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August 08, 2022

Poker Face

By Mel Trent



The Immortal Guns of Talon Konstantine: Poker Face

I.

Memphis Mulligan's 'Mazin' Mirage stops in the desert between the ghost town of Grave and Dust. Memphis doesn't know that Dust is empty and is hoping like hell to be able to scrounge up spare parts. The vehicles in the caravan aren't holding up too well any more. That's why they've stopped now. The lead vehicle just blew a radiator hose and a few other things besides. Memphis's son, Trevor, is trying to get it fixed, but there are no parts to fix it with. Once it cools off, Trevor will do what he can. He's good at that sort of thing, but he's not a miracle worker.

In the heat of the day, most of the travelers and guards sleep. They aren't moving. There's no one around. What else are they going to do? Memphis sits under a faded awning rolled out from the side of his little aluminum trailer and reads a book about a war he's never heard of. The book is pretty funny. His nephew, Christian Sparrow, says it's all made up, but the details seem realistic enough. He's seen people get shot, and he thinks the guy who wrote the story must have seen that, too. Or else the story isn't really made up. It's the only book Memphis has ever read. He's read it four or five times now. It passes the hours.

"Pop, I don't think I can fix it this time," Trevor says as he comes up to the trailer.

Memphis grunts.

"I'll have to walk into Dust and see if they got anything."

"Wait until it cools off. Too damn hot to be walkin' that far."

"Right."

"And take someone with you. Ya never know what kinda freaks are crossin' the desert at night."

"Right. I'll take Croswell."

Trevor walks a few more vehicles down and disappears into his own trailer for a nap.

Memphis looks up from his book and squints at Dust. His eyes aren't what they used to be, but he swears he can see someone or something walking towards the caravan. After a few minutes, he's convinced he can see three figures in the shimmering heat. He puts his book down and ambles up to the front of the caravan. One of the guards, Ben Hayes, is sitting on top of the second vehicle looking towards Dust through a pair of binoculars. "What d'ya see, Ben?" Memphis asks.

"The Seraphim twins and a cute blonde girl," Ben says.

Memphis grunts. "Just what we need. Uninvited guests."

"Maybe they'll just pass by."

"They never just pass by. Long as Miss Rosie's still sellin' that sweet stuff, those boys will stop to bug me."

Ben frowns. "One of 'em just fell down."

Memphis looks into the distance. He can barely make out the movements, but he sees one of the twins getting up from the ground and leaning on the other. "Damn," he mutters. "Kaine's heart must be on the fritz again. Tell Jim and Nathan to go get 'em."

"Yes, sir." Ben scrambles down off the roof. A few minutes later, the last vehicle in the caravan, a small jeep, detaches and trudges its way towards the twins and the girl.

Memphis ambles back to his trailer, sits under his awning and starts reading his book again from the beginning.

II.

"You did not trip!" Kumiko shouts at Kaine.

Kaine is leaning against Jynx, and he's so dizzy that the ground is starting to turn into the sky. "Yeah, I did," he says.

"You just had two heart attacks in less than an hour, and you expect me to believe you're feeling just fine?"

"Yeah, I do."

"Bullshit!"

Kaine flinches. The bell around his neck tinkles.

"She's right, you know," Jynx says. "That is bullshit."

"I'm fine," Kaine says. His chest still feels tight, and breathing has been easier. He shouldn't be walking at all, much less walking in the heat of the day. His recovery period has always been superhumanly quick, but he's pushing it this time.

Jynx lets go of him. "Okay, then, don't lean on me," he says.

"I don't need to. I tripped." Kaine teeters, takes a deep breath and gets his balance. His head slows its spinning. The world goes grey for a second. He hears the blast of a train whistle. He sees a piece of his last vision, the one he hasn't told them about, the one he's not going to tell them about. He watches a train car rip someone in half. Feathers and blood rain down on the sand. He hears the scream die, and the air around him shakes with its echo.

When the brief reminders of the horrid vision pass, Kaine finds himself staring up at the blank expanse of yellow sky.

