It was a painfully bright summer afternoon in Reno, Nevada, and Aaron Viva was glad he had thought to bring along his day-glasses. The air was hot and dry and promising to get worse before it got any better. This was not the oppressive wet summer heat he had known while growing up in back east, the kind that had your clothes soaked and sticking to you from sunup until well after sundown. No, this was the sort of day liable to leave you a dried out husk as it baked the moisture off your skin so fast that you didn't even realize you were sweating. All was not right in the world, though that state of affairs had nothing to do with the weather, which was not too many degrees above average for the location at that time of year.
Pete had been acting twitchy and irritable even before they got to Reno. As far as Aaron could tell, being high-strung with a hair-trigger temper that went off at the strangest of minor provocations was just part and parcel to being Pete Hutter, but lately the former outlaw had become just plain jumpy, as if he knew someone was gunning for him. Pete refused to admit anything was wrong, though, so Aaron kept his mouth shut but his eyes open and his gun ready, so he could step in and lend a hand if trouble came knocking.
The job they were in town for went smoothly enough. They helped Brisco and Bowler get their man (who turned out to be a pair of identical twin ladies taking turns pretending to be a man, but that was a story for some other time) with only the usual levels of danger to life and limb. And now, with the arrests made and the bounties distributed, everyone was enjoying a few days rest and relaxation. Well, everyone except for Old Mrs. Johanssen, who had traveled from Hard Rock at Aaron's request to help with Reno's upcoming pie-eating competition and would most likely not stop working herself into a tizzy until the last slice was eaten tomorrow afternoon.
Today, Brisco and Dixie had taken themselves off to spend some quality time together with a picnic lunch and a rented rowboat out on Lake Tahoe. Lord Bowler was trying to drag Socrates away from the slot machines long enough to force him to eat something. Comet was busy amassing quite an impressive pile of winnings at the blackjack tables while being careful to lose just often enough that no one would suspect how good he was at counting cards. All these activities were also fairly average for a visit to Reno by our heroes.
Meanwhile, as the sun took its sweet time in dipping down towards the horizon, Pete and Aaron agreed that a cold drink was in order before they even considered doing anything else. Aaron was just about to push his way through the swinging doors into Dolly's saloon and casino when he heard a gunshot and the sound of a body hitting the wooden walkway right behind him. He spun around to see a man dressed all in black and wearing a look of coldly clinical fascination upon his face as he stared down at where Pete now lay bleeding at his feet. Aaron immediately tackled the man, wrenched the smoking gun from his barely resisting fingers, and had him hogtied in a matter of seconds. Then he dropped to the ground by his fallen partner.
"C'mon, Pete, you're gonna be fine," Aaron said, lifting Pete up just enough to pillow his head with the wadded up coat someone from the gathering crowd of onlookers had thrust into his hands. "You've pulled through worse than this before, just say something."
"You get him?" Pete said. There was blood on his lips and a gurgle in his lungs when he talked.
"Yeah, I got him," Aaron said. "Now stay with me, you hear?"
"Downright shameful," Pete said through gritted teeth. He turned his head with a wince and spat on the ground. "It's people like that who give firearm enthusiasts a bad name." Then, without any more fuss, his eyes rolled back in his head and he died.
Aaron sighed loudly, but if anyone heard the quietly muttered, "Not again," which followed, then they at least had the courtesy to refrain from commenting on it. The crowd parted to let the town doctor through, but Aaron already knew what the prognosis was going to be. He gave Pete's shoulder one last squeeze with his hand, then hoisted himself back to his feet. While the doctor checked Pete for a pulse, Aaron re-tied the bindings on his prisoner so that the man could walk, and dragged him off to the town's sheriff, glad that most of the paperwork for this fiasco was going to be somebody else's problem.
A half hour later, Aaron was just finishing writing out his witness's statement when he heard the sheriff, one Jimmy Lawson, who was seated on the other side of the desk, start making some kind of strangled, spluttering, choking noise. Aaron looked up then turned to follow the direction of the sheriff's gaze, where he was treated to the sight of Pete Hutter sidling into the room carrying a pitcher of mint lemonade and a trio of glasses. Aaron grinned and patted the empty chair next to him.
Pete filled one of the glasses for himself, placed the pitcher and other glasses on the desk, and then settled into the offered seat. Aside from sporting a new shirt and an unusually sour, there was no sign that anything amiss had happened to Pete recently, and even the sour expression might be down to the lemonade he had just taken a mouthful of. Old Mrs. Johanssen, the most likely source of the drink, was a firm believer in the idea of 'spare the sugar, save the soul' when it came to beverages, but it tended to pair well with her delicious pies, so few people ever complained.
