A Quick Job
© 2017, John "Blackrock" Magruder. All Rights Reserved.
This story contains material that may be unsuitable for younger or more sensitive readers.
In pretty much any town out on The Border, if one ever needed to locate someone, they would only have to find the local bar. It was the place where people would be drawn to, like a social lodestone. After a hard day’s work, people would look for something that could soothe their aches and pains and help them feel better about their predicament, because pecking out an existence in the hard-scrabble of a poor Border moon was never an easy affair, and alcohol always had the uncanny ability to help people forget that. It lightened moods (more often than not) and blunted the harsh edges of life. So folks would always gather where the alcohol flowed, congregating around their shared pain in the hopes that the booze would wash away their problems and give them the false hope of a better day springing up from the wreck of the last one, filling up with just enough of it to keep going... if only for a little while. It’s why they called them ‘watering holes.’
They weren’t always depressing and utilitarian. They could also be sources of entertainment or even more importantly of opportunity. A place where business could be done and people wouldn't look too closely as to the nature of that business, so long as it didn’t interfere with their drinking. On Spider, the largest moon orbiting Anson’s World in the Red Sun system, The Rusty Nail was just that place. And the evening when Lucas Ballard and Whatitiri Hoani walked into The Rusty Nail, the most popular bar in the biggest town in the whole northern hemisphere, the place was hopping.
It was standing room only and the liquor and conversation were flowing in equal measure as people laughed and yelled and reconnected with one another over a pint or a shot, or both. Holding a mug of beer in each hand Lucas deftly weaved his way through the press of bodies milling about, heading for a table in the back that had just opened up. Being tall meant Lucas could see over the heads of most everybody there, and being thin meant that he could squirt through gaps that many others couldn’t without spilling something.
Whatitiri however didn’t weave. She walked straight towards the table and the people simply parted before her. She was just as tall as Lucas, but unlike him, she was built like a tank. She had a bodybuilder’s physique, with muscles on top of muscles, and that’s what first caught people’s attention. She also had a bob of straight jet-black hair shaved off on the sides, skin the color of light caramel, and eyes that were a such a bright amber color that they seemed to glow whenever any light would touch them. It was that and the dark tattoos on her lower lip and chin that made people move. The people simply stepped aside and watched her walk by, just like animals at a watering hole making room for the bull elephant that decided to have a drink.
“So, when is this person supposed to show up?” Whatitiri asked as she sat down at the table next to Lucas, and against the wall where they could watch the crowd.
He pushed a mug over to her, which she took and they clinked. He sat back and took a pull from the mug. “Any minute now,” he said, wiping the bit of foam from his lip.
Whatitiri took a sip as well, then made a sour face and set the mug back down. “Yech,” she spat. “That is not good beer.”
“It tastes like cat piss.”
He winked at her and smirked around the mug. “Drink a lot of cat piss, do you?” Lucas then looked at the mug in his hand for a few seconds, then simply shrugged and took another drink. “I’ll admit it’s not up to our usual fare. But it’s not that bad.” He took another sip. “It’s got... ok, it tastes pretty terrible.” Then he kept drinking.
Whatitiri frowned in disgust. “And yet you’re still gonna drink it? Man! I think you need to cut back on the alcohol.”
“It serves a purpose... and hey, it gets better the more you drink it!”
She just shook her head at him, then gave her mug the side eye. She then relented and took another sip, and her face screwed up again, sticking her tongue out as though she had just sucked on a bad lemon. “Eww.” She then took another sip. “Augh, nonono...” she cried out and waved her hand in front of her face.
Lucas just watched her going back to the mug again and again and just laughed. “See? I told you,” he said, and clinked his mug against hers. Then he glanced over towards the bar. “I think that’s him,” he muttered, and waved his hand in the air.
“Oh thank goodness,” she gasped and set the mug back down on the table as she watched a short man approach the table.
He was wearing a dark grey suit, but one that had been in fashion about thirty years ago and looked as though it had been made back then as well. His cravat was loose around his neck, and had on glasses that looked nearly as beat up as the suit. He was running his fingers through the wavy patch of bramble on his head that passed for hair and getting jostled about by all of the people between the bar and the table. When he got close enough he took one look at Whatitiri and could not hide the shock on his face. But when he realized that he was staring he blinked half a dozen times and purposely looked away from her to focus on Lucas.
