Authors: Diane Duane; Peter Morwood
Evan smiled at that. In his part of the world, it had been traditional for an off-duty cop to remove his hat or helmet when entering a bar to have a pint on his lunch hour. A cop who came into a bar with his hat on was on business, probably to ask someone uncomfortable questions, and the sign of unremoved hats tended to ruin the patrons' enjoyment of their drinks. "Perhaps if we had lighted signs for our shields,"
Evan said, "that said 'HERE TO GET DRUNK'. . . ."
They drank, and Joss looked around him with increasing misgiving. Forms hunched over tables stared at them; eyes glittered in the dimness, though there were no sudden movements. "When we have to start asking questions," he said softly, "these people aren't going to be a lot of help to us."
"Ah now, don't be so pessimistic," Evan said. "We've only just got here, and they haven't a clue what we're about. Surely no one's going to object to us trying to find their missing mates."
"Not unless some of them engineered their being missing."
Evan drank again, put his pint down and reached down the bar for a bowl of what in this light looked like some kind of salted crisps. He pulled it over, then stared at it.
he said, picking up one of the things and looking at it, "what are these?"
Joss pulled the bowl over, gazed into it, broke into a smile of recognition, and reached into it. "Now will you look at that," he said, and bit into what he was holding. "Pigtails."
Evan looked at him bemusedly. "Pigtails? Is that some kind of cracker?"
"Pig tails. Tails of pigs, broiled. Look, here's an ear."
Evan was incredulous. "Pigs'
"Watch me. You're from pork country, way back when— haven't you ever had pig tails? Poor man. Last time I had these was in Provence, a few years ago. Must be someone
French here. Watch out, though, they're salty. It's a good way to get people to drink.''
Evan smiled, apparently understanding that quite well. "You can't be serious about the Mets, anyway," he said.
Joss glanced up from his crunching to note Evan's look over his shoulder. He turned slowly, making it look casual.
Most of what he saw at first was beard. To judge by what skin he could make out, the man was no older than his forties: but the big ginger-colored beard covered almost everything from his chest to his eyebrows, except for a bit to either side of the nose, which was small and pug. He wore a loose, soft shirt, white but stained, over a dark one-piece skinsuit, one of the quilted kind that were intended to go under a pressure rig. His eyes were narrow and wary, their color impossible to tell in this light, except that they were pale. The man was at least two meters tall, so that Joss had to look up at him a bit.
"Evening," he said, and oifered the man the bowl of tails and crackling. "Have some?"
The man took the bowl, but shook his head and grinned at Joss. Joss wasn't entirely sure he liked the grin, but he reserved judgment. "Seems a bit like canibalin' to me," the man said, in a slow, grating voice.
Joss glanced down at the pig tails, then up at the man again. He smiled—very slightly.
"Don't see many of you people around here as a rule," the man said. There was a movement in the shadows behind him. Joss didn't stir. Evan was with him; for the moment, that would do.
"Business," Joss said. "But that's not till tomorrow morning."
' 'What kind of business? "
"Some people working in this area have been disappearing," Evan said. "A few too many. We want to find out why. But as my partner says.^it can wait till tomorrow. Mr.-"
"Smith," said the man. There was soft laughter from further down the bar at this witticism.
"Smith," Evan said, the soul of courtesy. Without missing a beat, he made it perfectly plain how likely it seemed to him that "Smith" was die man's real name. "Glyndower. My partner, O'Bannion." Joss nodded amiably at the man. "What are you having, sir?"
"Not that piss," said Smith, turning away from them both with an expression that looked mostly like a sudden wrinkle in his beard. "Bash, gimme a Stoly."
Joss leaned forward over the bar, took another pig tail, and chewed on it slowly, glancing at Evan. Evan's expression was resigned; he drank his beer and said, between drinks, "I still think you bet wrong."
"How did you know I bet?" Joss said, slightly scandalized.
"Oh, come on! You may have been programming and so forth
on the way out here, but I knew you would be getting your bets in before we left."
