Not there! There!" Ivin Galix shouts at his son, Sivan. “Spread the tables out. Until we replace that broken one, we don’t want an empty space in the middle of the floor.”
His youngling grumbles, but complies, pushing the heavy plastic tables around to spread them out. Fewer tables means fewer customers at a time, but the eatery is rarely full up (Dwalish cooking isn’t popular on Shimaya, and Ivin’s place, The Rumbling Sleeth, is just a block too far from the Ersia City spaceport for most visitors to bother coming to it). Besides that, the wider spacing will make it easier for Sivan and Ivin’s daughter, Twula, to carry the serving platters during evening service.
Ivin shakes his head. It isn’t as if he has a better place to go. Maybe if he can save up, he can acquire a better cubby for the eatery, something more on the main drag out of the spaceport. But margins are tight, and if guests like that buffoon the previous evening insist on breaking the furniture, that small sliver of profit that could be saved up for a move will vanish.
At least, he thinks, the goon squad hadn’t been called by anyone. All he needs is to be shut down by the cops for being a source of unruliness – or, worse, be forced to grease a few palms to keep the doors open. If he can turn a few good nights, Ivin thinks, grinding his teeth. Here it is, 1700, and nobody has been in since the two deuces at lunch. Maybe a sandwich sign on the plastwalk outside, or –
His teeth stop grinding as his eyes flick to the open, inviting front portal, the normal ruddy sun of the afternoon abruptly cut off by the looming figure there.
“Friend Ivin! Am here for the second dish you said was specialty of house!”
The booming voice echoes through the empty eatery. Sivan’s eyes snap up, widening. He was there the previous night during the brawl, too.
Ivin forces a smile, out of habit and custom, and steps out from behind the counter, bowing to the hulking newcomer. “My friend, you honor us again with your presence.” The words of Dwalish hospitality are automatic but still difficult. Ivin would have preferred even the goon squad to –
“Ha!” the figure laughs, bright white – and pointed – teeth flashing. “Am just working stiff like you. But one who likes your cooking!”
“If --” Ivin pauses. This will be karmically damaging, but perhaps not as economically damaging. “If you care for the cooking of my people, the Red Pitcher – a block seaward and north – has similar traditions, from the twin of my home planet. Perhaps you might --”
“An excellent idea!” the customer said. “The next time we planet here, will most definitely visit there. But for tonight, need to pick up some joules so can pick up some --” He pauses, then laughs loudly. “Ha! That would be joke, yes? Now – table?”
Ivin shows him to a table in the corner, hoping that, out of the line of traffic, the previous evening’s unpleasantness might be avoided.
“Ah, this is looking exquisite,” Monster says, grinning broadly. “And you say this is ceremonial meal of your people?”
“Yes, of the Winter Harvest,” Ivin answers, as Sivan hurriedly empties the tray to the table. “Or, at least, the closest I can render here, with the foodstuffs of this planet. The seasoning is correct --” Ivin forgives himself the minor sin, but ground frith is expensive enough on homeworld, let alone as an import here; blue pepper is similar in flavor if not aroma, and it’s not like the xeno is likely to know the difference. “We eat first of the plates of the north, representing --”
Monster spears one of the meatballs from the “north” of the display, then dips it in the cleargill sauce on the south side.
Ivin blanches. “The north and the south --”
“-- Are delicious! Oh, is marvelous! Little explosions going on in mouth!”
“There – may actually be a chemical reaction going on.”
“A base lie! Ha! You got that? Base? Reaction? Ha!”
Ivin nods, slowly, backing off. “I will – leave you to your food.”
“You should try this, it’s amazing --”
“Can you bring me shakers of vinegar, of pepper sauce, and of fish sauce?”
The restaurateur’s eyes widen. “The ceremonial dishes must never be --”
“In wide, wide galaxy, so many variations, gods must enjoy them all, thus so must we, no?” He pounds a heavy fist on the table, grins. “If you do not have fish sauce, perhaps chocolate sauce? Caramel? Spoo?”
Ivin turns and flees.
Monster takes another bite, this time combining something with prickly leaves from the “east,” and combining it with some sort of sauteed sea life from the “west.” It’s not as good as the first combination, but variation and something new, at least in food, is always a positive thing. His hat is set on the corner of the chair opposite him, though the head scarf is, as always, still in place. Only savages let their head be bare, especially on this sundrenched world.
“Someone’s going to hit you,” says a low, buzzing voice from across the table. Now, in addition to his hat, a slender, female form sits across from him, insectile armor losing its camouflage field.
