In The Shadows, Steady Drizzle
It was time to set some things up, and maybe grab a quick bite while I was at it. Fortunately, I knew a place to do both. And they never closed.
In every city there’s a place like this, where the down-and-out congregate. Even the Robots had their own version, a particularly brutal type of scrapyard where cannibalism was a way of life. It doesn’t matter how tight the regulations; people still need a place to be once society has finished squeezing the life out of them. Here in Founder’s Landing, it’s The Forum. Diogenes would feel right at home.
It was halfway across town and I had to hustle. I dodged one Redcap patrol, and another came within ten feet of me without noticing. The steady drizzle helped; nobody expects even the homeless to be out in the rain. Besides, the Redcaps are mostly under orders to let them through; so long as they stay out of sight, it’s cheaper to let people live on the fringe than on government dole or, worse, in prison.
Tonight, though, there was an odd feeling about the place — watchful, sullen, expectant. It was like a normally friendly dog sensing a coming earthquake. Street people are closer to the wild than the rest of us; they learn to see things coming from a ways off. Either that or they die fast. I resolved to keep my wits sharp.
Back in the days of the Republic, this had been the center of politics, where (if legend was right) citizens could walk up to their Senators and actually discuss the issues. Of course, it helped if you had cash in hand, so at least that much hasn’t changed — either in the Senate or here. Fortunately, I’d come prepared.
It was a classic amphitheater, with rows of tiered stone benches on both sides. Near the walls were the more permanent shelters, but the lady I was after was down in the center. Queen Molly’s lean-to had its own fire, and a massive stew kettle next to it that, rumor has it, had been bubbling constantly for a century and more in various places, under one potentate or another. As I approached, I started pulling cans from various pockets — I hadn’t completely wasted my time in the borrowed house. She watched as I came, sharp eyes flashing — one silvery, one black.
“Well, now; quite the gentleman we are, Martin dear. Gifts and everything. Why, next thing you’ll be pulling out a bottle of wine and a bouquet of roses too, I shouldn’t wonder. Trying to turn my head, are we now?”
Something was wrong; she wasn’t usually sarcastic, at least not at my expense. She was playing to an unseen audience — usually, folks around here at least pretend they’re not listening in. Other times, the way she’d taken to staring at me lately, I’d been starting to think she was a little sweet on me, and no matter that I was twice her age. I tried to recall something I might have done to offend.
“Oh, if I’d thought that possible, I’d have started long before now,” I said, bowing. “No, just the cans, for a bowl of stew — though, if there’s someone you know with a bit of free time, I do need a favor.”
“Oh, a favor is it? Well, now. I suppose we might know someone who’d do a favor for a favor, or perhaps just for a price.”
“Of course! Nothing for nothing, and nothing from nothing,” I said, quoting an ancient thieves proverb*. I’d been stooled to the rogue** near as long as she’d been alive, and I meant to remind her of that — and of other history we shared.
She looked hard at me from under her tangle of sodden hair, and after a moment she shook her head. “Well, go on, then. Take a bowl full.” Her voice was softer now, but she was still watching me like she would a strange dog. I pulled a freshly-acquired bowl and spoon from a pocket and scooped up a healthy serving, then hunkered down to eat as she refreshed the pot with some of what I’d brought and put the cover on. It would stay on until the additions were cooked through.
Hobo stew done wrong can kill you dead. Done right, it’s ambrosia, a mix of flavors you’ll never find anywhere else cooked over an open fire — and the Queen’s pot was always done right. No two stews taste alike, for the simple reason that the ingredients are whatever comes to hand — a handful of grain, city pigeons, even the odd wild herb from a public park or someone’s windowbox. Before I enlisted, I’d lived on the stuff… but then, that was another world, and besides, the wench is dead.
I took a few bites and felt the glow start in my belly, spreading out to the rest of me. Just exactly what I’d needed on a rainy night. Queen Molly was still eyeing me closely, saying nothing. Fair enough; I’d start.
“What I need is an officer’s uniform, Militia or Marines either one. Everything from boots to coat, including ID. It’s got to fit me, more or less, and the ID has to be safe for a full day.”
“No longer?” she asked. I knew what she meant; I shook my head.
“No; no need to kill the poor bastard. Just keep him tucked away for a while so he can’t report the theft. Quietly. You know how it’s best done.”
There. I’d put it into words. If there was anyone recording, they had a handle on me now; I’d just asked a person to commit a crime — one that might get someone killed. That was prison at least if I was turned in. But if I showed Molly my trust, maybe she’d loosen up about what was troubling her.
She didn’t. “You’ll be paying in advance this time,” she said.
Ohh-kay; time to show some teeth. “You know I’m good for it. What’s going on? You going to search me next, make sure I’m not wired?”
She nodded, waving someone over. This was unexpected, even considering. But I’d offered; couldn’t back down now or I’d look guilty as hell. I stood as rough hands patted me down and cleaned me out. Damn, but they were thorough.
The owner of the hands backed away, and she stirred through the pile of my belongings with a finger. She pulled out my wallet, removed the cash, counted it, and said, “This’ll do.”
“That’s more than twice the going rate,” I remarked. She nodded, then handed me back my empty wallet, my old Militia badge, and after some hesitation my keys. My lockpicks, a cosh, and some odds and ends stayed where they were.
I raised an eyebrow. “You’ve got some pressing need for my tools?” I asked. “Nothing for nothing, remember.”
“It’s not me that has a need, but rather some ladies with no work nor bed tonight. You were seen with the redcaps, so you can help pay.” She paused, then went on. “And it’s better if you’re not armed.”
Better for who? rose to my lips unspoken, but I passed on to the important bit. “They closed down the whole house?” She nodded. “Any idea why?”
“I’d thought you might tell me,” she shot back. “You were with them.”
“Not by choice,” I said, and told her my tale, such as it was.
She frowned, then nodded. “That’s plausible. It’s the sort of thing you’d do. And of course I believe every word you ever tell me.” There was a flicker of a smile, and then back to the scowl. “But that won’t help you.”
As they dragged me away, I realized once again: Sometimes, being too clever just gets you in more trouble.
* Loosely translated: you pay the help, and you don’t rob from the poor — which, by courtesy, extends to everyone else reduced to thieving for a living.
** Heinlein’s phrase, from “Coventry”. Inducted into the freemasonry of thieves, conmen, and ne’er-do-wells. There’s no reason to suspect it’s genuine thieves’ argot.
It’s not looking good for Our Hero! How will he get out of this one? Tune in next time to find out!
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