Leon Riley shoved his hands deep in his pockets and breathed a long, slow breath. He’d lost another bountyhead--of course he had. He’d lost the past three bountyheads he’d followed. Leon cursed under his breath and slouched onto a nearby bench. His newfound seat gave him a lovely view of the harbor, but Leon propped his feet up on the safety rail and stared at his boots instead. He pulled a cigarette and lighter from his pocket, lit the cigarette with a quick flick of his thumb, and took a long draw. He let the smoke escape his mouth and nose as he tipped his head back and stared at the sky between unruly locks of shaggy brown hair. Behind him and just out of his field of vision, the second story of the pier rose up. He could hear people above him oohing and aahing at the view. He frowned. Being a cowboy sucked. Being a kid sucked even more. Although he was nineteen, technically legal on all planets, he still found himself limited by lack of experience and equipment. He’d lost his latest bountyhead to an older hunter with more lucrative connections and a way faster ship. Just like he’d lost the other bounties to men and women with more money, more connections, and bigger ships. How did you even build all those resources if you could never catch anyone anyway?
He blew smoke and stared at the clouds hoping he might find an answer. It wasn’t that he was bad at hunting bounties. In fact, he was quite good at it. The only problem was, he was so good that the older cowboys let him do all the legwork on a bounty then swooped in at the last minute and swiped it right from under his nose. He’d even taken a shot for this last bounty--Leon rubbed his left shoulder absently where he had a bandage tucked under his shirt. The bullet only grazed him, but still, he was proud of his first real wound. Until the other guy stole his bounty that is.
He took another drag on the cigarette and contemplated the very large and very lonely zero that sat in his bank account right now. If he didn’t land a bounty soon, he’d be hard-pressed just to survive. He had enough supplies and fuel for his ship now, but she wouldn’t last forever. She wasn’t big enough for extended space travel without being docked on a bigger ship. And he sure wasn’t going to ask these older cowboys for a leg up. Not after they stole his bountyheads. He needed a local job.
Leon stuck his cigarette in his teeth and stood up. He raised his arms over his head, stretching his lanky six-foot frame, wincing only a little as the muscles in his shoulder protested. The edges of his long trench coat blew back in the slight breeze off the water. Well, he wasn’t going to find a job sitting here on this bench. If he wanted to bring in a bounty, he’d just have to get the jump on the other cowboys. And that meant no rest for the weary. He sighed and started walking.
“Spike!” he heard a woman yell behind him. “Hey Spike! Wait!”
Leon looked around. There were a few other people on the pier with him, but none of them appeared to respond to the name Spike. In fact, most of them were looking at him, as if expecting him to answer. Well, his name wasn’t Spike. He shrugged and kept walking.
“Don’t you walk away from me, you lunkhead!” the woman yelled. “Not again!”
Leon stopped this time and looked around again. More people gave him curious looks. He turned and looked behind him. A woman with short black hair and a garish yellow outfit topped with a red coat was waving and running toward him. Leon’s eyes widened in surprise and he started as he realized she was running straight for him.
Damn, it can’t be creditors, not yet. Can it? Nah, too early for that. Someone from a bounty, maybe? Another cowboy?
Leon didn’t recognize the woman. But whoever she was, she obviously thought he was Spike. And she sounded angry. Either way, he didn’t really want to stick around and find out. So he turned and started walking away again.
“Spike Spiegel, you get back here!”
“Who the hell is Spike Spiegel?” Leon muttered under his breath as he looked over his shoulder. The woman was gaining on him. He broke into a run. She ran faster. Why was she running him down like he was her bounty?
Maybe she thought he was her bounty. Maybe she was a cowboy and this Spike person was her bountyhead. Leon laughed and slowed down. If that was the case, all he had to do was convince her he wasn’t Spike. Then maybe he could join her hunt for the guy and make some woolongs in the process. Yeah, that was it.
He was about to turn around again when a hand descended on his shoulder. He was spun sharply to face the black-haired woman just as she delivered a ringing punch to his jaw. Caught off guard, he took the punch full in the face and went down like a sack of potatoes. He lost his cigarette and it rolled a few feet away, smouldering. Leon sat on the pavement, legs outstretched, leaning on his hands.
