Both having made their way there by different routes, Shades having arrived a few minutes earlier. Both having sought each other out while trying not to be looking for anyone in particular. Both of them still trying not to make eye contact, lest they betray their own acquaintance with each other.
Shades standing near one of the doors, Justin seated alone at a small table near the lounge, and wishing he were standing the longer he sat there.
In fact, Shades almost didn’t recognize him. Decked out in a black duster Roxy scrounged up from somewhere and left for him back at the ship. On one hand, he couldn’t complain about his looks, but on the other, he had to confess some misgivings about how it interfered with his draw. Figured he’d try it out for the rest of this investigation, and if he could make it work, he’d hang on to it.
Despite the name Cyexian Quarter, both of them still had to admit they had never seen so many Cyexians in one place, comprising the majority of the women in this part of town. According to Shades’ research, the violet eyes were a strictly XX chromosomal trait, making it exclusively female. Men of Cyexian lineage, on the other hand, bore no outward sign, and thus seemed to be historically nonexistent. Recalling Dagmar from the Isle of Castaways, they both reminded themselves that most of these gals probably held more legitimate occupations than Striker’s crew, that it was just an unfortunate coincidence nine out of ten Cyexians they’d ever met out on the high seas just happened to be pirates and swindlers.
All the same, each of them had also noted several recurring tattoos and other tokens that suggested membership in various gangs or societies, both of which were commonly called Pactra, and took Roxy’s warning to heart.
The Timbers itself was a fairly typically inn, with rooms for rent upstairs, and a public lobby on the ground floor, where both guests and others could order food and drink. The kind of place that put Shades in mind of inns and taverns from role-playing games. The kind with quest-givers and adventurers looking to form parties.
Looking around, he couldn’t help but wonder what sort of misadventures in this world started with a chance meeting at a place like this, and just what he was getting himself into here.
It was in the midst of these thoughts that he felt a hand tap his shoulder, as if to point out to him just how far his attention had strayed.
He glanced over his shoulder to see Roxy standing there beside him. She briefly pursed her lips to shush him, then nodded over to where Justin was still seated. They both watched a shifty-looking man sit down next their friend as the bounty hunter continued strolling past.
For his part, Justin was poking at the bread and cheese he had ordered earlier, having largely sated himself at lunch earlier. Slowly nibbling down, ashamed at the thought of letting even mediocre food go to waste, but not wanting to drop more coin on anything else just to hold his seat. Thus the stranger who seated himself next to him, unsavory as he seemed, was still a welcome change from paid loitering.
“Say, friend,” the stranger piped up, showing a broad grin with only a couple gaps in it, “are you tired of eating cheap tack? Wanna sink your teeth into some better grub?”
“Maybe…” Justin answered through a mouthful of cheese.
“I can tell you’re new around here.” To Justin, this fellow’s face put him in mind of a rodent, narrow and furtive, no matter how smooth his talk. “Trust me, I know all the local hands. And, fortunately for you, young mariner, I also have connections to folks who are looking for some fresh faces, and happen to pay well for those who get results.”
“I’m listening.” Justin swallowed his cheese hard, trying not to dwell on the last time he was hired by someone looking for fresh faces.
“I can see you recognize a good opportunity when it presents itself,” the rat-faced man continued. “You’re gonna go far, kid. You an’ me, we both know the streets. Sure, you’ve moved up in the world a bit, but you still bear the mark of the street, if you don’t mind me sayin’. You also strike me as someone who knows the importance of being discreet. Which brings us back to my original proposal.
“Based on your menu choices, I’m guessing your wallet’s a little light these days, huh? Well, I just happen to know someone in the Docks Quarter, who’s looking for discreet labor. They pay as much to keep your mouth shut as they do to work hard, if you take my meaning.”
“What kind of work?” Justin figured that was probably the next logical question in this line of discussion.
“Mind you, I’m not privy to the details,” he explained, “but given it’s the harbor, I would imagine it involves loading or unloading cargo, and they might even be hiring crew members if one was, say, looking to leave Anchor Point on short notice. While I of course have no idea why one might need to, things do come up sometimes, and it never hurts to have the option, don’t you think?”
“I suppose it doesn’t,” Justin replied, trying hard to think about the last time someone offered him passage in exchange for some discreet labor.
“If you’re interested,” he resumed, “I hear they’re meeting potential clients in the Docks Quarter, aboard a cargo ship called the Queen of Night. You know, in case you were looking for a quick credit. If ya go for it, tell ’em Slick sent ya.”
