but enough to throw Layla off balance. She fell and managed to grit her teeth and prep for impact before all three of her colleagues caught her.

Layla nodded her thanks, all you could do when you were being battered like this. Robin reached up and thumped the door with his good hand to swing it the rest of the way open. Layla couldn’t get a good look out there. Armoured cars might be the thing for transporting prisoners but they didn’t have much in the way of windows, especially not down here towards the ceiling. She wouldn’t like to take one on a sightseeing tour.

A bullet scraped through the armoured shell and whistled through the truck, slicing the headrest clean off of the front passenger’s seat. Just as well, she had just been about to tell everyone to go, and that bullet was way more effective than she could ever be.

But only one of them could climb outside at a time. Robin went first, he grabbed the top of the door and hauled himself up with one hand. It only took him a few seconds to wriggle through the gap but to Layla, it was an age. Layla’s stomach wrapped itself in knots. She wasn’t a claustrophobic person by any means, but even she was starting to feel the panic pinching into her nerves. There was no way out and she was just standing here waiting for another bullet to break through and cut her in half. It was enough to make her want to scream, if she thought there was anyone to hear her.

At least Bertie was out quick. He was up and over like a wippet, one of the advantages of being so short and skinny. Layla could’ve almost envied him.

Helena tapped Layla on the shoulder and she flinched. She dropped her hand from her mouth–she hadn’t even realised she’d been biting her nails, then went outside herself. It was an easy climb, only about half as far as she’d climbed to open the door in the first place.

She didn’t realise how hot and humid it’d been in the truck until she was outside with the fresh air chilling her sweat to freezing point. They had fallen down in a dense woodland that descended down like steps towards a bowl-shaped valley. There was a wide clearing at the bottom and Layla could make out fields of golden wheat, a wooden enclosure full of blocky animal shapes, and dozens of wooden houses with puffs of smoke rolling out of their chimneys; all set against the fading red sunset.

It would’ve been beautiful if the truck wasn’t still being hammered by bullets. She still had no idea who was shooting at them, but Layla could hear a little better now she wasn’t closed inside the truck. They seemed to be high up on the valley on the far side of the truck, which at least put them all in good cover. At least until the shooters decided to flank around.

Come to think of it, that’s exactly what the others should’ve been doing. Flank first lest ye be flanked.

She opened her mouth to say as much, but Helena got there first.

“Bertie, you’re with me on the right; Robin you and Layla go left. Head down towards the valley then circle back. Bertie and Robin, me and you are going to get on the outside of these sons of bitches. Layla, wait until we start shooting then go after Cobalt.”

“It’ll be my pleasure. But don’t you need me here?”

“Listen to that.” Helena jerked her head towards the truck and the bullets hammering and ricocheting off the other side. “We need a kingdamned batallion, but we have to make do with what we have. Go! We’ve already wasted enough time.”

“Smartest thing you’ve said yet.” Layla took off for the trees below their position before Helena could say anything else.

Ha! Last word. This day was improving.

Layla crashed through the woodland. The leafy canopy above her head cut the fading sunlight into dizzying flashes. She knew they needed to head out of their attackers eyeline before they could move to the flanks, but Layla couldn’t help but think of the massive head start Cobalt already had.

If Cobalt was right and this was his gang coming to save him then he could’ve made it to the road already. Even now, he might be making his way to the house of his next victim.

The thought damn near knocked her to a stop. That would’ve been a bad idea with Robin barrelling through the woods behind her.

Cobalt would’ve known they expected him to run. But he’d had seen the same view she had. Even if that was his gang up there he had no way to signal to them. He’d still need to head down the slope to evade the gunfire. From what Layla had heard so far, their attackers all seemed to subscribe to the ‘spray and pray’ school of marksmanship.

“I know where Cobalt’s gone.” Layla caught a tree to steady herself. “You gonna be okay on your own for a bit, Robin?”

Robin nodded and charged off to the south. Credit to the big guy, he could switch directions mid-stream quicker than a pro-footballer.

Layla swung off from the tree and ran for the valley as hard as she could. Trees blurred and whistled past, protuding branches came close to knocking her head off more than once. It was like skiing, slaloming through the trees while she let gravity do most of the work.

She was going so fast she didn’t hear the four gun-toting people before she was already in the thick of them. They were all in balaclavas and carrying heavy assault weapons. One of them swung his weapon towards Layla but by then she was close enough to clap it out of his hands. The next in line brought his weapon up, but Layla drew her sword first and slashed the blade straight through the middle, splitting it into two useless halves. He lunged for her and Layla let him grab her just long enough to slow her momentum. She twisted out of his grasp, seized his arm and used it to drag him over her hips and toss him into his buddy. The two of them went rolling off down the valley. Layla had to grab a tree trunk to avoid going right down after them.

By now the other two had their weapons trained on her. One of them had a repeater with a varnished wooden stock, the other had an oversize light machine gun. The barrel of the LMG whirred to life and Layla swung herself into cover behind another tree trunk before the bullets could spray.