"You okay?" Aaron asked. He poured himself some lemonade and, hidden from Lawson's view by the large desk, casually shifted in his seat, spreading his legs a little wider so that his thigh brushed against Pete's. Not that he really needed to bother hiding anything at the moment, because Lawson was already looking so shocked by Pete's arrival under his own power that Aaron probably could have swept Pete into the deepest kiss of either of their lives without Lawson saying anything about it due to being too busy still trying to process the whole "not dead" part of what his eyes were telling him.
"Why wouldn't I be?" Pete countered, as he returned Aaron's thigh-bump.
"One of these days you're going to have to tell me how you do that, Pete."
Pete shrugged. "There's nothing much to tell."
"You're… you're…," Lawson stammered, pointing a shaking finger at Pete.
"What I am," Pete snapped, "is unimpressed by the hospitality displayed by some of your citizens! Where I come from, it's considered common courtesy to wait until you have a grievance with a man before you put lead in him. I've never even seen that guy before in my life! What the hell did he want?" He thumped his glass down onto the desk, then, after a moment of thought, added, "Aside from the obvious."
Lawson, visibly happy to take mental refuge in some semblance of performing his usual duties, shuffled his papers into a neater pile. "He's a drifter calling himself Cash, though he won't say if that is his first or last name," he said, glancing towards the door which led back to the cell where the man in question was being held under lock and key. "And," Lawson continued, "as far as anyone can tell, 'the obvious,' as you put it, was all he wanted. According to his own statement, and I quote, 'I had never seen a man die before, and I was bored, so I thought I'd give it a try. The fellow with the long hair was just convenient.' Everyone in town who's had any dealings with him said he didn't seem quite right in the head but not bad enough to do something like this."
Aaron scowled. "You have him on murder--"
"Attempted murder," Lawson said, still looking uneasy.
"Attempted murder," Aaron amended. "You better not let him wiggle out of it."
"Of course not! I'll need the victim's, I mean Mr. Hutter's statement, but with as many witnesses as there were and the man's own admission of guilt, it should be an open and shut case when it goes to trial."
By the time Lawson had finished talking, Pete had already grabbed a blank sheet of paper from the desk. He scribbled a few quick lines on it, signed it, and shoved it into Lawson's hands. "Are we done here?" he demanded.
Lawson opened his mouth then snapped it shut again without saying anything. He looked like there were a lot of questions he wanted to ask but couldn't bring himself to do it.
"I'm done if you are," Aaron offered in hopes of speeding things along.
"Yes," Lawson said. His left eye ticked. "Please."
"Much obliged," Pete said with a tip of his hat, sounding only half sarcastic. Then he grabbed Aaron by the sleeve and dragged him back out into the sunlight. Aaron didn’t resist at all. They walked in silence for a few dozen steps, until Pete chuckled. "For having a name like Lawson, that feller doesn't strike me as being cut out for the rigors the badge."
"Maybe not, but enough about him," Aaron said. "How 'bout we have another go at heading to Dolly's and finding a drink stronger than lemonade?"
"I was thinking more along the lines of skipping the drink and going to bed," Pete said with mock seriousness.
"You don't say."
"I do say," Pete said, and some of his familiar swagger was beginning to work its way back into his walk. "That unwarranted violence visited upon my person was a clear sign from above that we should skip the drink and go straight upstairs to bed. A man can't get into trouble if he has made an early night of it."
"I dunno," Aaron said, "I can think of a few ways to get into trouble in bed."
"You'll have to show me." And now Pete was smiling for real again, that big, unrestrained grin that always looked so good on him.
Aaron's answering grin was just as wide. "I guess you're right."
That was not the end of troublesome matters in Reno, but for the next few hours Aaron was able to pretend that maybe it was. The tension was gone from Pete's shoulders, like the air clearing after a storm, and Aaron was glad for that. The two men were all over each other as soon as they were alone behind the securely locked door of Aaron's rented room. Their kissing, stripping, and groping quickly evolved into Pete methodically claiming every inch of Aaron's body with a single-minded fervor which went beyond even his usual need to prove he was still alive and well in the most carnal way possible after yet another brush with death. Then when Pete showed signs of beginning to slow down, Aaron did his best to return the favor, though he insisted on being gentle around the unmarked area of skin which he knew had so recently been pierced by a bullet. They spent the next long while working each other into far more of a hot, sweaty mess than was reasonable on an already hot day and had far too much fun doing so to ever consider complaining about it. Then, they fell asleep together in a satisfied tangle of limbs and sheets as the last of the sun's rays peeking through their curtains gave way to the glow of Reno's ever increasing number of electric lights.
