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Bad Hand Man by KH Koehler


June 12, 2011 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ Fiction


In the post-apocalyptic world of the Skillet, fourteen-year-old Jake Stryker lives a miserable existence as an indentured slave to the Crayton clan. Then the Bad Hand Man blows into town and Jake’s life changes dramatically. But is it for the better?

See more of Ms. Koehler’s writings at http://www.khkoehler.com.

Read Bad Hand Man below, or downoad in mobi (Kindle), epub, or plain text.

 

– Shuffle –

A murmur went up in the town of Gehenna the day the Bad Hand Man rode in. He came in out of the Skillet on a massive, barrel-chested Suffolk as black as a raven’s breast, its nostrils exhaling smoke and sand like a machine on full power. The horseshoe-like symbol of the Regency was imprinted upon its riveted breastplate and sat between the creature’s flat, triangular ears. The creature bared its teeth at passersby, and those who saw creature and rider at first glance swore one of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse had arrived.    

Then the blinding white sun was refracted by the animal’s joint rivets, and the scouring wind plucked at the edges of the rider’s duster to reveal a dusky purple silk lining. Women took their laundry in early that day, and the First Church of the Divine Restitution welcomed fifteen new Believers into its folds. The bingo parlor was closed for the first time in almost ten years.

What had been visited upon the town of Gehenna was no Horseman, yet its presence was no more reassuring.

Gehenna waited and watched.

– Shuffle  –

“…and there was these here metal birds who carried folks around in their pouches, and they’s was big, kiddo, real big,” Indian John was saying between pitching forkfuls of freshly scythed brome into the winter loft of the Crayton’s barn. “And they flew between these cities of glass that stood in the sky, and as God is my witness…”

“I don’t believe you,” fourteen-year-old Jake Stryker said as he curried the Crayton’s alpha broodmare in the hey-strewn aisle. “There’s no way a city could be tall enough to reach the sky.”

“Shows what you know,” Indian John sniffed and stopped to lean on his fork, always a sure sign he expected his listener’s full and undivided attention. Jake complied, leaning back against a tall divider and crossing his arms. He waited patiently, knowing the old Indian would finish the telling of his vision when he felt Jake had suffered enough.

“Once, ‘fore the world turned,” said Indian John thoughtfully, “cities went up as well as out. They reached upward toward God like mountains…”

Jake raised his eyebrows, imaging glass cities floating on clouds far overhead. He wondered if John had been into the crazy weed again.

“It’s all true. As God is my witness.”

“How, John?” Jake asked. The largest structure in Gehenna was the Combakagin Saloon, and that was a lean, crooked two-story hotel/cathouse affair that creaked ominously when the west winds shushed through town. There was a strong advisory against even pissing against it. “Funny man,” Jake said and went back to currying.

He was just in time, as Rilk Crayton’s overfed bulk suddenly filled the doorway of the barn. The highbrow Crayton firstborn, he always managed to look sweetly and evilly cherubic to Jake. The story went that Rilk had lost the spare four inches of his dick to an evil-tempered four-year-old cutter he’d porked when he was twelve years old. The mare had kicked him square in the balls, then whipped around and bit his manhood off after Rilk had had his way with her. Jake didn’t know if the story was true, but Rilk always took pains to avoid his father’s livestock, and he never darkened the doorway of the barn without good reason. His gaze pinballed between Jake and Indian John. “What are you two pigeon-dicked fag-faces getting off on?” he said.

Jake ducked behind the mare.

Indian John wasn’t so tolerant. “Ain’t no horses here to fuck, Rilk. Go on home,” he muttered as he threw down his fork and began climbing the rope ladder to the loft’s trap door.

Rilk hitched up his bulk and swaggered forward. “What did you say, Injun man?”

At the top of the ladder, John was struggling with the trap’s rope, trying to loop it through the ring and tie the door shut. A stupid mistake on his part, Jake thought as he watched Rilk stop to grip a rung of the ladder. “What did you say to me, old man?” Rilk repeated, his voice rising into an almost womanish screech.