The impact shook the tree behind Layla’s back and sent up great hunks of bark. It wouldn’t be long before it sawed the tree completely in half, then did the same to Layla. But there were thousands of trees ahead of her, each as thick and tall as this one. She made for the nearest, a big bastard with a thick trunk, and circled around. Behind her she heard a loud crack in amongst the machine-gun fire, the kind you normally hear before someone yells ‘TIMBER!’

Layla scrambled up the thick tree; propelling herself up by grabbing branches, cracks, and squirrel holes; anything she could use as a handhold until she was up in the leaves. If it wasn’t for the gunfire all around her, it’d be just like climbing trees when she was a kid.

She peeled the leaves aside. The guy with the LMG was still blasting away into the forest. Up ahead of Layla, the limbs of this tree intertwined with the ones the kid was shooting at. Layla waited until the spinning barrels of the LMG whined empty and sprinted out across the tree limbs, not even wondering if it’d hold her weight until she was already up above the kid’s head.

If she stopped to think about it, she never would’ve made it.

The kid went for the bullets on the belt wrapped around his chest. Layla dropped from the treetop and planted both of her feet on the LMG, smashing it out of the guy’s hands. She stuck the landing, held her balance, a million miles from the woman whose back had given out back in the truck. She punched the hilt of her rapier into the guy’s face and he toppled backwards.

Layla was in the moment completely. The burning, insatiable, wild part of her was running the show and she was loving every second of it. She made eye contact with the woman holding the rifle on her. If Layla was thinking clearer she might’ve considered how the tip of the rifle was shaking before she sliced it clean off. The woman tossed it down and Layla stomped a boot into the woman’s chest, hammering her back against a tree trunk.

The woman curled up, wheezing. It looked for all the world like she was out of the fight. But you could never be too careful. She swung her rapier up, angling the tip at the woman’s face. “Where’s Cobalt?”

Layla reckoned she might’ve already knew the answer, but it wouldn’t hurt to get a little confirmation from his gang.

The woman put up her hands. “Please. You can’t let him get away.”

“I never planned to. What’re you talkin’ about?”

“He needs to die for what he’s done.” The woman’s voice was nearly a whimper. “Why won’t you just let us kill him?”

“What?” Layla yanked the balaclava off the woman’s face. When someone starts talking crazy, it helps if you can see their face.

She was a pretty, pale-skinned woman with faint wrinkles around her cheeks and eyes. Layla thought those type of wrinkles were called ‘laughter lines’ but she didn’t think this woman had much to laugh about recently. She’d been kicked in the chest for one thing, and for another Layla recognised the copper red hair and freckles, as well as the upturned nose and tapered chin.

She’d seen a photograph this afternoon of an eleven year old boy with this kind of face, except this woman didn’t have a hole in her forehead where brains, and thoughts, and dreams should’ve lived.

Layla lowered her sword. “I’m sorry.”

What else can you say? How can you even comprehend that kind of loss if you’d never come close to it? Layla knew one thing though, you defiitely aren’t supposed to kick a grieving mother in the chest.

“Sorry doesn’t bring my son back.” The woman glared up through her eyelashes. “Or my husband.”

This was the second victim of Jack Cobalt who had refused to accept Layla’s condolences. She was beginning to think it was something she’d done. Like kicking her in the chest, for example.

Layla was going to be playing that over inside her head for a while.

“You think killin’ that prick is gonna bring your people back? I feel your pain but–”

“–no you don’t. You have no idea.”

Layla forced her mouth shut. She’d seen plenty of her loved ones die, boyfriends, friends, pets. All those losses made her want to rip the guts out of someone–not necessarily the person that’d killed them, just the first person she laid eyes on. She never did. She always kept her rage in the cold.

Those feelings probably burned hotter after you’ve lost a kid. She couldn’t blame this woman for wanting Cobalt dead. But she was interfering with Layla’s pay day, not to mention helping Cobalt escape.

“Those your people up there shootin’ at mine?” The woman nodded. “Call ’em off. We ain’t on Cobalt’s side any more’n you are.”

“You let him out of prison.”

“True, we let him out of one prison so we can take him to a worse one. You ever seen the inside of a Levinian jail cell, honey?”

The woman shook her head.

“Well I have. Trust me, five minutes in an’ Cobalt’ll wish you killed him out here.”

She didn’t say anything at first, just kept staring down at the ground. After yet another age, she lifted her head. Her eyes went wide.

A thick arm snapped tight around Layla’s throat before she could say anything. She flipped the tip of her blade behind her but before she could stab, a strong hand clamped down on her wrist and held it fast. There had to be an angle she could cut or stab from. But there wasn’t much Layla could do without the full rotation of her wrist. She twisted and slashed as much as she could, but her sword couldn’t get in behind her.

“Tell me again about that Levinian prison cell you’re gonna send me to, bitch.”

“That’s not the insult you think it is. Get some better material–” the rest of Layla’s voice came out in a squawk as Cobalt’s bicep swelled up against her throat. It was like being crushed by a boulder. This’d already be over if he had both hands on her throat. Thank a god or whatever that Cobalt had grabbed her wrist too.

