They gathered around a conference table that Josey and Boone had pulled across the penthouse to sit in front of Yes Man’s monitor.
The lounge, formerly the home and headquarters of Mr. House, now operating as Josey’s home and offices. He and his friends worked and lived out of here. The Presidential suite, his former home, operated now more like a safe house and room for secure storage and offered sleeping quarters for those that didn’t want to sleep on the penthouse floor.
Josey sat at the head of it, with Boone and Cass on his right and left, followed by Arcade then Raul. Lily stood off to the side, as they’d been unable to find a chair large enough for her.
“We’re all here.” Josey said, rapping his knuckles on the table. “Yes Man, would’ve you got?”
The monitor flickered to life, coming alight with a bright, smiling face.
“Not a whole lot.” The Artificial Intelligence’s cheering voice chirped back. “Unfortunately, this Shrike character went through a lot of effort to avoid notice. The most I dug up about them that can be traced back before 2260 is that they are a woman.”
“But you found something.” Josey confirmed.
“You bet I did!” Yes Man said. “The name ‘Shrike’ first appears thirty years ago. Turns out our mystery woman is a very popular assassin for the New Reno family. She’s killed eighteen Mafiosos. Isn’t that fascinating?”
“Very, but certainly there’s more than that.” Arcade said.
“There is! Shrike is a footnote until 2265 when she kills an important member of the Bishop Crime family. The head of the family, Mr. Bishop, sent a hit squad of ten assassins to kill her. She killed them all with her bare hands, reportedly, while naked.”
“Sounds like my kind of woman.” Cass murmured. Josey looked sharply in her direction and she held up her hands placating. “Not saying I like her or anything, just a little respect is all.”
Josey sighed. “What else, Yes Man?”
“After that, we know a bit more, she’s become quite famous in certain circles. Notable only for one thing—her body count and skill. I think she’s killed as many people as you, Josey, and you kill a lot of people!”
“You really do, boss.” Raul agreed unnecessarily. He was toying with his gun, not paying any attention to the proceedings. Josey’s glare went unnoticed.
“Anyway, Shrike began to kill her merry way across the country, traveling to the east coast. She’s there around 2270ish or so, it’s unclear, and is there through 2287. Oh! While she’s in New York its self-appointed protector, Rook, goes missing. He was something of a big deal, this friendly Artificially-Intelligent-murder-bot that helped people.”
“Reminds me of you, Yes Man.” Arcade joked.
“Right?!” Yes Man agreed enthusiastically. “After that, she makes her way back here.”
“And then she vanishes. Nothing else after 2288. No more killings, jobs, sightings. Nothing.”
“There has to be something.”
“Nope.” Yes Man said, popping the ‘P.’ “Sorry, Jose, I really want to help. It brings me actual pain that I can’t.”
“I got something.” Boone said. He spoke softly, as usual.
Josey turned his attention in Boone’s direction.
“Dean’s death is news. People are talking about it. Talking about what happened, how it happened. This one guy… he claims to know a Shrike.”
“It sounds like he wants the word out.” Cass noted. “Wonder why.”
Josey leaned back and rested a finger on his chin. “What’s his name?”
“Randall Clark.” Boone said.
Cass snickered. “You serious, Craig?”
“Everyone who’s anyone knows you can’t trust Randall Clark.”
Josey was confused. “Who’s Randall Clark?”
Cass answered first. “He’s a caravan raider--”
“—former legionnaire--” Boone interjected.
“—samurai escape artist.”
They all turned to look at Arcade, who shrugged.
“He’s a known liar and a coward.” Cass added. “He’s backstabbed every crime family in the west and then half as many in the east. I don’t think there’s a person in the NCR who doesn’t want him dead.”
“Ha! He’d fit in really well here, huh, boss?” Raul put in. Josey made a mental note not to invite him to the next meeting.
“He’s in the Strip, Boone?” Josey asked.
“The man’s a ghost.” Arcade said, and Josey thought maybe he’d bought into the myth of whoever Randall was a bit too much. “Like Nemo in the Nautilus, you’re only going to find him if he wants you to.”
“We’ll find him.” Josey said, standing up. “I don’t care if I got to tear every got-damn casino apart. He’s the best lead on getting to whoever killed Dean.”
Randall Clark proved remarkably easy to find, which Josey was beginning to realize meant he wanted to be found. They had found on a pile of cushions in the courtyard of Gomorrah and was watching the dancers. He wore goggles over his eyes, despite it not being an especially bright day and him under shade. He wasn't overly tall, but was still physically large, with massive muscles that a younger Josey would've been envious of. He had a very uneviable face, squashed and flattened from too many hits, and long, stretched features. He was also bald.