"Someone's been ratting on me," Joss muttered.
Evan grinned. "Telya's in your betting pool."
"Why, that little—!"
Smith's drink arrived. No matter what he had called it, the vodka in the glass had never been any closer to Moskva than this asteroid's perihelion, while it was still a potato. He tipped his head back and drank about half of it without stopping, then put the glass down and belched emphatically. Joss chewed on his pig tail and refrained from comment.
"You bet on horses?" said "Smith" suddenly to Joss.
"No," Joss said, rather surprised. "Never got the feel for it. Baseball, mostly."
"Smith" smiled again, the same not-very-nice smile. He began to chuckle. "That's a slit's bet," he said, to himself at first, then to the bar in general. "A slit's bet. We got a right one here, people. Mister sop here bets like a slit!"
Joss held his expression as it had been. "What do you bet on then?" he said.
"Horses," "Smith" said. "Fights. Who comes back."
Joss nodded. He knew, as the miners did, that there was always a certain percentage per year of people who didn't return. He knew that there was betting on those whom people at a given station thought the more likely suspects. But at the moment, it seemed like poor taste to mention it. However, nothing ventured—"Any luck?" he said softly.
The man's eyes narrowed. "Now, that's a nasty question," "Smith" said. "A man might have lost friends. A man might be sensitive."
"He might," Joss said, in a tone of utter unconcern. "He might hate losing a bet."
From the other side, Evan nudged Joss gently. Joss nudged back, acknowledgement that he knew perfectly well what he was up to ... he hoped.
"Smith" laughed in his beard. "Might. Won a few times. It's not hard."
"No, it wouldn't be," Joss said. "Dumb people tend not to make it in space."
"Smith" looked over to his left at someone else who had come up to the bar, a tall skinny man with a face so literally like a hatchet that Joss was momentarily fascinated by it. He hardly had eyes at all, they were so close to his nose, and that nose was about half an inch thin all the way down, and hooked. Joss wondered if it bumped into the faceplate of his helmet, or if he'd needed to have one made especially to cope with it. "You hear that, Den?" said "Smith." "Dumb people tend not to make it in space, says mister sop here. Guess that makes us all pretty smart."
Den said nothing, just looked at Joss with an expression of total malice. Joss blinked. Why did he have the feeling that there was at least one person in the bar who had mistaken an ironic delivery for insult?
"Smith" turned back to Joss, his lips twisted in an evil
smile. "Guess all of us must be pretty smart, to be out here in space all by ourselves, with a shiny ship and lots of credits and all," he said.
Or maybe two people, Joss thought. He said nothing as a third man materialized just behind him, a looming presence, bigger even than Evan. He didn't turn to look at him. It seemed unwise at the moment to do anything but keep his eyes on "Smith" and his tall thin friend.
It was just as well, because suddenly that man's fist came straight at Joss's face. There was a moment of shock reaction—
it's not fair!—and
then reflex took over and ducked Joss sideways. Unfortunately, it ducked him into the man behind him, the big one, who promptly wrapped his arms around Josh, pinning him.
"Smith" braced himself against the bar to kick Joss in the gut—not the friendly kind of kick meant to incapacitate the victim for further beating, but the kind meant to go through and come out on the other side of the backbone. Joss shifted his balance, found the sweet spot, and heaved the big man who was pinning him neatly over his head and into
"Smith": they crashed together against the bar, most satisfactorily, and slid to the ground.
Unfortunately, at that point everybody in the place leaped up and rushed the bar.
It had been some years since Joss had been in a brawl, a real brawl with chairs smashing and so forth. But it was surprising how quickly he remembered the lessons he had learned the last time: break all glasses and bottles within reach as quickly as possible by knocking them to the floor—preferably with human bodies, so that they will be useless as weapons; stay away from tubular steel chairs, which won't break anything but your head when they hit you; try to avoid smashing the mirror behind the bar, since it can give you valuable hints about who might be coming up from behind you; don't allow yourself to be pushed into a booth, where five or six people can easily pile in on top of you and make your life more difficult than it
needs to be; watch out for unbroken half-full glasses, as their contents may wind up in your eyes.
