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Clearing the Board

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Clearing the Board

His mind isn’t on what he’s doing, despite how dearly he’s paid for it. No, it’s like a naughty dog, always returning to its vomit.

* * *

His mind wasn’t on what he was doing. It was on that chip. He was always thinking about that chip, especially now that House had let some bright-beret’d NCR fuck and their band of mercenaries into his inner sanctum.

Benny had no illusions what they were there for, and the possibilities made his gears grind day and night. It was a roulette wheel – bet on red, that the 38 was finally cracked, and a disguise or stealth boy might get him in and House whacked before the old man’s new hired thugs took him on his own short trip upstate. Or put his big shiny chip on black – make a break for Caesar’s camp before they broke down his door, risking ambush in open country. It wasn’t likely he could con the Khans into getting between him and the meat grinder, not again.

The equally lousy odds on red and black kept him in place, jingling the caps in his pocket like one of the marks out on the floor. He’d been going through the motions of Tops business like a shuffler, thoughts circling the rim of that cursed chip, and that’s the only reason he didn’t spot her himself.

“Boss!” The blackjack croupier crept close and lowered his voice to a gravel-grinding whisper. “You gotta come scope this broad out.”

Benny almost, almost shrugged him off, lighting another cigarette from the stub of his last. “Not in the mood, Bing. Can’t you see I’ve got the world on my shoulders here?”

“Aw, take a break, boss. You’ll thank me.”

His bodyguards were already craning their necks. “Clodhoppers clumping up there, boss. Want we should break it up?”

Curiosity piqued, Benny told them to hold fast. “Not unless I give the signal.”

He took his time – the Big Man doesn’t rush – barely noticing two of his bodyguards hustling the gawkers out of his path. He settled against the tarnished railing and looked over the crowd below, nodding to the nervous blackjack dealer near the centre of the commotion.

Bing deserved a nice thick raise. The broad in question was perched on a stool, braced on her knees and leaning over to examine the dealer’s cards up close. Whether it was the ass on display or the strangely patterned pre-war negligee barely covering it that filled the pews behind her, Benny couldn’t say, but the idiots in the bullpit were working up to a Hallelujah Chorus either way. He wondered if it was worth a stroll around the railing to see if the engine lived up to the caboose.

Never one to skimp on the details, he also noticed the wickerwork of old scars on those legs, but that didn’t knock down the wattage on his leer. Benny wasn’t long enough out of the desert to look down on anyone who showed a thick skin. In fact, he felt a spark of sympathy, recognising the shape of recent gecko bites on one calf; he’d earned his tribal name that way, slaughtering a swarm of them on his own when he was 14. The council had concluded he’d run off into the desert seeking an early trial of manhood, and who was he to disrespect his elders? That version sure beat “wandered into a gecko cave while looking for a little privacy to shake hands with the insistent Mister Cock.”

* * *

“You even here, pal?”

The whore snaps her gum, bright berry stain spiderwebbed in the wrinkles around her mouth. Her knees dig into his hips, not out of passion or devotion to customer service but to keep her balance on him and the rope-strung bedframe.

She leans over to get a closer look at his eyes, still rocking her pelvis in the same lacklustre rhythm. “You jettin’, or what? You know we don’t service fiends here.”

“Just drunk enough to see you’re a Hub beauty queen, darlin’,” he croons, slamming the lid on his irritation. It’s a very short list, that of the New Reno prostitutes he hasn’t mortally offended. For now, he can’t afford to lose the regard of even this half-comatose double-stacked dolly.

Details. He was born a detail guy, even back when the details were heady matters like, “Arrowroot pisses in the spring every time she doesn’t get first crack at skinning the captives.” It’s what got him within a blade’s length of heading the tribe to begin with. But, after seven years of dealing from the bottom of the House deck, he’d forgotten the little things. That drinkable water doesn’t run outta faucets. That insults stack up when you can’t bury them under caps or sand. That a back’s awful cold without loyal boys watching it.

That ladies of quality don’t find him so charming without a roll of Tops chips left on the dresser.

Mollified, she shifts back and grinds a little harder onto his cock with each thrust. It lacks pizzazz – hell, it lacks everything but the bare minimum of physical presence, if he’s honest – but it’ll get the job done if his brain will stop shaking down every angle and get to the good stuff. Thinking too much has always been his besetting sin, the sole personality flaw that has exiled him in this back-sand beancounter-plagued one-color-neon podunk hollow.

So yeah. That ass.

* * *

To the ignorant eye it was a skinny ass, on a scrawny broad, but ripples of muscle popped as she settled back on the heels of her army boots, and he could practically feel those strong lines under his fingers. Damn if he wasn’t turning into his late and unlamented Bootrider songbird, suddenly craving a desert wildcat after so many pampered Strip pussies, but…

“Damn you all straight to the deepest, coldest and darkest! Mick said this ugly shirt would give me luck, but this bastard’s taking me right to the bucket.”

“I don’t think this is the kind of luck Mick meant. There was winking, when he said that. More so than usual. And not from the squinty eye, this time.”

Another woman at the table, and with a glance Benny pegged her as a mook. She was dressed like a lady, sure, casually caressing her ragged sundress, kicky veiled hat covering her hair, but she was squat and powerful underneath that paisley print. She had “bodyguard” written all over her, with a very thick pen.

“Let’s practice counting from one to ten again, okay? You’ve nearly got it.”

The smirk with a man hanging off it was the mookette’s opposite: a beanpole with six inches of wrist and ankle hanging out both ends of a suit that was more rips than pinstripe. Some Follower highbrow, he’d wager; their idea of swank fashion was a lab coat layered in only two junkies’ vomit. A pet egghead and a hired goon? It didn’t add up.

“Fuck the both of you. A lot.”

He knew that voice. From where? She reached up to adjust her hat, a bright red beret that meant she was some hot shit in the NCR, or maybe just draining the balls of some hot shit in the NCR; what division exactly, he had no idea, except that anyone with one of those skimmers on their belfry had their pick of the finest panting tail on the Strip…and the merc who strolled right into the Lucky 38 had been wearing one…and then she looked over her shoulder, met his gaze, and smiled.

“Hiya, Benny,” she said, just tossed a salutation at him all casual-like, and turned away to order a hit on her loser jack-and-seven hand as if that face hadn’t last looked up at him broken in half and fast disappearing under shovelfuls of graveyard sand.

“Oh…shit.” The cigarette fell to the carpet from his suddenly nerveless fingers.

“Bastard!” she growled, and he vaulted over the rail. The crowd melted back with the precision of New Vegas veterans, close enough to get an eyeful, closer still to solid cover in case the entertainment came down with a bad case of hot lead.

He reached for his piece, but his closest boys were already scrambling to flank her, pistols out and aimed more or less at her head. They’d take out everything between her and the elevators if those triggers started jumping, and he suddenly knew no one was looking at the iron-jawed bruiser or shifty braniac but him.