John managed to knot the rope. “You heard me right ‘n clear, boy. Or are you as deaf as I am blind?”

Jake’s eye caught the glimmer of a steel boot knife in Rilk’s hand. He tried to warn John, but it was already too late. The ladder was cut and John hung by one arm from the trap. Rilk stood watching the struggling man, a bittersweet smile on his lips.

Indian John whimpered, his booted feet kicking in search of purchase as his one-handed grip began to slip. The fall was a good ten feet, enough to kill an old man.    

“Stop it!” Jake cried, emerging from behind the mare’s flank. “Leave him alone!”

Rilk turned on him. “Lookee here,” he drawled, “the one-inch dick finally finds his voice.” Rilk lunged forward, faster on his feet than he looked, and cut him.

Jake threw up an arm to protect his face and a narrow thread of red agony arrowed from between his second and third fingers and across the back of his hand, splitting the skin like a glove. Jake instinctively jerked back against a stall, hitting it so hard that he saw stars for a moment.

Rilk smiled, his upper lip drawn back in a feral cupid’s grin. “A gift from me to you, you little whore’s son. Think of me whenever you look at it.”

Blood poured from the wound. He looked away from the bloody flaps of unzipped flesh and immediately spotted Indian John lying very still on his side in the aisle. Ignoring the pain as best he could, he crawled over to John and knelt down, taking the old man’s head into his lap. “Go away,” he said, his voice soft, hating the pleading quality of it.

“Sure thing,” Rilk said as he tramped past the two of them. “I know how you two get off on each another.”

Jake lowered his head and quivered with rage. He thought about getting up and pummeling Rilk with his fists, punching and kicking him in the face until he was a quivering mess of blood, snot and tears lying in the hay-strewn aisle. But then he’d have to content with the Law. And in these parts, the Craytons were the Law.

In the doorway, Rilk stopped and turned back. “Hold up. You two were giving me so much entertainment I almost forgot—a Bad Hand Man’s hit town. Probably lookin’ for a couple faggots like you two.” He smiled in anticipation before leaving Jake to haul John up in a fireman’s carry and take him back to their cropper’s hut.

– Reshuffle –

“You’re playing the house, son,” said Jake Stryker the Elder, once, in another life.

He posed before the hotel’s full-length vanity mirror with its frosted etchings of cities in the sky and brushed the lint off the sleeves of his brushed black frock coat. He set his gambler’s hat fashionably askew on his head.

Jake the Younger saw his father’s half-sweet, half-villainous smile in the wonderful, milky-etched mirror. It was going to be a good night in the casino for his father, Jake knew. He’d played eleven sets of poker against himself and won nine. By dawn they ought to have enough marks to get them out of the Skillet.

“You play the house all the time, and the banker’s keepin’ score,” Jake the Elder continued as he smoothed the lines of his waxen mustache. “Nothin’ wrong with a little evil, so long as it’s being scaled out with your inside good. Remember that, son, else your heart’s gonna sink that ol’ feather of Maat one day.”

– Shuffle –

Jake eased John down onto his pallet and removed his boots. John swallowed and blinked up at the ideogram of rotted rafters over their heads.

“John.”

“I’m okay, kiddo. Nothin’ broken.”

Jake brought the old man a canteen of water. “You sure don’t look okay.”

“Nothing to it. Fall and the arms of Gaia will catch you.”

Jake smiled at the old man’s crazy philosophy, then grunted at the pain in his hand as he gripped the canteen.

“Here, let’s have a look, son,” John said, reaching for Jake’s hand. “Bad,” he proclaimed as his callused fingers played expertly and with almost no pain at all over the wound. “Gonna need serious needlework on this one, kiddo.”

“Shit.”

“Better’n through the heart,” John said before sending him off to fetch the hook needle and wire sutures. When Jake returned with their meager emergency supplies, he found the old Indian holding a clear bottle with a dark yellow label on it. Ether. They used it to swoon the horses when they wouldn’t shoe without biting.

“No,” Jake said immediately.

