Phantom Harvest by C R Richards by C R Richards - Read Online

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Summary

Gideon, a half-breed mutant with a surly temper and rotten luck, struggles to scrape a living as a tracker in the desolate territory near the gateway to the human world. Business seems to be picking up when Gideon is approached by a powerful dark elf with deep pockets and a serious problem. Human miners at the dark elf's plant are being taken by an elusive predator. Gideon is pressured to find the killer before word of the disappearances reaches the human world, endangering the tense relationship between their two races. But, nothing is simple this close to the conduit between worlds. Archangel, a ruthless mercenary operating in the secret sectors of mutant society, has set his own deadly game in motion. Surrounded by savage wilderness and cut off from contact with civilization, Gideon must find a way to protect his friends and survive to collect his bounty.
Published: Whiskey Creek Press on
ISBN: 9781611603842
List price: $3.99
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Phantom Harvest - C R Richards

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techniques.

Chapter 1

Sometimes the bad guy wins.

No one understood that better than Gideon. When you were the unwanted product of a sadistic sexual encounter between two predators, you lost a few. More than a few, if fate dunked you in the family gene pool and you were the only one to crawl out again with a conscience. In fact, you were damn lucky to scrape a living from clients desperate enough to hire a slightly unpredictable half-breed freak.

He scooped another spoon full of greasy chili onto the stale bread and stuffed it into his mouth. Ignoring the burn of a haphazardly diced jalapeno chunk, he kept his stormy eyes on the shadow filling the Dragon’s Pit Bar.

Gideon was a tracker, one of the best Mutant Guild money could buy. That’s what it said on his business cards. Lately, his cases had grown farther apart and his clientele a little less generous with their gratitude. Desperate times. This case was different. No one frantic to find their runaway husband or an errant bail jumper had paid his ticket on the transport train to the mining town of Hawthorne. He’d made the trek from the mutant city of New Athens on his own dime to chase what most trackers would consider a fool’s pipe dream. There was a bounty here ready for the taking, but it wouldn’t be easy and Gideon had competition.

Cheap cologne clumsily masking rotting flesh and stale earth crept closer. Gideon swallowed the last gulp of beer and took a deep breath through his mouth. There was no mistaking the stench. It was a calling card, a sensory announcement for the Graves Brothers. They were ghouls who’d tired of the rotting corpses and drained blood they could steal from their local mortuary. Crime paid well and sometimes it paid in fresh blood.

Gideon gripped his spoon until it bent under the pressure of his thumb. The Graves Brothers typically didn’t stray far from their territory in the south side of New Athens. Something had dragged them out of their catacombs, onto the transport train and through the Outskirts Territory to land here in Hawthorne.

Bandaged covered fingers gripped the chair across from Gideon and pulled it slowly away from the table. Doug Graves, head of the family and creep-in-charge, sat down carefully in the chair. His rotting body was covered head to toe in a gray trench coat topped with a fedora. He looked like a Humphrey Bogart movie gone wrong.

Gideon, you’re looking good enough to eat. Doug’s voice grated across the table like dead wood running through a shredder.

What brings you to Hawthorne, Doug? Did you run out of dead rats to munch on? Gideon leaned back from Doug’s hiss of laughter. A half eaten maggot and something yellow that passed for ghoul saliva landed on the table top. Gideon flicked it away with his spoon.

Doug leaned closer, spreading his bandaged fingers over the table. One greenish gray fingertip had worked its way out of the bandage. The black nail was attached by a thin strip of rotting flesh. Gideon made a mental note not to sit at this table again. Ever.

I hear things about you, Gideon…interesting things. The dirtied bandages that circled Doug’s face stretched into a smile. Eyes, milky white with death, explored Gideon’s face with an intense hunger. Gideon kept his eyes averted from the shadows underneath the brim of Doug’s hat. It was dangerous to stare into ghoulish eyes. A man could succumb to their brain numbing seduction and wind up breakfast.

This runner you’re after stole a lot of money from the wrong people. Word is he has it with him here in Hawthorne. Word is you know where he hid it.

