Sunday, June 29, 2008

Guns of the Border Region: Prologue and Chapter One

[The following is the prologue and opening chapter of a new novel I'm working on set in the universe of Twilight's Last Gleaming. It is my intention that the fictional universe and timeline I've created serve as a backdrop for any type of story. For the first one, I've decided to cut loose and go with an action-adventure, pure pulp fiction. Subsequent chapters will appear as I complete them. Copyright 2008 by Charles Hoffman.]


PROLOGUE

In the year 2079, the world was rocked by a war the likes of which it had not seen in well over a century. Nations around the globe were drawn into the conflict, but the main antagonists were the United States of America and the Islamic Federation of Europe. America, already in decline, proved no match for the ascending power of Islamic Europe.

During the war’s decades-long aftermath, the American Union broke apart. The Southwest rejoined Mexico, and southern Florida aligned itself with Cuba. Other states seceded to join Canada or become small independent nations.

The Northeastern and Midwestern states were, by the late 21st Century, home to large populations of American Muslims. Under the terms of America’s surrender treaty, these states were to be permitted to adopt Islamic law as their supreme legal authority, superseding even the United States Constitution. In time these states achieved full independence and formed the Islamic States of America.

Meanwhile, the political, commercial and cultural life of what was left of the United States had slowly become centered in what had been the Old South prior to the American Civil War of 1861-65. This section, and the downsized nation as a whole, came to be commonly referred to as the New American Confederacy. Early in the 22nd Century, a new Constitution was ratified. Among its provisions was the stricture that only Christians could be full-fledged citizens. The name “New American Confederacy” was formally adopted. The Old Union was no more.

Between the Islamic States of America and the New American Confederacy lay the Border Region. This area originally consisted of non-Islamic areas of Islamic-majority states that had broken away. In time, however, it included the entire Ohio River Valley and the whole state of West Virginia. The term “Border Region” referred to a location rather than a political entity. With the exception of West Virginia, government was conducted solely at the city and county level. The Border Region was essentially a patchwork of small fiefdoms, with the major urban centers functioning along the lines of ancient Greek city-states.

The people of the Border Region were united chiefly by an independent spirit and a libertarian philosophy. The societies of both the Islamic States and the New American Confederacy, on the other hand, tended to emphasize conformity. Consequently, the Border Region became home to numerous free thinkers, non-conformists, misfits, rogues, entrepreneurs, outlaws, and adventurers.



CHAPTER ONE -- WILD NIGHT IN WHEELING

The setting sun still reddened the western sky, but already the dives and fleshpots of Wheeling were roaring. Bars, clubs, gambling dens and bawdy houses were all crammed full of rowdy patrons. Located in West Virginia’s northern panhandle, a slim finger thrust between southern Ohio and Westsylvania, Wheeling had by the early 22nd Century become known far and wide as a booming crossroads for the countless travelers, wanderers and wastrels that traversed the Border Region.

Hot nightspots were scattered throughout the city, but the greatest concentration of the wilder venues were to be found across the railroad tracks from the main part of town, where the Ohio River flowed darkly southward before turning west. Here in the old section, winding narrow streets, their asphalt worn away to expose the underlying brick, formed a tangled maze lined by garishly lit taverns, strip clubs, and other establishments offering various forms of raucous entertainment. Rain-slick sidewalks reflected the lurid glare of multi-hued neon blazing forth from the buildings’ colorful facades. Barkers stood near some entrances, loudly hawking the pleasures to be found within in an effort to entice the throngs of passers-by. It was a warm night. Throbbing music and shrill laughter blared from open doorways. Meat grilling in open stalls and on tiny food carts scented the air with its savory aroma.

To this dark carnival-land came the woman called Shadow. She strode boldly down the center of the street, spurs jangling on her heavy boots. Clad in a long black duster, the young woman stood over six feet in her boot heels. The upturned collar of the duster framed a delicate-featured face that yet conveyed a hawkish toughness. Her long straight black hair was parted in the middle to reveal a high contemplative forehead and the keen eyes of an observer. Her thin nose and lips gave her pale features a dour cast.

