Chapter 16
Treeing the Fox
Cangkong (San Miguel), Dayan County, Shanzhong Province

Nestor looked at the twenty men he brought on as subcontractors for this job. None of them were exactly the pick of the litter, but it was a double-edged sword. Anyone too competent would find a way to outmaneuver him and take the whole bounty for himself, but if they were too incompetent, they might end up killing the target or worse.
"Before we get out there, let's review, gentlemen," he told them. "The target gets taken alive or none of you gets paid. Now, that'll be easier said than done. This man has already killed at least fifteen people who have gotten in his way, some of them very accomplished hunters out west, and he will kill each and every one of you if you give him the chance."
Some of the men had boastful looks that showed a lack of appreciation for the seriousness of the threat while others seemed a little too rattled and Nestor hadn't even gone into the gory details of what happened those numbered in Batista Rodrigues' body count. Only a few showed the measured professionalism he thought he could trust.
"The target's uncle runs a tinker shop here in town," Nestor continued. "I believe he's come here. He's got a two- or three-day lead on us. We're going to surround the place. I want complete 360-degree coverage, three on the ground and two on the roofs north, east, south and west. Once everyone's in position, I'm going to attempt to negotiate a peaceful handover. I'm not expecting much, but blood may not be that thick with these people.
"If the target is there and he tries to run, you'll be on him. I've personally ensured all of you have nonlethal ammo in your weapons. Let me repeat that if we don't take the target alive, no one gets paid."
"Yeah, yeah, we heard ya the firs' time," one of the subcontractors said. "Get on wif it already."
"Just remember that if anyone 'accidentally' kills him, he'll have to deal with twenty very disappointed people. Are we clear?"
Twenty different men had twenty different ways of replying in the affirmative, ranging from a mere grunt to an almost comically enthusiastic "Yes, sir!" It would have to suffice.
It took about ten minutes for everyone to get into position. Even though they were armed with rubber bullets, beanbags and the like, Nestor wasn't particularly keen on being in their line of fire, but this was the risk he took in the off-chance he could end this the easy way.
Because it was after business hours, he went to the side entrance rather than the front. If he took the front, he would have to go inside like any other customer, but his whole strategy of getting 360-degree coverage would lose some of its merit if he went in alone.
He knocked on the door and waited for someone to answer. A couple minutes passed before the door was opened by Jorge Avilar. Almost twenty years had passed since his ID photo was taken for his honorary Class Three citizenship. He was no longer in as good a shape as a newly discharged Regular, but Nestor knew better than to underestimate him.
"Yes? Can I help you?" Avilar asked.
Nestor tipped his hat and said, "Mr. Avilar, I'd like to talk to you about your nephew Batista."
"What about him?"
"He's in some trouble, you see, and I want to help."
"Don't know why you're talkin' ta me," Mr. Avilar replied. "I ain't seen him."
"That's not what I've heard," Nestor said. "I've heard that a couple of suspicious characters came this way two or three days ago, one of them stumbling along like he was half-dead, like someone who got in a shootout with some bounty hunters over at the border last week."
"I don't know nothin' 'bout that."
Mr. Avilar was a cool customer, more in control of himself than just about anyone Nestor had encountered in his twelve years of being a bounty hunter. Most people couldn't lie this easily, couldn't take the pressure of being questioned, even when someone was using a light hand like Nestor preferred. He would have played it just as cool.
"Listen, Mr. Avilar," he said, "we know he's here and for everyone's sake, I want to bring him in the easy way. There... could be some compensation in it for you. Twenty dan."
"Twenny dan's might cheap ta be sellin' out family," Mr. Avilar replied, "if he was here. "Fifty."
This was an unexpected turn. Nestor wasn't expecting Mr. Avilar to give up his nephew so easily. Even so, half the bounty was a steep price to be asking.
"I have certain commitments to keep, Mr. Avilar," Nestor replied. "I can give you forty."
"Fifty," Mr. Avilar insisted.
In truth, Nestor hadn't told his subcontractors about the bounty on the girl. He had hoped to quietly claim the fifty dan for himself, but if Mr. Avilar was going to be handing over Batista himself, then the twenty-dan prize Nestor promised to the man who personally delivered the bounty could be redistributed. There was no point in getting too greedy. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, as they say.
"Very well," Nestor conceded, "but I need Batista and the girl."
"Alright," Mr. Avilar said, "now that I got your price."
Nestor should have seen it coming. He should have known better. Even though he didn't have much time to study the man, he should have known Mr. Avilar wouldn't sell out his own flesh and blood so easily. If he had been more cautious and attentive, he would have noticed the way Mr. Avilar was standing concealed his right arm. When he brought that arm up, a sawed-off shotgun was revealed mere seconds before it was pointed at Nestor's chest and both barrels were unleashed on him.