If I knew where the money was, do you really think I’d be eating lousy chili in this dive? Gideon lowered his hand beneath the table. Boney fingers gripped his shoulder and squeezed hard. Another Graves Brother sent his putrid breath down Gideon’s neck with a hiss of warning. He got the hint and put both hands back on the flat surface.

You’re the best, Gideon. Nobody can track down a runner like you can…relentless bastard that you are. Doug’s black and broken teeth shimmered in the dim light. The sleeves of his trench coat pulled a little higher on his bandaged arms as he leaned across the table. That makes you dangerous.

Tell me something I don’t know. Gideon leaned forward, pulling free from the fingers to match the distance. You here to shake me down, Doug, or did you and the boys get a craving for human flesh? I hear it tastes like chicken.

Doug put a bandaged hand to his chest like a flirtatious starlet. Now do I look like the kind of guy who’d intentionally break the Peace Treaty between our kind and those tasty little human meat sacks? I’m hurt.

Gideon snorted and shook his head. This was turning bad fast. Get to the point, Doug. I want to finish my meal.

There’s no reason to be rude. Doug grinned again and nodded to his goon standing behind Gideon. Two sets of hands held Gideon down in his chair. He struggled until they pushed down harder with bone crushing pressure. Ghouls had limited body mass, but they were freakishly strong.

The boys and I don’t exactly fit in this picturesque little berg. Doug chuckled and picked absently at his bandaged index finger. You’re going to be my legs on the surface, Gideon. Find the runner and then bring him and his money to me.

And if I’m not interested? Movement in the shadows, slow and deliberate, was a pointed reminder ghouls traveled in packs.

I’d hate to bring up the unpleasantness when you first arrived in New Athens, Gideon. Doug stretched his arms over his head in a bored yawn. Mutant Defense would be very interested in the little memento I kept from your unauthorized entry into the city.

Gideon’s eyes swept up to meet Doug’s gaze, lingering just long enough to take in the triumphant satisfaction. The ghoul was a crafty son of a bitch. He had to be to keep his clan in line and hold his territory in that firm rotten grip. Doug Graves was a lot of things, but a liar wasn’t one of them. He had something and Gideon, not being what the Mutant law would call legal, wasn’t in a position to holler too loudly about it.

Frustration and disappointment with a side of fury gurgled in Gideon’s gut. Days of freezing his ass off in the snow fields, choking down cheap chili to stretch the last hundred bucks he had left, only to have the golden prize snatched away! Damn the Graves Brothers. Damn Hawthorne and damn his run of shitty luck.

You owe me sixty grand, Doug. Gideon tried to push away from the restraining hands, but they pulled him back down again. The payout on that bounty was fifty for returning the money and ten for the runner.

Doug let out a pensive sigh and reached a bandaged hand to pat Gideon’s arm lightly. It felt cold, dead in the warmth of the bar. You could change your mind and come to work for me.

I won’t change my mind.

You have an unfortunate honest streak, Gideon. One day it will get you killed if you don’t starve to death first. Doug stood up and tugged at the belt around his waist. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his coat and stood staring at Gideon for a moment.

This runner doesn’t hold any appeal for me. There’s not much to nibble on. Doug shrugged and offered Gideon another ghoulish smile. I take the two million he stole and you keep the ten grand for his return. That’s my final offer.

Son of a bitch…this isn’t over, Doug!

Oh but it is. There’s another interested party in our little game and he doesn’t think much of you. The ghoulish grin disappeared as Doug stared hard into Gideon’s face. I’ll give you twenty-four hours to bring me the money. We’ll be watching. Doug turned toward the door. Come on, boys. Let’s leave Gideon to his meal.

Doug walked away with ten ghouls trailing behind him. Shit. Ten ghouls. Gideon swallowed his anger, forcing his hands to stay sprawled across the table and away from the blasters hanging on both hips. Blasters were no good against ghouls. They already slept in the graveyard. Gideon was out matched. Sometimes a man had to face his limits.

