Black Box Inc.

Black Box Inc.

Jake Bible

October 2017 $15.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-839-4



 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

Back Cover Copy



Bram Stoker Award ® Nominated Author

Need to hide something from the fae?
Got a tricky transdimensional delivery to make?
Need a big ball of magic that can destroy the world?

Call Black Box Inc.

The world as we know it is gone. Since the "extradimensional happening,” every creature, monster, and fairy tale goblin has turned Asheville, North Carolina, into their personal playground. An uneasy truce exists between the races, but Chase Lawter’s unique ability puts him squarely in the crosshairs of treachery, feuds, and monsters looking to make a buck on black market goods. Chase is the only known being who can pull material from between dimensions and shape it into whatever he likes—like boxes. Like boxes in which folks hide smoking guns and severed heads. Only Chase can hide the boxes, and only Chase can recover them from the Dim. All for a tidy sum, of course.

His crack team—a yeti, a zombie, and a fae-trained assassin—have his back. What could possibly go wrong?

Jake Bible, Bram Stoker Award nominated-novelist and author of the bestselling Z-Burbia series, short story writer, independent screenwriter, podcaster, and inventor of the Drabble Novel, has entertained thousands with his horror and sci/fi tales. He reaches audiences of all ages with his uncanny ability to write a wide range of characters and genres. Other series by Jake Bible: the bestselling Salvage Merc One, the Apex Trilogy, the Mega series, and the Reign of Four series. Jake lives in the wonderfully weird Asheville, North Carolina. Connect with Jake on Facebook, Twitter, and his website: jakebible.com.

Reviews


"It’s fast. It’s fun. It’s colorful, and it’s one hell of a good time. This was my first experience with Jake Bible, but it won’t be my last.”

—The Royal Library, spychocyco.blogspot.com on Stone Cold Bastards

". . . fantastically amazing... I don’t even know what to say. I was completely blown away... one of the best zombie books I have ever read.”

—ContagiousReads.com on Little Dead Man

"Morty and company burst to life in your mind’s eye. As tension builds and the violence becomes almost non-stop, it’s impossible to put down.”

—SciFi and Scary.com on Stone Cold Bastards

"You've never seen heroes like this before!"
—Bestselling author John Hartness on Stone Cold Bastards


Excerpt


1

I DIG TAPAS.

However—and I don’t feel like I’m alone here—I do not dig tapas when a goddamn severed head is plopped down in the middle of those small plates. The carne asada with ramp pesto (sounds fancy, but ramps are a local thing in Asheville) stopped being appetizing as soon as a small bit of sev­ered-head-neck-gristle flew up to join the meat on the fork that was halfway to my mouth.

"You gotta hide this for me!”

I sighed and slowly put my fork down.

"Hey! Lawter! Are you listening? I need you to hide this!”

Chappy Reginue was a two-bit hustler who got himself into trouble pretty much every other day. Not our usual clientele, but then usual isn’t our gig.

I leaned back against the bench seat of my favorite table in my favorite res­taurant—Taps & Tapas. The menu had everything I needed, including a thick, dark stout and bread that’s even darker. Everything was farm-to-table, handcrafted, inspired by centuries of culinary masterpieces that span the globe, and priced accordingly. All of which is great (except maybe the pric­ing), but I liked the place because I needed a stiff drink and something tasty to go with it.

Severed head is not tasty.

"Chappy, you look upset, pal.”

"Fucking A right I’m upset!” He practically shouted.

Several of the patrons turned toward the disturbance. Asheville was known for its characters and personalities, but they were tolerated out on the streets. Once you got inside a nice joint like Taps & Tapas, folks tended not to be quite as accepting. They expected their money to insulate them from the weird that they’d experienced outside. Chaos was for the street corners, not their dimly lit tables holding appetizers that cost as much as any entrée in town.

Chappy, not one to care much for the nuances of tourism’s socioeco­nomic strata, stared the gawkers down and flipped them off. "What the hell are you looking at?”

Lassa was also eyeing Chappy. He could break Chappy in half if I let him. Lassa’s a seven-foot-tall, three-hundred-and-sixty-pound yeti. But shaved bald so he can blend in. We don’t ever tell him he doesn’t blend in. He hates that. The guy has pride. And he doesn’t like his dinner interrupted any more than I do.

"Chase?” Lassa asked, seated to my right. My favorite table was a booth in the back corner, situated perfectly so our backs were against the wall and protected while we kept an eye on the entrance.

"Not yet,” I replied.