It was surprising, too, how many of those rules he suddenly found it impossible to keep. Joss knew perfectly well that he dare not touch his sidearm. It wasn't only that he'd feel unprofessional later on for not having been able to handle the situation with wits and bare hands. Using a gun in a situation like this would also make any later questioning of these people impossible. Sure, the gun would have made matters a lot simpler; but he had no tune to think that more than once, as another body hurtled at him and he sidestepped—right into a punch. Sideband blocks had never been his strong suit, as his unarmed combat instructor had told him again and again: Apparently, the guy had been right, Joss thought as he reeled away. Something flew across his field of vision—another of the bar's patrons, Joss saw, pitched tidily across by Evan. He makes it look so easy, Joss thought wistfully, as another patron threw a punch at him. This time Joss was annoyed, his ears still ringing from the last one, and he blocked it so hard he heard bones snap; then another fist came out of nowhere, a wild swing, missing him.
"Tsk," Joss said, as he swiped the man's legs out from under him with a leg sweep and knocked a table over on top of him, just to give the guy something to think about for a few minutes.
He paused a moment to see what Evan was doing. Evan was doing just fine. He had "Smith" in one hand, and another man in the other, and he was banging their heads together. The resultant sound was not altogether musical.
Didn 't hit him hard enough,
Joss thought with mild regret that he had made extra work for Evan. As someone grabbed his right shoulder from behind, Joss spun around the other way and put a punch just to the left of where the right shoulder had been. The woman who was standing in that spot, with her fist cocked and ready, went down. "Oh, crap," said Joss, and then three people jumped him from
three sides. He went down, and one of them sat on his head.
It was a bad moment. Joss lashed straight out with one fist at the last target he saw before his vision was obscured. It was a focused strike, maybe a little too focused, but it made sure that at least one of the men would have to give recreational sex a miss for a good while. The peculiar hooting screech he immediately heard confirmed that. His only remaining business at this point was to shift his own lower body as fast as he could, to keep anyone from doing anything similar to him.
A moment later the weight came off his head and was flung away to one side, to judge by the thump and screech that followed. "Come on, old son," he heard Evan say, and a hand the side of a ham closed on his upper arm and hauled him to his feet.
"Wait a minute; I don't think we should leave this unfinished," Joss sad, looking around him hurriedly.
"There are only—" He did a hasty headcount of the crowd closing in. "Uh, there are only thirty of them—"
Evan backed toward the door, and Joss went with him. He didn't have much choice, any more than did most human beings or other heavy objects Evan picked up and threw over his shoulder. "Why do you start these things when I don't have my suit on?" Evan asked.
"Whaddaya mean, / started it?"
"I could have wiped this whole place up," Evan said ruefully, but not too loudly, since about fifteen of the thirty people were pacing them toward the door, though at a safe distance. "Now we're getting thrown out of a bar. This is not going to do my reputation any good."
"Thrown—You can't throw us out," Joss shouted. "We're leaving!"
"Aah, shut your cakehole," Evan said in good-natured disgust. "At least there's this: everybody on the station is going to want to talk to us now, to see if they can get us into a fight. It's an ill wind, and so forth.
Come on, let's go clean up and get some dinner."
THE WILLANS POLICE STATION WAS IN A DOME.
Evan was scandalized; the place should have been properly dug into the asteroid, for security's sake if not for the safety of the staff who worked there. It was not the first time that morning he had been scandalized, and he was getting unhappily used to it.
When they had emerged that morning—Evan after a prolonged battle with his 'fresher unit, which was defective, and needed more than the usual picking out with a pin that he found himself doing to shower heads and 'fresher fixtures all over Sol system—the landlord, that shrunken-souled creature, had tried to hit them for several new charges that they had not agreed to the evening before, including a blanket O2