Yeah, sometimes the bad guy wins, but that didn’t mean Gideon had to like it. He’d been out maneuvered by a cheap horror movie prop. Four days he’d spent wading through snow and slush without any ghouls signs. No dead pets or mangled stray cats. There hadn’t been as much as a dead rat to warn him the Graves Brothers were in town. Gideon slammed his knuckles against the table’s edge. He’d been so damn careful. The loss hurt his pride as much as it hurt his wallet. But there was still a chance to salvage his reputation and make back a bit of the expenses he’d shelled out traveling to Hawthorne.

Doug had hinted at another interested party. Someone else had come to Hawthorne after Gideon’s prize. Now, thanks to Doug, the stakes were higher. It wasn’t just about the money anymore. If he didn’t find the runner and the stolen cash, Gideon might be spending his days rotting in New Athens’ version of Guantanamo. First he’d have to find the third player. Doug had called him he, so that narrowed down the possibilities to all but the handful of women unlucky enough to live in Hawthorne. It had to be someone who had enough skill and insanity or desperation to catch their elusive prey. Gideon could count the talent on one hand who had the slightest chance of coming close.

His gaze drifted over the patrons hidden amongst the shadows of the bar, looking for familiar features. Being born into the Sounder, a race of tusked killers with a tribal mentality, had given Gideon keen hunting skills. He was able to see things…little oddities that normally go unnoticed, like the soft, intermittent flickering of light hovering over a human male at the far table. With a face marked with scars and too many nights sucking on booze, he had to be the favorite model for mug shot photographers everywhere. Handsome returned Gideon’s stare, pushing his chair slowly to the side of the table, long coat unbuttoned and blaster erect.

Gideon didn’t recognize him. It wasn’t a face easily forgotten. He lifted his gaze carefully toward the ceiling above the human’s head and suppressed his impatience. The tiny spots of light beginning over the table and streaming underneath the door of the bar—energy foot prints left by the runner—were already fading. Handsome wasn’t hunting for the runner; he was working for him as a living road block in the chase.

Stalling in the hope of scrounging up a plan, Gideon turned back to his bowl. He slapped his spoon down on the table and mopped up the last of the chili with his bread. Gideon stuffed it into his mouth and wiped his lips with his sleeve. Handsome, trigger finger anxious to scratch its itch, let him finish his meal. Now that was polite.

The trail was growing cold. There wasn’t time to see who was faster with a weapon. Gideon stared across the Dragon’s Pit at his would-be assassin. Leaning forward slightly, he brushed aside stray wisps of wild, black hair, allowing the human to see his eyes. The stranger’s body grew still, captured by the danger he saw within Gideon. Sweat and fear broke out on his face. Gideon grinned. Handsome would collapse in a minute, overwhelmed by the adrenaline rush. It was an old Sounder trick used on timid herbivores. Gideon found it worked well on humans too.

He eased his fingers around the grip of his blaster, lifting it slowly from the holster. Focused, ready to spring on the paralyzed human, Gideon’s full attention rested on the far table until a soppy wet bar towel smacked him on the cheek. Cold dish water and bits of the lunch special dripped down his neck. What the hell?

Gideon! The human sprung up from the table, his blaster pointing at Gideon’s heart.

Damn. Paralyzing your victim only worked if you could maintain eye contact. Gideon pushed out of his chair and charged straight for the bounty hunter. His Sounder senses enveloped the Dragon’s Pit. Sights and sounds rushed at him with exaggerated intensity. The gaudy red walls, multi-color lights reflecting off the bottles of cheap booze, smoke drifting slowly from the lips of a rundown, old bar fly hit Gideon in a frenzy of sparkling hues.

The tips of his Sounder heritage push through the skin at his jaw line. Tusks, both beautiful in their sheen and deadly in their strength, jutted from their cavity within the bone. They were six inches of razor-sharp ivory, designed for ripping and puncturing flesh.

Someone screamed. Gideon heard the cartilage on the human’s trigger finger flex and dodged to the left. An energy bolt struck behind him. The human was shooting wildly now, unable to follow Gideon’s twisting body.

