Kat, a man in a black coat, dragged a swatch of canvas through the brambly desert. The swatch of canvas trailed the booted feet of a dead man. Kat frowned, in part from the effort, but mostly because of the snaggletooth fortress sitting rickety in the desert ahead of him. For the last several miles he could see the walls of Ramshackle, the biggest “town” around. Calling Ramshackle a town was a gracious title for the overbuilt shanty. Its jagged edges prickled up from the desert like the picked-over bones of some ancient carrion. For better or worse—mostly worse—Ramshackle maintained the dubious prestige of being the most stable and largest settlement within easy striking distance. In many senses it had been built out of mulishness and carved from a landscape of opposition. Because of it the people there clung together with a fierce patriotism, maintaining aggressive pride over their loosely united mongrel nationality. And Kat dragged the corpse and an unlikely story to explain it. He did not feel calm about it.
A long-cultivated instinct for survival kept tugging him away from Ramshackle. It caused him almost physical pain to ignore it.
One foot fell in front of the other. The canvas swatch and the dead body shushed through the dust behind him. He trudged forward, and he brooded on a failing of his: poor skills of persuasion.
He felt tempted to turn and run. He didn’t. He kept trudging, kept suppressing his surprise about it.
Eventually he got within shouting distance of the city. The guard on the gate peered out at him. Kat swallowed, trying to dampen his dry throat.
Not long after, he skidded across the dusty, piss-smelling floor of a holding cell. At that point it didn’t surprise him at all.
The sturdy door of the cell thunked shut. Kat took his time to creep to the wall and turn around to sit with his back to it. He felt like he should console himself with the thought that he had good intentions. It didn’t work much.
Through half-closed eyes he idly observed the dim holding cells. Light seeped through hundreds of worm holes in the walls, warming the shadows to enough of a mild fever to just make a penetrable dimness of what would have been a hot, black, dusty darkness.
There wasn’t much to see. Anchored in crudely poured cement at the bottom and welded to steel beams at the top, the several cells held only Kat and one other person. The cell walls were made of cobbled-together materials—a few cast-iron gates mangled to the right shape, chunks of cars, broken tools, bed frames—but they were heavily built. For a while Kat traced the lines of the crude-if-sturdy cell, more interested in the chaotic construction than any opportunity for escape.
In this place of half-formed, hurried construction, Kat stood out, and he knew it. He was tall, slim, and walked with the control of many long years of varied, meticulous training. He wore black clothes made—according to the person who had given them to him—of spider silk, shadows, and nightmares. They fit him like a second skin and shimmered like a snake. He looked designed, elegant, and the opposite of crude. The scavenging survivors of the world where he lived found him difficult to accept. He had not figured out a way to ingratiate himself to them. Probably the problem went deeper than the clothes he wore.
In the dimness, his roving red-on-black eyes glowed like two orange embers. He saw better in the dark than most people. After exhausting the admittedly poor entertainment in his cell, Kat looked elsewhere. The one other inhabitant of the holding cells occupied the cell across from Kat. The other person had chalk-pale skin, and black hair that looked damp. He had full lips and otherwise narrow features that he held in an effeminate way. Kat couldn’t tell what it was about the guy, he just looked womanish. To Kat, that sounded unfair, since he didn’t think of women in any particular way except as being…well, women. On women, being womanish looked natural. On this pale inmate, looking womanish seemed like a mask, like a caricature of woman.
The pale man leaned against the bars of his cell, his bare arms leaning lazily out. He looked utterly bored with where he was. With boredom like that, Kat didn’t find it remotely surprising that the man peered attentively at Kat.
Kat flicked two fingers in a vague hello. The pale man’s full lips curled in half a smile. The smile made his eyes look inclined toward mischief.
“You got away with it. I think they were totally fleeced,” the pale man said. Kat raised a questioning eyebrow. The pale man’s half-smile twitched on his face. “Not that you deserve it. Toaster and Bags are a couple of dumb-ass hounds,” the pale man continued; Toaster and Bags were the guards who had thrown Kat in the cell. “Anyone with, like, some small wit would have seen through your little charade.”
Kat sighed. In an idle gesture, he snapped his fingers and slapped his fist with the palm of his other hand. If he had been really committed to the deception for some reason, he might have tried to brush off this pale man, but he didn’t care quite that much. “I thought I did all right,” Kat said. “I put up a bit of a struggle.”
The pale man raised a thin, black eyebrow of his own. “Well, maybe you’re as dumb as they are.” From one of the many pockets in his slim-fitting leather vest, he produced a pack of cigarettes. Putting one between his full lips, he lit it from a match and started puffing.
Kat decided it wasn’t worth the energy to rise to that. So he didn’t.
“So here you are in the gloom,” the pale man said, leaning forward and stretching his back against the bars of his cell. “A brawler with all the obvious indelicacy of a thunderstorm and all the hidden precision of a mother’s slander. To what gain do you sit the low throne of thieves and drunks?”
Kat scratched his cheek then leaned his head on his hand and his elbow on his raised knee. He frowned at the pale man, yielding not the slightest inclination that he cared to engage.
“Oh, come on,” the pale man said, smiling fully and demonstrating clear excitement. He almost shook the bars of his cell, he wanted so much to know. “I’m going nowhere, and I assure you that I am inexorable. You have before you the option to either tell me of yourself or to have a lesson in the depth to the roots of your patience.”