“Good!” he says, dipping a roll in three of the sauces in a way that Ivin would probably faint over. “Then I hit them back, and then they help me finish this wonderful meal.”
An annoyed clicking comes from her helmet speakers. “You know what I mean, you idiot.”
“Of course. You mean someone is going to try and kill me.” He shrugs. “Am not idiot.”
“Returning to this crap-hole the day after a prominent public incident --”
“He did swing first, even after I offered to buy him --”
“-- makes a target of you. I call that being an idiot.”
“You are so cute, Aya, when you are concerned for my health.” He pauses, the drumstick of some local fowl half-lifted to his mouth. “Is not you hired for this, I hope.”
“As if I would slum that way,” she says, her voice still modulated by her helm and face mask. Not many people have seen her without them. Monster is one of them.
“Is buyer anyone I would know?”
“That numb-nuts Guild veep who you attacked last night.”
“I told you, I offered to --”
“You broke his nose.”
“It was large nose, very easy to hit.” Monster cocks his head. “On consideration, he was large and very easy to hit, too. And he hit me first.”
“Regardless of the justice of it, he called in some chits with the Syndicate and hired three grunt-level bruisers to take you down. Apparently the slitch he was with didn’t think much of him after your encounter.”
He snorts. “Humans.”
Aya returns the sound. “Yes, such fragile flowers. Regardless, I heard about it, and thought I’d let you know. I’ve done that, so I’m gone.”
“You don’t want to watch?”
“I’ve seen slaughters before.”
Monster grins. “Am owing you one.”
“You owe me far more than one,” she replies. “And I you.”
“You sure cannot interest you in --” He skewers one of the meatballs, this time dipping it into the seafood sauces, then looks up from the bowls, but she’s gone. He makes a half-laughing grunt. “Fine. Is more for me.”
Doog stops short of the portal, his brother Noom and cousin Verki piling up behind him. “You guys know the plan.”
“Dude,” Noom says in protest, “we’ve done this, like, a dozenty times. Find the freak, knock him around, bust his nose, slip in the steel, take a snap for the client. No wheezy.”
“I dunno,” Verki says, tugging on his tunic. “Xeno stuff – that’s wild card territory.”
“Naw, that makes it easy,” Doog corrects him. “Look, roust a norm, he’s maybe there with friends, or has comrades in the zone. Complications. Roust a xeno, unless it’s a xeno dive, they’re all alone. No backup. No fam.” He flashes a grin the other two. “You got fam, you’re covered, right?”
“Right,” says Noom, returning the smile. Verki nods, but doesn’t look convinced.
That’s why I’m gang boss, Doog considers. I’m going places, and Noom’ll be with me. Verki – maybe not. Aloud, he only says, “Right – let’s jam,” and enters the restaurant.
It’s shadowed inside, after the heat and sun without, and Doog can’t see much for long moments. A figure shuffles up to him and the other two. “You honor us with your presence,” the figure says, bowing. “Allow me to --”
“Stow it, pappy,” Doog says. “We know the freak’s in here. Got a message for him.”
The older man’s eyes go wide, and his lips move beneath the thin mustache. “I – I don’t want any trouble.”
“Our trouble’s for the freak, pappy.” Doog’s eyes are adjusting, and he’s sweeping the room – and something catches his eye. And ear.
It’s Verki, wailing, flying across the room.
Doog and Noom swing around.
The figure there, between them and the door, offers a toothy smile. “Hello.”
When Shive assigned them the job, he said the client had described the target as a tall xeno with a hat, kind of scary looking. Which last hadn’t counted for much, since most xenos are just weird, alien, Other, in a way that always makes Doog’s skin crawl.
But most xenos Doog has seen – certainly the ones he and the boys have rolled for the hell of it – weren’t all that tough. They were maladapted to planetary gravity, or atmosphere. Some of them had defenses that were the sort of thing Verki was bitching about – armor plates or gasses or sprays – but, like Doog said, they were almost always (and absolutely always, if targeted correctly) alone. Nothing that three toughguys couldn’t handle.
Doog looks up at the xeno. And up. Tall, but filled out to match that height. Not scrawny or gangly like Viksians, struggling with their tall frames against the 1.2 gravity. Even inside of the worn heavy coat, Doog can tell the xeno is no push-over.
Neither is Noom. He took some money they’d picked up on another job a year or two back and got himself some fancy-dance training. Doog usually makes fun of him for it, but secretly he finds it kind of cool to see in action. He can still beat up Noom, if it comes to it, he’s pretty sure – but given his druthers he’d hire someone to do it – a couple of someones, maybe.