A figure, quick and lethal, moved along the far vantage point of Gideon’s peripheral vision. He was a shadow, a whisper of death moving so quickly his human prey had no idea violence was about to strike.

Hiroshi was Gideon’s self-proclaimed father and slightly reluctant business partner. He was a good ally to have when the fighting was fierce, but Hiroshi liked to pick the occasions he’d come to Gideon’s side. Sometimes his timing sucked.

The glint of steel drew an upward strike in the swirling lights of the bar. Blood and bone fell in slow motion to the floor in lurid thuds. Then silence.

Hiroshi’s arms stretched in the perfect Samurai warrior’s stance. Black eyes focused on something unseen over Gideon’s shoulder. He was a lethal bundle of stealth and precision. Silent and deadly—a predator cat—he slowly lowered his Katana and eased into a normal stance.

Red blood. Cold gray steel. Deader still.

Stop spouting limericks. You sound like a fortune cookie. Gideon snorted and kicked the blaster out of the human’s dead hand.

Haiku, Gideon, you illiterate ass…it was Haiku. Hiroshi huffed, dropping his Japanese accent. And stop ruining my mystique. I have a reputation.

Gideon turned slightly to see the barmaid watching Hiroshi pose. Her fingers quickly tugged at the tight t-shirt, exposing assets that were barely contained. Does Miss Double D know you’re from Barstow?

Hiroshi leaned over and grabbed a few folds of the dead hunter’s coat. He lovingly wiped the blood from his blade. The overly large sleeves of his robes swung precariously over the pooling blood. Gideon rolled his eyes as he took in Hiroshi’s latest outfit. He was dressed in a Dôbuku sugata, a leisure garment worn by ancient samurai or at least one Samurai in particular. From the navy robe to the straw rope sandals, Hiroshi was playing Sanjuro Kuwabatake.

"You’ve been watching Yojimbo again." Gideon stuffed his blaster back into place.

What can I say? My new little friend loves the classics. Hiroshi flashed an obscene grin at the bar maid and then brushed his horse hair straight pony tail over his shoulder. Patches of red and white formed a spray paint pattern against Hiroshi’s midnight black hair. "Besides, I was dressing the part. It looks like a scene from A Fistful of Dollars in here. Casting a cursory gaze across Gideon’s form, his eyes rested on the blasters hanging on Gideon’s hips. Clint."

Hiroshi sheathed his sword and stood majestically, making sure his bar maid friend had the full view of Japanese manhood. He wagged his eyebrows at Gideon and winked. I think I’ll go with the cuddly house kitty. You’ve got this covered, right?

His form shimmered for a moment and then dwindled in swirls of white, red and black. Seconds later, a Japanese Bobtail cat stretched lazily on the bar floor. Its small body had large patches of black and red spilling across silky white fur. Hiroshi was a bakeneko, or werecat. He had three settings: annoying human, cute woman-magnet kitty, and large predator cat. He was also the only male bakeneko in the Outskirts, or the human world for that matter.

Few people made the mistake of teasing Hiroshi about his uniqueness. And if they did, they’d quickly wish they’d kept their jokes to themselves. It was a sore spot with Hiroshi…that and his bad Haiku.

Can you rein in your hormones please? We have to find our runner or the Graves Brothers will make sure we spend some quality time in prison. Thanks for the help with Doug and his goons, by the way. Gideon rubbed at his wet collar. And funny stuff with the wet bar towel. You are such a tool.

A gaggle of ghouls taught you how to control your temper where I could not. I should pay them. Hiroshi’s tiny cat paw smacked at Gideon’s leg as he hissed a grating laugh. Come now, Piglet, you know I have no interest in talk of business. You handle the contracts and the tracking. I handle watching your ass. Hiroshi twitched his ear and looked longingly toward the bar. You know you could stop acting like my old maiden aunt and come with me. Brandi has a sister.

Of course her name’s Brandi. It would be nice if you took a little interest in the business once in a while, Hiroshi. Gideon rolled his eyes when the fuzzy cat rubbed against his leg. Okay, but you owe me.

