Carter Foxwell sat on the edge of a dirty seat in an equally filthy booth and waited patiently for his target to show up. Swallowing the remainder of a surprisingly good coffee, he relished the lingering bitterness of the unsweetened drink then placed a tightly rolled cigarette between his lips and lit it with the practised flick of a vintage Zippo. He was a lean yet solid man, broad shouldered and straight backed with a discreet, underlying musculature that defied his years. As a Federal Agent, he had both the rigorous training routines conducted by his division and the wonders of modern medicine to thank for his physique, though admittedly his build was now mostly attributed to the latter. He returned the lighter to an inside coat pocket and touched the reassuring cold steel of a Klaus & Werner pistol safely holstered against his chest - a contingency plan in case the scheme didn’t go accordingly - before exhaling a long stream of satisfyingly smooth smoke into the air, an action which at once reminded him of his recent decision to quit the habit.
Carter, like anyone else, had his vices, and his were strong coffee and even stronger cigarettes. Despite his apparent fitness, he wasn’t getting any younger and the onset of a nagging and persistent cough suggested it was time to finally give up one of the last genuine pleasures in life. And he would. But not today. The establishment was named Cafe Musáin, a dive of a bar secreted away in the corner of one the many underground tunnels that lay beneath the now disused mining facility of Levski.
Located on the surface of Delamar, an immense asteroid near the outer edge of the Nyx system, the Levski mining installation once was seen as a potential jewel of industry by the United Empire of Earth, but soon abandoned after the unanticipated high costs of moving larger ships in and out of the extremely dense local asteroid fields made it a logistical nightmare.
As the dust began to settle on its once churning machinery and the last of the UEE haulers took their leave, it lay dormant for several years. In time, however, Levski slowly but surely began to serve a different function.
To a band of freethinkers and anti-UEE rebels bent on creating their own community away from orthodox society, an uninhabited mostly off-the-chart installation seemed the perfect place to set up home. The group, self styled as the People's Alliance of Levski carved out a life for themselves in, around and below the mining station, developing a crudely organised government and established rudimentary left wing policies centred around egalitarianism, equal rights and above all, tolerance.
Carter, much like the rest of the Empire, considered the People’s Alliance a trivial bunch of hippies, junkies, booze hounds and political dissidents, unimportant enough to warrant the cost of eviction and inconsequential enough to cause any real problems to the Empire.
As Carter studied the clientele, he wasn’t at all surprised to find the bar filled with prime examples of these degenerates. Many of them were drunk or out of their heads on illegal drugs like Slam or Maze or WiDoW. Others were seemingly more clear headed, debating animatedly with one another about the state of galactic politics over colourful drinks or beneath thick clouds of aromatic smoke. Carter couldn't decide which of them he found more annoying.
Taking another drag on his cigarette he turned his attention to the Mobiglas on his wrist. His was a modified version of a military grade device that served as a holographic communications hub and personal organiser amongst other more complex functions. Microtech’s Mobiglas technology was common among both civilians and the authorities alike throughout Imperial space. Actions such as making financial transactions, accessing basic services or public information channels were all standard uses of the device but Carter’s Mobi gave him a direct window into classified government information. He tapped it a few times then scrolled through what little data the bureau supplied about the target. The citizen in question was a small-time hustler known to frequent bars all over Stanton and had a reputation for being something of a barfly; a down-on-his-luck lush with ideas above his station. There wasn’t much other than the name, ID codes and details of previously reported misdeeds; all relatively minor violations which became increasingly more disgraceful as the list went on.
Furieux. Deuil. Public intoxication. Public nudity. Vandalism. Breach of the peace. Inciting a riot. Trespass. Discharging a firearm in a restricted zone.
Carter rolled his eyes. There were far more dangerous criminals at work in the system, he knew, and his unit's time and effort could have been better spent elsewhere. Still, he had to wonder why the bureau would go to so much trouble to get such a loser out of the bar and into a cell. Perhaps there was more to it but orders were orders, he supposed, and it wasn’t as if the collar would be a difficult one. Lowlife citizens like Furieux were so easy to entrap.
