THE SEARCH FOR ASTRA PALACE by Gregory KH Bryant
Mud was delighted to see Rat stepping into Ed’s place.
“Now that’s a nice piece o’ luck,” he said to himself, grinning with big gleaming teeth through his bushy brown beard. “I wouldna expected my boy to walk right into my open arms, but damn if he idn’t doin’ exactly that.”
“Hey, Rat!” he hollered, placing the tray of drinks he carried on the table between Hardy and Illara.
Rat almost jumped to hear his name shouted at him. When he turned to see who it was who was shouting at him so, his face went positively white with terror. Mud bounded across the barroom, and grasped Rat by the arm with a burly fist.
“Well, hey, if it isn’t my ol’ buddy!” Mud bellowed in Rat’s ear. “How ya been doin, Rat?” As Mud talked, he guided Rat to the table where Hardy and Illara were sitting.
“I wancha ta meet some friends,” Mud said.
“Ah… sorry… can’t do it… no time…”
“Sure ya can,” Mud laughed. “Yuh always gotta make time for that boodle.”
Rat tried to squirm his way out of Mud’s grip, but Mud only squeezed his arm that much more tightly. And when he realized that Mud was taking him to the very table that Ed the barkeep had bugged, to gather profitable intelligence, he went silent, his tongue tied with terror.
So Mud half-dragged and half-carried a nearly insensible Rat to the table where Illara and Hardy were patiently waiting. Rat saw the smile on Illara’s face and his heart sank. Hers was a beautiful smile, and at times, it was a radiant smile. But this was not one of those times.
Now, it was the smile of a very dangerous woman. Hard set and steely, there was no mercy in her eyes. And the smile Illara greeted Rat with was a selfish smile, one that offered no shared greeting. It was the barely polite, closed smile that admitted no outsiders.
“These are my good buddies,” Mud said, as he ushered Rat into the booth. Rat, a small man with a bony face, was helpless against Mud’s massive girth. He knew precisely where the cameras were hidden, and two of them were aimed directly at his head. Every syllable he uttered would be recorded faithfully, and with heart-breaking clarity.
“Gang,” Mud said, waving his hand at Illara and Hardy, “This is my friend, calls himself `Rat’, on account of he’s so pretty.”
Mud’s wit was met with a round of laughter. Rat himself laughed nervously with the others.
“Whatcha wanna be drinkin’?” Mud asked Rat.
“Nah, nuthin’,” Rat answered, his shoulders shaking.
“Yeah, sure you got time. You wanna hear the deal I got for you.”
Mud spoke into the speaker mounted at the end of the table. “Gimme another beer.”
“Deal?” Rat asked. He didn’t know why this Mud fellow was so suddenly so anxious to be friendly with him, but the abrupt turn in Mud’s attitude toward him couldn’t be anything but suspicious. And with Lacey’s disappearance being the subject of much heated gossip and much worry among her friends, a bounty was finally put out for any information that would lead to her safe return.
And it was that which put Rat in such terror, that Mud had come to ask Rat about Lacey. And to be interrogated just there, with surveillance cameras buried in the wall only inches away from his face was a torment he knew he could not bear up to.
But the first words that came out of Mud’s mouth gave Rat a huge surge of comfort.
“Member how you wuz so keen to pick up some `uh my load? Well, if yer still up for it, I got as many pounds of mud as you wanna buy.”
“Yeah?” Rat asked.
“I’m not kiddin’ ya,” Mud said. “I just picked up a couple hundred pounds of it that I gotta unload, and fast, too, on account of I got some guys want me to ship a load of ice for `em. And I gotta make room for them. Ya see? And I don’t got the room for it now. I’ll be makin’ a helluva lot more on the ice than I will on the mud, so ya see I gotta unload the mud, and real fast, too.”
CONTINUES NEXT ISSUE