"You didn't trip that time," Kumiko says, leaning over him. "Unless you can trip when you're standing still."

What are you hiding? Jynx asks.

Kaine doesn't answer. He can't. The yellow sky has turned black.

"He's out," Jynx says.

"Why is he being so hard headed?" Kumiko asks. "We could have stayed in Dust until tomorrow morning."

"He doesn't want to be a burden."

"Hmph!" Kumiko folds her arms across her chest and looks towards the caravan. She sees the jeep moving towards them. "Those caravan people are your friends, right?" she asks.

"Well, some of 'em are. We're well tolerated."

"It looks like they're coming to get us."

"Good! Then we can get candy sooner!"

Kumiko shakes her head.

"You really like him, don't you?"

"What?"

"Come on. I see the way you look at him."

"Now I know why he's been telling you to shut up so often."

"He just won't admit that he likes you."

"So?"

"So I know better. I guess it'll just take time, huh?"

Kumiko doesn't answer. She watches the approaching jeep and tries not to think about what Jynx is saying. Jynx is wrong anyway. She doesn't like Kaine. Kaine doesn't like her. It's just that ... well, maybe she likes him just a little. She won't let herself get too close, though. That wouldn't be a good idea.

When the jeep chugs to a halt a few feet away from them, Jynx picks Kaine up while Kumiko grabs their bags. Jim Patterson and Nathan Grady exchange a worried glance. Memphis doesn't care much for the Seraphim boys, but most of his employees do. They've known Jynx and Kaine since they were young and were traveling with their father. They don't like seeing what they're seeing right now.

"Need a hand?" Jim asks.

"Nah, just make sure there's room for us," Jynx says.

Jim turns around and starts shoving junk around in the back.

"Is he all right?" Nathan asks.

"He's just being a moron. This is Kuroda Kumiko. Kumiko, this is Jim Patterson and Nathan Grady."

They nod to her.

"Pleased to meet ya," Jim says with a goofy grin.

Kumiko gives them an awkward little wave as she climbs into the back of the jeep. "Hi," she says.

"Now, don't go hitting on her, Jim," Jynx says. "She's got a boyfriend."

Kumiko sits down and glares at Jynx. "He is not my boyfriend. I swear, when he wakes up, I'm gonna have him beat you senseless. And then when he's done, I'm gonna beat you senseless!"

Jim and Nathan snicker.

Jynx lays Kaine down gently, resting his head in Kumiko's lap. Furious red spreads across her cheeks. Kaine's eyes flutter open. He looks up at Kumiko. She wants to run her fingers through his hair and tell him it's all right, but she's paralyzed. He smiles, his eyes flutter shut and his head slumps, turning his face towards her stomach. Jynx climbs in and sits on the other side of the jeep, slipping his legs underneath Kaine's.

"You ready?" Nathan asks.

"Yep, we're ready," Jynx says.

"All right, then. Let's go."

III.

Elijah Exelby stumbles into a grimy saloon in Hopesprings. Grey faces glance up as the batwing doors swing shadows in and out of the dimness. Then they go back to staring hard into their glasses. Elijah staggers up to the bar. He can't climb up on the barstool. His shoulder hurts too much. He stands on his tiptoes and cranes his neck up at the bartender. "Red Beam straight up," he says. "Make it a double."

"Go home to yer mama, squirt," the bartender says.

Elijah slaps five stars down on the bar and repeats his order.

The bartender turns over a glass, pours a golden red liquid into it and takes the stars.

Elijah lurches over to a corner table. Ordinarily, he would sit facing the door, but this time, he puts his back to it and the rest of the bar. He doesn't need people watching him dig a bullet out of his shoulder. He dips a corner of his poncho into his drink and rubs down his knife. Hiding his hands under his poncho, his pokes the tip of his knife into the wound. He grinds his teeth. The smell of his singed flesh bothers him more than the sight of the blood. He can't really feel the pain. His shoulder went numb several miles back.

