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  1. The heat in the forge is oppressive and cloying; the all-pervading scent of soot and fire and super-heated metal is a constant companion. Over the years, I have grown used to the oppressiveness of working in the forges and it doesn’t bother me any more. This world in which we live nowadays, this strange place where the traditional meets the modern, has a great need for the skills of well-trained metalsmiths and we definitely meet that criteria. Well, Wayland does. I’m passable. The course of our travels has taken us many miles: across land and sea, across the divide between the old and the new. We seem to have stopped here for now. ‘Here’ is America, the so-called ‘New World’. Thus far, it’s not exactly endeared itself to me - although I confess that I’ve developed a taste for bourbon and cigars. I don’t know. Maybe it’ll grow on me, in time. But the auspices are not… well… auspicious. Perhaps it’s hard-wired into the core of my being to be suspicious of these former colonials. I grew up in India, among the Raj, and I’m frankly surprised the locals haven’t turned on me. Maybe thrown me into a harbour or whatever it is they do to things they rebel against. But, most of the time, they’re too angry, too drunk or too wrapped up in their own selves to notice or comment on my accent. Clipped. Precise. Very, very British. You’ll note, if you will, that I said ‘most of the time’. There’s been a couple of set-to’s, but they never amount to anything more than swagger and bluster. I might not be as gifted a smith as Wayland but I’m a better fighter. Truth be told, I was not convinced that coming here was a good plan, but when Wayland says we’re going somewhere, I’ve learned not to question it. In the earliest days, when I first travelled with him, he always had the same answer to my curious questions as to the reasons we might travel to a given location. “We go where we need to go. We do what we need to do. Then we move on.” In a lot of ways, it’s kind of enlightening. Philosophical, even. Wayland knows he has a purpose in life and he moves through the days with the sort of certainty that people rightfully envy. Everything in his life happens for a reason. Nothing is left to chance or circumstance. He’s got this whole life thing nailed down. Nothing that Wayland does is done without there being an underlying purpose. I always fall back on that when I doubt my place at his side. If he didn’t think I belonged there, I’d have been left back in India when we sailed on the Nautilus. He’d never have come to my aid in my most desperate hour and he’d have complained a lot more when I established myself as his travelling companion. “Beck.” The single word pulls my attention back to the here-and-now. We’ve temporarily taken over the forge of a local blacksmith – not without paying a hefty fee for it, I add. The facilities are more than adequate, in fact they’re possibly some of the best I’ve seen since we landed up here. “Wayland?” “Number three generator. Less than optimal. Sort it.” That’s the thing with Wayland. He isn’t one for lengthy conversation: he leaves that to me. The negotiating, the social interaction. It’s probably part of the reason he keeps me around. He’s a doer, not a talker. He doesn’t deliver long, eloquent speeches; everything he says is kept to the point. He certainly isn’t a story-teller which is a crime. He must have many, many stories to tell. We’ve been together for ten years now and when I think about that it always surprises me. Wayland has been my friend and companion for most of my adult life and has shaped the way I see the world. I don’t purport to be as innovative as he is: he seems capable of fixing or modifying anything he puts his hands on. Give him an anvil, a forge and a couple of hours and he can make just about anything he sets his mind to. There was a rumour a few years back that he’d made a working hand cannon out of nothing more than an old wrought iron gate and a candlestick. I might have perpetuated that rumour. It amused me. What was I meant to do? People enjoy mysteries and the unexplained and if it made them happy to think Wayland was that gifted, I wasn’t going to correct them. For the record, it was three candlesticks. Some people think we’re a strange match. He’s wrapped up in some blacksmith state of higher purpose and I’m gregarious and light-hearted. Sometimes, it can be hours before he talks to me at all, working in silence. But for all that, I get the sense that he appreciates my friendship and company. I don’t think he fully understands that, while I might be here now because I want to be, when I first joined with him I did so out of a sense of loyalty and gratitude. The man saved my life. What was I supposed to do? Let that pass me by? Let it not be said that Panday Beck doesn’t pay his debts. At