With that, he patted Justin’s shoulder, all chummy like, hopping out of his seat and ambling off to the far side of the lobby.
Justin, meanwhile, tried not to reach up and wipe off the shoulder of his new duster while Slick was still anywhere in sight. This fellow struck him as a low-level information broker, a Word On the Street type, so he was probably getting kickbacks for referrals that turned out, which meant that was one mystery solved. Now it was simply a matter of figuring out what that job actually was, and if it was anything related to their case.
He was just about to get up, having lost interest in the dry, crusty bread, as well as the expectation of ordering more to hold his seat, when another shady character strolled up to him. While Slick looked weasely and furtive, this fellow was lean and mean, looking more inclined to stick you up than pick your pocket. His Direct Approach scowl making it abundantly clear his business here was with Justin.
“You,” he said, gesturing to the door, where Slick was just making his exit, “that little pisser was talkin’ to you, wasn’t he? Offered you some kind of job, right?”
“And if he did?” Justin wasn’t sure he liked where this was going, but had seen enough to know things would go from bad to worse if he let himself sound afraid.
“I’m here to tell ya to walk away, if ya know what’s good for ya. That’s Stockade turf they’re steppin’ on, and you don’t wanna be there when they finally get what’s comin’ to ’em, ya dig?”
“Who?” Of course, Justin had heard the name Stockade around the Docks Quarter, enough to know they were one of Anchor Point’s bigger gangs, so he couldn’t help but wonder who would dare to step on their toes.
“The Cray Sisters,” the thug replied. “Those bitches been gettin’ too bold lately…”
He trailed off at the look on Justin’s face. In the short time he’d been nosing around the Cyexian Quarter, Justin had picked up enough to know the Crays were one of the bigger Pactra in town, and not one of the communal types. Which meant that he was standing on the threshold of a potential gang war, and he wondered just what he was letting this bounty hunter get him into here.
“You’re a nosy little shit, aren’t ya?” the thug demanded, suspicion written all over his street-tough mug. “Looks like we need to step out back.”
And proceeded to whip out a knife before Justin could make a move. Rendering all of his musings about his new draw moot and academic, as his power pistol may as well be back at the ship for all the good it was doing at his hip.
“Now, I don’t know who you work for,” he said, “but we’re gonna send you back with a little message…”
His threat fizzled out on the tip of his tongue, though, noting belatedly that Roxy had the drop on him.
Right behind him, power pistol concealed under her cloak, but pressed to his back so he would know she wasn’t bluffing. Justin could see the same look in her eyes as when she confronted Striker, and this guy seemed to take the hint, dropping his knife without even having to be told to. By now, Justin was pretty sure these last couple encounters were just the sort of thing the bounty hunter had been waiting for all along.
“I have a better idea,” she told him. “How about we all go upstairs and talk about this?”
The Stockade thug nodded numbly, allowing himself to be led to the stairs. As they went, Justin spared a glance over his shoulder to see Shades following them at a discreet distance. Positioned, he couldn’t help but notice, to cut off Stockade’s escape if he tried to bolt.
Roxy led them into one of the rooms the inn rented out, Shades closing the door behind them after checking to see they weren’t followed.
“You…” the Stockade muttered, though he was having trouble looking her in the eye. “So the rumors about you being in town were true. Them Cray bitches got somethin’ goin’ with ya? Pactra Special? Or do ya even turn in sisters, too?”
“I hunt down anyone the law offers a decent bounty for,” she retorted, holding her power pistol out in the open now that they had some privacy, “and that includes their crew, as well as yours. I couldn’t care less about your little territorial dispute. I want to know where the Cray Sisters are getting their most recent shipments from.” She turned to Justin for a moment. “I hear they’re even hiring non-Cyexians to make it look more legit, they’ve been hauling so much.”
“Don’t look at me,” Justin snorted, and Shades would never have guessed his friend was just playing along if he wasn’t also in on it, “all that other bastard said was to ask around the Docks!”
“Of course,” Roxy sniffed, “they obviously wouldn’t tell a no-name like you anything before you needed to know. About what I expected. So that just leaves you,” she said, turning back to the Stockade member. “Something tells me you know more than him about this, the way you’re goin’ around threatening all of Cray’s new hires.”
“And I ain’t tellin’ ya shit!” the thug shot back, drawing himself up a little taller. “Stockades don’t rat.”