After several minutes of digging around and soaking his clothes and his poncho with blood, he gets the bullet out. He stares at it as he swallows the rest of his drink. It starts to burn his palm. He drops it onto the table and stares at it some more. It wasn't a lucky shot. Shaman had him dead to rights. He knows that. He felt that. Shaman could watch him teleporting. Elijah isn't sure why Shaman let him live. It wasn't to question him. Elijah's answers were irrelevant. He had sensed Shaman's physical weakness, and he wonders if that has anything to do with it. He thinks Shaman might be afraid of his own power.

Elijah nearly jumps out of his skin when a woman drags a chair away from his table, turns it around and sits down.

She grins at him with crooked and broken teeth. Greasy coils of sweat soaked brown hair fall around her face like snakes. Just under the rim of her hat, Elijah can see faint scars that he's certain are part of a pentagram. "Pale Traveler," she says.

Her voice makes him want to take a boiling hot bath and scrub his skin with steel wool. "Fire Scar," he says.

"You had a run in with the angels."

"So what?"

"Seems to have been unsuccessful."

"This time."

"And next time?"

"They'll be ready for me next time, which will make the fight that much more interesting. I want to see what Shaman's willing to put himself through."

"Where were they headed?"

"Dust."

"Chasing a bounty?"

"Guess so. I figured I'd wait a while. Give them time to get distracted.

The star demon Fire Scar laughs.

"What's so damn funny?"

"If Shaman doesn't see you, Firefly will hear you. They know you now. You'll never have an advantage."

"I have to try, don't I?"

"I think I'll take a shot at them myself." She picks up the bullet and holds it right at the end of her nose, staring cross eyed at it. Her fingertips begin to smoke. "You know where these come from, don't you?"

"That one came from a gun."

"Do you know who made those guns and these bullets and the knives they carry?"

"Should I care?"

"I think it's interesting."

"I don't."

"There was once a man who was made to hold the Fire that created the universe within his body. He made them. The Fire made the angels, and that man's blood is in those boys' veins. It'll be nice to spill that blood and watch them burn."

Elijah fights off a fuzzy nausea that tries to crawl up his gullet. Her eyes shimmer like dull blades. If he thought he had enough energy to get away from her, he would. "Why did you come looking for me?" he asks.

She peels the bullet out of her burning fingertips with her teeth and spits it into Elijah's empty glass. "I thought you might know what the blood of angels tastes like." She gets up and pats him on his wounded shoulder. He winces. "See ya 'round, kid."

Elijah watches her as she walks out of the saloon. When she reaches the batwing doors, she turns around and peels her hat off. Thick black blood crawling with white maggots drools out of the scar on her forehead. It is a pentagram. She winks at him. Elijah plucks the bullet out of the glass and teleports out of the saloon.

The saloon is cinders in less than five minutes, and the fire spreads quickly in the dry heat.

IV.

Jynx looks at the coins lying in his palms then at Memphis's jowly scowl. He wants to pay something. He knows the Mirage needs money. He knows that Memphis isn't giving them shelter out of the goodness of his heart. But his two stars aren't enough to show his gratitude. He can't ask Kumiko to contribute her measly six stars. It still wouldn't be enough. "It's all we got, Memphis," he says.

They are sitting in Miss Rosie's trailer. Miss Rosie was kind enough to let them use her trailer to take care of Kaine. Hers is the largest trailer in the caravan, and she's got a soft spot for the twins mostly because they love the candy she makes. It's just melted sugar with color added and poured into molds to make shapes like stars, moons, clovers, horseshoes, cats, spiders and roses, but they've always loved it, so she loves them.

Miss Rosie is in the tiny kitchen, stirring a pot of melting sugar. The warm, sweet smell fills the whole trailer. She casts a sidelong glance at Memphis as she stirs. "Now, Mr. Mulligan, don't go treating them like common guests," she says.

Memphis snorts.

Kumiko digs in her backpack and drops her stars into Jynx's hands. "Please, Mr. Mulligan," she says. "We can pay you more later."

"Ain't you been collecting on all them criminals?" Memphis asks.

"Ah, well ... you see ..."

