Armor

3,462
07.03.2019

IX

I stopped on the near side of the bridge and lit a cigarette. Before me, due west, a storm was spilling over the top of the shale bluffs that formed the far perimeter of the valley. Thick blue mists trailing faint tendrils were beginning to darken the shade of the rock. A gentle glimmering moisture was gliding down the slope toward the City. I figured the storm would be on the bridge in less than an hour.

I blew out smoke and glanced around. It was the first opportunity I had had to get my bearings. Here it was still a pretty day. Here it was damn near Earth. Sloping flatlands. Blue sky. A clear blue river that sparkled cheerfully past the milk-white Complex dome. I shook my head in wonder. It wasn't Earth at all. But it could have been.

I had been to maybe two dozen planets like this. None of them had been Earth either. But they were man places just the same. It gave me the creeps.

Some thinker types claimed it was because Homo Sap was the perfect model for the universe. They cited things like bi-symmetry and opposing limbs and (ever since finding Ants) something called Adaptation By Individual to explain it. These weren't just made for man, they said. Man was made for them. Man was the model. I didn't buy it. I had drunk water and swatted flies on alien soil again and again and they had been man places. I had felt that with a subtle certainty. I still did.

Another idea used the model for the universe bit as well but extended it to mean that there were Homo Saps out there who had nothing to do with Earth at all. These other guys were supposed to have sprung full-blown from another place but be just like us. The thinkers who thought this thought something else. They thought we would run into them and soon. A statistical certainty, they claimed, that these other Saps would be along. I remember once seeing a vid on it with one guy claiming they would show up any minute and another guy boshing it with the question of how would we know if we ran into a new bunch or not, as spread out and weird as we already were. Maybe they were already here and we didn't know it, the guy had added and laughed.

The first guy hadn't laughed at all. He had just smiled politely. But the smile and the courtesy didn't stop the twinkle in his eyes from coming across. That had given me the creeps too. Man places.

I glanced back across the river toward the squalor of the City. Whoever these new folks were, I sure hoped they were neater. We're quite a bunch, I believe, but it's obscene what we do to our worlds.

It took me half an hour to reach the edge of the mess. The City's eastern boundary was marked by a second bridge that crossed what had once been a gently babbling brook. It was mostly sewer now. I stopped at the far end of the bridge, hesitant to go any farther. The rain was really coming down now. Clouds of it whipped up and down the narrow passages between the junkpile homes rusting everything that wasn't treated, driving everyone indoors and, of course, making more mud. I noted a couple of bootprints that looked knee deep and shuddered. I didn't want to go in there.

It wasn't just the mud. It wasn't just that this was. another refugee camp, for I had seen those plenty of times. It was… Even without the driving rain the City was dark. Dark and dreary and hopeless and clogged with despair. It was the Antwar, maybe and the Fleet Project sneering downward at them. There was a texture of paranoia. A tragic uneasiness. Guilt.

It wasn't a happy place.

I took a deep breath and stepped calf-deep into the mud. It got a little better as I worked my way up from the creek bank toward the central "square," head bowed against the rain and my boots splashing against the minor torrents of runoff rain. Borglyn had said I would know which passage to take by a huge steeple constructed at the entrance to one of the paths. There was no sign of anything even faintly religious from where I stood, but that could simply have been the weather. It was now dark enough for sundown. I shrugged and picked the widest lane.

It shrunk so fast it made your heart ache, ending abruptly against a sheer wall of curved and warped plassteel three stories high. I backed out and turned around eagerly.

The next lane was worse. It narrowed at the first bend and then narrowed again at the second. There were two more sharp twists within the next few meters, making the passage tunnel-like beneath jutting scags of warped bulkhead plates. I paused in the darkness to wipe the rain from my eyes. From the shadows to my right came a long wheezing moan. I blinked, took a soggy, slippery step toward the sound. I beard the moan again and saw, tucked uneasily into what had once been an emergency recess panel, an old man. He was wrapped up poorly against the rain and growing cold with the sort of rags that this place would have created.

There was a faint click and a further movement of shadow that formed a little boy or a little girl wearing the same sort of rags and a determined look. A knife gleamed dully in a tiny but steady hand.

"You want something, Mr.?" asked a voice belonging to a trapped animal, which was just what he/she was.

