Salad Water & the White Whale
JP/collab with @sail3695
To the uninitiated, the Twirling Rabbit and its’ patrons offered little to hold the eye. Them as come in was either smart enough not to fix their gaze on any one place or person for more than a cursory glance…or simply so dumb as to have a neon sign over their heads flashing “mark” as they gaped at the doin’s within its’ swinging doors.
The latest newcomer was a source of much musing and discussion among the regulars, provided you conjured the lingo. Water pouring off his hat brim was the first tell of an offworlder. The bulge in his coat over one hip, the second. But there were oddities that seemed to delay the verdict on this stranger. An odd flat stretch in a coat pocket which could be a big cortex reader, mayhaps a book. Clothes were all sorta rough, which gave one to think he was livin’ low. The battered shoes mighta thrown some judgments into that camp, but in a room like this, anyone stupid enough to believe that “clothes make the man” wasn’t bound to hold their chair for long.
He was on the short side…a point against purple or a badge. But the man’s face bore the main incongruity, way outta place with the shambles of his coverings. With barely an eye lifted, the old woman took this all in, as did her folk.
Coins dropped…loudly… followed abruptly with a name. That proved enough for McKee. He delivered his verdict, a single scrape of a chair leg on the floorboards. From the opposite corner came Heinz’s judgment, three deliberate shakes of the dice and a hard drop. Two votes for a detective,
she acknowledged their opinions with a pair of fresh cards laid on the table.
The definitive vote was Meg’s. “Talk to her. Then get out. Don’t want none of yer trouble.”
Now that was interesting. Meg had stood that bar well long enough to smoke out any lawman, bounty hunter, or Federale who chose to blunder into her path. But this stranger she was kicking upstairs. Clearly, the barkeep read something up close that her two compadres couldn’t suss. In the Twirling Rabbit, when Meg said “trouble,” that was a word could offer several different meanings for the old woman to sort out.
Without looking up from her solitaire game, she pointed toward the empty chair. “Sit down,” she said. “Mind you don’t get my cards wet.”
He stepped toward the table, removing his hat and carefully setting it aside, so as to avoid sullying her space, the aged and worn green felt of its top belying its years of faithful service. Likewise, he shrugged out of his coat, draping over the back of the chair before him. He ran his hands through the thatch of unruly salt-and-pepper at his temples before sitting opposite the woman, fixing her with an even look. Lastly, he slowly drew his sidearm – with the left, ‘wrong’ hand, and placed it handle-facing-her on the fuzzy green surface. Lastly, he withdrew the ancient leather-bound book from its place of honor in his satchel, and placed it side-by-side with the weapon before sitting as asked.
“ ‘magine you’re the type of soul who, like meself, likes to see all the cards on the table. Name’s Collins. You mighta heard just now – I’m looking to flush out some vermin that needs dealing with.” He inclined his head toward the barkeep, back over his right shoulder. “Your friend thought I should ask you about Jonas Flint, Ma’am…”
He could feel eyes burning into the back of his head. Could smell cold steel ready to be pulled from oiled leather. Could sense the itch in their trigger fingers. Without his coat, the starched, grey collar of his shirt stood in stark contrast to the piece facing her, but both were well-worn, and oddly – not out of place on this figure. He tried to read this woman before him, but her face bore little emotion, save a faint glimmer in the corner of her eye.
“A friend of mine once told me the story of the magistrate Chen Shu-ku, from Earth-that-was. I keep wishing that it was so easy to trap prey. But it ain’t, is it? Do you know the tale?”
The old woman turned a card, laying it face up in one of the sequences before her. “Your magistrate relied upon superstitious ignorance.” Her eye took in the cleric’s collar. “Looks to be your grift as well…though not entirely.” A card landed near the pistol. “The ‘verse is full of men huntin’ other men for one thing or t’other,” she mused aloud, “but a Padre who lives by the sword…bit of a rarity, I’d conjure.”
She flipped another card, a mild contentment upon her face as it fell into one of her sequences. “You’re not the first Ahab to saunter in here, but I must admit to some small vexation.” She paused her game, lifting her eyes to finally meet his. “I’m curious,” she said, “why you thought to search for your whale in this room?”
“Been a long while since I read any fiction, and I’m no scholar. But if I’m getting your gist, you’re calling me & mine a lost cause. Ahab was mad, a man devoted to evil deeds and revenge. He was doomed from the very beginning, because he fought his fight against the forces of nature.” The clergyman leans forward, elbows on the card table, pleasant smile on his face. “I came in here because it had the look of filth and decrepitude about it. ‘Zactly the sort of joint a no good ri shao gou shi bing
like Flint would piss in a cup and pass it off as ‘shine.” The smile broadens. “There’s a great deal about this place and your ways I may be ignorant of, but your read on me was wrong: I am the force of nature. And Flint ain’t no whale. He’s a dead man walking. Bleeds just the same as any other.”