"Extenuating circumstances," Jynx says.

"Don't bullshit me, boy," Memphis says.

"Mr. Mulligan!" Miss Rosie says. "They're making the best offer they can. You know they're good for it. What would Jacob and Gloria say?"

"Woman, don't talk about the dead like that."

Miss Rosie shakes her head and stirs her pot.

"Keep yer damn stars," Memphis says to Jynx and Kumiko. "But I want the full fee fer all three of ya as soon as you get it." He stomps out of the trailer.

Miss Rosie shakes her head again. "That man. I swear," she says.

"It's just because Trevor and Christian want to shut the Mirage down," Jynx says.

"Oh?"

"Um ... a little ... birdie ... told me."

"Oh, right. Well, I suppose that's understandable."

Jynx sits down on the couch and chews on his fingers. He can feel nightmares rolling around in Kaine's head. There's nothing he can do. He wishes he could take all of Kaine's pain on himself. Or at least part of it. He hates that he's so helpless. Then again, it's meant to be that way.

"Why don't you get some rest?" Miss Rosie asks. "There's no sense sitting there worrying yourselves to death. You know he'll be just fine. I'll wake you up for dinner, and by then, the candy will be ready."

Jynx tries to smile. He's always been good at pretending everything's all right, but this time, he's not so sure. "Thanks, Miss Rosie," he says.

He goes into the tiny space that passes for a bedroom, leaving the roomier couch for Kumiko. He watches Kaine for a while. Kaine looks calm and only a little pale. Jynx leans down and touches his forehead to Kaine's, trying to see what's going on in Kaine's dream. He sees only blackness, but he hears screams and howling train whistles and the beating of wings. He spits a few feathers out of his mouth. He thinks about what Firefly whispered to him back in Dust about the white feather. It must be a person or some kind of creature that will help them because it doesn't feel like a demon. And suddenly, it feels much closer. He tries to reach out to it, but it seems to sidestep him. He doesn't try any more. He lies on the floor and closes his eyes.

Kumiko stretches out on the couch. She's not very tired. She watches the ceiling for a while. "Miss Rosie?" she asks.

"Yes, dear?"

"How do you know if you like someone?"

"If you like someone?"

"I mean, like ... a boy."

Miss Rosie chuckles. "You'll know, dear."

"But how?"

"It comes in all kinds of different ways. But mostly, I think it's when you can't stop thinking about him. If you're folding your laundry and all the sudden you wonder how he is or who he's with and what he's doing. If you're writing a letter and you start daydreaming about his eyes. That kind of thing."

"Oh."

"Do you think about him like that?"

"No. Right now, I mostly just worry."

"No need for that, dear. He's always been a tough one. He'll be just fine."

V.

Kaine watches his dreams flit by and fade. He has learned that they don't always have some deeper meaning nor do they offer truthful glimpse of the future. Time is malleable; events within it are dynamic. The problem there is that he isn't the one in control. He's just an observer who sees things a little differently than most.

What is true and can't be changed is the past. He watches a white stone building on a hill turn blood red in a sunrise eighteen years ago. He knows how long ago it was because as he watches the building through someone else's eyes, he feels Firefly and Shaman come into world. But something is wrong with Shaman. He waits and waits and waits. Finally, Shaman's energy begins to move. He looks down at the ground and climbs the hill.

He sees a hospital room. He sees his mother holding her newborn sons. Her red hair is plastered against her cheeks and forehead with sweat. Jynx is pink and healthy and ogling the room with his big dark eyes, but his little hands are reaching for his brother. Kaine is very still. His skin is blue. He's breathing, and the blue is fading. But he is very still. His father is clutching his mother's arms. They are both crying. The doctor and nurses are silently cleaning up their instruments. They've never seen anything like that. When they told Gloria that her son wasn't breathing, that his heart wasn't beating, that they would have to take him away from her as soon as he came out, she had reached down between her legs, holding Jynx against her shoulder, and pulled Kaine away from the doctor and breathed life into her stillborn child.

