Goodsprings was a quiet settlement. Having enjoyed a brief surge of fame following the Courier’s recovery there and subsequent defense of the town from Powder Gangers, it had now fallen back into obscurity. Men herded Big Horners in the pastures. Women tended to the households. Chet worked his store, Trudy the saloon, and Easy Pete sat outside and generally made himself useless.
Doc Mitchell was getting old. Not so old that he’d need looking after too, but getting there. His house, too, was quiet. It creaked and groaned. Mitchell was comfortable reading when he had time, tending to folk who got sick, and passing days away on the porch. But he was lonely sometimes too. His wife’d been gone a while now and that got to him. He’d had a chance at real happiness—a home in California, kids. He was a Vault trained surgeon, he could’ve had a real medical practice.
But then she’d died. And he’d stayed here to be near her. Some days that felt a mistake. But most often, it gave him a sense of quiet comfort. Quiet and comfort. That was his life now and had been for some time.
The house groaned as someone stepped up onto the porch, rapped politely on the door.
Mitchell slowly made his way from where he was in the living room to the entry hall and pulled it open.
A large man stood there. He was wide and muscled, with a shaved head and squashed, pointed features. He was ugly and had goggles covering his eyes. He wore a leather vest, his arms bare.
“Sorry to bother you, brother.” He smiled. “I got myself a bit of an… injury.” He had a hand pressed over his left arm, and drew it back to show off a deep knife wound in his bicep.
Mitchell frowned at it and the man. There was something instantly untrustworthy about, some insincere in which he carried himself. But Mitchell had never turned anyone away who needed help before, regardless of who they were, so he nodded the man inside.
“Go ahead and have set over on that there stretcher.” He pointed, stepping out of the man’s way. “I’ll be with you in a minute.”
The man sauntered into the house. He had the poise of a cat—always on the balls of his feet, as if ready to go from zero to one hundred in an instant.
Mitchell headed to wash his hands in the sink. When he returned, the man was up on the stretcher. He’d pulled his goggles off revealing bizarrely colored eyes. There was no white to them—it was like the iris had split and filled the whole thing up with color. They were a bloodshot, hazy blue. It was disconcerting.
“You alright there?” Mitchell asked, nodding to the man’s eyes. “I can take a look at those for you too.”
“Nah,” The man grinned, “this was on purpose. I don’t see so good in light anyone. But the dark… well, I see just fine then.”
Mitchell was definitely certain now that there was something wrong with this man. “Let’s take a look at that arm.” He said, wanting to get this over with.
The man pulled the hand away again and Mitchell prodded at it. He reached over and dragged his surgical table to him, selecting a needle and sewing thread from among the scalpels and tweezers.
“How’d you do this to yourself?” Mitchell asked, wiping the man’s arm clean with gauze.
“Ah, I wasn’t being careful.” The man said. “Cut myself on this.” He pulled out a linoleum knife from a sheath at his belt.
“What do you use that for?” Mitchell eyed the knife nervously. He went right on sowing, determined to not make the slightest mistake now.
“Roofing.” The man smirked.
Mitchell pulled the last stitch tight. “You’re all done.” He said, stepping back.
“Thanks, doc.” The man said, hopping down from the stretcher. He stood there awkwardly a moment, as if uncertain.
“You’re all fixed up, nothing keeping you here.” Mitchell said, wanting him to leave but unwilling to say it outright.
The man tapped his lip, and a thought seemed to come to him. “Say, you the doctor that fixed up the Courier?”
Mitchell nodded hesitantly. “The one and the same.”
The man smiled. “Was it you who gave him ‘Josey Wales’ or did he come up with it himself?”
“I said it as a joke.” Mitchell said. “He was quick to his guns about catching who shot him. It was him who took it to heart. And so the name stuck.”
The man nodded, thoughtfully, then gave an abrupt laugh. “Man, fuck, this is harder than I thought.” He waved the knife at Mitchell, shaking his head. “I always had a soft spot for doctors.” He began to advance and Mitchell backed away.