But he only had hold of one wrist. Layla put the other one behind her, grabbed Cobalt’s crotch and squeezed. He let go at once, hands dropping to his groin. Layla released his tiny balls and his floppy, unimpressive cock and snapped an elbow into his face. She swung around, her sword leading. Cobalt dropped onto his ass, the flat of the sword sailing over his head.

Layla knew this trick and hopped backwards before Cobalt could kick her in both of her kneecaps. He rolled back up onto his feet and Layla followed him. She stabbed for his knee, he lifted his leg out the way and swung a kick to her jaw. Layla ducked underneath and tossed a jab at his exposed crotch just as Cobalt spun around. Her fist cracked against his hip instead, he grunted in pain and dropped his elbow for her nose. Layla slipped back and the elbow sailed past.

She stabbed for his gut, but he must’ve known it was coming because he was already gliding off to the side like he was wearing roller skates. He tossed a kick at her arm, but she slashed the blade underhand, tearing a bloody strip off his shin. He screamed and scrambled backwards, away from her sword.

That was fine too. Layla lifted her p-cannon. Cobalt grabbed the pale-skinned woman by the shoulders and tossed her at Layla. Layla had to lower both weapons to catch her and keep her from tumbling down into the valley like her buddies.

She caught a shimmer of light off of Cobalt’s sweaty back as he disappeared into the trees. He was heading back up the valley. Layla might’ve thought this was just a ploy, a trick to lead her away while Cobalt circled back to get at those houses down below. But the blood from his shin had stained the mud behind.

“You okay?” she said to the woman.

“Get your hands off me,” she hissed. Layla did as she was told. “You’re worse than he is.”

That had stung, there’s no hiding it. But Layla couldn’t argue. She just put the woman down and left her behind.

“If anythin’ I’m worse.” Layla muttered and took off after Cobalt’s blood trail.

*

About half way up the valley Layla noticed that the shooting had stopped. Either one side had slaughtered the other, or Helena and the others had realised who they were scrapping with and decided to call a truce. Helena might’ve been pretty cold, but even she wouldn’t stoop so low as to murder people she had no real beef with.

Layla hoped not anyway.

Her legs were burning and it felt like she was inhaling every breath through a plastic bag. But she kept running. Cobalt was heading towards the others. Unless Layla was following someone elses’ blood trail, anyway.

The slope eased down and flattened out. The truck was still where they’d left it. Wheels spinning in the air. Driver’s door open. Except now Robin was sat up against the truck with his hairy head lolling off to one side, bloody drool slopping out into his beard and onto his shoulder. Helena was on her back, clutching her elbow and wincing. Her face was covered in bruises. As for Bertie, he was coming out from behind with truck with Jack Cobalt behind him.

Cobalt had one of Helena’s machetes pressed against Bertie’s throat.

“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t cut his throat.” Cobalt was pale. Breathing hard. He’d been put through the wringer today, no doubt about it, yet he’d fought back every step of the way. But the fight was bleeding out of him.

But that wasn’t going to help Layla now Cobalt had a blade to her friend’s throat.

She never took her eyes off Cobalt. Any slight twitch of his muscles and she’d pepper him with p-cannon bolts and wouldn’t care if it killed him or not. She wasn’t losing Bertie over three grand. “You okay, Bertie?”

Bertie didn’t say anthing. That was probably the smart move.

“Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m gonna go back to the road with your little buddy here. The two of us are gonna grab the first car we see. Then I’m gonna take him up to a nice, secluded place an’ have a little fun with him.”

Bertie shivered. A few tears dribbled out of his eyes, but he kept his jaw clenched and his eyes on Layla.

“Whatever’s left, I send back to ya. How’s that sound? Fair deal? Because the alternative is, I saw off his fucking neck right here and now.”

“What? An’ lose your only leverage?”

“Don’t give a shit. You lose a friend.” Cobalt ducked low behind Bertie’s head. “Because he is your friend, ain’t he?”

Something shifted on Layla’s peripheries. Helena was crawling closer to the truck. Layla didn’t know what the boss was up to, but she kept her face straight and her eyes on Cobalt.

“You’re also my pay day,” Layla said. “I’d prefer not to lose Bertie today, but if the alternative is losin’ my pay then you better just cut his throat now.”

Layla hated herself for the lie, but she had to keep Cobalt talking. She just hoped Bertie saw it for the bluff it was.

Out the corner of her eye, Helena inched a little closer to the truck and reached for something.

“I saw you down there. If you cared about your pay day even a little, you would’ve split that woman apart to get to me. But you held her up and kept her from bashin’ her noggin open while I got away. I hate to say it but you would’ve gotten me, too. Ol’ Jack knows when he’s been beat.” Cobalt’s eyebrows knitted together. “How’d you do it, anyway?”

“Do what?”

“Don’t kid me, darlin’. You know my history. I’m ex-army, special forces, Gentle Guard — all that. I’ve never met a cunt I couldn’t take out one on one. Who trained you? Where’d you learn all that shit?”

“Video games. They aren’t kiddin’ when they say those things are murder simulators.” Layla wasn’t telling this jackass anything personal about her no matter whose throat he was threatening.