This is nothing new to Kaine. He remembers being born. He remembers the vision he had as Gloria pushed him and Jynx out of her womb. He doesn't know why he saw the building on the hill or why whoever that was seemed to feel that moment so keenly.

His dreams drift away on swirls of whispering voices that break as he hears Miss Rosie say, "Dinner's ready." Right on cue, his stomach begins to growl.

Jynx sits up and stretches. "You must be okay if your stomach can make a noise like that," he says. "You might wanna put that thing in a cage. It sounds dangerous."

"It won't bite," Kaine says as he sits up.

You were having bad dreams, Jynx thinks.

I don't remember.

You had a vision when we were in Dust, didn't you?

Kaine hesitates. It doesn't do any good to lie, but if he admits it, Jynx won't leave him alone until he tells Jynx what he saw. Yeah. It was bad. I don't wanna talk about it.

What did you see?

I don't wanna talk about it.

I need to know.

No, you don't.

Kaine ...

I watched a train tear someone in half. All right? Satisfied?

"What?"

Kaine looks up when he hears Kumiko's footsteps coming towards them. Jynx is still staring at Kaine in disbelief, hardly aware that he's spoken out loud.

"Did I interrupt something? Is everything okay?" Kumiko asks.

"No!" Jynx says. "That's not okay! What the hell do you mean?"

"I said I don't want to talk about it," Kaine says.

"No, we need to talk about that."

"What good would it do? I can't explain it. I don't know who it was."

"Um, food?" Kumiko asks.

"Trains aren't supposed to eat people," Jynx says.

"I'll be in the kitchen with Miss Rosie and the food." Kumiko almost runs back to the kitchen.

Kaine's stomach grumbles. Jynx's gurgles in response. Jynx shrugs. "I'm gonna let this one go," he says.

Kaine nods. The bell on his collar jingles.

"But only because I can't even start to think of how that would happen."

"I saw it, and I still don't believe it."

"And it wasn't you or me. Or Kumiko."

"No. Unless one of us suddenly sprouts wings."

Jynx scratches his chin.

"The food's getting cold!" Miss Rosie calls.

They race each other into the kitchen.

VI.

The desert night is crisp and clear. Stars wink against the blackness. A silver sliver of one of Phoenix's moons hangs like a curved dagger due north of where the Mirage sits. The other two moons haven't risen. Jynx, Kaine and Kumiko wander from Miss Rosie's trailer to one of the trailers near the front of the line, each of them sucking on a piece of Miss Rosie's candy and not saying much.

The caravan guards are seated around a round table with a worn felt top that used to be bright green. It's almost grey now. There are stacks of chips and piles of cards on the table, but they aren't playing. They just finished a hand. Will Croswell was the big winner, and he rakes the chips to his pile. The other players are groaning and complaining. Will always wins. A couple of them get up from the table. Nathan Grady takes one spot.

"One more spot open!" Will calls. "Come on, ya cocksuckers! What are ya, chicken?"

Jynx looks at Kaine. Kaine shrugs. Jynx looks at Kumiko. She's frowning around her horseshoe shaped candy. She thinks that might be the first time she's actually heard anyone use the word cocksucker.

"I'll play," Jynx says.

"The hell you will," Will says.

"What? Why not?"

"You're psychic. That's an unfair advantage."

"I hear voices, Will. I don't read minds or cards."

Will points at Kaine. "He does, and you can ... talk to each other."

"If I wanted to take your winnings, I think I'd just stick a gun in your face," Kaine says.

Will snarls.

"What if I promised not to use my power?" Jynx asks.

"No. Because he didn't promise."

"I don't make promises I can't keep," Kaine says.

Will points at Kumiko. "How 'bout if she plays?"

"What? Me?" Kumiko asks.

"Yeah! You play!" Jynx says. "Come on. We need the money."

"How do you know she's not psychic?" Kaine asks.

Kumiko jabs him with her elbow.

"Ow."

"She's not," Jynx says. "Are you?"

Kumiko shakes her head.

"Come on, little lady," Will says. "Have a seat. I can spot you some chips to get you started."