When the stars cleared enough that he could think straight, he looked up at the woman.
“Hey, lady, what the hell do you think you’re doing?!” he demanded at the same time she exclaimed, “You’re not Spike!”
“Of course I’m not!” he said hotly, rubbing his jaw. “Why’d you go and hit me like that?”
The woman knelt in front of him, looking puzzled. She leaned close, scrutinizing his face. “Because if you were him, you’d deserve it,” she said absently as she stared closely at his right eye.
“Um.” Leon leaned back so that the woman wasn’t in his face. She leaned forward some more, hands braced between Leon’s legs. She was so close he could clearly see her green eyes and smell her perfume--something exotic and subtle.
“Damn,” she muttered. “You really aren’t him.”
“I tried to tell you,” he said. “Who is this Spike guy anyway? Some kind of bountyhead?”
The woman gave him a closer look. Spatial proximity didn’t seem to phase her. “You’re a cowboy?”
“Yeah. Aren’t you?”
“Well, yes. But Spike’s no bountyhead. He was...is...a cowboy too.”
Leon caught her stumble. The woman didn’t sound so sure that Spike was even alive. Perhaps that’s why she was so eager to believe he was Spike.
“You got a rivalry or something?” he asked.
The woman shook her head. “No! At least, not like what you’re thinking. We were partners a while back, but I--he disappeared. I haven’t seen him in fifteen years. And you look so much like him, I thought...maybe,” she trailed off.
“Maybe I was him?” Leon finished. The subject was obviously a touchy one. By the sound of it, this Spike guy had walked out on his lady friend and she still hadn’t forgiven him for it.
“So, he left you, huh?” Leon asked, cautiously leaning away from the woman, in case he brought up painful memories and she decided to punch him again.
But she stood up instead. “Something like that,” she said, looking out over the harbor. “Here,” she looked back at him and held out a hand. “Up you go.”
He took the offered hand and let her haul him to his feet.
“Sorry for slugging you. The name’s Faye. Faye Valentine.” She held out her hand for a handshake.
He shook. “It’s alright, it’s not like I need my jaw or anything.” He grinned to show her he was joking.
“God, your sense of humor is just like his too. You sure you aren’t related to Spike or something?” She put her hands on her hips and leaned forward again, scrutinizing him a second time.
Leon held his hands up. “I don’t know any Spikes, I swear!”
Faye straightened up. “I believe you,” she said slowly. “What’s your name, kid?”
Before he could finish, Faye's eyes widened and she tackled him, knocking him off his feet for a second time. He heard a gunshot.
“Get down! Syndicate!” Faye hissed as a bullet whizzed overhead where Leon had been standing a moment before. People on the pier screamed, running for the nearest hiding spot. Leon heard running feet advancing down the pier.
“It's not exactly like I could get up in this position," Leon grumbled as Faye's elbow dug painfully into his ribcage. His shoulder throbbed.
Faye rolled her eyes and rolled off him, drawing her Glock. She grabbed his hand and hauled him to his feet. “C’mon, there’s no time for talk!” She let off a few shots of her own as Leon drew his pistol.
“You know how to use that?” she asked as she pulled him behind a concrete pillar supporting the upper level of the pier.
“I’m a cowboy, of course I know how to use it!” Leon huffed. “But, uh, just a minute ago, did you say Syndicate?”
“Yes,” she said, leaning around the pillar. She jerked back as a shot whizzed past. Leon leaned around his side of the pillar and saw four men in long black coats with gold trim walking down the pier. They were Syndicate alright. They were spread just far enough apart that they covered the pier, but just close enough that trying to make a break between them would be near impossible. They used benches, trash barrels, light poles, and civilians as shields as they advanced.
“Why is the Syndicate after you?” Leon asked, ducking back into cover as another bullet chipped the pillar by his head. A shard of concrete cut his cheek. Leon winced.
“After me?” Faye glared at him. “They’re not after me. They’re after you. They think you’re Spike.”
“Why does everybody think I’m Spike?”
“I told you, you look just like him. Now stop gabbing and make yourself useful. We need to get out of here.”
Leon had a million more questions, but he shut up and looked around his side of the pillar again. He took careful aim at the closest Syndicate member and squeezed off a few shots. The man dodged and ducked behind a nearby trash can.
