A Chance Meeting at a Bar in East Hills
Disclaimer: I own neither Angel nor Firefly. All hail to Joss!
A Chance Meeting at a Bar in East Hills
East Hills wasn’t the most hospitable of worlds. Dust storms rose out of the east and blackened the sky for miles around. Them folks as could hitch a ride were long gone leaving only a few. The poor and the sick those who were too weak or too broke to escape the colony’s death throes. Then of course there was Old Guthrie. He’d been a baby when his father had come to make his fortune. He could remember the happy giddy days when East Hills had thrived, supplying a full third of the Core’s foodstuffs. That was before the drought, before the land had been farmed out and the soil eroded. That was before the sickness came.
Serenity hadn’t been at East Hills for more than a few days and it was already getting to the crew. Mal nursed his drink. The bar was all but deserted. A handful of old timers were playing cards and knocking back hard liquor at the first sign of a cough. The bartender was intently polishing glasses, a wasted effort on East Hills, but Mal supposed it passed the time. A kid was passed out by the bar with a collection of empty bottles. He’d been filled with drunken bluster the night before, but in Mal’s opinion folks who got stranded here of all places, didn’t hold much claim to boasting. Most ships docked at the Refueling Station in orbit and never came dirtside. A wily captain would offer shore leave secure in the knowledge that not a man would take it. Not on East Hills.
Was a good place to be rid of unwanted crew, or to hide out, or meet various contacts of unsavory nature. Speaking of which, Mal couldn’t help but notice that his contact had yet to show. He wasn’t keen on staying on this dust-ridden rock longer than was strictly necessary. Made a fella all manner of restless. Whiskey dulled the boredom but there was only so much a man could take. Mal took a sip and glanced over at Jayne. It didn’t take much in the way of smarts to figure when Jayne was bored. He started waxing poetical about his pecker, not a topic Mal was keen on hearing about, poetic-like or otherwise. Besides there weren’t no whores in East Hills, and folks were too sickly and fatalistic to even have a proper brawl. Not that Mal yearned for a spot of violence, but the tension in Jayne’s back said the merc had his own ideas. And if no target presented itself, Jayne would look to the Doc or his sister and their confrontations were the kind of interesting Mal could live without. The smell of despair and stale alcohol was even breaking Zoe’s stoic calm. Just a few cracks, but plain if you knew were to look. Mal sighed.
In the corner an ancient jukebox suddenly blared to unexpected life, crackling and screeching its way through tunes that hadn’t been popular since his Ma had still been crawling. Jayne growled low in his throat. Contact had better show soon. Kaylee and Wash had appreciated the chance to fiddle with some of the controls, but stay long enough and dust got into places dust weren’t meant to be. Kaylee had been a trifle vague on the particulars, but Mal knew a warning when he heard one. The promised 2500 platinum would go a long way towards keeping Serenity flying for a time, but not if the engine started spitting dirt and died. Ain’t nothing in the ‘verse was worth that.
The door swung open suddenly and a big man strode in. His cloths were of good make if a little grimy. The gun strapped prominently to his side looked a trifle archaic but Mal had no doubt the black man knew how to use it. All in all he looked the sort of fella who could go a round or two against Jayne and walk away. Zoe sat up straight. Her hand inched towards her gun casual like. He might be the contact, but with a man like that a bit of caution wasn’t unwarranted. Mal frowned. The man had seen them but his eyes had moved on, focused on the kid. Something wasn’t right here. He could fell that unpleasantness was about to commence.
Another man had joined the first. He was leaning against the wall, deceptively casual, but his eyes were boring holes in the kid’s skull. Mal studied him. Took in the faded brown coat that concealed quite a few weapons unless Mal missed his guess, the long scar on his neck hid by a scraggly beard. Tsai boo shr! Mal glanced at Zoe. Her eyes were narrowed in recognition. Mal cursed. Nothing was ever simple. The men were moving now, like predators stalking their prey. They approached the bar and sat almost in unison on either side of the kid.
“Morning,” the black man said. The kid blinked and sat up. He glanced back and forth between them nervously. He started to rise, but the black man put a friendly hand on his shoulder. “Say,” he exclaimed. “Ain’t you the Ice Cream Kid?” The kid relaxed slightly.