his request, I go to check on the generator and it’s in that state of not quite working, but still gamely trying. Much like me after too many drinks. There are three RJ-powered generators in this forge; this is one of two that powers the bellows motor while the third powers the lights. I admit to being quite the proponent of being able to work late into the night instead of stopping because of poor light. It doesn’t take much on my part to get it up and running properly and Wayland grunts his approval from where he stands over the anvil. I take a moment to properly enjoy watching him work. Wayland’s creations are invariably complex and clever and exquisite, but the man himself is a veritable work of art. He’s huge, with the vast shoulders and powerful arms that are the mark of most smiths – even I’ve managed to fill out a little over the years in that area – and his skin is pockmarked with burn scars and old injuries. His expression is always one of intensity: whether he be concentrating or listening. And he is always listening. The sounds of his hammer on the various metals with which he works are, he has taught me, unique. It sings, Beck, he told me, once. Any creation, be it a horseshoe or a weapon has its own melody. It’s our job to listen. To tune. To perfect. To create a symphony. Listen. I learned to listen. You have two ears and one mouth, my mother told me once when I was growing up. Use them in proportion. It’s only since I travelled with Wayland that I really understood what that meant. He has been working since mid-morning on his current project and has stopped only once to take on food. His stamina and staying power are the stuff of legend. Unlike the ridiculous story about the hand-cannon, it’s a truth that Wayland can work for a solid eighteen hours without stopping. His drive, his determination… they are humbling. “Beck.” He speaks my name again. I push back the urge to quote Shakespeare and look over to where he stands, wiping sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. “Yes?” “You can finish this up. I’m done.” “Really?” Such an offer brings out the child in me. It’s the best part of our relationship. This is how it works: he builds it, I make it work. Whether that be employing simple trigger mechanisms or working channelled RJ technology into something varies from commission to commission, but it always serves to demonstrate the extent of our working relationship. He creates the vessel, I bring it to life. Like a midwife blowing air into the lungs of a newborn, I take what he makes and I give it existence. He prepares the instrument and I fine tune it. Perfect harmony. View the full article
  2. He’d grown to young manhood in the sultry swamps of Louisiana but, like so many others of his generation, had headed out West to find his fortune. The gold boom had, over the course of time, given way to the love of silver. Both of those commodities, however, required expenditure of effort and he was inherently lazy. Not for him endless days of toil; of wandering the hills hoping to stake a claim on a seam of something that may or turn out to be valuable. No – he had discovered something far more appealing. Something that held a thrill greater than the simple, honest pursuit of precious metals. Those things paled in comparison to the many other opportunities that the Arizona Territories had to offer. Opportunities that a resourceful young man who discovered he had a remarkable and deadly skill with a gun could exploit to the full. And he had exploited them with great aplomb. Of course, many of those opportunities were not necessarily considered to fall within the confines of the law, but Julien Lavolier was young enough, arrogant enough and – as it now transpired – fool enough to have believed that so long as he applied sense and caution to his misdeeds, he would evade capture. It transpired that he was wrong in that assumption. Painfully wrong. He had completely underestimated the full might of the law when it finally turned its attention to the young Cajun. Very wrong. The prison cell was, as one might expect, not a pleasant place to have spent upwards of a week. A six by six foot brick cube that slowly cooked him during the day but left him shivering into the night, with only a thin, prison-issued blanket to wrap his body in. The heat wasn’t like the humidity of the swamps back home. This was a cruel, relentless heat that burned with endless fury, only relinquishing its hold when the chill of night set in. He had been given little more than the requisite bread and water for six days and his stomach was clenching painfully. He had started dreaming about his mama’s jambalaya. It hadn’t helped. Once he’d starting thinking about his mother, dead these last five years, he could hear her voice in his head. I ain’t angry, chere petit. I am jus’ disappointed. Lavolier