“Cool it!” he barked, and they heeled, shivering to be let loose on the whole damn pit. If she pulled iron on him now, he couldn’t stop them.

But she was only glaring at her hand, now a jack-seven-and-king, and at the dealer’s fingers, frozen on her meagre pile of chips. “Just take ‘em, damn you.”

“Take a break,” he told the dealer, who disappeared into the lookie-loos like spit under high sun.

Her mooks settled their hands on the table with pointed innocence, watching their boss. She swivelled her stool in his direction, and tipped her beret back to give him an eyeful of the scar dividing her eyebrow.

“You never introduced yourself last time you, ah, knocked me off my feet. Had to learn all about you from your fans. Jessup sends his love, by the way.”

The crazy dame was still smiling, and though there was an edge to it that made her teeth look pointed in the casino’s artificial twilight, she was leaning back on the blackjack table with hands dangling far from any potential weapons – not that she could smuggle anything past Swank under that translucent scrap. Hell, she wasn’t even packing a bra, not from the way her nipples pushed lovingly into the silk…

Focus.

“Let’s keep this smooth, hey? I got four bodyguards right here who can tell you a thing or two about me, and what happens to the rubes foolish enough to try anything on the Chairman’s home turf.”

She snorted scornfully, then hastily cleared her throat and pasted that smile back on. “You think I’d chase you across an entire desert just to put a bullet in that pretty head? Killing you’s the last thing I want to do today.”

He guessed that cold-blooded murder was at the end of a very short to-do list and threw some oil on his spinning gears. He’d have to kill her first, yeah, but she had access to the 38, the holy grail. Could he con her into taking him in? Unlikely. How’d the front door recognise her? Would it open the doors if he cut off her thumb or gouged out an eye to hold up to some sensor? No, better to haul over the whole body and try every part…but no, House’s equipment was probably rigged to only open to body parts with a pulse behind them. The old man was too smart, and those damn bots would probably open fire as soon as one of them fed an image of his dead employee into the penthouse, anyway. So…

“Glad to hear that, baby, just as glad as I am to see you. That night, er…” he shot a quick look side to side, counting heads avidly listening in on the conversation and cursing how many of his Chairmen were instead focusing their attention on those teasing nipples. “What happened between us, you and me, I’ve regretted it every day. Now I can finally sleep at night, seeing you here in such…healthy…shape. There’s enough bad blood on our axe, kitten. Let’s you and me bury it.”

“What?” the egghead sneered. No one looked at him but the mook, and she only grimaced in what looked like agreement. Never any love for sophisticated wordplay among the harveys.

“Oh, I don’t want to forget our history so quickly,” she purred. “After all, girls like bad boys, and you were downright awful.”

The mook slapped her forehead, then winced as the beanpole elbowed her ribs.

This was bad…probably. The boys were finally listening to the conversation, yeah, but only to make with the worshipful Brahmin eyes. It sounded like he’d treated this dame like dirt, dangled and ditched her without even leaving his name, and she’d crawled across the sand begging for more.

He was a living god to them – which was how it should be, but that meant she was a Skirt With History, and the Chairmen Code held that anyone who messed with a brother’s dame was a capital-R rat. Even if Benny ordered them to shoot her out of her boots, they’d think it was just a passionate spat and hold their fire until she was eating his still-beating heart.

How’d she know exactly how to neutralise his boys? The Code of the Eleven was a Chairman secret, and letting it slip to outsiders meant exile. Unless he was barking up the wrong hydrant entirely…

“You making a pass at me, sister? Because I thought I made it clear last time: I’m outta your league.”

She pouted, but her eyes were sly. “Only thing you made clear was you’re not above a little dirty work under a full moon.”

The boys guffawed, hands nowhere near their weapons, minds anywhere but guarding his body.

“Blow,” he told them irritably, and they backed off a respectable distance, all ears still pricked.

She made a show of waiting patiently for his reply, stretching so her back arched and the negligee slipped low, the lace at the top catching on one of those erect nipples and just barely holding back a Gomorrah handshake. It was a deliberate show – one both her companions didn’t want tickets for, he noted, instead shifting with the subtlety of cornered pigeons checking their concealed weapons were still handy – but what was her angle? Seduce him into sparing her life? She had to know her executive access to the golden palace was almost a better bargaining chip than the one duct-taped into the lining of his jacket.

“I hear ‘dirty work’ from you, kitten, and all I think of are gravediggers,” he said finally, keeping his voice low.

“You think it’s wrong to want a man who’d try to kill me?” She grinned, and he realised, with a momentary jolt of primal panic, that her teeth didn’t just look sharp. The canines were actually filed into points. “Why would I waste my time on one who wouldn’t?”

Tribal! And not one of those Fiend losers or Jackal weasels, but from a tribe as coolsville as the Bootriders, tough enough for the NCR to try to wine and dine them into civilization rather than wipe out. Those teeth were right out of the Wild East, made him think of campfire tales about busty, lusty Oklahoma amazons who’d tear to pieces any free man who couldn’t beat them…but if he could…oh ho ho…

“Did that lead scramble your egg, or have you always been a naughty broad?” he asked, dredging up a bulletproof smile of his own. He could almost swear the appreciative glance below his belt was genuine – and hell, even if she was trying to play him, it damn near had to be genuine. Those pants were custom-fit for a reason.

“Should I be some soft Hub woman, demanding a shiny ring,” she waggled the broken eyebrow, “as proof of a man’s worth? Trifles don’t interest me as much as a big gun and the hand that shoots it straight and fast.”

“Somebody warn Boone!” Mookette stage-whispered.

“Ssssh!” Egghead hissed. “He’s actually buying it!”

“I should’ve brought Boone instead!” she growled at them, her seductive act slipping. “You two go hit the…handle…pulling…things. Over there. Far over there.”

They slunk through the crowd like whipped dogs, sitting where they could watch the action, morosely plunking chips into his machines. Mookette’s slot machine was near paydirt, he remembered, maybe a dozen pulls away. He filed that information somewhere handy. That distraction might be useful if he needed to get a bullet in her guts.

The woman sighed and scratched her forehead under the beret. “Where was I?”

“A big gun and a steady hand,” he supplied, smirking at her frustration. About damn time he had the upper hand. “Scratching around first base, see if I’d be soft-skulled enough to lay down chips on what you’re sellin’. You really think I just rolled off the Brahmin train?”

She shook her head. “I haven’t lied to you once.”

“Sure, just like you got no interest in a ‘shiny ring’, not compared to my swingin’ cod, or maybe my fat wallet.” He kept his smile in place and crooned softly, but the steel in his voice could smash mountains. “Any other woman in Vegas and I’d fall for it, but not you.”

“That chip’s brought me nothing but lead,” she insisted. “It and House have almost gotten me killed a dozen times over.”

“Pull the other one, baby, it’s got grenades on it.”

