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The Chinese Chest

Old Guy

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Night -- on the Street

Fleet Street Donnie lounged under an awning that extended a few feet from the entrance to Flanigan's Market. Across the street the clock located in the 2nd National Bank tower chimed the hour -- 4:00 am. The market, like the other legitimate businesses in the area, was closed.

Donnie had no known surname. The Fleet Street moniker came about because he was generally to be found haunting the gin mills of that infamous West End street.

A beefy man ambled out of the drizzling rain and greeted Donnie with a mumbled, "Whazzup, man?" He pulled out a dirty handkerchief and wiped at his face. "Stayin' outta the rain, eh?"

"Tryin' to, Joker. Tryin' to." Donnie didn't comment on Joker's fine sense of the obvious. The muscular thug didn't understand sarcasm. In fact, and in spite of his name, he was confused by any humor not involving whoopee cushions or pulling fingers. When people laughed in his vicinity he naturally assumed they were laughing at him. Anyone with half and ounce of sense stayed the hell away from Joker. When that wasn't possible, they talked about the weather.

The two men stood under the awning staring into the falling rain. Neither looked at the other. Joker produced a pack of cigarettes, lit two, and passed one to Donnie. It was accepted without comment. Wherever he went along Fleet Street, people handed him things. Booze, food, small bills. Few could stand to meet his glance. For one thing Donnie was hard to look upon. More importantly he was known to be Mr. Dude's eyes and ears in the West End. Guilty looks might be reported back to the crime boss, resulting in a visit from Joker or one of his lowbrow peers.

"Seen any of Spectre's bunch?" asked Donnie.

The bruiser frowned, as if his reply required heavy duty thinking. "Nope."

Joker was, in an odd way, Donnie's only friend. As friendships go it wasn't one that would ever be celebrated in legend or even mentioned in dispatches. It was also dangerous for Donnie. When in possession of information he judged to be of little or no use to Mr. Dude, he retailed that knowledge to the highest bidder. Joker, friend or not, was Mr. Dude's favorite enforcer. He'd happily break Donnie's legs or even provide him with concrete overshoes, if ordered to do so. The trick for Donnie was to accurately determine what information Mr. Dude might consider important. Sadly, no one had ever accused Donnie of good judgment, beginning with his birth.

His mother was a whore at Madam Grundy's. He spent his early years in the Sisters of Mercy Military School and Daycare located across the street from Grundy's. The Sisters. a female religious cult, relied on stern lectures, a rigid code of behavior, and shock prods to enforce discipline. Repeat offenders were sentenced to The Tank, a surplus starship fuel chamber. Donnie collected a large number of burn scars and spent much of his time in solitary, exacerbating the effects of residual radiation in the metal of the tank. His skin turned a light shade of gray with darker spots scattered at random. He developed a prominent nose, bulbous eyes, and pointy ears. His hearing became acute and he could see better at night than your average owl, though bright light caused him considerable pain. All in all, he looked like a cross between a spotted frog and a maddened ferret.

Donnie also developed a strategy for dealing with Authority. He became a snitch. And not just a run-of-the-mill tattler, either. Informers, if they are to survive, must develop a fine sense of Who in Authority they should divulge their damning information. A good stool pigeon also strives to be unobtrusive. Few men and no women looked at Donnie twice, if they could help it. People ignored him, which may be better than being invisible. His relationship with Mr. Dude guaranteed him access to virtually any place on Fleet Street or in the warehouse district and dock area to the west.

Donnie flicked the cigarette butt into the gutter where it smoldered on the carcass of a dead rat. "Gotta go." Suiting action to words, he pulled his hat down and shuffled up the street. Joker stayed where he was long enough to smoke a second coffin nail, then headed for an apartment building on Commerce Boulevard, a block east of Fleet. He had doors to kick down, arms to break.

An airship on final to the spaceport descended out of the low clouds, running lights aglow in the misty air. Joker paid no attention to the thrum of propeller blades, the rumble of diesels running at reduced power. Few things interested the enforcer, other than his work, cigarettes, and a blonde amazon named Fifi.

Donnie stopped on a corner and watched the airship pass to the west. It would parallel the waterfront docks to Point Sorrow, then turn directly east into the airship landing area at the spaceport. A creature of dark alleys and dimly lit rooms, Donnie had no real interest in flying machines of any type. He noticed airships because the whine of electric propeller drive motors played hob with his oversensitive hearing. At takeoff power, the howling noise would drive him deep into the tunnels, head throbbing.

Hunched against the light rain, Donnie headed north along Fleet Street. He liked to take breakfast in the Alien Menace Bar & Casino. Once the hangout of deep space sailors, the place now catered to airship crews and passengers. Jericho hadn't seen a starship for nearly ten years. Most of the old port had fallen into neglect. Only a single terminal and a couple huge airship hangars were in regular use.

Jericho was one of the few relatively large cities on En Gedi, a world of low landforms and more or less constant mist and rain. The system star, One Way, was so-named due to its location inside the folds of the Ripple Nebula. One FTL tramline in and out. The star location put En Gedi well off the main trade routes. When disaster struck the Federation, star travel became a low priority item and the planet went on a list of destinations To Be Contacted Later, When Things Are Better.

Arrivals -- and Departures

Gunny Morgan stood in the shadows a few steps inside the debarkation port. A thin stream of passengers trickled through the port and across a carpeted gangway into Jericho's main terminal area. Since the airship was moored inside the spacious terminal, the two meter wide gangway did not have the canvas roof common at other airship facilities. Beneath his feet Gunny could feel the thump of luggage being loaded onto a moving beltway suspended beneath the gangway. He turned away to light a slim cigar, then resumed his surveillance of the terminal.

