There was no life on the mountain at all. Tari moved slowly ahead of Rocco. Their supply packs weighed them down, and the footing was treacherous. Pebbles and small rocks skittered down with every step. Several dozen feet down was a large, fairly even surface. When they made it there, Tari took off her pack and started to rummage around in it. Rocco took off his pack and eased himself down against a large rock.
He sighed. After so many years of being a bounty hunter, assassin, courier, guard, and whatever else people paid him to do, he felt old. With the injuries he sustained in Whitethorn, and with how difficult it was to simply walk, he realized that he couldn’t keep living like that for much longer.
Tari sat by him and handed him his laser pistol and sheathed knife.
“Thanks,” he muttered, as he clipped the knife to his belt.
“Mhm. I must’ve lost the holster somewhere. Your watch, too. Sorry.”
He shrugged, and put it in his pack.
“I also have this.” She handed him a dirty envelope. “Got it from a friend in Redway. Apparently it’s what you were looking for.”
“My orders from Hal?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t look. I just found a Chimera operative and he said it was for you.”
“You gave out my name?” His brow furrowed.
“I trust him. And besides, he was holding this for you anyway.”
Rocco grunted, and opened up the envelope. I hope it was worth all this, he thought. Inside was a single piece of paper with plain, neat handwriting.
Forgive me for the roundabout string of dead drops, but hopefully during our short meeting you realize the importance. I’ve been told you’re one of the best, and while I strongly object to your methods, I need someone who can get things done.
I’ve long suspected that Councilman Axel Jegkrig is a Hyperion agent, but I’ve never found any substantial evidence. Hyperion has men and women stationed everywhere as spies, moles, and the like. Especially in high places. Which is why I’m afraid that my time as mayor is nearing an end. If Axel can remove me from power, he’ll more than likely take my place. But he’s just a symptom of a deadlier disease.
I want you to kill Hyperion.
You’ll receive payment from me personally when the job is done.
Rocco scoffed, and handed the letter to Tari.
“Sounds like he didn’t think he was about to die,” she said.
“How did he die?”
“Hal was old. It looked like natural causes, but I suspect Axel, or someone he hired, poisoned him. Didn’t find any evidence.” She handed the letter back, adding sadly, “And I couldn’t compromise my position.”
“Looks like he can’t pay me, then. Doesn’t matter, there’s no way he had enough money to make me do that,” he said.
“You’d be surprised. Hal had quite a lot of valuables hidden away somewhere. Part of the reason I was there was to protect them and make sure they didn’t fall into the wrong hands.”
“Hal was Chimera?”
“No, not at all. But we trusted him. I was to protect him as well. And outmaneuver Axel, who we suspected of being Hyperion as well. I… I guess I failed at both of those. And now I’m not even there to stop Axel from controling Whitethorn.”
“Does he know about the valuables?”
“I don’t know.” Her jaw tightened.
“Why’d you leave then?”
“To save you.”
“But why am I so important that you would let Axel take over Whitethorn just to save me?”
“You were important to Hal.”
“You knew what I was supposed to do?” Anger crept into his voice. The thought of running around picking up dead drops while being shot at was made more infuriating by the possibility that she purposely neglected to tell him what it was all for.
“No, I had no idea. But I trusted Hal.”
“That, and you wanted to recruit me.” He sighed and shook his head. “I could’ve handled myself. You should’ve left me there and continued your mission.”
She closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the rock. “Not my best decision. I… I’m sorry. For dragging you into this.”
Rocco stood up and stretched. He was still sore all over, but was getting better. “Let’s go,” he said. “It’s getting dark.”
* * *
John felt moisture on his fingertips. He looked at his palms and saw blood. He had been clenching his fists so hard his nails dug into his skin. There was no news of Rocco anywhere in Brooktrails. He even went to the bar where Leta was. He was sure she noticed him there, but he was glad she didn’t say anything. The caravan was headed back up to Redway. He’d have to find his own way south, not even knowing if Rocco was heading that way. He just had to hope.
After a couple hours of searching, he made his way back to the California Caravan Co. building. The inside was just as clean as the outside. It reminded him of Hyperion’s buildings, always perfectly clean and tidy, despite the fact that no one cared about how clean it looked.
The old caravan leader was leaning on the wall by the front desk, talking with the receptionist. He looked up and saw John.
“There you are, boy, didn’t think I’d be seeing you again.”
“Just came in for my payment.”
“Sure. Cash room’s in the back.”
John followed him into the back, fighting his instinct to steal as much as he could and run off, but the old man’s warning, Leta’s comment about how no one robs Brooktrails, and the three armed guards in the cash room quelled the instinct quickly.
A man in a decent-looking suit sat behind the counter. “Another guard?” he asked. The old man nodded. “Your payment is eleven dollars.” He slid a neat stack of bills across the counter.
“That’s it?” Jon asked.
The old man scowled. “I don’t know what work you’re used to doing, but eleven bucks is a decent sum for guard work. You coming back with us?”
“No, I’m headed south.”
“Huh. No caravans headed south in a while. Jack, when’s the next southbound train coming?”
The man in the suit checked a ledger. “Two hours, eleven minutes.”
“What’s the closest town?” John asked.
“That’d be Ukiah,” the old man said. “Well, don’t know if I’d call it a town, hardly anything left there. It’s got a decent bar though.”
John left without saying goodbye. He figured he’d stop by the bar to see Leta, but she had left.Just as well, he thought, and ordered a drink.