Chapter 1:

Chapter 1 - Cactus Juice

GUN SALAD


To say that the girl stuck out like a sore thumb would be an understatement.

Even among the flamboyantly-dressed people of Port Pistola’s waterfront district, so bustling with beachgoers and tourists, she was irregular–and not just because of her pale complexion.

Maybe it was the way she held herself? Walking purposefully along the boardwalk with swift, energetic strides, her brow knitted in concentration as she scanned the passing storefronts for a glimmer of promise only she could recognize. The meandering locals around her made way without complaint, accustomed to the frantic pace kept by most visitors from the Western continent.

Perhaps it was her looks? She was a beauty, to be sure, and turned more than a few heads on her way down the sunny esplanade. Waves of pink ringlets bounced with every step, framing a pretty face marked by slight features and a garishly substantial volume of makeup. Her determined expression and clear disinterest in the people around her did little to deter her admirers–not that she’d have noticed them in the first place, preoccupied as she was.

No, more than likely it was the girl’s uniquely over-the-top style that really set her apart. She sported a strappy silken dress with a ruffled skirt that came down to mid-thigh, giving way to a few inches of bare skin left unconcealed by her thigh-high tights. A pair of black high-top boots, tightly-laced, complimented the long cuffs that adorned her forearms and ran all the way down to her delicate wrists, terminating in two pointed flaps of fabric that rested against the back of either hand.

The flaps appeared to resemble spades–the card suit, not the gardening tool–and the longer one observed her clothing, the clearer it became that similar symbols underlay every aspect of her fashion. Her tights exhibited a clear diamond pattern, rendered in black-and-pink to match her dress, and the lobes of her slight, shell-like ears bore a pair of black earrings shaped like stylized clovers (or “clubs”, as a savvy card-player might call them). However, the crowning touch was a heart-shaped badge tucked into the strap encircling her miniature tophat; a headpiece, eternally-askew, that somehow rode the wave of her resplendent curls without tumbling off or drowning within them.

…Or maybe, just maybe, it was the gleaming pink SMG on her back that captured everyone’s attention.

Whatever the case, the girl was given a wide berth. After all, when taken together, her outward attributes could only mean one thing: she was obviously a Gunslinger. One of the lucky few blessed with a unique, magic-infused firearm, Gunslingers were known to bring change–and, therefore, trouble–wherever they went. There was no telling what one was capable of until they brandished their weapon, though, so most folks did whatever they could to avoid drawing their attention… Unless, of course, they were spoiling for a fight.

Thankfully, nobody had stopped to declare any hostile intentions so far. The girl stepped off the boardwalk to rummage through her pockets without incident, confident that the crowds and ample sunlight would keep her safe–for the moment, at least. After a brief search she produced a photo, lifting one hand to keep the glare out of her wide, blue eyes while the other flipped it open from its many-folded state. An image of a man looked up at her from the glossy sheet. Handsome, she thought, and composed-looking, as if he’d been told to sit still for the shot. It was a black-and-white photo, but she could tell that his short, cropped hair was bleach white by how luminous it looked among the grays and blacks of his clothing. There was a certain… Intensity to his gaze that reminded her she was on the right track; that she was looking at a man who really could help her accomplish her goals.

…Provided he would agree to help her at all.

The girl heaved a small sigh, glancing again toward the disorderly row of shops, eateries and watering holes that faced the waterfront. Each squat, aging building was painted a different color; partly to cover up structural flaws, but mainly to draw the eye and set each establishment apart from its neighbors. A lot of pastels, she noted–that was nice–but there seemed to be no connection between each building’s color and its apparent purpose. It would sure have simplified things if every seaside bar was mint green; then maybe she wouldn’t have had to squint so much.

She soon identified one nonetheless–the third of the day–and left the boardwalk behind. She crossed the dusty, unpaved road separating her from her destination without a second thought. Paved roads were for big cities, after all, and Port Pistola hardly qualified as a city. In fact, judging by the guidebook she’d skimmed on the voyage over, she doubted if there was a proper urban center in all of Truvelo. Nothing like the walled enclaves of Wesson, at least, and certainly nothing like her home of Trigger City.

Maybe they were better off? Trigger City wasn’t exactly the most hospitable place, after all…

The glass-paned double doors parted to admit her with minimal creaking, revealing a clean interior at odds with the shabbiness of the building’s facade. This was, apparently, one of the nicer bars on the strip; a place where the girl herself might have chosen to stop for a drink if she’d had the time. A pleasant-looking man with a deep, rich tan stood behind the bar, his clean-shaven face bearing a wide and magnetic smile. Her heart sank a little at the sight. Based on what she’d been told by the other bartenders she’d spoken to, the man she sought was unlikely to frequent a place like this.