"No," I replied, stepping back with my hands held out where they could be seen. I backed away a few more steps, then stopped. "I'm looking for the steeple," I called into the shadows. "You know where that is?"

There was no reply. I repeated my question and waited. Then I moved back up the path, again holding my hands where they could be seen. The recess was empty. No ragged old man, no desperate child. Both had disappeared into the maze of the place.

I knew better than to pursue that determined kid. I backed out around the corners and started up the next path. A few steps up there was piercing flash of lightning out of the east followed by a truly awful peal of thunder. Between shaking from one and jumping at the other I caught sight of what had once been the steeple. It lay over on one side blocking the passageway. It was black with soot from a recent fire. I stepped through the charred latticework of its universal elongated pyramid design. The spot where I braced myself was already worn smooth from the passage of many other muddy fingertips. The going got a little easier after that. Easier to see, anyway, for people were starting to turn their lights on inside their little cubicles or apartments or monk's cells or whatever you should call the junk around a refugee village. Apartments seems best, if you can imagine a giant like say, Thor, ripping spacecraft apart, just tearing cabins loose one by one like a child separating the petals on a flower, and then stacking what was left to make three-story nightmares. I couldn't imagine what made them huddle on top of one another like that. Sure, some of the "buildings" were made up of whole bulkhead seals on end and they usually came in threes. But most of the junk had just been wedged up there on purpose, as if they were shoved together by the timid members of some herd ready to accept anything, even smothering, to avoid the outer edges of the campfire where wolves could prowl and chase. It wouldn't matter to those folk that the wolves were inside with them. A new planet carries a primordial chill.

Anyway, mid-afternoon or not, the lights were beginning to come on. The rain had shrunk to little more than a sprinkling trickle. The thunder continued, but it was a distant rumble now accompanied by distant swellings of orange light rising unevenly from the edges of the craggy twisted skyline.

Borglyn had told me that once I had found the steeple I would be home free. He had said to stay on the main path with the steeple all the way to the end and I would be there. It was a lot easier trip the way he had told it. I was beginning to get an idea as to the size of this place. Within the next hundred meters or so I must have passed a dozen side paths- many of which were just as impressive as the one I was following. I trusted to direction for the most part, though even with this policy I ran the risk of getting lost. Everything twisted here. Every path, every alley, every bulkhead. I didn't even bother to try to ignore what that could've meant omen-wise; the way things were looking so far, I was already screwed anyway.

"It beats prison," I caught myself saying once out loud and wondered how often that had happened without my having noticed it before.

Just about then, it all got a little tighter. I saw the bouncing, bobbing glow of their lamps first, coming around a comer of one of the side paths. Instinctively, I crouched back into a recess as they appeared.

There were five of them, all men it seemed in that light, stumbling hurriedly into the passage just ahead of me. Three of them carried lamps. Two of them carried-dragged someone between them. All had a knife or a club or some sort of weapon. They increased their pace when they got onto the passageway I had been following, looking back over their collective shoulders for pursuit. I held still where I was to give them a chance to put a little distance between us. I was now no longer sure whether or not I wanted to continue. Well, let's say I knew I didn't want to go up behind them. I had never wanted to go. But now I wasn't sure whether I should. I didn't want to get brained as one of the pursuers they obviously expected. But on the other hand…

The pursuit showed up then, answering it for me. They came up from behind me, stomping rapidly past, about six, I guessed, without even seeing me in their determined chase. More knives and more clubs. I shuddered to think what would have happened if I had been standing in the middle of the path like the hapless fool I was when they had rounded the comer. Would they have stopped to see who I was? Or would they have simply splattered me first as a matter of course?

At any rate they were past and I was safe and the best thing to do was leave the way I came. But I followed with only slight hesitation.

It was tough keeping up with this bunch. They moved very quickly through the muck, without need for lights or whispered instructions. They seemed to know a lot more about their surroundings than the first group.

They lost me. Try as I might, I couldn't keep up" with their stealthy, lethal gait. But I did get there in time for the fight.