He'd been in and out of the Jericho air station at least fifty times in the previous fifteen years, first as a Federation Marine, then as an unwilling citizen of En Gedi. The cessation of interstellar trade had left a small Marine contingent stranded on the planet. He'd never felt this degree of unease on any previous visit -- even during his time as a mercenary. It wasn't just that the terminal area was too open. It had always been that way. Warning senses honed by combat began sending vague alarms even as the big airship eased into the hangar.

Save for a few women, none of the debarking passengers took note of the tall, rugged man lounging in the port. Even the women passed on without a second glance. Gunny's brooding features promised nothing but trouble and the not-quite-healed scar running from the center of his forehead, across the bridge of the nose, and diagonally down his left cheek provided proof that the trouble could be of a lethal kind.

Gunny picked up his black valise and descended to the next level down in the gondola. A few crew members were trudging across a narrow catwalk into a terminal sub-level housing airship company offices. A short, heavy woman wearing a baggy Omega Lines singlesuit stood with one large bag slung over a shoulder. She cursed luridly and jerked at a carryall with one wheel missing.

He stopped at a non-threatening distance. "Let me help you with that."

The woman looked up, frowning. Gunny wasn't in any kind of uniform but his dark clothes and military style jacket, along with the close-cropped hair and erect stance, lent him an air of officialdom. As she hesitated, he stepped forward, lifted the carryall with one hand and nodded toward the catwalk. "After you."

He followed her across the walkway and down a corridor lined with mostly darkened offices. She halted in front of the Omega operations office and dropped her shoulder bag on a cart half-filled with similar bags. Gunny laid the carryall on the cart, nodded, and walked away. The woman stood for a moment, watching him go, then shrugged and went into the office.

Gunny ambled around the perimeter of an open area echoing with the sound of machinery. Luggage spilled from the beltway and thudded into a vertical lift system. A handful of workers lined the beltway, pulling an assortment of boxes and crates off onto the floor. Freight, he surmised, to be handled separately from ordinary luggage. On the far side of the handling room he climbed a metal stairway, pausing halfway up to rotate the holster under his left arm forward. If he had to draw his pistol even a half-second might be critical.

The stairwell ended in a dimly lit space between two steel girders. He stepped behind a stone block sprouting half a dozen lengths of rusty re-bar. Whatever the block was built to contain had never been installed -- probably years before. Gunny put his bag on the floor and surveyed the interior.

People stood around a baggage carousel. Some, having retrieved their luggage, walked toward the doorways leading to transportation. A pair of bored security guards stood on the opposite side of the room. One smoked a cigarette. The other glanced at his watch. Shift change, mused Gunny. He saw no one obviously watching the passenger gangway or the crowd. To his right a small coffee shop catered to a few tired travelers.

The man he was to meet sat at one of the tables. He was in the act of finishing what was apparently his second piece of pie. Gunny shook his head and laughed. Mr. Dude, the crime boss of West End and one of the nastiest creatures in Known Space, had a sweet tooth of epic proportions. He was also one of the skinniest men Gunny had ever met.

Where Mr. Dude went there would be security. One bruiser occupied a table at the far side of the coffee shop. Another held up a pillar four or five meters from Gunny's position. A few minutes observation convinced him that at least two more of Dude's hirelings were in the area. A short guy in working man's clothes slouched at a video game console, idly feeding fresh tokens at the end of each session and hardly paying any attention to the game itself. The other carried a knapsack suspended from one shoulder and strolled slowly around the room. She had a blank, bored expression, like a woman waiting for a cab.

That one has to be a Listener, thought Gunny. Psi sensitives weren't nearly as capable as breathless Tri-D vids made out, but they were often effective in sorting out the thoughts of a person bent on attacking a specific target -- like Mr. Dude.

Gunny slung his bag over his left shoulder and walked toward the coffee shop, taking care to keep his hands in view. The video game player spotted him right away. The psi kept strolling. Neither of the bruisers made him until Mr. Dude looked up and smiled. "You're late. Sit down."

"This is too open for a meeting," said Gunny. Both bruisers were eyeballing him now.

"The place is clean. Sit down." Dude signaled the waiter. "Coffee. My friend drinks his black, but I'll need more sugar."

Gunny eased into a chair. "I don't like the feel of this." The bruisers relaxed. Video man fed another token into his machine.

"You a Listener? Mine hasn't gotten a whiff of danger."

"I'm alive," replied Gunny. "In spite of efforts by various aliens and other bastards. I've had a bad feeling since we landed."

Mr. Dude nodded. "That's why you didn't come across with the other passengers?" He glanced at his Listener. She was standing motionless, head down. "Maybe you're not just a crazy old Marine. I think Ruth is on to something." Dude held up a fist, index finger extended. The two bruisers and the video player stood up. Pistols materialized in their fists. Gunny slid to his knees and touched the butt of his weapon, but did not draw it. The other customers went suddenly pale and dropped to the floor.

The Listener raised her head, just in time for it to disappear in an expanding cloud of blood and brains. Mr. Dude swore and slid down beside Gunny. The ex-Marine had his pistol out, but his eyes were on the floor near the dead woman. As she collapsed and flopped to one side, he shouted loud enough for Dude's men to hear, "On the other side of Baggage Claim!"

People at the carousel were beginning to notice the sprawled body and the blood. In a moment the herd began running in all directions. Screams and curses filled the air. A meaty thud announced the arrival of another projectile. The bruiser crouching on the other side of the coffee shop let out a groan and tried to stand. One hand clawed at a bloody splotch in the middle of his back. He went down, scattering chairs.

Mr. Dude sank down behind a metal trash can. "Come on, Gunny. Do that Marine thing and get us out of this -- alive."