Noom shouts out something his fancy-dance trainer told him to, and half-pivots, cocking his leg up, then smashing it out in a smooth, horizontal motion that Doog’s seen split plast boards and crack ribs and arms and legs.
The xeno slickly steps aside with a swirl of his coat so that Noom’s kick slides past him, then smashes down with a hammer-like fist onto the outstretched leg. The snapping sound is audible, though drowned out immediately as Noom’s shout turns into something significantly more high-pitched and desperate.
Noom totters forward, balance ruined as badly as his leg, and falls against the xeno, scrabbling at his coat. It pulls aside, and Noom screams, “Blaster!” even as he tumbles to the ground.
Fuckityfuck, Doog curses internally, his eyes wide, his limbs like sandbags. The xeno’s face is shadowed still further by the wide-brimmed hat he wears, but his pointed teeth are white within that shadow. “Oh, no worrying about blaster,” he says with a deep, rumbling, heavily accented voice. “Is no fun for a fight like this.”
“Yeeaaaahhhhh!” Verki screams, leaping from a table top through the air toward the xeno. The alien twists and the same fist smashes into Verki’s face in a spray of blood, and the young man crashes to the ground, utterly still.
“Oooh, bravely done” the xeno says, with a nod of his head.
“You sunovabitch!” Seeing Verki fall has flipped the switch in Doog’s head from paralyzed-with-fear to violent-with-rage. He steps up and roundhouses his fist against the xeno’s face, which snaps back.
“Good!” the xeno grunts. “Nice shot.” He drives a punch back at Doog, catching him in the chin.
Doog staggers, then drives a counter-punch into the xeno’s gut, causing him to fold slightly. Doog would usually follow up with an elbow smashed to the lowered face, but the xeno is still too tall for that, so he settles for an uppercut that knocks the xeno’s head back.
“Nicely done,” the xeno slurs slightly, bleeding a bit around the lips. His hand whips around and crashes into the side of Doog’s head, turning the young man’s vision into a field of stars.
Doog drops back, then pulls out the butterfly knife from his jacket pocket. He’d had it for the coup de grace against the xeno, but that was a thousand years and a lot of pain earlier, and Doog realizes he has to end this quickly. He’s not being hit as hard as he was afraid he would be, given what happened to Noom and Verki, but he knows when he needs an equalizer.
He whips around and lunges with the blade, which the xeno twists away from. “Ah, is serious matter now. Ah, well,” the xeno says, shifting impossibly away from yet another lunge.
“Shut up!” Doog shouts, his mouth not working quite right, but getting his point across. “Gonna kill you!”
“No,” the xeno says, driving another fist against Doog’s head, much harder, stopping him in his tracks even as the alien’s other hand whips out, grabs the wrist of Doog’s hand that holds the knife and squeeeeezes ….
Doog screams as the bones break into shards, the knife dropping to the floor, the flesh mangled around the broken bones. He realizes, through the pain, that the xeno has been playing with him, striking him with much less force and much less speed than he could have.
Doog realizes he’s dropped to his knees, at which point the xeno releases him. He blinks up in tears, pain roaring through his head, and can still hear the xeno saying, "Ah, well, less fun time than would want. But helps work up appetite. You boys hungry?
The xeno glances over at Noom, who’s crawled halfway to the door. Noom makes a plaintive, squawking sound, and freezes. His right leg is bent at the knee in an unnatural fashion.
Verki isn’t moving. Doog isn’t sure he’s even breathing.
The dark pits of the xeno’s eyes seem to turn back to Doog. “You?”
Doog is trying to hold his mangled arm up with is other hand, trying not to think of what he’s holding. He shakes his head slowly.
The xeno shrugs, an oddly human movement. He frowns down at Verki. “Brave boy.” He reaches into his pocket, tosses a small, silvery ingot in front of Doog. “Throw party for him.” He glances over at the table, and sighs. “Goon squad probably coming.” He puts another few coins on the table. “Interrupt meal again.” Another look at Doog, with that toothy smile the young man knows will haunt his dreams. “You reconsider, try the north and south combo – will make today a day you never forget.”
Monster ducks out the back, hearing the warble of the local cops on their way. He pauses on the way out only to tell Ivin and his family what wonderful food they have. In the alley, he stops, sighs.
“You are such an odd man,” Aya’s voice buzzes from beside him, unseen.
“You should know,” he says, with a chuckle.
“So what now?”
“Have recommendation for another place. Maybe will see if they are as good.”
“You already ate most of of a meal.”
“Yes, but worked up a little appetite. Could use dessert. Maybe find some more fun. You join along?”
She makes a clicking noise. “Dinner and a show. Why not?”