Josey and Boone watched him from afar. He had a self-assured, half-smile on his face as he lounged and watched the dancers.
“He used to be Legion.” Boone said. “A Legate.”
“Try not to kill him.” Josey urged. “He’s got somthin’ on Shrike.”
Boone was only half-listening. “Can’t trust a word this guy says.”
“I won’t.” Josey said. “But I need to hear it all the same.”
As the pair approached Randall he looked over at them. His smile grew very wide.
“The Courier Josey Wales.” He said, drawing the name out. He spoke with raspy, gravely twinge to his voice, as if something had crushed his throat once and it’d never healed right. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“You’re somethin’ of a high profile yourself.” Josey replied.
Randall nodded, conceding. “But for different reasons. Hey, you really get shot in the head?”
“Right here.” Josey said, tapping the top of his skull.
“Shit, that’s something. Lost a toe like that, once. Don’t know if I’d fair as lucky taking it in the face.”
“Don’t fucking care about his toes.” Boone hissed in Josey’s ear, and the Courier pushed Boone aside with an elbow. Randall canted his head at the exchange, a thoughtful expression on his face. Josey got the impression that any slip-up in front of this man was a big one. He was the type of person who took advantage of anything and anyone.
“I gotta few questions for you.” Josey said, sitting down on a padded stool across from Randall.
Randall laughed, abruptly. “Brother, what makes you think I got any interest in answering them?”
“They’re about Shrike.”
Boone took one menacing step forward and Josey held out an arm to hold him back if need be. “I know what kind of man you are. I reckon we’re somewhat alike.”
Randall smirked. “Doubt it.”
Josey continued as if Randall hadn’t spoken. “What’s your price?”
Randall paused, considering. He watched the dancers again for a handful of seconds, ignoring them. Josey and Boone shared a look.
“I wanna go up in your fancy tower.” Randall said finally, pointing to the top of the Lucky 38.
Josey was immediately suspicious. “Why?”
Randall shrugged. “Curious what’s inside.”
Josey looked back on Boone who subtly shook his head. “I don’t like it.”
“What’s your problem with me?” Randall asked, inclining his head as he looked over Boone skeptically. “I haven’t done anything to you.”
“Not to me, no.” Boone agreed, clenching and unclenching his jaw. Randall stared at Boone a moment more and then turned back to Josey when the Courier spoke.
“I take you into the 38.” Josey said. “And you tell me about Shrike?”
Randall nodded. “What I said.”
Josey ran a hand down his face. For some reason he had a feeling there was something going on here, moving pieces shifting behind the scenes. He was never any good at figuring out things he couldn’t see. It took something landing right before his eyes for him to figure it out. That’d faired him well in the Divide, Zion, Sierra Madre. Not so much in the Big MT. He was good at fighting through things, facing adversary. But the instant something skidded sideways, skirted out of his way, Josey suddenly found himself faced with a different kind of challenge. His problem solving was only so good as far as he could apply the bluntest force. Randall wouldn’t respond well to that. And Shrike wasn’t something a real target yet. He felt very ill-equipped to deal with this.
“Good.” Randall grinned, showing off too-white teeth. “You won’t regret this, brother.”
“This is luxury.” Randall said, stepping around the room. They stood in the Penthouse, overlooking Vegas. “I had a tower in Flagstaff, but this…” he whistled, long and low.
“The view is excellent!” Yes Man’s monitor flared to life, making Randall jump and reach for the knives sheathed at his waist.
“The fuck is that?” He demanded, seeming needlessly frightened by a giant smiley face. He slowly approached the console and poked it with a finger.
“That’s Yes Man.” Cass said, stepping past Randall, up to the monitor. “Who’s supposed to be busy.” She looked pointedly at the AI’s screen. They’d been worried Randall would figure out Yes Man’s easily manipulated and eager to please nature.
“Sorr-eee.” Yes Man apologized. “But I had to meet our new visitor. I never get to meet new people!” Yes Man had gradually been updating his personality, making himself slowly more assertive. It, in turn, made him more loyal to Josey and his friends, less likely to be used by someone else but also caused him to think for himself at times.
Luckily, Randall had no interest in him. “Man, turn that thing off.” Cass smirked and pressed the button to deactivate the monitor.
“Creepy as hell.” Randall muttered, looking thoroughly displeased at the direction the trip had turned.
“Randall.” Josey beckoned, gesturing to the conference table. He took a seat on one side of the table, intending for Randall to sit across from him, but the former Legate ended up at slouching in the seat at the head of the table. Cass was giving them both a very dry and amused look as she sat down across from Josey.