“Figures, you should never trust a merc to tell the truth–” Cobalt spotted Helena and elbowed her gun out of the way before she could squeeze the trigger.

He was fast, but he’d also taken his eyes off Layla. Layla swept her arm up and squeezed the trigger on her p-cannon. A replica steel bolt whipped out and skewered Cobalt’s arm. He dropped the machete and Bertie was off like he’d just heard the starting pistol.

There was nothing between them now. It was just Layla and Cobalt. He roared and hobbled at her. One good leg and one good arm and he still wanted to fight. The guy had guts.

Layla gave her sword a flourish and waited for him to come. He had guts now. It might be a different story in a few minutes.

He tossed a clumsy haymaker with his good arm. Layla stepped aside, hit him in the ribs with the hilt of her rapier, ducked Cobalt’s elbow swing, and hammered his solar plexus with her hilt. He went back, clutching his chest and gasping. Layla whicked her rapier into his wrist and peeled his arm away.

She needed a clean line of sight for this.

Layla turned her wrist upwards, looked down the flat of her rapier blade at Cobalt’s bare chest. She found the spot and stabbed the blade into him, bypassing the ribs, the gastric tract, and slipping through the spinal column like a needle. She snipped the thoracic nerve and brought the blade out as quick as she’d stabbed it in.

Cobalt wheezed once and fell flat on his face. Layla put her sword back home, she wouldn’t be needing it after this. She stepped over him and didn’t even stop long enough to give him one last parting boot to the ribs.

Helena and Bertie were staring at her. Bertie’s mouth was open.

“Helena, I hope you weren’t kiddin’ when you said we brought Panacea with us. Reckon our prisoner needs some before that spinal injury sticks.”

Behind her, Cobalt’s leg was twitching. It was the only part of his body that could still move.

And unless Helena showed Layla where the Panacea was, that’s how Cobalt would stay. Not that Layla cared one way the other, so long as they kept him alive.

Gotta get that pay day after all.

*

The truck was out of action, at least until someone came along to flip it back over. But they didn’t have to look far for transportation. The road was up at the top of the valley, and a half dozen cars had been abandoned on the side of the hairpin turn the truck had gone flying off of. Layla guessed the cars probably belonged to the posse that had attacked them.

There was nobody else around, so they helped themselves to the biggest car they could find; a maroon red four-door with a big trunk. Layla would’ve liked to ask permission first, but as sympathetic as Layla was with their cause, they had shot at her and come real close to letting Cobalt get away. She figured she could just swipe one of their cars and call it square, so long as she found a way to give it back later.

They’d given Cobalt a large dose of Panacea and it was taking effect. He was twitching as the Panacea repaired his spine. They re-chained him and stuffed him in the trunk. Helena drove, with Robin in the front seat. Layla sat in the back with Bertie. He seemed real interested in the trees shooting past the window.

Helena filled Layla in on what she’d missed while they drove. There hadn’t been much to it. Helena and Bertie had snuck up on a squad of their attackers who had been manning an enormous rotator cannon between them. They couldn’t have been older than sixteen. That clued Helena in that maybe their attackers weren’t the crack team of super-soldiers that they’d expected.

Helena sent the kids home and chased off a few others. Elderly farmers and chubby shopkeepers with borrowed weapons, no match against two trained mercs. She didn’t know what happened to Robin and he wasn’t keen to say. But she guessed he’d found out how harmless the attackers were on his own and made his way back to the truck around the same time that Helena and Bertie had reappeared.

Then Cobalt had come up out of the woods bleeding out his leg. He was on them before they could even fire a shot. He’d disarmed Bertie, smashed Robin’s head against the truck, and came close to tearing Helena’s arm off when she’d tried to shoot him. Bertie ran away, but Cobalt was faster.

That was about when Layla had reappeared, she knew the rest of the story from there.

Bertie wrung the fabric of his trousers with his fists. Layla reckoned he was probably ashamed of trying to run. It was understandable, you never knew how the adrenaline could hit in a situation like that. Once the fight or flight impulse hits it’s nearly impossible to resist. It can grab your body and carry it off without your conscious brain getting much of a say. It takes a long time to train your body out of a survival impulse like that. Even longer to replace the panic with the cold, rational thought you needed if you wanted to make half-decent battlefield decisions.

For all his skill and bravery, Bertie just hadn’t had that training. And that was okay.

Layla remembered earlier that day when Helena had been talking about the Levinian authorities, and Bertie had sensed how that subject might upset her. He’d reached out and taken her hand even though she hadn’t asked him.

She returned the favour. She reached out, took his hand. He flinched and jerked his hand away like a spider’s leg had just brushed against him. He didn’t even take his eyes away from the window.

They drove the rest of the way in silence, aside from the occasional mumble from the trunk as Cobalt woke up.

*

They had to pass through two security checkpoints before they could even get to the airport. Each had dozens of armed guards, cameras, sniffer dogs, and even automated gun turrets. But since the security was all made up of fellow Fleming’s Falls Crew mercs Helena sailed right past without incident.

