Chapter 17
Shoot the Messenger

Shicheng (Thach Thanh), Bantian County, Shannanxi Province

Coronel Obrado rubbed his jaw. It was a bad habit he picked up ever since the wires were taken off. His jaw wasn't yet fully healed, so touching it still caused him some pain. Maybe that was part of the reason, some unconscious drive to keep reminding himself of the suffering he had endured to keep his anger and his hatred fresh despite the lack of progress on the hunt for Cabo Rodrigues.
If he didn't hate the man with such a passion, the Coronel would have been proud of Cabo Rodrigues as an excellent example of the stuff his men were made of. On the run for over six weeks, having covered half the globe and thwarting at least three attempts to capture him. It almost seemed a waste what was intended for the runaway Cabo, but Coronel Obrado had his pride and he would have his revenge.
The regiment was back at its forward headquarters. The accommodations were better than what they had out in the field, but it wasn't quite as good as the permanent headquarters across county lines in Pacífico. They were on standby until the next campaign in Xiyue started, hopefully in the next eight months or so. He would probably take some short-term contracts in the meantime to hunt bandits. Not only would it provide the regiment with additional income, but it would also keep the men sharp. The worst thing you could do for a fighting man was give him the opportunity to be idle. That was how a lot of those bandits got their start, after all.
There was a knock at his door, no doubt Teniente Valdez, who managed the flow of people into the office. He glanced at his watch. There weren't any appointments scheduled.
"Pardon, sir," Valdez said. "I have a runner here with the latest report on the Tieu Thong matter."
'The Tieu Thong matter' was the euphemism for the hunt for Cabo Rodrigues. The Coronel didn't want the men to know about the incident. There would be fools that would desert in a bid to claim the reward and mutineers that might think they could depose him as commanding officer. Only a select few knew what had happened and he intended to keep it that way.
"Enter," he said.
Valdez opened the door to let the runner in and then followed behind him. While Valdez posted himself beside the door, the runner approached the Coronel's desk and saluted.
The Coronel returned the salute, then folded his arms and said, "What've you got for me?"
"The Cisneros have nothing new to report since they lost four of their hunters in Santa Jésica last week. They say the target may have moved on into Shanzhong Province."
"Are none of their people pursuing?" the Coronel asked.
"Guild regulations restrict hunters to their home province, sir," Valdez said. "If any Cisneros hunter crossed the border, they would lose their license."
That didn't necessarily mean no one crossed the border, just that they wouldn't be reporting to the guild.
"Who are the players in Shanzhong?"
"There are six bounty guilds in Shanzhong, sir," Valdez said. "The Pelayo, the Cristóbal, the Córdoba, the Almorad, the Guérin, and the Tristes."
"Have you got anything from any of them?" the Coronel asked the runner.
"Nothing, sir," the runner replied, "except for a complaint filed with the Almorads. A couple subcontractors are trying to sue a Nestor Salas for breach of contract following an incident in San Miguel."
"What does this have to do with anything?"
"A bounty hunter will only hire subcontractors for particularly large and dangerous bounties, sir," Valdez said. "There are no larger bounties to be had."
"But no report from this Nestor Salas?" the Coronel asked.
"No, sir," the runner replied.
"Which San Miguel?"
"They didn't say, sir."
"Anything else?"
"No, sir."
That wasn't much to go on. The Coronel sighed. Frustrating as ever.
"Alright," he said to the runner, "you're dismissed."
The runner saluted.
"Yes, sir. By your leave, sir."
The Coronel returned the salute, the runner did an about face and exited to office. The Coronel found himself rubbing his jaw again.
"Valdez, get me a map of Shanzhong," he said.
"Yes, sir."
Valdez left to go fetch a map and when he returned, he pinned it up on the board on the wall.
"You find a San Miguel?" the Coronel asked.
Valdez ran his finger along the map for a couple minutes before saying, "The closest one to where Cabo Rodrigues was last seen in Santa Jésica along the rail line is here in Dayan County."
"Dayan County? Where the hell's he trying to go?"
"We believe he is heading to Lingmu," an unfamiliar voice said.
Coronel Obrado looked over to the door to see a nondescript man in a black suit wearing a black bowler hat and sunglasses.
