PAYNEful - the site where humour goes to die, the repository of all things by Sean Patrick Payne
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The Mercenaries’ Tale – 3.04 Tooling Up

Harper was the first to approach Doug. She gave him a friendly pat on the back as she drew level with him, the merc straightening up having finished his plundering of Mad Dog’s wallet and valuables.

“Nice one, mate!” she complimented him as she passed, making her way over to the unconscious Mad Dog. She let out a sharp whistle as she inspected the damage and then proceeded to give him a swift kick between the ribs. Doug raised a brow at her.

“I take it you weren’t a fan?” guessed Doug.

“Bastard threw me through a window,” she gave Mad Dog another kick, “roughed up a lot of good people,” another kick, “and was downright unpleasant at the best of times.” She paused to consider whether or not the man at her feet had had enough before giving him one final boot to the rib.

“So he deserved a kicking then. Literally. Good to know,” said Doug, watching Harper. He added “mind you, I don’t usually need an excuse,” his cigarette clenched within a grin that would make Alice’s Cheshire cat blush.

“Then there’s whatever he was going to do to your girlfriend over there. That would have been enough reason to give him a good thrashing on its own,” she continued to muse, her impish face twisting into a sly grin of her own over Doug’s comments. This caused Doug’s brow to crease in confusion.

“My what?” he asked, turning to see who Harper was talking about and finally becoming aware that Blaise was sitting on the other side of the room, talking to a blonde in fishnets and a corset and a man in a fedora and suit.

“You mean she didn’t tell you she’d be here? That’s interesting,” said Harper, beaming ignorance with every pore on her face. Doug ignored her, strolling over towards his friend. The conversation between Blaise, Annie and the slim man stalled as Doug approached, the two strangers moving aside. Doug eyed them curiously.

“I take it from the fact that Blaise ain’t jumpin’ you that you’re friendly sorts,” he greeted. “However, if I’m wrong it’d be nice if you could give me a head’s up so I can get the boot in first.”

“That won’t be necessary, sugah,” said the Southern belle1, extending her hand. “Annabel Stone, mercenary. Friends call me Annie.”

“She’s an old friend,” said Blaise flatly, as Doug took the hand and shook it.

“Doug McCracken, Professional Bastard and Part-time Mercenary,” he replied, “pleased to meet you.”

Doug regarded the slim man next to her. The man wasn’t eyeballing Doug as such, but there was a distinct hesitation in the man’s eyes about approaching him. Doug searched the disorganised mess of the apartment of his mind for the slim figure, hoping to find a name hidden under a couch and a list of reasons as to why the man would be particularly wary of him tucked behind the radiator. He even checked the (long) list pinned to the fridge of ‘People I have previously pissed off who want me dead’ for a name that might match the face and hat. The search turned up nothing, which was the usual result.

“And you are?” asked Doug. Blaise leaned forward for a better view of the slim man, an eyebrow raised.

“That’s a point, we haven’t been formally introduced.”

The man slid his hands out of his pockets and carefully extended one towards Doug. He spoke out of the corner of his mouth as the other corner was busy pinching a cigarette between its lips.

“They call me Max the Gentleman.”

Doug clasped Max’s hand with his human hand in a firm handshake and the two made eye contact. He definitely knew the man from somewhere, and he had the feeling the man knew him. A moment of tense regard dissipated as the handshake finished.

Doug Meets Max

“The ‘Gentleman’, eh?” repeated Doug. “Putting coats down on puddles, opening doors for ladies, that sort of thing?”

“It’s an old nickname,” replied the man. That struck a chord with Doug, but it reverberated out of his brain, down his leg and out on to the floor where it disappeared. The voice too, a semi-nasal pedantic sort of voice that he could picture in a half-remembered overheard conversation several years before that took up less than 1% of his attention at the time. Giving up on recollection, he just gave the man a smile.

“Not much call for gentlemen these days,” he said. “Bit of a dying art, but good on you for trying all the same.”

“Whatever. I’ve heard about you, McCracken.” Max the Gentleman reached into his pocket and pulled out a carton of cigarettes. He flipped open the top and proffered the open end to Doug. “I see you like a smoke, you should give these a try.”

