“Apostle Alexandra?”

“I reckon that’s about what people call me.” From behind the kerchief, behind the darkness, the voice was husky but feminine. “I reckon I’m not much fond of it, either.”

“Well, tell me your real name, and I’ll see to it that it’s published.” Sands held out a pencil and stenography pad, gripping each by only two fingers to show his mild intent.

Each was torn away seconds later by a sharply-aimed shot. “And if you do that, there’ll be people after my gold within a week,” she snorted.

“You have gold?” Sands’ eyes glittered.

“Not a flake. But that’s not how rumors work. As soon as people know where I am, who I am, they’ll convince themselves I’m sitting on a goddamn vein of the stuff.”

“I assure you that-”

“Which is why,” she continued, “you have until the count of twenty to give me a very good reason not to gutshot you and leave you for dead.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!
Advertisements

“I won’t do it,” Gibbons cried. “You can’t make me.”

“Make you do what?” laughed Spinelli.

“Make me your guinea pig in all these magical insect demonstrations!” Gibbons replied, her voice shrilly passionate. “I’ve been mauled by a toothless ghast, mind-controlled into eating an Iowa’s worth of corn…orders or no orders, I’m not doing it!”

“Relax,” said Spinelli. “The Fighting Unicorns aren’t about coercion. Would it make you feel better if I was the next demonstration subject and you got to release the insect on me?”

Gibbons nodded eagerly, a fiendish gleam in her eyes, and Spinelli obligingly handed over a small case and a cue card before standing in the middle of the proving ground.

“This is a species of Auchenorrhyncha, best known for…producing loud noises in summer,” read Gibbons from the card. She opened the container and a repulsive insect resembling a giant housefly with oversized (and bright green) wings buzzed out. It made a beeline for Spinelli, who held out his arm for it to land on.

“Go on,” Spinelli said.

“The creature’s natural song…has evolved into a strong magical defense mechanism that uses sound to cause nausea at a distance,” Gibbons continued. “The sound becomes more potent at greater range, with a zone of safety extending about one meter…to…all…sides.” She looked up. “Oh no.”

As if on cue, the insect on Spinelli’s arm buzzed loudly. Spinelli himself felt nothing, but Gibbons, standing some distance away, was immediately and violently nauseous, and turned to hurl a mixture of various kinds of corn all over the waiting cadets.”

“And that, ladies and gentlemen,” Spinelli said with a grin, “is why we call this particular specimen a Sick Ada.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“Now this critter,” Spinelli said, “is a much, much nastier than a Mana Cricket. It’s perhaps the most dangerous magical insect from the order Orthoptera.”

“Are…are you sure about this?” said Gibbons. “I still have bruises from that defanged ghast after the Mana Crickets…”

“You’ll be fine, soldier,” said Spinelli dismissively. “Say hello to our newest guest.”

He pulled a lid of magic-proof glass off of a nearby tray, revealing a grasshopper that was electric purple with terribly long antennae, at least twice as long as its body. The creature took flight and landed atop Gibbons’ head to her intense displeasure.

“Get it off, get it off, get it off!” she shrieked.

“Wait for it, kids,” said Spinelli. “If you’re going to encounter these in the field, you have to know what they’re capable of.”

Moments later, Gibbons ceased her thrashing and her eyes glazed over, pupils dilated. “Corn,” she said in a monotone. “I must find corn. Barley. Oats. Alfalfa. But mostly corn. Cooorrrnnn.” She began walking unsteadily toward the windows, through which the mess hall was visible with its heaping helpings of corn both creamed and cobbed. She walked directly into the glass, bumping against it and leaving a forehead print. Undeterred, she bumped against it again, and again, still moaning about corn with a purple grasshopper on her coif.

“Wow,” said a recruit. “What did it do to her?”

“That’s the External Locust of Control,” said Spinelli proudly. “It takes over your brain and makes you its puppet to seek food, mostly corn.”

“That’s horrible.”

“Nonsense,” replied Spinelli. “If you think that’s bad, you should see the Internal Locust of Control.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“Go on, Ms. Curry. Please load and fire the weapon at the target downrange.” Mr. Klint held out a pair of shooter’s earplugs, which the “applicant” took with a trembling hand.

Curry desperately hoped that her hosts couldn’t see the sweat beginning to bead along her upper lip, the hairs on her forearms prickling alarmedly. She was in over her head, and those kindly and dapper assassins had told her not minutes ago that failing the test would lead to her immediate death.

“Why, whatever is the matter, Ms. Curry?” said Mr. Wyd with exceptional politeness. “Would you prefer a different weapon, or a different load? The Imanishi 9 is our standard pistol…”

“…but you could use a Moses Model 19…” added Mr. Klint.

“…or a Grünwald KPK if that is your preference,” finished Mr. Wyd.

“I…would prefer the Grünwald,” said Curry. She hoped that the Germans’ reputation for engineering would mean that such a gun would be easier to use for someone who’d never fired one in her life, but any hope of successfully bluffing her way into the organization and getting an idea of where they’d taken Chris seemed to be swiftly fading.

“Very well!” Mr. Wyd swapped out the gun with blistering speed; Curry tried to see how he unloaded the Imanishi and popped a bullet from the top part of the gun by pulling it back, but the master assassin’s hands were a blur.”