Shadow had just hit town and was looking for kicks. She had spent the long summer in the western reaches of the Border Region cultivating her gardens. A bumper crop of reefer had left her flush, and now she was headed back up the long trail to her native Westsylvania. There she would tend to other enterprises before settling in for winter. But first she was stopping off in Wheeling, her old stomping grounds, for what she trusted would be a truly memorable party night.

For right now, however, the drinking and carousing could wait. After weeks of subsisting mainly on foodpaste, Shadow’s first order of business was a real meal. To that end, she headed straight for Wotan’s Carving Board.

Wotan’s was a popular eatery that saw a lot of the rough outlaw trade. It resembled nothing so much as an old Viking mead hall. Rows of rude wooden tables and benches filled most of the vast interior. Whole hogs and sides of beef roasted over open flames, sending tendrils of blue smoke curling to the rafters. Elsewhere, steaks and chops were being grilled. It was only early evening, but Wotan’s was already crammed to near capacity with hungry feasters come to gorge and guzzle.

Shadow scanned the crowd as she entered Wotan’s, acknowledging the greetings of fellow patrons who knew her of old. She made her way to a table near one of the fire pits. Because of the heat of both the flames and the many bodies that surrounded her, she removed her duster before taking her seat.

Shadow doffed the garment with a shrug of her supple shoulders, a move that drew appreciative glances. Many of the outlaws and adventurers of the Border Region enjoyed dressing the part. Shadow was no exception. Beneath the duster, much of her superb young body was bared. What little she wore was mostly black. Tight boots came to just below her knees, and studded gauntlets encircled her wrists. Crotch-hugging leather pants clung to her powerful thighs and full womanly ass like a coat of lacquer. Above the waist she wore only a scanty bra of PVC. Her exposed body was white as fresh cream, typical of one bred in the cloudy, darkly wooded hill country of Westsylvania. A tribal design had been tattooed onto her right upper arm, and a small ring piercing her navel adorned her rippled drum-tight abs. Her breasts were splendidly shaped, but not overly large. Shadow was built for action.

The sole spot of color in her apparel was the military utility belt that hung snuggly about her hips. It supported an assortment of olive green pouches and a bowie knife in a worn brown leather scabbard. The knife’s blade was narrower than that of the traditional “iron mistress,” but the clip point design was unmistakable. Jutting hilt first from the woman’s left hip, it could be unsheathed, sword-like, with a quick cross-draw motion. Travelers stopping in Wheeling were required to check their firearms with the local sheriff’s office, but other weapons could be worn openly.

Shadow seated herself and ordered her meal. She and several table mates agreed to split a whole ham. As the waiter departed with their order, Shadow added, “Bring me a pitcher of 33 to wash it down.”

33 was a beer brewed in Latrobe, in the Laurel Highlands of Westsylvania. During the 20th Century, the Latrobe Brewery had produced a pale lager called Rolling Rock. Originally a local brew, it grew in popularity and came to be distributed throughout the Old Union. Early in the 21st Century, a major national brewing company had purchased the Rolling Rock brand name and moved production of the beer to New Jersey. Now, over a hundred years later, New Jersey was part of the Islamic States of America. No alcoholic beverages, including the ersatz Rolling Rock, were produced there any longer. A few years ago, however, a group of enterprising Westsylvanians had refurbished and reopened the old Latrobe Brewery. The beer they made there was brewed identically to the original Rolling Rock. The name of their brew derived from the enigmatic number “33” that had appeared on Rolling Rock bottles.