“You wanna be awake for this massacre?”

“I’m not a child.”

“As you will.”

Jake found a half bottle of rotgut and an old bridle strap to bite down on. He swigged a mouthful of what tasted like burning piss, then let John go to work. He clenched his eyes shut, dug his teeth into the sour leather, and felt sweat rain down his face like tears. He hated his indentured servitude to the Crayton ranch, the feel of stale and unwashable sweat on his skin, dust in his eyes, the kicks to his gut, the cranky mares, the smell of warm horse shit that never left his nostrils. He was his father’s son. Five years of hard labor hadn’t squelched his partiality for soft goosedown beds and ballroom floors, for etched mirrors and the minty-smelling furnishings in the hotels he and Dad once lived in. Sometimes, at night, he still dreamed about the smoky, fluorescent casino halls with their clicking dice and magnetic cards. The gambling circuit had been Jake Stryker’s whole world for the first nine years of his life. Even now, half a decade later, it didn’t seem fair that it had to end. He hated the Crayton ranch, this life, this pain in his hand, the oil-soured leather in his mouth gagging off his tears and sending them back down his throat like vomit.    

The gods were not fair and the Law was no better. It wasn’t fair that a man kill another man and be awarded his son, the way Old Man Crayton killed the gambler Jake Stryker and was appointed a new stable hand until he came of age. They called it responsibility for the orphaned. Jake called it one hell of an indenturing system. He thought about leaving almost every night, just running away into the dark in no particular direction, but there was nowhere for him to go and miles of killing desert in every direction. And if the Law caught him and brought him back, the Craytons would never let him go. He’d wind up like Indian John.

“Easy, kiddo, easy. Almost there.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

Jake looked into Indian John’s dead gaze, his leatherworn face, and wondered what it must be like for him. For reasons he’d never explained, John had spent almost four decades of his life in servitude to the Crayton clan. And although he owed John more in the way of care and protection than any other person alive, Jake found he could hate John too, his soft complacency, the stagnation of his life which he seemed to embrace with all the passion of a lover. Why did John stay?

“Done,” John said as he finished bandaging Jake’s hand. The elephant wrinkles in his face had smoothed themselves out. He looked almost at peace.

Jake spat out the leather. The pain was still bad, but the bandages, together with the rotgut, made it endurable. Cradling his hand close, Jake rose silently from John’s pallet and put corn porridge on the brazier to boil. He worked slowly, methodically, reaching for the question that was bothering him. He didn’t manage to blurt it out until he was sitting across from John at the supper table.    

“What Rilk said…do you suppose he was lying?” he asked as he studied the clumps of meal on his spoon.

Indian John arched his brows. “I think even a bastard like Rilk wouldn’t joke ‘bout a Bad Hand Man.” For a moment the mood in the cropper’s hut darkened, then he slapped Jake’s thigh companionably. “Your gamblin’ daddy ever teach you Bad Hand Poker, kiddo?”

He was changing the subject, but Jake didn’t mind so much. “Two men and a deck of surgery cards. A barbarian’s game. Even Dad never played it.” The kinds were distorted in Bad Hand Poker—Skulls for Spades, Bones for Clubs and Tongues for Diamonds. Hearts remained Hearts, for obvious reasons. The two unfortunate men stuck in a game threw out continuously until one or the other called a show, which meant hands were often high. Highest hand took the prize, and that prize was determined by the highest card in the loser’s hand. Jake still remembered the mute, one-armed Bad Hand victims his father had sometimes played games of straight-up poker with. Once, in New Texas, he had played a complete amputee.

Jake tried a spoonful of porridge, but it was too bitter to swallow. He set his supper aside and turned to one of the ancient, withered books that John had lent him, hoping to finish before sundown. Their supply of candles were running low, and Jake didn’t want to waste another one simply because he couldn’t pull his nose out of H. G. Well’s The First Men in the Moon. Too often, he stopped reading to wonder why the people of earth before it turned stop going to the moon, like in the book. And sometimes he wondered if this was the moon.  