"He should lose an eye for being so rude,” Harper Kyles said from Lassa’s left as she twirled a steak knife between the fingers of her right hand.

Then the knife was in her left hand. I never saw the switch. No one everdoes. She used the steak knife to tuck a stray dreadlock of her raven black hair behind her ear and glared at Chappy with violet eyes. Her deep brown skin allowed her to fade into the shadows of the restaurant’s low light­ing, but she’d leaned forward so Chappy could get a good look at the scars that filled her face like age lines. Except she was only in her twenties and far from old.

She’s human. We think.

"Maybe both eyes.” Harper made a stabbing motion with the knife. "Pop, pop.”

"Sharon?” I turned to my right. "Chappy is upset. He’s in a hurry. He ru­ined our dinner. And he needs us to hide a severed head.” I studied the head for a second. "Dwarf? Goblin? Kobold? What the goddamn hell is that, Chappy?”

"Kobold,” Chappy said. "Royal blood. Worth more dough than I can even count, man.”

"So that would be more than two, then,” Sharon said.

Lassa and Harper snorted, then continued eating what was in front of them; blood, gristle, and whatever else had fallen onto it be damned.

"Chappy has only ruined your dinner, Chase.” Sharon Spaglioni frowned at the man standing at our table. "I do not eat this cuisine, of course.”

Being a zombie, Sharon doesn’t eat what the rest of us eat. Not that the place couldn’t accommodate her. All the restaurants in the area have learned to adapt since the extradimensional happening. It was either that or close up shop. Tourism was no longer limited to the usual brainless human idiots looking for the hip good time they were promised in some pretentious top-ten list.

Nah, Sharon would have been eating with us, but the executive chef had wrung his hands and informed her that the latest shipment of artisanal pig brains had been delayed due to chupacabra attacks or some crap. Person­ally, I think the chef, despite his incredible talents, is a fall-over, piss-his-whites drunk. He probably forgot to order the brains. I’ll have to talk to the owner.

"What’s the fee?” I asked Sharon. "Considering.”

"Considering?” Sharon mused. She rubbed at her rotten chin and hummed along to the Cuban jazz playing softly over the restaurant’s fine stereo system. "Minimum of five thousand. But that is only to hide. The charge triples if there is any type of transportation. That’s the base fee. Mile­age and expenses would apply as well.”

"You want a hide job?” I asked Chappy.

"I ain’t got five thousand!”

"What do you got?”

"Two and some change.”

"So you have the five,” I replied, locking eyes with the loser. "Come on, Chappy. I can smell a lowball when one’s standing in front of me.”

"You mean slimeball,” Lassa said.

"Pusball,” Harper added.

"Hairball.”

"Shitball.”

"Lintball.”

"Lintball?” Harper frowned. "Lame.”

"I couldn’t think of another one, dude.”

"You two done?” I asked.

They shrugged as a loud noise came from up front. Some commotion at the hostess station. Since we were all the way in the back corner, we had some time for me to squeeze Chappy some more before whatever was on his tail reached us. If Sharon said five grand, then the fee was five grand. We all had our roles in the company; hers was keeping us operating and solvent.

"Listen, Chappy, I think you’re scum and have zero respect for you, but if you need me to do a job, then I will treat you like every other client.”

"For five thousand dollars,” Sharon added.

"What the lovely lady said, pal,” I said and hooked my thumb toward Sharon.

Despite the necrotic state of her body, she was actually quite lovely. I could only imagine what she looked like back in her dimension when she was alive. She would have been a looker. Before she was chased down by the undead that ruled her world and turned into one of them. But that was the great thing about the extradimensional happening. It not only allowed specific pockets of humanity on Earth to get a glimpse into other places, but afforded those from other places the opportunity to come here and start a new life.

In her dimension, Sharon had been another rotting, shuffling brain junkie. But here she was a brilliant, beautiful undead businesswoman with a knack for keeping me, Lassa, and Harper from getting into too much trou­ble. She credits her intelligence to all those brains she ate in her dimension, which didn’t do shit for her intellectual capacity there, but seemed to kick in and up her mental game exponentially in our dimension.

You are what you eat.

"Five thousand dollars and that dinner interrupting head goes good-bye. Never to be seen again until you give me the order to bring it back,” I said.

"Sweet Jesus, Lawter.” Chappy looked over his shoulder toward the four very large men scanning the restaurant while an alarmed hostess tried to tell them to get lost.

