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By Graeme Smith
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Jack Shadow. He’s heard them – every one of them. The jokes. They all start out the same. "See, this guy walks into a bar..." Well, that's not him. That guy who walked into a bar. He’s the guy who walked out.
It's not amnesia. Near as anyone knows, he just doesn’t have a past. Near as anyone knows - or admits to. He doesn’t walk round a corner, and some guy from a car shoots at him because of something he did long ago. Sure. Guys shoot at him. Hell, women too. But not for long ago. Mostly for last week. Where 'last week' is any week you choose. No, he just walked out of a bar.
Were there piles of dead bodies behind him? A stacked deck he was dealing, or one he was dealt? He doesn’t know. Or care. But they were waiting, and they took him. The Dragon. Took him to make a difference. To wait for the time a beat of a gnat's wing could change tomorrow. And Jack’s the gnat. Jack walked out of a bar. The rest - the rest will be history. Some day. Not that he’ll be in it. Nobody remembers the gnats. Not if they did their job right. And Jack’s the best there is.
Jack Shadow. Because some days – the last thing you need is a good guy.
There’s good fishing in the lake. Good fishing, and in summer you can get a rowboat and row under Bow Bridge. Not that I fish. Or row. But, fish or rowboats, the damn thing’s still only about six feet deep. And no sharks, with or without lasers. So the guys with AK-47s running on to the bridge shouldn’t have had any trouble at all. And I shouldn’t have still been swimming down with Blondie ten minutes after she pushed me over the edge. And if I had been—I should have been drowned. I wasn’t. Which was good. What wasn’t so good, not if I wanted to have one single idea about what was going on that is, was what I was. Stood on a beach in—I checked a nearby sign—Santa Barbara. Dripping wet. With a blonde in a two-piece that would have been an arrestable offence if it had about twice as much cloth. Which it didn’t.
“Hey, Jack! Gonna get me a popsicle?”
I pulled out my wallet and peeled a fifty. I squished it in my fist, the water dripping from my fingers, then flicked the ball of useless paper at Blondie. “Keep the change.”
“Spoilsport.” Blondie narrowed her eyes. My leather vanished, along with most everything else I had on. The Speedos were—or more accurately very much weren’t—all that replaced them. I was on a beach, my ass saying hi to the wind with a near naked blonde. Who probably wasn’t a blonde—not a human one anyway. The Dragon wanted me dead, and I didn’t have a gun. Or anything else my leather kept close to hand. Some days, you just shouldn’t get up. And that’s supposed to happen to other people, not me. It was time to get pissed at someone, but the whole no-gun, no emergency kit thing made that a little difficult. So I did the most dangerous thing anybody can do. I shut up. And thought. Blondie waited, one eyebrow raised. I looked round some more. The sun hung low, creeping close to the wet horizon. It was probably going to be a fantastic sunset. Which was kind of interesting. See, one thing a lot of people don’t know about Santa Barbara: the beaches pretty much all face south. The fishing pier made it Goleta—which meant the setting sun was kind of lost.
“Smartass.” Blondie didn’t sound happy. Nor was I. Because that made it twice she’d read my unreadable mind. And I was fresh out of hats. “Look, Jack. Just roll with it, huh? You really don’t want to see where you are right now.”
“Didn’t have to be here at all, Blondie. What you do? Take out an ad? Centre page of the Times?”
“You know, Jack, sometimes you’re just no fun at all.” The beach disappeared. The rocky cave walls weren’t any real improvement. My leather was. Blondie seemed to think her two-piece was fine, assuming she was responsible for the absence of beach. If she was what I thought she was, the beach would have been cake. “Thing is, Jack—what if it was the beach that was real, and this is the illusion? Or maybe this is an illusion too, and what’s real is—” the rock walls disappeared. The inferno of flame crisped my leather in an instant. The other instant—the one where my flesh burned from my bones in searing agony—seemed to last a lot longer. “—this?” The flames vanished. The waves rolled onto the beach. “So Jack. Be a good boy. Get me the damn popsicle, huh?”
At least she let me keep my leather.