“Is that so?” The bounty hunter turned to Shades and told him, “Go over to the closet and fetch me some duct tape, cleaning alcohol, and a pair of pliers.”
“What’re you going to do with that?” Shades tried not to let his voice betray just how uncomfortable he was with where this appeared to be heading.
“We’re going to get some answers.”
“Ha! You don’t scare me!” Stockade sneered.
Shades went over to the closet, and was almost surprised to find the items she asked for.
As he brought them back over, Justin piped up, “Seriously, just what are you going to do with those?”
“Do you really wanna know?” Roxy raised an eyebrow at him.
Justin’s throat bobbed for a moment in spite of himself at recollections of what sorts of things the Triangle State Authority’s guards were rumored to do to people with common shop tools.
“Now wait a minute…” Stockade stammered, “you can’t be serious…”
Shades stretched out a length of duct tape, trying not to let it show that he was contemplating just how far he was willing to take this before he could no longer uphold his end of this particular game.
“You got a name?” Roxy demanded.
“Do you know what they do to guys who snitch in the Stockade?” With each word sounding less and less like a hardened street thug, and more like a whiny juvenile delinquent. “We got guys on the inside, where do ya think most of us come from?…”
“Not my problem,” she said flatly. “You should be more worried about what I’m going to do to you right now.”
The Stockade looked around frantically, seeing no help. The bounty hunter, the henchman, and the guy he just threatened to cut up to send a message only minutes ago. Any of his boys he may have had waiting for him out back were also going to be late to this party.
“Bind his hands,” Roxy interrupted, “but be sure to leave his thumbs free.”
Stockade actually wailed and scuttled back against the wall the instant Shades touched the duct tape to his skin.
“Fine! You win, you crazy bitch!” he panted. “Fuck, I don’t really know anything, dammit! Even the Crays don’t seem to know who he is…”
“Not good enough.”
“I’m serious!” he insisted. “Word on the street is, he’s some hooded guy who never shows his face. Wears some weird gloves, probably a weapon of some kind… Nobody knows his name, and nobody’s figured out where he’s gettin’ all his shit, or how he’s movin’ it past the Port Authority… I swear I don’t know anything else… Please…”
“Very well,” Roxy waved her pistol toward the door, “seems nobody knows anything about our mystery dealer. If you move your ass and dummy up before you step out, your friends might just be none the wiser about our little chat. It’s more than you deserve, so consider this a reward for giving me a straight answer before things got ugly.”
Shades barely stumbled aside as the Stockade scrambled out the door.
“Remind me not to piss you off,” he remarked, covering Justin as he shut the door.
“Lighten up,” Roxy shrugged, “even I have idea what I was gonna do with that crap. It’s never come to that. If he’d called my bluff after you bound him, I would’ve asked for a lighter or a candle, and that always does it. A little psychology lesson:
“The more outlandish the stuff you call for, the more most people’s imaginations run wild trying to figure out what you’re going to do. I’m not even sure I want to know what he thought I was planning to do with that. Still, from the look on your face, Justin, you must’ve seen some shit wherever you came from.”
“Uh, yeah…” For his part, Justin was still trying to work some moisture back into his mouth.
“Remember, most gang members are cowards by nature,” Roxy told him, “that’s why they run in packs. They may bark loud when they’re together, but most whimper when you catch them alone. They remember all the shitty things they’ve done to others, and fear having it done to them.”
“I see…” Shades found himself pondering all the other things that would have been useful to know about a decade ago, when he was New Meat at a new school, even in a rural setting with no gangs to speak of.
“Now,” she told Justin as she led the way back out, “we just need you to attend their little job interview, so we can get some information about our mysterious salvage smuggler. But for now, I need you to look scared. Like I just threatened to do whatever you thought I was going to do to that other guy. Unless I approach you first, from now on, the only place we meet is at the ship. I don’t know how long that getup will fool anyone, but I’d recommend wearing it only when you’re on the job. And Shades, I’ll need you to keep acting like you’re my henchman.”
Seeing both of their expressions, she nodded.
As they came down the stairs, Roxy grabbed Justin by the collar of his duster, shoving him at one of the empty tables.
“Now,” she said as she sent him packing, “don’t ever waste my time like that again!”
And he certainly looked irked enough to play the part, glaring over his shoulder at her as he staggered away, straightening his coat indignantly.
“Now that that’s settled,” she said, turning back to Shades, “let’s see if we can’t find some real leads out there.”
And Shades followed, for his part trying not to dwell on the earful he was going to about this episode back at the ship later.