Shadow had nearly finished her first mug of 33 when the feast arrived steaming on a heavy wooden platter. The ham was actually a whole haunch of half-wild boar, a Wotan’s house specialty. Eschewing the steak knife in front of her, Shadow hacked off hunks of meat with her bowie knife. She then stuck the bowie point first into the wooden table, within easy reach. The boar meat was far more savory than any ham from a factory farm hog; it was the rich dark purple of port wine and flaked apart like good tuna. A whole loaf of fresh bread, still warm from the oven, accompanied the ham. Shadow tore off a big piece and slathered it with butter. Potatoes and a large wedge of tangy yellow cheese completed the repast. Shadow fell to with gusto.
As she ate, Shadow studied the crowd more closely. West Virginians and Westsylvanians predominated, along with others from elsewhere in the Border Region. Many, like Shadow, were of the footloose roving breed. There was also a smattering of Muslims come down from the Islamic States to the north to partake of forbidden earthly delights. Likewise, some goody-good Christians from the New American Confederacy had traveled up from the south to go slumming in the Border Region’s wildest town. That could be a dangerous pastime, but too bad if they didn’t know how to look out for themselves. Shadow also noticed some darker complexions that bespoke origins still further south --Mexico or Cuban Florida.

After eating her fill, Shadow rose to take her leave. She plucked the bowie knife from the table, wiped it clean, and re-sheathed it. Slipping on her duster, Shadow exited Wotan’s. Time for bar-hopping and some serious drinking.

Shadow headed off down the street in her long-legged stride, the long unfastened duster billowing out behind her. At length she came to a cozy little bar she had frequented in times past. The place had no name, just a neon sign hung above the door that said “Bar.” Shadow entered the dimly-lit tavern and traversed a floor strewn with sawdust and peanut shells to seat herself at the bar.

The bartender smiled in recognition and shoved a drink across the bar to her. He had remembered her favorite, Jack Daniel’s with Mountain Dew for mixer. Shadow sipped the drink as she took in her surroundings. Behind an assortment of liquor bottles, a mirror ran the length of the bar. This afforded her a view of the entire place. Whenever she went to a bar, club, or other public place, Shadow always seated herself in a location that gave her the best view of the crowd and the exits. When hanging out in a joint, Shadow wanted to know what was going on in every square foot of it.

There was a television behind the bar. Broadcast and cable TV were things of the past in most of the Border Region, but the bar’s set was hooked up to a deck capable of playing home videos in a variety of formats dating clear back to Betamax. Right now the set was showing an old black-and-white monster movie from the mid-20th Century called The Creature Walks Among Us. A character in the movie remarked that mankind was poised midway between the jungle and the stars. After several more Jack-and-Dews, Shadow was moved to reflect that mankind had backslid quite a bit since the movie had been made.

By now Shadow had caught a good buzz, yet gave no outward sign that she had a few drinks under her belt. She had an uncanny knack for holding her booze. Shadow never got so drunk or high that she couldn’t snap back to stone cold sobriety in an instant should the situation require it. When the movie was over, she left the bar to go in search of one with a pool table.

Before long she found a place called Antonio’s that had several tables, so there was no waiting. After hanging up her duster, she moved to one of the empty ones. A guy who seemed pretty nice asked to play, and a few minutes later they were engaged in a friendly game.

It didn’t take her long to draw a crowd of spectators. Most of the men in the bar, as well as many of the women, were looking her way. Shadow in any kind of action was an incredible sight. Circling about the pool table, planning her next shot, she looked like a panther softly stalking its prey. Bending over to take the shot, she exposed breathtaking flashes of her luscious milk-white cleavage. The overhead light illuminated the supple play of her toned muscles moving smoothly under her skin.

When she finished her game with the nice guy, others were waiting. A big guy with an attitude nudged the nice guy rudely aside. He seemed a little drunk. Shadow was adept at sizing up people at a glance. Taller and heavier than Shadow, he looked to be a former athlete gone to fat. Some ex-jocks had personality problems and could be dangerous. Shadow was willing to humor him, but only up to a point.

Shadow agreed to play him, rather than create a scene. Not playing at her best, she still beat him handily. Other men were eager to shoot pool with Shadow, just for the pleasure of her company. But her present opponent had something to prove, and insisted on playing her again.

“Okay, Mac,” Shadow agreed pleasantly, “You’re on. Care to make it interesting?”

Ego-driven, Mac accepted Shadow’s wager. He was not a bad player, just not as good as he thought he was. Shadow made a show of her superior skill, executing difficult shots, pointing out which balls she intended to sink into which pockets and then doing it. She hoped Mac would get the message that he was outclassed and back off while he was not too far behind.