“Would you prefer a full metal jacket load, or hollow-point?” asked Mr. Klint, holding up two magazines.

“We’ve depleted uranium, sabot, and ratshot as well,” chimed Mr. Wyd, “but I’m sure you’ll agree that they are nor suitable for such a demonstration.”

“Of…of course…” stammered Curry. “I’ll take the hollow-point.”

The assassin chose one of the magazines–not the one Curry thought she’d chosen, but he didn’t seem to notice–and, to her great relief, loaded it for her and made it ready to fire. With trembling hands, she took aim.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“Why don’t you go over and ask him about it?” said Jacob. “Let him know that his shiny engraved revolver is throwing sunshine in your delicate eyes, that tears of pain are dripping down your face.”

“Fine, if it’ll shut you up, I will!” Virginia kicked back her chair and walked over toward the well-dressed gentleman.

“Hello there, young lady,” the man said with a silver dollar smile. “Dr. Daniel Evans, Esquire. Faro dealer, card player, gentleman of fortune, at your service. May I interest you or your posse comitatus over there in a game of chance or skill?”

“Your table gun there is shining light in my eyes,” said Virginia.

“I suggest you purchase a pair of tinted spectacles in that case,” Evans said. “I am also a trained optometrist and would be happy to set you up with a pair.” He opened a side compartment in his faro game box, revealing a selection of eyeglasses ornate and plain.

“Aren’t gamblers supposed to keep their guns up their sleeves?” Virginia continued.

“I’m sure an observant and intelligent young lady like yourself can see the impossibility of containing a full-size Merwin Hulbert revolver in my shirtsleeves. And a lady never asks a gentleman about his gun,” Evans said coolly. “My offers of entertainment or protective eyewear still stand, but I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to be on your way otherwise, unless you’re buying me a drink.”

Irate at the implied insult, Virgina lashed out her hand, intending to scoot the offending shooting iron out of the sun.

Evans reacted with lightning speed. He snatched the gun up by its handle and deftly twirled it in one hand. It threw the afternoon sun square into Virginia’s eyes once again; as she held up a hand, blinded, Evans spun his revolver into his other hand, gripping it by the barrel. He brought the handle down on the crown of Virginia’s head, lightly enough not to shatter bone or draw blood, but heavily enough that she stumbled backwards and landed square on her rear with a dazed look.

“I’m normally not one to engage in ad feminam attacks,” drawled Evans, “but you lay a finger on my gun at your own peril, miss. Mulier est hominis confusio.”

The saloon roared with laughter as Virginia sulked back to her table.

“Oh, I forgot to mention,” snickered Jacob as she unsteadily sat down opposite him. “A fellow tried to lay hands on that gambler’s gun while you were tarrying and got the same treatment. Seems he’s a mite temperamental about his shooting irons. Sorry to say it slipped my mind.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!

“The thing is, we get a lot of wannabes in this business,” said Mr. Klint

“Posers,” added Mr. Wyd.

“Impostors.”

“Frauds.”

“Charlatans. So we have a little test we like to run applicant through.” Mr. Klint gestured toward the range. “A quick shooting demonstration.”

Curry felt hot panic sweat begin to prickle along her neck. “I beg your pardon?”

“A true mercenary knows how to handle a weapon properly, able to hit a target and reload without incident,” said Mr. Wyd. “So we have a selection of weapons for you to shoot while we look on.”

“Nothing to it,” added Mr. Klint. “Except when something goes wrong, of course. Remember when that poor fool picked up the left-handed Steyr AUG and was burned by hot ejecting brass across his face?”

“Or the Dirty Harry who tried firing a .44 Dan Wesson with one hand and wound up with the hammer spur buried in the web of his hand?” said Mr. Wyd.

“Or the so-called ‘sniper’ who got a half-moon cut from the scope of his own rifle being driven into his face?”

“Or the fool who hit the slide release when he meant for the mag release?”

“What happens when there’s an…error…like that?” Curry asked, trying her best to keep up her facade and not show an ounce of panic.

“Well, most of the time we’ll simply have to kill them on the spot,” said Mr. Wyd. “Knowing what they do about our operation…it wouldn’t be prudent to do otherwise. Not always, though.”

Mr. Klint hit a switch on the range, raising the bulletproof shutters to reveal a man in fatigues handing by meathooks and groaning softly. “Sometimes we can still find a good use for them. Don’t worry; we’re not heartless. His next of kin will get his full fee.”

“They settled the matter like any gentleman would, with a duel.”

“You mean…fifty paces? Pistols at dawn?”

The old man laughed, which quickly turned into a rheumy cough. “No, both your grandfather and Moreno were level-headed enough to know that a murder would involve the police and complicate the ownership of the land. They shot skeet at a local hunters’ club known to both. Each man put up his own skeet bid: your grandfather his land holdings, Moreno a quarter of his.”

“That doesn’t sound fair.”

“The Morenos, then as now, had large holdings. A quarter of their lands were more than equal to your grandfather’s holdings.”

“What happened then?”

“After all the efforts to find a fair solution, Moreno tipped the odds in his own favor through subterfuge. He replaced your grandfather’s clay skeet with hardened ones that wouldn’t register a hit.”