“Welcome to the Totin’ Teetotaller, young miss!” greeted the bartender, regarding her with obvious interest. “Forgive me, but you are not much like my usual clientele. I take it you are looking for more than a tall glass of cactus juice and some shade, am I right?”

“...Cactus juice?” the girl replied, nose wrinkling, “That isn’t what it sounds like, is it?”

“Haha, no, no…” he laughed. “It is a mixed drink–a local favorite. No genuine milk-of-the-cactus involved, I assure you!” The man’s lips curled upward even further, his eyes twinkling with mirth. “Though, if you have a spigot to spare, perhaps I could locate and tap one for you…?”

“Mmm, no thanks,” she said, and left it at that. She hadn’t chartered a ship and suffered through a long, boring crossing to be fodder for some backwater bartender’s idea of a comedy routine; he’d have to get his jollies somewhere else. “Maybe you can help me, though? I’m lookin’ for someone.” With that, the girl slapped the photo down on the bar and slid it across to him, eyes seeking for some kind of reaction.

She got one. “Ah. Him,” he answered, suddenly terse. He fixed her with an appraising look–more of a glare, really–his fingers tapping on the countertop as he pursed his lips. “You know this man?”

“Nah. I’m askin’ if you do.”

“A friend of yours? A family member?”

“No,” she replied, trying in vain to keep her growing annoyance under-wraps. “Never met him before. And if you keep pryin’ instead of helpin' me, I bet I never will.”

The bartender’s expression seemed to soften at that. He slid the photo back across the counter and crossed his arms. “Sorry. I had hoped you might be well enough acquainted for you to consider paying down his debts... I stopped serving him some weeks ago; he had quite the tab to his name.”

“Let me guess: after you turned him down the first time he moved along, and you haven’t seen him since?”

The man nodded. “Yes. A foolish decision, usually; here in Port Pistola, men of my profession have ways of collecting on what is owed to us. But he was no ordinary man. He was… Well, he was one of you.”

“...What?” the girl inquired with a smirk, her eyelashes aflutter, “A charmin’ and attractive individual?”

“Ha! Certainly, but that is not what I mean.” His eyes flicked toward her left shoulder, alighting upon the gun muzzle that protruded just above it: “He shared your calling. He was a Gunslinger.”

“Oh yeah? How can you be sure?”

The man’s face split into another wide smile. “The attitude, of course. Your kind always acts as if they are owed the world!” he teased. “That, and he carried a unique weapon–a revolver. The finest I have ever seen.”

“I see,” said the girl, refolding the photo and slipping it back into her pocket. “Any idea where he is now?”

He shrugged. “Wasting away in some other bar, I would guess. In the past, when he would come here, he would stay the whole day just… Drinking. Staring. Spoke to no one. You will be disappointed when you finally find him, I think.”

The girl turned and made for the door, her business completed.

“Ah! One more thing,” he called. “If you do find him, will you send him here? He owes me five steelslugs.”

She reached into her pocket–the one opposite from where she stored the photo–and produced a small, gold-tinged piece of metal shaped like a bullet. She flicked it back over her shoulder with perfect precision, depositing it into the stunned barkeep’s cupped hands from several feet away.

“Thanks for the help,” she said. “Keep the change.”

After she’d gone the man began rolling the slug between his fingertips, looking at it from every angle as if trying to judge its authenticity. He was still looking at it moments later, after wandering into the back room, spinning the dial of his rotary phone and holding its conical receiver up to his ear.

“Hello? Sir?” he said. “Someone was just in here asking about him. What are your orders?”       

                                                                         —

The girl’s heavy boots kicked up dust as she shuffled out of another dead-end saloon. How many bars could one man patronize? All that coaxing, all those questions… And she was still no closer to finding him. This kind of investigative work didn’t suit her. She didn’t have a head for it, and she hated acting sweeter than she was in the name of digging up dirt.

It annoyed her no end when grown men teased her, too; a leftover from her childhood, she reckoned. If she hadn’t been so desperate for answers, she’d probably have ordered a cactus juice–the alcoholic kind–just so she could throw it in that smug bartender’s face…

Suddenly, the girl caught sight of something from the corner of her eye: a glimpse of white standing out against the dingy interior of yet another bar–one she’d been about to pass without a second glance. There, sitting at the long counter adjoining the railing of the building’s shaded front terrace, sat the man she’d been looking for.

The man who’d help her get her revenge.

J.P.B
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GUN SALAD


Dischtopia
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