The being sometimes known as 'Jolinaxas' adjusted his hat and glanced in the mirror. Looking good, he thought to himself.
The wheel turned, and the world moved on. Jolinaxas had played this game a thousand thousand times, using many names and faces. Drummer, preacher, drifter, ringmaster, deserter, peddler... he had traveled the world, offering his select clientele only the finest the world had to offer. And now, he was in Gomorra, ready to close the biggest deal of his many lives.
Jolinaxas held his hand before him and examined it with a proprietary air. Barely a century of use here on this layer of his existence, but already it showed the strain. He had bartered well for it, though it was a shame that the customer had been so unhappy with the final deal. Some of his customers hadn’t the wit to be happy with what they received.
Pity for them, then, he considered. Not that Jolinaxas ever allowed himself to feel pity for his customers. Once they discovered exactly what they had gained from their arrangement, Jolinaxas was long gone, already moved on to the next mark. It simply wasn’t his concern about what they felt, only what they could offer.
Sometimes Jolinaxas idly wondered if he could even feel pity. It had been a long time since such a... human emotion had crept up on him, and it had been generations since he’d last considered whether feelings mattered or not. In the end, perhaps it’s for the best, he concluded as his mind wandered to more pressing topics.
In another century he would have to barter for another body – assuming he required one, that is. The signs were present, all the portents that his incarnations had waited millennia for were brazenly displayed in the town around him. Rumors of the Tribulation... The Last Kingdom... The pull to Gomorra was irresistible.
If he was right about this town, this time, Gomorra would be hosting the close-out special of all his lifetimes.
But until then, there was business to tend to. Jolinaxas had a reputation to maintain. Most of his customers didn’t even know how to summon him, but he could hear their souls crying out in the night, and knew their desires.
It was going to be a busy night.
Jolinaxas looked in through the window of a small, modest house. An attractive woman, clad in a flannel nightshirt, writhed beneath the bed sheets. If his nature were in any way remotely human, perhaps his current incarnation might have been moved to lust. But instead, he merely clenched one fist, and waited for the woman’s reaction. A moment later, the woman moaned in her sleep.
One shot was all she needed, Wendy mused as she fingered the sidearm in her dream. Corky's ghost stood before her, smiling approval. One shot and so many ghosts would finally be put to rest...
Jolinaxas smiled, a white crescent splitting the darkness, and glanced at the nightstand beside the woman. The gun still lay there. He would have been disappointed if the woman had lost it. Indeed, he had been disappointed that Wendy had not yet gunned Rachel down, closing their deal and relinquishing herself to him, quickly and cleanly. But she had resisted the initial dream-seeds he’d planted in her mind, and now some reinforcement was required.
Those were the rules, after all. Rules that his various shades took great pleasure in perverting, but had never quite desired to break. Where was the challenge in hypnotizing someone when utilizing their own weaknesses was so entertaining? A lesser being might have resorted to such cheap tricks (and he knew a few that did), but Jolinaxas was a master of his craft. He might drop the occasional hint, or implant the occasional dream. But his customers always ultimately came to him knowing full well what they were doing – and where it might lead them.
Jolinaxas would have it no other way.
He turned from the window, then paused, sniffing the air. Anger... fear... sorrow... depression. An excellent bouquet, from a choice vintage only recently ripened. Jolinaxas mentally amended his schedule, then turned down the alleyway, heading for the new opportunity.
"I’ve failed you, little brother. I don’t deserve this life you’ve given me..."
Victor lay on his bunk, his tears long since dried. He could still hear Templeton’s last mocking comment echoing through his mind. You make sure to hang around, Vic. I owe you one, and I mean to collect.
Glanced into the next cell, Victor saw his brother’s body, still lying where the hulking deputy had left him. Everything but Juan’s still form fled away from the scene; Victor could see nothing else anymore...
So when the voice rose beside him, shattering the silence, Victor did not react. Even though Victor knew he was wide awake, the words had the eerie quality of a dream, and he simply filtered them into the scene. To his defeated senses, they seemed as natural as anything else.
"What would you pay, Victor... for revenge?" the man said. Dimly, Navarro recalled seeing him around town from time to time. A drifter: no one who stood out in a crowd. He had never spoken to the man, and if pressed, couldn’t have described him. The figure was no more identifiable now. Shadows cloaked him, welling around his dim silhouette in the cell – a silhouette holding a noose out from the darkness.