He stubbed out his cigarette, shut off down the Mobiglas and pressed against his eyes with his fingertips. The coffee and nicotine had given him a headache and held his fingers there in an attempt to soothe away the pain. When he opened them again, he was suddenly aware he had company.
In the seat opposite sat a figure that Carter could only describe as an overdressed vagrant. Of average height and build, he wore a mask that Carter instantly recognised as a Kastak Arms Microid battle helmet, rat-like and vacuous in its expression and made even more mysterious by the hempen head wear commonly worn by the sand-walking scavengers of Hurston’s deserts. His armour, also manufactured by Kastak, was battered, unkempt and decorated with a variety of seemingly out-of-context stickers and meaningless scrawls scratched into the ceramic plates themselves.
The figure sat motionless with his palms face down on the table, a gesture that Carter understood as an indication that he was unarmed. An absurd stance really, given the clearly visible silver stock of a submachine gun protruding out from behind his dust cloak. Code among thieves, Carter thought. At least he has some honour.
Carter broke the ice. “Furieux?” he asked.
The new arrival offered a single nod, almost imperceptibly. The presence of the head gear meant that Carter couldn't read him at all and despite the years of experience as an interrogator, seeing his own face reflected in the blank stare of the eyepieces made him uneasy.
“Cigarette?” he asked, in the vague hope that the act of smoking would force the helmet’s wearer to remove it.
A shake of the head then nothing. Carter lit a second smoke for himself anyway, took a few puffs and leaned over the table.
“Okay. We both know why we’re here,” he said, “So let’s get this over with. You’ll have had the contract info sent to your Mobi already, but I’d like to go over the basics regardless. You’re aware the cargo is highly illegal?”
“There’s an unregistered MISC Freelancer class vessel berthed below in hangar nine. The product has already been loaded into the hold alongside some legitimate containers and the cargo manifests have been altered thanks to our mutual employer’s hacking team. You do understand the ramifications of being caught by the UEE authorities, yes?”
Furieux cocked his head sarcastically then assumed his original posture. His silent passivity was beginning to get on Carter’s nerves.
“Fair enough,” said Carter. “Fly the unregistered ship from Levski to Hurston, transfer the product to Gate 6 on the western side of Lorville by foot and we’ll take it from there. There’ll be a contact operating from one of the shacks outside the perimeter security concourse.”
This was a lie, of course. The only contact that would be waiting for the smuggler to make the drop was a UEE customs detail.
Carter waited for a response that didn't appear to be forthcoming. “A man of few words, aren't you?” he said, attempting to hide his frustration.
Furieux merely shrugged and turned towards the bar, clicking his fingers in the air as he did so; a move that seemed to elicit a slightly annoyed reaction from the guy behind the bar. Carter watched as the barman stepped out and marched towards their booth, pointing an accusing finger at the masked man.
“You get no more drinks,” he growled in a thick, non-regional accent. “You not pay bill!”
Furieux countered his aggression by pressing his hands together in a mock and lopsided prayer.
“No, I say!" the bartender argued. "I not serve more drinks. You pay bill now. It been weeks and you not pay. Why you not pay?”
Carter began to feel unsettled. Now was not the time to be drawing attention from outsiders and the interruption was setting off bells of alarm as he watched the exchange between the two men. When Furieux swiftly and unexpectedly raised himself up from his seat, Carter had to willfully force himself not to instinctively reach for the pistol in his jacket, and the sense of relief that dawned when he saw Furieux simply pat himself down was palpable.
The bartender was shifting from foot to foot now, clearly exasperated with his customer’s obvious reluctance to pay his debt.
“I sick of you. You come here and you drink and you never pay. Never! You pay now or I get the security. They put you out for good and you no get back, I see to it!”
Furieux, behaving as if he was playing the lead role in some farcical pantomime, continued to search his pockets and repeatedly coming up empty while the bartender became more and more agitated at his antics.
“Okay, okay. You a ridiculous man! he finally said. "I have enough of you.”
