Understreets of Romeria
Universal System Date 16.01.74
In the lexicon of bars, Ray Slater figured The Needle just made the bottom of the list by dint of having thrown a strip of melanine siding over a handful of sawed-off tunnel supports, across which drinks of equally dubious origin could be slung.
The joint was located on the lowest sub-level of the city of Romeria—though Ócala’s population leaned heavy on the Human side, the geo-techs who’d designed the planet were Suradi, and followed that species’ model of building down.
The design’s intention was to reduce strain on the planet’s resources, but, to Ray’s way of thinking, the subs mostly just gave the folks upstairs someplace private to shovel their trash.
A place, Ray thought, much like The Needle.
Like most sub-t structures, the bar was compact; the room longer than it was wide, but not as long as it appeared. The seeming depth was a side effect of The Needle’s low visibility—most of the light came from oil candles scattered about the tables—and further suggested by an uneven ventilation system, which left a veil of smoke (from candles, cigarettes and various recreational inhalants) hanging at the bar’s rear.
The entire effect was such that a body entering the dilating eye of a door (literally, as the bar’s owner had painted an eye on the circular opening) could easily believe The Needle had no back wall at all, but simply drifted on endlessly, a tunnel within the tunnels that made up the understreets. This lack of ventilation also accounted for The Needle’s distinctive fug, a blend of smoke, off-brand booze, and sweat from dozens of species.
Not even a dive, The Needle was the bit of grit stuck between the teeth of a dive.
It was also damn crowded.
Ray’s intel had it that the only other bar in the sector had burned down a few weeks past, and it looked like The Needle was picking up the slack, crammed as it was with low-rent locals and lower-rent spacers, all crowding the bar or jostling for seats around the claptrap tables, socializing or not, as the mood struck.
It wasn’t the first sinkhole of a pub Ray had been forced to enter in the course of his career, but that didn’t make The Needle, or its patrons, any less repulsive.
Nor did it mitigate the sudden, itching compulsion to seek out the nearest shower.
Not giving in to the urge to scratch the base of his neck, he made his way towards the bar proper, aware of the eyes following him. He was also aware of what they’d see—a Human male with the deeply tanned skin (hereditary, not ‘beach-tanned’—he hadn’t so much as seen a beach in a full system year), black hair that waved down to his collar, deep brown eyes and a down-on-his-luck ensemble of battered leather jacket, worn trousers, and faded black shirt.
Vid-star looks, he’d been told by one of his bed partners, but she’d been tipsy at the time, and he doubted any of The Needle’s patrons would share her alcohol-induced opinion.
As he passed through the crowds, he kept his ears pricked for news—or trouble. Mostly what he heard was a lot of chatter about a body found two streets away.
No ID released, word filtered through the masses, but had anyone seen Kaneth Sooks in the last thirty-one, standard?
No, the answer rippled back in a flurry of accents, before someone with the Voice of Authority shared the tidbit that Kaneth had been talking about a sweet deal with some real high roller, and how he’d be moving topside if it worked out.
That was the talk near the entrance.
Deeper in the room, the patter faltered, and as it reached the smoke-draped terminus of the joint, sputtered to little more than the occasional whispered comment.
As he found a place mid-bar to squeeze in, Ray’s eye caught on a man seated in the shadows at the rear of the joint, his chair tilted back against the wall and one booted foot propped on the scarred curve of the small table in front of him. Sharing the table with that boot was a half-empty glass and one of the ubiquitous oil candles.
A cigarette dwindled to ashes on the fellow’s lip as he sat and listened and observed, as he himself was observed, by the locals—plus Ray.
And what they all saw was a tall Human in a long, dark coat that draped over a ropy physique. A length of lank black hair fell over a narrow, olive-toned visage etched with lines of experience.
Ray figured some of those experiences must have been painful, judging by the scar running in a curve from the outer corner of the right eye to just below the lip. And then there was the eye itself, an ocular implant with a foreboding red iris that contrasted sharply with the near black of the man’s left eye.
As Ray waited for the bartender to work his way down to his position, Red-Eye’s cigarette died and was flicked to the floor, where it joined the detritus of hundreds of other abandoned smokes. The man leaned forward just far enough to reach his glass.