Unfortunately, Mac was none too bright. To make matters worse, his equally oafish friends were egging him on. Thanks guys, Shadow thought. After losing the bet, he still wasn’t ready to quit. “Aw, c’mon,” Mac pleaded, “Just give me a chance to win back my money.”

“Alright,” Shadow sighed, “You asked for it.”

By now, the full attention of nearly all the bar patrons was focused on the one-sided contest between Mac and Shadow. Two more games, and Shadow had cleaned him out.

Not surprisingly, Mac was a sore loser. The jibes of his buddies and the laughter of the women in the bar did little to sooth his temper. “You bitch,” he spat, “You hustled me.”

Shadow knew well from past experience that it was pointless to try to reason or argue with morons. But for the sake of the bystanders, she made the effort.

“I did not set you up,” she said slowly, careful to speak clearly and use direct simple language, “I did not pretend to be lousy to sucker you in. You could have quit any time. Dig?”

Mac wasn’t buying it. “You owe me money or ass,” he snarled, and made a grab for her. Shadow swatted his hand away. Mac cocked back a clenched fist and swung. Shadow wasn’t about to take chances with a bigger, stronger opponent. Before he could connect, she kicked him in the balls hard enough to lift him off the ground.
It was a front snap kick, perfectly executed. Shadow’s booted foot crashed sickeningly into Mac’s testicles. He flew up and back like a puppet on strings. Mac thudded against the bar, then slid down to the floor. He lay there shivering for a second before disgorging a thick puddle of vomit.

Shadow glowered down at him. Hopefully he would stay down long enough for her to get out of there without further incident. No such luck. Mac’s friends helped him to his feet. Shadow backed away slowly, keeping her eyes on her foe to determine if there was any fight left in him.

There was. Mac stalked forward, his face an inhuman mask of rage. Even through her considerable annoyance, Shadow was impressed by his ability to take a ball shot and recover so quickly. Mac snatched up one of the pool cues from the table. Shadow grabbed the other one. Mac swung his cue like a club, aiming the thick end at Shadow’s head. Shadow gripped her cue with both hands, quarterstaff style, and raised it to block. So powerful was Mac’s blow that it actually snapped Shadow’s cue in half.

Shadow jumped back as Mac’s cue whizzed past her head. She shifted her grip on the broken cue halves and bored back in, wielding the pieces like a pair of fighting sticks. Trained in Filipino kali, Shadow could launch an effective attack with weapons in both hands. Her first blow smashed Mac’s own weapon hand, causing his cue to slip from his numbed fingers. Filipinos called this “defanging the serpent.” Shadow then used her sticks to batter Mac to the floor. This time he stayed there.

“How ‘bout you assholes!” Shadow roared at Mac’s cronies. Dumbstruck, they were quick to shake their heads vigorously back and forth and raise their hands in appeasement gestures. Shadow spat in disgust, cast her broken pool cue away, and left.

#
Shadow went to another bar and grill to chill out. She downed several tequila shots, followed by an ice-cold bottle of beer. She had eaten a heavy meal early in the evening, but the fight had whetted her appetite. Hot dogs were sizzling on a grill behind the bar. The wieners were the kind with the natural casing, the only kind Shadow considered worth eating. Shadow ordered two hot dogs, indicating the ones that had been on the grill the longest. A devotee of the crunchy hot dog, she savored the crispy snap as she bit into her first dog.

As she munched on hot dogs and drank more beer, Shadow contemplated her next move. All the trouble notwithstanding, her win at the pool table had left her feeling that she was on a lucky streak. There was a little casino not far away where card games went on all night. Shadow was in the mood for some poker. Maybe she could win herself a pretty big pot. A malicious little grin formed on her thin lips, exposing sharp white predatory teeth. Why not? After all, she would be playing with Mac’s money.

#
When Shadow reached the Monte Carlo Casino, she headed straight past the slots, roulette and other sucker games to the back rooms where cards were being dealt. It didn’t take her long to find a game. A guy had just folded and hot chicks were always welcome at the card table.

