Jericho Porter was done. Out. Retired.
Porter had managed the impossible: retiring from the Gatekeepers…alive. Now, he was ready to slow down and live life on his terms. He was finally free.
He was also mistaken.
When Malkah Hafeez, an ex-lover and fellow Gatekeeper, calls in a favor, he knows he should refuse. She saved his life once, right before betraying him, gifting him with two neutralizing bullets center mass and leaving him for dead. He knows the smart play is to cut his losses, walk away, and disappear.
He’s done it before; he can do it again.
If he does, he dies.
Against every sense of self-preservation, he agrees to one more contract, joining Malkah’s elite team as she completes the erasure of a high value target. Outgunned and outmanned, Porter must risk it all, unleashing the fearsome power of the Gatekeepers once again.
In order to survive, he will have to step into his old world for one last dance with death.
Release date: November 28, 2021
Publisher: Bitten Peaches Publishing
Print pages: 148
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A Bullet Ballet: Tales of the Gatekeepers Book 1
Orlando A. Sanchez
—Corman on Combat
I was retired.
They let me keep my gun.
They let me keep my companion.
They left me alive.
I should’ve known something was wrong.
Traps, by their very nature, are designed to entice, to lull you into a false sense of security before the inevitable end. I didn’t see the trap snap closed until it was too late, and by then, I had run out of options.
That was a lie. I had options. They were all bad.
The sky wept over my city, turning a dark day into a darker night by the time I reached Croft’s after my evening walk.
Croft’s Ale House, located on the corner of 9th Avenue and 14th Street, occupied what was once the Hellfire Club. After that, the space was a series of restaurants and bars. Croft bought the block and gave it a makeover. It was still a hole in the wall, but it was my hole in the wall. I pushed open the massive front door and sidled up to the bar like a timid lover, aware of the liquid temptation whispering to me behind the bar.
In front of the alcohol, as if guarding the bottles, rested Croft’s Peacekeeper blade, an immense sword nearly five feet in length. It glowed a soft blue in the dim lighting. The runes inscribed along its length indicated it was one of the named blades. Croft had never shared its name, and I had never asked.
It served as both a deterrent and a reminder. You were welcome as long as you kept the peace. If you failed to do so, Croft would escort you out, violently if needed.
He was a bear of a man. The kind that picks up belligerent drunks by the scruff, gently tossing them out of the bar, and into a waiting cab with as much effort as we dispose of a used tissue. He glanced my way as I approached.
“Usual?” Croft asked, prepping my drink.
I nodded with a grunt as I sat on one of the nine stools.
“Rough life,” I growled, taking the offered glass. “Retirement is almost as bad as active duty.”
“Wouldn’t know,” Croft said. “Never retired, nor do I plan to.”
“Smart move,” I said, taking a sip from my glass and wincing. “A little heavy on the lemon.”
“Always,” Croft said with a smile. “Figured you were too sour to notice anyway. Besides, you know the drill.”
I had given up hard alcohol a lifetime and several massacres ago, but the habit, the glass, the dark bar, the clink of the ice, remained. These days I just fooled myself, mentally turning weak lemon water sake to vodka.
“I do,” I said as I turned to take in the bar. It was mostly empty, but would fill with the regulars soon enough. “Looks like a slow night.”
“You alone tonight?” Croft asked, glancing at the door. “Where’s Bug?”
“She’s on her way. You know her.”
“Don’t know how you served all those years with that maniac by your side.”
“That maniac saved my ass more times than I can remember.”
“How did you convince them to leave the companion bond intact?”
The only way to sever the companion bond is death. Bug, my companion, would shred anyone who tried to harm me. I shuddered at the thought of what she would do to anyone who attacked her.
The fact that she shifted into a ferocious canine the size of a dire wolf, helped deter the attempts on her life.
“No one in the Gatekeepers is suicidal enough to attempt to break it,” I said. “Besides, I think they’re hoping she’ll erase me one day in a fit of rage.”
“You have a guest,” Croft said, his gravelly voice filling the space as he motioned to a table in the corner with his chin. “Asked for you by name.”
Outside of Bug, no one knew where I lived, not even Croft, and he was the closest thing to a friend I had. My hand drifted to my side, making sure I had easy access to my weapon.
Old habits die hard.
If no one knew where I lived, I’d never have to start my day with the barrel of an Interdictor shoved against my temple in a fatal wake up call.
