November Challenge: Day 23

Hey all. No time to chat today. Parents in town to visit and I have a long day of work later, so I got my writing done early. Sorry I had to leave it off before the end, but I gotta jet. Maybe I’ll finish it tonight before I go to bed. Thanks for reading.

Writing Challenge Day 23 (Untitled)
By E. W. Morrow
Word Count: 2020

Barton Kline slung his pack over his shoulder and made his way down the gangplank, his thick soled boots clanging on the slightly rusty iron plates as he went. He made his way down the ramp quickly, eager to pass the space between the skiff’s two main thrusters, still pregnant with residual heat from flight and landing procedures. Various men in heavy heat resistant coveralls and safety helmets were already swarming around the ship, clamping down the landing gear and bringing loading drones in to restock and refuel the small spacecraft. That was one of the perks of being a noble, Barton though. Everyone always scrambled to obey as quickly as possible.

Which was why Barton had to get clear of the landing platform and into the bowels of the station proper before the rest of the minimal crew finished the post flight safety checks and Mr Bigshot Important Noble Man was roused from his nap. Nobles were not used to being denied, but Barton had no intention of leaving with the ship when it was scheduled to depart six hours from now. He’d signed on for the full duration of the trip out of necessity, not honesty. A station like this was bound to be crawling with able bodied men with naval experience. Surely one of them would be sober enough for the final leg of the journey.

Barton wound his way through the deck crews, supply crates, freight loaders and refuel and repair drones and headed straight for the nearest exit. Years of service in both the Confederation Navy and civilian shipping industries had given him an almost preternatural ability to navigate everything from the busiest landing ports to the most remote space stations with relative ease. By the time the first of his recent companions had disembarked the nobleman’s skiff he’d been off the dock for five and a half minutes. It was another two hours before anyone realized his bunk was turned down and his personal effects were missing. When the skiff left four hours later, Barton had been replaced by a scraggly but sober man with a slight limp and one augmetic arm who smelled faintly of chewing tobacco but seemed to know his way around a ship.

By that point, Barton was already dead.

 

After his hasty retreat from the landing pad Barton made his way toward the seediest portion of the station he could find. It wasn’t hard for a well traveled man like him. All stations tended to be the same. All you had to do was find out where the local centers of law enforcement were and find the bar, tavern, or other suitable rat hole that was as far as possible from all of them. Since most of the time stations advertised such centers of law and order, or at the very least provided maps to find them, it was as good as having an personal guide to sin and vice.

Port Fairwind was no different. It was only a medium sized station, a bustling port by the standards of a smallish star system more than 10,000 light years spinwards of the Confederation Homeworlds, so Barton had few places to check before he found what he was looking for.

It was a fairly large tavern by anyone’s reckoning located at the ass end of the station’s main entertainment district. The district itself occupied three decks and the tavern had expanded to encompass all three and probably much of the real estate to either side. There were obvious signs, if you knew to look for them. The place was generally cleaner than the places around it. Someone regularly took a power scrubber to the metal paneled front of the tavern, swept up cigarette buts and carted away beer bottles and snuff tins. Three tall, burly men in sunglasses and loose fitting clothing played cards at a table by the main entrance on the bottom deck. Barton noticed the telltale bulges of barely concealed weapons underneath their jackets. And, of course, there was the constant roars and cries of the tavern’s patrons reveling in wild abandon at two o’clock in the afternoon, station time, with no regard payed to outside events such as time of day or even day of the week. The tavern might be a long way away from the law, but it had it’s own system of order that made it unmistakeable.

Barton made his way inside, sidestepping a few drunks and pulling himself away from the clutches of busty women in old fashioned bodices and pounds of rouge, and headed straight for the bar. He ordered a shot of whiskey but drank it slowly as he glanced at his surroundings. It was pretty standard, as far as he could see. The main floor was dedicated to the drinkers and the gamblers. At every table there seemed to be a stack of faded chips and a group of greasy men holding fistfuls of cards while trying to to leer in triumph or grimace in despair. The bar, and several of the shadier, more remote booths, were home to the heavy drinkers, those so lost in despair or self-loathing and short on coin that not even the ladies of questionable virtue bothered to flirt with them.

From the main bar it was easy enough to see up to the second floor. It was lined with doors all around, many of them shut but enough of them open that Barton’s imagination had little trouble figuring out what went on inside. Even if they had been shut, the constant stream of scantily clad women and staggering men entering and leaving them painted a clear enough picture for a blind man to see. The third floor was a mystery, but Barton had a pretty good idea of what went on up there, and knew that he was going to have find his way up there before too long. He downed the rest of the drink in one go and turned back to the bartender.