“Well, we’re not going back up the pier,” Leon said, taking aim and shooting at another Syndicate member. This one flinched as the bullet grazed his arm. Faye leaned around the pillar and took a shot. Another Syndicate member went down clutching his leg.
“Maybe not up the pier,” Faye said, looking around. “But we can go up,” she pointed to a ladder a few feet away leading to the pier’s second level.
Leon nodded. “I’ll provide you cover, go on.”
She looked like she might argue for a minute, then she turned and climbed the ladder. Leon took another shot at a Syndicate man, shattering his glasses. Blood blossomed on the side of his face as he staggered back. Leon ducked back behind the pillar and made a break for the ladder. He climbed it like his life depended on it, and scrambled up right behind Faye.There was a door farther down this second level of the pier. It lead to a staircase back down to the first level. If they took the staircase, they’d come out behind the Syndicate men, and closer to a chance of escape. Faye and Leon seemed to reach the conclusion simultaneously and both ran for the stairs.
Just then the door to the stairs burst open and three more Syndicate men flooded out, pistols drawn.
“We’ve got you now, Spike Spiegel!” one of them yelled.
“I’m not Spike Spiegel!” Leon said, feeling increasingly exasperated.
“Nice try, Spike,” growled another Syndicate man. “But you know you can’t pull that trick on us. The Syndicate might be rebuilt, but we’re not all new. Some of us remember you.”
“Great. Nice to make your acquaintance too,” Leon muttered. Out loud he said, “Do none of you realize I have no idea what you’re talking about?”
“You can’t pretend you’ve lost your memory on us,” the first man sneered and brought his pistol up. He shot at Leon. Leon threw himself to the side and rolled behind a nearby lamp post. The post had a wide concrete bottom, providing just enough cover to get himself out of harm’s way. Faye had done the same thing on the other side of the pier. The Syndicate men walked forward.
“We’ve got the pier surrounded, Spike. There’s no way out of this. Give up now, and we might go easy on you.”
“Hah!” Leon chuckled. “I might be young but I’m not crazy. You guys are Syndicate. There is no easy.”
He heard the men stop. He checked his gun. He still had almost a full clip. He pressed his back against the light post, tensing his legs, ready to spring into action.
“What does he mean by young?” he heard one of the men ask in an undertone.
“I don’t know,” he heard the other guy say. “But that is Spike Spiegel. I’d stake my life on it.”
“You’d better be damn sure or you just might,” the third man said. He sounded older than the other two. “You ever see that devil with your own two eyes?”
“Yeah, of course I did. I was there at the coup.”
Leon looked over at Faye while the Syndicate men were busy talking. They were in no hurry--it’s not like Leon and Faye had anywhere to go. As long as they blocked the stairs to the first level, Faye and Leon were trapped. Leon looked over at the ladder they’d climbed up, just in time to see a man’s head and shoulders emerge. Leon didn’t wait for anything past the black and gold lapel. He shot. So did Faye. The man slipped and fell below the ledge. Leon heard yelling as he hit some of his buddies below.
The shots galvanized the men on the second level into action. They ran forward, two to Leon’s light post, one to Faye’s. Leon stood, turned, and shot the first guy who rounded the corner in the knee. The man fell with a strangled shout, but he didn’t lose his grip on his gun. Leon stomped down on the man’s fingers. The man howled and let go. Leon kicked his gun over the edge of the ledge and turned just in time to see the older Syndicate member, one with steel grey hair and matching eyes, aim his gun at him. Leon ducked instinctively but he knew there was no way he could dodge a bullet at this range. A second later he heard the report of the gun and a bullet scored his other cheek. He hissed in pain as hot blood dripped down his face. The Syndicate man had missed on purpose. There wasn't any other way to explain it. But if that was true...then what was the Syndicate man up to? Leon wiped the blood off his face with his sleeve and shot back.
The Syndicate man’s pistol flew out of his hands. He didn’t try to go after it, but instead closed the distance between himself and Leon faster than Leon could blink. He grabbed Leon’s gun hand and twisted it, pointing the gun away from himself. Leon grit his teeth and tried to hang onto the gun, but the man pressed his fingers into Leon’s wrist and his hand went numb. With a shout of surprise, he dropped his pistol. The man kicked it away. Leon watched as it skittered to the edge of the second level, teetering precariously. But he didn’t have time to go after it. Leon realized too late he should have been watching the man and not his pistol.
