Doug Engstsrom, Author Des Moines skyline


Corporate Gunslinger

Greed means debt means violence.

In front of her, a door that leads to the dueling field. Behind her, an exit. Between them, Kira Clark weighs the prospect of killing and the possibility of dying against the certainty of a life in servitude. The changing room clock gives her eleven minutes and forty-two seconds to make her decision.

She could take the exit and forfeit the match. Walking away before a duel starts is a highly informal way for a professional gunfighter to resign, but she wouldn’t be the first. It would feel pretty good for about a month, maybe two, but then her money would run out, her creditors would foreclose, and she would become their property—theirs to do with as they pleased, for the rest of her life.

The only real way out is forward, through the scanner and onto the dueling field to face Niles LeBlanc. Make that Niles fucking LeBlanc: professional gunfighter, high-caliber asshole, and poor, dead Chloe’s contemptible ex-boyfriend. Kira brings her cold focus to bear on all the reasons he deserves to end the match with a bullet in his heart.

Right on schedule, fear breaks her chilly concentration, arriving as an awareness of her body’s vulnerability so acute that it sparks a deep ache in her chest. She wraps her torso in a self-hug and breathes, timing her inhalation by count and forcing the exhale to last twice as long. True to the promise of her first acting instructor, her muscles relax, her heart rate slows, and her mind goes blank. The terror flows through her, past her, around her . . . and then it is gone.

The anxiety used to spook her, feeding a fear that she was too weak for the job. Twenty-nine gunfights after her first match, it’s simply part of her changing room routine, like pulling on the dueling tunic with the TKC Insurance logo stitched on each shoulder, slipping her feet into the glove-soft boots, or attaching her ID chip to the box holding her personal effects.

She unwinds her arms and focuses on how Niles will see her, closing her eyes to shut out the changing room’s office-bland decor and bought-by-the-pound corporate artwork. She will enter the field as a deadly apparition, wearing the company colors of forest green and slate gray, her blonde hair clipped into the helmet-like shape of the gunfighter’s cut, and her eyes like two chips of stamped steel. She drives every hint of softness or compassion from her face, tightens her abdominal muscles, and straightens her spine.

Then the words, spoken only for herself: “I am death. I am terror. I am blood.”

She gives herself over to Death’s Angel, her role for the duration of the duel. Playing her longest running and most popular character, she will step onto her greatest stage to give her largest audience a life or death performance.

She speaks the final words of her personal incantation: “Show time.”