“Nice place.” Randall decided approvingly, leaning back to look up at the high ceiling. He looked over at Cass. “Nice girl.”
Cass and Josey shared a sudden, rapid look of horror.
“Whatever, I don’t care.” Randall interrupted. “You got questions about Shrike.”
Josey straightened his duster and composed himself. “Yes.”
“What do you wanna know?”
“Everything you can tell me.”
Randall scratched his chin and then began.
Shrike’s something of a legend, but not like you, Wales. Not where the legend’s got a face and real history. With Shrike, there ain’t anything you can touch.
Shrike walked down the alley, feet falling silently on the cold concrete. The sky had turned to night. Here, far from Vegas, the stars were out. The moon was a crisp disk of light. She wondered if they saw those same stars back home. How had Redding changed since she’d last left? The Republic crawled, dragged its way east. It was dying, in a way. Like a dehydrated man pulled his way towards water. Each foot brought him closer but cost him effort. The NCR didn’t expand to survive. But as it expanded, it expended its resources back home.
She wondered if her family missed her. If they still thought of her. She hoped they did. Hoped her mother looked up at the sky and hoped as Shrike did now that they were looking at the same stars.
Shrike’s a legend because there ain’t any depth to her. More of a myth then, I guess. There’s the killer, sure. The scourge of Reno. This animal that’d come at ‘em in the night, do its business, then vanish. Never a bullet fired, that’s how you knew she'd been there. Not by her or anyone else.
New Vegas Square was empty at night. The Fiends were out raiding, or asleep. They weren’t what they’d been. When the Courier had killed their leadership that’d developed from vicious raiders into a bunch of strung-out junkies that occasionally scavenged for food. That’d be gone within the year.
You can’t put a name to Shrike. She always been what she is now. A butcher bird. An animal that drifts, impaling its prey withoutta thought.
The door to the Gray creaked open as Shrike leaned into it. The high rise building wasn’t empty, she knew that, but the entry hall was. She tread lightly on the ancient carpet, leaving faint impressions behind.
“Oh, we’re sneaking.” Suit purred. “I like this.”
Shrike flexed her right hand, opening and closing her glove.
But, there’s something. Told by folk when they want to attach a why to Shrike’s what.
She climbed to the second floor of the building. It was a few levels, and she needed them clear. She remained quiet as she came open a resident. A man lying prone on the floor, sleeping.
There’s a story out of Redding, Shrike’s home. Story about a child killer. A girl, sixteen or so, who killed a boy around eight.
Shrike placed her boot on the man’s throat, and leaned forwards, applying pressure. He awoke, startled, and immediately started flailing. He began to tug and pull at her ankle, trying to free himself. Shrike would not be moved. He looked up at her, shock and fear and horror taking turns flickering across his face as it turned from red to blue.
There ain’t much truth to it.
Shrike lifted the boot as the corpse stilled, and continued her march up. On the second flight of stairs, she encountered a guard, a thug for the criminal who ran the building.
“Hey!” He shouted at her. “What’re you doing here?”
Shrike continued climbing, and as he reached for his gun, she raised her gauntlet. A shockwave emitted from it in a cone, tearing off pieces of crumbling wallpaper and slamming into the man’s chest.
He was thrown up the stairs, into the corridor beyond, and hit the wall beyond with a decisive thud.
He crumbled to the ground, moaning, as Shrike stepped up the final stair, and pressed the palm of her displacer glove to his head.
She deployed another shockwave and the resulting meaty crack drew another guard from down the hall. He paused as he spotted her—covering blood and brains, hand leveled at a headless corpse. He immediately unslung his submachine gun and opened fire.
Dozens of holograms emitted from Shrike. The flickered, corporeal, and wandered like forlorn ghosts as they absorbed the gunfire. For each one the fell another took its place, creating a barrier of lost souls between Shrike and the man as she stalked towards him.
He backed up, first slowly, then frantically, until his back hit the wall behind him.
The submachine gun clicked empty, and as he tried to force a second clip into it with shaking hands, Shrike emerged from the crowd of ghosts and casually slapped it from his hand. She seized him by the throat and lifted him up into the air, trying to not grin at her own strength. She wasn’t a sadist.
Maybe they’re rumors. But the shit they say… say she cut him up after she killed him. Ate him. Or that she shoved him in the oven, cooked him alive, left the body there for weeks. Tied weights to his feet and drowned him. Real fucked up stuff. Make this girl out to be a monster.