The man pulled Leon closer and neatly decked him with another punch on the jaw, in the same place Faye hit him earlier. Only the man hit harder, Leon thought as his ears rang and he staggered. He briefly saw stars, but managed to keep his feet this time, only thanks to the man still gripping his hand. He yanked his hand away. The man let him. Leon grimaced as his heart beat a heavy tattoo in his chest. The man was toying with him.
“What do you want with me?” he asked, taking up a fighting stance.
“You know very well what we want with you, Spiegel. You killed the Red Dragon fifteen years ago. But the Dragon grew her fangs back.”
Leon tried to throw a punch. The man easily dodged. “Do I look old enough to kill anything fifteen years ago?” he demanded, lashing out with his foot at the same time. This time, he caught the man, but the man countered him, instead of sprawling on his back like Leon intended.
The man looked at him from slanted eyes. “That bastard,” the man swore. “Then he smiled. “You are clever, hiding in your father’s shadow.” He lashed out again and this time Leon blocked him, deflecting the man’s blow off to one side. His right hand tingled painfully. He flexed it but couldn't feel his fingers.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Leon demanded angrily, raining a series of blows on the man. “I never knew my father. I grew up in an orphanage.”
“Of course you did,” the man calmly deflected Leon’s angry blows. “That’s how they protected you.”
“Who?” Leon was panting now.
“Your parents, of course.” The man threw an precise punch at Leon’s gut. Leon brought his arm up to stop it, but he was too slow. He took the punch hard, losing his breath and doubling up.
“I suppose if we can’t have Spike, we’ll take the next best thing,” the man said, sliding a knife out of his pocket and flicking the blade out. Leon dropped to the ground and rolled out of the man’s reach, towards his pistol. The man followed like a bird of prey.
Leon stood up, wincing as his stomach protested, and found himself back to back with Faye, who was also fist-fighting her opponent at this point.
“How you holding up, kid?” she asked.
Leon watched his Syndicate man warily, holding his arms in front of his torso. Taking a punch was one thing, but a knife was entirely different. “I’m...holding,” he said, gasping a little. “Faye, we gotta get out of here.” He glanced balefully at his pistol which was still too far out of reach.
“I’m working on it,” she said. “Just give me two more minutes.”
“Two minutes?” Leon groaned, tucked his head, and rushed his opponent. The man was caught off guard and paused for a second or two in surprise. Leon took the opportunity to land a solid two punches. He wished he knew the crazy numbing trick the man used on him. But Leon’s only teacher was back alley street fights. He knew nothing about finesse. He did know, however, that he needed to keep the blade well away from himself. He reigned several fast but sloppy punches on the man, hoping that sheer speed alone might overwhelm him. While one or two landed, they didn’t land with enough force to do serious damage.
“Precision over speed, boy,” the man said, like he was Leon’s teacher. He pressed the knife toward Leon and Leon let up his punches to grab the man’s knife hand and concentrate on keeping the blade away from his face. While Leon was an inch or two taller than his opponent, he was lighter and less experienced. He cursed his youth again. Why was he always getting into fights with veterans?
The man suddenly swept Leon’s feet out from under him. Leon shouted and fell, gravity pulling the knife closer to him. He let go of the man’s hand and crashed ungracefully onto the concrete. He managed to tuck his head up at the last second, but he felt his injured shoulder complain.The man swooped down on him. Leon rocked back and lashed out with both feet, catching the man squarely in the chest. This time it was the man’s turn to grunt and stagger back. Leon levered himself to his feet, breathing hard.
“Faye,” he called over his shoulder as he backed away from the man.
“15 seconds,” she yelled back.
“15 seconds better hurry the hell up!” Leon shouted, as he dodged a swipe of the knife.
The man grinned. “You’re not half-bad, kid,” he said. “It’s a shame I’m under orders to subdue you.”