It was Carter’s turn to give in to frustration now. The whole situation was beginning to spiral out of control. Carter couldn't allow Furieux to be ejected from the bar and risk the collapse of the entire sting. Whether he was small fry or not, time and resources had been spent setting up the snare for Furieux, not to mention the inevitable stain on Carter’s near immaculate record. He couldn't afford to let the opportunity slip from his grasp, and he certainly wasn’t willing to receive a black mark on a deadbeat like Furieux.
“Wait a moment,” he called to the bartender, “Come back. I’ll settle it. How much does he owe?”
The bartender turned on his heels and tapped his Mobiglas, pulling at the strip of hair below his lip while the account tallied. “Three thousand, four hundred thirty UEC. You give me four and I bring more drinks.” he confirmed.
“Three and half grand? Are you fucking kidding me?” said Carter.
“No. I no kid. He drink like fish. Drink, drink, drink. All the time. Never pay.”
Carter checked his balance after the payment was complete. Sure enough, the transaction had drained him of nearly a full day’s pay. He shook his head in bewilderment and returned to his seat. Furieux gave him an indifferent, cursory shrug from across the table.
“Four grand? Really?” Carter said incredulously. “I’ve a good mind to deduct the bill from your payment,” he added, knowing full well that no payment would ever change hands and that he’d have to take the hit personally.
Furieux appeared to be far more relaxed now and rewarded Carter’s generosity by reaching up, slowly removing his helmet. It gave a slight hiss as it was released and he lifted it off completely revealing a surprisingly clean and conventional countenance. To Carter, he looked several years younger than his bureau file suggested, astonishing considering how much booze the guy allegedly put away on a daily basis. His features were irregular, mildly angular and bolstered by the impish expression he wore as he set the equipment down.
“Ah, that’s much better,” sighed Furieux, fixing Carter with a cheeky grin. “A man can’t very well enjoy a drink with that thing on, can he?”
Carter stubbed out what was left of his cigarette realising he’d hardly touched it. “Good of you to take off that ugly ass thing.”
“No problem. I could see you were uncomfortable about it. I wasn't sure I could trust you. But with that charitable gesture you just made, it seems I can. Now let’s get back to business. You were saying something about a contact at the security gates? How will I know who he is?”
“You’ll know. They’ll find you.”
“I mean it’s a pretty risky job you guys have set me up with and I don’t want to be screwing around in the desert with a pack-load of illicit narcotics. Oh, here we go. Drinks!”
The bartender had returned and placed two tall glasses each containing a transparent but slightly pink tinged liquid on the table. “Thank you for payment, sirs,” he said cheerily. “I make sure to give you most very special drink in house to show no bad feelings, yes? It called Jynx. Very lovely.”
“Fucking better be at that price,” said Carter churlishly.
Furieux laughed and watched the bartender return to his duties. “He wouldn't have me flung out, you know. I’m his best customer. I’d have settled with him eventually.”
“Forgive me if I don’t believe you.”
“Many thanks for covering it though. Like I said, that’s quite the gesture from one stranger to another,” Furieux mused, lifting one of the glasses and gulping a sizable amount of liquid with a slight grimace. “Wow. Nice stuff.”
Carter was still detecting mild suspicion in Furieux again and thought quickly to avoid adding to it. He lifted his own glass and took a sip, partly to hide the lie. “The goods require swift shipment,” he muttered from behind the glass. “We can’t afford to waste any time.”
“I see. That makes sense I guess,” nodded Furieux. “Well, in that case … the original contract stated that payment is twenty thousand UAC upon delivery. Is the reward negotiable given the sudden need for urgency? I mean, with the time constraints and all-”
“Fine,” Carter answered sharply. The amount offered served no real purpose anyway. “Call it twenty five grand if you leave immediately.”
“Sounds good,” Furieux said and downed the rest of his drink. “I guess all that remains now is for you to give me the entry codes for the freighter and I’ll be on my way. And hey, if you don’t want that drink by the way, I’ll gladly take it off your hands.”