The plane they wanted was on the runway closest to the forest, part hidden behind an admin building beneath the shadow of the airport’s single lonely control tower. The perfect place for clandestine dealings.

Or, the perfect place to arrest the whole lot of us without anyone interferring. Layla threw that thought aside. This was going to go fine.

Everything was going to be okay.

The plane had the black and gold Levinian flag emblazoned on its side. Men and women in armoured purple bodysuits patrolled in a tight perimeter, their faces hidden behind helmets. They looked like a colour coordinated biker gang who were way too anal about safety.

But Layla knew better. These were Levinian Gentle Guard, the closest thing Levinia had to a stable government. Every province recognised their authority. They guarded the prisons, captured dangerous or inconvenient criminals, and were the best interrogators in the country. Mostly because they were all sadistic bastards who got off on causing pain.

Now they were here in Oparis. At the airport in Fleming’s Falls, not five miles from where Layla put her head down every night.

Helena caught her eye in the rear view mirror. “I’ll do the talking, okay?”

Layla nodded. Her stomach was so high up in her throat she probably wouldn’t have been able to say a word anyway.

Helena was out first, Robin quick to follow so he could loom behind her. You always needed a good loomer on a job like this.

“Helena Billingsley?” One of the Guards said. It was hard to say which one. Their helmets were all equipped with a voice modifier that smoothed their voices out to a bland, robotic fizz.

“That’s me. I’ve got something for you if you’ve got something for me.”

One of the Guards pressed a button on his helmet. The plane’s loading ramp descended with a hydraulic whine. A woman in a grey suit descended the ramp flanked by a half dozen burly soldiers with oversized assault rifles. She wasn’t carrying any weapons herself, not that Layla could see. Unless that piece of paper she was holding exploded or something.

Layla had seen stranger things happen.

“You’re late.” The woman clicked up to Helena in her high heels. “We were about to take off.”

If they were going to take off, they wouldn’t leave all these Gentle Guard hanging around outside. This was a negotiating tactic. A pretty obvious one too.

Helena saw right through it too. “No you weren’t. You got our money?”

“Exactly what we agreed with Gregory.” The woman put the cheque behind her back. “You’ll get it once we get Cobalt.”

“Of course.”

This was Layla’s cue. She didn’t want to get out of the car, but Helena and Robin needed to keep an eye on the Gentle Guard and Bertie wasn’t up to a job like this.

She took a deep breath and stepped out onto the runway. She felt eyes on her but she didn’t meet them. Just focused on her breathing and got on with her job.

Cobalt curled up in a ball and shivered at the sight of her. Always good to see.

“This is goodbye. Out ya get, man.”

Cobalt didn’t resist as she hooked his arm and dragged him out. She didn’t even need to poke him along, he just walked off under his own power. No threats, no schoolyard insults, he seemed relieved to see the Gentle Guard waiting for him up ahead. Meek and subdued, a model prisoner.

Getting paraylsed and healed back up onto your feet in the same day would do that to you.

Two Gentle Guard took him by the arms and shuffled him off into the plane. He didn’t look back.

“I’m impressed,” said the woman in the suit. “We would’ve thought he’d have given you more trouble. Here you go.”

She handed the cheque over to Helena, who disappeared it into her coat pocket before Layla could get a good look at it. It could just be a drawing that her kid made. Or it could just be a note that says: ‘the true treasure is friendship!’

Layla was getting mad just thinking about it. But Helena didn’t seem concerned. She’d probably be the first to put a bullet in these people at the first whiff of betrayal.

“Of course, I’m not surprised you apprehended him so easily with Layla Redford on your team.” The woman’s eyes caught Layla’s. Layla was too stunned at hearing her name to run.

See? When you’re scared your body takes over. Just like how Bertie had ran away from Cobalt. Layla wasn’t sure why her body wanted her rooted to the ground like a plant, but it must’ve had a good reason.

“You know, you’re still a person of interest in a lot of cases back home.” The woman took a step closer. “The reward on you would be–”

Helena stepped in her way. “Not worth the trouble. See that building behind us? The guard tower over there? The security checkpoints way back there? They’re full of our people. You so much as look at one of us without a smile and they put in a call to Gregory, who’s so upset he calls your boss. Remind me; which one of you is in charge of these Gentle Guard? Five minutes after you give the order, you get a price on your head too. We both got a win today, let’s not ruin it.”

The woman bowed her head. “Of course. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again, Ms Redford.”

Layla found where her voice had been hiding. “Hey, have a good flight. Hope it doesn’t fall outta the sky.”

Helena put a hand on Layla’s shoulder. “It’s over. Job’s done. Let’s go get paid, yeah?”

Layla felt safer once she was back in the car watching through the windshield as Gentle Guard andsoldiers filed back into their plane.

“Thanks for havin’ my back, boss,” Layla said.

Helena just nodded at her through the rearview mirror and swung the car back around to leave the Levinian plane in the dust behind them.

*
It was fully dark when they got back to the Motor Pool in Fleming’s Falls. Crickets chirped in the long grass and the scent of pine needles and car exhaust filled the air. It was hard to believe it’d only been six hours since they were last here.