If I had a guest, it was someone who had tried and failed to find me through conventional means. The only reliable way to find me was the hour I spent at Croft’s every night.
The location and time were intentional.
I raised my glass indicating I needed another Sour Lemon. It was something Croft had created for me. He never told me what was in it; I knew it had some cold sake which provided the momentary burn on every sip, but nothing harder. Sake and lemons—the story of my life.
Croft slid the glass my way. I grabbed it and looked over to where my ‘guest’ sat.
Traps are designed to look like opportunities. It’s why I parked myself at Croft’s at seven every evening and stayed there for exactly one hour.
No more. No less.
Traps will tempt you. Before you know it, you’ve taken the bait only to discover how fragile and fleeting life is. By the time that realization hits, it’s usually your last or second to last breath.
No time for regrets. No time for anything.
“Violence or victim?” I asked, looking at the man, who sat at one of the nine tables with his back to me and the bar. He was either cocky or clueless. I didn’t have the patience for either. “He came in alone?”
“So far,” Croft said. “He looks too young to be a victim, and he’s not nearly old enough to be violence. Looks like he’s from your neck of the woods.”
“Gatekeepers would never send someone for me. Not like this and not here. Besides, I’m retired.”
“It’s been my experience,” Croft said, grabbing a large mug and wiping it down with a towel, “that Gatekeepers don’t retire, at least not while they’re breathing.”
I glanced back at Croft.
“I could say the same thing about Peacekeepers.”
“They asked me to leave because of my charming personality,” he said with a grin. “Peacekeepers love me.”
“I’m sure it was your charming personality that put your commanding officer in the hospital.”
“What can I say? Sometimes I rub people the wrong way.”
“It doesn’t help when you start the conversation with your fist.”
Croft shrugged, and looked to the side as his expression hardened.
“We had a difference of opinion. He wanted me to erase an entire town, because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he said, his voice grim. “I disagreed, and expressed my position, which resulted in his needing medical attention.”
I shook my head and smiled.
“Right,” I said. “Must have all been a misunderstanding.”
“Happens all the time,” he said, glancing at the guest. “Shouldn’t keep him waiting too long. He looks nervous.”
“Probably due to that charming personality of yours, plus that widowmaker of a blade you keep on the bar.”
Croft glanced back at his Peacekeeper blade.
“That little thing?” he asked. “It adds an air of character, or so I’m told.”
“Whoever said that, lied to you,” I said. “The only air it adds is one of fear.”
“Fear shapes character,” Croft said with a small smile. “At the very least, it reveals it.”
“All that thing reveals is that the owner of this establishment is unstable.”
“Never claimed to be anything else,” he said. “Better go see what he wants.”
“They know I’m retired,” I muttered, sliding off my stool. “Why would they send someone now?”
“Maybe they didn’t get the memo?”
I headed over to the table where my ‘guest’ waited.
“I’ve been informed you’re looking for me,” I said as I slid into the booth opposite the man. “How can I help you?”
“Jericho Porter,” he said, and I let my hand rest lightly against the holster of my gun, Judgment. “We need your services.”
“I’m retired,” I said. “Whatever it is, go back and tell them I said no.”
He was young, and full of the brash arrogance that comes with youth. It was like looking at myself thirty years ago. He wore the Gatekeeper uniform: dark suit with dark shirt—functionally invisible in plain sight. I could see the bulge of his weapon—an Interdictor, same as mine—under his suit jacket.
I slid out of the booth, stepping away from the table.
“I’m afraid that’s not an option, Mr. Porter,” he said. “I’ve been instructed to bring you back, by force if necessary.”
“I would advise against that,” I said, backing up. “Do the right thing and tell them you couldn’t locate me. Save us both a headache.”
He stood and bladed his body, sliding into a fighting stance with practiced ease.
Thirty years my junior and skilled enough to do damage—if I let him. For a brief second, I contemplated taking him on. Then with a blur of motion, I came to my senses, drew my gun and shot him in the leg.
Yes, I shot first. Always planned to. It’s called exploiting a target of opportunity.
“Fuck!” he yelled, as he fell to the floor grabbing his leg. “What the hell, old man?”
“Croft,” I said, raising my voice and tying my belt around the young Gatekeepers thigh. “Get this man a medic. Seems like he has an acute case of bleeding.”
“I’ll call Nine,” he said, placing his hand on a section of the bar as several of the patrons looked over and quickly looked away, unimpressed at the scene.
