Ju Pei hadn’t seen the man in the corner booth of the restaurant before. It wasn’t too uncommon to see strangers in this dive but the train from Paradiso wasn’t due till tomorrow. Whoever this man was he wasn’t from this mud ball. She could tell he wasn’t your average border world ruffian even though he was trying hard to disguise himself like one. He seemed to be studying the menu, but he kept a watchful eye on the front door. He carried himself like a man who had been trained much more than your average thug. She wondered who he was waiting for.
“Pei, order up!” Ben called from the kitchen, and the aging waitress forgot about the stranger for a while as she carried booze and noodles to table three. The workers from the mines and sheep farms were starting to wander in. Times were hard, but the rough workers that frequented Big Ben’s Beer ‘n Bowls always seemed to have just enough coin for a drink or two. She idly wondered what they did without to keep the alcohol flowing.
The Alliance seemed to ignore the little world of Regina, but Pei had been hearing more rumblings of discontent from travelers than usual. Some people whispered in hushed tones about open rebellion. Pei didn’t really believe it; no one would dare go against the Alliance if they wanted to live long enough to grow gray hair.
She looked in the cracked mirror behind the bar, a woman much older than she should have been stared back at her. Living on this goram backwater world was sending her to an early grave. She brushed a gray lock of hair back in among the black. Maybe if she saved her meager tips she would be able to get some imported hair dye.
Pei approached the stranger and pulled out her little order pad from her once clean apron. “Are you ready to order sir?” She asked with forced enthusiasm.
The dark man looked up from the menu pulled a couple of large crisp bills from a pocket of his duster and set them on the table. “Blue Sun, Gold Label. This tip is yours if you don’t bother me about menus or ordering again.”
Pei bowed and retreated to the bar. Whoever this man was he had money. Gold Label was the best liquor they could get on this world. Most of the ruffians who came in hardly had enough money for the cheap swill they usually sold. Plus the tip he displayed was more than she usually made in a whole night waiting tables. Whoever this man was he really wanted to hide behind the menu.
She pulled a dusty bottle off the high shelf and removed the stopper; Pei had to climb on an overturned bucket to reach it. She had no idea how long it had been since she had poured someone a glass off the top shelf. Pei picked out the cleanest glass she could find, the whiskey was dark and smooth and smelled much nicer than the regular moonshine she usually poured.
After replacing the bottle she brought the rich stranger his drink. He only nodded when she placed it front of him. With her usual customers she would have demanded payment upfront, but this man didn’t seem the type to slink out without paying.
She continued her duties taking orders, handing out food and booze, but she would occasionally glance over at the man. No one else in the restaurant seemed to even notice him. They were too busy eating, and drinking to care about the dark stranger.
The doors swung open and the waitress looked up, it was Slim Tony and his band of brigands. They wandered into town usually after they had scored a big job of some kind or another. Since this was the only real watering hole in Rocky Ridge they would get liquored up, get in fights, break things and leave. The local sheriff was either on the take or was afraid of them.
She approached the dirty men, “Good evening Slim Tony, table for five?”
“Well if it isn’t my darlin’ Ju Ju Pee! Hells yeah we’re here to celebrate!” His breath was worse than most of the rough men who ended up at Ben’s.
Pei grabbed five menus and motioned with her arm “This way gentlemen.”
As she turned toward the tables Slim Tony slapped her butt. “Wooo! Boys she’s still firm!”
“Excuse me Mr. Slim but this isn’t that sort of place.” She said with as much restraint as she could manage as she felt blood rush to her cheeks.
“Ju Ju, why not? You’d make lots more cashy money than waitin’ tables for cheap tips from these louts.”
She decided that ignoring him would be her best defense. She spread out the menus on the booth next to the mysterious stranger. “Here’s your table, I’ll be back when ya’all are ready to order.”
Slim laughed, “Well I is ready to order now. A glass of yer finest whiskey for me and my boys!”
Slim and his ruffians were laughing at her expense, she could tell that tonight was going to be one of those nights. The dark stranger winked at her. Pei didn’t get the feeling that he was joining in. His little wink seemed to say her troubles would soon be over.
The waitress escaped to the bar across the room from the booths. Her butt still stung from where the depraved ruffian had slapped her. She silently wished to see him dangle from the end of a short rope. The dark stranger put down his menu and was eying the group of rowdies in the booth next to him. None of Slims gang seemed to notice. She looked at each of Slim’s gang members, if he was planning on fighting this gang and living he was either extremely good or a complete goram idiot.
Jose “El Guapo” Sanchez, was the best gunfighter in the gang, he carried a short Krinkov AK under his jacket, and bragged about how he had killed seven men.
The large silent thug dressed head to toe in black was known only as Romanov. He scared Pei more than the others. Some locals said he had his tongue removed by a mob boss. On his belt hung a couple of old Markarov pistols and a wicked looking T shaped knife, good for only one thing, shoving it through someone’s ribs.
Chowder, was an interesting character, he didn’t seem like he would fit in with the rest of the gang. He wore simple farming clothes and had an ancient even by earth that was standards, cowboy single action revolver. His pudgy cheeks and dirty blond hair disguised a mean streak. Pei had once seen him cut another patron with a broken bottle. He seemed to enjoy seeing others bleed.
Harry, matched his namesake, curly red hair sprouted everywhere on the man. Under his jacket he carried a short sawed off pump shotgun. Rumor had it that he had been imprisoned for killing his bunkmate in the academy in a fit of rage. With the possibility of a career in the Alliance over he had joined Slims ruffians to pay for his frequent trips to the bottom of brown bottles. Harry was a mean drunk, which just so happened to be most of the time.