Aaron awoke sometime in the small hours of the morning. He had been dreaming that old familiar dream of standing in lights far brighter than anything Reno would have to offer for a long time yet to come, and he was happy to be free of it before it had the chance to turn ugly like those particular memories always did. He sat up, blinking in the near darkness while the more automatic parts of his brain helpfully informed his conscious mind why it had been called back to active duty at this time of night. The lock. He had heard the door lock click shut, and a quick inspection of his surroundings confirmed that there was far too much unused space in the bed and not enough Pete Hutter who should have been using it.
For a few seconds, Aaron considered rolling over and trying to go back to sleep. Pete sneaking out to go back to his own room was not unusual in and of itself, what with their romantic activities technically being illegal in every state of the Union and therefore necessitating at least a minor degree of plausible deniability. However, Pete never bothered to leave this early, and now that Aaron was awake he really wanted someone to hold onto and help him focus on the present instead of his past. With a sigh, Aaron turned and pressed his ear to the wall next to the bed. He could hear faint sounds of Pete moving around in the next room and was just about to knock on the wall to try to get him to come back when he heard Pete exit without any prompting.
Maybe Pete had just gone to get something and was on his way back so that they could have a few more hours together? No, that theory was quickly disproved as the seconds ticked by and there was no corresponding rattle of Aaron's lock which would have indicated Pete trying to get back in. There was no knock requesting entry, now was there the rattle of an illicitly copied key, and Pete might be fair hand at picking cheap locks like the type used in most hotels, but he couldn't do it in perfect silence. The longer Aaron thought about it, the more Pete's extra efforts in bed not so long ago seemed less like simply working off extra energy and more like saying goodbye. Aaron couldn't think of what he might have done to scare him off now after everything they had been through together, but he knew with a sudden sick certainty that if he did not go after Pete now then he would never see him again. With a muttered curse he stumbled out of bed, threw on some clothes, and ran out of the room.
The first hints of dawn had not yet started smudging the sky, and most of the lights lining Reno's main street had been turned off for the night as all but the most dedicated drinkers and gamblers had long ago called it quits for the night. However, light spilled from the windows of the few establishments operating at this hour, mostly saloons and casinos but also the bakery which Old Mrs. Johanssen had commandeered in preparation for the pie eating contest, and there were enough street lamps still lit to keep the roads and walkways from being completely unnavigable.
Aaron could only think of one place Pete would definitely have to stop before stepping out for parts unknown, and that place was the stables, so Aaron headed straight there, hoping that he was not too late. He might have been if someone else had not gotten there first. Dixie cousins had a long history with Pete that covered being partners in crime, then occasional adversaries, and now occasional partners in crime-fighting, so Aaron did not even question how she had known what Pete was doing. Aaron stopped in the shadows a few yards from his destination to see what would unfold. Dixie stood in the livery stable's partially open doorway, feet planted firmly and arms spread wide so that one hand gripped the doorframe while the other kept the large wooden door from moving any further. "You're not leaving," she said.
"Only because you're obstructing the egress, Dixie," Pete said flatly, his voice carrying through the nearly deserted street though the man himself was still inside the building.
"Yeah, Pete," Dixie replied, "I noticed."
"In which case stepping aside would be the polite thing to do." Aaron couldn't see much of anything from his spot in the shadows, but he knew Pete well enough to imagine Pete sitting hunched forward in his saddle with his jaw thrust out in that look of barely reined in belligerence he got when he was irritated but still calm enough to realize that throwing himself into a full-on screaming confrontation was not in his best interest.
"Leaving won't solve anything."
"Neither will staying." There was the thump of feet hitting the ground, and then Pete ducked under Dixie's arm and took hold of her from behind. "Now," he said, trying to drag her away from the door, "will you please move!?"
"You should tell the others," Dixie said as she somehow shrugged out of Pete's grip without releasing her hold on either the doorframe or the door.
"To what end?"
"They're your friends. They might be able to help." She kicked backwards and hit Pete in the shin when he made a move to try to grab her again.
"Ow!" Pete hopped several steps away. "Your optimism is as touching as it is misplaced," he said, rubbing his sore shin. Then he straightened and folded his arms across his chest. "I've had contract lawyers far better than Brisco County, Jr. or Socrates Poole take a look," he declared, "and they all said the same thing, that the contract is air-tight, no loopholes whatsoever."
"You're not even going to tell Aaron?"