They’d seen worse at Croft’s.
A few seconds later, a thin, wiry woman, dressed in a black, form-fitting evening gown appeared next to me. She carried a large medic bag and placed it on the floor next to young, dumb and bleeding.
“Hey, Nine,” I said, looking at her. “Nice dress. Chanel?”
“Porter,” she said, ignoring my compliment. “I was having dinner. Can you refrain from perforations while I’m eating?”
She pulled out a pair of scissors from her bag and sliced through Gatekeeper’s pants leg, examining his wound.
“He started it.”
She glared at me and shook her head.
“At least you haven’t lost your aim,” she said and began to clean and dress the wound. “Looks like a clean shot. Missed all the important parts.”
“This crazy old man shot me!” the Gatekeeper said, raising his voice and staring at me. “Are you insane? Do you know who I am? What I am?”
“You mean, besides loud and irritating?”
“Be still,” Nine said. “Or I’ll shoot you myself just to stop your whining.”
“What’s your name?” I asked, watching Nine get to work. “What level?”
“Ross,” he said. “Gatekeeper-Level 4.”
“Level 4? Are you serious? They sent a Level 4 to apprehend me?”
“I was sent to deliver a message,” Ross countered. “Not get into a gunfight. No one informed me you were a psychopath.”
“I’m not a psychopath. If I were, we’d be blackbagging you right now.”
“Well, you are retired,” Nine said, suppressing a smile. “Whoever sent him probably thought you weren’t much of a threat.”
“Hilarious,” I said and turned to look to Ross. “What were you expecting? You said ‘by force’ if necessary.”
Nine looked at Ross and paused.
“Did you say by force if necessary?” she asked. “Really?”
“Those were my instructions,” Ross said. “Bring him back to HQ, by force if needed. No one told me he was armed.”
Nine nodded and resumed working.
“Looks like you were operating with a lack of accurate information,” she said. “I thought Gatekeepers were experts at expecting the worst?”
“We are,” I said, holstering my gun and looking at Ross. “Did you think we were going to go toe-to-toe, and I was going to let you use me as a punching bag?”
Ross winced as Nine worked. Sweat formed along his brow.
“That was dirty,” Ross said. “Call me an ambulance before she kills me.”
“Yes, it was dirty,” I said, crouching down next to him. “I’m old and tired. I didn’t get here by being lucky. I got here by fighting dirty and stacking the deck in my favor.”
“They don’t make Gatekeepers like they used to,” Nine said under her breath as she kept working. “They used to be tough…well, tougher.”
“What do you want?” Ross asked. “Are you going to call a real medic?”
Nine looked up and glanced at Ross. I shook my head.
“This would be a good time to measure your words, Gatekeeper,” she said with an edge to her voice. “Your comments might insult my delicate sensibilities, which could result in my accidentally slicing through one of the major arteries in your leg. Sadly, you would bleed out in five minutes or so. It would be a tragic loss.”
Ross stared at Nine.
“You wouldn’t,” he said. “I’m a Gatekeeper. You can’t do that.”
“You’d be surprised at what I can and cannot do,” she said as she kept working. “Porter, did you know he was a Gatekeeper?”
“Do you mean before or after I shot him?”
Ross looked up at me.
“What do you want?” he asked.
I sighed. This was going to be an entire incident if I didn’t shut it down now. Nine would save him, but next time they wouldn’t send a Level 4. They’d unleash the big guns, Levels 1 and 2, to pay me a visit.
“I have no time or patience to dance with you,” I said. “I’ll ask some questions and you’ll give me answers, or I shoot you again.”
“Porter…” Nine said as she finished up and tapped Ross’s thigh. “Stop scaring him. He’ll cooperate. Won’t you, Gatekeeper?”
“If you lie to me,” I said, ignoring Nine, “I’ll shoot you in the knee. I hear that hurts for life. Are we clear?”
“Absolutely,” Ross said, fear tinging his voice. “What do you want to know?”
“You’re not even going to pretend to defy him?” Nine asked, disappointed. “Who’s training these Gatekeepers? You used to be made of much sterner stuff.” She turned to look at Croft behind the bar. “Croft don’t call me again tonight.”
Croft nodded as she stood, closed her bag, and slipped through a portal, vanishing from sight.
I looked down at Ross.
“Who sent you?” I asked. “Think carefully before answering.”