Doug looked at the open packet quizzically, nodded and slipped out one of the slim brown cigarettes. He lit the end of the brown cigarette using the end of his current cigarette, which he stubbed out on a table and tucked behind his ear. He gave the gifted ciggie a few experimental puffs and blew smoke out of his nostrils and mouth, satisfied.

“Not bad. ‘Old Archie’s Woodbines’, very classy. Fancy giving one of these a try?” he asked, offering up his own battered packet, a big red circle in the middle of it acting as the label. “They’re Fluke Hits.”

Max smiled, nodded, took one and slipped it into the pocket on the front of his jacket.

“For later,” he stated.

“Nice to see you two getting along. Ah suppose ah better get all the pleasantries outta the way an’ introduce you to the rest of my boys,” said Annie, waving a gloved hand in the direction of the other members of her team.

“Mr Stone-face over there’s Allan Parkinson. Don’t mind him too much, he likes to act tough but he’s a softie deep down,” the sniper in question was in the process of picking himself off the floor. He dusted himself off and then realised the others were watching him, Parkinson returning their gaze with a stern one of his own. He didn’t make any further moves to acquaint himself with the newcomer. Doug gave the man a curt nod but was ignored.

“And as for the big guy next to him,” Annie continued, “he’s Tupper. We don’t know what his deal is but he’s a good guy. Just, you know, keep an eye on him.” Tupper had been attempting to help Parkinson up but had been brushed aside. He was in the middle of teasing his friend’s poor close-combat skills when his watch snagged a grenade pin, yanking it out accidentally. Parkinson heard the tinkle of the pin dropping, immediately rounding on his friend. Tupper only laughed in response, his hand clutched around the grenade’s strike lever; his hands had grabbed for it as a reflex action. Tupper calmly picking the pin back up and inserted it back into its home, securing its lever. He chuckled happily, as if he’d accidentally burped loudly at a funeral. Doug couldn’t help but raise a brow in response.

“Well, it’s certainly a…dynamic group you’ve got here,” he said, ‘dynamic’ being the vaguest positive-sounding word he could come up with at the time. Annie seemed pleased with this appraisal nonetheless.

“Thanks, we try,” she said, and gave him a wink.

Doug looked at Blaise, who was now leaning over a table holding her head, not making eye contact with him.

“Didn’t expect to find you here, Red. Thought you were off looking at ammo somewhere,” he stated. Blaise merely grunted at him. Something was off about her. Annie cleared her throat.

“I think she’s alright, just sore. That varmint managed to get his hands on her and roughed her up a fair bit. It’s a good thing you came along when you did,” she explained. Doug absorbed this information and knelt down in front of Blaise.

“Let me see,” he pressed. He was stern but in a way that suggested he cared; it was the closest Doug could come to sounding compassionate. Blaise sighed and lowered her hand, Doug gently cupping her chin and tilting her head to inspect the damage. A small lump was forming on the right side of her forehead. He also noted the red marks around her throat from where Delgado had been holding her.

“Are you feeling dizzy? Sick?” he asked, checking for signs of concussion. Blaise looked at him sceptically.

“My head hurts, that’s about the worst of it,” she told him. Doug made a tutting noise.

“Better keep you off your feet. Get you to bed,” he stated, an edge of mockery in his voice. Blaise glared daggers at him and slapped his hand away, making him laugh.

“Fuck off,” she snapped, “you had me going there for a second. I almost believed you were capable of an emotion beyond being a smug arsehole.” She adjusted her fringe to better hide the lump and folded her arms across her chest.

“Aw Red, it pains me to hear you talk like that,” he joked.

“Ha. What are you doing here, McCracken? You can’t have gotten yourself fully kitted out already,” asked Blaise, disgruntled. Doug awkwardly rubbed the back of his neck, coming to expect another round of mothering from his cohort.

“I got my arm all fixed up and wondered where you had disappeared to,” he told her. It was close enough to the truth.

“Mmmhmm. So you came here, to this specific building, because you heard someone matching my description was in here and not because you saw a big fight happening inside?”