The great thing about Asheville, North Carolina, was you could go into the fanciest restaurant dressed in cutoffs and flip-flops and no one would bat an eye, but if you were a dick, you’d be tossed out on your ass first thing.

The fact that portals were now opening into other dimensions didn’t change the unbreakable rule of service in our wonderfully weird corner of the world. We were weird—and liked it that way, even before the portal. We had the ubiquitous tourist-town street performers and buskers. But being Asheville, we also had plenty of hippies with their nightly drum circles, men dressed as nuns and riding ten-foot-high bicycles, free hugs and free love. A slice of the 1960s, reimagined in the 1990s, then updated for the twenty-first century.

All of that brought money. Tourism dollars that began to change the face of Asheville. Greed started to overtake weird, and everything was going southfast.

Then the portals to other dimensions opened, and the weird came back with a vengeance.

Now, if you’d ever read about a creature in some fairy tale, it existed and could probably be seen walking Pack Square or by the Flatiron Building. The monsters were real, and they wanted to buy overpriced grilled cheese sandwiches and even more overpriced pints of craft brew, just like every other damned human tourist.

And if the creatures were dicks, they’d be tossed out on their asses, the same way anyone else would.

"Tickety tockety, Chapster,” Harper said as she chewed a green olive, then spat the pit out into a small dish set halfway across the table. The pit landed dead center with the other pits. Harper didn’t miss. She also never lost a fight. Like never. Winning fights was her thing.

The deceptive part of our group was that Lassa may have looked like the muscle, but Harper was the real danger. Lassa handled transportation and logistics. Harper handled security and protection. Having a seven-foot-tall yeti next to her made Harper’s job easier. Everyone expected the attack to come from Lassa, and they never saw Harper coming until the blade had already pierced flesh.

She stared at Chappy like a house cat stared down a baby bird outside the living room window. Except there was no window between her and Chappy.

"Fine, fine, five thousand,” Chappy snarled at us. I knew he was well aware of Harper’s role, and I had to applaud his sense of self-preservation, which was about the only amount of sense the scumbag possessed.

"Do you have the money on you?” Sharon asked. She opened her purse and pulled out her phone, then a handheld printer. Always prepared. "We need payment upfront.”

"Yeah, I have the cash on me,” Chappy said and shoved his hand into the front pocket of his jeans.

He yanked out a wad of cash and threw it at Sharon. I held up my hand as both Lassa and Harper started to get up from their seats.

"We’re good,” I said. "Chappy is upset. I’m sure he didn’t mean any disre­spect. Right, pal?”

The four men up front caught sight of our table and shoved the hostess out of the way, then marched toward us, ignoring the chaos and disruption swirling in their wake.

"Chase?” Harper asked. "What’s the call?”

We held equal shares in our little company—Black Box Inc. But they’d got­ten into the habit of looking to me to make the call when necessary. Reminding them that we were a team of equals had absolutely no effect on their behavior. I was the de facto boss whether I wanted to be or not.

"No fighting,” I said. "We talk this out. I’m not getting blacklisted here. Not happening.”

"Hurry up!” Chappy barked.

"Not until payment is counted,” Sharon said, her gray fingers busily fac­ing and sorting the wad of cash that had fallen into her lap. "Give me a moment.”

I leaned in close to her and whispered, "We don’t have a moment. Guess.”

"I never guess when it comes to payment,” Sharon whispered back.

"Give Chappy the benefit of the doubt. If he’s short, we’ll get the rest from him later. With interest.”

"Twenty-five percent,” Sharon said to Chappy.

"Twenty-five percent what?” Chappy asked. There was a crash of plates hit­ting the floor, and Chappy turned to watch the men charging toward our table.

"Twenty-five percent interest on any amount you are short of the five thou­sand,” Sharon stated.

"Better listen to her,” I said.

"Fine!” Chappy said.

"Then we are good,” Sharon said and began typing into her phone. "I’ll prepare the invoice while you make the box, Chase.”

"Order another round of food and six pints of stout,” I said to Lassa. "Rush jobs always make me hungry.”

Lassa raised his hand to get the waitress’s attention. Wasn’t too hard since all eyes were turned our way. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to see where the toughs were headed as they slowly wound around the maze of tables crammed into the space to maximize profit. Another reason I liked the place, no easy way to get from one end to the other quickly.

I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. It wasn’t hard to pull from the Dim when in a hurry, I only wanted to put on a show for Chappy. I mean, I only needed a small box. A head-size box. Piece of cake. Simply reach into that space between dimensions and grab me some of the Dim to play with.