But tonight he could not concentrate on the struggles between Mr. Bedford and the Selenite society. Instead, he studied the clapboards of their hut that too much time and too little repair had worn down to no-color reed wood. He studied the old legends and pictures carved into the wood by younger Indian John hands, the horseless coaches and stacked glass adobes that Indian John believed in.“D’you think it’s true…about the Bad Hand Man?”

John sighed, his face crinkling in on itself. “’Suppose Rilk wouldn’t have made mention of him were he any runner-the-mill gambler, would he?”

“’Suppose not.” He turned back to the book, but the darkness was now too deep to see the words on the pages. “Who d’you think he’s after?”

John smiled, a pinched, horrible expression. “We’ll know on the morrow when the poor bastard gets the signet. Now, go on, kiddo, get to bed. We can’t be wastin’ any candles tonight.”

– Reshuffle –

“The smaller the stuff, the bigger the bluff,” declared Jake Stryker the Elder as he laid down his third straight flush of the evening on the red felt card table.

The one-eyed mountain of a miner who had seemed so cocksure of himself only a moment ago let out a string of muttered curse and shambled up, nearly overturning the table where a veritable dragon’s trove of valuables waited to be claimed.

Jake Stryker winked at his son.

– Shuffle –

The following morning found Jake sitting quietly at the table and watching Indian John wake slowly. Slowly, he rose from his pallet, hobbled outside, then returned to join Jake at the table.

“John…”

“Taking a piss,” Indian John said.

“Liar.” Jake took the black iron Omega from his coat pocket and dropped it clanking to the tabletop between them. John sat perfectly still, his face unreadable. But Jake was just gambler enough to know a bluff. “Don’t lie to me, John,” he said.

“You don’t want to know. It’s not your trouble.”

“Why was there an Omega nailed to our door, John? What does a Bad Hand Man want with us?”

“Not you. Me. And it’s not y—”

Jake stood up and smote the wall behind Indian John with the iron Omega. The curve of the signet stuck in the wall like a ninja’s shuriken star from one of the old cinema reels that sometimes played in town. The impact sent a tremor up the clapboards, and a single custard cup toppled off a high shelf and shattered on the floor.

“Tell me,” Jake whispered, his voice rough, older. “Tell me. I want to know.”

John swallowed. He would tell; Jake knew him too well. He got up and prepared a pot of chicory coffee and set it on the brazier as Indian John began to tell his tale.

“The Great Law given us by the Omega Powers states that whosoever draws the blood of one of its Lawmen shall play a Bad Hand Man as punishment.”

Jake nodded as he stirred some cornmeal into a pot. He knew the Laws by rote. Everyone did.

“I was a boy like you once, Young Jake Stryker,” John continued. “Headstrong, impetuous. I bussed tables at a saloon in a town called Harmony, deep in the burnt old heart of the Skillet. A real center of non-excitement, I ‘member. ‘Cept this one dislucky day when a Lawman swaggered in and ordered up an ale. I bussed it over to him in what turned out to be a damned cracked schooner. Stupid bastard cut his mouth on it. And later that same night a young Indian took the reins and rode east. I weren’t no fool. I weren’t gonna play a Bad Hand Man or nothin’. You lose, you lose…you win, you lose too, coz you become one of them.

“For couple years I moved myself around a lot. ‘Ventually I comes upon Gehenna and the Crayton clan in search of slave labor. But an Injun’s luck is rottener n’ dead dog left out in the sun to bloat, and turns out Old Man Jimberly Crayton’s the Lawman’s cousin, twice removed…”

Here Indian John’s voice faded, as if reluctant to finish his story.

The meal was burning. Jake moved it off the burner with little enthusiasm. “That’s the reason you stay on? The Craytons shield you from the Law?”

“’Round these parts the Craytons is the Law, kiddo.”

Jake absently played with the bandages on his hand. “But they’re not shielding you now.”

“Who needs a crazy, blind old Injun when you got fresh meat?”

Jake looked away.

“Not your fault,” John stated. “Jimberly Crayton’s fault, kiddo.”