The Beachside Restaurant on Goleta Beach is a little unusual. For one thing, unlike a lot of things ‘Beachside’, it’s on the beach. The sun was setting where it should be, beyond the university. And if my Mango Absolut Martini had an olive in it, I could live with that. Mostly because the olive wasn’t shooting at me. Oh, it happened once. But that’s a different story. On the other hand, I figured it wasn’t a good time to be taking risks. So I ordered a beer, and threw the olive out onto the sand.
It didn’t go bang.
“You got a problem, Jack.” Blondie didn’t sound too unhappy at the idea.
I waved a waiter over. “You got any more olives?”
“Jack. Are you listening?”
The waiter came back with my beer. It had an olive in. I gave him a ten. When he’d gone, I took the olive out and held it up in front of Blondie. Then I flicked it out onto the sand. This time it went bang. Mostly because of the slug I’d put in it. The crowd in the restaurant just carried on like nothing had happened. Which was also interesting. So I shot the waiter.
Blondie sighed. “You’re just going to be a pain in the ass, huh Jack?”
I shot a woman playing ‘maybe, baby’ with a guy in a suit. I shot the suit. I raised an eyebrow at Blondie. A kid in ruby slippers came through the door, so I plugged her. And her little dog, too.
I dropped the eyebrow I had up, then raised the other one. Hell, if she was going to mess with me, she could at least have let the place have decent beer.
“I don’t know, Jack. I try to be nice….”
The restaurant walls faded away again. The rocky walls were as little improvement as last time. I put a bullet into the rock and wasn’t really surprised when it didn’t ricochet. When the flames roared round us again, things started to make sense. When they didn’t burn me to a crisp, they started to make sense-er. I didn’t turn round to look at Blondie. Mostly because I was pretty sure she wouldn’t be there.
The blast of fire that rolled over me told me I was right.
Some days—well, some days, being right is just about the worst damn thing you can be. Like, right now. Because pretty soon you’re going to have to give me an answer. When I ask you the Question. And whatever you say, you’ll be right.
You’ll just wish you weren’t.
“Bloothy hell, Jack. You really pisth … pith….” When you’ve got as many teeth as a dragon, talking can be tricky. Dragon mouths are designed with different priorities. The huge golden dragon, who’d been behind me until I turned round, spat. “Damn it.”
If she’d wanted me dead, I’d be dead. And there wouldn’t have been any talking first. Dragons are like that. It looked like Prowess had been right—Blondie was definitely dragon. Just not Dragon. So now I had a Dragon who wanted me dead, and one who didn’t. At least not yet anyway. I shrugged. It let me check a particular little lump on my left shoulder was still there under the leather. “Everybody’s got to be good at something, Blondie.”
The dragon shimmered until it wasn’t a dragon any more, and went back to being a near-naked blonde. The flames crisped the swimsuit Blondie was almost wearing until she wasn’t wearing it at all. It was clear none of her blonde came out of a bottle. She looked down, then grinned. “Oh, Jack. Whatever there is, I’m just the best damn thing there is at it. Wanna find out, huh?” She did a bump and grind in mid-air that would have done Vegas proud, floating with not a damn thing supporting her. Not that she needed any support. I remembered the huge golden dragon. Then I told my head to stop thinking. And to stop drawing pictures. To really, really stop drawing pictures. I didn’t say anything. Blondie seemed to like the sound of her own voice, and people who talk can say things they don’t really want you to hear. “Like I was saying, Jack. You really piss me off.” Blondie waited. I waited. Blondie waited some more. “Actually, Jack, you piss just about everybody off. You know that?”
I shrugged. Hell, everybody’s got to be good at something.
Blondie winked. “Shall we slip into something more comfortable?” She waved her hand. Well, it looked like she waved her hand. I tried to avoid thinking what she might really be waving. The flames shivered. The bedroom walls they shivered into were probably more dangerous. The bed Blondie was sitting on, patting a space beside her? I’d be safer back with Jack, and a hundred Claws. I raised an eyebrow. Blondie sighed. “Spoilsport.” The bedroom walls shivered. The candlelit table in the corner of the quiet little restaurant was probably just as dangerous. As far as the silk in the dress Blondie had on was concerned, the candlelight was just passing through. So it did. Me? I checked the lump on my shoulder. And my gun.
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