Boxes weren’t all I could do with the Dim. I had a few more tricks. But, for the moment, it was box-crafting time.

I opened my eyes, held my hands out palms up, and proceeded to shape the box. Smoke of the deepest black drifted up from my hands and took form. A thin panel about one foot square was joined by a second and third panel as more smoke came from my palms. Then I added a fourth and fifth panel.

"Sharon?” I asked.

The lovely Sharon gingerly picked up the kobold head and dropped it into the box. I created the sixth and final panel, sealing the box right there, and the head was gone. The box landed on the table like it was made of noth­ing. I scraped a nail across the top and tore off about an inch of black. I held the inch up as the four men arrived at the edge of the table. Two lifted Chappy off his feet by his arms and the other two faced me.

"Give us that key,” they said in unison.

Dopplers. Ugh. I hate dopplers. They don’t look exactly identical like you’d think they would, which is one reason I hate them. The name was de­rived from doppelgänger. Doppelgängers should be identical. But dopplers aren’t. Close, but there are enough slight differences in appearance that it becomes distracting. Maybe they’re called dopplers because they share a brain via a psychic link? Mental doppelgängers? Sometimes I want to punch whoever comes up with these terms. But they came through the portals with the name attached, so nothing to do about that shit.

Whatever the origin of their name, all dopplers were moronic muscle of the worst kind. The One Guy uses them exclusively, and I am not a fan of that gentleman.

"Sharon?” I asked.

The quiet sound of a laser printer ejecting a receipt was all that could be heard over the Cuban jazz and the faint sounds of kitchen activity coming from the very back of the restaurant. The entire dining room watched us.

Sharon held up the piece of paper the printer ejected and said, "Could you hand this to Mr. Reginue, please?”

The two dopplers stared at her for a second, then one reached out, took the receipt, and gave the piece of paper to Chappy.

"Thank you,” Sharon said. "We are done here.”

"Hear that, boys?” I said to the dopplers. "We’re done here.”

"Give us the key,” the two said.

"No,” I replied. "The key will belong to Chappy and Chappy only. He has a receipt to prove it. Once I hand it over, the key will only work for him. When he gives the key back to me, then I’ll retrieve the box and open it.”

"You open it now,” they said.

"Listen, pals, I wouldn’t be in business for long if I went around open­ing boxes clients pay me to make to keep stuff safe that they don’t want guys like you to get their hands on, now would I?”

It was a long sentence. It confused them. So, instead of answering, the two lunged for the box in the middle of the table. But I was faster. I snapped my fingers, and poof—gone. The dopplers’ hands landed in the mess that Chappy had started. I ended up with a good amount of goat cheese-smeared crostini with wild blueberry jam on my face as one of the small plates was flipped end over end.

"Dammit,” I muttered as I lifted my napkin off my lap and wiped my nose and cheeks. "I hadn’t gotten to try that yet. Assholes.”

"There was kobold on it,” Harper said.

"We’re getting more anyway, remember?” Lassa waved at the waitress again.

She looked frightened at first, then resigned, as she walked to our table. A person had to get used to the unusual when living in this town. At least if that person wanted to make any kind of living. And especially if that living relied on tips.

"Yes?” she asked, trying to ignore the dumbfounded dopplers sprawled across our table and the ones still holding Chappy. "Can I get you anything else?”

"If you could bring us one of everything again, that would be super,” Lassa said.

He flashed his sharp-fanged grin and gave the waitress a wink. She pretty much melted. When he’s shaved, Lassa is possibly the most attractive being on the planet. He may have been an extradimensional being, but the guy set panties, and boxers, on fire.

So, in spite of those scary fangs (possibly because?), she melted.

"Are the gentlemen staying?” the waitress asked, eyeing the two dop­plers splayed across the table as she managed to tear her eyes away from Lassa.

The dopplers looked so sad and lost as they blinked at the spot where the black box had been only a finger snap before.

"You guys hungry?” I asked. "Thirsty?”

"Thirsty, right, my bad,” Lassa said and reached out to pat the waitress on the forearm. She shivered from head to toe. "Six pints of stout for Chase and I’ll have another whiskey sour. Harper?”

"Bloody Mary, extra bacon,” Harper said. "Two.”

"Two portions of extra bacon?” the waitress asked.

"No, I meant two Bloody Marys, but yeah, two portions of bacon per.”

"I’ll eat some of that,” I said.

"I figured,” Harper replied.

"I’ll take a Bloody Mary also, if you have any congealed blood left be­hind the bar,” Sharon said. "If my last drink, which is now dripping off the table, used the remainder of your blood stock, then nothing for me.”