sighed miserably, curling up into a foetal position. He lay on the rock-hard bunk that was his bed, staring at the opposite wall. There was a stain there that looked precisely like a bear and during his confinement, he had grown rather fond of it. He’d yet to reach the point of despair that saw him hold conversations with it, but it was not far off. “Julien Lavolier.” It was not a question, requiring his answer, but a statement of fact. He sat up at the voice and rubbed at sleep-deprived eyes to bring the speaker into clear focus. He was tall, this newcomer, and well-dressed in a dark grey suit with a crisp, white shirt. A long black coat hung from broad shoulders. To Lavolier’s untrained eye, the clothes seemed well cut and individually tailored. They also looked hot and stifling, made as they were from some expensive woollen based fabric. By Lavolier’s estimation, the man should have been cooking alive. It was mid-July and the outside temperatures were well in excess of one hundred degrees; the inside of the jail definitely more than that. But the man did not seem to be suffering any discomfort at all. Not so much as a bead of sweat broke his brow. He bore the burden of his woollen-based fabric load with a stoicism that had Lavolier but known it, he brought to everything. When Lavolier was sitting up fully, the man on what could best be described as the right side of the bars studied him closely. Lavolier attempted to return the scrutiny, observing a few important and several incidental ones at the same time. The first point was the star on the man’s lapel, denoting his status. He was perhaps in his mid to late forties, with sharp, pale blue eyes that did not miss a thing and a long and rather pointed nose. The expression on his finely chiselled features as he looked at the prisoner put Lavolier in mind of someone who had stepped into the street and discovered a freshly dropped pile of horse dung. He squirmed. “My name is Judge Kingsley Stern,” said the newcomer and the words were enough to turn the blood in Lavolier’s veins to ice. He knew the man by reputation. No outlaw was oblivious to the name of Judge Stern. The vaguest quirk of his lips drew the man’s mouth upwards into a semi-sneer. “You have heard of me, then.” “Oui, I have.” “Excellent. I do so dislike extended introductions. Well, then. Let’s have a little look, shall we? It would appear that your behaviour has been less than exemplary, Monsieur Lavolier,” said the lawman without a hint of sarcasm in his tone. His deference and politeness caught Lavolier off guard and he blinked. What little self-control he’d managed to maintain while in this firepit of misery slipped away from him and he heard the snivelling tone that crept, unbidden, into his voice. “I have reasons for doin’ them things what I done did, Mister Stern…” “Judge.” The cold eyes narrowed. “I will correct you once. Twice is an insult and anything more than that I will take to be a complete breach of decency. Judge. Henceforth, you will not address me by anything other than my given title again. Are we clear?” Every syllable was enunciated to perfection; not a consonant out of place and delivered in a tone devoid fully of emotion. “Crystal.” A pause. “Judge.” “Excellent.” Another expression that approximated a smile formed on the man’s mouth; thin-lipped and without humour. “I will be hearing your case later today and I very much look forward to these ‘reasons’ you have for…” He glanced down at the sheaf of papers in his hand. “Robbery, arson, two counts of murder, six counts of attempted murder and…” He looked up and clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth as he shook his head. “Non-payment of a bar tab. Oh dear, Monsieur Lavolier. Oh dear indeed.” “I…” Kingsley Stern raised a finger to his lips and silently shushed Lavolier. Steel, unrelenting, unsympathetic eyes bored into the Cajun’s soul and the unfortunate prisoner shuddered. “Well, very soon you will have the opportunity to divulge these wonderful ‘reasons’. As I have been appointed as your case judge, I shall listen with great intent to all you have to say.” He smiled, again without humour, and Lavolier was reminded rather forcibly of a swamp gator coming out of the sludge to take down its kill. He groaned inwardly as Stern turned on his booted heel and strode away; a man whose body language screamed infinite purpose. It would seem that Lavolier’s run as an outlaw was clearly coming to an end. That end, he had no doubt at all, would now take the form of a hangman’s noose. Quick drop, sudden stop. As the outer door of the jailhouse slammed shut, Lavolier dropped back onto his bunk and cradled his head in his hands. Judge. Jury. Executioner. Kingsley Stern would be all three. It was, after all, what he did best. View the full article

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