Gideon Quinn stepped out of Nike’s chill April afternoon and into the over warm, over dark huddle of a pub that the faded sign outdoors had proclaimed A Fine Mess.
As soon as he did, he had to stop and take a moment; in part to let his eyes adjust, and in part to appreciate truth in advertising.
With its scrap-heap furniture, a warped plank floor thick with residues Gideon chose not to think too closely on, cracked windows shuttered against the cold, and air heavy with the fug of old sweat and older booze, A Fine Mess was rife with atmosphere.
Gideon’s boot slipped in a bit of that atmosphere as he made his way to the bar set against the pub’s left wall.
With a grimace he scraped the boot on the floor, then continued on between the tables.
He felt the weight of the gazes that followed him, knew what they’d see; a tall, rangy figure in an infantry coat, skin still deeply tanned from six years labor under the suns of the Morton Barrens, and eyes of a blue he’d heard compared to everything from the ice in Stolichnaya’s glaciers to shard of crystal, right before it explodes.
None of which, Gideon figured, would be of any interest to the observers, were it not for the draco perched on his shoulder. And when he hit the middle of the room, and Elvis launched himself into the stained rafters above, the shifting of bodies and scooting of chairs confirmed his suspicion that it the winged reptile who claimed the bear dog's share of attention.
Dracos in the city were uncommon enough, but a tame draco was a downright oddity. So odd that, after only two months in Nike, Elvis was becoming quite well known, as was Elvis’s chosen person, if the mutterings and murmurs that rose from the pub’s clientele meant anything.
Gideon ignored the comments, but he did take note of a pocket of silence amidst the rumblings, from a table against the back wall where sat a man with deep brown skin, a close-trimmed beard speckled with gray and a head shaved to gleaming. Both ears sparked red with carnelian studs, and the tarred boots and oilskin coat spoke to someone who spent quality time on the water.
Sea or river, Gideon couldn’t say offhand, but it was odd, seeing any who made their living on a boat, or any kind of living, really, in the midst of the Lower C.
Which, while interesting, was not the reason Gideon had come to the depths of Lower Cadbury, so he continued on to the bar.
Here he found the bartender, a slender fellow in a worn waistcoat worn over a collarless shirt somewhere between dingy and gray, polishing a glass with a rag that seemed to Gideon to be doing little more than moving the grime around.
The bartender was medium height, with skin shades deeper than Gideon’s, and a head as bare as the fellow by the wall, though Gideon thought in the publican’s case it was nature, and not a razor, responsible for the gleaming dome. A pair of dark, heavy lidded eyes looked suspiciously over an aquiline nose as Gideon came to a halt in an open space between three blonde giants and a skeletal figure around Gideon’s height who, even in the pub’s indifferent light, seemed overly pale under the derby hat he wore.
Gideon gave the man to his left a brief nod, then turned to the three giants at his right. “Rolf,” he greeted the closest of the three Ohmdahl triplets standing at the bar, then leaned forward. “Ulf, Freya,” he tapped his heart in a quick salute. “I thought you all had a job at the meat growing plant.”
“Gideon,” Ulf grinned. “We did have this job, but—“
“There was a problem with Rolf mixing the makings of the poultry with the makings of the pork,” Freya cut in, throwing her brother a disgusted look.
Rolf’s response was to take a swig of something clear and, from the smell of it, capable of stripping what varnish remained from the bar on which the massive Stolichnayan leaned.
“Oh,” Gideon said, then thought about the vat-grown proteins. “Oh,” he said again, and made a mental note to avoid purchasing any tinned meats for the next month or so. Then he looked at Rolf. “Why?”
“I was thinking it would make recipe for chicken Tolstoy easier. No having to wrap the chicken bits around the ham bits, yes?”
“No,” Freya said.
“Gotta go with Freya on this one,” Gideon said.
“Yeah, so did the manager of the plant,” Rolf said, sighing into his glass.
“So, the manager fired all of you?” Gideon looked over the threesome.
“Not exactly,” Ulf said.
“First she is only firing Rolf,” Freya began.
“But then Ulf tried to prove how it was maybe not such a bad idea,” Rolf joined in.
“By mixing the lamb into the beef,” Freya picking up the thread.
Ulf nodded. “Like kebobs,” he said.
“Okay, so no processing for you,” Gideon said to Ulf and Rolf. “Or cooking, I think.” Then he looked at Freya. “Did you get the boot, too?”
