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  • Writer's pictureAJ Jackson

A Game of Snatch and Deceit

According to the plaque above the tavern bar - No credit would be offered. No coin, no fun.


As rules went, this was one the bounty hunter could understand. Nothing in this life was free, fun least of all. He ran a worn and calloused finger across his brow, adjusting his broad brimmed leather hat which was pulled down low over his eyes. His tired muscles ached and he instinctively arched his back in the wing-back chair that occupied the corner of the smoky drinking room. He had been sitting there for an hour, patiently watching, waiting.


A half-finished mug of ale sat on the table in front of him, dried foam and sediment crusting the rim. Eyeing it suspiciously, he lifted it to his dry and parched lips, downing the contents in swift glugs, returning the empty mug to the table. Felchwater. A more deplorable drink you would never find. A cloudy brown excuse for an ale that could be purchased by the discerning drinker in many a tavern. It may have had a brackish sediment and an aroma that was faintly reminiscent of day old wet cabbage but at least it dulled the senses and loosened the muscles. And after a day like today, the bounty hunter welcomed its foamy embrace. He slowly lowered his hand to his side, rubbing his fingers over fresh stitches. Just above the belt line on the left hand side under his rough cotton shirt. He could feel the ache of the wound slowly subside as the Felchwater did its work. Staring across the busy tavern, he watched the table in the corner as the occupants hunched over their cards, each one greedily eyeing the growing pile of coins in the centre.


*


The game was simple, Two Card Snatch. A game played all across the Empire in taverns just like this one. Known by every hustler, grifter, hawker and skank. It was a fast paced game and not a bad way to make a quick coin to pay for your night's revelries. The man at the centre of the table was young and not unattractive. His smooth caramel skin and topaz eyes attracted more than a few sideways glances from the tavern's hungrier clientele. His white linen shirt split open at the front to expose a smooth chest, unspoilt except for a single scar over his heart. It was unclear if this was a mere shaving accident or a sign of an amorous encounter that had turned sour.


Lifting his eyes from his cards, the beautiful man hailed a passing barmaid.


“My cup appears to have run dry. My luck, however, has not.” The slightly dour-looking lady rolled her eyes.“And how will you be paying today Tobias? Raised eyebrows and slapped asses don’t pay bills now do they” she said with more than a hint of frustration.


“Why so cold Mabel? My ship is about to come in.” His eyes flickered down to his cards and back up to the thin lipped scowl on Mabel’s lips. With a theatrical sigh, he snatched up a coin, sending it arching through the air before it landed with a thud on the barmaid’s already full tray of dirty mugs. 


“Wet my beak. And none of the Felchwater filth. I’ll have some of that Molovian Brown you keep out the back. Chop chop Mabel.”


He turned his attention back to the table and to the other players. A dwarf, a snaggle-toothed crone and a particularly salty-looking sailor, whose tattoos were smuttier than a tavern toilet stall door. Judging by the weary looks he received from the other players, Tobias surmised that it was his turn. With a gentle flick of the wrist he tossed his cards onto the table. An audible groan came from the other players.


“SNATCH! Gentlemen. SNATCH!” 


Tobias scooped up the not-insignificant pile of coins in the pot, adding them to his own, stopping only to pick up a gold piece and flick it to the crone, winking at her and blowing a kiss. She hissed, sucking air between her chipped yellow teeth. 


“Fuck you pup, you’re nothing more than a greasy splash of cum and cologne.”


“Careful Morag, or I might just think you are flirting with me”


The crone spat a thick glob of saliva onto the floor by his feet and gathered the player’s cards back up shuffling them with angry intent.


*


The bounty hunter watched all this from across the bar, unfolding a piece of paper from his coat pocket. A wanted poster. He eyed it carefully for a moment, before neatly refolding it and returning it to his pocket. 


“Master, why must we just sit and watch? If we know our quarry is there, why can’t we just take them?”


The bounty hunter winced. The words had come from a thin wisp of a boy sitting not far from him. Propped up in his chair, wide excited eyes scanning the tavern and its occupants. Ordinarily, a boy his age would not be allowed in a tavern like this, not until he got his whiskers, at any rate.  But a few withering looks from the Bounty Hunter had soon shut up the slab of beef minding the door as they had entered together. 