Shadow was dealt in. She spent the first hands taking the measure of the three other players. One was a Southern swell who liked the action but didn’t seem like a serious player. At least he looked like he could afford to lose. Next to him was a non-descript looking guy who appeared to be in his late thirties. Shadow quickly pegged him as a formidable card sharp, but that was okay -- so was she. The last guy was kind of young, with an annoying habit of laughing at remarks that weren‘t particularly funny. He was pretty good, but not in her league.

Shadow felt that she had her work cut out for her. It would take a little time to build some momentum. Snacks and beverages were available. Shadow had some sushi and a bottle of Mad Dog 2020 brought to the table. Then she got busy.

Shadow raised frequently to get more money into the pot. Between her and the non-descript card sharp, they cleaned out the swell in fairly short order. Then they were left to battle it out, with the laughing guy hanging back and studying their moves. Shadow wasn’t afraid to raise the bet even when she held a weak hand; she didn’t want to be observed never to bluff, thereby cautioning her opponents when the good cards did come her way.

Several more hands were played out. Shadow rode out the ebb and flow, keeping even over the long run and then surging ahead. The card sharp realized that he had met his equal, and that Lady Luck had deserted him. He quit the table with a courtly bow that conveyed his respect.

That left the other guy. Shadow wondered if his annoying laughter was done deliberately to unsettle opponents. Not that it mattered; Shadow did not want for steady nerves.

As it turned out, her final opponent played a pretty good game. He won several hands in a row. More through luck than skill, he raked in a pretty big chunk of Shadow’s money. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the sense to quit while he was ahead. Shadow had more than enough money left to keep the game going long enough to recoup her losses. It finally ended when her Ace-high flush of hearts beat his Queen-high flush of diamonds. He finally realized that he had lost all he could afford to and then some.

Shadow stood up, began folding money and stuffing it into the larger pouches of her utility belt. Her defeated opponent sat dumbfounded. Finally he rose unsteadily and glared at her.

“You bitch,” he said sullenly, “You cheated.”

Not again, Shadow thought. She snarled, “Up yours, Laughing Boy! Sorry you lost at cards to a girl. Next time stick to Old Maid.”

She shifted into a fighting stance, waiting for him to try something. He didn’t. Shadow turned and took her leave.

That’s it, Shadow thought as she went into the street. No more gambling! Time to go dancing.

#
The Metropol was the hottest dance club in Wheeling. It was a refurbished industrial facility with new metallic d├ęcor designed to complement existing fixtures. The club boasted superior lighting and sound systems. In many rural areas of the Border Region, there was still no electricity decades after the War. The cities and larger towns were usually well supplied, however. There was plenty of juice to power Metropol’s all-night revelry.

Throbbing techno music pulsated over the crowded dance floor. Shadow was in the center of the throng, soaking up the rhythm, letting it move her. She had been tense after sitting so long playing cards. Remaining stationary for any length of time tended to make her restless. She had to get out on the dance floor and move.
When she danced, Shadow typically found herself the center of much male and female attention. That was okay. This was a pretty nice crowd; no assholes so far. Plus, she had spotted some familiar friendly faces. Shadow relaxed and felt the tension seep out of her muscles.

After awhile, she took a break. She was greeted by a blonde punkette named Phoenix, a former acquaintance. Phoenix had some interesting news.

“They’re having an amateur contest tonight at the Go-Go Lounge. You oughta enter it. You were hot out there. You could win first prize.”

“It’s probably too late,” Shadow replied.

“Not if we hurry. Last I heard it was still going full blast.”

Shadow and Phoenix left Metropol and headed straight for the Go-Go Lounge. It was an average sized strip club, a little seedy but not a total dive. They got there just in time. Shadow signed up for the contest, and was scheduled to go on last.
As she got ready backstage, Shadow wondered if she wasn’t cheating a little. She had worked as an exotic dancer in the past, although not in Wheeling. She doubted anyone here was aware of it. It had been awhile ago anyway.