“You are Captain Aliud?” he yelled in a sonorous baritone. Lucas and Whatitiri both blinked in surprise, because that voice really did not sound like it should have come out of that face. But Lucas recovered and smiled.
“Yes sir. And you must be Mister Tinkle.”
“Tink-lay,” he replied.
Lucas put his hand to his heart. “Of course it is. My apologies. Please sit, Mister Tink-lay.”
The man sat across from them and looked at Whatitiri’s thick arms, which were resting on the table. Then he glanced up quickly at her face before looking back at Lucas. “And this is your bodyguard, I presume?”
Lucas snorted. “No, this is my partner and First Mate, Mz. Hoani. And she has the ability to speak as well.”
Whatitiri stuck her hand out abruptly, causing Mr. Tink-lay to flinch. “At your service, Mister Tinklé,” she said in a friendly tone. He slowly reached out and accepted her handshake. She pumped his hand once and squeezed a little bit, causing him to flinch again. She leaned forward and widened her eyes ever so slightly and with the same friendly tone said, “I occasionally guard his body as well.” Only then did she let go.
“An admirable job, to be sure,” he muttered as he took his hand back and rubbed it ever so slightly. “And my apologies for being rude.”
Whatitiri tilted her head ever so slightly in acknowledgment, dropped her voice a full octave and replied, “Apology accepted, Mister Tinklé.”
He did a double take at that, but then smiled a shy little smile and looked at Lucas once again. “So I assume you have it?”
Lucas nodded in reply. “I can assume that you have what I requested?”
Mr. Tinklé reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a small finger drive, a kind of data storage device made to fit into Cortex Readers. He set it on the table in front of him while Lucas reached into his coat right next to where he kept his gun, and pulled out a plastic cylinder nearly thirty centimeters long, placing it on the table. They pushed their respective items into the middle of the table and swapped. Lucas handed the finger drive to Tiri.
They watched as Mr. Tinklé opened the cylinder at one end and gently fished out an old brown photograph, which he splayed open on the table and stared at. It was a very old picture of a small group of people of different ages, likely a family. They were dressed in dusty pants and coats, with long, layered fabrics draped over their heads and shoulders like robes, and they were standing on a hill that overlooked what appeared to be a massive building sitting in the middle of a wide valley. Lucas knew however that it was not a building. He had seen similar images in his school textbooks from years ago. It was a picture of one of the ships that had carried people from Earth That Was to The Verse. An Ark Ship.
After a few seconds, the man pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at his eyes. “Thank you, captain,” he said in his mellifluous voice which was now full of emotion. “I am not sure you will ever know just how important this photograph is to me. So thank you.”
“I think we can all appreciate having something tangible to connect us to our past, Mister Tinklé.” Lucas tilted his head. “And you can thank Mz. Hoani here. She was instrumental in retrieving that photograph.”
Mr. Tinklé turned and looked Whatitiri straight in the eye and this time did not flinch. “Thank you for restoring a critical piece of my family history.”
Whatitiri smiled a gentle smile and dipped her chin. “You are most welcome, Mister Tinklé.”
Lucas leaned forward. “So, Mister Tinklé, how accurate is this information?”
He got a slightly sour expression on his face as he gently began to roll up the photograph and place it back in its original cylinder. “It is accurate for another three to five days,” he grumbled. “One thing my cousin cannot ever seem to do is keep his mouth shut, even when the family doesn’t care to listen. I find the business he is involved in to be deplorable, but there has been little that any of us could do about it. Until now.”
Whatitiri pulled out a handheld Cortex Reader and plugged the finger drive into it. She pressed a couple of buttons, and a short list of information appeared upon its screen. She then handed the reader to Lucas, who scanned the list and then looked back at her. She simply nodded.
Mr. Tinklé watched the brief exchange as he tucked the cylinder away into his coat pocket. “I hope you don’t mind my asking, but what do you intend to do with that information?”
Lucas and Whatitiri simultaneously reached out and picked up their mugs of beer. “Do you like your cousin, Mister Tinklé?” Lucas asked as he brought the beer to his lips.
Mr. Tinklé sniffed in disgust. “I find my cousin to be deplorable in just about every way measureable.”
Whatitiri tipped back her mug and drained it in one breathless pull, setting it onto the table with a resounding thud. Then she looked him straight in the eye.
“Then you shouldn’t concern yourself,” she said with a distinct air of finality.