He watched the furry little backside move like lightening toward the barmaid. Hiroshi brushed his side along her leg, bouncing his stubby rabbit-like tail toward her cooing lips. She bent down and scooped up the cat in her arms. Gideon shook his head. What was it with women and cats? There wasn’t a female human or mutant that could resist Hiroshi’s kitty charms.

Gideon snatched his belongings off the floor where they’d fallen during the commotion and headed toward the door. He pulled on his long coat, made from the hide of a beast he’d tracked down in the Outskirts a few years back, as he walked. The cinnamon fur was soft and warm as hell, a plus in this frozen over shithole.

He stepped over the headless body and walked out into hazy sunshine. The mining town of Hawthorne stretched out before him like a cluttered landfill covered in slush. It wasn’t snowing, for a change.

Two suns filtered by a constant haze hung like the decorative lights in a cheap bar. They added to the ambiance, but did little to warm the patrons. Their dulled spheres overlapped one another, tied together by the same force that wrought their existence and left their third instance—the original sun—back in the human world.

The new generation of mutant-born in this world had never seen gentle clouds drifting across the brilliant skies of the human world. Their skies were dull yellow fading into a blue-gray fog. Gideon had once heard Hiroshi describe it as dusk against a tornado sky.

This pimple on the ass of the world had been the epicenter of a reality-shattering rip in the veil between two worlds. It wasn’t clear which side had caused the dimensional rift, but The Calamity as it came to be known opened a conduit between the human world and this one. Humans were snatched from their own reality and transported to the mutant world. They were altered forever and forced to spend their days as mutants in the Outskirts.

There was no going back through the conduit for any resident of the mutant world. Border Patrol made sure any who tried wound up as pig slop on a farm in the Bible belt. Give a human border patrol agent a big gun loaded with killing magic and watch mercy take a one way ticket to hell.

Gideon pulled the collar of his coat tightly about his neck. He shoved his hands in warm pockets. The Calamity had been several decades before his time, but being this close to the Hawthorne Conduit still gave him the creeps. He looked to the bluffs a short mile from Hawthorne’s city limits. Step into those bluffs and you’d find yourself in the human world…a place called Kansas. Gideon turned away and headed toward the parking lot.

He’d been to the human world. They could keep it.

Chapter 2

Nixon, fetching boy for hire, leaned against the tracks of Gideon’s loaner snowcat. His untidy, reddish blond hair flopped in curly strands over the pock marked skin of his face. Nixon may have looked human, but during the Calamity his family’s genetics had merged with the Nebula—a race of energy beings native to the new world. It was a very rare and disturbing occurrence.

How many did you boys kill this time, sport? Nixon asked.

Just the one, but I’m not busy this afternoon…sport.

Gideon watched Nixon’s easy manner as he unfolded his arms and opened the standard issue Gallagher Corporation parka. His name was stitched in bright gold letters on the left breast. No weapons. Gideon eased his hand off the trigger of the blaster he had hidden in his coat pocket. Nixon was a wild card. He wasn’t a friend, and he wasn’t an enemy. Sometimes he could be both at once.

You’re busy now. Franklin Gallagher has a job he wants you to do. Nixon pushed away from the snowcat.

I’m working a case. Gideon stepped up on the steel track and positioned his face before the tiny camera on the driver’s side door. He waited as it read his image. The door locks popped open when it was satisfied Gideon wasn’t a thief. The snowcat’s design may have been based on the Antarctic utility vehicle, the PistenBully, but it had mutant enhancements that came in handy in the Outskirts.

I guarantee Gallagher will pay more than the chump who hired you to stomp around in the snow fields.

He glared at Nixon through the floor-length windshield. Franklin Gallagher was the CEO of Gallagher Corporation, one of the most powerful organizations in the mutant city of New Athens, if not the most powerful. He owned several businesses and properties throughout the Outskirts Territory including Hawthorne. Gideon kept his hands steady, smothering the anticipation. Franklin Gallagher wanted to see him? Well, maybe his luck was about to change after all?