She looked at Slim Tony, he was tall and mildly handsome, if it weren’t for his outlaw ways he probably wouldn’t have been a bad fellow. How he managed to lead such a band of malcontents was completely beyond Pei. But for some reason they followed him. She whispered to Ben underneath the spinning order slips, “Ben… Slim is back in town.” She wasn’t sure he heard, over the noise of the kitchen. Pei just knew they were in for some trouble.
Some of the restaurants wiser patrons decided the air was better outside and slipped out.
Someone touched her elbow and she jumped, the mysterious stranger was standing right next to her. He could move fast. “Mrs. Pei, I am going to need your help taking Slim and his boys out. You want nothing more than to see those slime hanging from ropes am I right?”
She didn’t say anything, she was stunned. All she managed to gasp was “Yes.”
“Good. When they order their food, I want you to stick this underneath Slim’s noodles. And I’ll take care of the rest.” The stranger pressed something hard and cold into her hand. She didn’t look she just put it into the pocket of her apron. “Good girl, now go be a waitress.”
As she walked those steps across the creaky wooden floor her heart was pounding. The stranger was actually going to kill the ruffians right inside the restaurant. Why, oh why had he roped her into this? Pei never wanted any trouble but Slim and his gang were evil men whom she hated. But she couldn’t help kill them could she?
She stepped up to the table and somehow managed to keep from dropping the tray of cheap whisky under the stress. “Have you decided on your meals?”
“Hey Ju Ju, don’t you have a daughter? Lulu Pee? I umm, met her playin’ in some band in Paradiso. So I gots a question for ya. Did she get those nice jugs from you or did she have ‘em altered? I loved squeezing ‘em. Hey maybe you could bring her down and the three of us could have a good ol’ time together!”
The gang laughed and slapped the table. Lulu had been raped some months ago, but didn’t know who her attacker was. Ju had vowed to take the life of the man that had harmed her daughter. It was time for them to die.
She took their orders. Tony ordered a heaping bowl of spicy noodles and sausage. It would be perfect to hide the small device.
A few minutes later the orders were up. Steaming bowls of noodles were placed on the well worn tray. Quickly Pei scooped up half the noodles and shoved the small olive colored device into the meal. The stranger had made it back to his booth and took one last swig of his high priced whiskey as she approached.
She gave the ruffians their food and bowed. They began devouring their food as soon as she set the bowls down. Knowing the stranger was about to unleash hell on the gang she went back to the cover of the bar. She nodded at the dark man letting him know that she had done what he had asked.
Slim took a large bite of noodles and looked in his bowl. He caught a glimpse of the device and had enough time to mutter, “Wha…” before it exploded sending scalding hot liquid and jagged pieces of ceramic into his face. The stranger leapt up from the table a large black handgun appearing in his hand. He moved with the determination of a cold trained killer. Two shots struck Romanov in the chest; a third hit above his nose.
El Guapo struggled in slow motion to get his little Kalashnikov out from under his jacket. The stranger aimed and fired another three shots and the Hispanic man fell from the booth to the floor.
Chowder managed to clear leather with his cowboy gun and fired fanning the hammer as he struggled to climb over his dead companions. The stranger rolled avoiding the wild shots and fired striking the farm boy in the neck, chin, and eye.
Harry dove to the floor grasping for his sawed off shotgun, but a quick kick to the face knocked a few of his teeth out and he collapsed unconscious. The dark man now pointed his weapon at Slim Tony, who sat cowering, his bloodied face buried in his hands.
“Slim Tony do you know what I have just done?” The man asked.
Through a gurgle of blood he gasped. “…killed my men.”
“That’s right. All except for you and Harry.” A single shot to the head fixed that problem. “Oops, I guess its just you.”
“Don’t want to die?”
The bleeding man gasped. “Yes.”
“Be ye afraid of the sword: for wrath bringeth the punishments of the sword, that ye may know there is a judgment.”
“Slim, you’ve angered the wolves and I’ve been sent to thin the herd. Like lambs to the slaughter…”
Pei managed to recover enough to see what was going on. Slim wasn’t going to leave this room alive. She reached beneath the bar and pulled out Ben’s dusty old double barrel coach gun. She cocked back the hammers and leveled it at the booth across the room. The few remaining patrons were cowering beneath tables praying.
“No stranger.” Pei said with a shaky voice. “I will thin the herd.”
Slim turned his sightless eyes toward her, “Ju Ju? I… I’m sorry.” He managed to blubber through his fingers.
Pei strode across the room until both barrels touched his bleeding forehead. “Sorry? No you goram bastard, you’re not sorry. You’re a coward, always preying on those weaker than you. Did you rape my daughter?”
He hesitated, blubbering, until finally “Yes! I did.”
“Did everyone hear? Slim is a goram rapist. You know what we do with rapists on this world don’t you?”
She pulled back the shotgun and smashed the muzzles into his skull.
“No God no!” He cried as he held up his bloody hands failing to protect his head.
The stranger whispered to Pei, “Are you sure you want his blood on your hands? I’ve been paid to do this.”
“Ju Pei, please.” He said her name correctly for the first and last time in his life.
“I’m sure.” She said as she pulled both triggers.
Somehow the pair managed to leave the rundown dive together. Pei felt like she was running in a thick fog. She wasn’t sure how much time had passed but found herself onboard a ship, the backwater world shrinking slowly in the distance.
She became aware that the dark stranger was sitting next to her, “Good looks like you’ve snapped out of it. Traumatic stress can do bad things to ones mind.”
“Who… who are you?”
The dark stranger smiled, “Book, Derrial Book.”