Chapter 18
The Bloodhound and the Foxhound

Chigui (Matamoros), Dayan County, Shanzhong Province

Nestor sat at the bar nursing a glass of pulque, the local specialty. He didn't much care for the taste of it, but ordering it as an outsider improved the locals' regard for him and that sort of thing was important when you were trying to get information out of people. At this point, though, there wasn't much information to be had. He managed to track Rodrigues this far, but the trail went cold. Chances are, Rodrigues caught the first train out after ditching the car and would be making his way to the border. Once he crossed, he would be out of Nestor's reach, unless he was willing to be thrown out of the guild, but even 150 dan didn't seem like enough to be worth it.
There were three border crossings in Qiyuan. If he sprang for an express ticket, he might get to one of them first. At best, he was looking at a 33% chance of intercepting Rodrigues, but without any assistance, his chances of detaining the two targets and bringing them in were even less favorable.
He took another slow sip of the pulque. He had gotten this far. He might as well see it through to the end.
He felt an ominous presence behind him. It was a rare thing when he would feel a person's presence like this, but when it happened, he needed to be on the highest alert.
He pretended like he didn't notice, all the while subtly lowering his left hand to make it easier to draw his sleeve gun. Just a slight jerk of his arm was all it would take to thrust the little compact pistol into his hand. No need to draw it until he knew he had to, though.
"You have been pursuing a man and a woman," a voice said--his Capital accent unmistakable.
Putting his Charter School education to good use, Nestor responded to the mystery man in Celestial, saying, "What makes you say that?"
Because Nestor started using Celestial, the man behind him did so as well.
"I am pursuing them as well," he said. "When I reached Cangkong, I learned of your attempt to capture them. I followed the trail here and now I find you. I want you to tell me what you know."
"And why would I be wanting to share that information with a competitor?" Nestor asked.
"That trifling bounty does not concern me. You will tell me what you know."
Leave it to a servant of the Empire to be so imperious. Nestor took another sip of his pulque.
"What if I was not feeling inclined to share that information?"
"Then I will tear it out of you," the man growled.
Nestor had a feeling this was no idle threat, but why would some muscle be dispatched from the Capital over an ultimately inconsequential mercenary? Unless Rodrigues wasn't the real objective.
Of course. The girl. The one person no one was paying any attention to. Even Nestor was only thinking about her as an extra. But if people from the Capital were hunting her, then maybe Rodrigues wasn't just trying to outrun the bounty hunters. That made things a lot more interesting... and more dangerous.
Just as Nestor was about to weigh his options on how to proceed, the man behind him clapped a heavy hand on his shoulder and spun him around. Nestor wasted no time drawing his sleeve gun, but as soon as he did, the man snaked his arm around Nestor's and wrenched his shoulder out of the socket. He didn't cry out in pain. It was more of a choked grunt. And before Nestor could use his other arm to defend himself, the man revealed a hidden weapon of his own, a spring-loaded blade that he promptly thrust into Nestor's forearm. His hand went dead, leaving him as good as defenseless. One of those trick shoes with a knife in the toe would have come handy right about now.
The man's knife retracted back into his sleeve as he took hold of Nestor by the lapels and lifted him up. Though the man was a fair bit smaller than Nestor, he was much stronger than you would think for someone his size and build.
"Tell me what you know," the man said.
At this point, anyone with the slightest good sense would proceed to tell the man everything they knew on just about any subject, up to and including what was actually relevant, and then begin to inelegantly break down, blubbering and pleading for their life. Unfortunately, Nestor didn't possess such good sense. He was already crippled in both arms, which painted a rather grim picture of his odds of coming out of this encounter alive. At the very least, he was going to be beaten within an inch of his life no matter what he said or did, so there really wasn't incentive to cooperate. Why make his tormentor's life any easier? He certainly didn't seem inclined to extend Nestor the same courtesy.
Nestor didn't say anything and it didn't take the man long to realize that no information was forthcoming. He threw Nestor over the bar, smashing dozens of bottles lined up along the back wall. Nestor landed roughly on the floor, covered in broken glass and soaking in cheap booze. More than the glass, though, the jarring of his dislocated shoulder hurt like all hell, even more than when the man took his arm out of the socket in the first place.
The man hopped over the bar, took hold of Nestor by the collar and hoisted him up single-handed. The bartender took a thick iron pipe and cracked the man across the back, but he didn't even flinch. The man responded with a swipe of his free hand. The hidden blade came back out, slicing through the thick rolls of fat to open up the bartender's neck. He struck so fast and hard that the bartender's head jerked away, turning his entire body so that the blood sprayed the back wall instead of the killer. Was that all part of his technique, Nestor idly wondered.
With the interference out of the way, the man flopped Nestor onto the bar, still using only one hand. At first he tried menacing Nestor by holding his hidden blade up to Nestor's throat, but he quickly decided that wasn't going to get him what he wanted. He took one of the few bottles within arm's reach that was still intact, smashed it in two against the edge of the bar, then buried the jagged piece that remained in Nestor's stomach. Nestor's vest was only rated for low velocity rounds, not for knives--or broken bottles in this case.
The glass couldn't have gone more than three or four senches in, but that could prove fatal if it punctured anything in there. As if he needed to establish his resolve any further, the man pressed down so some more blood would seep up and spread the stain forming around the bottle.
"You have a choice," the man said. "You can still walk away from this alive, or at very least I can give you a quick death. Now talk."
It was a terrible thing to have such a distrustful personality. Nestor was entirely unconvinced that the man had any intention of sparing his life and if spiting some Capital dog was the best thing he could accomplish during what little time remained on this mortal coil, it was better than nothing.
The man decided to encourage Nestor by taking hold of his head and slamming it against the bar several times.
"Talk!" he demanded.
Nestor's head was swimming, but he still managed to find some amusement in the fact that the man was showing such signs of desperation. You could always tell when someone who normally kept their composure lost it. It was very different from someone who never had much control over themselves because the composed sort always strained their voices, that well-trained control still trying to assert itself even as everything was falling apart. What could be making him so desperate? Maybe Rodrigues was getting close to somewhere that would be out of his reach.
A Capital dog didn't have the same limitations as an ordinary Infernal, but there were some lines even they couldn't cross. The girl's home, maybe an allied family. If the man didn't get her before then, surely his master would have worse things in store for him than what Nestor was going through. It was a small comfort, but in a situation like this, you take what comfort you can get.
The man seemed to realize he was getting nowhere, so he struck the bottle to drive it further into Nestor's stomach as a parting shot and left him to slowly die of internal bleeding. Even if someone carted him off to whatever sawbones they had in this town, there was probably no saving him. He didn't feel much regret for himself--this sort of thing was an occupational hazard, after all--, but he did feel bad about the bartender who got himself killed in the exchange. Maybe whoever looted Nestor's body would have the decency to split the findings with the bartender's family. There usually wasn't that much charity to be found in the world, but a man could dream and what better time to dream than your last moments on this wretched world?