She touched his sleeve, down low where a streak of Novac mud had almost covered an old bloodstain. “My team and I, we’re in way over our heads. We just want to get the hell out of town, but if House’s metal boys catch us sneaking off without delivering that chip, we’ll all be a big grease stain on the Freeside gate. You, though, you’ve got some secret way out of town.”

He thought uneasily of his elevator. He’d cement-shoed every schmuck who’d helped him build his workroom and escape hatch…hadn’t he? “I got no such thing.”

“Tommy says you were in your room an entire month once, right around the time you were shooting a load in my face.” She raised her voice for the benefit of their audience, and the boys chortled like, well, boys. Her egghead groaned and leaned on the mookette for strength. “I can add up 2 and 2, y’know?”

“Your chips on my side a’that table say different, dolly,” Benny stalled. How the hell had she gotten up to Tommy and back in that outfit without anyone noticing? And what was that damn Torino doing, hanging out the dirty laundry like that?

She scowled. “I know in a moment how many bullets will get me through any room.”

“Well that’s…how many for this one?” he asked, curiosity sparked despite himself.

“Three clips per SMG,” she spat. “I got two ten-millimeters, up in your weapons locker.”

“Sure, I guess that’s a useful skill, too, covering the spread on theoretical weapons. Must make plenty of bread outta that dough,” he needled. She definitely wasn’t beautiful when she was angry, eyes even narrower and flat nostrils flaring, but he always savoured the picture of an opponent losing ground. “Even if I had a secret escape elevator, why would I help you?”

She threw her shoulders back, in irritation rather than allure, but it still made that chest bob up like it had a mean vendetta against lace and silk. “You get us out, and we’ll keep you alive.”

He guffawed out loud, shocked at the audacity. “You? You’re gonna keep me – me, that’s the fine-draped cat in front of you everyone’s eyes are locked on – you’re gonna keep me alive?”

“I’m the velvet glove,” she interrupted. “That doesn’t get the chip out of you, House is gonna drop the iron fist.”

Egghead cheered a little, then caught himself and ducked as if his slot machine were the most fascinating thing in the Mojave.

She sighed again and flapped a hand in that direction. “He came up with that. Arcade, he’s my brains guy. Wrote a whole speech for this.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Sorry I missed that.”

“There was Latin. Some of it rhymed. Forget it. Important thing is, House has been on to you from the start. Me, when I took this job, I just wanted enough caps to keep body and soul together and drunk another month. You hear me? I’ve got nothing to do with any of this. I just want out of this mess, and maybe you.”

“And maybe me?” he echoed. “After what I done? You’d have to be some crazy kinda quin if what you’re hintin’ at were true.”

“Hinting?” she replied, exasperated, and slid off the stool. “Fine. How’s this for hinting?”

None of the boys even twitched as she pressed against him and whispered in his ear.

“Let’s you and me go up to your place for a private palaver,” she said, and ran her finger along his zipper. “All goes well, we’ll smash that chip, and I’ll get my hands on the real jackpot.”

He pulled her close, slipping Maria from her holster between their bodies and planting it in her ribs. “Sorry, pussycat. We’ll have that little tête-à-tête in the Lucky 38, or not at all.”

She closed her eyes and shrugged, her shoulder dragging on his lapel. “Wish we didn’t have to do it this way.”

“In another lifetime, baby,” he told her. “Now, move those pretty stems.”

She raised her hands in surrender, one of them suddenly detouring to drag along her neck.

“What d’you think you’re…?” he began.

“Jackpot!” Mookette yelled as whistles blew and chips cascaded out of her machine, distracting him for that crucial millisecond it took to ruin his entire goddamn life.

She hadn’t made a break for it, he realised. If anything, she’d dug herself into his body like he was some kinda vertical canoe, shoving her cheek into his, and…

And…

And damn if he wasn’t the luckiest rad-blasted dog walking this blighted earth. There was a goddess in his arms, Aphro-fucking-dite on the half shell, and he wasn’t letting her get away. Why the hell was he wasting a hand on that gun? He carelessly shoved Maria in a pocket and grabbed her hip instead, kneading the hard muscle and burying his face in her neck. There, she smelled like smoke and hardpan and harsh insectoid musk.

“Baby,” he moaned, barely noticing as her companions crept up covering their noses, Mookette with hundreds of chips gathered in her skirt, “what’s that enchanting perfume you’re wearing?”

“A damn dirty trick,” she murmured. “Ant queen pheromone. You’d wake up with a hell of a headache, if you were gonna wake up. At least you’ll go out with a smile on your face.”

“It smells fantastic,” he groaned, breathing it in as hard as his lungs could pull.

“You better move this along,” Egghead whispered. “The natives are getting restless.”

He dragged himself out of the fog of her enough to notice that the boys, even the rubes, were all inching toward his goddess with a very mortal shine to their eyes, and hauled her to the elevator. He mashed the button and informed her neck, “You’re my baby, baby.”

* * *

“Dirty talk’s extra,” the whore drones, chewing on a cuticle.

Benny fumbles after the snapped thread of memory, replying peevishly. “I don’t need to hear a goddamn thing from you. You charge just to hear a few sweet nothin’s?”

“You paid for oral, missionary, and cowgirl,” she says implacably, “and that’s all you’re gettin. And you only got five minutes left, comin’ or just goin.”

“You’re a peach among pits, baby,” he sneers, but she only lifts her face to watch a lizard crawl across the ceiling over their entwined bodies.

She’ll sing a different tune tomorrow, or next week at the latest. He’s torn between having her thrown to the ‘stalkers denned up in the runoff behind the slaughterhouse and the amusement value of making her his top girl, for a little while, her dull brahmin eyes reflecting the local gentry bowing to the new King Rat of Fink Mountain.

No. The thought of groping her in his personal elevator, the one he’ll install just as soon as he’s had eleven more floors slapped on the Shark Club, it’s too depressing. The ‘stalkers it is.

* * *

“You go with them!” Egghead was insisting.

Mookette refused, clutching her skirt full of chips tighter and snuffling through the fingers of her other hand. “Oh no, not with sex-pollen all over her – I’m not about to risk playing the meat in that skeezoid sandwich! You get your safely asexual ass in that elevator, young man.”

“A lack of opportunity does not render one asexual, as I’m sure you’re more than aware!”

Only the barest scrap of leftover tribal vigilance allowed him to even notice the two of them lurking outside the elevator, holding the doors open. Given the privacy of his personal lift, he’d wasted no time getting both hands full of that taunting ass and nuzzling under her jaw, but something about her people made him almost pull away and start to ask what –

She quickly wound one leg around his thigh and kissed him hard. He felt her hands skimming along his jacket, pausing at the hard hidden lump of the utterly useless and inconsequential platinum chip. She started to rip at the lining that held it in place.