Springing up from his chair and slamming his hands down on the desk, the Coronel shouted, "Who the hell are you!? How the hell'd you get in here!?"
With preternatural calm, the man in black replied, "Coronel Obrado, I represent certain powerful interests in this matter."
"What the hell kinda interest'd be so interested in a deserter outta my outfit and the damn whore he took with him?"
"The kind of interests that think nothing of such a little amount as 150 dan," the man in black replied, reaching into his jacket.
Both Coronel Obrado and Teniente Valdez instinctively went for their sidearms, but the man in black held up his free hand in a display of surrender while slowly pulling the other hand out of his jacket holding a wallet. The two of them relaxed once they saw the wallet and the man in black thumbed through the contents as he approached the Coronel's desk, setting down three bills so crisp they could have come straight off the presses. Coronel Obrado had traded in scrip backed by a number of noble houses, but he had never seen anything quite like this, though he recognized what it was.
"These are Capital banknotes," he said.
Unlike other scrip, Capital banknotes were guaranteed by Emperor himself and almost never found their way to the surface. Each of the three bills was marked at a value of fifty dan. The sum that was meant to get the entire world baying for Cabo Rodrigues' blood was set in front of him as if it were nothing more than a handful of chips.
"You are an intelligent man, Coronel," the man in black said. "I trust I have your understanding."
The man in black had the Coronel's attention at least, if nothing else.
"Whaddya want from me?" he asked.
"It is not what you can do for us but what we can do for you," the man in black replied. "We will provide the means for you to accomplish yourself what you would have paid bounty hunters to do for you. If you are successful, we will give you what you were willing pay tenfold."
Tenfold? That would mean...
"A thousand dan..."
"One thousand five hundred dan," the man in black corrected him. "Do not forget the fifty for the whore. Do what you will to your own man. Do what you will to the whore, for that matter, short of taking her life. She must be made to suffer for many, many years to come."
The focus on the whore nagged at Coronel Obrado, prompting him to ask, "Just who is this whore anyway?"
The man in black gave him some vague approximation of a smile and replied, "As I have said, Coronel, you are an intelligent man. How wise do you think it is to pry into the matter any further?"
The point was well taken. For the kind of money he was being offered, there was no need for any questions.
"Alright," he said, dropping the subject. "Whaddya want me to do?"
"We are quite confident they will try to enter Lingmu through Jiangteng."
"That's still a lotta ground to cover."
"But only four points of entry," the man in black noted. "Deploy one battalion at each checkpoint. Surely they can stop a mere two people."
The only problem was getting to Jiangteng. The Coronel couldn't simply take the regiment wherever he wanted whenever he wanted.
"I have standby orders," he said. "I can't leave."
"We will take care of arrangements," the man in black replied. "The Marquess will give you no trouble."
"You can do that?"
"Do you doubt us?"
Coronel Obrado shook his head.
"Then make ready," the man in black said. He then took a piece of paper out of his jacket pocket and placed it on the Coronel's desk. It was a map and the man in black pointed to a location that was marked, saying, "Be here in two days' time with all the men and equipment you need."
Looking at the map, Coronel Obrado said, "This is out in the middle of nowhere. There're no tracks or anything."
"We don't have time to waste on the rail system," the man in black said. "There are faster means of transport."
The man in black then tipped his hat, saying, "Good day, Coronel," then turned to leave.
Eyeing the bills still laid out on his desk, the Coronel said, "You're forgetting something."
"Keep it," the man in black said. "Consider it a downpayment."
He stopped just as he was about to go out the door, adding, "Remember. Two days' time."
When the door closed, Valdez looked to the Coronel uncertainly.
"Sir, what are you going to do?"
Coronel Obrado picked up the three 50-dan bills, spreading them out like a hand of cards while he looked at the map.
"Get the men geared up and ready to go," he said. "We set out as soon as I hear from the Marquess."
"Yes, sir," Valdez replied. He then saluted, saying, "By your leave, sir," and left the office.
Coronel Obrado continued to look at the banknotes in his hand. He could have his revenge on Cabo Rodrigues and make enough that he could retire in comfort, maybe even purchase an honorary knighthood. He couldn't ask for a better deal. Whatever luck had kept Rodrigues alive this long was about to run out.