"I’m in the business of... absolution, Victor. And you have a decision to make. Regardless of his fear at being discovered, Templeton will return. You know that he can’t leave any witnesses. Not that anyone would believe you anyway. Your leader, Jackson, is allied with the same lawmen who support that thug. Rachel’s too concerned with her sister, and never liked you anyway. Rose and the others are choosing sides, and have no time for you."
The silhouette chuckled, the sound of bones rattling in a distant crypt. "I can give you the power to avenge your brother, to finish Templeton and all the others who stood aside while Juan was killed. But it’ll require grit, Victor, because for ultimate power, you’ll have to make the ultimate sacrifice."
"What are you sayin'?" Victor asked, rising to his feet.
The figure held the noose up a little higher. "Your life, Victor. If you want the power, you'll have to trade your life for it."
"How do I know you’re telling me the truth? Maybe Templeton sent you here..."
Another chuckle. "What need is there for trickery, Navarro? If Templeton wants you dead – and I’m sure that he will as soon as he comes to his senses – then he’ll kill you himself. He’s too stupid to hire someone else to do his dirty work."
"Why suicide?" Victor’s voice rasped, his throat gone suddenly dry. He had never been a devout Catholic, and Lord knew his brother would never have tolerated the thoughts roaming through his head now. But Juan, lying dead in the cell, was done talking, done preaching. It was time Victor handled things his way, and this... drifter – if he truly had the power he was offering – might be just what Victor needed.
"The ritual requires a certain... fearful symmetry. Your brother is the source of your anguish. If you seek the greatest power to avenge him—you must share his fate." The figure shrugged, casually tossing the noose onto the cot next to Victor. "I'd do it myself, but the sacrifice must be your own."
The figure’s teeth gleamed through the darkness. "Take your time, Victor. I'm sure you have a few more minutes before Deputy Templeton returns."
Moments later, Victor was scarcely aware that the figure was gone. He was too busy pondering the noose lying beside him, and the possibility of revenge.
"Sorry for the wait, darlin'. The man," a brief feminine chuckle, "we're waitin' for should be along shortly." Caldwell gently stroked the woman who was bound and gagged on the dusty bar in front of her. She glanced around the abandoned room. Once it had been filled with life. Now it echoed like a mausoleum. Let the Whateleys and their ilk have the graveyards and the manors: she preferred places drained of all life.
"Speak of me, and I shall appear, dear Jordan," a voice echoed across the deserted Fat Chance Saloon.
Jordan Caldwell glanced up from the figure bundled on the bar before her. "Jolinaxas! I thought you’d never make it!"
The being Jordan addressed restrained its laughter. In truth, "Jolinaxas" was merely a veil behind the veil. It was the name of one fragment of the whole, no more his real name than any of a hundred other aliases, such as Dark or Scratch or Gaunt, which he had adopted through the ages.
"Jolinaxas" was merely a name that humans could accept. A small number of individuals – mostly others from beyond the veil and beings of power, such as Caldwell – thought they understood him, knew his nature, and so far, he grudgingly tolerated such familiarity. The customer is always right, after all.
"I always prioritize my repeat customers, Jordan. After all, I have so few..."
Jordan shrugged off his comment, here eyes level with his own. "Perhaps you should consider a new line of work. I’m sure there are at least a dozen creatures perfectly willing to step in for you if you were ever to grow...tired of your position."
Jolinaxas had always appreciated Jordan. If nothing else, he admired her... ambition. It was great enough to take her to dire lengths, but petty enough not to threaten him directly. Perhaps he would indulge at some point, but tonight, he simply smiled and moved on to the matters at hand. "So! What do you have for me tonight?"
Caldwell nodded to the bundled figure on the bar. "I figure you can take her."
Jolinaxas stepped forward and pulled down the hood covering the woman’s face. He studied the fine porcelain features and the mane of red hair, and delicately traced her cheek with one finger, licking the fear-tainted sweat from it when he was done.
"She’ll do," he agreed after a few moments of contemplation. "Perhaps. Depending on what you want in return, of course..."
"I want someone raised," Jordan replied. "Rachel and her little sister won’t hold out forever, and I plan on being there to take over when they fall. But I’ll need powerful allies. Allies like myself."
"Demons, Miss Caldwell? I would have thought there was no lack of their breed here in Gomorra."
"All are sworn to one cause or another. I need someone who can devote themselves entirely to my enterprises."
Jolinaxas stifled a yawn. "Who?"
Jordan stepped closer to the master bargainer, her bare hooves clacking upon the wooden boards. She reached up to the shadows enshrouding his face and traced one finger along his cheek in mockery of his own previous gesture. "The dance hall girl at the Golden Mare. The vampire. Meizhu, I believe her name was. Will you raise her... as a favor to me?"