“Oh god, now it’s rubbed off on him, too!” Egghead slapped both hands over his mouth and nose and stumbled back, scattering Mookette’s chips out of her skirt in his haste.

The elevator doors slid shut, cutting off her enraged shriek as other patrons descended on her windfall like a pack of ferals.

“Shit,” she mumbled, letting go of his jacket lining and getting a double handful of his hair instead. “Arcade was right. Got to focus. Can’t…”

She licked his cheek. “Can’t…get distracted…”

She ripped the tie from his collar, the elevator’s stuffy air a slap of cold immediately soothed by her lips, then teeth.

“I got all the focus you need right here, pussycat.”

Her tongue lapped at his neck, tasting the blood from what felt like two small puncture wounds, and it wasn’t creepy, unhygienic, or terrifying, just the most erotic caress he could imagine. He had no hope of returning that favour with his own blunt teeth, so he took the direct approach and pushed those lovely panties aside.

He’d barely skimmed the surface of her, keeping up a gentleman’s forbearance with Herculean willpower, before she groaned and pivoted her hips on his hand. Two fingers slid inside her, so hard and fast he winced in sympathy, but she was wet and more than ready for him. The thought of throwing her to the elevator floor and giving her what she was so obviously dying for nearly ran off with him, but he kept a leash on it. Somewhere in the back of his skull, a little wiseguy voice insisted it didn’t just feel like his life was riding on worshipping this goddess right.

So he held his wild horses and sent his thumb on a walk about the promised land, grinning wolfishly when she suddenly growled and ground on his hand.

“There?” He slid his thumb in a coy circle and took the nails digging into his shoulder blades as an enthusiastic yes. “Yeah, there. You just hang on to me, baby.”

The old ways are sometimes the best ways. It had been damn near two decades since one of the tribe’s crones had bribed young Benny and Swank into cleaning her milkrat pit with the promise of forbidden knowledge, but her “alphabet trick” hadn’t failed him once in the years since. Hell, it was the only reason he could still read.

He rubbed that slippery nub a few times to get a feel for it and went in for the kill, tracing first a B and then an E around the perimeter. She bucked against him, moaning something that had to be filthy.

Somewhere far away, the elevator bell dinged. He couldn’t remember, or care, what that meant. He rounded the bases with a wicked double N, crooking his fingers inside her. She shivered, fluttering around him like cazador wings, and Benny knew he had her on the ropes. He took his time on the Y, a lazy low swipe that ended in a round-and-round tail – cheating, of course, but when she broke apart in his arms –

* * *

“That’s time.” The whore hops off, avoiding his desperate grab with the minimal effort of long practice.

“That’s no time at all, dollface,” he protests. “I didn’t hear no ‘ding’.”

“It’s not the kinda timer that goes ‘ding’.” She ties a robe around her waist and, again sliding right around his attempt to catch her wrist, plucks the yellowed condom off his bewildered dick, flips it inside-out, and drops it back in the drawer she’d pulled it from after he handed over an extra five caps.

“I bought that...” he begins, trailing off with the effort of not thinking about the inside of that well used wrapper, snug around his favorite thing in the wastes.

“Nothin but rentals here, hon,” she says, fluffing out her sweat-dampened hair. “It’s been a blast. Get out.”

“Baby...” he begins, trying on his best come-hither. “Just another minute between those heavenly gams, and I’d be a better man.”

She crosses her arms.

“You wouldn’t deny a dyin’ man a bottle a filtered, would ya?”

“Out. I got regulars waiting.”

“Regular irregulars,” he mutters and struggles into his clothes, wincing as his ill-fitting shoes drag over the weeping blisters that are practically old friends. “What, no ‘thank you, come again’? You got the customer service of a slaughterhouse, baby. And twice the stink!”

He lands hard in the street and, shaking the dust out of his threadbare trader’s jacket, promises himself he’s walked Spanish out of his last fleabag Reno whorehouse. He’s still got two hours to kill before his meetup with the Loserville City Council he’s grieved to call partners, and nothing to keep his mind off everything that could go wrong.

The wheel’s in spin, and all he can do is wait for their ball to drop. And hope it won’t take his balls with it. If Bishop’s on to them…

No. Bishop’s the only cat in Reno with the nose to follow the smoke from Old Christie Wright’s overdose to the Bunsen burners under Chin’s poison still, but he won’t see past the perfect opportunity to bomb out his personal boogie men. Because Bishop still sees the Wright family as the only real threat to his hold on Reno.

Right?

His feet carry him down Virgin Street, around the Desperado Casino to the trashcan fires behind it, while his mind follows its own path. He wishes for a cigarette and automatically holds his hands over the flames, though it’s barely past sunset, the night’s chill a while off. He wishes for a good cigarette, from the boxes in Old Not-At-Home’s perfectly air-tight vault, and the pack of loyal boys fighting each other to light it for him.

* * *

“Uh…why’s he not dead?”

“Lady, ‘dead’ is a hell of a word to be throwing around near the boss.”

The elevator doors had been open for a while, given the audience they’d gathered. Two of his and two of hers, them out of breath from a sprint up thirteen floors. He jerked his jacket closed and – always the gentleman – set his lady to rights as well as he could with one hand still trapped in her panties.

“Ahem…she meant it in the classical sense, of course. Le petit mort.”

“What’s that about tits, pal?”

“Oh, for the love of…can we finish him and get the hell out of here?”

She wiggled free, catching Benny’s hand once she had both feet on the floor. “Getting to that.”

She tried to drag him through their fans, shouldering his smirking guards aside. Her beanpole refused to take the hint, holding his ground and flicking a lighter in front of one eye, then the other.

“Plan C,” the lady said, shoving his hand away. “You go. I got this.”

“Constricted pupils, flushed skin...” Egghead muttered to no one, then spoke up, eyes nervously flicking between the elevator and boys between him and the stairwell. “You’re in no shape to make the call. We’re going - all of us.”

“Boss, uh, you havin some kinda party?”

“Amscray,” he told them, the effort of getting the single word out nearly crossing his eyes.

Instead of leaping to follow his order, the boys exchanged a glance. “It’s just, our shift’s almost up, and we got some whisky and those holotapes...you know the ones Ace and Kyser found in the basement?”

“Was there a Plan C? I only remember the two!” The mookette took hold of Benny’s wrist and did something horrible with her little finger that left him numb to the elbow. She got her arm around the lady’s waist in an awfully familiar way, pausing to lean closer and sniff.

The lady tried to disentangle herself. “Scat, you two. Catch the show. Take Rex for a walk. Just go!”

“Whisky and holotapes sounds like an awfully good Plan C,” the mookette mumbled against her neck.

Benny shook some pins and needles into his hand and reached around her. The beanpole eeled in between, raised two sloppy fists and took a deep breath.

“Boss?” one of the boys wheedled. “I make some great cocktail. Just need a Nuka Cola and a couple-three cans of turpentine.”

