Slackers of the Inner Sphere
Chapter 45: That Old Familiar Feeling

Mesa Dorado
Early Dawn
New Colony Region
12nd June, 3065

The leading edge of a massive sandstorm turned the edge of town into a no-go zone, the sort of place you avoided if you knew what was good for you. The town had a well-deserved reputation for lawlessness, even by local standards, and the storm offered the perfect opportunity for less lawful types to avoid what little law there was. It was the kind of night when walking down the wrong alleyway would be called 'suicide' by the overworked and under-paid town pathologist, and earn you a express trip to Boot Hill. While other's may have departed for more hospitable climes, the people of Mesa Dorado took pride in not only surviving, but thriving, where less hardy folk wouldn't dare to tread.

Hardy though they might have been, even the inhabitants of Mesa Dorado knew it was time to lock their doors and bar the windows when black painted Rotunda scout car with a flaming skull on the hood rolled into town from the desert highway and stopped outside a nondescript saloon. The car seemed to radiate the promise of a painful death for anyone that even thought about scratching its paintwork. The fact that it had driven through the heart of the sandstorm indicated that it was covered in a military-grade sealant, and thus impervious to anything the local gangs might be packing. None the less, anyone with plans to deface the paint-job soon changed their mind when the doors opened.

The first man to step-out took a long time to stand up, with what on anyone else would have been a full-length black leather duster barely reaching his knees. He had a dusty, warn Stetson on his head, a red bandanna and a pair of goggles protecting his face from the sand. His coat hung open just enough to show the massive pistol strapped to his right hip, but it was the equally oversized shot-gun that he swung over his shoulder like it was a child's toy that made it clear he was not a man to mess with unless you were ready for a real fight. He looked around, his hidden eyes scanning the street for any danger. Evidently assured that there was nothing to be worried about in the vicinity, they signalled to the cars only other occupant.

While maybe a head shorter than their companion, the second man looked just as deadly. They were also dressed in a long duster-style overcoat, only this one was a well-worn brown, the kind that tends to blend into a dusty landscape. The Stetson on their head was the same colour, but it had a bright snakeskin band. Between the hat and a black bandanna were a pair of yellow-tinted sunglasses that seemed almost mirrored. A pair of hand-made alligator-skin boots poked out from under a pair of denim jeans, a faint bulge in the left one indicating where a large knife had been stashed. Rather than a shot-gun, the second man had a pair of the oversized pistols held in an expertly tooled gun-belt. The leather had the shine that comes only through usage over a prolonged length of time, but had evidently been lovingly looked after.

The wind muffled the sound of the cars doors closing, along with the click of a complicated lock securing the vehicle. With only the faintest of nods, the apparent leader of the two led the way up the steps into the saloon as a roll of thunder echoed in the distance. A double set of doors afforded the patrons some protection from the elements, but it was clear that the new arrivals had been spotted, as the room went silent as they stepped into the bar itself. All eyes turned to scrutinise the strangers as they made their way up to the bar as calmly as if they were taking a stroll in the park.

"What will it be?" The bartender asked with the dry indifference of someone who had seen it all before, a million times over.

"A banana sundae." The first man banged his fist down on the bar top.

"A gâteau mille-feuille with Ceylon tea." His added with more restraint.

"Listen, pal," The bartender rolled his eyes, "the gag won't work unless you order milk."

"Then I guess it'll have to be two whiskies, strait up." the man with the alligator-skin boots turned and lent back against the bar, pulling off his bandanna and glasses to reveal Swindelli's drawn face and tired eyes, "That was a hell of a long drive. Next time, we tell Penwald to land a little closer to town."

Location Unknown
12nd June, 3065

"The pieces are in place?"

"They are. The endgame will start soon."

"Then I suggest we get ready for Phase Two."

Mesa Dorado
Early Dawn
New Colony Region
14th June, 3065

"Ten million for both the Commando and the Wraith." The manager of Monster Joe's Used Mech's stood with her arms folded, "And that's my final offer."

"Final offer my ass!" Swindelli looked at her over the top of his prized vintage sunglasses, one of the few possession he still had from his old life back on Cerillos, "The Wraith alone is worth at least eleven, if not more. Offer me that much and I might be willing to throw in the Commando."

"Slim, this ain't Outreach, and you sure as shit ain't Jaime Wolf." The woman threw her head back and laughed, "Ten million the pair; take it or leave it."

"Lady, you drive one hell of a hard bargain." Swindelli spat into the palm of his right hand and offered it, "Ten million."

"You'll have to take a bankers draft." the woman returned the gesture and they shook hands to seal the deal, "I try not to keep too much cash on the premises."