“What’re you doing?” Mitchell demanded, looking around for his laser pistol. The coffee table was behind him and he stumbled into it.
“Shit, real sorry about this, man.” The man said. “I don’t want to kill you. But she’s making me do it. You get that, right?”
Mitchell definitely did not get that. “Please! I helped you!”
“Brother, so have a lot of people.” He loomed over Mitchell and booted him in the chest to knock him flat. “Didn’t save them either.”
He knelt over the doctor and went to work.
It was the early morning when the radio came in from Goodsprings, the signal picked up by Yes Man. Josey, Arcade, Boone, and Cass took a Corvega down and were there by eight.
“Trudy and I didn’t know who else to call.” Sunny Smiles was saying as she greeted them at the edge of town. Her dog, Cheyenne, barked and yipped excitedly at Josey’s heels, the activity exciting the dog. “We don’t have Sheriff and it’s not like the militia’s gonna deal with this.
“You did the right thing, ma’am.” He said. “Let us take it from here.”
Sunny nodded and fell behind. Cheyenne followed Josey, still barking, and she whistled the dog back.
They climbed up into the big house, where Doc Mitchell lived. Josey threw the door open. The house was very much open concept, so Josey saw the scene immediately.
Mitchell lay sprawled on the living room floor. His body was at an angle as his legs rested up on the coffee table.
Josey crossed the room slowly, eyes first drifting to the couch where he’d sat nine years ago as Mitchell asked him his questions. Mitchell’s eyes were rolled back, his jaw hanging open slackly.
Mitchell had cared for Josey. Nursed him back to health when any other person would’ve given him up for dead. He had pieced Josey back together and then given him everything he’d needed to survive out in the Mojave. Josey felt a great and overwhelming rage gather up inside him.
“This was a good man.”
Arcade stepped into the living room around Josey and begin to slowly circle the corpse. Boone leaned in the doorway of the house, keen eyes watching the town.
Cass stepped in Josey’s way, blocking his view of Mitchell. He realized he’d been staring unblinkingly at the body. “You gonna make it?” Cass asked.
Josey sunk his teeth into his lip and looked away. “I’ll make it.”
“Don’t get weepy on me now. We need you tough.” She jabbed him the chest forcefully, earning her his surprised attention. “Alright?”
He nodded once, assuredly. “Alright.”
“Good.” She smirked and got out of his way.
“Arcade,” Josey said, stepping up. “What’ve we got?”
Arcade was crouched over the body. “Death was stab wound at the base of the jaw,” Arcade said, pointing. “Everything else wasn’t done before death. Similar carvings to Dean’s murder. The shape of the letters and type of cut matches. Same hand, same weapon.”
“Meaning it’s the same guy.”
“That’d match up, wouldn’t it? What's different is that the tongue isn’t removed this time.”
Arcade stepped back, looked the cadaver up and down. “Here.” He knelt again and lifted of Mitchell’s pale hands. It was misshapen and the fingers were bent at all the wrong ankles. “I won’t know unless I do a full autopsy, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to guess every bone in his hand is broken.”
Josey didn’t know what that meant. “So he fought back?”
Arcade gestured to the house. “No signs of a struggle. Think A River Runs Through It.”
Josey scratched his jaw. “Is that a movie?”
“A book. Where the protagonist’s brother… nevermind. Think about it like this—wasn’t Mitchell a surgeon?”
It slowly dawned on Josey. Damn, he really was thick-headed sometimes. “And Dean a singer.”
Arcade smiled wanly. “Ding ding ding, we have a winner. Bingo.”
“Still doesn’t explain what the fuck any of this means.” Cass pointed out. She didn’t seem impressed by Josey’s or Arcade’s detective skills.
“It creates a pattern,” Arcade said, standing up and brushing his hands off on his lab coat. “Meaning there’s some sort of agenda to the killings.