"What, just say, 'Hey, buddy, I made a deal with the devil to save my skin not quite ten years ago and now my time's up. It's been fun, but I have to go to hell now, bye!'?"
And if that was not an entrance cue, then Aaron didn't know what was, so he stepped out of the shadows and said, "I don't know. It might be a good start."
Pete spun around with a startled, "Gyah!"
Dixie let go of the stable door and turned around at a much calmer speed. "Why, hello, Aaron. Fancy meeting you here." Pete's horse stuck its head outside through the now unguarded door, snorted, and then retreated back inside, having clearly decided that a nice comfy stall was preferable to dealing with all the aggravation of interpersonal drama at this hour. At least, unlike Comet would have done, Pete's horse kept its comments to a minimum before it left.
"So," Aaron said, looking back and forth between Pete and Dixie, "do either of you wanna tell me what's going on before Pete gets dragged off to hell? And I gotta tell you, that is not a phrase I expected to be saying tonight."
"You just heard the basic gist of it," Pete said sheepishly.
"Then tell me what your plan is so I can help get you out of this."
"There isn't a plan because there isn't a way out," Pete said. "I'm going to ride into the desert, so there won't be any witnesses when he takes me. I'll just vanish without a trace." He smiled almost wistfully as he continued, "It'll be one of those enduring unsolved mysteries that people will argue about for decades."
"Like Amelia Earhart," Aaron said without thinking.
Pete blinked. "Who?"
"Uh, I mean, wasn't that the name of that ship they found drifting around with plates and stuff still on the table but all the crew missing?"
"The Mary Celeste," Dixie supplied.
"Yeah, like that," Pete said. "Everyone will be asking themselves and each other, 'What happened to Pete Hutter? Did his luck really run out? Or did he retire to a tropical paradise? Did he move back east and become a captain of industry under an assumed name? Or did he return to his former criminal ways but is now able to operate undetectably thanks to everything he learned while riding with lawmen like a viper in their midst?'" He grinned. "If I'm lucky, I could get credit for every unsolved crime in the country for the next forty years or more!"
"I love ya, Pete, but that's a terrible plan."
"I already said I don't have a plan," Pete insisted.
"Refusing to call a plan 'a plan' doesn't keep it from being a plan."
"He's right, Pete," Dixie added, "and I swear if you go through with this, then I'm going to tell everyone that you disappeared because you tried to see how many shots it took to cut a saguaro cactus in half, and when it fell on you, everyone decided you were more or less buried already and left you there. How's that for enduring mystery?"
"Ha! Like anyone would believe that," Pete scoffed. "Saguaros don't grow this far north, not even close."
"Do you want to risk it? Because you know as well as I do that when I tell a story, it stays told," Dixie threatened.
"Well I'm open to all potentially feasible suggestions but have yet to hear any!" Pete said with exasperation.
"I have an idea," Aaron said, deciding that the only to save Pete was to bet double or nothing, because there was no use in doing something like this by halves. "When a fella wants to make a deal with the devil, does he just shout, 'Yo, Lucifer, let's talk turkey!'?"
Pete's almost immediate frantic chant of, "No-no-no-no-no-no," was quickly interrupted by a massive gout of multi-colored flame in the middle of the street which extinguished itself in a puff of smoke that smelled like spent black powder. "Aw, Aaron," Pete whispered, "what'd you have to go and do that for? Now we're both going to end up in hell."
Aaron just smiled. "I can't think of anyone I'd rather be there with." He reached to take Pete's hand in his own, but the action required a few tries to complete thanks to the dazzling flames which had ruined his night vision and whose afterimages were now obscuring what little he could still see.
"That is a charming sentiment to be sure, Mr. Viva," a deep, seductive voice said, "and unlike most charming sentiments, it is one which I will happily encourage. I believe you wanted to make a deal?" The voice's owner snapped his fingers, and Aaron's vision instantly cleared, allowing him to see the face of the devil. Aaron had not exactly been expecting someone who fit the description of 'world's sexiest snake-oil salesman,' but he was not very surprised either. It made more sense than 'bright red bipedal goat with bat wings and a pitchfork' ever did.
"I was thinking more like a wager," Aaron said.
"Oooh, interesting! I've never had the chance to damn a soul before it was born before. It'll be so much fun to see whether doing so destroys all of creation or merely gives those insufferable Calvinists something else to be smug about." He rubbed his hands together with glee. "And how about you, Miss Cousins?" the devil purred, turning to pin her with his stare. "Would you also like to make a wager?"
"How about I let you gentlemen complete your business before I get involved in anything," Dixie said, backing away. "No offence, Aaron," she added.