No one watching, not even Ray, could say how or when he took a drink, but when the glass returned to the table, its contents had dwindled by half again.
Movement from another table presaged a change, and Ray’s attention shifted to one of the locals, who walked up to the shadowed figure with the baleful red eye and asked, “What’s your story, cabrón?”
Ray’s right eyebrow arched, and, since he had yet to be served, he settled in for the show.
Red-Eye’s sallow face tilted up to where the challenger, a slender Human male, heavy on the Latino side, posed for the audience. Medium height, brown eyes, and dressed to impress in leather and sharp implements, the newcomer boasted a well-maintained goatee and black hair pulled from the widow’s peak into a sleek tail.
The only thing distinguishing him from the other thugs, dealers, and whores populating the room was the black rose emblem on the shoulder of his jacket.
“Who’s asking?” The seated man’s voice, gravel with a hint of shale, ground out the question.
“Enris, León Enris,” the interloper said, then smiled. “But you may call me ‘sir.’”
“Funny.” Another cigarette appeared in Red-Eye’s hand and was lit with the table’s candle. After a slow draw, he exhaled. “Was there anything else?” he asked. “Hope you’re not waiting for me to ask you out.” One hand rose to scratch at the scar. “Not that you ain’t pretty, but I prefer women.”
“And I prefer men who look like men, not escar la pota.” León’s lip curled in disdain at the stranger’s ravaged features while one hand produced a punch dagger. “I suppose you think that scar makes you scary.”
In response, Red-Eye’s boot, still resting on the table, shoved the two-top forward.
The sudden move knocked his drink to the floor, capsized the burning oil, and, most importantly from Ray’s point of view, drove the table’s edge straight into León’s gut, leaving him whooping in search of a breath.
“Nah,” the landslide of a voice rumbled out as Red-Eye grabbed León by the ponytail, “I don’t think this scar makes me scary.” He slammed the gasping thug’s head cheek down on the table, at the same time taking custody of the punch dagger. “Do you?”
Throughout the bar, conversation trickled to silence as everyone tuned in to the sudden shift of power.
“Sorry, what?” Red-Eye leaned down, crushing León’s face into the wood.
“Let you up?”
“Why didn’t you say?” With a flash of a crooked smile, Red-Eye released his grip and stepped away.
León, who’d been using every ounce of force possible to push himself away from the first hot lick of oil, was unprepared for the sudden lack of pressure, so he flew up like a child’s toy before stumbling back into the nearest table, spilling drinks and raising curses in equal measure.
He staggered upright and, turning, drew his gun—a move that might have proven more effective had Red-Eye not already been standing directly in front of him. Before León could squeeze the trigger, the other man had grabbed his wrist, which he twisted until the weapon’s muzzle pressed deep into the soft flesh beneath León’s chin.
“Are we done yet?” Red-Eye asked, his hand tightening over his opponent’s trigger finger.
León’s lip curled. Losing was one thing; losing face was another. “Go fuck yourself.”
The audience held its collective breath.
Red-Eye’s lip quirked. “Good answer,” he said, releasing León and stepping away while all those held breaths were released, sending each and every candle to dancing. “You got guts,” he added, holding León’s gun out to him (but not, Ray noted, the dagger. That had disappeared into one of the coat’s many pockets). “I like that.”
León straightened and took the gun with one hand while the other rubbed over the reddened skin where its muzzle had so recently been pressed. “You loco, cabrón.”
“I’ve heard that before.” The stranger’s lips twisted further into what might have been a smile. “Let me buy you a drink, take the sting off.” He jerked his chin towards the bar.
“Wait.” León held up his hand. “I mean, sure. I mean—who are you?”
“Just a guy looking for work,” the stranger said, striding to the bar. “Heard tell of a crew being put together in the understreets, figured I’d check it out.” He held up two fingers to the bartender before glancing over his shoulder to add, “You know anyone looking to hire?”
León considered the question as one hand unconsciously brushed over the black rose on his jacket. “I might,” he said at last. “But they’ll want a name,” he added as he holstered his gun and joined the cabrón, who passed the first of the two glasses to him.