“But this—”

Indian John hissed for silence through black stubs of teeth. He said low and even, “I will play the Man tonight down at the Combakagin, Young Jake Stryker, as I was always meant to do, and I will win or I will lose. ‘Tis easy’s that.”

“You’ll lose, John.”

“I can play.”

“Not blind. Bad Hand Men don’t use Braille cards.”

“I’ll cope.” John’s chair screeked back. He stood, a sure indication that their discussion of his future was over. “Mare’s need shoein’, boy. You gonna stand there all day and look lost? Now git!”

Jake Stryker wiped his sleeve over his burning eyes and headed for the door.

– Reshuffle –

Jake Stryker the Elder stopped at the end of the mud-slathered swine rut that passed for a coach road in this town and dropped his sack of deeds and trinkets before the feet of a naked, long-haired child playing with the bones of some small animal. The child dug into the sack and immediately found the tiny silver horse pennant that Jake Stryker Sr. had adeptly liberated from the bodice of a local Countess. She turned in over in her hands and giggled enthusiastically.

Jake the Elder offered up his empty hands to his son. He raised his arms and sighed as if to beseech the sky or some unseen deity. Closing his glittering, sky-blue eyes, he asked, “Do you feel it, son? Lighter than Maat’s feather.”

– Shuffle –

The question was, could he do it?

He wasn’t tall like his father. And he didn’t have four decades of workman’s sinews the way Indian John did.

No. The answer was no.

He could not do it.

He would have to be clever.

Jake left the milo field they were chaffing early, before sunset, and returned to the cropper’s hut. He hid inside the closet, standing on Indian John’s old boots, the bottle of ether in one hand and an oilcloth in the other. He waited for almost an hour. Finally, just as he was about to nod off, he heard John shuffle in. He listened to the old man rattling around the hut as he prepared to go into town tonight.

Now. It had to be now…

Jake stepped out and reached for John. He clamped the soaked oilcloth around John’s nose and mouth. John grunted, flailed. He was uncommonly strong for an old man. An arm struck Jake across the face. A boot mule-kicked him.

Jake held on.

John forced him back, back until Jake’s back struck the cupboard, the impact nearly unhinging the whole thing. Cups hit the floor and shattered.

Jake held on.

John was strong, but Jake was young. Eventually, John weakened.

It was over, without a single word. John went as limp as a scarecrow in Jake’s arms. He dragged the old man to his pallet and laid him out and pulled his boots off. He knew the old man would dream of silver birds carrying passengers in their bellies and glass adobes standing against time and the sky. “I’m sorry,” he said.

He took the iron Omega and left the hut.

– Shuffle –

The Combakagin Saloon teemed.

The usual shell men and working girls were there, of course, as well as all manner of trouble-seekers, from barons and troubleshooters to bandits and hired guns. They milled across the sawdust-strewn floor or wobbled uncertainly at the bar and tried to avoid crashing into spittoons or the minefields of broken glass left behind by brawlers. There was darts and roulette and billiards in various levels of play and cheating.

No one looked his way. The patrons of the Combakagain were expecting Indian John, not the dead gambler Jake Stryker’s brat. Jake passed unmolested through the gambling hall, letting a cold calm fill him, letting the voices first drone together, then disappear completely. He could hear nothing now but the greasy slide of cards, the chittering of weighed dice, the whirling of the wheel of fortune. He smelled nothing but the clear white burn of fermented grain alcohol and husky breaths full of sarsaparilla tobacco.

He saw nothing but a witch’s figure in black at the end of the hall, sitting at one of the tables. The figure looked up at his approach, and for a moment Jake was almost struck blind with fear. This was Death, he thought, the final, terrible residual of his every childhood nightmare. The creature must have been at least seven feet all, a white skeleton wrapped in a black shroud of a duster lined in faded royal purple. Its long white hair glittered like metallic filaments in the greasy light of the oil lamps strung along the walls. Its desert-blasted eyes looked sick and yellow. Jake dropped his eyes and found himself staring at the titanium hilt of a laser scalpel clamped to the creature’s belt as a wave of nausea nearly overcame him.