“Meaning Randall Clark’s a fucking liar.” Cass muttered. Josey glanced at her. She was wearing her ‘I told you so’ look. “Shrike’s got a reason for doing all of this. Both of the Dean and Mitchell were connected to Blondie here.”
“But why?” Josey wondered aloud. “I never heard of her.”
“Maybe someone hired her to do this.” Arcade said. “We really can’t know. What we do know is that she’s going to target people important to Jose.”
Narrows it down, Josey thought wryly. He didn’t have many friends. Outside of these three, Raul, Lily and Ulysses, who was really in any danger? Christine was in the middle of the Sierra Madre, Dog was in the wind, he didn’t think anybody knew Mobius was still alive. Was Shrike going to go hunt down Joshua and Daniel out in Zion? Good luck to her, the Burned Man was a bite far more than she could chew.
He looked down at the bloody carving on Mitchell’s chest.
YOU ARE PREY
He thought back to when he and Ulysses had been enemies. When it had been the Frumentarii who had been hunting him. Only then Ulysses had done it because he’d thought Josey was solely responsible for destroying the Divide. And he hadn’t gone around cutting people open to prove a point. They’d solved their differences in a wasteland inhabited only by monsters and mutants. No one had gotten hurt.
Shrike was different. She had a wholesale different goal than Ulysses’ had been. Josey was starting to have a growing sense of dread at what her endgame would be. If double homicide was just the tip of the iceberg, what was their left to come?
“Let’s ride back to the 38.” Josey said. “We need’a figure our next move there.”
Josey knew something we wrong the instant they got back to the 38. He hadn’t opened it for the day when they left and had the big blast door closed behind them.
It was open now.
Arcade stared up at the open Lucky 38. “We closed that, right?”
“We did.” Boone said, unshouldering his rifle.
Josey led them inside, drawing his Ranger Sequoia and spun the cylinder to check that all five chambers were loaded.
The casino lay dark and empty. Josey tried the elevator and nothing happened.
“Yes Man?” He shouted to the ceiling. There was no answer.
“This is fucking bad.” Cass said, drawing her own weapon, a unique 5.56 pistol called ‘That Gun.’
“Fan out.” Josey instructed. “I’ll take the Suite. Boone, Cass, you go floor by floor, look for Lily and Raul. Arcade you head up to the Penthouse floor, try and get the power back on.”
Josey gave them a nod and then made for the stars ahead of the rest of them.
The climb up was arduous and made him note how out of shape he was. Back in the day, as a Courier, he did all his traveling by foot. Now he had cars and elevators that carried him everywhere. He’d gotten soft and maybe a bit slow.
“Not slow enough to let some’un like Shrike pull a fast one on me.” He growled, kicking it into high gear and sprinting up the last four flights.
He burst onto the top floor of the tower, where the presidential suite was located, his revolver held before him.
“Raul! Lily!” Empty. They weren’t here.
He was in the guest room. They could also be in the dining room or lounge. He slowly moved around the beds, out of the guest room, into the main area of the suite.
His breathing heavy, his blood loud in his ears, as his heart thudded to catch up after his sprint.
“Anyone here?” He called again, softer now. He swore he heard something. Maybe a drawer slam?
The lounge door was open, as was the door to the restroom, and kitchen and dining room. The door to his bedroom was shut. Hadn’t he left it open? He always left the doors in the suite open. What was it with doors today?
He stepped up to the bedroom door, held an ear to it. There was someone inside. He could hear them, rifling through things. Josey had an armory’s worth of weapons and equipment in there. The most dangerous of it was locked away, but some of it was stashed places an intruder could easily reach.
He had to be tactful, use surprise to his advantage. He removed five rounds from his ammo belt, held each between the fingers on his left hand. Then, he pressed the barrel of his gun to the door and aimed it in the direction he thought he heard the noise.