“No one gives me the boot,” that young woman said with a sniff. “I quit, in solidarity with my idiot brothers.”
“Way to stick it to the man,” Gideon said.
“Excepting the meat plant manager is a woman,” Ulf pointed out.
Some things weren’t worth explaining, Gideon thought. “It’s a Fordian thing. Anyway, sorry about the jobs.”
“There will be others, somewhere,” Freya said with a shrug, angling to face Gideon. “But how are you being? If you don’t mind me saying, you are looking tired.”
“Not sleeping well,” he told her. “I think it’s the new mattress.”
“Too hard?” Ulf guessed.
“Too soft?” Rolf tossed in.
“Too mattressy,” Gideon said. “I haven’t gotten used to the concept of an actual bed, yet.”
Gideon felt the skinny fellow at his left shift. Ignoring the move, he focused on Rolf. “How’s Sonja doing?” he asked, hoping to remove the focus from his sleeping habits.
“Momma is well,” Rolf said. “She has been looking for job, herself.”
“She is at the Vin-Cielo’s flat today,” Ulf added, keeping up the triplet’s shared commentary. “She is helping with the little ones.”
“That’s good of her.” At his left, Gideon felt another hint of motion.
“We will be joining her later,” Freya said, “for the grieving.”
Gideon and all three Ohmdahls touched their foreheads in a sign of respect for the dead
“Cora will appreciate that,” Gideon said.
A gentle clearing of a throat had him looking back to where the bartender still waited, rag and glass frozen mid-swipe. “Can I get you anything?”
Gideon glanced at the mucky glass in the bartender’s hand, then up. “Do I look suicidal?”
“Now that’s just hurtful,” the bartender replied as Ulf barked out a laugh.
The man Gideon’s left eased further away while Freya said, leaning forward on her elbows. “Gideon must have heard about the pool.”
“Can’t say as I have,” Gideon replied.
“There is no pool,” the bartender said.
“Yes, there is,” Rolf asserted, slapping his hand on the bar with a meat-like thud. “I know this because we started it.“ He lifted his hand from the bar, and Gideon barely managed not to wince at the sucking sound it made as Rolf’s skin pulled free from whatever substance coated the surface. “We three,” he waved the sticky palm towards his siblings, “are making book on how many drinks of Mr. Martin Soong’s booze it would take to kill a man.”
All across the room, Gideon heard glasses thudding to tables and chairs creaking as bodies turned towards the bar.
“And how is the pool going?” Gideon asked.
“Not so good,” Freya admitted.
“We three are only ones to enter,” Ulf added.
“And we are seeing no one kicking the comb, so…” Rolf shrugged.
“Maybe we find something else to be betting on,” Freya concluded.
“Good plan,” Gideon offered as all three clinked glasses and downed their theoretically murderous liquor.
While the triplets played Stoli roulette with their beverages, the bartender, who Gideon took to be Martin Soong, let out a long-suffering sigh that had Gideon’s attention returning to him.
“If I may,” Martin asked, “if you haven’t come for a drink, then why are you here?”
“I’m looking for someone,” Gideon explained. “A guy named Jer Hardcastle.”
Martin’s angular brows angled some more. “Have you ever heard that old Earth ditty? The one about the place where everyone’s troubles are all the same, and everyone knows your name?”
“Sure.” Just hearing Martin describe the song started up an echo of lyrics in Gideon’s head. “One of my old company used to sing it all the time on long marches. Until the rest of us made him stop.”
Martin’s thin smile thinned further. “Yes. Well. My point is, this place is the exact opposite of the place in that song. No one here wants anyone to know their name.” Now Martin set the glass down and quite daringly leaned his elbows on his own, scummy bar before continuing, “In fact, I’d be happier on the whole if none of them knew my name, so I’m afraid I can’t help you with this Hardrook—“
“Castle. Hardcastle,” Gideon interrupted as, from on high, he heard Elvis’s low-throated keen.
At the same time, felt the sudden spur of motion from the derby-wearing man at his left.
Without taking his eyes off Martin, Gideon snapped out his left hand and caught hold of the skeletal man’s wrist before it could bury the knife in Gideon’s kidney. He twisted the hand up and slammed it to the bar hard enough the blade, a needle-thin stiletto, went clattering over the wood, coming to a stop in front of the now-frozen Martin.