“…Yes?” he tried, fully aware she wouldn’t believe him. She didn’t.

“You really don’t have a sense of self-preservation, do you? For Faust’s sake, Doug, you spent the last week in a coma!” Blaise berated him.

“Oh give it a rest! If I didn’t come by then that big bloke would’ve done a hell of a lot worse to you than that little lump!” he snapped, his voice rising.

“Don’t you dare pretend you were actively coming to my rescue; you didn’t even know that I was in here! I, on the other hand, have been genuinely worried about you ever since the cruise ship, despite my better judgement!”

She attempted to stand only to immediately be hit by a wave of dizziness. She fell back into her seat, her eyes closed as she waited for the world to stop spinning. Doug’s expression softened.

“I wasn’t kidding about staying off your feet, you might have a bit of concussion-” he began, Blaise raised a hand to silence him.

Don’t. We’ll finish this later.” She turned her attention onto Annie, who was watching this little tiff in a manner similar to someone watching a gruesome car crash on television. “Whereabouts was the last terrorist attack? We’ve still got some shopping to do so I’m tempted to say we’ll meet you out there,” said Blaise.

“Why not meet at the monorail station? It’ll be easier to take you there,” the Texan replied.

“Alright, that sounds good. I doubt we’ll be long-” Blaise began only to be interrupted by Doug.

“-Why do I get the feeling that I missed something important? What’s going on?” he asked, causing the two girls to hesitate. There was even a slight shift in Max’s body language, the Gentleman moving from indifference to borderline-interest over what the response would be.

“It’s complicated,” Blaise stated as carefully as someone laying down the next section of a house of cards.

“All the other mercs are dead so we’re forming a coalition!” Harper helpfully yelled from the bar.

“Okay, maybe not that complicated,” Blaise conceded.

“Nothing’s been decided yet,” Parkinson remarked as he and Tupper joined Harper at the bar. The scouse immediately rounded on them.

“What do you mean ‘not decided’?! I just saved your butts,” she snapped.

“How do we know you’re not planning to pull a Mad Dog and try and bump us off so that you can have the reward to yourself?” Parkinson questioned, sceptical. Harper let out a frustrated growl.

“You arse. At no point has anyone said we’d have to share out the reward between the group. Salmanic is more than rich enough to give us 10,000 Kronz each! It’ll be like loose change to him!” the argument was getting heated, the two squaring off against each other. Max the Gentleman sighed.

“Someone with an iota of tact should probably handle that,” he told Annie, moving to go play referee between the two arguing mercenaries.

“Oh, and that’s you now, is it?” Annie cheekily asked, a playful smirk on her lips. Max returned it with one of his own. It was the first time Blaise had seen him smile with any warmth. The Gentleman’s voice caught the attention of the others at the bar as he loudly told them to shut up, interrupting the argument. Annie rolled her eyes and turned back to Blaise and Doug.

“Ah bet all this negotiatin’ won’t do your headache any good. Why don’t you an’ Dougie go get some fresh air and get on with your shopping while we sort this out and we’ll meet up with ya’ll in an hour or so,” the Texan suggested. Blaise used Doug to help herself up, grabbing hold of his sleeve and slowly pulling herself onto her feet. She still felt dizzy but the worst had passed.

“You’re not going to invite her along, are you?” Blaise queried, referring to Harper. Annie shrugged.

“As much as ah hate to admit it, she has a point. We’ll see if we can come to some sorta arrangement. You two run along, we’ll catch up to ya’ll in a bit.”

Annie playfully made a shooing motion with her hands. Blaise cracked a smile and led the rather confused Doug out the door.

***

An hour later, after a cold pack and something strong to drink, Blaise was back standing under her own volition firing off shots at a round marked target. Every burst of gunfire pierced through her head like a big bell being rang right next to her ears but it was getting better by the hour. Unloading the last round in her gun, she lowered it and peered at the smoking target in the distance. All the shots were centralised around the two centre circles, much to her satisfaction.