For a few moments, the pale man leaned on the bars of his cell, the half-smile bending his face in the dimness, his cigarette loosening thin smoke from his hand.
Kat felt immediately inclined to argue by explaining the finer points of gargoyle hunting strategies, which could include sometimes weeks of motionless waiting no matter what weather or small creatures came to be bothersome. The second thing he felt inclined to do was to simply demonstrate some of those strategies.
Instead, after staring a few seconds at the pale man’s excited face, Kat decided he grew weary of working too hard to rationalize his actions. He picked the easiest path.
“Easier,” he said.
“Easier to do what, pray?” the pale man said.
“Easier to let them take me.”
“Easier than what?”
Kat sighed again, tiredly raising both his eyebrows at the pale man and reconsidering how easy this was. “Easier than explaining why they shouldn’t.”
The pale man took a drag at his cigarette, nodding and narrowing his eyes as if he felt included on the conspiracy. He took a few steps in his cell, flicking the ash off his cigarette. For a blessed moment, Kat thought he had abandoned the subject. The pale man opened his gob again.
“Do you think it would be easier to explain it here to me? You know, in this controlled and—moderately—safe setting,” the pale man asked. He had one hand in his pocket and stood near the middle of his cell. He didn’t look directly at Kat, seeming instead to have his gaze turned inside.
“No,” Kat said.
The sharpness of Kat’s tone seemed to amuse the pale man. He looked directly at Kat again, smiled—less widely than before. Then he sat on the cot at the back of the cell. He raised one knee and rested his cigarette holding hand there. The deep shadows washed him like a silent waterfall. Kat couldn’t see his face anymore. Mostly he saw the glow of the cigarette in a pale-skinned hand, sticking past the blackest of the shadows.
For a few silent minutes only the pale man moved, and he only moved to occasionally suck on his cigarette and blow out the smoke. He smoked the cigarette to the butt. Flicking the spent cigarette onto the floor in his cell where curls of smoke twisted off of it for minutes yet. He took another from the pack in his vest. In the momentary flash of the match in his face, Kat saw that the pale man had his eyes locked as before on Kat, rapt as one contemplating art.
“Do you want to get out of here?” the pale man asked, flicking the still-lit match to burn out in the dust on the floor. Kat shrugged. “I thought that everyone wanted freedom.”
“Freedom is a state of mind,” Kat said before he could stop himself. He snapped his mouth shut, figuring the pale man would laugh. He didn’t. Kat couldn’t tell if he had any distinct response.
“Well, if you’d like the opportunity to exercise that high ideal in more commodious quartering sometime soon, then your timing is good. My escape plan is coming to fruition as we speak. I’ll let you in on it, on one condition.”
“I finish my story,” Kat said. In a gesture of agreement, the pale man pointed the two fingers holding his cigarette at Kat then raised them like a pistol firing.
For a long moment, Kat just stared at the shadowy shape lounging on the cot. He couldn’t tell what to think about him. He seemed nuts and sincere at the same time. Not, Kat reminded himself, that those had to be mutually exclusive character traits. Either the pale man was a liar or he wasn’t. Mostly because Kat presumed he was a liar, Kat finished explaining.
“I know of a threat,” he said. “A threat to Ramshackle, and to everyone within a hundred miles. I’m kind of new to them. They don’t believe me.”
“Do you think they’d be convinced with evidence?” the pale man asked. In lieu of shrugging, Kat spread his hands apart. He didn’t know. The people of Ramshackle did logic and reason differently than people familiar to Kat. In the shadows, Kat could just see the pale man nodding. “That’s enough for me,” he said, taking a last drag at his cigarette, then stubbing it out on the wall behind his shoulder. “Hark, I do believe I hear my escape plan coming to, as it were, fruition.”
The door into the cell block from the outside opened. Bags the guard returned. He walked toward the pale man’s cell. “You sobered up enough to get the hell out, Van Ry?” Bags asked rhetorically. He went to the cell of the pale man and unlocked it. “This is, what, fifth time this month you been in here? Might be you should move along out of town sometime soon, ’fore you get a reputation as town drunk. We already got our share of those, Van Ry. Don’t need another.”
“What can I say?” the pale man, Van Ry, said. He rose to his feet, spreading his arms in an apologetic fashion. “The local rotgut is just so…enticing.”
“Yeah, well, you’d best get enticed by some other town’s moonshine,” Bags said. “Ain’t doin’ no good around here.”
“I shall bow to my adoring public,” Van Ry said, taking a deep bow.
Rolling his eyes and shaking his head, Bags turned away from Van Ry and the open cell. He glanced at Kat, opening his mouth to say something. Kat opened his mouth too, to warn Bags. Van Ry moved too fast, though. In a rough, deft move, Van Ry hurled Bags against the bars of the cell. Bags fell to the ground, stunned.
Kat was on his feet in a heartbeat. Not that there was anything to do. Van Ry dragged Bags into his cell. Taking the keys from the guard, Van Ry closed and locked the cell behind himself. Coming to lean on the bars of the door into Kat’s cell, Van Ry jangled the keys loosely in his hand.
“Want to know how the story ends?”
Kat swallowed. His throat was still dry, and his frown was still deep.
“I am not sure what just happened,” he said.
Van Ry’s half smile once again made his eyes brim with mischief.