“Tell ‘em Victor Raz is in town.”
On hearing the name, the bar stirred to disbelieving life.
“Raz?” León’s voice rose over the shuffles and murmurs rising throughout the room.
“I heard Raz was dead,” another voice growled (literally growled, as the speaker was one of the wolf-like Gmell race) from the table León had crashed into.
“Killed by an Inter-Sys Marshal four years back,” the bartender filled in. “Guy name ‘a Finn. Word has it the marshal got a commendation.”
“Worked out well for both of us.” Victor’s left shoulder slid up in an approximation of a shrug. “He got the medal for offing me, and I got the heat off ‘a my back ‘cause they figure I’m a corpse.”
Someone let out a whistle.
“You bribed an Inter-Sys?” someone else asked.
“An Untouchable?” another man, a slight figure with wispy blond hair, tossed in.
Victor’s red eye gleamed across the room and the wispy fellow shrank into himself. “Everyone has a price.”
“What about the story I heard?” a woman at the bar chimed in. “That you got yourself married to a Rasalkan priestess.”
“Done that, I’d be better off dead.”
That got everyone in the bar laughing.
Everyone, that is, except Victor… and Ray.
And, though no one else in the bar noticed, Victor’s crooked glare met Ray’s coolly assessing gaze and held it for a split second before León began introducing Victor to his fellow lowlifes.
At the same time, Ray’s attention was drawn by the approach of the bartender.
“This ain’t no tourist attraction, pogue.”
Ray turned his gaze from the Victor Raz fanfest to where the bartender had finally arrived. Instinctively he controlled the grimace that wanted to emerge because the bartender had a face like a pig’s oink and breath that smelled as if something had crawled down his throat and decomposed.
The one-two combination momentarily distracted Ray’s attention from the warning flags at the edge of his consciousness, a fluttering reminder that anyone walking into a joint like this was akin to a bovine walking into a slaughterhouse.
And since Victor Raz had so adroitly avoided the abattoir, the locals would be that much hungrier for fresh meat.
“You drinking or sightseeing?” The bartender leaned forward another inch.
“Drinking, depending on what you got.” Ray fought against the urge to ease back into less nauseating territory.
“What we got,” the bartender said, his pockmarked features shifting to pursed-lipped impatience, “is whiskey and beer and wine. The local stuff, in case it matters, pogue.”
“Whiskey, then. And make it a double.”
“We only pour one size in here, pogue.” The bartender plopped a wide-rimmed plasto-jigger on the bar top with a deliberate thump and poured it full from a dark obsidian bottle with no label.
His instincts kicked in again as Ray’s dark eyes glanced to the bar’s right, which had recently been populated by a small clutch of bedraggled patrons.
Now only one remained.
The others were still present, however. They had moved into the shadows, creeping into behind him and to his left, cutting off access to the bar’s entrance.
“Salut.” He raised the jigger, making brief eye contact with the scowling bartender, and knocked it back in one long swig. “Again.” He placed the jigger on the bar. “And leave the bottle.”
“That’ll cost ya, po—” The bartender’s reply was hacked short as his wrist was suddenly clamped by Ray’s hand.
“Call me pogue again,” Ray’s fingers tightened, dialing the bartender’s expression up from a scowl to wide-eyed alarm, “and you won’t like where I leave the bottle, friend.”
“You got it,” the bartender’s response was accompanied by a grin of tobacco-stained teeth and the use of his free hand to slide the bottle across the bar top.
Pouring himself another, Ray shifted so his left side pressed against the bar, giving him a better view of the joint’s interior—especially the table where Victor Raz and his new acquaintance now held court.
Sipping his drink, Ray considered what he knew of the name Raz: a pirate and smuggler who worked the frontiers, and who wasn’t above taking on the odd hit or enforcement gig until his apparently exaggerated death. All of which might interest the Inter-System Marshals, but Ray wasn’t ISM, and his purpose in braving The Needle’s rotgut had nothing to do with Victor Raz, and everything to do with a pair of lowlifes he’d been tracking for—
“I’ll need credits up front—friend,” the bartender announced, thrusting a mottled palm across the bar, interrupting Ray’s thoughts.