Stop playing coy. We both know you’re going to accept the case. I’ll ride along just to make sure you don’t take any wrong turns. A canary grin stretched across Nixon’s face as he opened Gideon’s passenger door. Let’s go, Brody said it was urgent.

Brody?

Yeah, he’s Gallagher’s Plant Manager in Hawthorne, and the guy I work for right now.

You must be pulling in good money to work in this shithole. Gideon ducked his head inside and slid behind the wheel. Snow crunched beneath them as the snowcat’s tracks cut through the slush. He kept a close eye on Nixon’s hands. Gideon had seen him in action. One unguarded moment, one turned back and Nixon’s Nebula side could fry a man crispier than a turkey at a Texas barbeque.

They headed north down Main Street and under the metallic arch reading, Welcome to Hawthorne, Harnessing Power for Our World and Your Home. Someone had spray painted a different version on the arch…something to do with male body parts.

A few small businesses lined either side of Main Street. Pizza parlors, junk food stores and snowcat rentals mixed together in a collage of small-town America for the human employees of Gallagher Corporation. Trailer park houses dotted the streets to the west, keeping the employees comfortable when they weren’t slaving in the plant. There was even a little church to bond them together as a community. Gideon snorted. What a community! They slept easy enough as they worked over the bones of the mutants whose land had been stolen by their benefactor.

They pulled to a stop at the second of three traffic lights in the tiny town. Letting his gaze drift past Nixon and settle on the sidewalk, Gideon saw one of the evicted mutant land owners. Big eyes on a turtle-like head watched them pass from a dingy alley. Its long, wrinkled fingers gripped at the denim overall it wore and then resumed rummaging through the human garbage. Turepes, named by some science geek back in New Athens for their turtle-like appearance, had once been the sole residences of Hawthorne before Gallagher Corporation came to town. They’d been human once, swept away from their little farming community in Kansas and deposited on the other side of the conduit to spend their days as meek biological farming drones. With fingers shaped for planting seeds and feet flat enough to traverse mud, they were made to merge with the land.

Nixon followed his gaze. Damn it! If I hear one more store owner bitch about those maggots in his garbage…pull over.

Why, so you can go get your jollies off beating up some defenseless mutant who’d shit himself if you said ‘boo’? Gideon shook his head, rolling the snowcat into the intersection. I’m not stopping.

He felt the weight of Nixon’s incredulous stare. Tiny crackles of electricity sparked in his peripheral vision. Gideon pressed the accelerator a little harder. Nixon could go to hell. They rode in awkward silence, while Gideon held his breath and watched for energy bolts flying his way.

Well, look who’s turned into mister sensitive. Nixon laughed and took out a cigarette. What’s next, Gideon? Have you already picked out curtains with that human preacher, Hastings? Are you two planning a ‘save the Turepe’ bake sale? He sent a slight spark of energy to the end of the cigarette and it flared to life. Don’t be so naïve. If Gallagher Corporation hadn’t taken over this town, our border would be exposed to those human bastards. And then where would your freedom be when they stormed New Athens like cockroaches, huh? Isn’t that worth slapping a few nobodies back into their caves?

Gideon gripped the wheel tighter and kept quiet. Yeah, that was progress for you. Starve the mutants who owned the land, so the humans could be well fed and make money for the Guild. Peace through profits. Somebody should get a medal.

He turned his eyes forward to focus on the road, while maintaining his awareness of any sudden movements from Nixon. Keep traveling northeast and they’d end up in the Outskirts. Take the fork in the road, veer west and the conduit between worlds waited to swallow them up. As a child, Gideon had traveled with Hiroshi through the Outskirts as they moved from one mutant town to the next. Not one to stay any place for too long, Hiroshi decided to take his adopted son to the human world where he’d been raised.

Nixon slapped him lightly on the arm and pointed toward a large structure on the horizon. The mining facility stood like a steel tribute to Guild progress. Its bland yellow walls were unremarkable against the snowy landscape. Gallagher Corporation had raised the structure less than twenty human years