“That’s good, Red, but get a load of this!” said Doug, appearing from a nearby doorway, raising a large boxy handgun and discharging it at the target. There was a loud VRWAP sound, the end of the gun flared blue and emitted a bolt of yellow, which clipped the target on its edge and impacted against the wall behind. The wall bubbled and hissed where the shot landed, and the edge of the target reacted like strong acid had been poured over it, the lower quarter of the target board dissolving away into a blue paste.

Doug radiated happiness like a five year old with an ice cream as a man in robes behind him angrily stormed out, fists raised.

“Can’t you rrrrread the ssssssign?! No plasssssma weaponsssss in the target rrrrange! Bulletssss only!” the merchant yelled, pointing at a large obvious sign asking patrons not to discharge plasma-based weaponry at the target.

Blaise and Doug had found the gunsmith tucked between an armourer and a flower shop. The owner’s small shop had guns wall-to-wall on racks, and there were small wooden cabinets loaded up with boxes of ammunition. Walking around it, you had to be careful not to bump into any of the merchandise given the narrow space left to move around – it was a grotto of guns, and the mercs were like kids in a sweet shop.

The merchant himself was a small figure in green robes, with snake-like eyes and an orangey-brown complexion. He seemed to move in a slither, gliding across the floor, and his speech was equally snake-like. If it wasn’t for the two bandy arms wearing gloves with pointed fingers, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the merchant was just a giant snake in clothes. He’d been friendly enough, helping Blaise to find the ammunition she required and taking Doug out to an equally cramped side room to look at his ‘special merchandise’. He’d even pointed Blaise in the direction of the ‘target range’, which was actually just a long narrow stretch of waste ground behind a tall building fenced off at one end.

“Sorry mate,” apologised Doug, “just add it to the bill.” The merchant seemed satisfied by this, and slithered away back inside. Doug turned the gun in his hand sideways and showed it to Blaise. “What do you think?” he asked. She holstered her pistol and gripped the handle and underside of the gun in her hands, taking care to not touch the barrel which was now piping hot. In Doug’s hand it looked a good size, but in Blaise’s dainty fingers it looked stupidly big.

“My professional opinion?” she said, turning it around in her hands and looking it over, “it’s a Kleimaster 4XL plasma gun…far too heavy, prone to overheating…the iron sights on this one are actually at an angle, probably from where they’ve melted slightly from overuse…a weapon that’s completely useless for hitting anything accurately, you’d be better off using it as a club.” She handed it back to Doug, who absorbed her appraisal thoughtfully.

“Sounds perfect! I’ll be a moment while I settle up with the guy inside.”

Blaise smiled at the back of the clumsy man happy with his big gun as he wandered back inside. She was just glad that he’d moved on from asking about his old gun, the one back on the cruise ship. Blaise didn’t really want to have to explain what had happened back there after all the drinking, but she realised that it would probably come out at some point.

“So how do you know Annie, anyway?” Doug thought aloud as they began making their way back towards the villa, their ammo and weapon supplies having been thoroughly restocked. Blaise eyed Doug, choosing her answer carefully. He was only making small talk, there was no suspicion in his voice, but Doug’s method of small talk could be very intrusive if you weren’t prepared for it.

“…We worked together once a few years back,” she replied, as flatly as possible.

“Oh yeah? You must have gotten on well with her if you stayed in contact,” he observed. He was settling in to this train of thought, his posture relaxed as he enjoyed a fresh cigarette.

“We didn’t, and…we didn’t. I haven’t seen her in about six years or so,” Blaise corrected.

“Oh. Was she your mentor or something? Showing you the ropes?” he guessed. Blaise’s brow creased as she considered this question.

“What makes you say that?”

“Well you would have been about twenty-one back then, right? You must have been just starting out at the whole merc business,” he said, innocent confusion weighing on his knotted brow. Blaise hesitated. Damn.

“Something like that,” she replied, feigning a smile. She didn’t feel like she had the nerve to admit to Doug that she had been working for quite a few years before that point. That conversation would always lead to darker avenues.

“ ‘s funny, she didn’t look much like a gunslinger,” stated Doug, “or a merc for much of that fact.”

“What does a merc look like then?” quizzed Blaise, slightly irritated.