Gunny slid across the floor and knelt behind a pillar. "I think this one is almost -- ."

Bruiser #2 went over backwards, breath rasping in the mangled remains of his throat.

"-- over." Gunny glanced down at Mr. Dude. "Or -- maybe not. Somebody really hates your guts. Either that or Spectre's gotten suddenly brave."

"Not a chance. Let's worry about that later. What now?"

"Now we skedaddle. Do you know a way out of here that doesn't involve sprinting across an assassin's sight picture?"

"Ski - daddle? I suppose that means a tactical retreat?"

"No. It means we run like hell. Start crawling toward the back. Pray there's another way out of this place."

"I don't have to pray. We came in that way. Follow me."

"What about your other guy? The video game player."

"He's still alive? Holler at him. But let's not hang around."

A man brandishing a scoped slug rifle bounded across the luggage carousel and ran toward the coffee shop, screaming. Gunny and the video player fired together. The attacker did a back flip and thumped to the floor. A smear of blood marked his last slide. The weapon cartwheeled through the air and smashed into a pillar.

Gunny grabbed his bag. He and the thug sprinted through the coffee shop and out the back way. Mr. Dude's guy knew the way from there. They exited the terminal at a walk and climbed into a gray sedan. There was no pursuit.

"That was not what I wanted to talk to you about," said Mr. Dude as his driver pulled away from the curb.

"By 'that' I assume you mean your near death experience?"

"Oh, it wasn't as close as that. You were there." Dude patted his gunman's shoulder. "Archie was there. You did kill the attacker? Right?"

"We shot someone, that's for sure." Gunny lit a fresh cigar. He'd lost the other one somewhere between sitting down at the table and running out the back door. "Trouble is, the guy we zotzed wasn't the shooter."

Mr. Dude regarded Gunny with an amused look. "What makes you think that?"

"That clown was blitzed out of his mind. He couldn't have put a bullet into an elephant at point blank range."

"And you know that because -- ?"

Gunny glanced at Archie. "The guy was shouting nonsense. Hardly intelligible."

Archie nodded agreement. "He's right, boss. That guy was screwed up." He grinned at Gunny. "How'd you know where the first bullet came from?"

"Spatter. The shooter was firing explosive rounds. The first shot did a neat job of decapitating your Listener. I just watched where the goo landed. The shooter was above the crowd. Probably on one of the catwalks across from the coffee shop. Or in a stairwell. I never actually saw him -- or her."

"I thought it might be something like that. I couldn't see her from where I was."

Mr. Dude sat back. "Well -- if all that wasn't an attack by some whore's father or another kind of crazy bastard, maybe it is related to the issue I wanted to discuss with you."

Gunny saw no sign of pursuit. "The guy we gunned down was so screwed up he probably didn't even know where he was. The real shooter took out your Psi and two of your street soldiers. Why not just put that first bullet into your head?"

Mr. Dude shrank down in his seat. "Dammit, Gunny, I'm paranoid enough without worrying about why some jerk didn't kill me." He managed a faint smile. "I will look into it. I got a deal going. Someone might be trying to scare me off."

"A deal? Your message said you had a job for me. Does it have to do with this deal?"

"It does." Mr. Dude smiled. "I'm sending a couple people up to Iron City to pick up a package. I want you for security."

"What kind of package?"

"No drugs. I know you ain't into that kind of thing -- now that you're a legitimate security professional." Mr. Dude hesitated. He mimed a small, rectangular object. "It's a chest -- about so big -- banded in bronze. A Chinese chest."

"A Chinese chest? What's in it?"

"I don't know." Mr. Dude shrugged. "No one knows."

Gunny heaved a tired sigh. "By 'Chinese' I imagine you don't mean a chest built on one of the Federation planets with large Chinese populations."

"No. This one is perhaps five thousand years old. It's worth at least two million Federation credits -- regardless of what might be in it."

"Two -- million -- ?" Gunny's surprise was obvious. "But -- we ain't likely to be in regular contact with the Federation for years. What's it worth here and now?"

"There are several collectors who would pay at least half a million dollars for it. One paid somewhat more than that." Mr. Dude nodded. "Yeah. Me."

"Since when are you a collector of ancient artifacts? Last I knew your interests lay with making money and adding to your stable of redheads."

"And pie," interjected Archie. "Don't forget the pies."

Mr. Dude laughed, which told Gunny the triggerman had been around for some time. Most of Dude's hired help didn't joke with the boss. He considered the man for a moment. Archie wore dark clothes, including a short jacket of the type worn by dock workers. Like most inhabitants of En Gedi, his complexion was pale. Dark eyes, probably brown, hair a dark shade of brown leavened with gray. A narrow brimmed fedora topped off his outfit. Though shorter than average, the man would blend in anywhere short of a formal affair and his features were the kind few people ever really saw and fewer remembered. Archie had the perfect face and build for a killer.

The ex-Marine extended a hand. "Gunny Morgan. I don't think we've ever met."

"Archie Blaine. I been around."

"Archie has been working in the organization for a long time," said Mr. Dude. "The last couple years he's been my troubleshooter at Capitol."

Capitol was a small town with hardly anything to recommend it -- except that the original settlers had designated the place as the seat of Planetary Government. The designation was never intended to be permanent, but when the first immigrants were overwhelmed by floods of convicts, welfare clients, and people whose only crime was being poor, it became a struggle to maintain control over the development of En Gedi. Capitol became the official center of government because no one had the time or energy required to select a different location.

Gunny made no comment to Mr. Dude's description of Archie's duties in Capitol. The word 'troubleshooter' was probably used intentionally. Trouble could often be effectively dealt with using a properly placed bullet.

"This doesn't sound like a job for me," said Gunny. "Archie could easily handle it."