“Jonas Flint.” She dropped three cards in rapid succession, then frowned at the result. “So now that I’m familiar with your game, only one question left. Why should I play along?”
The question took him a little by surprise. It honestly hadn’t dawned on him that anyone could require an ulterior motive, other than doing what was right and just. He didn’t have much to hide, and certainly had nothing to lose. “Well, Flint likely has his hands in more’n a few pies. Honest wit’cha, I have no idea if he calls the shots, or if he’s a hired thug, or somewhere in between. But I have no interest in his business. When I’m done what I need to do – you want to pick the pieces that fall to the floor? Add it to your empire, or sell it to the highest bidder? Fine with me. …my claim to him ends with his neck. Anything he’s a part of – I give you my word, I’ll see to it you get the spoils.”
He knew every eye in the joint was hinging on her next word, or movement. A lesser man, or a man without faith might have been scared. But the Padre was at ease. Today wasn’t his day to die. The path before him might have been partly shrouded, but he knew enough to know he had several more sunrises to see.
“And the streets shall be paved with gold,” she chuckled as her cards landed upon the table. “The promise of future reward is so much dust.” She lifted her eyes. “But we may still do a touch of business.” The old woman cast a glance toward the bar. She lifted an index finger, which set Meg to work preparing tea. “I know enough about your whale to keep you in the hunt. I’m willing to trade that information if you’ll provide me with what I need to know.”
He didn’t have to think long. This was the first potential lead he’d had in ages. “Sure, I’ll play 'long. What is it you need ta know?”
“Simply put,” the woman’s impassive gaze held firm, “I need intel on a Firefly that touched down yesterday. It’s called ‘China Doll.”. She paused to eye the man for any sign of reaction. Finding none, she continued. “I want a basic profile of her crew… who might be capable of putting up a fight, who might not…and the types of weapons you see on display, if any.”
Meg arrived at their table, bearing a tray with two cups and pot of steeping tea. The old woman poured a cup as she finished. “Bring me that information,” she offered, “and I’ll divulge what there is to know about Jonas Flint and his cohorts. Care for tea?”
Father Collins puzzled over the information presented to him for a moment. This woman had connections, obviously – maybe only here, on Greenleaf, maybe in the wider Black. With her connections, she must have the means to get the information she seeks. Many questions rose in his mind – mostly of the ‘who?’ ‘why?’ and ‘what?’ variety. Something wasn’t right, and normally he followed his gut when something like this seemed off. But the prospect of intel on Flint was something he highly prized, and whatever these poor folk had done to pop up on the old woman’s radar, he didn’t envy them the position. He regarded the salad-water as it approached the table.
“Only drank tea once, in a hospital. China Doll. Sure. I’ll find out what you ask. And when next we meet for a face to face, I’ll weigh the worth of what you provide on Flint, and you’ll get news worth what you give me in reply. No more. You provide good intel, you get good intel. You got a landing pad or a berth where I can find this ‘China Doll, Ms…?’
“I’m known as Ellsbeth.” She dropped a lemon slice into her cup, then carefully poured the tea. “Rumor has it they’re berthed on row J. I’m confidant that you can take it from there.” With delicate hands, she lifted the porcelain to her lips, eyes returning to the cards arrayed before her.
He thought a spell before adding wordstuff to the mix. He knew that Ellsbeth was some manner of unsavory. He couldn’t tell how, or what she was involved in, could be whoring, could be slaving, could be murderous, could be thieving. Could be a mix of any of the above. And if she was involved with these folks aboard the ‘China Doll,’ then no doubt they were the same sort of folk. And if they was the same kind of mean-spirited, no-good, thieving, whoring, murderous Hwen Dan
folk as Ellsbeth, then this was bad karma setting things right. And it meant precious information on Flint. He tried to separate his desire for retribution from tainting due process… but chances were his intuition was right. “Alright Ellsbeth. Row J. A Firefly, China Doll the label. I’ll have a look, get acquainted. If they’ll have me, I might catch a ride, it’ll give me a chance to gather what I need to know. You understand if I prefer to send you wave with your information from planetside, rather than from the ship… once they get where they’re going…”
He eyed her for any signs of balking at his considerations. “Might be offworld a spell. You never know with these tramp freighter crews. But once I get planetside again, I’ll give you what you need.” He began picking up the Code, wrapping it back into its worn cloth, and placed it back in its usual spot in his bag, and slowly retrieved his shooter, holstering it. “If there’s nothing else, Ellsbeth, I’ve got a transport to catch.” He extended his hand in offering.
Ellsbeth collected all the cards, a casual eye lifted upon the stranger. “Make hay while the sun shines,” she answered.
Pleasant sort. Collins shouldered his bag, flicked the brim of his cap at the barkeep, and strode out of the Twirling Rabbit, on his way to the docks. Mebbe pick up some kind of real protein on his way…