Nestor was knocked flat on his back. He was wearing a vest, thankfully, but while the blast knocked him down, it didn't hit anywhere near as hard as he would have thought. Looking down at himself, he saw that the shotgun was loaded with rock salt, a canny choice for a city dweller with a mind for self-defense. You could kill a man to protect yourself out on the fringes of civilization, but in a place like this you would get death or life at hard labor for the trouble. The shotgun itself was probably illegal, but there was no money to be had turning in someone for illegal weapons possession. Such thoughts were hardly his first priority at the moment, though.
As soon as Mr. Avilar fired his shotgun, he slammed the door and it sounded like he barred it too for good measure. While everyone's attention was on the shot, the door to the garage on the front side rattled open and a car came tearing out. Several of the men tried shooting at the car, but even if they could hit it, rubber bullets and beanbags wouldn't do much to slow it down.
Even though it was just a load of rock salt that failed to do much damage thanks to his vest, Nestor found it hard to raise his voice as he ordered the others, "After them!"
He coughed a little bit and groaned as he forced himself back to his feet. He looked down ruefully at his shredded clothes as he tried to come up with a plan. Most of the roads weren't made for cars. They would be difficult to navigate and likely crowded enough to eliminate any advantage it would have. If the others hurried, they could probably catch up to it, but that meant he needed to catch up to them too. He could already imagine all the ways things could go badly.
Then again, Mr. Avilar might know where they were heading and it could be quicker to try to cut them off at their destination. However, the thought of trying to get in in there with Mr. Avilar dug in and ready to take on all comers was hardly an appealing notion. Even if he used the subcontractors to force their way in and then used Mr. Avilar's wife for leverage to get information, there was no guarantee things would go as smoothly as planned.
Nestor was usually pretty good about bending people into doing what he wanted, but he may have met his match. Part of him was tempted to cut his losses, but there was too much on the line for him to give up yet. Struggling to his feet, he headed in the direction of a honking horn and gunshots.
Nestor, of course, had little hope of catching up unless the car was stopped. The rubbish strewn about from obstacles that were plowed through with reckless abandon and the bodies of several dead or wounded subcontractors along the way left him with little hope of the car actually being stopped. Following the path of destruction, he reached the main road, where five or six of the remaining subcontractors were just standing there.
"Which way did they go?" Nestor asked.
One of the subcontractors, an exceedingly thin man, pointed northward and said, "They went thataway."
"No one said nothin' 'bout no damn car," another one said.
"Those three're still chasin' after it," a third one said.
"Ain't no way in hell they's catchin' it," the second one replied.
Nestor looked around and said, "Unless you boys want to have a word with the constables when they get here, and they can't be far off with all this mess, I suggest you make yourselves scarce. If anyone is still interested in pursuing this bounty, meet me at the station at sunup tomorrow."
"Fuck that," the one surly subcontractor said. "I got more'n I bargained for on this trip as it is. I'm out."
The third one to speak up asked, "What 'bout the others?"
"You're quite welcome to look after them," Nestor replied, "but I am going to go take my own advice."
Another one who hadn't spoken yet ran up to him, grabbed him by the shoulder and turned him around with a sharp tug.
"You hold up!" he snapped. "This ain't the deal! It ain't like you told us!"
He held Nestor by one of his tattered lapels. He was angry and not especially bright, but he was not going to be ignored either, hardly the ideal combination, even more so under the current circumstances. Though it was likely a wasted effort, Nestor would start with reason.
"I told you this was a dangerous man who had killed other hunters already and that he was likely being sheltered by his uncle here in town. Their response was bolder and more direct than I was expecting, but other than that, it was exactly as I said. Now let me go before we both have to face the constables."
The subcontractor responded by taking hold of his lapels on the other side of his jacket as well and shaking him.
"Bullshit!" he seethed. "This whole thing's bullshit! I want my money! Gimme my money or I'll wring it outta ya!"
As expected, reason failed. Now force.
Nestor subtly drew out the 20-centimeter club he kept hidden in his sleeve, broke the subcontractor's grip on him, then struck him hard on the collarbone. He yelped in pain and Nestor promptly gave him another crack across the temple. This dropped him to his knees and a final definitive blow to the head knocked him out cold.
Nestor looked to the other subcontractors and asked, "Anyone else?"
No one took him up on the offer, so he tipped his hat, said, "Good day, gentleman," and went on his way, just as the sound of a constable's whistle was coming close.
He had underestimated his quarry. It was not a mistake he usually made, but he lost his best chance to capture the target and might not get another opportunity. For now, he would head back to his hotel room, get a change of clothes and make a new plan. Time was of the essence, but this was one bounty you couldn't go after half-cocked. If he did get another shot at this, he would be ready for it.