I heard it before I saw it. Grunts and groans, boots stomping into mud and faces, the air-whirring of metal bludgeons swung wide and hard. I skidded to a halt in the mud at the first sound of anguish and crept around the last bend. It was impossible to tell which side was which. But I counted on the faster movers being the better fighters. From that reckoning, the chasers were beating the living hell out of the chased. The lamps were scattered about, sinking into the mud. From their dim ghostly glows I could just see a lone man through the moving forest of arms and legs up ahead of the struggle. He was crawling along somewhat frantically, dragging the limp form of another. The prisoner from before, obviously. He was trying to reach the entrance of a building which loomed like a cave-mouth before him. Belatedly I realized that this building was my destination as well, for it marked the end of this passageway.

Just then a figure burst loose from the struggle and leaped toward the one doing the dragging. He held a pipe in one muddy fist. The man on the ground released his burden and jumped to his feet to meet the charge. He showed a long ugly knife. The two sparred for a few moments, dodging and feinting with their respective weapons. Then they closed. There was a spark as they grappled, a sudden twisting urgency, then the man with the knife slid to the mud between the other's feet. The victor dropped his pipe in favor of the knife and moved over to the figure on the ground.

The rest of the fighting was over, the pursuers having finished the job on the pursued. The remaining five rushed over to join the man with the knife huddling over the now- liberated prisoner. Great effort was put into trying to inject a little life into the limp form. Someone lifted the head and gave the face a gentle slap. That was when I saw that it was a girl.

But the fighting wasn't over. The cave mouth was suddenly filled with more men carrying more clubs and pipes and knives. The girl was dropped gently back into the mud and the killing began again. More sparks and more groans. Someone died sinking to his knees and clutching the knife sunk into his chest to the hilt. Someone else died quicker, when a pipe connected with an awful crunching noise. It was very fast. And it was the same as before. Whoever she was, she was important to them. The rescuers fought so well for her that I thought the whole thing was over in a moment. And it would've been. But just as they went to pick her up and carry her away for once and for all a huge fat man loomed into view from the dead-end shadows carrying a blazer in his right fist. The blue arcing beam blinded me as it burst from the shadows. I heard screams and several men trying to run but by then it was too late, had been when he bad appeared. In seconds each of the five lay dead, seared through by the latest of man's new clubs.

"Thank God, Wice!" gushed one of the fallen, surveying what was left of the rescue party about him. Wice, the fat man with the blazer and, I saw then, the fat man from the trouble on the bridge my first day, ignored the show of gratitude. Others appeared beside him from inside the building. One of them had been the dark skinny one on the bridge. Wice motioned him toward the girl, motioned the rest toward the casualties.

"Clean this up. Now!" he barked in that distinctive snarl. The others hurried to obey. I sighed. Wice was the name of my contact. Deeper and deeper.

In a few moments the area was almost clear. The dead had been dragged away. The wounded had been helped inside. Only Wice remained in the doorway, watching the skinny with the girl.

"Gettle!" whispered Wice impatiently to the skinny. "Is she awake?"

Gettle spoke without taking his eyes from her. "Well, I thought she was!"

Wice surveyed the area warily. "Well, never mind now. Just bring her in. Come on!" he ordered bluntly. With one last glance around, he slipped back into the shadows of the doorway. Gettle pushed a lock of black hair away from his face and bent to lift the girl. She lolled lifelessly in his arms. Then they too were gone.

I gave them maybe two seconds before I started my splashing sloshing way across the clearing toward the doorway. I stopped just outside the opening, listening. I knew what was coming, but that didn't mean I wanted to become a part of it.

I heard footsteps just inside the door on a rickety stairway that creaked and rustled rhythmically. I slipped inside and followed the sound. In the dim lamp shining down the stairwell I saw her make her move. He had had her in a fireman's carry to negotiate the narrow passage. She began by driving an elbow into the back of his neck… collapsed stunned to his knees, arms up to protect his face… her feet dribbled against his chest… a flat-handed smack against his forehead…

Then she leaped easily over him and trotted down the stairs and froze stock-still before me. Her eyes shown wide and… and spectacular in the lamp. So deep! So green! Emeralds floating, glistening…

I blocked her first forearm, sidestepped the kick and brought her shoulder out of position for the killing blow by pulling her roughly and unexpectedly to me. She gasped as her eyes, her incredible eyes, met mine. Was it recognition, astonishment at her effect on me? Was it a reciprocal delight? Maybe? Possibly? I blocked another forearm, slipped a flat-hand uppercut, twisted beside her kick and… And did nothing. Nothing at all. I didn't fight back, had no thoughts of doing so. I just didn't want her to hurt me.

