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Jasper dropped McGrath off at the Regal, a hotel near the center of town, and tossed him a cloth bag before speeding away. As the dust settled around him, McGrath opened the bag, and a pile of octagonal quartz glittered up at him. He snorted and stuffed it into his pocket. Like he could be bought so easily. Or for so little.
Just as he was about to enter the hotel, a voice called out to him. “Hey, you! Off-worlder.”
Not again. He brushed open his duster and reluctantly placed his hand on the butt of his weapon. He wasn’t in the mood for another shootout, but given the last encounter he’d had with locals, he didn’t want to take any chances. Slowly, he turned away from the door.
A woman in a dirt-streaked coat and Homburg replica approached from the opposite side of the street. She wore a vest and riding chaps underneath the coat and carried a pistol in a low-slung holster on her right thigh. McGrath stifled a laugh. Clearly some of the colonists had taken the Neo-Western pastiche a little too far. Then again, Tombstone was a reasonable analogue for Old Earth’s nineteenth century North American midwestern landscape, so maybe there was a sort of internal logic to it all.
“What can I do for you?” he said, resting one hand on the burnished handle of the hotel door.
“I saw you in the Broken Jaw earlier today. Got the shit kicked out of you by Sheila, if I remember correctly.”
He thought about the woman with the dreadlocks and artificial eye, and his ribs throbbed. “What of it?”
“You all right?”
McGrath ran his tongue along the inside of his mouth. The sharp taste of blood lingered there. “I’m doing just fine. Thanks.”
She stepped up beside him on the sidewalk. Her blunt features caught the sunlight, casting shadows across the planes of her face. “We don’t get a lot of off-worlders. People get jittery around newcomers. We ain’t exactly the most welcoming of folks.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll be leaving shortly.”
“You talk to the Magistrate?”
“Did he tell you what you wanted to hear?”
“Not exactly.” He opened the door and stepped into the air conditioned lobby of the hotel, a welcome respite from the savage heat.
“Can I buy you a drink?” the woman asked, following him inside.
He stopped abruptly and turned to face her. “What?”
“I said, can I buy you a drink?” She motioned to the hotel bar. “Don’t read into it, pal. I just feel bad for you. We ain’t all shit here.”
Getting involved with the locals wasn’t a good idea, even if it was just obliging a friendly gesture. Still, maybe she knew something about Donner. Despite the Magistrate’s threats, McGrath didn’t intend on leaving until he’d finished the job. He could definitely use some help, even if it was just a little information. “Yeah, sure. Why not?”
They found a table in the back corner of the bar, near a large window that looked out over the town. New Hope was a haphazard clutter of one or two-level prefab buildings that dated back to the early settlement days. Many were detachable modules from the original colony ships, repurposed as housing or storage. The Regal and the Magistrate’s office appeared to be the only modern structures, and even they would have looked primitive in any other city. He could make out the spindly towers of Prosperity, the neighboring town containing the spaceport, just across a stretch of merciless desert.
“Name’s Abigail.” She draped her coat across the back of her chair and took a seat.
“McGrath.” He stared down at the menu screen set into the table. The Regal had a far better selection than the Broken Jaw, and he could immediately see why. The prices were outrageous.
“What brings you all the way out here, McGrath?” Her turquoise eyes locked onto his. “You clearly ain’t from the Colonies. Nice try with the hat, though. Style’s a bit out of date. Let me guess, you got it in Prosperity. Figured it’d fool us. It’s a small world. Everyone here can spot an off-worlder a mile way.”
“Maybe I just like the look.”
“Little cliche for a bounty hunter, don’t you think?”
He laughed. “Who said I was a bounty hunter?”
“Well, you came all this way looking for somebody. Only a couple reasons a fella’d do that. He’s out for revenge or he’s getting paid. In either case, you’re gonna need help. Someone who knows this world. This town.”
“You were at the Broken Jaw?” McGrath didn’t remember her. Then again, he had been a little preoccupied at the time.
“That’s right. Saw you talking to Wyatt. Asking him all sorts of questions. Making him sweat. He don’t like trouble.”
“He knew something and he wasn’t telling.”
“Could be,” Abigail said, glancing down at the menu screen. She scrolled through it with a long, knobby finger. “So, who you looking for?”
“His name’s Donner,” McGrath said. “I’ve got a warrant, issued by the government of Pollux Three.”
“Pollux Three.” She said the name like it tasted bad. “As in the planet Pollux Three?”
“Yup. Think he pissed somebody important off. Got his hands on something he shouldn’t have. Now he’s wanted in three systems. Came here hoping for asylum.”
“Guess he wasn’t counting on you showing up, huh?”
McGrath ordered an imported whisky. Sixty credits a dram. Fortunately he had a bag of money burning a hole in his pocket.
“Je-zus,” Abigail said. “I offered to buy you a drink, not the whole bar!”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s on the Magistrate.” He fished a handful of quartz from the bag and slapped them on the table. “Help me get Donner and the rest is yours. Shit’s worthless where I’m going.”
Her eyes lit up at the sight of the crystal. In McGrath’s experience, few things motivated people like the promise of hard cash.
“Ok, sure. I can help you out. I ain’t seen him, but I’ve heard rumors. Folks talking about an off-worlder come through here a few days back. Magistrate’s got him holed up somewhere in the desert. Can’t say why.”
“Any idea where he’s being kept?”
She bit the inside of her lip contemplatively. “As a matter of fact, I do.”
Part 4 coming April 27th.
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