“It’s okay,” Gideon said, adding a little extra pressure his attacker’s hand. “I found him.” And now he looked directly at the other man, noting that the skeletal theme went all the way to the face, which featured cheekbones so hollow it was almost like looking into a skull. “Jer Hardcastle, I presume?”
“Yes. Fine. I am. Why do you care?” the man asked as, all around Gideon, large, blonde shadows moved.
“That was not so nice,” Ulf commented from his end of the bar.
Gideon, his hand and eyes still locked on Hardcastle, felt a moment of panic at Ulf’s comment.
Given the sudden onset of silence, so did the other drinkers populating A Fine Mess.
Probably, like Gideon, they’d all seen the Ohmdahls in action.
Individually, each of the triplets were a force to be reckoned with. Combined they functioned like a semi-coordinated avalanche; slow to get moving, but once they did, impossible to stop.
“It’s okay,” Gideon said quickly. “In fact, everything’s crystal and comb here, right?” The question was addressed to Hardcastle, with a little added pressure to the wrist he still held.
Jer cleared his throat, tipped his skull-shaped head to peer around Gideon’s shoulder. “Yes. Of course. No need for more panic.” He offered a shrug, and his hand under Gideon’s grip relaxed. “Which, I admit, I did. Not used to being the object of a foreboding stranger’s attention, is all.”
”Uh huh,” Gideon said to Jer. “See?” he added for the Ohmdahl’s benefit, patting the hand under his before releasing it, while at the same time his right hand disappeared the stiletto sitting atop the bar. “Nothing to worry about.”
Since it appeared no blood needed to be mopped from the floor, the rest of the pub’s population, which had once again gone silent, creaked back to the business of drinking, leaving the tableaux at the bar to play itself out.
The three Ohmdahls loomed a moment longer before Rolf muttered a quiet, “Nie moj cyrk. Nie moje malpy.”
Not my circus. Not my monkeys, Gideon mentally translated the saying, popular Kopernik, one of Stolichnaya’s largest cities. Then the three returned to their places at the bar, leaving Gideon free to focus on Jer Hardcastle, who was rubbing his sore wrist and watching Gideon.
“Listen,” Jer began, “I’m not sure why you’re looking for me but—”
“Where is it?” Gideon asked, cutting him off.
“What?” Hardcastle asked, his Adam’s apple bobbing above the collarless shirt he wore. “Where is what?”
“Is there problem, Gideon?” Freya, still in pre-avalanche mode, asked.
Martin removed the glass he’d been attempting to polish from the bar, then reached for Hardcastle’s half-empty tumbler.
“No problems,” Hardcastle said, his watery blue eyes dancing between Gideon and the triplets. “No problems at all,” he said again, looking at Gideon. “Are there?”
“That depends,” Gideon replied.
Martin’s Adam’s apple bobbed again, and came up empty. “On what?”
“On how fast you return what Mikkel sold you this morning.”
“Mikkel?” Jer pursed his lips and shook his head. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re speaking of.”
In response, Gideon’s hand dove into his coat and returned holding a knife; but this blade wasn’t the stiletto he’d just separated from Hardcastle. This knife had a thicker, damask blade, on which Mikkel, a low-level thief who worked the outer rings of Nike, had painstakingly etched the words, “Propurty of Mkkl Kran” on the hilt.
Jer looked at the knife, and as Gideon watched, his entire demeanor changed from bewildered innocence to a bland acceptance of the inevitable.
“And how is Mr. Crane doing?” Hardcastle asked, tugging the shiny green waistcoat he wore under the heavy frock coat.
“Breathing,” Gideon said. “But he won’t be needing your services for the foreseeable future. Where is it?” he asked again, his tone chilling on the question.
Jer’s eyes met Gideon’s. “Even if Mikkel and I did do some business this morning, why would you care?”
Gideon’s head tilted, slightly. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Well, you are Gideon Quinn, are you not?”
“Last I looked.”
“Right, well, as rumor has it, you were a dodger yourself, back in the day. Even done time in the nick.” Jer nodded at the tattoo on Gideon’s right hand, a souvenir from his time in the Barrens. “As one who’s walked on the shadowy side of the law, yourself, surely you don’t begrudge a little shadow trade amongst the rest of us.”
“You’re right,” Gideon said, idly flipping Mikkel’s knife. “For the most part I don’t. You, or Mikkel, or any one of the outgrown dodgers in this town want to steal from the ristos or rob the Energy Commission blind, I won’t hold open the door, but I won’t interfere.”