Mr. Dude wagged a finger at the ex-Marine. "I intended to send both of you. A couple of the other collectors have made various threats. There could be trouble."

"I can't leave," objected Archie. "I gotta find the scum that killed our people. If it was Spectre -- well, we might have to finish that problem for good."

"True," said Dude. "I'll have to keep you and Donnie here."

"Donnie? Fleet Street Donnie?" Gunny shook his head. "I figured he'd be dead by now."

"Judging from the smell," said Archie, "he's been dead for a long time."

"It's all part of his cover," said Mr. Dude. "I was going to send him to Iron City to nose around. Like he does here."

"He wouldn't really fit in there," observed Gunny. "Too tall."

Archie frowned and shook his head. "Doesn't seem to matter. He sort of fades into the background. Practical invisibility."

"His particular method of surveillance might not work well outside of Jericho," mused Mr. Dude. "Besides, Archie will need him to ferret out whoever tried to kill me."

"Ferret," said Gunny, chuckling. "If it wasn't for all those spots Donnie could pass for a ferret anywhere."

"Careful how you talk," warned Archie. "I got relatives afflicted with spots. They're good people -- mostly -- except for the ones still in jail -- or hanging on gallows."

Mr. Dude leaned forward and tapped his driver's shoulder. "Take us to the shop."

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The B-Team

The car glided through one of the service doors below a gaudy sign depicting a well-endowed woman in mostly zipped coveralls. She had grease on her cheek and a wrench in one hand. The words "Dude's Repair Shop" were lettered across the sign next to the image. Under the shop name, in smaller letters, the sign claimed, "We Fix All Things Mechanical". Gunny grinned as the car pulled through a second door, which closed behind them. He knew that the sign portrayed the absolute truth. Nothing, absolutely nothing illegal took place within the Shop. A mixed group of mechanics and technicians did exactly what the sign said -- repaired everything from toy trains to airship diesels. In the absence of contact with suppliers in the Federation, parts fabrication and mechanical restoration was big business.

He followed Mr. Dude into an office. "Why the hell do you bother with being the Boss of West End? This place must make you a mint."

Mr. Dude dropped into a plush chair behind a desk littered with paperwork. A well-worn comp unit and a large candy dish were visible amid the clutter. "How do you get off a tiger, Gunny?"

The ex-Marine sat down. "Yeah. If things were different -- if we still had contact with Known Space -- you could build up credits elsewhere and just drop out when you were ready to retire. That would be difficult here."

"You got it. Where would I go? Capitol? Without my organization they'd have me gutted and strung up by my balls within a week."

"How about Iron City or Rampart?"

"Iron City? A mining town full of hairless monkeys? Gods Above, Gunny, even the women are bald. Not to mention being barely a meter tall."

"Gnomes," said Archie. "They call themselves gnomes. Not monkeys."

"Some say they were made to resemble fictional dwarfs." Gunny liberated a piece of Dude's candy. "I don't understand how that can be. Aren't dwarfs covered with hair?"

Archie sighed. "In literature dwarfs are indeed hairy and quite short. The actual specs for the mining gnomes don't correlate to any historical or fictional creature. I think the designers just forgot to add hair."

Mr. Dude popped a chocolate candy and tossed the wrapper toward an overflowing trash can in the corner. "Thank you, Mr. Blaine for that lesson in comparative anatomy. If the critters in Iron City are gnomes, then why do those turnip farmers in Rampart call themselves orcs?"

"Some organic designer was shooting for goblin and got his myths mixed up. Orcs are better looking than goblins anyway."

Mr. Dude glanced at Gunny and nodded toward his triggerman. "He can go on like this for hours."

"Sorry, boss."

"Rampart might be a good place to retire, if you wanted to hibernate for half the year," said Gunny. "And grow turnips the rest of the time."

"They don't actually hibernate, you know," said Archie. "I got a couple cousins up there. You just have to live underground during the winter. They grow turnips year round -- in the caverns. Nothing can grow above ground. Not even in summer."

"Yeah," agreed Gunny. "The wind dies down enough in summer so that you can survive on the surface -- which consists of a landscape made up of rock scoured by sand and water. Airships can even land there -- sometimes."

Archie scowled. "They grow lots of things in the caverns. Not just vegetables. Livestock too. They feed them on turnip tops and other leafy stuff."

"Right," said Mr. Dude. "Sounds like paradise. I could live underground half the year in perfect safety and dodge assassins during the summer after every successful airship landing. No thanks." He handed Gunny a tablet displaying an image of a battered wooden box. "That's the chest. The file contains a full description and history."

Gunny flipped through a dozen images of the chest. "Doesn't look like much. You sure a ten-year old boy didn't build this last month?"

"Positive. The box has seen a good deal of wear and tear, but it's well made. Look at the images of the two other boxes known to exist. One is in a private collection on Engine Failure. The other is in a museum on Earth. At least that's where they were ten years ago. I suppose they still are."

Comparison of features on all three boxes convinced Gunny that they were the work of a single worker. One who was very good at his job. "Well, the things are old and I'm positive they were all made by the same guy. But was that 500 years ago or 5,000?"

"There is enough documentation on the three boxes to be fairly sure they pre-date the industrial age. Analysis of the wood takes the date back about 5,000 years."

"Right. So were they built that long ago or did some clown make them a thousand years ago using ancient wood."

Mr. Dude shrugged. "My experts say that isn't possible. Something about the method of construction and the bronze fittings."

Archie touched the tablet screen. "Why do the other two boxes look burned? See the marks? The one you bought doesn't have them."

"I see what you mean," said Gunny. He looked up at Mr. Dude. "Any ideas?"