"Well then," the devil said, turning his attention back to Aaron, "what kind of wager are you offering?"
"If I win, you give up your claim on Pete. If you win, you get my soul." Pete gripped Aaron's hand tighter at those words.
"Those are the prizes, but what it the wager? How shall the winner be crowned?" the devil asked. "Feats of strength? A game of chess? A singing competition? Dancing? Seduction?"
"A pie eating contest," Aaron said.
That at least seemed to give the devil pause. "A pie eating contest?" Disbelief dripped from every word.
"Yeah, a pie eating contest," Aaron said. He pointed down the street towards the still active bakery. "Mrs. Johanssen is already getting ready for a big one this afternoon, so plenty of pies are available, and if you do manage to win then I figure there are worse ways to go out of this life than with a stomach full of Mrs. Johanssen's triple berry hellfire pie. Standard competition rules apply."
"And no opening a portal in your throat that bypasses your stomach and leads straight to hell or any other location of impossibly large volume, Mr. Lucifer sir," Pete added.
Aaron merely raised a questioning eyebrow.
"What? Scripture doesn't exactly provide a scientific treatise on the nature of either angelic or demonic digestive anatomy, so better safe than sorry."
"In that case, there should also be a rule about no manipulating time." And now it was everyone's turn to direct questioning looks at Dixie. "Like Pete said, better safe than sorry," she said with a shrug.
The devil looked at all three of them like they were crazy, but he said, "Triple berry hellfire pie, you say? Sounds like my kind of competition. Wager accepted," and shook hands with Aaron to seal the deal. And then there was nothing to do but walk over to the bakery and explain things to Mrs. Johanssen.
An hour later, the devil vanished in a cloud of smoke and bitter tears of stomach-achy defeat. He had spent most of the contest sweating, crying, and belching flames which no amount of sour mint lemonade would quench. He had only made it through two and a half pies before conceding his loss, while Aaron had been marching through the remains of his fourth pie with the slow, steady pace of a man who would be happy to keep going all day if need be. Pete and Dixie looked like a pair of new recruits who had just witnessed the horrors their first battle, while Mrs. Johanssen observed it all with the jaded eye of an old veteran, which considering how long she had been baking pies in the town of Hard Rock was not very far from the truth.
"Just what did you put in those pies?" Dixie asked when she was able to form words again. She was stirring a simmering cauldron of pie filling in an attempt to be helpful, and it didn't smell dangerous, but having seen somebody spitting fire after eating it, she wasn't sure that its scent was a reliable indicator of safety.
"Oh, nothing too outlandish, dearie," Mrs. Johanssen assured her while rolling out yet another pie crust, placing it in a pan and crimping its edges. She had not stopped working, even while the devil himself had been eating in her borrowed kitchen. "Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, butter, flour, sugar, a pinch of salt, and a hint of cinnamon. I like to tell everyone it has fire and brimstone in it, but I make no secret of that being just a spoonful of sulphured blackstrap molasses and a few hot peppers per pie to give it a bit of a kick." She re-floured her work surface, dropped a ball of pastry dough onto it, and started rolling again. "I never figured the devil to not be able to handle slightly spicy food. Of course there may have been a reaction to the actual secret ingredients. I work a splash of communion wine and a ground up communion wafer into every pie to try to ward off the sin of gluttony. It never did that one any good," she said as she grabbed a wooden spoon and rapped Aaron across the knuckles with it to keep him from claiming another pie, "but it's nice to see it make a difference when it counts." She gave Dixie a friendly pat on the hand then turned her full attention to Aaron. "Now, young man, if you've finished risking your immortal soul for early access to my pie, I'll ask you to get out of my kitchen and wait until the afternoon like everyone else in town. I'd ask you to stay and help catch up on those seven pies I'm behind on now thanks to you, but I know that would do more harm than good to my schedule."
And so the three slipped out into the early morning, which seemed so much cooler after their hour spent in the bakery. Mrs. Johanssen's threats to Aaron of what she would do to him with her rolling pin if he tried to touch any more of her pies before the start of the official contest echoed out after them, but unlike her pies, the threats had no real heat in them.
Pete threw one arm around Aaron's shoulders and the other around Dixie's. Above them, the sky was coloring with what promised to be a perfect sunrise to mark the beginning of a hot but perfect day. "So, now that yours truly is free from the clutches of evil," Pete said, "how should we celebrate?"
Dixie looked like she was going to suggest they should all go home and pretend none of this had happened, but Aaron grinned, put on his day-glasses, and said, "How 'bout we start with an early breakfast and go from there?"