Childcare was not high on the list of the Bounty Hunter’s life skills but this was different. Staring at the ragged whelp of a boy, he convinced himself once again that he was only helping the boy to find a better life. Best not to get too sentimental. Sentiment led to compromise. Compromise led to death.


“I’m not your master and you’re no student. You’re merely here because your whelp of a mother couldn’t keep her nose out of the krunk. So with me, you will stay until I can find you a suitable ward. Do you understand?” 


The boy looked slightly dejected and nodded slowly, scratching at a patch of dry skin behind his ear. 


“And we wait because only a fool rushes in. I've told you before, Rule No. 7 - Only a Fool Rushes In


The Bounty Hunter once again rubbed his fresh stitches wondering if he might ever learn to take his own advice. 


*


Back at the card table, Tobias slowly rose, gathering up the fat pile of coins and scooping them into his extravagantly embroidered purple purse. “Ladies, Gentlemen and…” turning to the crone “whatever you’re meant to be. It's been a pleasure and an honour. But my work here is done. Somewhere in this fine city, I hear the sound of a heart I have not yet broken. So I must bid you farewell.”


“Cunt” spat the crone. With a flourish of his wrist, he lithely spun around and walked from the table. A gasp rose from behind him. 


He stopped in his tracks, wincing. 


“What in the Merry Fucks of Foaming Fathoms is that!” came a familiar voice. 


He turned, looking at the slightly bemused sailor who was pointing at Tobias’ suede boot. 


“It’s couture, only the finest suede. Look. I know, I know. Today has been confusing for you my salty friend. For you are a sailor on land, things aren't swaying side to side and more importantly, nobody has tried to sodomise you in at least twenty-four hours. I would love to stay and chat, but I really must go. Destiny calls.”


“Not your tarty man boots you pimped up piss wizard… I mean what’s thaaaaaaat!”


The sailor pointed a finger at a playing card peeking out of the top of Tobias’ knee-high boots.


“Ah, that. Yes. That's……..”


“Cheeeeeeeeat” bellowed the dwarf. Flipping the table over, sending cards and drinks spilling in all directions across the filthy tavern floor. 


There was no such thing as luck. All you could do was use the hand that life dealt you. And when life dealt you shit, it was time to skid. Tobias spun on the spot and charged across the tavern, barging into a barmaid causing her to spill her tray of ale across a table of Espluvian Monks who had up until that point been quietly sitting at a table minding their business.


*


“Now?”


“Patience child. The right opportunity will present itself.”


“But he’s getting away?!?”


Sighing, the bounty hunter slowly unfolded the wanted poster again, running a finger along the lines of text, pausing on the face that was crudely printed on it. Folding back in on itself he secreted it away again in one of the many pockets that lined his leather jacket.


“Only a fool rushes in. And the world has enough fools in it already. Wait long enough and the fish will jump into your net.”


*


With half an apology to the soaked Espluvian Monks, Tobias took a sharp right turn, hurtling along the bar side. In all honesty, he had never been wildly au fait with the rules of Two Card Snatch but he was more than comfortable with the concept of relieving the rich and gullible of their hard earned money. 


Elation washed over him as he saw a pair of filthy covered miners entering through the tavern door just ahead. Pausing only long enough to skip around the prone form of Westvarion sheep hound soundly sleeping by a man’s feet he reached the door. He paused panting,  a patina of sweat prickled his brow, the night air was a welcome feeling as it washed over him.


For a moment, stars sparkled in midair as something hard smashed into the side of his face. He was sure he could feel something crunch as his legs went out from underneath him. The ground raced up to meet him as he landed with a thud half in, half out of the tavern. His last sight, the street cobbles smashing into his face and a warm wet feeling embraced him as everything went dark. 


Behind him, Mabel, the barmaid, stood with a greasy frying pan in one hand. She looked down at the prone form of Tobias, as he twitched, once, twice and then lay still, a single broken tooth lying on the cobbles next to his swollen face. 


“Good riddance”


*


It is a well known fact that there are few forms of justice in this life more swift than an iron frying pan to the face. Of all the complicated mechanisms that mankind has created to dole out punishment to the wicked few bring more satisfaction than a pan. And so it was that a broad smirk formed on Mabel's glowing face. Hearing something she turned to see the bounty hunter standing beside her in the tavern doorway. Few in the bar had even noticed him as he had made his way from the shadowed nook he had been quietly observing from, so silently and likely had he moved. Upon seeing the broad form of the man beside her she dropped the pan, not daring to meet his sullen brown eyes. 