"Nothing concrete. Both of the other boxes have been opened. The one on Earth maybe 500 -- 600 years ago. The one on Engine Failure, about fifty years back. Both momentarily flared with fire when the lid was opened. The flames died down within a few seconds. Nothing was found inside. No traces of chemicals. Nothing. I've read some theories of what might have cause the flare, but it's all guesswork. I don't intend to open this one."

Gunny closed the computer files and put the table in his jacket pocket. "I certainly won't try opening it and I know your people won't either. I'll play along. It's your money. You know my fees. Who you gonna send to get the box?"

Mr. Dude looked at Archie. "What do you think? Joker?"

"Joker will follow orders."

"Wait a minute," snarled Gunny. "Isn't this supposed to be a delicate operation? Joker has a little trouble in the delicacy department. How bad do these other collectors want the box?"

"They want it bad enough to play hardball," said Mr. Dude. "Maybe badly enough to set up that shooting in the terminal. I wouldn't be hiring you for security if this was an ordinary business deal. As Archie said, Joker will follow orders. He can be handy to have around if you need a door to disappear."

"Or a couple would-be thieves," added Archie. "If he goes berserk just stay clear until the bits and pieces stop falling."

"It's the berserk part I don't like." Gunny thought for a long moment. "Who else you got in mind?"

"One of our finance guys," said Mr. Dude. "Stans. Do you know him?"

"I think so." Gunny smiled. "A waking computer when it comes to money? Tries to pick up dames by claiming to be a dentist? That guy?"

"That's the one," said Archie. "Only he doesn't claim to be a dentist any more. Now he tells the broads he plays a dentist on Tri-D. Says he can get them a screen test."

"But -- ." Gunny let out a long sigh. "Does that really work? There aren't any live actors on Tri-D. Hasn't been for centuries."

"Aha!" laughed Mr. Dude. "We've discovered a hole in Gunny Morgan's vast pool of knowledge about everything in Known Space." He picked up another candy. "There were no real actors on Tri-D until the Federation went into the toilet. Here on En Gedi, being a benighted, backwards planet, we never had the production facilities needed to put together fully computer generated video. It's being worked on, but meanwhile the local Tri-D companies must use real actors."

"I'll be damned." Gunny helped himself to a handful of candy. "My old sergeant told me if I kept my mouth shut I could learn something new every day."

"He really say that?" asked Archie.

"Naw. All he ever said to me was: 'Drop, scrag! Gimme ten!'"

"Ten? That bastard I endured for sixteen weeks of horror always demanded twenty."

Gunny lit a fresh cigar. "That's because you're so short. Gotta work twice as hard to accomplish the same thing as one of us tall, handsome devils."

"Sheeeit," muttered Archie. It was the best he could come up with. Apparently having his head closer to the ground didn't help him produce snappy comebacks. He followed the tall bastard out of the office. A female mechanic stopped Gunny in the shop.

"Gunny!" she cooed. "When did you get back in town?"

"Just now, sweetie. What you got on for tonight?" Gunny glanced back at Archie and winked. He obviously didn't remember the woman's name. She didn't seem to care.

"Just this," she replied, touching her coverall zipper. "And my birthday suit. I'm off in a few minutes. You in a big hurry?" She glanced at Archie. "I've seen your short friend around. What's his name?"

"Archie." Gunny gently steered her toward the shop area. "We just met. Never mind him. I'm sure he has a short girlfriend. Somewhere."

The two wandered away chattering happily. Archie couldn't help reflecting that inadequate height had other disadvantages as well. For one, women didn't seem to be able to remember your name. Dull hatred glowed and rapidly faded away. It was impossible to hate guys like Gunny simply because of their height and the fact that women flocked to them. He was sure he would discover better reasons to hate the bastard.

Spectre of Jericho

"Business is picking up, boss," announced Eygor, Spectre's number one assistant.

"How so? I haven't seen any bodies come in since day before yesterday."

"Shooting at the airship terminal. We got four stiffs coming in. Two of Mr. Dude's brunos, a headless dame, and some unknown Fantasy addict."

Spectre eyed Eygor with mild suspicion. The little hunchback was capable of really sick practical jokes. "A headless dame? What's the story behind that one."

Eygor handed over a jotpad displaying the Jericho All News All The Time network. By selecting a synopsis of the Terminal Tragedy, as the newsies were dubbing it, Spectre was soon convinced that Eygor wasn't joking.

"Two of Dude's wide loads went down," mused Spectre. "Give 'em the gangster special. The woman was a psi. Probably contracted to Dude. Once we figure out who she is, offer the family a complete rebuild of the head."

"Sure, boss. They'll be ripe for that -- regardless of cost. What about the addict?"

"Send him to the city morgue. Let them cremate the moron."

Regular business taken care of for the moment, Spectre headed for the back door of the coffin and burial urn showroom. "I'll be out back if you need me."

Eygor nodded in response and lurched off toward the Receiving Dock. He stopped to get some cash from the coin box labeled: 'Indigent Burial Fund'. The City meat wagon guys delivered stiffs to Spectre of Jericho solely in return for monetary reimbursement. Only the local medical school paid better for corpses.

Spectre strolled through the warehouse. Faux oak coffins were stacked to one side. A few crates of memorial urns lined the opposite wall. Urged by Spectre's sales staff, most families could be convinced to purchase coffins for their loved one's passage into the maw of the company's high efficiency furnace. Pallets laden with sacks of simulated ash were stored in the back corner and covered with tarps. Since nothing larger than a molecule remained after a cremation, and because grieving survivors needed to feel something in the urn when they shook it, the fake ash came in handy.

The back door of the warehouse opened into a small paved parking area surrounded by an eight-foot concrete wall topped with barb wire. Spectre walked to the small metal building situated just inside the back wall and went inside.

