Tony sidled up to him. “Hey you, what you doin’ behind the bar? I don’t want any trouble.”
The chinaman wrung out a grey dishrag. “No trouble boss. Just here to lend a hand.”
Tony made a noise resembling a fart and walked away.
Chun gazed at the crowd as he began to wipe down the bar. He paused and looked at the damp rag. I may be making this worse. He wrinkled his nose and continued wiping toward his mark.
Chun had identified three sets of people he didn’t recognize as local. His first subject was a man in his thirties sitting at the bar. The man wore the typical brown shirt of a laborer. The shirt had dirt and sawdust down the front and big wet circles under the arms. Chun snorted to himself. The threads in the shirt were new. You couldn’t begin to see through the thing. The collar was dry. Who sweats under the arms and not down the back of his neck? Chun named this prospect Dry Neck and paused in his wiping-up to fill a salt shaker. He listened.
Dry Neck leaned closer to the shoe repairman next to him. “I hear you had some trouble over on State Street today. What happened?”
“Tui and his wife left in an ambulance. They were fine in the morning, but never opened the shop after lunch.”
“They got someone to take over their business?”
“A son, but he’s at the university. Their daughter is married. Some think she and her husband can come help run the shop. She worked there before she got married.”
“How’d they die?”
The shoe repairman turned and raised his eyebrows at the man next to him. “Nobody’s knows if they’re dead or what. There’s rumors, but nobody knows. Maybe the Missus just rode in the ambulance with Tui.”
Chun moved farther down the bar, giving it a swift once-over with his rag before he grabbed a tray, set it on the counter beside Dry Neck and started to fill mugs of beer and set them on the tray.”
Dry Neck took a sip of his beer. “I heard they were robbed.” He swiveled on his chair so he faced the room. He put his arm along the bar behind the shoe repairman, raised his voice and bellowed over the crowd. “Hey, me and my friend are asking if anybody knows how the Tuis on State Street died? Were they robbed?”
Bleary eyes gazed vacantly back at the stranger. Other people turned their backs. They were as curious as the next person but didn’t want trouble.
Chun carried his tray with mugs of beer into the room just as a stranger drinking dark ale at a table near the bar answered. “Aye, they was robbed all right. Not a bit of money left in the till nor anywhere else. I heard they was poisoned.”
Tony lifted his eyes to glance at Chun. I wonder how many people in this neighborhood have any money anywhere in their business? I’ll be paying my rent tonight, then buy more beer and fish for tomorrow. I’ll be broke again by noon.
Chun passed beer to a group of men sitting in a back booth and collected their money. He paused and looked down at the man at the next table with his back to the booth. This man wore a threadbare suit jacket, but he either had a wife who knew how to give a man a great haircut, or he’d paid some serious money to a barber. The well barbered stranger said, “Times are getting tough. Nobody is safe. Not when someone on State Street can be murdered and robbed in broad daylight.”
Chun mentally named this stranger, Barber Man, then gathered empty mugs, took orders and returned behind the bar. While filling the dishwasher, he pulled out his phone and texted, “five” to his boss. He glanced over his shoulder to be certain he didn’t see anybody else who stood out as an outsider.
The talk swirled around the room. Jaden who worked at the print shop said, “If something serious happened, I don’t know what to do. Their son, Nicki, and I were close in secondary school. I should do something. Should I call Nicki tonight?”
Grandpapa E’Tun put his hand on Jaden’s shoulder. “It’s okay to call Nicki tonight. If it’s serious, nothing you can say will make a difference. Best thing is to visit him, sit quiet and let him talk. Ask him if you can help with anything.”
The stranger, Chun had dubbed Dark Ale, scraped his chair back. “I think we best be asking who did this thing to honest people. Too many people don’t want to work, taking what other people earn.”
His companion nodded his head. “It’s the same everywhere. There’s those who work hard, and those who’ve been coddled and take what doesn’t belong to them.”
Dry Neck at the bar made a rude noise. “But murder? Murder is more serious than being too lazy to work. Someone who does murder has something wrong with them deep inside.”
Grandpapa E’Tun narrowed his eyes at the talk. “It’s too soon to be saying murder, or even that they were robbed. They kept their money at the co-op bank. Most businesses are using that bank now.”
“If there’s a funeral,” Jaden said, “I want to take off from work.”
