Authors: Chris Wooding
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General
Table of Contents
Lawsen Macarde - A Question Of Probabilities - Frey’s Cutlass - New Horizons
The smuggler held the bullet between thumb and forefinger, studying it in the weak light of the store room. He smiled sourly.
‘Just imagine,’ he said. ‘Imagine what this feels like, going through your head.’
Grayther Crake didn’t want to imagine anything of the sort. He was trying not to throw up, having already disgraced himself once that morning. He glanced at the man next to him, hoping for some sign that he had a plan, some way to get them out of this. But Darian Frey’s face was hard, and showed nothing.
Both of them had their wrists tied together, backs against the damp and peeling wall. Three armed thugs ensured they stayed there.
The smuggler’s name was Lawsen Macarde. He was squat and grizzled, hair and skin greasy with a sheen of sweat and grime, features squashed across a face that was broad and deeply lined. Crake watched him slide the bullet into the empty drum of his revolver. He spun it, snapped it shut, then turned towards his audience.
‘Do you think it hurts?’ he mused. ‘Even for a moment? Or is it all over - bang! - in a fash?’
‘If you’re that curious, try it out on yourself,’ Frey suggested.
Macarde hit him in the gut, putting all of his considerable weight behind the punch. Frey doubled over with a grunt and almost went to his knees. He straightened with some effort until he was standing again.
‘Good point,’ he wheezed. ‘Well made.’
Macarde pressed the muzzle of the revolver against Crake’s forehead, and stared at Frey.
‘Count of three. You want to see your man’s brains all over the wall?’
Frey didn’t reply. Crake’s face was grey beneath his close-cropped blond beard. He stank of alcohol and sweat. His eyes flicked to the captain nervously.
Frey showed no signs of reacting.
‘I’m just a passenger!’ Crake said. ‘I’m not even part of his crew!’ His accent betrayed an aristocratic upbringing which wasn’t evident from his appearance. His hair was scruffy, his boots vomit-spattered, his greatcoat half-unbuttoned and hanging open. To top it off, he was near soiling himself with fear.
‘You have the ignition code for the Ketty Jay?’ Macarde asked him. ‘You know how to fire her up and get her flying?’
Crake swallowed and shook his head.
‘Then shut up. Two.’
‘Nobody flies the Ketty Jay but me, Macarde. I told you that,’ Frey said. His eyes flickered restlessly around the store room. Cloud-muffled sunlight drifted in through horizontal slits high up on one stone wall, illuminating rough-sewn hemp sacks, coils of rope, wicked-looking hooks that hung on chains from the ceiling. Chill shadows cut deep into the seamed faces of Macarde and his men, and the air smelled of damp and decay.
‘Three,’ said Macarde, and pulled the trigger.
Crake flinched and whimpered as the hammer fell on an empty chamber. After a moment, it sank in: he was still alive. He let out a shuddering breath as Macarde took the gun away, then cast a hateful glare at Frey.
Frey’s expression was blank. He was a different person to the man Crake knew the night before. That man had laughed as loud as Malvery and made fun of Pinn with the rest of them. He’d told stories that had them in stitches and drank until he passed out. That man, Crake had known for almost three months. That man, Crake might have called a friend.
Macarde studied the pistol theatrically. ‘Five chambers. One down. Think you’ll be lucky again?’ He put the muzzle back to Crake’s forehead.
‘Oh, please, no,’ Crake begged. ‘Please, please, no. Frey, tell him. Stop playing around and just tell him.’
‘One,’ said Macarde.
Crake stared at the stranger to his right, his eyes pleading. No doubt about it, it was the same man. There were the same wolfishly handsome features, the same unkempt black hair, the same lean frame beneath his long coat. But the spark in his eyes had gone. There was no sign of the ready, wicked smile that usually lurked in the corner of his mouth.
He wasn’t going to give in.
‘Please,’ he whispered. But Frey just looked away.
Macarde paused on the trigger, waiting for a last-moment intervention. It didn’t come.
Crake’s heart leaped hard enough to hurt. He let out a gasp. His mouth was sticky, his whole body was trembling and he desperately wanted to be sick.
You bastard, he thought. You rot-hearted bastard.
‘Didn’t think you had it in you, Frey,’ Macarde said, with a hint of admiration in his voice. He thrust the revolver back into a holster somewhere amidst the motley of battered jackets that he wore. ‘You’d let him die rather than give up the Ketty Jay? That’s cold.’
Frey shrugged. ‘He’s just a passenger.’ Crake swore at him under his breath.
Macarde paced around the store room while a rat-faced thug covered the prisoners with the point of a cutlass. The other two thugs stood in the shadows: an enormous shaven-headed bruiser and a droop-eyed man wearing a tatty knitted cap. One guarded the only exit, the other lounged against a barrel, idly examining a lever-action shotgun. There were a dozen more like them downstairs.
Crake clawed at his mind for some way to escape. In spite of the shock and the pounding in his head, he forced himself to be rational. He’d always prided himself on his discipline and self-control, which only made the humiliation of the last few moments harder to bear. He’d pictured himself displaying a little more dignity in the face of his own extinction.