“Some folks call me that,” he admitted proudly.
The black man ran a hand over his baldhead, almost bashfully. “Don’t supposed you’d let me buy you a drink?” He asked hopefully. The kid’s eyes narrowed slightly. He wasn’t the brightest tool in the shed, but nor was he an idiot. Strangers didn’t just offer you a drink. But there was no lie in the man’s eyes, just admiration. Who was Ben Roberts (aka the Ice Cream Kid) to turn down a free drink?
“Alright then,” Roberts said. In the corner Mal and Zoe exchanged concerned glances but kept their peace. Jayne leaned forward with a gleam in his eye.
“This tah mah duh hwoon dahn tell you what he done?” The black man addressed the bar. Roberts glanced at him sharply. The first hints of danger were starting to creep into his tired brain. “My man here is one of the best gorramn shots I ever seen.” Roberts preened under the praise even as inebriated instincts screamed at him to run. “They say he was sitting there eating his ice cream when some idiot was bothering him. He drew and fired without looking up from his ice cream. Killed that guh jun duh hwoon dahn!” He slapped Roberts on the back a little harder than necessary.
“Fella he killed went by the name of Lorne Greene,” the other man spoke for the first time. He had a trace of an accent. His voice was quiet and penetrating where his companion’s had been loud and boisterous. “Well, we’re Lorne’s friends.” With startling quickness his hand shot out and bashed Roberts’ head against the bar and threw him to the ground. The bartender, Guthrie went for his shotgun, but the black man was already covering him. He glanced at the old timers playing cards. They didn’t move.
“Normally I’d take my time,” the bearded man continued. “Had a friend who knew all sorts of interesting uses for railroad spikes.” Roberts whimpered and went for his gun. The bearded man was quicker. He stamped down with a sickening crunch breaking the kid’s fingers. “But there’s a dust storm on the horizon and we’ve wasted enough time.” He continued as if he hadn’t been interrupted.
“I’m sorry,” sobbed the Ice Cream Kid. “I-I didn’t mean to kill him. It was an accident. I wasn’t looking. Wuh de ma! I’m sorry.” The bearded man knelt and peered into his eyes.
“I believe you,” he said and smiled right before his knife slid into the kid’s ribs. “Accidents happen all the time.” He stood and glanced down dispassionately as the Ice Cream Kid coughed up blood and died.
“Pryce,” Mal said. He approached cautiously flanked by Zoe and Jayne.
“Reynolds,” the bearded man acknowledged. He nodded at Zoe who returned the gesture.
“You telling the truth about that storm?” Mal asked.
“Yep,” the black man answered as he joined them. ”Yo,” he greeted.
“Gunn,” Zoe said.
“You folks always so gorramn talkative?” Jayne asked.
“No,” Gunn said.
“Sometimes we’re laconic,” Pryce finished. Mal glanced at Zoe, who nodded slightly.
“Well then we’d best be off this rock,” Mal said. He was not riding out a storm for a mere 2500 platinum. “You folks need a ride?” Pryce and Gunn exchanged glances in unspoken communication.
“We got a ship waiting on Greenleaf,” Pryce said. “If that’s out of your way I’m sure we could…”
“Nonsense,” Zoe interrupted. “We owe you. Don’t we sir?”
“I reckon you’re right,” Mal agreed. “Well this here freak of nature is Jayne and I’ll introduce you to the rest of the crew as soon as we’re airborne. My boat’s getting a mite crowded of late but we’ll find a place to squeeze you in.”
“Much obliged,” Pryce said. They headed for the door.
“There was a rumor you two was killed at Du-Khang.” Zoe said.
“It was exaggerated,” Pryce said. “But only slightly…”
Jayne turned to the black man. “So your name really Gun?” he asked.
“Charles Gunn with two Ns,” he confirmed. “Ain’t there a song about you?” Gunn asked. “Jaaaayne, the Man they call Jaaayne…” Their voices faded as the door swung closed behind them. Guthrie sighed as he glanced down at the body. Why did he always have to clean up after other people’s killings?