“Same again,” he said, waving his glass with one hand and a folded bill with two fingers of the other. The bartender stopped polishing a mug and picked up a bottle. Halfway through pouring it Barton extended the rest of the fingers of his money hand, revealing a substantially larger wad of cash. “And perhaps some information, if you’d be so kind.”

“Depends on what you wanna know,” the man said, the cash disappearing behind his apron just as the liquid reached the top of the shot glass.

“Just looking for someone. Pretty sure you’d know if you’ve seen her. Recognize her?” Barton downed the whiskey and then reached inside his jacket. He saw the bartender clench his fists as a reaction, but release them again as he pulled out a simple photograph. It was bent down the middle but the face in it was quite visible.

“This some kind of joke?” asked the bartender, screwing up his piggy eyes in confused concentration.

“Do I look like I’m laughing?” Barton asked, just as serious as before.

“Didn’t say it was a good joke, did I?” the barman retorted. “It’s a pretty bad one if you ask me.”

“Funny thing,” Barton said, “is that I didn’t ask you. What I did ask you was whether or not you recognized her. Do you, or don’t you?”

“Course I bloody recognize her,” barked the barman. “And if you don’t you must be new here.”

“Pretty new,” Barton assured him. “Can you tell me where she is?”

The barman stared at Barton intently for a moment. He liked his job. He was well paid and if anyone started any trouble in the tavern then the three kind men outside would make sure that the trouble was taken outside. Sometimes in pieces, but they always cleaned up afterward. The boss didn’t mind him making a bit of cash on the side, so long as it didn’t interfere with business. This stranger, however, was dangerously close to falling into that second category, and it was more than his job was worth to let him keep poking his nose around. But it was basically common knowledge, and there was something else about the stranger, something on the tip of the barman’s tongue.

“You know,” he said eventually. “That picture ain’t the only thing that looks familiar. I seen you somewhere before?”

“Not exactly,” Barton said.

“You look damn familiar though.”

“Let’s just say that it’s all relative, and leave it at that.” Barton winked in case the barman missed the obvious clue in that sentence. He needn’t have bothered.

“Okay, right,” said the barman after a moment’s pause. “Up them stairs, two floors up. I’ll buzz the security, let them know you’re coming.”

“Thanks,” Barton said, downing his second shot of whiskey and heading for the stairs.

Once again Barton was forced to pry himself loose of the loose women as he ascended the staircase. Once he reached the second floor the press of bodies and bosoms lessened and he made better time up the second flight of stairs. Once again his intuition proved correct. The third floor was much quieter and darker than the bottom floors. This was a place where serious vice was conducted, and serious vice liked it’s privacy. There were less rooms on this floor than the second, and none of the doors were open. At the top of the stairs stood a pair of hulking figures even larger than the ones outside. One of the men was hunched over a small view screen, speaking in mumbled conversation to someone on the other end. Neither of these guards made the effort to hide the weapons at their sides, and both of them looked like they could kill Barton effortlessly without them. Barton paused at the top of the stairs and waited to be addressed. The guard finished his conversation and turned to Barton.

“The lady will see you now,” he rumbled and then moved off without another word. Barton followed him in silence.

Barton had expected to be led to the very back of the complex, perhaps even into a set of rooms not technically part of the tavern as a whole. Instead they took only a single turn down a short corridor and stopped at a door halfway down. The guard knocked three times and stood back, blocking the rest of the corridor from Barton’s view. The door opened and the guard gestured for Barton to enter. He did not accompany Barton over the threshold.

The room was simple but elegantly decorated. It was done mainly in dark reds and blacks. Here and there were hints of other colors though, dark mahogany or glints of polished silver. The only other occupant was a slender man in a well tailored suit in one corner. He had a book of puzzles open in front of him but no pencil in his hand. After a few moments he licked his finger and turned a page. Barton took a seat in a cushioned chair facing a large wooden desk and waited. After a few minutes of silence he heard the man in the corner turn another page. After two more page turns a second door, opposite the one he’d entered from, slid open and the woman from the photograph in his pocket stepped out. Barton could just make out another muscle bound figure in the darkness beyond before the door slid closed once more.

“Barton,” the woman said as she took her seat.

“Nicole,” Barton replied. “Long time no see.”

“Yes. I was rather enjoying it, to tell you the truth.”

“Sorry to burst in on you like this,” Barton said with a frown.

“If you’re here to tell me about Mom and Dad you can save your breath. I probably knew before you did.” Nicole steepled her fingers as she looked at her brother. The resemblance between them had faded somewhat since she’d last seen him, but it was still there. Same eyes, same nose. Slightly different chin and wildly different hair, though Nicole knew that was only because her’s wasn’t entirely natural anymore.

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