The beanpole let his fists fall apart and dropped them...onto Benny’s shoulders.

“You smell that, Miller?” His other boy said, rubbing his nose. “Like something’s burning…”

The mookette shook her head. “Ah, hell, they’re both still covered in – ”

Those hands found the Hoover-tense muscles in his neck…and began to rub. “He’s feeling pretty damn…Veronica, promise you’ll kill me if I – ”

“Boss? So are we, uh, in?”

He grabbed the hem of her nightie and yanked her back into his arms, just before she became a three-pronged wishbone between her muscle and his. It was worse then the rubes out on the floor, the heat they were suddenly throwing at her furnace. And he wasn’t feeling great about the eyes the egghead was rolling up his direction, neither.

So much for afterglow.

* * *

It’s how he remembers it. How true that makes it… His head had been fit to bust, among other things, and there’d been something, that little scrape with his boys and hers. Her mooks, probably today still walking the scrap walls around his other lady, the one dressed in pre-war neon and dreams instead of nylon, eyes peeled and trigger fingers cocked for the sight of his fine hide.

Reno can’t even pull together scrap walls, wide open streets begging any weed to tumble in. There’d been some eager greenbacks, at first, helping little old ladies across the street and shooting brahmin-thieves in the back, as if there was a popularity contest they could win. But even they blew out six months ago, retreating to the bosoms of their mothers and sweethearts with the rest of the soft NCF fucks.

He should be grateful. The wide open streets and closed eyes had let a deposed ruler slink inside in a dead man’s schmoe-skin suit and spin a web around the east side, but the casinos stink of desert trash who make fiends look like the White Gloves. It isn’t Vegas. It’s barely Nipton, and that after that Vulpes pansy spiffed up the joint.

That’s the first thing he’ll change. He’ll blow the Bishop fortune on real walls, slabs of concrete that’d make a Vaultie clutch her genuine reproduction pearls, and his own army of mooks to patrol them.

He’s worked out the perfect uniform for his personal security detail, a classy number sacrificing neither armor nor cleavage, when he spots Chin heading down Virgin Street. When he shouldn’t be out on any street, reminding every damned soul with a nose that Reno’s got an expert brewer of drugs and poisons.

He moseys after Chin, shoulders hunched in the “nothing to see here” patois of Reno’s uglier streets. It’s left a near-permanent ache in his spine, slouching where he’s used to throwing his weight around, but it’s better than a knife in the back.

Most days.

“Chin, baby,” He throws an arm around the little man’s shoulders and leans in, close as lovers, and breathes through his mouth. Chin stinks of his lab, a scorched shed in the middle of an oozing dump past the bighorn tanneries that’d make a Pip-boy take a drum solo. “Thought you were real under the weather. So far under, you weren’t gonna get outta bed until I said you were better?”

Chin twitches. “Goin’ stir-crazy, Pitch. Had to get out. Hear what the crowd’s askin’.”

“Same things people’re always asking round here. ‘You smell that?’ ‘Are those my teeth or yours?’ ‘How’s Pitch keep his hair so perfect in this heat?’”

“The old man…”

“Is gettin’ buried today.”

“And when his boys figure out who – ”

“An old man’s heart gave out. That’s life, baby. No one’ll question it.”

Of course they question it, but with the Wright estate suddenly fallen under the care of an heir who has to take off his shoes to count up his fingers…Bishop’s not going to question his luck. He’ll strike. And Benny’s little bird in the Shark will sing on when and where, and then…

He’s got a few plans, depending on Bishop’s move. But all of them end with that nobody, “Pitch,” the blow-in who’s been so careful to keep his head down, taking out two of the three families in one sweep and moving in his own crew.

And then killing those losers off and hiring a real crew. He misses his boys, even the dumbest mugs who couldn’t patrol the bullpit without losing half their ammo to light-fingered Strip rats. It’ll never be Vegas, but…

He shies away from the thought automatically. Not because it hurts – and damn, but it burns worse than taking a piss, every time a news bulletin splashes over the town and for weeks no one talks of anything but Free Vegas, that NCR couldn’t take, that the goddamn Legion choked on, where a man could carve out his own life with the kiss of a goddess on his forehead – but because Reno can sniff out any dream and crush it to split-up atoms.

If they stood to make a lifetime of caps on his bounty (or is it just a passport into Free Vegas by now, he’s often wondered), even his crew would turn on their boss “Pitch” in a heartbeat, hand him over to those Brotherhood fucks who patrol as far north as Jackass Flats now, according to the trader who paid for his drinks last night.

At least until he owns this shithole, and points all its guns to the southeast. And once he does…

…he can never leave.

But who cares? He’ll re-make Vegas in the west. He’ll build an Old World skyline that’d make old Not-At-Home fry his batteries. He’ll star in every Globes holodisk instead of just laundering his chips through the studio.

Who needs Vegas?

“I need a drink,” he interrupts Chin’s nervous babble. “And a cigarette. You got either?”

“I got nothin, Pitch, you know that,” Chin whines, loud enough anyone with a little profitable murder on their mind – and that’s every man, woman and child in Reno –takes them for the fast track to Brokesville. His voice drops to a whisper no less grating. “Unless you got a cravin for dicks, brother?”

“Dix” is a Chin specialty, equal parts vodka, Psycho, and something the little man had found in a deep bunker that glows in the dark even dried out and – carefully – ground into powder. Wherever it comes from, the goo replenishes any volume removed with such enthusiasm that Chin sneaks it into every product he sells, just to keep from drowning on the dry land of his shack.

Benny rubs his chin. Dix looks close enough to Psycho, at least in bright sunlight, that he can probably flog it to some junkie on the way out of town. If he takes it into his head to leave town quick, and can’t get to one of his stashes first. “How much you got going spare?”

“Two pricks,” Chin replies, eyes narrow as chip slots. “Why you tryin to hustle me, buddy? Lemme guess, shit’s hit the fan and you’re gonna blow out and leave us holding the bag?”

He really hadn’t been kidding himself about the Reno mind-reading trick. No, he tells himself, no. Vegas is nowhere. Vegas is history. There is no Vegas.

“Buddy!” he tightens his grip on the little man’s shoulder. “You and every other schmuck here owe me enough caps to cobble Easy Street – you think I’d run away from a debt in my favor?”

Chin tilts his head, blueish lips pursed. “On the house, then. You find it scratches the itch, maybe we can work somethin out in bulk. Probably want to jam a belt in your teeth before you shoot, though. Gertie near swallowed her tongue her first time.”

He’s careful of the points, tucking them away in a pocket under his arm, and cuts Chin loose with a warning. “Back to bed, son. A man could risk his death, up and around with what you’ve got.”

No, he can’t think of Vegas. It’s off the map. It’s bright lights all night long and clean hot water and food that doesn’t fight back up your throat and dames that throw in the smiles for free and –

No.