From behind the bar, Tony answered Jaden. “Don’t worry about getting time off from work. We all close-up shop for a funeral. We always close down the whole neighborhood to honor the dead.”
Barbered Man at the back table banged his empty mug on the table. “So everybody loses a day’s wages because some punk kid, with no upbringing, kills and robs their neighbor. See how the poison spreads. Seems to me to keep the poison from spreading, we need to be dealing with the rot that causes the problem.”
Dry Neck took a slow sip of his beer. “You’re right you know. This is exactly how a respectable neighborhood goes down hill. A bad element moves in and causes trouble. The trouble spreads, cutting into everybody’s profits until honest people can’t pay their rent.”
The specter of unpaid rent swept through the room whispering into hearts and minds. The crowd fell silent and looked at their beer.
Chun stood with his back to the room drying glasses, and watching the crowd through the mirror behind the shelves of beer bottles and glasses. He admired the stranger’s ability to manipulate the crowd.
Dark Ale’s companion raised his voice. “We’ve all seen it happen before in other cities. M’TK used to be the center of Midland before the bad element moved in, turning it into the worst slum the country has seen. The old emperor did everybody a favor when he burned the place. That’s the only thing to do when gangs and drug addicts take over a neighborhood, burn it down.”
Zach stood up and headed for the door. “You’re talking about something that happened a long time ago. That can’t happen now. We have laws. If Nicki’s folks were murdered, the law will find those responsible, and our prosecutors will see they’re punished.” He stomped out the door.
Heads nodded behind Zach. People looked at their neighbors. Could the prosecutors’ offices put an end to the bad times? They did before. They wouldn’t let the gangs and crooks take over a city again, would they?
“Poor kid’s too young to know how times used to be. Doesn’t really know how corruption creeps into a neighborhood. I see it happening, everywhere Midland, Portlandia, Mesa City. Honest people can’t walk down some streets after dark for fear some punk kid will beat them up and rob them.” Dark Ale shook his head.
Dark Ale’s companion nudged his friend. “Now, don’t judge the lad. You heard him. Those people who died were his best friend’s folks. He’s grieving and not thinking about the big picture here.”
Dark Ale looked into his mug. “You’re right. When folks are grieving they don’t think straight. They don’t see that action needs to be taken immediately to stop crime before it sets in.”
“And they don’t see where even good people have blind spots.” Dry Neck had turned to face the table.
Chun took his rag and started wiping down tables, curious to see where this would lead.
Grandpapa E’Tun scowled, slammed his empty glass on the table and stomped to the door. “You’re all crazy. Nobody knows what happened. Could be Tui just had a bad case of gas.” He slammed the door on the way out.
Barbered Man said, “Seems to me that the point is that things are going downhill. Punk kids run loose with no rules and no parents to make them behave. That’s the point. We’re all injured by lawlessness even if we aren’t the ones who’ve been robbed and murdered.”
Dark Ale held up his mug for a refill. “Who’s to say we won’t be the next one to be killed in our sleep. You lay down for a little nap and someone you trust slips in and cuts your throat, then makes off with your hard-earned money.”
Chun grabbed a pitcher off the end of the bar and hurried to fill Dark Ale’s glass.
Tony glanced at Chun, thankful to have backup if things turned nasty. He scowled, for a busy night, he hadn’t been run off his feet. Chun had actually been a help. He glanced toward the door hoping that Chun’s buddies wouldn’t come through and beat the crap out of the strangers and break-up his bar.
Dry Neck said, “But this neighborhood is over a kilometer from the cathedral. It’s around the cathedral that we’ve had trouble in Portlandia. Those nuns, bless their innocent souls, took in those orphans, and it’s the orphans causing trouble.” He crossed himself at the mention of the nuns.
Barbered man’s companion said, “They don’t have orphans at the cathedral here. This is where the archbishop lives, and you can’t have a bunch of dangerous smolts around someone important like the archbishop.”
Dry Neck nodded. “That’s okay then. Maybe it was river folk or someone else who killed those people.” He took another sip of his beer and shook his head again. “It’s a real problem in Portlandia. Those nuns spend half their time praying and the orphans just run wild. If it were regular folk letting this happen, you’d know what to do, but you can’t go busting up a convent and beating up nuns to teach them a lesson.” He crossed himself again.
