CHAPTER 37: SCORPIONS UNDER EVERY STONE
As a single body, they dropped to their knees and buried their faces in the floor. Thomas did as well, except he was doing it as camouflage, not compliance. Leonard was hiding behind the bar, bathing in his own sweat. The Red Scorpions prowled menacingly through the prostrate figures. Apart from the colour their armour was identical to Cole’s, right down to the embossed scorpion emblem on the chest.. One of them came to the body of the dead Viking. He kicked it idly.
“Here’s the stiff, boss.”
“What’s it look like?”
“Looks like a dead Viking.”
“My God, you’re an idiot. Why is he dead?”
“I dunno, I think he was shot.”
“You think he was shot?”
“Well he’s got a bullet hole in his forehead.”
“Sound deductive reasoning, give yourself a raise. Alright lock it up!”
Thomas listened to the sound of steel shutters sliding down like guillotine blades, cutting the bar off from the outside world.
“Alright everyone, this is a very simple situation. Someone has broken the rules. I am going to ask, once, who killed this man. And if I don’t get an answer me and my boys are going to kill every last one of you and we will not even break a sweat. So what’s it going to be?”
“No need for all that. It was me. Shot him in the head, simple as.” said Holtz.
“Now why would you do a thing like that, Holtz? Smart guy like you?”
“Always been my problem, people overestimating my intelligence.”
“Give me your gun Holtz.”
“Sure. Here, take the bullets first.”
He drew like a blizzard and emptied a chamber into Cole’s head.
The bullets ricocheted off the golden helmet, somewhere someone screamed in pain as he caught the shot.
“YOU WANT TO DIE HOLTZ?” Cole roared, advancing on him menacingly.
“Yeah!” Holtz shouted and fired off one more shot that glanced off Cole’s chest like rubber.
“YOU WANT TO DIE?”
“YEAH!” the old gunslinger yelled as Cole lifted him a good four feet off the ground.
Within half a second he had sprung from the ground, gripped both sides of the table and sent it spinning like a giant discus through the air until it collided with the small of the Golden Scorpion’s back. Cole screamed in pain, dropped Holtz and spun around to face Thomas.
The two men regarded each other.
Thomas tutted to himself. Always that damn armour. Without it, he was pretty sure Cole would be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
“Nice throw.” said Cole.
“I thank you.” said Thomas, and two blades appeared quietly and unobtrusively in his hands.
“Think you could do it again?”
“After I rip off your arms?”
“I have strong teeth.”
“And such a pretty smile. Round two, then?”
“No.” said Thomas.
“What do you mean “No”?”
“I mean not yet. I’m not ready for yet. One day, but not now.”
“You don’t get to choose.”
“I do. You and I will face each other in the future, when I’m ready.”
“I am going to kill you now. That is what is going to happen. That is the future.”
“Allow me to present an alternative future. That this entire bar is about to rise up en masse and try and kill you and your men.”
“And why would they do that?”
“Because you’ve left them no choice. You locked them in here and you said you were going to massacre every last one of them.”
“If they didn’t tell me who killed this man.”
“Which they didn’t.”
“So you’re not going to kill them all?”
“Then open the shutters. Let them go.”
“I do not take orders from you.”
“You won’t let them go, but you’re not going to kill them?”
“And they are simply to take this on trust?”
Thomas turned to the patrons who had slowly gotten to their feet while they had been talking.
“Everybody, do you trust this man?”
A silence. One, two, three…
Then a shout, a bar stool thrown at the Scorpion’s head and it was off…
“Guess not.” Thomas murmured to himself.
He watched with a deep, almost visceral joy as the Scorpion disappeared in a flurry of axes, swords and swinging limbs. The Red Scorpions moved in to pull them off him but the crowd was too angry and too large.
“We need reinforcements!” someone roared.
The shutters began to rise and Red Scorpions began to pour in to the bar. They ignored Thomas, as he was the only person in bar not committing bloody murder. Thomas ducked under the shutter and strolled calmly out into the promenade.
Thomas drew the blades, but his pose remained relaxed and he turned.
Holtz stood there in the street. Just over his shoulder, Thomas could see a vague golden glint thrashing under the mob. Still alive and fighting. Impressive, that one.
“Wanted to thank you.” said Holtz.
“Please don’t tell me that you have to be my slave because I’ve saved your life.” said Thomas “I’ve always found that kind of thing very unsettling.”
