Durden stood outside the black iron fencing that circled Samuel Asher’s lush grounds and large home. He looked back into the city; its stark grays and browns set it apart from the gentleman’s home. This was the Cherti he knew, the one he had expected. This was the Cherti he didn’t want to land on.
“The things we do…” He groaned and stopped out into the dusty road.
For a moment his footsteps were the only sound in the warm silence. Then, from somewhere past the sprawling grounds of Asher’s home, came the soft whir of an engine. Slowly, almost leisurely, the hovering speeder made its way past the gardens and gate until it pulled alongside the figure in the road.
“Afternoon,” the driver, a tall thin man with no visible weapons, greeted Dru in a semi-neighborly tone. “Awful long walk back to town…”
“Is it?” Dru looked back along the vehicle’s sleek black enclosed chassis. It’s grime free cleanliness reeked of money. His eyes flickered over its roof to the buildings behind it and back down. “I hadn’t noticed.”
The driver nodded sagely. “Don’t let the straight path fool you. The road can play tricks on you.” The breeze that seemed so delightful back in Asher’s garden kicked up again, catching the dust from the road and swirling it through the air. “Aren’t many nice days for walking around here.”
The Browncoat stopped. His eyes squinted into the sharp orange sunlight. He knew the schpiel. He’d been on this receiving end of “idle chatter” plenty of times to know when somebody wanted something. “A man deals with the path he takes.” His head slowly turned, looking the man square on. “However he gets on it.”
He slowly drew that coat back, resting his hand on that pistol. “But you didn’t roll up on me outta blue to talk about me getting my boots dirty.”
“Not entirely,” the lanky man replied, looking completely unsurprised at the sight of the weapon.”Though I was instructed to offer you a ride into town. It would keep those boots clean.”
“My boots are fine.” The sun still glared in his eyes, but at this distance he knew he could put the man down in a word. That was assuming the man was alone. “Besides, I find it’s not smart to accept rides from strange men.”
If the man was at all put off by Dru’s suspicions, it didn’t show. “You may have a point there. If it would make you feel better you could keep that gun on me the whole time.”
“Like I said,” Durden smiled pleasantly, “I feel just fine walking.”
The solid black exterior of the car was interrupted as the windows opened. Three men, with guns, mirrored Dru’s smile back to him. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist you take us up on the offer. Your boots will stay clean and you’ll be able to continue feeling ‘just fine’.”
“I see…” He let his jacket fall back over his holster. “I guess this counters that previous offer…”
For a saloon it was surprisingly clean. That may have had something to do with it being slightly off the beaten path of the town’s center. And yet, even off the beaten path it seemed to be relatively full. Businesses worked on the same principles as real estate. Location. Location. Location. The only reason for a place like this to be as busy as it was meant that its clientele were just as likely to be working there as drinking. That was enough to give Durden pause as he walked in and felt the slight hush in the general din. As if the men with the guns helping him find his way wasn’t enough.
“Nice joint,” he looked around casually without the slightest indication of casing the joint. “Love the windows.”
His escort gave a shrug, apparently remembering to be hospitable now that they were in the confines of the building. “Oh, it’s not much. Just a friendly little place full of friendly people.”
“Nothing like a friendly little place at the end of a friendly little ride to set a man at ease,” He looked back over his shoulder. “I don’t suppose you want to buy me a friendly drink?”
“I certainly do. In fact, why don’t you take a seat at that table over there and I’ll bring you that drink.”He gestured to a table in the far corner. It looked like any other in the modest establishment, expect for the wide space around it. “Go along now. I’ll be right behind you.”
“You don’t say…”
Durden wove his way through to the table. Every man in that room was armed, most doing a poor job of hiding it and some not even trying to. He slid into the chair that set his back to the wall. With still no idea just why he was here it was the closest move to a power play he could make at this point and the only way to make sure that all the guns were where he preferred them: in his face.
His eyes rose to his escort. He stood behind the bar chatting with a woman. The brunette wasn’t what one might call tall, but it wasn’t the height that had her towering over the driver she was quietly speaking with. It was the way she carried herself, her posture and the way the driver responded with subtle submission. Her amber eyes flashed his direction, and he didn’t look away. Clearly, this was the person he had been brought to see.
She left him waiting for several minutes before approaching the table. A drink in both hands, the woman made her way through the saloon with a grace that was undiminished by a subtle limp.”Afternoon,” she said, sitting down across from him before handing over the drink. “Welcome to Cherti.”