"I believe we received a new batch of blood this afternoon.” The wait­ress didn’t even shudder as she mentioned the congealed blood. A true profes­sional. I liked that. "I’ll get the food order in and then have the bar­tender work on the drinks. And a towel. I’ll bring a towel.”

"A couple towels,” I said. I stared at the dopplers. "Guys? Are you stay­ing or what? The nice waitress... ?”

"Brynn,” the waitress said.

"Brynn is trying to do her job, and you two acting mute is not helping.”

"No,” the dopplers replied.

"Nothing for them,” I said to Brynn. "Just our order, please.”

"And the towels,” Sharon added.

"And the towels.” I smiled as I spread my hands out. "Don’t worry. We’ll take care of this mess.”

"I appreciate that, but I can get a busboy to handle it. As for...” Brynn eyed the dopplers again. "Should I call someone?”

"They are leaving,” I said. "Right, gentlemen? You don’t have any rea­son to stick around, do you?”

The dopplers on our table finally pushed back and stood upright. They tried to wipe the food off their suits, but only smeared the crap around more.

"Good job,” Harper said.

"They should make a sitcom with only dopplers,” Lassa said.

"I’d watch the shit out of that.”

"Watch the shit out of a sitcom.”

"Shitcom.”

They chuckled together, but their eyes were on the still-uncertain dop­plers, and their bodies were tensed, ready to do what needed to be done even though I’d said no to fighting. They knew that my no was conditional. We were far from being pacifists.

"Guys?” I said to the dopplers as Lassa and Harper continued to grin. "You can go. Really. We got a good mood right now. Don’t turn the mood into a bummer, okay?”

"We want that head,” the dopplers said.

"What head?” I replied.

That fried their psychic link. You could almost see the thoughts fever­ishly trying to connect across their shared brains. But they couldn’t quite process the question.

"We want the head,” they said again. "Tell us how to get the head.”

I sighed.

"Guys, listen, I don’t talk about client business with strangers,” I said. "I’m a professional. No one would hire me—.”

"Eh hem,” Sharon coughed.

"No one would hire us if I went around blabbing confidential infor­mation to every moron who came drooling up to me,” I continued, giving Sharon a pat on the leg. "My apologies, Sharon. Us.”

"Apology accepted,” she replied.

"We want the head,” the dopplers repeated. "Now.”

Lassa and Harper stopped grinning.

"And the mood is gone.” I shook my head and stood up.

So much for not fighting. Too bad.

Smoke shot from my palms and formed into thick, two-foot-long rods. Rods that were good for the cracking of doppler heads.

"No!”

I sat my ass back down, as the main reason I liked this restaurant flung open the kitchen door, letting the thump of the door against a wall punctuate her order to stand down. My Dim rods poofed out of existence, which con­fused the dopplers even more.

Iris Penn could only be called a force of nature. The owner of Taps & Tapas was dressed in a black pencil skirt and black silk blouse, buttoned per­fectly so men noticed and women were slightly jealous, but not so jealous they didn’t want to come back. Five foot six with gray eyes, black hair pulled back into a simple ponytail, and more energy than a herd of pixies hopped up on cotton candy, she was something to behold.

She was the main reason I insisted that the place be our hangout when we weren’t at the office. The food was great, but there was a lot of great food in Asheville. There was only one Iris.

"You do not shit where you eat, Chase!” she yelled.

And that mouth was the coup de grace for me. I hate to use the word, but I was smitten. Smitten bad.

Iris? Not so much. I tended to be trouble, and Iris did not like trouble. She liked order. She liked organization. She was a lot like Sharon in that way, except Sharon preferred not to be the focus of attention. Iris was always the focus of attention. Always.

"Does that need to be said?” Lassa asked. "Do humans have a habit of shit­ting where they eat?”

"If they’re on the toilet,” Harper said.

"People do that? Eat on the toilet?” Lassa replied. "Dude, that’s gross.”

"You two! Sit the fuck down!” Iris yelled as she stormed over to our ta­ble. "I said sit!”

Lassa and Harper looked at each other, confused.

"We are sitting,” Harper said.

"Stay that way!” she snarled. "Move an inch and I rip you a new one!”

"Iris,” I said. "These guys were on their way out. I wasn’t going to do any­thing. Lassa and Harper weren’t going to do anything. I promise.”

"Yeah, you were,” Harper said. "So were we.”