As he spoke, he noted a dip in tension from the tables behind.
“However,” he added, and once again, the pub’s air seemed to vibrate with the sheer weight of stretched nerves, “there are a few activities on the shadow side that don’t sit well with me. Such activities would include, but are not exclusive to, stealing from the Corps, grifting a Keeper, laying hands on non-combatants—kids in particular,” he clarified. “That one will absolutely put me in a bad mood.” A few murmurs of approval from the audience seemed to agree with him. “And lastly,” he added, fixing his gaze on Jer’s, “profiting off the misery of others.”
“All perfectly understandable,” Jer said. “Perfectly. But I don’t see how any of that has anything to do with what Mikkel sold me, this morning.”
“It has everything to do with what Mikkel sold you, this morning, because Mikkel took it last night from the Vin-Cielo family’s flat which, as all of Lower Cadbury knows, was empty at the time, and it was empty at the time, because Cora Vin-Cielo and the children were all at the hospital, saying goodbye to Vittorio Vin-Cielo, right before he passed away.”
“Is true,” Freya said, with a soft sigh. “We heard it from our Momma, who heard it from Tiago Hama, who heard it from Rachel Vin.”
“That is why Momma is at their place, now,” Ulf said.
“She brought kissel,” Rolf added.
“Everyone loves Momma’s kissel,” Freya declared. “Is comfort food.”
“Mikkel did not do right, if he is breaking into Prani Cora’s flat,” Ulf concluded.
“Truer words,” Gideon agreed, grabbing the tail of the conversation and wrestling it back in the direction the slightly waxen looking Jer.
“I didn’t know,” the man removed his derby and ran thin fingers over a scalp devoid of hair. “Keepers be my witness, I had no idea where the thing came from.”
“Little piece of advice?” Gideon gave a not-very-friendly smile, “start asking. After you return Cora Vin-Cielo’s property.” He held out his right hand.
“Of course,” Jer agreed and, after the slightest hesitation, reached into his coat, which Gideon noted contained any number of large inner pockets, to draw out the property in question. But as Gideon reached for it, Jer’s fingers tightened, and he clutched it to his chest.
Gideon’s right eyebrow arched.
“The thing of it is,” Jer said, licking his lips nervously, “that I did pay Mikkel for this, and I believe it only fair that I recoup my loss.”
“That’s one way of looking at it,” Gideon said. “Another way of looking at it is, by giving me that relic and accepting your losses, you’ll be doing a kindness to a grieving woman. And retaining the use of all your limbs.”
“That—is a very compelling point of view,” Jer said and, with a hiss of regret, he dropped the relic into Gideon’s waiting hand.
“The Vin-Cielos thank you,” Gideon said, before tossing a nod to Martin and a wave at the Ohmdahls, all three of whom raised their glasses in a toast. Then he tucked the item into one of his one of his own coat’s capacious pockets and started for the door, retracing his steps through the tables, where the occupants once again watched him silently, though there had been a definite drop in the hostility gauge since his entrance.
Halfway through, he clicked his tongue, so by the time he reached the door, Elvis was once again settling on his shoulder.
Pulling the door open, Gideon found another individual on her way into the pub, surprising the both of them.
For the space of a few heartbeats, he and the newcomer stood staring at one another.
To Gideon’s mind, the woman in front of him was worth the study.
Half-a-head shorter than he, with warm brown skin, perfectly arched brows, black hair tumbling in a wild cascade over her shoulders, and deep brown eyes which showed a mutual appreciation as they met Gideon’s.
She smelled, he thought, of smoke, and vanilla—and water.
Then the woman’s lips quirked in an amused smile before she edged past him, just close enough for the oilskin of her coat to brush his hand, and continued into the pub.
Gideon tracked her movements as she crossed the room with a hip-swaying gait the coat couldn’t hide, and which had saliva pooling in his mouth.
He didn’t manage to tear his eyes away until she took her seat at the same table as the large, silent waterman with the carnelian earrings Gideon had first noted when he entered A Fine Mess.
The man at the table met Gideon’s gaze in a clear warning.
Gideon dipped his head in understanding, then turned and stepped out of the building, letting the door squeak closed behind him before letting out the breath he’d been holding since his eyes first landed on the dark-eyed woman.