No, he’s wiping all that right outta his brain, because it’s Reno here on out, remade into what Vegas coulda been, shoulda been. But that town is past, baby, nowheresville in the rear view mirror.

No.

No, that night he hadn’t been thinking about anything but getting her back to his place. The first time in months his mind wasn’t on the chip, dreaming about the 38...for that alone he’d have thanked her. When he woke up stuck to the sheets with a head like a deathclaw’s hangover and realised she’d mickey finn’ed her way into his pants, he damn near loved her.

* * *

“You were gonna take me out with a bang?”

Her long body was warm against his back and sharp in the toes, digging into the soft part of his foot as she stretched them.

“Killing you was Plan B. You heard Plan A. You, me, the team, the fuck outta Dodge. Fight our way to Utah, maybe. There’s a Tar Walker who owes me one.” A sigh in his ear, the steady, meditative motion of her fingers around his cock stilling. “No one thought it’d work, but I’d have preferred to. For a little while, at least.”

He nudged her with his hip and replied flippantly. “I like Plan C. Plan C gets my vote.”

“Pretty sure even C ends with one of us dead by morning.”

After a quiet minute, she picked up the rhythm again, slide, squeeze, release, like she could keep at it all night. He wrapped his hand around hers and pumped harder, faster.

* * *

But that was after. After a couple bottles and a pack of cigarettes to chase away the brass bands she’d slammed into both their heads. After the best day’s sleep he’d had in months. After the knives in her boots, the spiked knuckledusters under her beret, the piano wire looped around her waist, the one-shot derringer neatly duct-taped into the curve below her breasts, carelessly thrown to the carpet one by one. After finding that stretch of soft skin along her forearm, like the sun hadn’t touched it in months, where dragging his nails made her squirm and huff like a dry piston.

Why the hell is Chin out on the street?

The thought itches. Chin has a rat’s sixth sense for a sinking ship, and a seventh and eight too when the wind’s right.

Nothing to get his hair mussed over. Not like his own nose for trouble has ever been blocked up.

He’s got an hour before his canary at the Shark will be on break, waiting in the alley. Plenty of time to swing by his hole in the wall and double, triple-check his main stash of caps is still locked up tight.

He takes the long way to the pre-war hotel where his windowless room had probably started out as a broom closet before working its way up to deluxe accommodation. It’d still cost him every cap he stole, swindled, and murdered out of other travellers on the road from Vegas. Everything he’s got in there could fit in his pack with room to rattle. Maria’s already in his holster, her beautiful and too damn distinctive face shrouded in protective tape. The rest – ammo, scotch, lunchbox full of Med-X, a few Sunset Sarsaparillas he’d surprised himself snatching off a brahmin pack for eight caps apiece, his little fortune – he could move fast with that on his back. Not that’ll he’ll have to. He won’t even bother to move them into his deluxe suite in the Shark.

The Shark Club was the closest thing to a classy dish in Reno’s loser buffet. Bishop’s men tossed out the drunks and fiends the very second they ran out of chips and slopped grey water over the splatters and stray eyeballs littering the bullpit every dawn. Still, the front sign was picked out in neon and the stakes went higher than any other house on that laughable excuse for a strip.

The Shark was gonna be his place. It was his second choice, sure – what mug aims to be the classiest bloatfly on a brahmin-dump like Reno? Not this guy. The first plan was just to hit it hard for every cap he could squeeze, be just some schmoe who rounded the bases with Lady Luck one night and blow west until he ran out of land, somewhere he could spend it all.

That night’s on his mind while he detours around a high warehouse near his place, decides – for no reason at all – to climb to the roof first and get a bird’s eye on his joint.

* * *

He’d been careful – a skill finally hammered into his thick skull when that sniper round shattered his ankle a hair away from a clean getaway – and spent a week on the Shark’s slots, making sure to lose as much as he won. At the end of it, he was sure they were all rigged the same as his at the Tops, with sensor modules inside that regimented payouts and, more importantly, sent out a signal when they got close to a big payout. He’d rigged every machine in the Tops himself, sometimes guiding a discouraged high roller to “the luckiest slot machine in the joint!”, more often ordering one of the boys to take a break from gooning and hit the slots, or just positioning himself near enough to congratulate the big winner, encourage him to invest that haul on the roulette wheel or, failing that, walk his winnings down a nice dark alley on the way outta town.

Y’know, the personal touch.

The Shark used a different frequency, and he didn’t have his old receiver anyway, but he’d yanked one of their sensor modules during a particularly dismembering difference of opinion in the bullpit that smashed open three machines and, more importantly, kept the croupiers’ eyes off him and his quicksilver hands. A little delicate work with a pointy rock and he had himself a primitive detector, one that hummed in sympathy when he got within a man’s length of the signal.

He’d taped it in his oily merchant’s cap and made a slow turn of the slots, cool as a cucumber when he finally heard that wild-dog whine through his skull-bones next to a corner machine. Bad place to make a stand, facing the wall, no way to see the rest of the room without twisting his head like some nervous chump looking to get pinched. He slid without hesitation onto the stool, still warm from an old prospector’s ass, and reached for the bandit’s arm.

A grip like a fistful of meathooks yanked him off the stool so fast he left one of his shoes behind.

The casino turned the color of burlap as a sack swallowed his head and before he’d even seen the bastards who pinched him, he was out of the bullpit and in a room he immediately recognised from the sudden intimacy of shoefall echos and smell of old blood.

He kept his mouth shut, even when they threw him into a chair and taped tight his hands and feet. Nothing anyone on this side of the burlap sack could say would get them all out of this little hell on the double.

His hat came off with the bag, letting dirty hair that still smelled a little like Brylcream fall in his eyes. Through the strands, he blinked into a face like a vista, craggy and broken and probably crawling with mutated wildlife. Doubling up the tape around his ankles was a homely kid in a new-looking dress, and in the rest of the little room…no one.

“Hello, stranger.”

A man that big and that ugly should of had a voice like thunder, not a pretty little chirp. He wondered if the kid was throwing her voice, but kept his eyes on the mountain.

“A fella who’s been my guest all week, trying out every machine and noting down which pay out when, he shouldn’t still be a stranger.” The kid finished her taping job and moved out of the way so the mountain could come up close and share the perfume of his last meal, something heavy on eggs and jalapenos. “That’s the kind of fella I want to get to know, and real well.”

Benny didn’t take the opening, which made the other man frown a little. He was supposed to leap in, he knew, with excuses, with promises, with desperate charm. That was how it always went, every time the boys had fingered a fink. He also knew, damn well, how that always ended.

So he kept his eyes on the mountain and his tongue between his teeth as the interrogation continued, making like a deaf-n-dumb at every pause. The kid got antsy, shifting her feet and picking at threads in her dress. When she started to hum, the big man broke off to glare her into silence and looked back like a man who’s dropped his book in the bath.

“Who are you?” he finally spat out.