"I was intending on splitting open at least one skull,” Lassa said. "Per­haps disembowel two of them. Maybe all of them. I haven’t performed a good disembowelment in weeks.”

"What about the Boulder gig last Thursday?” Harper asked.

"That was hardly a disembowelment,” Lassa said. "I barely cut into that man’s belly fat. Dude, a proper disembowelment has to include the ripping out of entrails.”

"Good evening, Iris,” Sharon said. "My deepest apologies for all of this.Please add whatever you see as fair to our bill. We’ll invoice Chappy for extra.”

"Me?” Chappy cried.

"Really, Chappy?” I said. "You want to argue the point? Here?”

"How much we talking?” Chappy asked.

"I want these thugs out of my restaurant. Now,” Iris snarled. "Now, Chase.”

"Okay,” I said.

I gave Iris my warmest smile. She gave me her coldest frown.

"Guys, let Chappy go,” I said to the dopplers. "He doesn’t have what you want.”

"He can get it,” the dopplers said.

"Not right now, pal. I still have the key. I’m not going to give him the key unless I know he’s out of your hands. After that, if you can catch him, he’s all yours. Hand him over to the One Guy for all we care.”

"Once he pays the invoice I’ll be sending him in the morning,” Sharon said.

"Yes, we’d appreciate he pay that first,” I said. "But after that, you can rip him limb from limb or whatever your boss wants done to him.”

Chappy made a sound between a yelp and a squeak. A squelp?

The dopplers thought hard on what I’d said. Man, it looked like they were in agony as that one thought worked through them.

Then they let Chappy go, turned, and stomped out of the place.

"Sorry, folks,” I called out to the other patrons. "Round of drinks on me.”

There was some cheering, a little bit of grumbling, and a raspberry noise in response. At least I knew one local was in the joint. Locals expected two rounds of drinks gratis. It was one of many unspoken rules locals have.

"Chase?” Sharon asked.

"We’ll bill Chappy for the round of drinks,” I said and decided what the hell. "Two rounds on us.”

"Damn right,” a voice from the opposite end of the restaurant re­sponded.

"Excellent,” Sharon made a note in her phone to bill Chappy for the drinks.

That only left Chappy to deal with. I held out the key.

"They’re gonna grab me, man,” Chappy said.

"Then run. Fast,” I said. Chappy looked like a lost puppy. A mangy, dis­gusting, creep of a lost puppy. "You want the key or not? We can hang on to it, but I’m pretty damn sure we will have to charge you.”

"Let me calculate the amount,” Sharon said.

Chappy’s hand shot across the table, and he snagged the key. "No more fucking charges.”

"What do you say, Chappy?” I asked.

"I ain’t saying thank you,” Chappy snarled, then fled. Out through the kitchen. Smart choice.

"Owner lady is still here,” Lassa said sotto voce as we watched the kitchen door swing closed behind Chappy’s scrawny butt.

I dig that term. Sotto voce. Pretty damn sure Iris didn’t. The glare she gave Lassa proved that. Not that the glare was on him long. Hard to stay too mad at Lassa. He had that casual ski-bum vibe going for him. So, she rounded on me pronto.

"Right, Iris, I am so sorry for all of this,” I said as a busboy came up and started to clear away the mess.

Yeah, not so much a boy as a ghoul. They were a short, hunched-over race. Gray skin, ropy muscles. Stank of carrion. Hard workers, though. You could pay them almost nothing, and they didn’t care. They pretty much worked for leftover rotten meat. The meat had to be at least two weeks old, so payday was a bit stinky, but you couldn’t beat kitchen scraps as wages.

Iris was a master of the hard glare. Man, she was giving it to me good.

"How about I make it up to you and take you out to dinner tomorrow night?” I said. "You name the place. Doesn’t have to be here in town. I can get us to Charlotte in ten minutes. I know a guy.”

"He knows a guy,” Lassa said.

Lassa was the guy. Transportation logistics and all that.

"Kiss my ass, Chase,” Iris said and stormed off.

"This is the time you pick to ask her out?” Harper said. "Chase, Chase, Chase.”

"Oh, Chase, sweetie,” Sharon added.

"Want me to go talk to her?” Lassa offered. "Warm her up a bit? I flash the pearly fangs and she’ll be a little more receptive.”

"No,” I said.

"I don’t mind, man,” Lassa said.

"Drop it.”

Our replacement food started showing up. The drinks were right be­hind, and I downed two stouts before the other four pints had been set on the table. Six pints wasn’t gonna cut it. I knew that already.


 

 


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