"How gracious of you," Kaine says.

Kumiko grins. "All right," she says. "This could be fun."

She sits down between Nathan and Ben Hayes. Will counts out two hundred stars worth of chips and slides them to Kumiko. Then he shuffles the cards and deals. "You do know how to play, don't you?" he asks Kumiko.

"I think I watched my dad play once or twice," she says.

Will grins.

"Maybe that wasn't a good idea," Jynx whispers to Kaine.

"I think it's great," Kaine says. He can't help smiling. He remembers hearing about Kumiko's dad and the famous poker tournaments for which he gave up bounty hunting. Kuroda Kazuya is the most famous, not to mention richest, poker champion in the universe. Kaine can see in Kumiko's eyes that she's learned a lot from her father.

"What are you smiling for?"

"You'll see."

Kumiko loses the first hand. She giggles a lot and tosses away high cards that might have landed her a full house. She ends up with a pair of twos. She giggles and shrugs. "Oh well," she says. She only lost ten stars on that hand.

She loses the next hand by a slim margin to Ben. The third hand, she wins narrowly over Will. "I thinking I'm getting the hang of this," she says, giggling. She won sixty stars that round.

After that, it's over. She doesn't lose again, and Will is furious. Kumiko giggles and says it's beginner's luck.

"I want another piece of candy," Kaine says.

Jynx can't take his eyes off the game. He's not surprised that Kumiko is winning. It's Will's reaction that has him riveted. Will's pile of chips keeps shrinking, but Will refuses to quit. Nathan and Ben pulled out a while ago. "Bring me some, too," he says as Kaine walks away.

Kaine looks towards Dust as he walks back to Miss Rosie's trailer. He thinks he sees lights from a vehicle. He stops to watch. The lights don't move. Then he hears a woman shriek. The sound that follows that isn't human. The vehicle's lights die, and silence follows. Kaine doesn't think it's anything he needs to worry about. He starts towards Miss Rosie's again and stops suddenly. McBride is standing in his path.

Kaine's mouth goes dry. McBride is looking at him squarely with both eyes, but neither eye seems malicious.

"We need to talk, boy," McBride says.

"No, I don't think we do," Kaine says.

"You and Jynx are headed to the city."

Kaine says nothing. He wonders how McBride knows that. It takes a few more minutes for him to realize that McBride is able to tell him and Jynx apart.

"You might wanna call it off an' just go home."

"What the hell for? You think you've got a better chance of finding her than we do?"

"I think I got a better chance of bein' alive when I get there."

"Whatever. You don't know anything about it."

"No. Don't s'ppose I do. Least not from your view."

"Then maybe you're the one who oughta go home."

"Don't disrespect me with that tone of voice, boy."

Kaine sets his jaw. Maybe he shouldn't be taking chances like that. He's not sure what McBride wants.

"I'm tryin' to save you the trouble of a messy death."

Kaine shrugs. "It doesn't matter."

"Does to me."

"Why?"

McBride hesitates just a little. He knows the twins don't remember him. He wanted it that way. It seemed easier. It left them with no ties except to their dead parents. He wouldn't have known what to do with two teenagers anyway. "Your father ..."

"You don't know anything about him."

McBride is just slightly surprised by the venom in Kaine's voice, but he doesn't show it. "Look, boy --"

"You might call yourself a bounty hunter, but you're nothing like him. You're just a sick old bastard with nothing better to do than hunt down weak criminals for fun."

McBride decides it might be better to play the game. Telling Kaine that he was a friend of Jacob's and Gloria's probably won't have good results at that point. "Gotta have a little fun in life, ya know. It isn't all about the stars. Why do you do it? The money? Is that what you think it's all about?"

"Pride."

Kaine turns around and walks away.

McBride blinks. Not much could ever make him reel. Certainly not a word. That one has him back on his heels and aching unexpectedly. "You look like your mother when you're angry," he mutters. He blinks again. A tear leaks through the furrows of his scars. He walks away from the Mirage and keeps heading towards Angel City.

Article © Mel Trent. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-12-17
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