Direct question – good. Maybe. “You know who I am.”

“Then you know who I am?”

“Bishop,” he replied like he was sure.

“Then you know where we’re going here.” Bishop nodded.

We dance ‘til the music stops. “I got an idea.”

Bishop looked into his eyes so long Benny started to expect a marriage proposal. “I thought you’d be a wiseguy.”

He felt a little sick, hearing that. He was a wiseguy, damn it. He was.

“A wiseguy, I got a place for. It’s three miles out of town, and anyone too shrewd to dig can try a their luck in Deathclaw Canyon.”

He nodded his recognition, even though he’d never gotten fancier than tying up finks in front of Vault 3 and letting the fiends do what came natural.

“But you…there’s a lady in Vegas who might pay dearly to have your head on a plate.”

The little girl frowned, probably resenting the waste of a dish.

“Or maybe I might find a use for a head full of that lady’s secrets.”

“If you’ve set your hat to romancing her, forget the flowers and wine. Try ammo, Jet, and a moonlit stroll through your Deathclaw Canyon.” He immediately regretted breaking the solemn act, but Bishop only looked thoughtful.

“Jet, huh? Shame. Dangerous stuff, Jet. First sign you’ve got a bad dose is when they lay you out on a slab.”

Didn’t he know it. There was a so-called King hooked through the bag on that garbage, whose dealer was on the payroll. If that slum outside’a town got too hot, a little poison in that well would cool it down fast.

He wondered if she knew that, had the same plan in place. No, dammit, the Kings got the premier seats in her loserville social club. She was probably personally couriering in the good stuff every day to keep him sweet.

Still, part of him was glad he hadn’t let leak her little vodka habit.

“I wouldn’t be sad to see your ass hit the sunset.” Bishop pulled a bowie knife the size of his forearm from under his jacket and made a show of nicking wrists and ankles five hundred times in sawing him loose from the tape. “But you can stay in town while I decide which way to throw that greasy head. Just keep your nose so clean I could eat off it. And stay the fuck outta the Shark.”

Bishop made to hand him the sack that still held his hat, then yanked it back.

His heart sank, already seeing the big man rummaging, finding the sensor, the mad, probably hopeless fight to outrun the tape and the chair and a much longer evening with Bishop and his shovel-faced daughter…

Instead, Bishop sent the girl out to the casino, returning with his lost shoe. He dropped the filth-encrusted thing into the burlap and handed it over with a flourish. “You almost forgot this.”

Outside – and down the street, around two corners, past the slaughterhouse – he put his shoe on and caressed the sensor module. The game was still a-foot, baby, even if he’d have to dance a little longer than planned.

* * *

His fingers’re only wrapped around Maria for comfort, the same way the arm they’re attached to is just keeping the wicked Reno wind away from his belly, crouched in the darker space between a chimney base and its fallen top. He’d need a sniper rifle and a prayer to hit any of the mooks clustered outside the old hotel’s main door.

He doesn’t move a muscle while they shove around his canary, the skinny guy who yells out corny jokes behind chickenwire. He flings his arms over his head, breaking off only to point at the door every time they pause. Benny can’t make out what he’s yelling, but nobody’s laughing.

Business as usual for that sap.

The big man himself comes out, roars something that might be “Jackpot!” to the carefully not-gathering crowd, and scatters Benny’s caps, his cache of medical supplies, across the road. Bishop picks up the canary by his neck and throws him into the sudden melee. Wades in after him, stomping on grabbing hands, picks the bastard up again by his feet and swings him hard back to the street.

The caps are scramsville in an eyeblink, the rabble retreating respectfully out of the way of official business before knifing each other for a larger slice of the windfall. Bishop – the bastard! – pops open a Sunset Sarsaparilla and watches the canary grovel, kicking him a time or three for encouragement.

He waits, now, for all the chips to fall, and nods to himself when Chin’s dragged into sight. The old boy keeps his nose in the air, hardly even trembling, until they blow the canary’s brains across his shirt.

Benny can’t blame him, really. Hard to keep your head in a run a’ luck this bad. He shuffles carefully backwards and picks his way down the crumbling wall on the far side, listening for the next gunshot. He’s two blocks away when he hears it.

He can run. They’ll expect him to. It’s how he blew into town, after all, clothes on his back, gun in hand, handful of caps in his pocket. He could count on Chin to sing out that his buddy Pitch stank of double-cross, had one foot in the sand already.

They’ll be running to the gates now, so he strolls, fast-like, into the centre of town.

He could ambush his way out of Vegas, cutting throats for provisions and caps, let the wildlife clear away the evidence, but crossing into NCR means daily patrols. He’ll need caps just to stand up in his own shoes, facing shakedown crossroad tolls, water taxes at every spring. And the big man is taking his best boys to the gates.

So everyone’s bosom buddy Pitch walks into the Shark.

He keeps his head down, but not so far as to attract attention avoiding it. He trades the last five caps in his pockets for chips, heart freezing as he thinks: what if none of the one-armed bandits are hot?

He shoulda cased the machines first, but there’s no time, and a fast case gets the mooks on you like flies on Brahmin shit. He’s got to cowboy up and put it all on one roll of the dice…so to speak. He moseys along the first row of bandits…bupkas. Second row…the sensor’s a dead weight on his head. Third row…he starts to sweat.

Way in the back – he knows how this is going to happen now, he knows before the sensor module starts to dance – that corner slot machine waits for him. And he tells himself it was a damn good plan, bold and sly as any he ran in the old days, and if any other machine had been hot, it would work. He plonks himself onto the stool with no grace, only the weariness of the last year and the year before that, weighing him down worse than cement shoes.

He lifts a chip to the slot, and waits without letting it fall in.

He wonders if the kid looks like him yet. If he should have stayed and seen for himself.

The expected hand falls on his shoulder, but the grip’s only firm. Not punishing.

Not yet.

“You may as well try your luck,” the squeaky voice tells him.

He obediently slots the chip without looking around, watches himself yank the handle. Bells and whistles, chips cascading in his lap, and he raises his voice. “Looks like drinks are on me tonight, fellas.”

A ragged chorus behind him, the blurry cheers of drunks and fiends, and one of Bishop’s boys scoops up his win. The hand on his shoulder lifts, comes down again, a hard thump from one gentleman to another. “It’s good to go out with a little class.”

It tightens. “C’mon.”

The big man frisks him in the street half-heartedly, knowing he’s already cleared out the home stash. Maria goes in his pocket, and Benny’s chest aches. Bishop tosses the sensor module to one of his boys and tells him to figure it out, then make the slots so they can’t be fiddled that way again.

They walk to the edge of town like compadres, flanked by two-legged beef. Whores watch them pass from upper windows with only passing curiosity, no more attention than the big man usually gets when he deigns to walk the streets. They’ve outrun the news, and Benny regrets that. Every filthy bum in town should be watching, so when the story makes its way around, starts off toward the east, it ends on his calm face, straight back, tipping a wink to the prettiest harlot sobbing in her handkerchief.