The man pondered her statement for a couple of seconds, shrugged his shoulders and stood up from the table.
“Again, thank you for all that you have done for me. If there is ever something else that I can do for you, you know how to reach me.” Lucas and Whatitiri both stood up, towering over Mr. Tinklé as they reached out to shake his hand one at a time. Then he turned around and worked his way back through the crowd towards the exit.
They sat back down at the table and looked at each other. Lucas chuckled to himself and said, “You know, I’m never not going to call him Mister Tinkle...” He glanced quickly at the empty mug in front of Tiri then back up to her face. She was silent for a few seconds, just staring back, until she made a face and abruptly let out a long and impressive belch. Then she sat back in her chair and held her belly as she cried, “Oh whakarihariha, that beer is just wretched! Why did I do that? And on an empty stomach, no less!” Lucas just laughed and laughed, and she frowned at him, wiping her mouth in disgust. “Now I think I need to...”
Lucas stopped laughing long enough to see that she had become distracted. She was staring at someone walking through the crowd, but when he turned to see who it might be, he could not tell who was the focus of her gaze, there were so many people. “Need to what?”
“Need to go to the bathroom,” she said without looking at him, still fixated on someone. “I’ll be back in like five minutes.” Then she stood up and started walking towards the other end of the bar.
“We’ll grab some noodles when we leave,” he yelled after her, and she waved absentmindedly as she walked away. Then he chuckled and finished the last of his beer as he started looking at the Cortex Reader and the list of information that Mr. Tinklé had given them. The information was the flight plan for a ship... a ship he knew was involved in hauling slaves. As he went over the details on the Reader, he got lost in his own memories, and even began to feel a couple of the aches and pains that had never fully resolved due to his short but vicious stint as a slave himself not six months ago. His mind wandered back down those traumatic paths as he looked at all of the people standing and talking all around the bar, imagining what those people would do or say if put into such a predicament. He eventually shook his head to clear the thoughts away and pocketed the Reader.
A few minutes later Lucas checked his watch and frowned. He got up from the table and worked his way through the increasingly boisterous press of people towards the far end of the bar. Stepping around a corner, he found the bathrooms and put his ear to one of the doors. After a few seconds, he heard some shuffling and other quiet sounds coming from within. Checking his watch one more time, he shook his head, wiped his face in exasperation and pushed the door open to the women's bathroom.
He looked around the surprisingly empty bathroom and stepped up to the middle stall door, which was the only one closed. He could hear panting coming from within, and he bent down to look under the stall door, finding a pair of feet in some nice, stylish women's sandals straddling the toilet... but facing away from the door. The walls of the stall started to shake and he looked up to see a pair of hands grasping the tops of them. He recognized those scarred knuckles as they squeezed the panels and the panting became a little more urgent. Leaning back against the sink, he pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Tiri,” he said quietly. The panting only grew louder and more acute. “Tiri!”
Whatitiri's head suddenly popped up over the wall of the stall. Her cheeks were flushed, her mouth and eyes wide open as she looked over at Lucas. “What?” she asked breathlessly.
“What?” He held up his watch so that she could see it.
She glanced at the watch, then looked down into the stall. Shaking her head, she muttered, “No, don't you dare stop.” She looked back up at him and pouted a little bit. “Come on, I said I needed five minutes.”
“That was fifteen minutes ago. We've got places to be, you know.”
The walls of the stall bowed outwards a little bit as Whatitiri's eyelids fluttered and she bit her lower lip. In a husky voice she said, “I need one more minute.”
Lucas put his hands on his hips and looked at her a little sideways.
She suddenly let out a little high-pitched squeal and threw her head back, squeezing her eyes shut. “Thirty more seconds. Whaea o te atua, just thirty more seconds!”
Lucas threw his hands up in the air and walked out the door, listening to Whatitiri's moaning rise in pitch as he went. He leaned against the wall just outside of the door and waited, trying hard to think of anything else and failing. Seconds later he heard a cry and a loud crash, followed by raucous laughter. A moment later, a woman he had never seen before came out of the bathroom. She was pretty, wearing some tasteful makeup as she let down her shoulder length brown hair. She strode past him, smiling and casting a sidelong glance as she went by.
Lucas nodded at her. “Mizz,” he said politely, then looked back down at the floor and the woman's stylish sandals as she walked away.