“ I don’t think so. Most expensive drink I’ve ever bought. I'm drinking it.”
“I like your style, my friend. Bottoms up!”
Carter tipped the glass and swallowed the remainder.
“What do you think?” Furieux asked. “Was it worth the cost?”
“It’s like cat’s piss.”
The smuggler snorted. “Isn’t it? I think anybody who actually likes gin must be a little masochistic. Maybe has a screw or two loose. You know, they did studies years ago that suggested people who enjoy bitter tasting drinks are far more likely to exhibit antisocial personality traits. Do you think that's true?”
Carter nodded, a wave of nausea building in his gut, probably due to the unpleasant taste in his mouth.
“I’m more of a rum drinker myself,” the smuggler added. “Prefer a sweeter tipple. Hey, you look a little peaky, are you okay?”
“I’m f-fine,” answered Carter. But he really wasn't. The lights were becoming too bright and the room started to swim.
“Well if you’re sure. Don’t want you throwing up all over the floor. It was washed only this morning. How about you hand over those access codes, I’ll get moving and you can go sleep it off?”
Carter complied, keen to complete the proceedings and fumbled at his coat for the device containing freighter’s unlock codes. Dizzy, he pushed the small black object unsteadily over the table as his vision began to blur.
Furieux smiled and gathered it up. “Many thanks. You want my advice? Take a couple of Altrucia tablets with two pints of water before you crash. You’ll wake up feeling great!”
It was wasted counsel however, as Carter was already unconscious.
Satisfied the agent was out of it, his companion crossed over to the other side of the booth and sat the poor guy up. Anyone who might see him slumped there wouldn’t give him a second glance. Just another drunken off duty citizen who’d sunk more booze than was good for him. He’d be fine in a few hours; the sedative was fast acting but relatively mild. Exhaling loudly the smuggler left the insensible officer and sauntered over to the bar.
“I believe this is yours?” he said, handing over the access codes to the man lazily wiping the inside of a schooner with a dirty rag.
“Nicely done sir, nicely done!” clapped Furieux from behind the counter, all traces of his earlier accent gone. “You were great.”
The true bartender smirked. “I can’t believe he actually thought I was you.”
Furieux chuckled. “Bah! The UEE have been getting sloppy for years now and you were highly convincing. It was like taking a baby away from candy!”
“Like taking candy from a baby.”
“The saying. It’s like taking candy from a baby.”
Furieux frowned. “Well, that’s stupid. You ever tried taking candy from a baby? I have. It’s not that easy.”
“Of course it is! You just-”
“Oh, never mind that,” Furieux interjected. “Let’s celebrate with a quick nip before sleeping beauty over there wakes up.”
“No way. You just paid off your tab. I’m not letting you rack up any more debt. Give me back my Mobi and get the hell out of my bar.”
“Paid my tab?” Furieux squawked. “With interest, fella! Three grand you scored out of that! Don’t be so bloody selfish!”
“Hey, I worked as hard as you did for those credits. All you had to do was talk in a silly voice and hand the guy a spiked drink. And let’s not forget the fact that you’ve just gained possession of a pretty expensive freighter. I think you came out of this a lot better off than I did.”
“Ah, but whose plan was it, my friend? They don’t call me ‘Man-with-the-plan Furieux’ for nothing, you know!”
“Nobody calls you that, Furieux.”
“Well, they should!" Furieux protested. "But I suppose you’re right. It's probably for the best if I make a quick exit.” Furieux removed the Mobiglas from his wrist and tossed it towards his companion. “Pleasure doing business with you, my good man. I doubt our mutual friend will come sniffing around here afterwards but I'd keep a low profile for a few weeks and dye your hair. Now go change and leave my armour in the back room.”
As soon as he was alone at the bar, Furieux grabbed a bottle of Jynx from a shelf and poured himself a double. He studied the label on the gin bottle, admiring the design of the logo.
The Jynx, he mused, running his fingers over the raised text. What a wonderful name for a newly acquired ship. And what a wonderful day to fly it off this fucking rock.