The browncoat took the drink from the table without pause. “Thanks.”
His eyes met hers. They were sharp and bright and the subtle crows feet reaching from their edges spoke volumes. There was wisdom and grace in how she held herself, power too. He was struck with the notion that had her life turned a different direction, one closer to the core, she might have been quite beautiful.
“I have to say,” he lifted the glass and drank from it, “if this is how all the visitors to your planet are greeted than I’m not surprised that tourism here hasn’t taken off like a stage two rocket.”
“We’ll have to work on that. Or we would if I thought you were any sort of tourist,” she answered with a completely unapologetic smile. Taking a long drink, she watched him over the rim of her glass before setting it aside to extend her hand. “Leslie Nemero,” she introduced herself. “But people ’round here just call me Les.”
Durden matched her smile with a thin pleasantry. “Dru.” He took her hand firmly, pausing with it only a moment before letting it go.
“So,” He settled back in his chair, not taking his eyes off her despite all the others around them taking great interest in their table. “if I’m no sort of tourist, what sort of a person am I that a lady such as yourself wants to pull this stranger off the road. Awful lot of fuss to buy a guy a drink.”
Les nodded slowly, weighing his words as if they were something she needed to consider. “I’m still working on that.” She took another drink then began to list off the points she had so far. “You’ve got a ship and a fairly talented pilot. Or a crazy one. After watching your landing I’m still undecided. But you also felt the need to escort a companion to a meeting with a client, an associate of mine.” Her shoulders rose then fell in a little shrug. “And you don’t seem overly concerned to be drinking with me.”
“Ever met a pilot that didn’t think they were talented?” Dru smirked, taking a drink from his glass. “I know I’ve never met one that wasn’t crazy. What you don’t want is a pilot that is stupid. And there’s a difference.”
Draining his glass, Durden pondered its empty contents a moment, “And I don’t know you from Eve to be concerned.” He set the it down, its heavy bottom scraping across the wood as it slid to the middle of the table. “But let me tell you what I figure.”
“You own this place. You quite possibly own this town, or would like to.” His eyes met hers. “Your “associate” is really your subordinate, but you’re too coy to be so forward. You like to use your power wisely but don’t flaunt it when you don’t need to.” He could feel the hush that had rolled out under his almost cheeky brashness. “In fact, there’s not a head in this room that doesn’t work for you sans the one on my shoulders. Of course you’re looking to see if that’s something worth changing. Because, while you’ve got some strong roots in the soil of this graveyard, your reach isn’t so good off planet and there’s something you need that you can’t get here.”
He broke his gaze with her in favor of the barkeep. “How am I doin so far, Les?” Lifting the little glass, he its emptiness.
She inclined her head toward him in a crooked little nod. “Fair enough,” she answered. Leaning back in her chair, she stretched her long legs out under the table. “I would like to own this town. Though ‘own’ is such a coarse word. Maybe ‘run’ would be a better choice.”
“Hey, your town,” he set the glass back down, “you can call it what you want. I’m just passing through it.”
“It will be my town. And it will be more than just a graveyard.” Her gaze drifted away from his face to dusty windows and the dusty streets outside. When she finally returned her attention to Dru, she was smiling faintly. “Provided I can hire you to help with that off planet bit of the story.”
“You’re starting to get my attention.” He leaned back in his seat, giving a little look across the faces that clearly were listening to everything they were saying. Durden didn’t care. This wasn’t his secret.”Keep talking.”
Les nodded but took her time in speaking. “I’m biased, but I like to think I have my town’s best interests at heart. Others…” She shrugged and set her glass aside, ready to truly get down to business. “Others disagree. I could live with that, but the disagreements have gotten… ugly. People are getting hurt.”
“Shame when people get hurt.” He took to toying with his empty glass a little. He could feel this conversation touching a slight nerve. “One would think that people around here would have a rather unique perspective on that sort of ugliness.”
Her gaze hardened. “When people make up their minds to be ugly, no perspective can change it.”She raised her hands, showing him weathered palms. “I’m no saint. I’ve done my share of ugly, but it’s not what I want. I want the fate of this town settled, no more arguing back and forth. If a fast ship and a strategic cargo pickup can help me get there…”
“Then it’s worth every penny to bring that simple change in point of view.” He stared back at her with cool, hazel eyes. His tone was as light as a feather, the bargaining chip he had in his hand: the impression that he couldn’t care less.
She nodded. Clearly she had expected no less. “Of course I’m prepared to pay. I’m sure we can some to some sort of agreement on what’s fair.”