At the gate, Bishop dismisses his boys. There’s an insult in none of them protesting, melting back into town like their boss isn’t heading into the desert with the East’s Most Wanted. His daughter follows, carrying a shovel on her shoulders like it weighs nothing.

Reno’s street-hugging lights fade quickly behind them, leaving only a broad indigo eggshell over their heads, pricked with distant starlight. None of them shiver in the desert wind. Bishop kicks off his boots and raises his face to the harshest gusts with pleasure, eyes closing, bare feet sure in the loose rocky sand.

Benny tells himself he could take him, and maybe he could, right then. But the big man expects it, from the tightness of his fists. Besides, he’s seen this coming. He’s only been running to this finish line, ever since he buried his knife in old Bingo’s throat.

Hell, he can even be relieved it’s this strange bastard putting him under, not Swank or one of the other boys, ready to fill the big shoes.

The girl skips ahead of them, falls behind examining night-blooming cacti and shiny stones. Her light dress shows a couple of dark stains in the starlight, where she knelt in something that wouldn’t wash out. She sings to herself, something about walking in moonlight, until her father points out there’s no moon. Benny almost recognises her next song (we three, we’re not a crowd), but she doesn’t know most of the words, not enough to help him place it.

It’s a hell of a long walk to the entrance of that canyon, but there’s nothing going through his brain but that piercing wind. It’s sorta peaceful, he’d think if he was thinking, to be outta schemes, outta missions, nothing to plan. Until the big man nods to the canyon, then to the shovel his girl drops in the dirt. Deathclaw chow, or the little dignity of a grave.

He snatches up the shovel. Not because he wants his bones to rest someplace quiet, but because the insult snaps him out of Bombsville.

If you got a man beat, you don’t give him a choice. You cash him out whatever damn way you please. There’s no class in making a man pick between hell and high water like he’s holding the knife to his own throat.

If you’re giving him a choice…you don’t really got him beat.

Besides, the bastard settles back to watch with Benny’s last two Sunset Sarsaparillas, giving one to the little girl and pocketing both caps. There’s a hell of a jingle when he shakes the pocket straight against his thick stem.

So he buys a little time, digging like he needs to get to the other side of the world by happy hour, and puts his brain to work. His ill-fitting jacket rucks up in the armpits, poking him somewhere delicate, and a rough plan is ready before the grave is.

“This is damn thirsty work.” He braces the shovel blade-up in the sand and wipes sweat from his face, resting his foot on the grave’s edge. He has to lift his knee pretty high to reach. “You got another one of those?”

Bishop snorts. “You won’t be thirsty for long, Benny.”

His girl giggles. She’s put the two bottles on her pointer and middle fingers and clanks them together to pass the time.

Benny shrugs, makes a show of wiping his face again, and struggles harder then he has to taking off the heavy trader’s coat, one hand catching in the pocket under the sleeve. “I’m boiling.”

He lifts the jacket toward Bishop, one of those automatic gestures between men of class. Let me take your coat, why certainly, here it is. If Bishop ignores it, or sends the girl to take it…

But Bishop’s a gentleman, or tries to wear the skin of one. He leans close, reaching with both hands.

Benny drops the jacket and whispers a silent thanks to the rat bastard Chin as he rams the syringe of Dix into Bishop’s hand. He clambers out of the hole as the big man jerks backward, swinging the shovel.

Bishop ducks, stumbles, falls. His teeth slam together with a shattering snap, but he still manages to fish Maria from his pocket.

Benny jerks the shovel higher, covering his face with metal and a prayer, but the first two shots blow past his ear.

The girl, howling, tackles him around the knees, staggering him, and sinks her teeth into his thigh. It hurts like hell, but he lets her momentum knock him over onto her father, dropping on his elbow into that broad belly.

It should be a soft landing, but the man’s soft parts feel like stone. Bishop clocks him across the temple with a loose fist, and he drops the second dose of Dix. The girl digs her sharp fingers into his much softer belly, clawing her way up his body as he rolls and fumbles in the sand for the lost syringe. Her nails graze his eye sockets, scraping one cheek. Bishop kicks out blindly, roaring curses, catches both her hand and Benny’s chin, and the night’s made of tweety birds.

He rolls, his hands finding a small neck and grasping, twisting until the sharp fingers gouging tracks in his face drop away. The ground beneath him shakes as Bishop surges to his feet, lurches, crawls closer. His face is a black hole breaking the starry sky.

“Le’er go!” it snarls, mushy around a thick tongue.

Benny drops the small body and puts some distance between them on all fours, finding the shovel. The beast goes to his offspring first, leaving precious seconds to sift through sand until something sharp pricks his palm.

Maria flashes again, and he drops flat to the sand as more bullets fly past. The man’s too big, too much meat, and he’ll shake off the paralyzing effects of the Dix in minutes…leaving only Psycho’s tweaked reflexes and numbness to pain.

He has a fraction of a second to consider that this has not been the tightest caper he’s ever helmed, before he’s scuttling forward on his knees, swinging the shovel low, aiming for ankles. The big man stumbles, catches himself on one knee, but it’s close enough for Benny to jab a second dose into his knotty calf.

The three pass a few quiet minutes together, Bishop juddering and grunting as the poison overwhelms him, the girl still as his grave. He doesn’t check if she’s breathing while he rolls her old man (a fortune in caps, a beaut of a Bowie knife, quart of whisky in the back pocket), but part of him’s relieved when she coughs and rolls onto all fours, retching into the dirt.

The rest of him aims Maria at her head while he kicks the dying man into the hole.

He lets her get on her feet, watching her small face move, the grave between them.

Must seem like an 18-carat run of bad luck

She’s too smart to say anything (or, more likely, still half-strangled), but her eyes stray to her father as he shudders just once more.

He can only put another bullet through her, put her to rest with her father, and walk away. She’s the last person in Reno to know his real name, who he was, where he’d run.

“Too bad you got caught up in this,” he tells her, but she doesn’t even look up from the body.

“Kid,” he says, “willya listen up here?”

She doesn’t even glance at him before she bolts, not into the open country between them and Reno, but the canyon. He keeps Maria on her even when she’s out of range of the little 9mm, but his finger’s not on the trigger.

Smart kid, is all he can think. Smart as anyone who’d run into a deathclaw nest, knowing at least no one’ll follow.

He leaves Bishop exposed. The grave’s not deep enough to keep scavengers out of it, and he’s got no time. He points himself east and south. There’s traders on these roads, traders out of the NCR instead of Reno, and with his outfit, with Bishop’s caps, he can buy his way into a caravan instead of ambushing them.

Damn it all, all of them damned. He’s gonna undo the biggest mistake of his life and re-claim his Lady…maybe even his girl.