CHAPTER 12: HOOK-HANDED COYBOY
A new recruit to Mabus’ army, fresh from some howling battlefield and now standing shivering and quaking in the presence of the king of New Gomorrah, being given the old “You stand in the belly of the beast…” speech would naturally have a great many questions.
What is this place?
Why am I here?
What should I do now?
Once the reality of his situation had sunk in, our new recruit would find himself beset by slightly more mundane questions;
Where can I find food?
Where shall I live?
Are there others like me in this city I can join for my own safety?
Can I survive here?
In time, all these questions would be answered, some more suddenly and brutally than others.
But perhaps the one question that would never be answered for most of the men and women conscripted into Mabus’ crusade was this:
What the hell is up with all the scorpions?
Why are there scorpion banners hanging from archways and nailed to walls? Why is there a scorpion on the back of every Gomorran talon? Why the Red, Blue, Black and Green Scorpions?
The answer to this, Cole knew, was no great secret. It was simply not widely known.
The reason was that when Mabus’ father, Gedi, had needed to choose a totem to represent his house, he had chosen the scorpion. The House of Gedi had been one of the smaller houses in Babilu, but still wielded a considerable amount of wealth and influence. By choosing the scorpion as his symbol Gedi was displaying to his enemies an animal that was small, but could still be lethal to much larger creatures should they be foolish enough to anger it.
To be the Golden Scorpion, Mabus had once explained to Cole, was to be the physical manifestation of the will of the House of Gedi. A shining, invincible, seemingly godlike avatar.
To be a Black Scorpion, on the other hand, meant something different entirely.
The Black Scorpions had, before their dissolution at least, acted as Mabus’ secret police. It had been their unenviable task to keep tabs on the innumerable guilds, secret societies, mobs, gangs and fraternities that had sprung up like weeds in the fertile soil of Mabus’ army. If any particular organisation seemed to be becoming a little too powerful, more often than not the leaders would be paid a visit in the night by a close friend who they had trusted implicitly, and never wake up.
But the Black Scorpions were gone now.
And it was time for something else to replace them.
“Wait here.” said Cole
Isabella looked around nervously, brushing the handle of a dagger with her thumb over and over.
The hallway, dank, dark and stinking, looked deserted. But then, in Gomorrah, it was the people you couldn’t see who were the ones to keep an eye out for. The fact that there didn’t seem to be anyone here did nothing to reassure her. Every step they had taken since leaving Mabus’ throne room to this ten storey tenement building just north of the Combat Tower, Isabella had been unable to shake the feeling that they were being followed. She glanced nervously to where Cole was dragging his finger lazily over a grimy, brown-stained wall.
“What are we doing here?” she asked, and it felt like the hundredth time.
“Ssshhh.” he whispered “Got ya.”
“What?” she turned to look at him, only to see that he had been talking to the wall, not to her.
With a low, dreary moan, the wall was sliding to one side, revealing a dark passageway.
“Let’s go.” said Cole.
They disappeared into the opening, and seconds later the wall slid shut again.
“What is this place?” Isabella whispered, her keen eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness of the room.
“Hang on. I gotta find the light switch.” said Cole, talking over his shoulder as he felt along the wall “Every tenth building in Gomorrah has one of these rooms. They’re safe houses, for any Black Scorpion who’s cover his blown and needs to lie low. He can hide out here, live off rations for weeks if he has to. There’s a weapons locker under the bed. A radio to call into the Blue Room for rescue, or just to listen in to see what’s going on outside. More importantly, only the engineers who built it, and the Scorpion assigned to it knows where his individual safe room is. And only one man in the entire city knows where all of them are.”
“If Mabus knew about this place, do you think we’d be hiding out here? Nah, I ordered these to be built, never told Mabus.”
“You knew you might need to hide from him?”
“No, actually. I just never told him. Mostly because I thought he wouldn’t care. He told me to build him a spy network, and I did it. He never really asked how. But we’ll be as safe here as anywhere. We can stay here while we look for Joriel. Then we are getting out of here, and we are not even stopping to shake the dust off our shoes. There you are…”
His hand touched the light switch and the room was thrown into a sickly green haze.
Cole turned and froze.
“Oh you’re smart Joe. Got it all planned out. But let me ask you this: How fast are you?”
Isabella’s eyes stared at him, terrified, over the arm that was wrapped across her face. The silver muzzle of a Colt single action Army was pressed to her neck.
And the eyes that stared at Cole over her shoulder were as pitiless as they were desperate.
Cole almost burst out laughing. Of all the safe houses in the city, he had chosen the one containing New Gomorrah’s most wanted citizen; Ezekiel Holtz, the man who had raised the riot with Thomas, and shot Mabus himself. For a mad second, Cole considered how capturing Holtz might just be enough to put himself back in Mabus’ good graces. But he dismissed the idea almost as soon as it came to him. They were getting out. That was the end of it. At least, they were if could convince Holtz to let Isabella go.
“Hi Holtz.” said Cole as nonchalantly as he could.