"Just make it out to cash." The Major turned and singled for Penwald to back up the prime-mover.

In truth, he'd been expecting a much harder time getting anything approaching a decent price for the two salvaged Mech's, and ten million C-Bill's would go a long way towards sorting out their supply problems, at least for a while. With their main ComStar accounts frozen by the Mercenary Review and Bonding Commission, and Kobayashi still unable to contact their employers to get it sorted, they were forced to resort to physical money.

"When I was a kid, my father gave me a piece of advice, which was kind of rare as he was a drunken bastard at the best of times." Penwald fell in step beside Swindelli as the junk-yard workers started to unload the two battered Mech's, "He said to me 'son, if the worst anyone ever does to you in life is kill you, then you're doing okay'. Never did work out what he meant until now."

"I have a feeling your father was a misunderstood genius." The Major nodded as they reached the battered old APC that had followed them in from the space-port, "Have a look around and see if they have anything here we can use, the head back to the ship. I'm going to head into town and see about getting some supplies so we can fully restock the Wildfire's hydroponics bay."

"Amen to that." Penwald threw his head back and laughed, "I'm getting a little sick and tired of spam and powered mash potato twice a day."

The two men parted company, totally unaware of the man dressed as a priest who had been watching them from across the street with cold, unblinking eyes hidden behind a pair of dark glasses.

Swindelli made his way down the road towards the nearest wholesaler, his mind occupied with thoughts of what luxuries he could afford to add to their list of essentials. It had taken all his skills as a poker player to maintain his composure, but ten-million C-Bills was actually better than he'd expected for the two salvaged BattleMech's. Even so, they might need to live off the money for a while, so he dropped anything truly extravagant off of the wasn't so deep in thought that he failed to notice someone come up from behind and fall into step beside him. He was already reaching for his gun, when a familiar voice stopped him.

"Keep very, very calm, Major." Burk warned from behind a false beard and thick glasses, "There's someone following you. Or, perhaps I should say, some thing."

"Another one of those cyborg freaks?" the Major asked, wishing that he had worn his gun-belt, rather than a small holster that let him carry his gun safely and securely in the small of his back.

"Manei Domini, the Hands of the Master." Burk swung his walking stick theatrically, "Given how well he's blending in, I'd say either a Ghost or a Wraith. But knowing our luck, it's probably a Poltergeist with a very good tailor."

"You know, one of those things shrugged a head-shot from my .75 back on Shoreham." Swindelli commended, "So unless you're carrying something a hell of a lot more powerful..."

"Relax, Major." Burk grinned, his eyes darting to the top of a nearby apparent building, "Everything is in hand. All we need is for our friend back there to reveal his true nature, and..."

He never finished his sentence; some sixth sense had him pushing Swindelli into an open doorway. Despite this, a splinter of wood nicked his cheek, which was nothing compared to what it did to the door-frame itself. The hardwood exploded under the impact, while the hypersonic sound of the gauss pellet shattered the store windows. The faux priest stood on the other side of the street, their left arm held out strait ahead, hand held at right angles to allow the concealed weapon inside a clear line of fire. Their second shot pulverised brickwork only a few centimetres above Swindelli's head.

"Yep." Burk curled up into a ball to offer as small a target as he could, "That's a Poltergeist all right."

An ear-splitting boom shook the street, and the Manei Domini staggered backwards, their jacket and shirt torn to shreds over their heart. A second impact followed before they could recover, knocking them flat on their back, sending up a perfect halo of dust. The cyborg struggled to rise, hydraulic-fluid starting to flow like blood where the heavy anti-material rounds had inflicted massive damage. The third round caught them a glancing blow on the right side of their head, ripping away their ear and half the skin off their face. Dull metal and ceramics were clearly visible below, along with cybernetic ear and eye implants.

The final shot hit the bridge of their nose, blowing the back of their armoured skull off, and the Blakist agent fell down one last time, dead.

Atop the apartment block, London kept the cross-hairs of her rifle over prone body for a moment to make sure it wasn't just playing possum. Confident that it was dead, she quickly set about stripping down her rifle and placed each component with care into the custom-made case. The rifle had been a gift from her mentor the day she had completed her apprenticeship; it was a truly unique weapon, something she was sure off because she had killed its maker shortly after. It was true that most of her time was spent transporting people or packages from one place to another, but that wasn't the only skill she had acquired over the years.

Just how Burk had known about her proficiency with such a weapon was an annoying mystery.

To Be Continued...

Slackers of the Inner Sphere:
These aren't the Merc's you're looking for...