“Gatekeeper…Gatekeeper Hafeez,” Ross stammered. “She knew where to find you and said to bring you, by force if necessary.”
The name gut punched me silent for a few moments.
“Are you sure that’s the name?” I managed after a few seconds. “Malkah Hafeez?”
“Orders came directly from her,” he said. “Specified you by name, despite your retired status.”
“She sent only you?”
“No, she didn’t,” a familiar voice behind me said. “She knows you too well for that.”
“The Trinity?” I said, without turning. “I’m impressed.”
I rotated slowly and saw three figures—one man and two women—near the entrance of Croft’s. These weren’t Level 4 Gatekeepers. These three were some of the most dangerous and capable Gatekeepers in action.
Ian, the lead, was a threat with every bladed weapon known to man. The twins, Gara and Alexa, were known as the Mistwalkers. They possessed the ability to phase-shift in addition to being ruthless and skilled fighters. The only way to differentiate them now was the half-veil Alexa wore, covering the savage scars on one side of her face.
Officially, they led the Red Crows—a Gatekeeper elite task force. Unofficially, they were known as the Trinity of Death. It was a name designed to instill fear and dread in any who heard it.
I should know. I came up with it.
Individually, each one was a major threat. Facing them together was a death sentence. Mal was taking no chances.
“Shit,” I said. “She’s serious.”
Croft made to grab his sword, but I slowly shook my head. If he did, they would cut him down without a second thought. Peacekeepers were a force to be reckoned with, but these three had earned their name many times over.
“Quite, I’m afraid,” Ian said, giving Croft a slight nod which Croft returned. “Hello, Porter.”
“Ian, it’s been a while,” I said, standing slowly and keeping my empty hands in view. “Can’t believe Mal sent you three.”
Ian looked down at Ross, then back at me.
“Seems like the right call,” he said. “Where’s your companion?”
“Yes. Where is she?” Alexa asked, keeping her voice low and full of menace as she ran a finger along the veil covering her face. “I have something I’d like to give her.”
“She’s not here, lucky for you,” I said. “You know how she is; she’s probably out getting a manipedi. She likes to keep those claws of hers sharp. Why don’t you leave whatever it is you have for her, here with me?”
Alexa smiled, chilling my blood in the process, mostly because I could only see half of her face. Not that I wanted to see the carnage beneath the veil.
“I’m afraid this is a personal matter between us,” Alexa replied. “I’m sure I’ll see her soon enough.”
Not if she sees you first.
Several years ago, before I retired, the Gatekeepers had discontinued the companion program. Companions were thought to be too volatile—an unknown variable that could snap and jeopardize a Gatekeepers life in the middle of action. The Mistwalkers were given the task of retiring the remaining companions—permanently.
It was a successful operation until they got to one of the remaining operational companions—Bug. Bug disagreed with their method of retirement and ripped off half of Alexa’s face to make her point.
The Gatekeepers left Bug and the remaining companions alone after that. Alexa took it personally—not that I blamed her. Having half your face ripped off tends to create a lasting impact on the victim.
Usually one of extreme hatred.
“May be better if you and Bug avoid that reunion,” I said, shaking my head slowly. “Wouldn’t want her to finish what she started.”
Alexa’s face reddened at my words as her body tensed.
“Listen here, you old bastard,” Gara started. “That psycho bitch of yours needs to be put—”
Ian raised a hand and Gara became silent.
“Gatekeeper Hafeez requests the honor of your presence,” Ian said, keeping his voice neutral. “Will you comply?”
“Not anymore, Porter,” Ian said, drawing his gun. The two women beside him did the same in one, smooth, lethal motion. “You have unfinished business to attend to.”
“I finished all of my business,” I said. “That’s how I managed to retire.”
“Gatekeeper Hafeez disagrees,” Ian said. “You could join us of your own volition, or I could use my blades and bring what remains back to her. Your choice.”
“Well, since you’re asking so nicely, how can I refuse?”
“What do you want me to tell Bug when she gets here?” Croft asked, raising his voice. “You know she will ask.”
“You tell her she’s been derelict in her duties,” Alexa said as Gara made her way over to Ross and helped him to his feet. “Tell her I’ll be waiting for her.”
“Tell her not to follow me.” I stole a glance at Alexa. “It’s too dangerous.”
“Got it,” he said. “I’ll make sure she understands.”
It was going to be a bad night for the Gatekeepers.
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