Shrike dropped the thug, and the body crumpled into a pile at her feet. She stalked down the hall, into the final room, and kicked the door open.
It was an office space—desk, couch, chairs, table, radio—a ghoul stood behind the desk. He deftly raised a pistol from under the desktop and shot her in the head.
And, man, a monster’s all Shrike is. Some unthinking, unfeeling killing machine. If she wanted your boy Dean, it’s not ‘cause she planned it out. It’s ‘cause she was paid too or felt like it. You don’t look for reason in someone like that. ‘Cause there ain’t none.
Shrike staggered a half-step back and felt her head. The ghoul watched, with growing terror, as Shrike plucked the bullet free and tossed it aside.
She smirked at him. “Ow.”
He fired again, but Shrike waved a shockwave at him, deflecting the bullet and sending him airborne.
She kicked the desk aside, sending it skidding on its legs. He tried to rise, aim his pistol at her, but she crushed his arm with a kick and then his skull.
“I’m sorry.” She told him as he died. “But I need your home. And I can’t have anyone knowing I was here.”
“How much of that is true?” Josey asked.
“Brother, how the hell should I know? All of it, none of it. It’s all second hand. But you been around as long as I have, you hear things. And you hear some of the same things twice.”
Josey bit his lip, thinking. Who the hell would want to kill Dean? He’d once had plenty of enemies, but they’d been centuries dead. Josey knew he’d been ripping off casinos, but not to the extent that they’d hire someone like Shrike to take care of him. Besides, who would kill Dean, knowing he was Josey’s friend?
The answer came back to him immediately.
Had Dean been killed because of his connection to Josey?
“We’re done here.” Josey said. “You can go, Randall.”
“What, that’s it?” Randall frowned. “You’re not even gonna thank me?”
“We only thank people who actually help us, big guy.” Cass said. “You made up a story about a child-eating cannibal and told a fairy tale. Besides, you’re not exactly a credible source.”
“Man, unbelievable,” Randall said, exasperated. He stood up. “How do I get out of here?”
“The Securitron by the elevator will show you out.” Cass said, nodding.
Randall screwed his face up, likely at the thought of possibly spending more time with Yes Man, but made his way out. “Unbelievable…” He muttered again.
When they were alone, Cass pulled a chair over to Josey, who was staring pensively off into space and sat down by him.
“What’s got you thinking?”
“Dean. Shrike. That man is full of shit.” He pointed at Randall’s retreating back. “But he ain’t exactly wrong. No one in their right mind does what Shrike did. And no one with a vendetta against Dean killed him.”
Josey looked at her. “It was because of me, Cass. Whatever Shrike wants, I’m part of it."
It was even later when Randall joined Shrike on the rooftop of the Gray, the central building in North Vegas Square. From the rooftop, one had a perfect, uninterrupted view of the Lucky 38.
“I kinda like the guy.” Randall said, perching on the rooftop’s ledge, unafraid of the forty-foot drop. “Got good sense. Not a lot of sense, but good where he has it.”
Shrike said nothing. The tower mesmerized her. It was a rallying point for the Mojave, just as the Courier was. She doubted people thought often on its importance. As a landmark. As a symbol. As a fortress. Shrike knew she didn’t. But as she drew closer to her goal, the Courier and Vegas stuck more and more in her mind.
“I mean, he trusted me." Randall continued. "Ain’t nobody who done that ever come out on top." He grinned up at her from his perch.
“I trust you to be predictable.” Shrike said, softly. “You’ll betray me. But I’ll see it coming first.”
“’Course you will. You got it all figured out.”
“Figured out enough. Have you ever dedicated your whole life to something, only for it to be stripped away from you?”
Randall’s expression darkened. “You know I have.” Shrike felt an involuntarily spike of uneasiness. The smile, the easy-going nature was a façade. Shrike was cruel, cold, and ruthless. She knew this. She didn’t try to hide it. But the image Randall projected was fake. Whatever dwelled inside him, whatever kept him moving, was savage. Shrike thought there was somewhere, far away, but somewhere, that she would draw the line. For Randall it was different. He would do whatever it took to survive. There was no limit or line he wouldn’t cross. It had been a gamble involving him, as she had to use leverage to keep him in line. Eventually, he would test the boundaries, like any animal that had been caged. Shrike would be ready.
“That is what drives me.” She said, looked back at the tower. “Knowing that my life, all my sacrifices, has been for nothing. But I’ll die with a smile on my lips if who cost me it suffers the same.”
Randall raised an eyebrow at her, unfazed. “You’re intense, lady.”
“I take after my mother.”