“Not for that.” said Holtz “It was a funny joke.”
“I’ve never really had the knack for telling jokes.”
“I thought it was a riot.”
“And neither do you, apparently. Come with me.”
“Now why would I do that?”
“I need someone who’s been here longer than I have. I still don’t know a lot about this place.”
“Well, I got nothing else planned. Where are we going?”
“That was one bar. How many are there in Xanadu?”
“I reckon around five hunnert, give or take.”
“Then let’s going. I have a great many jokes to tell.”
And Thomas and Holtz set off down the street with it’s garish neon signs bathing them in light while behind them the fire they had started began to spread. Brawls spilled out into the street. Glass began to smash and shatter, tables and chairs flew and the ordered peace of the night shattered and collapsed into chaos.
And Thomas’ night was just beginning.
Later that night Thomas stood at his window, watching the riots spread across the city like blood across a white tiled floor.
The noise of the violence, the screams and curses, the animal howls, from up here they sounded like murmurs and he felt good and warm in his bones. He was exhausted, but it was a good tiredness, the kind that comes after a long day doing something worthwhile.
He glanced away to where Holtz slept on the bare sofa, huddling his long body to fit between the armrests, hands up to his face like a dog. He was a strange, lanky figure. He wore dark goggles, a brown leather jacket and boots with spurs. A small black cigar still smouldered in the dark, held between cold steel hook and clasp that had replaced his right hand. Greasy grey hair to below his collar.
“There’s a few of us…” Holtz murmured.
Thomas started. He had thought Holtz had been asleep. Not many could have fooled him.
“…few who see through Mabus for what he really is. But the rest…they think he’s God in heaven or some such.”
“And the Scorpions?”
“True believers. From the tip of their shiny boots the core of their blackened souls.”
“Tell me about them.”
“Cole was the first. They say he was the greatest fighter who every lived, past present or future. So naturally he’s who Mabus gets to train his army. The Red Scorpions are the grunts, but they’re tough grunts. Brutal as Hell, but then they have to be. They keep everyone in line. Then there’s the Green Scorpions. They’re the medics. Blues are the snitches. Always listening. Always watching. And then you have the Black Scorpions.”
“And what, pray tell, do they do?”
“They make examples of people.”
“Yeah.” he raised the hook “They really get their point across. And you never know who they are. When the cut comes, it could be your best buddy holding the knife with a smile on his face.”
Thomas moved like a black cat on a midnight wall and had a knife to Holtz’s throat before he could finish the sentence.
“Are you one of them? This is your one chance. I’ll let you live, if you are.”
“Well that’s a pity.” said Holtz “Because I’m not.”
Thomas pocketed the knife. He thought Holtz was telling the truth, but then again, he had thought he’d been asleep as well.
“But you’re right to ask. I could be. Anyone could. That’s why you gotta be so careful, so, so, careful. We got a saying: Scorpions under every stone.”
“Now that’s a question a Scorpion would ask.”
Thomas couldn’t answer that, and turned back to the window.
A fire was raging far to the east, eating up the tents and huts and shanties. People were running deeper into the city. Thomas watched Red Scorpions hunt the runner downs, breaking their necks like chickens and leaving their bodies to fall in the street. It seemed they were being killed for moving. For running. For catching the Scorpions on a bad day. Who knew.
The Scorpions were scared. They were used to striking from the shadows, killing anything that seemed threatening and then melting away. They weren’t used to crowd control, or warfare, and this was rapidly turning into both. Good, thought Thomas. Let them get good and scared, let them lash out. Let the fire keep burning.
“Have they never rioted before?” Thomas asked.
“Not like this.”
“Because no one ever thought of starting synchronised bar brawls by telling lousy jokes. Looking back, I suppose it was pretty obvious.”
“He’s not doing anything.”
“Mabus. I see Scorpions everywhere. But they’re fighting alone. He’s abandoned them.”
“Maybe he just don’t care.”
“No, he cares. He’s gone to all the trouble of assembling this army and now it’s dying, every minute he loses another hundred. Why is he doing nothing?”
Thomas gazed over the city, to the very centre, where the razor thin black needle of Mabus’ Chamber pierced the sky.
“You think maybe he’s dead?” Holtz asked, and his voice was hushed, almost prayerful.
“I don’t know.” said Thomas “Let’s go ask him.”