And now the diversion, Ray thought. Typical move—snag the mark’s attention and keep him distracted while the jackers moved in for the kill.
“If you say so,” he replied as one jacker at the end of the bar began her slide forward, hand delving into the sash beneath her ragged thawb tunic.
Ray flexed the muscles in his left forearm, activating the spring that shot the vibro-dagger up his sleeve into his waiting hand.
At the same time, he caught the flicker of motion and the scrape of a chair from the Raz table, which was not reassuring. The jackers he could take, but Raz and his entire fan club could be trouble.
“Well, pack me in a crate and ship me home!”
At that exclamation, all motion ceased, and every head in the joint swiveled in the direction of the interruption, a table not too far from the one Raz was at, occupied by a single hulking customer.
A moment later the figure rose, showing itself to be a male of average height but bulky inside a hooded thawb of deep brown, while the lower portion of his face was shrouded in a thick, wooly beard.
He moved toward the bar with an ease that belied his girth, and stopped just behind the jacker nearest the bar’s entrance.
“I knew you looked familiar.” The bearded man threw back his hood to reveal a pair of deep-set brown eyes beneath heavy brows and a head devoid of hair.
Possibly, Ray thought, it had all migrated to his face.
“It is you, el tee,” the bearded one continued, shaking his dome in disbelief. “Lieutenant…” He snapped his fingers repeatedly. “Slate—no—Slater! Lieutenant RD Slater, Third Battalion Echo Company, Confed Marines.”
Ray bared his teeth. “You’ve got me at a disadvantage, friend.”
“Oh, I’m sure you don’t know me, el tee,” the man replied with a grin. “The name’s—well, my name was different back then. But I was there at Thunderbolt—Foxtrot Company, support unit. I was a drop ship pilot.”
What are the odds? Ray thought while the bald bear turned to face the crowd.
“This is the guy,” the pilot said, projecting like a stage actor despite the unnatural quiet that had fallen over the room, “this is the lieutenant who shot the shubo officer who called an air strike down on his own people. Beat the bastard to bloody meat and put a bullet in him. This man is A-OK,” he continued with a warning glare for the would-be jackers at the bar. “Your credits are no good here, El Tee,” he said, turning to Ray as a surprisingly perfect set of white teeth materialized within his shrub of a beard. “In fact,” his voice rose in volume, “the next round of drinks are on the house!”
In the wave of bedlam following the announcement, Ray, prompted by his bearded savior, pushed his way clear of the thirst-driven throng to join the man at his original table.
A beckoning wave by the pilot summoned a svelte Cherrii in a halter top and micro skirt, with emphasis on the micro.
“Tell Braxx I want a bottle of the real stuff and two glasses,” the bear told the working girl.
“Just two glasses, Oz?” The Cherrii’s hairless skin shimmered the pale green of arousal from scalp to toe while her eyes slid appreciatively over Ray.
Her verdant response had Ray wondering, not for the first time, how Cherrii pros dealt with unappealing johns. Not like they could fake it, not with every emotion they experienced broadcast to the worlds via their changing skin color. Some of the less evolved Humans in Ray’s past had taken to calling them “Moodies,” in reference to mood rings, an ancient Terran bauble that saw a resurgence in popularity after the first contact between the Cherrii and Human cultures.
“That’s the el tee’s choice. Later,” Oz told the hovering pro. “In the meantime,” he locked one ham fist around the girl’s wrist with what looked to be bruising force, “how ‘bout you get your ass over to the bar and give Braxx a hand?”
“Yes. All right, Oz. I’m on it,” she stammered, scurrying away as soon as he released her.
“Every now and again, you gotta remind ‘em which way the wind blows, and who the weatherman is.” Oz grimaced and waved Ray toward a nearby table.
“Uh huh,” Ray replied, grateful he didn’t have a telltale epidermis sharing his every emotion. Following Oz, he once again let his gaze track to where The Needle’s other newcomer was seated to find Victor Raz staring at him, the red eye flashing like a warning in the bar’s perpetual dusk.
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