Two men sat at a table playing cards. A portly woman occupied a padded chair in one corner. She glanced at him, then went back to monitoring a bank of displays.

"Slick. Who tried to hit Mr. Dude?"

One of the men pointed toward the woman. "Mavis has been on it since right after the shooting started. What we got is a big fat zero."

Spectre pulled up a chair and sat down next to the console. "Nothing?"

"Not a hint," said Mavis. "That ex-Marine, Gunny, came in on an Omega airship. He apparently met with Mr. Dude in the terminal coffee shop. I think the shooter came in the same way. Might have left that way too."

"The cops let the airship go?"

"Not the Omega ship. A chartered freighter departed about thirty minutes later, bound for Iron City."

Spectre thought for a moment. "Dude's gonna think we did it."

Bess nodded. "If he gets serious, he's got plenty of muscle on hand. Archie, Joker, maybe even Gunny."

"I know that Gunny," said the other card player. "He's bad news." The man stood up and reached for his jacket. "I -- I think I'll take a turn around the place."

Slick gathered the cards. "You're sweating, Gorf. What's the problem?"

"I -- uh -- Mr. Dude's gonna send that sick bastard after us." Gorf's voice went up several octaves. "We ain't got a chance."

Spectre pointed at the table. "Sit down, Gorf. The only sick bastard in Dude's gang is Fleet Street Donnie and he ain't the kind you send out to hit someone."

Gorf remained standing. He gripped a chair with bone white knuckles. "No. It's Gunny. He'll send him."

"Gunny don't take contracts any more," said Slick. "Not many anyhow. He's legit."

"You're crazy!" cried Gorf. "He's a marine! He'll cut our heads off and spit down our throats!" Urine pooled at his feet. "I gotta get outta here!"

Slick clawed for his pistol. Mavis pulled a short-barrel carbine from a clip beside her comm console and fired. The silenced weapon emitted a double thud. Gorf stumbled and went to his knees, then toppled sideways. One hand raked coffee cups off a shelf.

"Damn it, Mavis," said Slick. "I just washed all those cups."

She safed the carbine and laid it on the console. "At least he didn't knock over the coffee pot. I hope my Combat Pistol cup didn't get busted."

Spectre sighed. "Complications. Always complications."

"If it's broke, I can get another cup."

"No. I mean this situation involving Mr. Dude and Gunny." Spectre hesitated. "I better get in touch with Dude. Try to convince him we had nothing to do with the shooting."

"Mention Gorf here to Gunny, if you get a chance," said Slick. "I got a suspicion old Gorf had dealings with him in the past."

"Yeah." Spectre eyed the dead man. "Have Eygor run Gorf through the furnace. Tell him to record it as an unknown indigent. The city will pay us a few bucks for that."

"I got Mr. Dude on the comm," said Mavis.

Spectre picked up a handset. "Hey, Dude! How's the repair business?"


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The Iron City Mob

Boss Barclay looked up from the quarterly reports. Cobra hovered in the doorway. Barclay made a come-on gesture. "I told you a hundred times, if the door's open, just knock an' walk in."

"Right, Boss."

Barclay sighed and slumped a little further into his chair. Cobra always said that -- as if he intended to do what he was told. But the next time he wanted to see the boss he'd hang around the door looking lost until he was invited in.

"Couple hoods from outta town, Boss. Arrived on a airship." Cobra carefully placed a picture on the desk.

"On a airship?" Barclay sighed again. "Imagine that." The only places on En Gedi connected to the outside world with actual roads were located north and south of the vast Central Swamp which girdled the globe in a band roughly 4,000 miles wide. Outside the soggy lowlands the surface consisted of windblown rock and water, giving way to windblown snow and ice as one neared the poles.

Unfazed, Cobra tapped the photo with a grimy index finger. "This here is one a them ex-Marines. Name of Gunny. I seen him before."

"I know about Gunny. He's a private gumshoe. Who's the walking mountain with him?"

"Dunno, Boss. They come from Jericho. Could be one a Dude's goons."

"I know this other clown. Name of Stans. A numbers guy. He came up with Dude when we worked out that deal to supply their outfit with shipments of Fantasy."

"Fantasy?" Cobra rubbed his bald head, a sure sign of attempted thought.

"We call it Sludge," said Barclay. "That stuff made from swamp scum."

The light dawned. Cobra produced a lopsided smile. "Good stuff. 'Cept for the gray gunk that runs out yer nose. Feels good. Makes things look real simple."

"Yeah. Sludge does that." Boss Barclay wondered, not for the first time, if he needed a new gunsel. He wasn't sure Cobra remembered how to use a club, much less a pistol.

"Want me to take some muscle and find out -- find out -- ." Cobra's voice trailed off. He got up and ambled out.

Barclay sat and stared at the picture on his desk. It would be nice, he mused, if the Iron City Mob had a few competent thugs, like Gunny. And sometimes, when certain types of coercion were needed, a gorilla like the one evidently accompanying the ex-Marine would be useful as well.

Stimper, Barclay's admin gnome, rapped on the door frame. "Some big guys to see you, Boss. From Mr. Dude."

"Gimme a minute, then send 'em in." Barclay stuffed the picture in a drawer and spent a moment contemplating his organization. Stimper and Cobra were representative of 95% of his made gnomes. Three feet tall, more or less, completely hairless, and ugly. The ugly part was a design feature. Human women would have nothing to do with gnome males and female gnomes preferred a militant celibacy. Most new gnomes were grown in vats. Barclay was an odd duck, about a foot taller than gnome-normal and blessed with a few more operating brain cells than was usual. So far, all his superior intellect and freakish height had gotten him was leadership of a criminal organization composed of gnomes too lazy or too dumb to work in the mines.