Swallowing hard, he looked away.

There were groupies, of course. That wasn’t unusual. Lackeys addicted to violence, human refuse who followed Bad Hand Men around the Skillet like vultures begging for scraps. Rumor had it that on occasion a Bad Hand Man could be impressed with a particularly savage act of vigilante justice and take on an apprentice. It didn’t happen often, but it did happen. Such were these men’s terrible hopes. But with only a flick of the creature’s clawed hand they cleared out like flies, leaving the creature and Jake staring at each other across the table.

Jake lifted his head and looked the Bad Hand Man in his subhuman yellow eyes, challenging him to speak, but the Man remained silent. His tongue had been cut away a long time ago.

Riding on a wave of fear and adrenaline, Jake plucked the iron Omega out of his pocket and flung it to the tabletop. The ringing of iron quelled all over sounds in the gambling hall. For a full half minute all that remained of the former hubbub was the silver roulette ball rolling around the wheel as it found its nook. The games were at an end.

A new one was about to begin.

It didn’t matter that he wasn’t Indian John, Jake knew. He who carries the Omega must play the Bad Hand Man. The Man nodded once; he, too, knew the Laws by rote.

All for a cracked schooner forty years ago, thought Jake with some wonder as he took his seat at the table. He watched the creature, this Charon of Gamblers, produce a deck of surgery cards. He cut the deck, then shuffled it, once, twice. That was all. There was no gambling gymnastics, no casino magic.

The Bad Hand Man dealt them both five cards.

A lull had settled over the saloon. The townsfolk of Gehenna were watching him closely, Jake knew, but Jake could not see them, their faces smudged and unfocused. There was only the hand he held.

The Ace of Skulls. Jack of Tongues. A Three of Skulls. A Three of Bones. A Five of Skulls. He studied his hand impassively, as his father would have. He had the makings of a straight flush, but the Ace of Skulls disturbed him. A sensible man would dispose of it immediately.    

The Bad Hand Man’s long brown fingernails tapped the tabletop impatiently. The creature had thrown out a King of Bones. He was either a bluffing coward or he was going for a high-risk hand. That was what Jake’s gut was telling him.

Jake felt a sudden rise of vomit in his throat. He swallowed. He did not let it show.

The Bad Hand Man smiled emotionlessly.

Jake instinctively broke his pair and threw out the Three of Bones.

The Man dealt him back a Three of Hearts. Jake felt the rapid vibration of his heart. He could have had three-of-a-kind and been done with this! He wanted to cry, but he was playing the house. He couldn’t let it show.

He watched the Bad Hand Man’s baleful skeleton’s face, wondering if the thing would call.

The Man did not call.

Jake swallowed and said an internal prayer. He threw out the Three of Hearts.

The creature obliged him by throwing out another big card, a Queen of Hearts.

This was curious What did he have? Something huge, thought Jake. A royal flush or four of a kind…

The Man’s offered an empty smile, as if he had read Jake’s mind. As if he were mocking Jake!

Jake looked away. The Bad Hand Man had won. He had a better hand and was biding his time, making Jake sweat. He wanted Jake to call. It would be for the best to finish this foolishness right now.

He’d been playing a Bad Hand Man, for god’s sake. Was he crazy?

The smaller the stuff, son, the bigger the bluff.

“No,” Jake said, low. And then again, louder, sitting straight up in his seat: “No!” He looked the creature in its ancient reptilian eyes and spat, “Get out of my fucking head and deal, old man!”

The Bad Hand Man dealt.

An Ace of Tongues.

That Skull card he was waiting for wasn’t coming, dammit.

“Call,” Jake said, his voice hoarse.

The surface of the creature’s face remained unchanged, yet the expression beneath his poker mask was hollow, skeptical. This was perhaps the first time the creature had ever been called to show by his opponent.