The gun bucked and fired rapidly in an explosion of noise, splintering wood. He deftly reloaded the revolver with the rounds held in his left hand and then kicked the door open. It swung hard on its hinges, slammed into the wall behind it.
He leapt into the room, revolver raised. It was empty. The bullets had ruined the wallpaper and upholstery of one of the walls. One had struck his bed, putting a hole in the mattress. Feathers and stuffing floated in the air and settled around the room.
“Great.” He muttered, lowering the weapon. Of course it had been his imagination. Cass and Raul would never let him live this down. Yes Man was probably just rebooting, which was way security was down.
Someone appeared from behind the desk to his left, vaulted over it, and kicked him in the side of the head.
Josey was thrown across the room and crashed into the couch on his right. He twisted, trying to get a fix on his attack.
It was a woman, about his age, wearing a suit of white and black armor. A blue, glowing, science-fiction looking contraption was affixed to her left hand. On her right, she wore a glove with a kind of metal dish at the center. A disrupter glove.
That was his armor. The Stealth Suit Mk II. He’d sold it to the Gun Runners years ago. And now she had it?
The woman raised the disrupter glove at him and Josey cursed as he rolled forward, avoiding the shockwave that reduced the couch into fabric scraps.
He drew his revolver and stood in one rapid motion, leveling the pistol at her head.
“Who are you?” He demanded.
She ignored him, spinning in an impressively acrobatic move, kicking her foot out and twisting to give her extra reach to knock the gun from Josey’s hand.
He cursed again as she got in close. He swung a haymaker at her head, which she stepped under, and rammed a fist into his ribs.
Josey grunted as his forward momentum carried him into the punch, and doubled over, only to receive a hard elbow in the back.
“This was easy.” He heard the woman mutter as he fell to his hands and knees. He tried to stand and she kicked him in the face, knocking him onto his back.
He looked up at her, stars dancing across his vision, and she looked down at him. She had a heart-shaped, delicate face, marred by a large burn scar. She was petite and would’ve looked woefully unimpressive without the layers of gear she was wearing.
“If I had known it would’ve been easy, I wouldn’t have gone this far.”
“The hell…” Josey wheezed, “are you talking about?”
Shrike smiled at him and leaned down to look into his eyes. “Josey Wales, I’m Shrike.”
Josey took a moment to process that before every ouch of anger he’d felt this morning came right back to him. He snarled and grabbed for Shrike’s throat, but she merely leaned back out of the way.
“Don’t get up.” She instructed, pressing a foot into his chest. “I’m not going to kill you yet. It wouldn’t give me closure.”
Josey struggled to breathe around the weight on his chest. “Who hired you?”
Shrike snickered. “No one hired me. This is personal business. Payback, in a way.”
This didn’t make sense to Josey. He wasn’t thinking straight right now, but he was pretty certain there was no way Shrike could want ‘payback’ against him. “What’d I ever do to you?”
Shrike pressed down hard on his ribs, and Josey hissed through girt teeth. “Don’t ask me that. You shouldn’t remind me you’re not even aware of what you did to me.”
Josey grit his teeth against the pain and forced himself to look up at her. “I’m gonna kill you for what you did to Dean and the Doc.”
“Is that a threat?" She sneered at him. "I have one for you. No, threat's the wrong word. A threat with a measure of inevitability to it. A promise? No-- people break promises too easily. A curse? Too fantasitcal. An oath? The connotations are wrong. Understand it as this: when I say I'll do something, I make it happen. ” She said, hammering her foot into his chest again and he gasped. "And I'm going to kill you, Josey Wales." She lifted the foot from his chest. "I'll leave you now. But remember that." She curtly turned around and made for the door.
Josey was on his feet in an instant and dove for his revolver. It found his hand and he raised it at the door. It was empty. He sprinted out into the suite’s main room, but Shrike was gone.
Josey bit down on the inside of his mouth, trying to resist the urge to toss his revolver in anger. He failed and threw the Sequoia at the ground with a loud “Fuck!”