Some jobs seemed longer than they actually were. This was one of them.

Helena pulled the car into an empty spot.

“Your pay will be sent into your accounts as soon as this cheque has cleared. Expect to be a lot wealthier this time tomorrow. If there’s any problems, or if anyone needs an advance on their money, you have my number.” She drummed on the steering wheel. “Alright, that’s it. Good work everyone. You’re all free to go home or–”

“–I know where I’m goin’,” Layla said. “It’s only eleven, right? Still three hours o’ drinkin’ to be done over at Gator’s. Anyone fancy joinin’ me?”

Robin let out a big belly laugh and got out the car. He was still laughing as he lumbered off.

“Okay, I guess he’s got plans. What about you guys; Helena, Bertie?”

“No.” Bertie got out of the car and slammed the door behind him.

“Excuse me a sec.” Layla left Helena with the car and took off after Bertie. He was already half way out the motor pool. The kid was fast. It was a wonder Cobalt had managed to catch him. “Bertie!”

He stopped. “Leave me alone.”

“What’s the matter, man? What’d I do?”

“It’s not you.” Bertie slumped against the wall with his hands in his pockets. “I killed a woman today.”

“I’m not sure you did.” Layla leaned against the wall next to him. He didn’t flinch away. “They were bringin’ her Panacea after all. They don’t do that for a dead woman.”

“That’s not the point. Helena ordered me to shoot at innocent people and I did. I didn’t even think about it.”

“So you followed your orders and did somethin’ shitty. You wouldn’t be the first.”

“I shot at an innocent woman for three grand. Best case scenario: she’ll be in agony waiting for the Panacea to work. Worst case?” Bertie gave a dry, humourless chuckle. “This won’t even pay my bills for the month.”

“Shit, man. What bills’re you payin’?”

“I have expensive tastes.” Bertie shoved himself up from the wall and paced forward a bit. “Was it worth it?”

“Workday started eight hours ago an’ we just walked away with three grand. I don’t know about you, but I won’t have to take any more work for the rest o’ the month. How many jobs pay like that?”

“How many jobs nearly get you killed?”

“Most of ’em: railway workers get smashed by trains, factory workers fall into machinery, retail workers get shot in armed robberies, call centre workers an’ dentists kill themselves in record numbers. An’ all that’s before you even get into the slow, creepin’ death o’ the soul that hits every mid-level office worker. All work can kill ya, ours just happens to pay well, too.”

“I don’t see it like that. A little slow, creeping death of the soul sounds good right about now. Shit, I’d go back to working security if I had to.” Bertie kicked at a loose stone. “I’m not convinced this life is for me. Honestly, I’m surprised you seem so upbeat about it after what you did.”

“Hang on, what’d I do?”

“You know what I mean. You told me about how evil the Levinian prison system was and how it needed to change, and now you’re profiting from it.”

Layla clenched her fists. “Exactly how am I profiting from it?”

“You’re joking, right? You just handed someone to the Gentle Guard for money.”

“Yeah, that guy was a murderer.”

“And? You robbed banks. Don’t tell me you haven’t killed a few people on the way too.”

You’re as bad as he is.

“Only people who deserved it, an’ only when I didn’t have another option.”

“I’m sure Cobalt thinks his victims had it coming too. You’re a lot nicer than he is, but you’re both criminals. And you were the one who told me how much you resent the Gentle Guard for what they did to you. I just don’t see how you can possibly justify sending a man to the exact same thing you hated so much, murderer or not.”

Layla got a powerful urge just to smack Bertie right on his flapping blue lips. But she swallowed her anger down and tried to breathe.

“You can work off a sentence. Hell, if Cobalt joins a chain-gang or a manufacturing crew he could be outta there in five, six years.” Layla couldn’t believe she was making that point. It was depressing. That wasn’t justice. Maybe Edward DuChard’s mother or Sheriff Indira, should’ve killed Cobalt when they had the chance.

“And if Cobalt refuses to work, he gets buried in one of those tombs you were locked in for six months.”

Layla tried not to shudder. “It was more like three.”

“Look, my point is: this job was hell, actual hell for both of us. I’m just annoyed you don’t see that.”

“Honestly? I’m kinda annoyed you’re comparing me to that psychopath.”

“You seriously think you’re different? Cobalt is a maniac. No argument there. But he wears that on his sleeve. You…I saw you there when you stabbed Cobalt in the spine. You were smiling. Layla, you’re my friend and I love you, but you are out of your godsdamned mind. The only different between you and Cobalt is that you’re better at hiding it.”

“I-,” Layla started. But she couldn’t think of anything to say. “Fuck it.”

She walked away. He didn’t go after her. Probably the smartest thing he’d done that day. Layla didn’t know what she would’ve done if he’d said another word.

*
“Wow, you look like shit,” Izzy said.

“You greet all your customers like that?” Layla asked.

“Just the ones who look like shit.” Izzy put down the magazine she was reading. “Triple-B, right?”

“Right. No ice though, I get the feelin’ this one is goin’ down quick.”