The man he knew to be Gunny Morgan entered the office. Boss Barclay stood up slowly. He thought a slow rise made him look taller. It didn't.

"Gunny. Good to see you again." Behind the ex-Marine a very large man bumped his shoulders on the door frame twice before turning sideways and shuffling through. "I see you brought your own muscle. And a numbers man. Curiosity consumes me."

"I'm sure it did," replied the ex-Marine. He tossed a folder on the desk. "This will explain the purpose of my visit to your fine -- ah -- city."

"I figured you probably came for the mine tour or to relax in the hot spring. The Chamber of Commerce is big on developing tourist attractions."

The man mountain standing behind Gunny stopped in the act of lighting a cigarette. "How'd ya steal a spring?"

Gunny turned and spoke slowly. "Not hot as in stolen, Joker. Hot water. The water comes out of the ground hot." He handed the thug a piece of candy and pointed toward a sofa occupying one corner of the office. "Now, sit."

"Hot water outta the ground? What will they think of next?" Chewing the candy, Joker ambled over to the sofa and sat down.

Gunny sank into a chair. "We ain't here as tourists."

"No. I see that." Barclay studied the description printed below an image of a wooden box. "Is this for real?"

"True as taxes. I haven't seen it myself. Mr. Dude bought the thing sight unseen. I'm here to keep an eye on things. Stans will handle the financial arrangements. Joker is, well, I don't think I have to spell out his role."

"Maybe for him," said Barclay. He smiled at Joker. The creature was smoking a cigarette and apparently studying the carpet pattern.

"Whatever. Mr. Dude told me to pay a courtesy call on you -- to explain what we were doing. He said Stans will also arrange for further shipments of -- um -- hallucinogenic products. Not Fantasy. Too many one-shot customers."

Barclay shrugged. "I warned him that Fantasy dosages have to be strictly controlled. We've -- uh -- stopped producing it anyhow." He decided not to bore Gunny with unimportant business complications. Everyone who worked in the Sludge/Fantasy processing plant was currently housed in the Iron City Home for the Insane. All that is except for those whose remains now resided in small memorial jugs.

"The Chinese box is being guarded in a warehouse about a mile west of here. My contact is someone named Red. You got any info on him or his operation?"

"That would be Red Li Chung," said Barclay. "He's bad news. Was a tong chief up in Rampart. Half orc, half Chinese, all bastard. Tried to take out the other three tong leaders three years ago. Didn't work. Word is he was lucky to escape alive. Hid out in the Shallow Sea area until the heat died down. He's been doing a little independent smuggling and some mercenary work since then."

Gunny nodded. "I remember hearing about the doings in Rampart. Never knew the details. I take it this Red guy is working out of Iron City with your approval?"

"I got gnomes keeping an eye on him. He pays the usual percentage. Want me to send Cobra along -- just to remind him that I know what's going on?"

"Not a bad idea. Can Cobra follow orders?"

Barclay glanced at Joker. "He can -- provided you keep the instructions simple. You seem to have some experience at that sort of thing."

"Oh, yeah." Gunny lowered his voice. "Joker is very good at following commands. Come, sit, stay, maim, kill. That sort of thing."

"Good. Cobra can usually handle two-syllable words. He often remembers to add a spoon of sugar to my coffee."

"All right." Gunny stood up. "Sounds like Cobra and Joker will get along very well."

"Sure. They can compare techniques, maybe exchange favorite recipes."

"Joker don't cook."

"Neither does Cobra. I was thinking more of knuckle sandwiches and the like."

The Deal

Red Li Chung pasted a smile on his ugly mug and stood up as the three Jericho thugs entered his office. Boss Barclay's chief enforcer, Cobra, ambled in behind them. His presence didn't surprise Red. Mr. Dude wasn't going to do anything in Barclay's realm without his approval. Crime bosses tended to react violently to real or imagined slights.

Gunny introduced himself and Stans, the numbers guy. He didn't bother to name the two lumps of muscle. Red knew who Cobra was and probably had complete dossiers on Gunny, Stans, and Joker.

Two lumps similar to Joker leaned in the corners behind Red. Both were orcs of mixed blood, probably Chinese, like their boss. Orcs apparently had better luck with women, their own and others, than gnomes. They were generally somewhat taller and had hair, which compensated, at least partially, for a body consisting of strange arrangements of knotted muscle, stubby legs, and faces that only a zombie mother could love.

Red and his thugs were a head taller than average for orcs -- the influence of human blood, no doubt. Cobra, though large for a gnome, was shorter than anyone else, save one. Stans, alleged to be fully human, was the shortest person in the room.

"How do you want to do this?" asked Gunny. He sat down and lit a cigar.

"I got the box. You got the dough?"

"We do." Gunny waved Stans forward. The numbers man placed a briefcase on the desk and opened it. Neatly wrapped stacks of fifty dollar bills surrounded a plastic bag filled with diamonds. "You have someone who can appraise the diamonds?"

"I do. He'll also make sure the bills are real." Red thumbed a button on his desk. "Send the Whiz in."

"Is that Whizkid?" asked Stans.

"Yeah. You know him?"

"He's my cousin. My uncle's married to an orc -- uh -- lady." Stans looked as if he was sorry he'd mentioned the relationship. "Me and Whiz -- we don't get along."

When Whizkid entered the room it was plain that the two numbers guys were not on good terms, cousins or not. Whiz ignored the sawed-off human while he tallied the bills and diamonds. The process took some time.

Cobra stood next to one of Red's thugs. He rocked slowly back and forth, arms folded. At random intervals he emitted a low sigh. Joker, having memorized the carpet pattern, shifted his gaze to a large oil painting hanging on the opposite wall. The painting showed three orcs standing in a turnip patch. One held a shovel. The other two were apparently examining a turnip. Joker smoked cigarettes, one after the other, and kept a watchful eye on the orc with the shovel.