"Done," snapped Jolinaxas.
Caldwell blinked. "You agree? That quickly?"
"Believe it or not, Miss Caldwell, I do have other customers. My time is short. And the favor you ask is not a great one. The undead have a certain restlessness that ensures they linger even after their demise. And my understanding is that the Agency did not quite make as thorough a job of her as they should have. A momentary weakness of one of their members..." Jolinaxas grinned to himself at the thought of what Cort Williams’ reaction would be at the reappearance of his former beloved. It would be intriguing, and perhaps the basis for another arrangement.
"Three days time, and she’ll be brought to you. Realize, however, that I cannot offer you her loyalty or obedience. Those are matters of the human soul," he hissed, "and something I do not trifle in."
"As long as she knows I was the one responsible for her resurrection," Jordan replied haughtily. "If I can’t deal with her, I don’t deserve Sumner’s post."
"Very well." Jolinaxas turned to leave, then paused. "Oh, and the woman, Greene? Your sacrifice? You’re familiar with the ritual."
"Intimately," Jordan reassured him. "She will know suffering..."
"...and then she will die," Jolinaxas finished, departing.
Outside, he paused, considering his... feelings for Jordan. Was he reacting to her, or the delectable sacrifice she had offered?
Unimportant, he concluded, and stepped away, into the night.
His next customer would require a less subtle touch. He did not reach out his consciousness, but rather focused it elsewhere. Much as a man concentrates on tapping one finger rather than another, Jolinaxas merely focused on another shade...
The New Dunwitch Casino was becoming quite the place for clandestine meetings. The master bargainer had already made several other arrangements in the mysterious gambling hall since it opened. Sometimes he wondered where the establishment had come from, how it sprang up practically overnight, and who the owners might be. But he always cast aside such concerns. It was unprofessional to interfere in the affairs of other businessmen.
Jolinaxas glanced around the bar, relishing his anonymity. Few people recognized the mysterious ‘Drifter’, another shade he had forged just for Gomorra. His ability to maintain multiple personas at once had often proved critical when fulfilling his millennia-long obligation to his masters beyond the Veil, especially when bargaining with both sides of a conflict, as he was doing now.
Slipping comfortably into the mindset of a faceless travelling gunfighter, the Drifter sighted his target and took a seat across the table from him.
"Haven’t I seen you before?" Walter Ponds asked, looking up from his drink.
"People say I got that kind of face," the Drifter replied. "But enough about me. I hear you’ve got problems."
Ponds frowned. "Seems like the wolves are circling a little close lately, if you know what I mean."
"I do. Maybe I can help."
"Yeah? How?" Ponds asked warily.
The Drifter settled back in his chair. "I can make your enemies go away."
"Even if you could – and I’m not saying that I believe you – what’s in it for you?"
The Drifter scowled. His customers rarely had the wit to ask such questions. Perhaps Ponds would require a more determined pitch.
"The satisfaction of a job well done," the Drifter rasped, watching the bodyguard closely. "I know your kind, Ponds. You live to serve. You’d do anything to safeguard Max Baine."
The gunman smiled. "Of course you would. And I can make it happen. I can make sure that, no matter what happens, Max Baine walks away."
Ponds’ body language was obvious, and the Drifter was far from satisfied with the Sweetrock man’s non-committal responses.
"A dark cloud is coming, Mister Ponds. A storm. I know you’ve felt it. The change. Gomorra has been slipping away for over a year now."
"Get to the point, drifter."
"Right now, Baine don’t have a chance in hell. Neither do you for that matter. But I can change that."
A bemused look crept across Ponds’ face, and his words were laced with sarcasm. "Yeah? How?"
"I have friends... everywhere, Ponds. Friends with power." The Drifter leaned in close, his expression mocking the bodyguard’s own. "What d’ya say... friend?"
Ponds pushed his shot glass toward the Drifter and stared into his eyes for several long seconds, then shrugged. "Pass."
"Yer a damned fool, Ponds! Nothin’ but hellfire and death are ahead fer you!"
"Maybe so," Ponds acknowledged, "but I’ll face them on my own terms. People talk about you, Drifter, and I can’t say I like what I’ve heard."
The Drifter leaned forward, his eyes almost glowing with frustration and anger. No one turned him down. No one!
The Drifter paused, catching a scent in the air.
"Something wrong, Drifter?" Ponds smiled.