He bluffed, Jake realized. His first instincts about the Man—such as he could be called a Man—were right. He was a bluffer. He got rid of all his high cards as soon as possible, then frightened his opponent into losing. That’s how he had managed to stay in the game for so long.

The Man laid down his hand. A bad hand, indeed. All low mixed cards with a single royal card, a Jack of Skulls.

Unlucky bastard.

A tremor passed through Jake’s limbs. He wondered briefly if he would weep or simply pass out from relief. He did neither and simply set his own pair of Aces down.

A tide of surprised cries ripped the expectant audience wide open.

Too numb to speak or move, Jake watched as the defeated creature rose in a tower of gangling bones and black, sand-washed fabric. He removed his laser scalpel and set it on the table between them. Jake expected fear, reluctance—the expression of a sane man. But Bad Hand Men were not sane. They were not men. What Jake saw shook him down to the bone: it was the ambiguous, immaterial weariness of an old man not so terribly different than Indian John. He nodded once at Jake, as if to bless his efforts, removed his battered black gambler’s hat, then sank to one knee and placed his ear to the table that had become his chopping block.

The patrons of the Combakagin began chanting, cheering Jake on to take up the scalpel, to perform the deed that he had earned, had won. To defeat a Bad Hand Man. To become a Bad Hand Man. The power of the audience seemed to galvanize him. Jake found himself standing over his defeated opponent, the scalpel in hand. It was so well balanced an instrument that he could imagine wielding it in his sleep. With the barest touch of the lighted controls the instrument sang to life, a shining blade of justice that turned the air electric around him.

Expectant faces followed his every move. He saw the shining eyes of sadistic cats everywhere he looked.

But he was his father’s son. Not one of the Omega Power’s programmed monsters. Maat’s feather would not sink his heart, he decided. He bent low and kissed the crown of the Bad Hand Man’s head, then rose and turned away from the proceedings.

And stopped.

Not ten paces away stood Rilk Crayton.

The sight of his bitter, unwashed bulk was bad. But what he had brought with him was much worse. As Rilk swaggered forward through a cleft in the crowd, Jake saw the pig-sticker jouncing over one shoulder. From atop it, crowning it like a fool’s scepter, was Indian John’s severed head, surveying the hall with sagging, sleepy-lidded eyes. For a moment, as Rilk moved, the eyes seemed to find Jake, to see Jake.

Someone was screaming.

Jake discovered it was he. He was screaming, a hoarse, wordless, breathless sound, even though he could feel nothing superficially. He spun, wielding the instrument like a piece of his own arm. It shaved away the Bad Hand Man’s ancient head so cleanly the creature continued to scrabble at the tabletop with catlike fingertips long after the head hit the floor.

The audience shuffled back so only Rilk remained, cheeks puffed and piqued, staring at Jake with wild-eyed surprise. Then he jerked suddenly, dropping his supplication to the Bad Hand Man to the floor. He’d seen something he couldn’t negate, something he couldn’t look away from. Like a rabbit caught in the lens-eye of an eagle, there was no escape.

The Bad Hand Man lay crucified in the sawdust. Come morning, he would be stripped down to bone for souvenirs, and even his bones ground for gris-gris by the town magician. Only his coat would remain untouched, for like the iron Omega, this was the signet of the Bad Hand Man. None would dare touch that.

The Laws forbade the touching of a Lawman or his coat, or the drawing of his blood.

Rilk Crayton knew the Laws by rote. Everyone did. It was the reason he now stared in abject horror at Jake Stryker’s hand where the bandages were pink sopping straps coming undone, revealing the knife wound that had become unstitched in the execution.

Rilk raised his hands to his mouth in supplication. “Please,” he said.

Jake flicked the scalpel off and returned to the table. He wasn’t angry, nor was he upset. His emotions had at last been boiled down to the bone and nullified. He would never feel anything ever again. He shuffled and reshuffled his new set of surgery cards with absent grace as an evil, emotionless smile corrupted his lips.

“Let’s have a hand, Rilk,” he said.

***

VISIT K. H. KOEHLER BOOKS AT:

http://www.khkoehler.com

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