Another minute passed and Whatitiri came out, looking relaxed and refreshed. She sighed and smiled at him. “Thanks, captain.”
He just shook his head and started walking. “Don't 'captain' me.”
She fell in step with him as they headed towards the exit. As they passed the bar, she paused and fished around in her pockets, eventually pulling out a pair of silver coins. She set them on the bar in front of the barkeep and looked at him. "Sorry about the bathroom," she muttered, and then followed Lucas out the front door.
She stood next to him out on the street as he stared up at the dim grey sky with an annoyed expression on his face. After a few seconds, he turned and looked into Whatitiri's blazing amber eyes. “Broke another stall, huh?”
Whatitiri smirked. “Broke another stall.”
Lucas chuckled a little bit, then turned and started walking down the street towards the docks, Whatitiri right next to him. “Do you have to do that every time?” he asked.
“Hey, it's not my fault that these places keep using jiànzhú zhìliàng,” she replied with a big grin.
“Not that,” he blurted. “I mean all of the... strangers.”
She looked at him sideways. “Really? I am a big, healthy woman with a big, healthy appetite. You know that.” She was silent for a few seconds as they walked. Then she looked back up. “You aren't getting jealous, are you?”
“Because I’ve given you plenty of chances. I told you, I would be very happy to be having sex with you. It would be a hell of a lot more convenient, and you might not be so uptight all the time.”
Lucas shoved his hands deep into the pocket of his coat, warding off the cold breeze blowing down the street. “We talked about this already.”
“No, you talked about it. Look, we've been occasional bunk buddies for the past few months, and that's great for when neither one of us can sleep. But you never do anything with me. I know you're interested, you know I'm interested... so what's the problem?”
“I told you why!” Lucas came to an abrupt stop next to a noodle cart, pulled out two small coins and set them down in front of the man behind the cart. Then he turned to face her. “It makes for a, a—what do they call it—a dual relationship. It's just a bad idea to be snoggin' someone you work with. It always makes things complicated.”
“Like I said, that doesn't bother me,” she replied.
“But it bothers me,” he frowned.
Whatitiri reached out and gently put a hand on his shoulder. “Look, I may officially be your First Mate, but I'm not your subordinate. I don't work for you. We're partners, we're friends, and we also happen to live together. I mean, how convenient is that?” She dropped her hand hooked her thumbs into her belt. “Even though we’ve all been through the same thing, I got no desire to grapple with Rawlins or Murphy, because I do work with them. But you and I? We've been through too much together to ever see you that way. You know you can always, always count on me being there for you, just as I know you will be for me. But I honestly believe that sex is a necessary thing for people to be happy and healthy... and I want to be happy and healthy.”
“She's right you know.”
They both turned and looked at the middle-aged noodle vendor who was standing there behind his cart, looking at the two of them. The vaguely Chinese-looking man leaned forward and put two boxes of noodles out with chopsticks, then rested his elbows on the cart. “Had a wife once, but she was never interested in sex, and gods, I was so xīnsuān. (bitter and miserable) But ever since I divorced, I'm free to do what I want, and I get some at least twice a week. Never been so content.”
Whatitiri smiled. “I know, right?” she replied and gave the vendor a fist bump.
Lucas looked back and forth between the two of them with a slightly shocked look on his face. “Stick to the noodles, dong ma?” Then he grabbed his box and walked away from the vendor's cart, continuing down the street. Whatitiri looked at the vendor and they both shrugged their shoulders and waved goodbye as she grabbed her noodles and followed Lucas down the street.
“Well I think this whole 'we work together' excuse is a bunch of pìhuà,” She took a deep breath, and gave him a tender smile. “Look, if you aren't gonna have sex with me, then I’m gonna find it somewhere else. You've gotta accept that.”
Lucas just held up his hands in exasperation as he walked. “Got it,” he blurted. Then under his breath he grumbled, “Heaven help me if I get in the way of you and your orgasms.”
“Nothing. Not a thing.”
Whatitiri smiled and nudged Lucas with her big shoulder, causing him to stumble a little bit. He frowned at her, but a small grin slowly emerged. Sticking his leg out, he tripped her up and caused her to stumble as well. Together they laughed and walked on, but the smile slowly faded from Lucas’ face as he glanced at Whatitiri, and he set his noodle box into a panhandler's tray as he walked past. Then he buried his hands into his coat pockets and stared on down the road, looking at something that wasn’t even there.