Whipping his head around, the Drifter honed in on an approaching gunman, dressed in gleaming white, muted only by a denim jacket.
The word shot through the Drifter’s mind, fueling his sudden need to move, to get away. "Another time," he hissed, rising from his seat and stalking toward the back of the bar.
Behind him, the newcomer stepped up to the table. "Good to see you again, Mr. Ponds," he said, tipping his hat.
Walter Ponds smiled in response. "Good evening, David. Have a seat."
Across town, Jolinaxas paused. So you’ve returned, have you, Hope? It’s been a long time... But it was unimportant. Bargains first. There would be plenty of time for fighting at the end.
Jolinaxas turned his concentration back to his next client. "I trust you find this arrangement satisfactory, Sister Jebediah?"
The nun blew a plume of thick cigar smoke into Jolinaxas’ face, but he remained impassive. Whatever made her happy...
"It’ll do," she snapped. "Assumin’ you rewrite those clauses."
"Of course. One can’t be too careful when entering into a...binding arrangement. And I must express my admiration for your careful eye and cautionary nature. Most of my customers wait until they get into trouble before checking the fine print."
"Whatever," Sister Jebediah cut him off. "Bad times are coming – again – and I don’t expect to need your ‘help’. But there’s folks in Gomorra who need my protection. And if I go down in Soddum, someone’s gotta be here for them."
"Quite true, quite true," Jolinaxas nodded in agreement. Pride. Always a useful tool in my arsenal. Having completed the revisions, he extended the contract and quill to her. Without further comment she took the pen and awkwardly signed it with her left hand. When she was finished, she dropped the pen onto the table and rose to leave.
Jolinaxas neatly rolled the crisp paper and tucked it into a coat pocket. "Good luck in Soddum, my dear. Give my regards to Brother Elijah."
Sister Mary paused at the comment, turning back slowly to face him. "You know Elijah?"
"Only by reputation. I’ve never had occasion to make him an offer, if that’s what you mean. His superiors frown on such things, and I prefer not to antagonize them."
"Superiors." She repeated, her mind racing. Her perpetual scowl deepened and her eyes narrowed as she considered pursuing the subject. But then, thinking the better of it, she stepped through a door and into the morning air.
Jolinaxas nodded in satisfaction, and then looked up at the sun just peeking over the horizon. The night had gone well, and he had only a single remaining arrangement to conclude. Nothing significant, but like many of his deals, it was a foot in the door.
Concentrating again, his mind refocused....
Scratch paused for a moment, examining his hands with pride. Gloved and pristine, nothing ever marred them. His long fingers looked angelic beneath the creamy, waning moonlight. The irony of his existence... It had been nearly a thousand years since he had used them for anything but inflicting pain.
Returning to the matter at hand, Scratch observed the last of today’s business. One of the Troupe’s riggers handed Deputy Powell his money, then grabbed the reins to the horses he had brought. The lawman counted the bills as the rigger led the horses back to the carnival’s wagons, then headed out toward his own mount.
Scratch caught up with him midway. "Everything to your satisfaction, Deputy Powell?" he asked.
Powell was at first startled, but his characteristically smug smile returned as soon as he recognized the man. "Scratch."
The ringmaster smiled. "Your wife is well?"
"Mary is fine, Scratch. And home, thanks to you."
"The Troupe helps where they can, Deputy."
"Well," Powell said, suddenly quite unnerved by the ringmaster’s presence. "I think I’ll just be going now..."
"Deputy," Scratch regained Powell’s attention. "I understand that Mary and yourself disagreed rather vehemently before you came out to the Maze."
"Yeah," Powell answered, the hackles on his neck rising. "How’s that any of your business?"
"Oh, it’s not," Scratch assured him, "but it could be. Tell me, Milo, are you happy with your wife? With how she treats you...?"
"Hell, no! That woman can’t–"
Scratch raised his hand, cutting Powell off (an act he wouldn’t have dared with a more discerning client, but Powell was anything but discerning). "I have no need for details, Deputy. But I do understand. You aren’t receiving the... respect due a husband from his wife. Am I correct?"
"Yeah," Powell answered. "Yeah, you got it."
Scratch smiled. The last of his business concluded. All that was needed now was the closing bid. "Well, what if I told you that I could fix that for you?"
"You could make her treat me like she’s supposed to?"
Scratch’s smile widened within the obscuring shadow beneath his tall hat. "Milo, I can make her do anything you want."
Scratch took Powell by the elbow and guided him gently through the tent flap. Yes, the night had been good... and it looked like the days to come would be even better.