“I dunno,” said Doug, pausing to scratch the back of his ear, “but you get this vibe about people who kill for a living and Annie doesn’t have it. I’m sure she can look after herself, don’t get me wrong, but she’s a bit too…” Doug searched for a word, Blaise sighed.

“Cheerful?” she offered. Doug snapped his fingers and smiled, waving his finger at her.

“Yeah, that’s it!”

“You’re quite a happy guy yourself, Doug,” commented Blaise. Doug gave her one of his patented grins and chuckled.

“Sure, but I wouldn’t class me as a ‘nice’ guy. Would you? Be honest.”

“…You have your moments,” said Blaise.

“That’s a real good way of agreeing with me there Red. Sure, I can be chummy, but get on my wrong side and I’ll relocate your nose to the back of your head. And I’ll enjoy doing it, too. I can’t see Annie being like that. I have to wonder why a girl like her would end up with Max ‘the Gentleman’,” explained Doug, putting on a posh voice and straightening his face when saying Max’s name.

“I don’t really know,” lied Blaise.

“In fact, I can’t see why Annie would end up hanging around with any of those other blokes.” Doug could be surprisingly perceptive when he was on a ramble. He’d grab on to a thread and keep tugging it until the web it was tied to unwound into his lap in a big mess, and then he’d make a goofy face and say ‘oops’ in a sarcastic voice.

“Why not?” asked Blaise, who was wondering exactly how much of a tug Doug could give this particular thread, given the size of the giant spider made of lies and pain sat waiting on the other end.

“There’s something off about ‘em. That tall bloke with the long hair, Parker?”

“Parkinson,” said Blaise.

“Yeah, he’s got that distant look in his eyes of a man who’s shot one too many people from a distance. I’ve seen it before back in the PSF, blokes who spend so much time looking at people down the end of a scope that they start seeing everyone like that, as if everyone is far away and one bullet away from no longer being a problem. And the big guy-”

“-Tupper.”

“I wouldn’t trust him with anything stronger than a lollipop. He looks self-destructive to the point of being dangerous.”

“Coming from you, the one-man battering ram, that probably says something,” observed Blaise. Doug just laughed.

“Yup, she must’ve done something wrong in life to end up with that bunch. No offence to your mates,” Doug hastily added.

“I bet you’d take more stock in that Harper woman then,” said Blaise, turning the conversation around.

“Yeah. I probably would,” said Doug. “Problem?”

“I just don’t like her,” stated Blaise.

“I did pick up on that, Love. Any particular reason?”

“I don’t trust her. She’s confident, but it feels like she’s trying too hard. No offence, but she’s like a bad Doug McCracken tribute act – all mouth and masculinity.”

“I take that as a compliment, Red. I also get what you’re talking about, in that it feels like Harper’s put up a wall around herself.” Doug stopped walking and leaned in towards Blaise. “Mind you,” he whispered conspiratorially, “it’s not a million miles away from the vibe I get from you on a daily basis.” He delivered this line with a wink, and then leaned back away from her. There wasn’t a hint of animosity to him, but it jarred Blaise. As they continued walking, Blaise cleared her throat and decided to change the subject.

“I wonder how Gratin’s doing. He’s probably wondering where we disappeared to,” she said, effectively derailing Doug’s train of thought. He laughed.

“I doubt he’s even noticed we left. You know what he’s like. He’s in a world of his own half the time!”

“Oh I’m sure he noticed. He’s probably thankful for the quiet,” she joked. Doug grinned.

“Yeah, you are a real chatterbox, I don’t know how he puts up with it,” he teased, causing Blaise to give him a playful shove.

Both mercenaries were laughing as they climbed the stairs up to the villa and let themselves in. They were greeted by silence, which wasn’t particularly unexpected considering who they expected to find. The fact there wasn’t a mage sitting on the sofa waiting for them was more surprising.

“Gratin? You here?” Blaise called. She crossed the room and knocked on a door Doug assumed led to the bedroom Gratin had been using during the past week. There was no answer and Blaise poked her head in to check that the mage wasn’t deep in some meditative trance. She shook her head as she returned to Doug.