The talk turned general, but despite the hour getting later few people left the bar. Chun thought The talk seems to have died down without going anywhere, should I head around to see the boss?
Tony had started the dishwasher again when Barbered Man’s companion called across the room. “You know, I’ve been thinking, and something seems odd to me about this whole murder and robbery thing. We don’t have orphans at the cathedral here and it’s far enough away that there wouldn’t be a problem down here. But, we do have orphans in the city, and wouldn’t you know, they just happen to live on the other side of the park-less than a kilometer from the murder.”
Dry Neck sat up straight. “I had no idea they could be that close to here. You could be on to something.” He glanced toward the door and shuddered as if wild orphans could break the door down any moment. “Do they keep to themselves?”
Dark Ale’s companion said, “We never see the smallest smolts, but the bigger ones who are old enough to be working and supporting themselves run wild all over the city.”
Dry Neck glanced toward the door again. “Why hasn’t anybody done something about them? Why haven’t they been sent to work in the harvest?”
Dark Ale asked, “What can we do? They should be working. We all agree on that, but we can’t be busting up The Compound and beating up the president.”
Chun smiled over his mental picture of Dry Neck or Dark Ale attempting to attack the president. He’d been privileged to see the president spar. He wanted to grin over the image.
Dry Neck made a rude noise. “Somebody’s got to teach orphans how to behave. But then, they may not have been anywhere near State Street. It’s a respectable neighborhood. They might prefer someplace they can get drugs.”
Barbered Man’s companion said, “It would be easy enough to teach them a lesson, but the neighbors don’t want to get in trouble with the president. They might try to protect the students.”
Dry Neck sat forward on his stool. “Good God, man. Do you mean to tell me the locals will let a group of wild animals murder their friends, and they won’t fight back?” He turned his back to the crowd and scowled at the bar. After a few minutes he turned back to the crowd. “I can’t believe that a whole neighborhood will refuse to stand up for their murdered friends. What are they, cowards? Maybe they deserve to have their shops broken up and to be murdered in their beds. I know if it were me and my neighbors I’d be taking some action to teach those criminals some respect and to go get an honest job.”
Dark Ale growled. “There’s plenty of farm jobs waiting for workers. There’s no need for good people to be supporting those old enough to work.”
Dark Ale’s companion stood and threw money on the table to pay for his drinks. “I think it was a good thing to support the orphans when they were just tiny. I even gave the local orphanage toys and clothes my kids had outgrown. We should be proud to help out like that, but those orphans have grown up now and should be paying us back for their keep. I’m all for teaching them a lesson and sending them to work in the fields.”
Dark Ale stood to leave. “There’s those that will stick up for their friends and then there’s those who need to be taught what happens to false friends.” He left with his companion in tow.
Just as the door closed behind the two men, Chun opened the dishwasher letting out a loud burst of noise. If anybody shouted for help outside the door, nobody inside could hear.
The hour grew later and the bar emptied. Finally, the shoe repairman paid his bill and commented to Tony. “Well, that was an entertaining evening.” He waved to Chun. “Hey, this place has never been this clean. Is it safe for me to leave, or will I find myself being used for fish bait by a bunch of Chinese.”
Chun grinned. “Barbecue. We’re cooks not fishermen. Dark meat is popular in the barbecue.”
The shoe repairman woke his wife when he got home. “I know I’m late, but it got real interesting down at Tony’s.” He told her the story of his evening. “So, the way I read this is that these guys are from Vanderholm since they mentioned working in the fields. They want those orphanage kids who walk past here going to school to work for them, and if anybody interferes, they’ll break up our shop. Who knows, maybe Ramon and U’Kee are the ones who poisoned Tui.”
His wife sat up and rubbed at her tired eyes. “Nobody poisoned Tui except himself. His gallbladder has been bad for years, and he will eat fried fish. His poor wife had the ambulance cart him off after he ate fried fish from the street vendor at the corner of Park and Montagna Streets. Tui was moaning and carrying on something fierce, thinking he would die and calling out to the Blessed Virgin Mother to pray for him.” She plumped her pillow and sat scowling into the dark for a minute or so. “Still, we might be wise to not be around when the students walk by on their way to school tomorrow. We’ll go visit Tui in the hospital and not open after lunch until closer to three.”
“I suppose you’re right. I need to pick up some more grommets anyway. We’ll visit Tui then stop by Metal Supply on our way home.”