“Sorry sir, I meant no offence. He’s a cad and a nave to be sure. Just doing my civic duty sir.”


“Is that what you call it Mabel, or should I say… Morag.”


She paused. Looking wildly around the bar. Her shoulders sagged. Her breath ragged and fast.


“You can walk out or be carried. It makes no odds to me” he uttered with a low rumble. 


She walked calmly towards him, her wrists held outwards and upwards in surrender. As he reached for his cuffs, the barmaid let out a wild scream from deep within her chest. Her free hand raked the bounty hunter's face leaving red scratches along his already worn and pocked marked cheek. Turning to pull away his sword calloused fingers formed a vice-like grip around her wrist holding her firmly in place. 


The bounty hunter had tracked both men and beasts across a vast array of landscapes. He had brought down serial killers, rapists and even once the leader of the famous Mooseskin cult. But nothing compared to a cornered animal. For that was what Morag was.  


A flash of silver glittered in the low candle light as she pulled a dagger concealed in her waistband with her other hand, driving it at his chest. The bounty hunter wrenched his body sideways, twisting it unnaturally to avoid the dagger's embrace. He groaned, feeling the stitches in his side burst. The feeling of wet blood flowing from his freshly opened wound. 


The boy watched on in wonder as the pair of them stood facing each other mere feet apart. Turning, the bounty hunter snatched up a wine glass from a nearby table smashing the head off it he brandished the razor-sharp glass stem between his fingers.


Once again Morag fell upon him. Spittle flecked at her mouth and any sense of lady-like demeanour now long since faded she aimed another slash at his exposed throat. With a calmness, only earned through practice and discipline he stood firm. Her blow passed his guard. But at the last second his free hand turned the blade from his throat, throwing her off balance. With a twist of his wrist, he sent the dagger clattering to the tavern floor. Once again he engulfed her in a vice-like grip.


“Unhand me!” she bellowed. The whole tavern now watching the commotion unfold. The boy captivated.


The bounty hunter looked down at the razor-sharp glass stem held in his hand. He was tempted sorely. He really was. Sighing, he dropped it to the floor, his fist smashing into the front of her face bending her nose sideways with a sickening crunch and sending her diving to the floor where she lay still and cold. 


  *


“But sir,” said the boy “I thought the thief was our quarry” peering over at the still prone and groaning form of Tobias lying in the tavern doorway nearby. 


“How many times do I have to tell you?” said the bounty hunter. What little patience he had long since evaporated.  “Rule No. 3: Assume Nothing.”


Slowly he unfolded the wanted poster and handed it to the boy. On the worn and yellowed parchment was printed the face of a beautiful woman and beside it printed the words


WANTED: MORAG MCGINNETH


CRIME: POISONER MOST VILE 


REWARD: 500 SILVER PIECES.


PAYABLE ON RETRIEVAL.


NO EXPENSES CONSIDERED OR PAID. 


Bending down, the bounty hunter picked up the discarded dagger, sniffing it carefully. Gently he let the boy sniff it too.


“What do you smell?”


“Smells like… like warm jara berries and cream”


Laughing for the first time the bounty hunter said “Well boy, this sweet treat will definitely rot your teeth. That smell is SparrowsLick, or as the medios know it, Amyll Jasprite. Even the smallest doses will cause seizures, paralysis and eventually death. Morag here is a very naughty lady. And more importantly she is our ticket out of this god forsaken city.”


Reaching down he made to scoop the still form of Morag up. In a flash she swung a glistening needle at his chest. Her bloodshot eyes glaring at him with an unholy malice. The bounty hunter’s fist connected with the side of her temple, sending her reeling sideways, her head crashing off the tavern floor with a sickening crunch. His knee came down on her wrist - the unmistakable sound of breaking bone. The poisoned needle tumbled out of her now ruined hand rolling on to the filthy straw of the tavern floor. 


The boy stared open mouthed at the bounty hunter for a moment as he swung the unconscious form of Morag over his broad shoulder and made his way out of the tavern, stepping over the groaning form of Tobias. 


Pausing a moment, he ran a hand down his side feeling the blood weeping from his reopened wound. Sighing he turned and looked back.


“What are you waiting for, kid? I’ve got better things to do tonight than die.”


THE END 







 

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