“Empty,” she stated.

“You don’t think his pals found him, do you?” Doug suggested as he examined the room. Blaise swept her gaze across their surroundings. Nothing seemed out of place.

“No, there’d be some signs of a scuffle,” she began as the front door swung open. Gratin crossed the threshold and froze as he saw his friends waiting for him. The two humans stared back at him, surprised. Gratin cleared his throat.

“You are back sooner than I anticipated,” the mage said as if this explained his absence. Doug and Blaise exchanged a curious glance before returning their attention onto their friend.

“We’ve been gone a few hours, where’d you disappear to?” Doug asked.

“Out,” was the reply. Doug took a deep breath as he tried to gather together what little patience he kept in stock.

“Ok, where’s out?” he tried again. Gratin considered his answer for a moment, looking behind him at the street for ideas and grabbing the first idea that stepped into his line of sight.

“A brothel,” he stated flatly, immediately regretting his decision the moment the words left his mouth. There was an extremely awkward silence, which was quickly filled with the inevitable immature sniggering from Doug. Given the deep inky blackness of his skin and the mask, it was difficult to tell if Gratin ever blushed, but Blaise was sure that his face was somehow even darker right now.

“Alright for some!” guffawed Doug, giving the mage a slight poke in the ribs with his elbow and a wink. “Say no more, say no more!”

“I meant to say ‘the pub’,” corrected Gratin, annoyed and deadpan as ever.

“Sure Archie, I bet it was a very nice pub full of ladies and some very plushly-decorated rooms out back. Comfy bed, was it?” sneered Doug.

“Alright, that’s enough Doug,” warned Blaise, stepping into the well-worn role of mediator between the thug and the mage.

“Yes, meatbag,” added Gratin, levelling his face at Doug, “and I hasten to remind you that I have seen you naked.” There was an uncharacteristic grin on Gratin’s face that caught Blaise off-guard, as Gratin was normally as stoic and unfeeling as furniture; it was like the wall or the chair had just wished her good day. The smile was lost on Doug, his pride had just been pulled up off its feet by its nipples.

“Now see here old pal,” growled Doug, “that’s a little fact that I think is best kept between you and me. That’s taking advantage!” Gratin returned his face to its regular wall-like manner.

“I take your point, meat-bag. After all, I never said that this brothel I went to dealt in female pleasures now, did I?”

Blaise knew Gratin was playing with Doug now, and she couldn’t help but smirk. Doug was being batted back-and-forth between at least five conflicting emotions, and so his brain was resolving to favour his favourite one: anger.

“Alright Archie, I think we’d better take this outside!”

“On the contrary Doug, we have places to be, and I think it best you take a moment to tidy up. Perhaps even shave?” said Gratin. Doug was hot with anger, he could feel it centralising on his face. Specifically, around his chin. Really hot. So hot that he could almost smell burning. No, he could smell burning. Hot.

Doug's Flamin' Beard

“Oh you complete fucking bastard!” he yelled, trying to pat out the small green flames blooming on his beard. He bolted for the bathroom, where the sounds of running water were promptly heard over Blaise’ s laughter.

“I think I won that one without us even needing to step outside,” commented Gratin. Blaise cleared her throat.

“The beard looked terrible anyway! Seriously though, I wouldn’t ever do that again Gratin.”

“Certainly, Mistress. Let us hope that Doug never grows a beard again.”

“You absolute fucking-

What followed was a string of expletives so impressive that both Blaise and Gratin admitted, to Doug’s credit, that he really did have a special way with words.

“-dog’s arse!” finished Doug, just over two and a half minutes later, mid-way through shaving off half a beard with a plastic disposable razor in the bathroom mirror.

“Yes. That does summarise me quite well,” said Gratin with a nod, sat two inches above the sofa, meditating.


  1. In this case a Southern belle isn’t so much a daughter of a wealthy plantation owner but rather a pretty lady with a stereotypical Texan accent. Whatever stereotype Annie was going for, she had taken a number of liberties with it if only because it’s very hard to pull off all of her acrobatics whilst being weighed down with all those skirts and petticoats.
 

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