The woman in the green greatcoat was Juno’s age, roughly thirty years. Like most of her deputies, her hair was fiery red and suggested something tribal and barbaric: a wild mane from which several braids slithered like sea serpents from a river of napalm. Her face was chiseled and square-jawed, and cruel when it smiled, doubly so thanks to the bayonet scar across her left eye from brow to jawline — every soldier stereotype Juno had ever seen, rolled into a single, smirking, malignant individual. The deputies gave her plenty of room as she strolled past to join Juno, her sheriff’s badge glistening on her chest, eyes burning like tiny volcanoes.
She bared her yellow teeth in an unpleasant smile, and chuckled as she nodded to Juno’s eyepatch. “Shee-it. If we ain’t sisters in arms already.”
Juno had heard horror stories about her during the war. Back then she had been called “Ruthless” Ruth Bowie; her reputation as Gaulheim sheriff lived up to the name. Juno kept on her guard as if she were walking across the courtyard with a wild tiger at her side.
“We ain’t never met,” said Ruth as she rolled a cigarette. “But I know all about you. Some folks collect antiques, or stamps, or itty bitty ships in bottles. I collect war stories. You was some badass commando in Jotunheim. Amazon Force, right?”
“Something like that.”
“Yeah, we heard about your unit. Little whispered legends, as if sayin’ your name too loud would summon you like Bloody Mary. Unit was called Ghost Lion, wasn’t it? Or was that just you?”
“I was Queen. The unit was Ghost Lion.”
Ruth chuckled. “Good name. Stalk the enemy camp, slip in like the mist, kill everything that breathes, then vanish. The way Nessy tells it, you’re the only Ghost Lion made it outta the war.”
Juno said nothing.
Ruth planted the cigarette between her lips and lit it up. She took a deep drag. “The way Nessy tells it, you’re like a one-woman army.”
Juno glanced briefly at her. “She tells me you waterboarded a woman to death trying to get a confession out of her.”
Ruth shrugged. “She made it tough on herself.”
“Got you suspended, didn’t it?”
“Coupla days. Doc was plenty mad, but she’s scatterbrained and forgets easy. She can’t run this city without me anyhow. Spends all her time in her little lab, playin’ dictator. Without me to keep an eye on things, her sorry-ass citizens woulda tarred and feathered her loony ass years ago.” She smirked at Juno’s eyepatch. “It true that a dog ate your eye?”
“Mostly ate it, or mostly true?”
Ruth shook her head and laughed out a plume of smoke. “Woulda served Nessy right if you’da killed her pups. She’s like a fuckin’ kid. Never listens or learns.”
“How’d she get such a high position in the police force?”
“Aw, she ain’t in charge o’ nothin’, really. I do all the heavy liftin’. The rest o’ my unit couldn’t find their tits with both hands. They’re used to action, not paperwork.” She pointed at Juno with the cigarette. “Don’t get me wrong. So long as they do right by me, I do right by my girls. I love and respect ev’ry one of ‘em, be they crazy or stupid. A commander oughta be a big sister to her unit or she ain’t worth a shit. That how it was with the Ghost Lions?”
Juno’s heart sank as Ruthie’s gory execution replayed in her memory: a useless death for saving the life of a useless commander.
“Yeah,” she said.
When they came to the gate, both women stopped and waited as the doors slowly opened, admitting a slurry of snowflakes which vaporized before they touched the grass. Juno’s three vans sat in the snow on the other side; her shivering valkyries warmed themselves with a community mead horn.
Ruth took one last drag and chucked her cigarette into the snow. “Stick around a few hours n’ have a drink with me. We got the best mead hall in the valley just up the road from here. Ain’t got no delusions o’ class like Gaul does.”
Juno now had a closer look at Ruth’s greatcoat: the fabled coat she had worn in the army, each button fashioned from the molar of a dead enemy, not all of whom were identified.
“I have work to do back home,” said Juno.
“Shee-it, I ain’t askin’ you on a date. All o’ Gaulheim is blue collar hicks. There’s nobody in this burg for a soldier to talk to, ‘cept my idiot troops. You n’ me, we both seen some crazy shit in our time.”
“I bet you see a lot more working for Dr. Gaul.”
Ruth’s grin was hideous. “It has its perks. Think it over. You change your mind, gimme a ring.”
They exchanged salutes, and Juno hurried through the gate.