The hissing whisper shot him from his sleep like a bolt. Instantly, his gun was in his hand, sheets thrown back to the dark. Moonlight streamed across his modest bedroom, stretching shadows across the foyer and bathing the floor in an eerie glow. There was no sign of the speaker.
"Who's there?" Nash Bilton barked, cocking his pistol for emphasis. Silence greeted him. In one smooth motion, he had bounded across the room, taking a defensive position beside the doorway. He wouldn't give the interloper an easy target.
"You can turn tail now, punk, and I won't unload this in your gut. You and I both know I'm twice the gunman you are."
You sure about that? the sharp hiss carried across the moonlight to where he crouched. That tore it. Reaching behind him, he grasped the greatcoat hanging on a nearby peg, then tossed it through the open doorway. Any nervous trigger fingers would make themselves known the minute they spotted it.
To his surprise, he heard no gunshots. Instead, a sharp laugh greeted him, low and biting.
"I know that trick, Nash. We used it to flush out the Thompson gang, remember?"
Bilton started, his resolve wavering for the first time.
"The only people there are all dead now!"
"I say again: you sure about that?" There was something in the tone, a diction to the voice that nagged at him. He knew the owner, knew him very well
Cautiously, taking care not to step into the moonlight, he glanced into the main room of his flat. Across from him stood the front door, thrown wide open in the moonlight. The empty Gomorra street could be seen through the tall form dominating the entrance. It's hands dangled empty at its side, no weapon in ready sight. The shadows hid its face, but the tall frame and wide shoulders were unmistakable. Bilton gaped incredulously.
"...Coleman...?" he breathed, trying to hide the shock
"You've been a bad boy, Nash. Not the sort of thing I encourage in my deputies..."
"Coleman...Jesus, what happened to you?"
"Howard Findley and his attack dog happened. Or weren't you at the board meeting where that was discussed?"
Sweat beaded Bilton's forehead. The idiots hadn't put him down. They hadn't put him down and now he was back to even the score.
"J.P., listen, I don't know who you've been talking to, but I didn't know..."
Something twitched on the form's corner, and Bilton reacted. Quick as a whip, his gun came up, the barrel spat fire into the interloper. He watched the bullets strike him chest, saw him shudder from the impact and take a step back. But he didn't fall, he didn't even seem that heard, and as the smoke rose from the bullet holes, he heard that awful grating laugh again.
As his eyes widened, Nash saw what had twitched in the sheriff's hand. It was a scorpion, black and shiny in the moonlight. It dropped down from Coleman's sleeve and scuttled across the floor. Nash backed up slowly as realization dawned. It seemed the idiots had put him down after all. He just wouldn't let it take.
Like a crack of lightning, Coleman leapt at his former deputy. The gun went off again, but it didn't matter. Nash felt Coleman's limbs entwine him like a sinister jack-in-the-box, felt his feet come out from under him as he was slammed against the wall. A clammy hand slammed across his throat, cutting his air down to the minimum. The sheriff's face was inches from his own and he could see the cold touch of the grave in his eyes. J.P. Coleman had been somewhere Nash never wanted to see. And now, his former boss looked ready to give him a guided tour.
A second scorpion crawled out of Coleman's hair, skittering across his face before dropping to the floor. The Harrowed sheriff never blinked. You let them kill me. You wanted my job and turned the other cheek while they shot me in the back.
"Please..." The quavering in his voice couldn't be helped. "Please J.P., I didn't know..."
"I'm giving you a chance. One chance to make amends. Stay away from Sweetrock, Bilton. It's going to get very ugly over there..." The gun slipped from Nash's grasp. Sweat coated the butt in a fine sheen.
"I...I just work for them..."
"Not anymore. You don't want any part of what they've got."
And then it was over, as suddenly as it began. Nash felt J.P.'s grasp loosen on his throat, saw the darkened form obscure the doorway again. Then he was gone, leaving Bilton alone in his moonlit room. A short bark of laughter echoed across the floors, following the undead lawman out into the street. It held madness at its edge, as from someone who can't quite believe that his nightmares have come true. He couldn't decide if it was his or Coleman's.
The blood from Byron St. James's bowels dripped through his hair to pool on the dust beneath it. Most of his major organs had been removed, but there was still enough to make an awful mess.
He was hung upside down, spread-eagle across a crude wooden framework. A sign written in blood - SWEETROCK BUTCHER - hung balanced on his chin. His unblinking eyes and dumbfounded grin belied the sign's sentiments: he looked far more pig than pig-cutter. The entire display sat fifteen feet from Sweetrock Mining's front door.
Howard Findley sat gazing down on it from his office. A pair of deputies had been dispatched to remove the carcass, but the way the law was these days, it might take them some time. The delay, however, didn't concern him. As he watched the flies gather on Byron's intestines, something entirely different was on his mind.
"Those bastards. Those back-biting bastards."
"Sir?" Max Baine stepped up from his traditional spot in the hall at the sound of his superior's voice.
"They're after me, you dunderhead!" He spun around and his eyes gleamed feverishly in the light.. "Enemies from without and within!"
"I'm not sure I follow you, sir."
"That side of beef out there is Byron St. James, an occasional employee of Sweetrock Mining. He's the eyes and ears of the board back in Pittsburgh. Or was, before his unfortunate accident."
"And this is a problem?"
"They didn't tell me he was here!!! They sent him out to Gomorra without bothering to inform me! I never laid eyes on him until this morning! He could have been here for months...watching everything we've done and sending it all back east... Can you imagine the gall?! The nerve of them to go behind my back like that?! And this isn't the end of it; oh no..."
Baine considered carefully before asking his next question. "So you're not concerned about the murder, sir?"
"Concerned?! Why should I be concerned?! Whoever it was, he's done me a favor. No, Max, the problem is those interfering chimpanzees in Pittsburgh! They've got spies out here watching me. If St. James is here, you can bet there are others as well! We need to find out who and do it now!!!" He stopped suddenly and looked cock-eyed at his assistant. "Max, how long have you worked for me?"
"Sir, I don't think that..."
Findley stopped and turned back to the window. "Never mind, it's not important. Bring Sandra Harris in here; do it now. I want to know exactly what St. James was telling the boys back in Pittsburgh."
"Get MacNeil and make sure the Black Jack situation is under control. I want the problem squashed and squashed now."
"And find that simpleton, Bilton. It's time he started earning his pay."
At that, Baine paused. "He...uh...he isn't here, sir."
"Whaaat?!" Findley's hands lashed out with suddenly fury against the windowsill.
"He's gone, sir. We sent someone over this morning after St. James was found. His rooms are empty and his horse is gone."
"Traitor! Backstabbing worm!!!" He seethed openly, his face a rictus of hate. "He knows something about this. He knows, and I'm betting he's known for a long long time.
"Get him here. I don't care how. Use the zombies if you have to, but I want his seat in that chair by ten a.m. tomorrow. Am I clear?"
"Good. On your way then. And Max...?"
Baine looked up at his employer. Findley's eyes blazed fury and a thin trickle of blood leaked from the executive's knuckles where he had struck the window.
"Don't fail me, Max," he spoke with murderous calm. "This is my town, and I'll kill anyone who tries to take it from me."
Maxwell Baine didn't ask if he was joking.