Izzy poured the whiskey. She didn’t even use one of those wanky Issolarian measuring tins either, Layla got a full measure. “Tough day?”

“Not my toughest. My card’s still good to set up a tab, right?”

“Sure.”

You could always count on Gator’s to do you right. Layla handed the card across the bar. Izzy’s eyes bulged out of her head.

“Holy shit, is that blood?”

Layla followed Izzy’s gaze. Some of Cobalt’s blood had gotten on Layla’s shirt. It must’ve been when she’d stabbed him in the spine. You couldn’t pull off a trick like that without getting a little messy. She should’ve cleaned herself up before coming out in public.

“It’s ketchup. You know what a messy eater I am. While we’re on the subject, is the kitchen still open?”

“Whose blood is that, Layla?” Izzy asked.

“It’s not mine. Not all of it, anyway. I wasn’t jokin’ about the kitchen by the way, I haven’t eaten since breakfast.”

Izzy managed to tear her eyes off the blood for a moment. “The kitchen? Yeah. You want the usual?”

Layla swallowed her drink down in one gulp. It was beautiful. Warmed her all the way through to the bones and made her skin tingle. That first drink, man. It was magic.

“If it ain’t too much trouble. Oh, an’ can you whack some more Triple B in here?” She held up her tumbler. “Oh, an’ a bottle of beer to wash it down with?”

Izzy went right to it. “Anything else your majesty?”

“I’m glad you accept my regal authority. But no, I’m happy.”

“I live to serve. Find a seat and your food’ll be right with you. Somewhere in the back if you don’t mind.”

“Shove me into a dark corner. Got it. You don’t have to tell me twice. I’ve been in bars before y’know.”

There was a row of booths opposite the bar so Layla took her drinks over to the one in the corner. It was a good spot, close to the bathrooms and the jukebox, with a good view of the entrance.

It wasn’t hard to find a dark corner in Gator’s bar. The lights were dim and the walls were painted black to help close the darkness in. The only light was from the wine bottle candles and the neon beer signs behind the bar underneath Old Denzel.

Denzel was the old fella who gave Gator’s its name. He was seventeen feet long from to tail to snout with coal black eyes that seemed to follow you no matter where you were sitting. Izzy said she’d caught Denzel crawling out the Yellow River, but Layla had once spent a long night pounding Triple-B shots with her and got her to admit the truth. Denzel was just a taxidermied gator Izzy had bought in a Levinian pawn shop.

Still, he looked cool, resting high up on the back bar, watching the customers like the world’s most dedicated bouncer. He might’ve been scary if he wasn’t stuffed full of fluff and sawdust. Not that you got many customers in here on a Seersday evening. There was an old man passed out on a table by the door and another booth had four burly men in road worker’s jackets glugging down pitchers of beer between laughter.

Layla reckoned if Izzy had any more customers tonight she might’ve tossed Layla out on her ear. Layla couldn’t have blamed her either. What was she thinking, showing up here with blood on her?

Gator’s was a Levinian style bar. That meant wait service, generous whiskey measures, and a free bowl of peanuts on each table. Layla munched on these between sips of her drinks, kind of wishing she’d bought some potato chips instead. Something to fill her belly with while she waited for her food.

Plus, eating kept her mind off what Bertie had said to her.

Her beer was gone in minutes, the whiskey not long after. It was looking to be one of those nights. Layla got up to try and catch Izzy’s attention when Helena walked in through the saloon doors. She nodded at Layla and went to the bar.

Helena had thought to change out of her bloody clothes and clean herself up a little. Layla wished she had that kind of foresight.

Helena came over with two glasses of whiskey. “You didn’t wait for me.”

“Was I supposed to?”

“You asked who wanted to go for a drink then you ran off after Bertie. I was waiting in the car for twenty minutes.”

Layla had completely forgotten that. She turned her eyes away. “Shit. I’m sorry. I guess I don’t know where my head is at.”

“No problem. Here.” She slid one of the whiskeys to her. “I noticed you were running dry.”

Layla was liking this woman more and more. “Thanks.”

“You’ve earned it.” Helena took a slug from her glass. “We wouldn’t have brought Cobalt in if it wasn’t for you.”

“Sure. I bet you said that exact same thing to the rest of the crew.”

“Everyone played a part, no question. But you managed to stop him escaping. Twice. I don’t know if anyone else could’ve done that.”

“Well, I am amazing.” Layla threw her drink down in one gulp. “Cobalt was a scary guy, huh?”

“No doubt.”

“He said he used to be in the Gentle Guard. Weird that never came up in the briefing wasn’t it?”

Helena shrugged. “I had to keep some details back. Especially from you, what with your history with the Gentle Guard.”

“I could’ve handled it. I’m a professional after all.”

“Layla, the first time I met you you were squabbling with two security guards over a sword. Forgive me if I didn’t have a lot of faith in your professionalism.”

“That’s fair. You want another?”

“I’m still nursing this one, but you go ahead.”

Layla made eye contact with Izzy, they shared a nod and Izzy got to work.

“i mean it, you know,” Helena said. “We wouldn’t have made it through this one without you. I just wanted to thank you for that.”