Their hands were tied, and they’d been disarmed. Their pistols had been taken after they were found at the inn, snoring drunk at the table. Macarde had taken Frey’s beautiful cutlass - my cutlass, Crake thought bitterly - for his own. Now it hung tantalisingly from his belt. Crake noticed Frey watching it closely.
What of Malvery and Pinn? They’d evidently wandered off elsewhere in the night to continue their carousing, leaving their companions to sleep. It was just bad luck that Macarde had found them, tonight of all nights. Just a few more hours and they’d have been out of port and away. Instead they’d been dragged upstairs - pausing only for Crake to be sick on his own feet - and bundled into this dank store room where an anonymous and squalid death awaited them if Frey didn’t give up the ignition codes for his aircraft.
I could be dead, Crake thought. That son of a bitch didn’t do a thing to stop it.
‘Listen,’ said Macarde to Frey. ‘Let’s be businessmen about this. We go back, you and I. Worked together several times, haven’t we? And even though I came to expect a certain sloppiness from you over the years - late delivery, cargo that wasn’t quite what you promised, that sort of thing - you never flat-out screwed me. Not till now.’
‘What do you want me to say, Macarde? It wasn’t meant to end up this way.’
‘I don’t want to kill you, Frey,’ said Macarde in a tone that suggested the opposite. ‘I don’t even want to kill that milksop little pansy over there. I just want what’s mine. You owe me an aircraft. I’ll take the Ketty Jay.’
‘The Ketty Jay’s worth five of yours.’
‘Well, consider the difference as the price of me not cutting off your balls and stuffing them in your ears.’
‘That’s fair,’ conceded Frey.
‘That aerium you sold me was bad stuff. Admit it.’
‘What did you expect for that price?’
‘You told me it came straight from the refinery. What you sold me was so degraded it wouldn’t have lifted a biscuit, let alone twenty tons of aircraft.’
‘Sales patter. You know how it is.’
‘It must have been through the engines of every freebooter from here to the coast!’ Macarde growled. ‘I’d have got better quality stuff siphoning it off the wrecks in a junkyard!’
Crake gave Frey a fleeting look of guilt. ‘Actually,’ grinned Frey, ‘it’d have been about the same.’
Macarde was a stocky man, and overweight, but his punch came blindingly fast, snapping Frey’s head back so it cracked against the wall. Frey groaned and put his hands to his face. His fingertips came away bloody from a split lip.
‘Little less attitude will make this all go a lot smoother,’ Macarde advised.
‘Right,’ said Frey. ‘Now you listen. If there’s some way I can make this up to you, some job I can do, something I can steal, whatever you want . . . well, that’s one thing. But you will never get my craft, you hear? You can stuff whatever you like in my ears. The Ketty Jay is mine.’
‘I don’t think you’re in much of a position to negotiate,’ Macarde said.
‘Really? ’Cause the way I see it, the Ketty Jay is useless without the ignition code, and the only one who knows it is me. That puts me in a pretty strong position as long as I don’t tell you.’
Macarde made a terse gesture towards Droop-Eye. ‘Cut off his thumbs.’
Droop-Eye left his shotgun atop the barrel he’d been leaning on and drew a dagger.
‘Whoa, wait!’ said Frey quickly. ‘I’m talking compensation. I’m talking giving you more than the value of your craft. You cut off my thumbs and I can’t fly. Believe me, you do that and I take the code to my grave.’
‘I had five men on that craft,’ said Macarde, as Droop-Eye came over. ‘They were pulling up out of a canyon. I saw it. The pilot tried to get the lift and suddenly it just wasn’t there. Bad aerium, see? Couldn’t clear the lip of the canyon. Tore the belly off and the rest of it went up in flames. Five men dead. You going to compensate me for them, too?’
‘Listen, there’s got to be something you want.’ He motioned suddenly at Crake. ‘Here, I know! He’s got a gold tooth. Solid gold. Show them, Crake.’
Crake stared at the captain in disbelief.
‘I don’t want a gold tooth, Frey,’ said Macarde patiently. ‘Give me your thumbs.’
‘It’s a start!’ Frey cried. He glared hard and meaningfully at Crake. ‘Crake, why don’t you show them your gold tooth?’
‘Here, let us have a look,’ Rat said, leaning closer to Crake. ‘Show us a smile, you little nancy.’
Crake took a deep, steadying breath, and gave Rat his most dazzling grin. It was a picture-pose he’d perfected in response to a mortifying ferrotype taken by the family photographer. After that, he vowed he’d never be embarrassed by a picture again.
‘Hey! That’s not half bad,’ Rat commented, peering at his reflection in the shiny tooth. And Crake grinned, harder than he’d ever grinned in his life.
Droop-Eye pulled Frey away from the wall over to a set of cob-webbed shelves. He swept away a few empty jars with his arm, and then forced Frey’s bound hands down onto the shelf. Frey had balled his fists and was refusing to extend his thumbs. Droop-Eye hammered him in the kidney, but he still held fast.
‘What I’m saying, Macarde, is that we can both come out ahead,’ he argued through gritted teeth. ‘We’ll work off the debt, me and my crew.’