Moments later, Shadow went on stage. She had doffed her boots and black leather pants. She went out clad in her skimpy PVC bra and matching thong panties. The military belt, bowie knife and all, remained fastened tightly about her waist. She was greeted by scattered applause as the spotlight hit her.

The music started, generic hard rock characterized by heavy bass and a pulsing backbeat. Dancing at the Metropol had already warmed her up and she merged easily with the rhythm. Shadow strutted up and down the runway in time to the beat, hips swaying seductively. She smiled down into a sea of lustful male faces, meeting their gazes with her own, dominating them. With a contemptuous toss of her hair, she headed back to center stage. Guys in the audience moaned at the sight of her full, firm buttocks bared by the tiny thong as she walked away from them.

Shadow stepped back onto the main part of the stage as the music’s tempo quickened. Jumping into the air with the grace of a leaping gazelle, she deftly caught the brass stripper pole and hauled herself aloft. Her well-defined arm muscles flexed as she swung herself around the pole, long shapely legs extended. The music slowed once more. Shadow swung her legs up and caught the top of the pole between her tightly crossed ankles. Letting go with her hands, she unbent her body, slowly undulating until she hung suspended upside down, her hair just touching the stage. Shadow’s acrobatics evoked enthusiastic applause.

The song ended and another began, one with more of a sexy disco beat. Shadow pressed her hands against the stage to brace herself as her legs released their grip on the stripper pole. In a single fluid motion she flipped back onto her feet and rose majestically to her full height. Shadow stood poised with her back to the audience. Glancing boldly over her shoulder, she transfixed spectators with a sultry bedroom look. Then, with one of her never-fail moves, she reached behind her back and unfastened her bra. As she tossed it aside, Shadow smiled at the audible intake of breath from guys near the stage. Turning about, she strutted back down the runway bare-breasted, flaunting her body like a proud young animal.

Returning to center stage, Shadow danced, swaying hypnotically, eyes half-shut, lips softly parted. She ran her hands over her supple body, to the delight of all. As one of her hands brushed against her thong, the languorous look on her face was replaced by a strangely beautiful angry one. Unhooking the thong, she yanked it roughly from between her thighs and cast it from her. It was as though concealing her body with even a tiny scrap of clothing had suddenly become intolerable to her. Save for her belt and wrist gauntlets, Shadow was now gloriously nude. She stood poised, hands on hips, for dramatic effect, allowing her audience to drink in the sight of her. A light sheen of sweat coated her entire body, causing it to glisten as though slick with baby oil. The crowd roared its approval.

The music stopped, then started. This was Shadow’s last number. She wanted to make her grand finale a memorable one. She shook back her sweat-dampened hair, then abruptly dropped forward. Catching herself on her hands, she stretched her body horizontally along the length of the runway. In this prone position she did several push-ups that caused the supple muscles of her arms, back, thighs, calves and buttocks to flex and tense. Then she began to glide about on all fours. Meeting the eager gaze of patrons who were now eye-level, she seemed like some young lioness scenting blood.

Crawling back to center stage, Shadow remained on hands and knees, her nude body in profile. She began to rock back and forth in time to the music, pushing her hips and ass back as if meeting the thrusts of an invisible lover. The guys in the crowd ate it up. Shifting her position, she faced them frontally once more. Staying on her knees she reared back on her haunches. With head and shoulders flung back, exposing her white neck, she bounced up and down as though she were riding some lucky bastard. As the music ended, she wilted in a graceful bow suggestive of a post-orgasmic swoon.

Following Shadow’s set, all the dancers came back on stage. The contest winners were determined by audience applause. Shadow took first prize. Adding it to her gambling winnings, she reflected that this had been a very profitable evening.

A little while later, Shadow was at the bar drinking Jagermeister with Phoenix. One of her fans had bought the drinks. He offered her a cigarette.

“Thanks,” she said, accepting one, “I don’t usually, but after that I need one.” She rewarded the guy by permitting him to light it for her.

Shadow was clad once more in her leather pants and boots. Her bra was missing, however, having been snatched by someone as a souvenir. She stood at the bar smoking and drinking, brazenly topless. Leaning back against the bar, unconsciously picturesque, she studied the unruly crowd.