They gathered in the conference room, the power restored, for Josey to tell them what had occurred.
“And she just… left?” Arcade confirmed.
Josey nodded. “Looked everywhere after, Arcade. Been searching for the last few hours. Nothing. She vanished.”
“What do you think she was in here for then, if not to kill you?” Arcade wondered. “Did she take anything?”
“I don’t know.”
“Have you looked around? Did she leave anything behind?”
“I don’t know, maybe.”
“Did she say anything telling, maybe she was trying to get information from you? Can you remember what she said?”
“I don’t know, Arcade!” Josey snapped. The Follower fell silent.
“What I do know is that she got in her, smacked me around, and flaunted that she’d killed Dean and the Doc. Randall lied. Shrike’s not here for money or because she’s crazy. She has some kind of vendetta against me.”
“Where is Randall?” Boone asked, looking around to see if anyone knew. “Is he still in the city?”
“Randall Clark disappeared a few hours after we interviewed him.” Yes Man’s monitored flickered to life. “No one in New Vegas has seen him since.”
“And where were you?” Josey demanded, lifting a hand at Yes Man’s smiling face. “How come the 38 was open wider than a Reno whore?”
“Early today, I believe just before Shrike entered, I was fed a high-level passcode with security access equivalent to that of Mr. House.”
“So Shrike’s got some old world tech that let her get in here without your say so?” Josey simplified.
“Yes.” Yes Man said, sounding embarrassed.
“And what’s to stop her from doing so again?”
Yes Man’s volume lowered to a whisper. “Nothing.”
“Fuck!” Josey shouted, standing up so fast it knocked his chair over. He kicked it across the floor for good measure. “You mean she can walk in here any time she wants?”
Yes Man paused. “Yes.”
Josey pulled a hand down his face and gripped his jaw hard. “I need to be alone for a second. Need to think.”
The four of them sitting at the table—Raul, Boone, Cass, Arcade—shared a series of uncomfortable looks, before slowly making their way out.
“C’mon, Lily,” Arcade called. The Nightkin, who had been standing quietly in the corner, shuffled out after him.
“Fuck.” Josey murmured once again, now to himself. He rested a fist against the nearest wall and leaned into it.
It felt like it was all coming apart. Dean and Mitchell were dead. Josey hadn’t kept in close contact with them recently, but they’d been his friends. And now the 38, previously his impenetrable fortress, was completely comprised. He ran New Vegas from here. Where else could he go? And what would it look like, if he fled this place? It’d be a complete show of weakness, one the NCR would surely take advantage of, maybe even the Families.
“Jose.” Josey jumped and turned around. Boone hadn’t left, instead having remained at the table. “Sit down.” He instructed with a nod.
Josey crossed the room and sat opposite Boone.
“I’m going to say something to you now.” Boone said.
Josey though this was an inherently surreal moment, Boone volunteering to talk. But Craig did have brief moments of sincerity, as few and far between as they were. “Okay…”
“When my wife died, I pushed everyone away. Manny, my old squad. Since she wasn’t as important to them as she was to me, I thought that meant they didn’t care. That they were happy she was gone. I was wrong.”
Josey blinked, uncertain what to do with this new information.
“You’re not alone, Jose. You got us. We all got your back. Shrike… she’s not pulling the same trick twice. We won’t let her.”
“Thanks, Boone.” He said, feeling an enormous swell of gratitude towards the stoic and normally silent man. “When your wife died… how’d you get over it?”
Boone was silent for long enough that Josey almost took it back. “I don’t think I ever did.” Boone finally said. “What happened… what I had to do… that sticks with you.”
Josey thought of Veronica. He nodded. “I know what you mean."
Boone smiled thinly, as much a smile as he any he was capable of, and stood. “Let’s get out of here. Too many ghosts in this room.”
“Between the two of us?” Josey snorted in amusement. “Probably enough to fill the whole place up.”