“No need to thank me. I’m gettin’ paid ain’t I?”

Helena nodded. “Don’t be surprised if you get a little more than three thousand.”

“I never am.”

Helena chuckled and shook her head. “You’re still an arsehole, but I’m glad you know how valuable you are to us. Saves me the trouble of saying it out loud.”

“Listen, Helena. I’m flattered, but I just don’t swing that way. Although, a few more drinks…”

“I overhead what Bertie told you.”

Layla’s face fell. It didn’t even lift when Izzy arrived with beer and whiskey.

“Thanks, Izz.” Layla took a hard gulp from her whiskey glass. She’d be needing another one soon.

“You know he was talking utter bollocks, right?” Helena said.

“No he wasn’t.”

“Layla, he ran for the hills as soon as Cobalt showed up. Not that I blame him, I’d have done the same if this was my first job. But that’s gotten into his head. You know that old saying about misery and company? Bertie wants everyone to feel as sad and pissed off as he is right now. That meant he pushed your buttons over this Cobalt thing–and it worked.”

Layla took a gulp from her beer bottle. “It was all true though, wasn’t it? Me an’ Cobalt–”

“Are nothing alike. Layla, his Gentle Guard background wasn’t the only thing I was holding back. He got off on hurting people. Trust me, the things I showed you in the briefing were his B-sides. There are things in his background that’d turn your hair as white as mine.”

Layla wanted to tell Helena she’d seen more than her share of horrible things, but that seemed a bit combative. Plus, it might prompt some follow up questions.

“But you heard what Bertie said, right? I was grinnin’ when I stuck my sword in Cobalt’s chest.”

“I would be too. He was a monster. You should feel good when you put monsters down.” Helena finished her drink. “I don’t know you terribly well, Layla. But you don’t get to captain without being a good judge of character. I know you don’t enjoy hurting people. It just seems to me that you like winning, that’s all. The way you smiled when you stabbed Cobalt? It was the same expression you had when you were cracking jokes in the briefing. Don’t get me wrong; it’s terrifying that you get the same pleasure from annoying people that you get from crippling a man, but you’re a long, long way from the scariest person I’ve ever worked with. You’d be amazed what kind of issues us mercs have.”

“Thanks. I think. What about you? What’re your issues?”

Helena just smiled and got up to her feet. “Gregory’s in talks with some important clients, big hitters. There’s going to be some real jobs coming up soon. Not this penny ante shit. With your permission, I’d like to recommend you for a few of them. See if you can handle working with a bit more structure.”

“I can handle whatever you wanna throw at me.”

“That’s what I like to hear.” Helena tossed a few bills on the table. “Take a few days to rest up. You’ll be hearing from us soon.”

Layla gave a mock shudder. “Ooooh, scary.”

“Don’t drink too much tonight, yeah?”

Layla finished her whiskey just to prove a point. “Whoops.”

“Take care, Layla.”

“You too.”

Helena left through the saloon doors and Izzy entered from the kitchen with a steaming hot platter loaded with fried chicken, fries, steak, onion rings, and a small rack of BBQ ribs. It took both of her hands to load it up on the table in front of Layla.

“Here, your usual.”

“Thanks, Izzy.”

“I don’t know you can eat like that without making yourself sick.”

“My plan is for the cholesterol to get me before the bullets do. Reckon you could get me another Triple-B?”

“I live to serve,” Izzie said. “Anything else?”

Layla shook her beer bottle. There was still a good few swigs in that. “Nah, I’m good for now. Thanks.”

Izzy went back to the bar where one of the burly road crew guys was waiting for a refill on his pitcher. Layla went to work on her food. Everything on the menu except the vegetables, you couldn’t get better than that.

Maybe Helena was right and Layla just loved the challenge of the job. Or maybe Bertie was right and she was a terrifying monster with only a hair’s difference between her and Jack Cobalt. It didn’t seem to matter too much when there was an oversized plate of food in front of her and a full glass of whiskey at her hand.

Izzy was over with the whiskey and a pitcher of beer. Layla had been pounding the drinks since she’d got here, but she was pretty sure she hadn’t ordered a whole pitcher.

“What’s this for?” Layla asked.

Izzy just nodded her head at the road worker by the bar. “He asked me to give a pitcher to, and I quote, ‘the pretty lady in the corner’. I guess it’s darker down here than I thought.”

“I can always count on you to boost my confidence, Izz.” Layla sized up the dude at the bar. He was a big guy, clean shaven, with long brown hair and a bit of a paunch hanging over his belt. He’d do. For a night at least. Maybe longer if he was decent in bed.

She raised her glass and smiled to the guy. He blushed and raised his pitcher in turn.

Layla would go over and claim him. Once she was done with dinner, of course.

Things didn’t seem so bad. Mercenary work might be tough, you might put your life at risk over a few grand. And occasionalyl you may hit a few moral quandries that tested the kind of person you were. But she couldn’t imagine having a night like this with any other job.

It was a tough life, but it wasn’t a bad one. Not such a bad life at all.

— Matt Holland 30/09/17

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