Finally, Whiz shut the case and nodded to Red. "The money is good, boss, and at current market prices, the value of the diamonds is exactly right."

"I expected no less," said Red. "Considering that diamond prices are determined on the exchange in Jericho." He opened a desk drawer and produced a small metal box with a clear top. Taking a key from his pocket, he unlocked the box and pushed it toward Gunny. "Look it over."

"Stans," called Gunny. "Do your thing."

Studiously ignoring his cousin, Stans gently lifted the Chinese box from its container and examined it with a magnifying glass. He compared several areas on the box to detailed photographs. Eventually he placed the box on the desk. "It looks good, but I have to have a chemical analysis done on the wood. We've already contacted a local lab to do the analysis. All I need is a small sample."

Red nodded. "Take your sample. I imagine Mr. Dude would like the box to remain unmarked."

"Yeah." Stans produced a small test kit. "I'm supposed to pull some wood from the bottom."

"Well, do what you . . ."

Gunny recognized the gnome who smashed the door open. Stimper. Boss Barclay's office assistant. A second figure loomed behind and to the right of Stimper. The little runt carried a multi-barrel rocket launcher. Gunny dove for the floor and rolled to one side. Stimper fired. Twice.

One rocket hit the thug to Red's left. The second round struck the wall between the other thug and Cobra. Stans and Whizkid were blown toward the door. Stans plowed through the wall next to the door opening. Whizkid flattened Stimper and skidded into the outer office. Fire and smoke filled the room. Part of the back wall collapsed.

A heavy pistol appeared in Joker's fist. He put two rounds into the orc in the painting -- the one holding the shovel. The figure next to Stimper shot Joker in the chest, then dashed forward.

Red lay slumped over his desk reduced to a bloody lump by the two explosions.

"Hah!" cried the second attacker. "I have it!"

Gunny rose up dripping blood and bits of partly broiled flesh. Some of the blood was his. The thief saw movement and spun around. Too late. Gunny fired two rounds into the man's body, then finished with one to the head. Even as he squeezed off the last round he recognized the would-be thief.

A riot of questions burned in his mind -- but the man on the floor was beyond answers. Shaking his head and cursing, Gunny retrieved the somewhat worse for wear Chinese box. The valise filled with cash and diamonds lay next to Stimper's body. Though the case was scorched and punctured, it was still relatively whole.

Joker loomed out of the smoke. "Wha -- what - happen?"

"A shit storm." Gunny picked up the valise and handed it to the man-beast. "You hurt?"

"Chest hurts." Joker grimaced. "Fifi take care of it."

"Let's get out of here before the cops decide to investigate."

Gunny paused, glaring back at the dead thief. "Damn. I ain't seen him for ages." With a shrug, he followed Joker, stepping over tattered remains and trying not to get too much blood on his shoes. They were new, genuine snark hide.

Back at the Shop

Mr. Dude touched the Chinese box with cautious fingers. "A few scars don't matter. It's beautiful. And even more beautiful because I got if for nothing." The battered valise lay on his desk.

Gunny lit a cigar. "I'll expect a finder's fee for bringing the money back. Ten percent would be acceptable."

Archie laughed. "Ten percent? For carrying it back from Iron City? I doubt it."

"Not for carrying it back," said Gunny. "Joker did that. The fee is for shooting the clown who tried to steal the box -- and the money."

"Well." Mr. Dude nodded. "That's worth something."

"Then, of course," said Gunny, "there's the problem of finding the terminal shooter. I took care of that as well."

Archie and Dude exchanged a surprised glance. "Spectre did that," said Archie. "He denies it of course. I figured you could help me take him out."

Gunny sat up, shocked. "Kill Spectre? Are you crazy?"

"Um -- no. What's the problem?"

"Mavis is the problem." He watched Archie's reaction. "You don't know about Mavis?"

"There's a Mavis working his comm setup. Some kind of electronics whiz."

"Hah! Your intelligence network isn't working, Dude. Mavis is an electronics tech, among other skills. She's also a stone killer." Gunny's hands shook as he re-lit his cigar. "You don't ever want to tangle with her." He relaxed somewhat. "Besides, Spectre didn't have anything to do with the terminal shooting."

Archie broke out in a cold sweat. He had heard of Mavis, the contract killer. It hadn't entered his mind that the woman working for Spectre might be that Mavis. Gunny had saved him from certain death. "Okay," he croaked. "Who is the shooter?"

"This guy." Gunny passed over a photo. "I thought he was dead. I knew him in the Marines. Spec-ops type. Moved like a ghost."

Dude nodded. "Spectre said this -- ah -- Mavis figured the shooter came in on the same airship you did. A freighter departed a short time later. Heading for Iron City."

"That explains how he got in and out without leaving much of a trail," said Gunny. He frowned. "I didn't recognize him until he went down. The only thing I can't figure, is -- how did I manage to surprise him in Red's office? Did Stimper neglect to give him a correct count of people in the room?"

"Anybody can make a mistake," said Archie.

"I guess." Gunny sighed. "I drank beer with him. He was all right."

Mr. Dude picked up the picture. "Quiet Man. Odd name."

"Yeah," agreed Archie. "Odd."


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"Iron City? A mining town full of hairless monkeys? Gods Above, Gunny, even the women are bald. Not to mention being barely a meter tall."

Three feet tall, flat head, no teeth, that describes the perfect woman! * :lol:

* PM me if you don't get the joke, probably not safe to post in an open forum. ;-)

So now I'm a bean counter masquerading as a dentist? Ever see me balance my checkbook? :rofl:

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