“Well, really,” Leon dodged again and tried to kick the man. The man danced away. “You don’t have to hurt me,” he said, ducking another blow and coming up under the swing of the knife with a punch. The man stopped his fist by grabbing it. Leon shuddered at the impact. “You only have to get Spike, right?” he saw the knife descend out of the corner of his eye and grabbed the man’s knife hand again. “And I’m not Spike.”
“That’s one thing we agree on,” the man said as the two grappled for control, locked against each other.
“Then why are you trying to kill me?” Leon demanded.
“Leon, let’s go!” Faye yelled.
“I’m a little preoccupied right now!” he yelled back.
“We don’t have time for that!” she snapped.
Leon grunted and did the only thing he could think of. He lunged forward and head-butted the man square in the nose. Leon heard a distinctive crack as he felt the impact on his own skull. The man growled and staggered back, releasing Leon to put a hand up to his face, where blood now welled from his crooked nose.
“C’mon, Leon, let’s go!” Faye grabbed him by the back of his coat and dragged him to the edge of the pier. The Syndicate man Leon shot earlier was starting to crawl towards them and he thought he saw another head pop up above the ladder. The stairway door burst open and more Syndicate men spilled onto the pier.
“Where are we going, Faye?” Leon asked, feeling an increasing sense of panic. They were trapped.
“When I say three, jump,” she said.
“Jump?” he asked. “Are you crazy?” She was still holding onto his coat.
“Probably. One,” she said.
Leon broke free and made a desperate scrabble for his pistol.
He grabbed his pistol and she grabbed his coat again.
“Three!” she shouted as she jumped off the edge of the pier, yanking Leon with her. His stomach flipped as they went into free fall. He heard gunshots behind them and bullets whizzed past as the Syndicate men on the pier shot at them.
“Faaayyyeee!” Leon shouted. The choppy harbor water loomed up quickly. They were going to smack straight into it. And then, suddenly, a ship showed up out of nowhere, an old Hammerhead, and flew level with them, sweeping them up on its long-nosed deck. Leon lost his breath as he collided with the deck and everything went fuzzy.
He blinked a few times. He was lying on the front of a ship, face pressed uncomfortably into the deck as they zoomed over the harbor. He sat up and rubbed his head. He hurt, but he was all in one piece and there wasn’t any metal lodged in him so he counted it a good day. A shadow fell over him. He looked up to find Faye standing over him, hands on her hips, a small grin riding her lips.
“We made it didn’t we?” she shot back.
“Yeah.” He stood up, rubbing his shoulder.
She looked at him closely. “Is your face ok?”
“Yeah, looks like you got hit a few times.”
“Are you referring to this?” He gestured to his jaw. “Or these?” He ran a finger over the gashes on his cheeks. The blood was mostly dried now.
Faye glared at him.
“They’re not serious,” he shrugged. He flexed his right hand experimentally.
“Did you hurt your hand too?” she asked.
“No, the guy up there did something weird with my nerves, I guess. He made my hand go numb.”
Faye’s eyes widened. “Is it still numb?”
“A little,” Leon said, trying to make a fist. He couldn’t close his hand all the way. “Damn,” he muttered. Then he looked around. “So, where are we?” he asked.
“On Jet’s Hammerhead.”
“One of my partners,” Faye smiled.
Leon looked up at the cockpit to see a stern older man with a mechanical arm piloting the ship. He was staring at Leon like he had seen a ghost. Leon shivered. Then Jet shook his head, frowning, and gestured for the two on the nose to get down.
“Uh, I think he wants us to sit down,” Leon said, noticing the hard tug of the wind on his clothes and hair.
“Jet always wants everybody to do something,” Faye said, sounding bored.
Just then the ship shuddered, the nose dipping forward. Faye and Leon were both thrown to their knees. The ship leveled out and flew smoothly again. Faye looked up at the cockpit and stuck her tongue out. Jet looked smug.
“Told you,” Leon said.
Faye just shrugged, but she stayed sitting down.
“So, where are we going?” Leon asked.
“The Bebop,” Faye said.
“Is that your ship?”
“Well, technically, it’s his ship,” she jerked a thumb at Jet. “But it’s our base of operations.”
Leon nodded and pulled his knees up to his chest, resting his elbows on them. He stared up at the sky and ran a hand through his hair. This day could hardly get any crazier.