Experience had long since taught Shadow that it was best to spot trouble before it got too close. Case in point: that guy she had beat at poker, Laughing Boy, was in the club and headed her way.

“Hiya babe,” he said when he reached her, “No hard feelings. Can I get you a drink?”

“Already got one,” Shadow replied coolly.

Undaunted, Laughing Boy continued his pick-up routine, “I just got here a little bit ago. I caught the end of your act. You are one hot lady. Listen, I got a room not far from here. We could go back, do some drugs. Have some fun…”

“I don’t think so. I’m only in town for tonight. I want to take in as much action as I can.” Shadow was trying to be nice. Instead of just telling him to eat shit, she was giving him a chance to back off and save face. Unfortunately, Laughing Boy wasn’t taking the hint.

“Well, how `bout if I go with you and help you spend some dough?” His expression turned sour, “After all, it’s my money.”

“Alright,” Shadow groaned, tired of this, “So you’re sore about me shooting you down, and you’re sore about losing money to me. If I were to pay you to fuck me, would that square everything?”

Laughing Boy stood dumbfounded, mouth agape. Shadow could sense his brain trying to work. It was like he was actually trying to figure out if she was serious. Shadow wasted no time clarifying matters.

“That was a joke,” she said harshly, “Now will you please quit bugging me?”

“You lousy whore,” he spat back, raising a clenched fist, “I oughta punch your face in.”

“Don’t try it, Laughing Boy,” Shadow warned as she shifted into her fighting stance, “I’ve already kicked the ass of a tougher man than you tonight.” In addition to Filipino stick and knife fighting, Shadow was well trained in Okinawan kenpo karate, judo and Muay Thai. She had nothing to fear from the likes of Laughing Boy. He was no bigger than she was, and his body language told her that he was not skilled. That meant she could put him down without busting him up too badly. She looked forward to teaching him a lesson.

The clamor in the bar had died down and patrons stepped back to give them room. Bar fights were not an unusual occurrence at the Go-Go Lounge, but seldom had it been the setting for one like this. Shadow faced her opponent looking like some bare-breasted Amazon; a cruel smile played on her thin lips and her nipples were conspicuously erect.

Laughing Boy rushed in aiming a left hook at Shadow’s head. So predictable. She blocked it easily, then stung his face with a couple of quick jabs to loosen him up. When he raised his guard, she snaked an uppercut into his midsection. Her tightly-clenched fist sank into his belly just under the diaphragm, knocking the wind out of him and doubling him over. As he folded, she struck the back of his neck with a well-placed karate chop. Laughing Boy hit the floor.

“You’ll never get to Sea World that way!” Shadow smirked as she stood triumphantly over him. Laughing Boy had friends in the bar. One of them came over to help him to his feet. By the time he could stand erect, he was breathing normally.

Shadow knew better than to take her eyes off her foe, a fact which saved her life. Standing just a few feet away, Laughing Boy abruptly reached into his shirt, drew a derringer, aimed it at the center of Shadow’s face.

Shadow was faster. Even as Laughing Boy’s hand disappeared into his clothes, her bowie was out of its sheath. Cold steel flashed through the air as he took aim. Laughing Boy’s gun hand flew spinning from his wrist in a fountain of blood as Shadow’s razor-sharp blade sliced cleanly through flesh and bone.

Laughing Boy howled like a damned soul in torment as he clutched at the stump of his wrist. A bartender applied a makeshift tourniquet to staunch the jetting blood. Leaning on his friend, Laughing Boy staggered towards the exit.

Looking down, Shadow saw the severed hand twitching on the floor. She speared it through the palm with the point of her bowie. Brandishing it aloft, she called out after the departing Laughing Boy:

“Hey dickhole, you forgot something!”

Shadow flicked the knife with a snappy whipping motion, sending the hand sailing through the air to land at Laughing Boy’s feet. The friend picked it up, and the pair continued on their way. Shadow wiped her blade clean with a cocktail napkin as she watched them go.

Next: The Road to Westsylvania

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