Or maybe, I thought suddenly, I just don't want her to leave.

And as I hesitated with that thought, she left, slipping past me and out into the black afternoon and mud. She was gone.

I closed my eyes. Hers floated clearly still before me. Such eyes!

Gettle was coming to. I wrestled him out of his impossible position on the stairs.

"C'mon, Gettle. We've got to get to Wice!" I urged him.

"Hah? Wha… Wice?" he mumbled, dazedly.

"Yeah, Wice! C'mon," I added conspiratorially. "We've got to tell him what really happened."

He sat up, holding his head. "What do you… Hey! The girl! Where's the girl?"

"That's it, Gettle! The girl's gone off! We've got to tell Wice. Hurry up, damn you!" I dragged him to his feet and shoved him a couple of steps up the stairs. He stopped, still hesitant. I shoved him again.

"Dammit, Gettle! You want him to find out from somebody else?"

That did it. Mumbling, "Yeah, yeah, yeah," he staggered ahead, semi-waving for me to follow.

I did. And so we passed through much of the labyrinth that made up Wice's lair. Gettle, weaving and stumbling and not quite running into things up ahead of me, led us down several faintly illuminated corridors and through several manned doorways. For the most part I ignored the scum standing guard. Occasionally, when one looked too alarmed at my presence, I would wink or shrug or smile and gesture obscenely at Gettle's lack of coordination. That got me up several flights of stairs and through many ugly possibilities.

Suddenly, Gettle stopped. He slumped down to the floor before a handful of steps jury-rigged to make easier the transition from one level to another that was, on second glance, a joint between plassteel bulkheads from two different ships. He held his head with both hands. He rocked forward on his buttocks, grimacing in pain. She, Eyes, had really belted him. I stifled a smile and leaned forward to help him up. He glanced up at me in bewilderment. "Who are you?" he asked before recognition descended.

"You!" he screeched in an uneven, harsh whisper before I clamped my right hand around his throat.

I didn't waste time with threats. I simply lifted him to his feet from there, gripping down on his throat as much as I figured he could take. Once on his feet I pressed the back of his head against the wall just beneath a lamp. His face looked green and scared. It had every reason to be.

"Wice!" I hissed meaningfully, flexing my fingers. "Wice!"

He didn't even have to think about it. He gestured with one limp hand and off we went again. I removed my fingers from his throat but retained a firm grip on his left shoulder as we moved along-he knew what was what.

The only hazard was a guard standing before the most impressive door we had passed so far. It was made out of something that was either wood or could pass for it. It was wide and squat and had a huge door latch. It was obviously the boss's place. The guard eased forward from just off the side and raised a huge right arm in a gesture meant to slow us down for proper admittance procedure. I kicked him in the balls. We both stepped over him. Gettle worked the latch. I slammed him through the opening door and faced Wice, standing up angrily on the far side of his messy office.

"You! Crow" he shouted angrily and reached down for what I figured for the blazer.

I ignored him. I found what passed for an easy chair in that dump and plopped down in it across from the desk. Gettle was doubled over on the floor whimpering. I ignored him, too. Wice came around from behind the desk carrying the blazer. He stopped beside Gettle and glowered at the pair of us. He was mad.

"What's the idea. Crow? You still trying to show everybody how tough you are?" He looked down at Gettle again and shook his head. "I'm getting pretty sick of you," he added menacingly, tightening his grip on the blazer.

I lit a cigarette. "Does Borglyn know you're using his blazer to carve up locals?" I asked calmly.

"The blazer's mine," he retorted furiously. "What I do with it is my business-get that straight." He slammed the pistol from one hand to the other for emphasis and then pointed the butt at me. "And get this, too. You keep stomping around here playing big man with my men and I'm gonna show you just how lucky you were that first time!"

There was a loud banging on the stairs outside followed by five lackeys jamming themselves into the room. Gettle looked up at their approach and smiled sourly at me through bleeding lips. He stood up straight and joined them while they took turns staring back and forth between Wice and me and waiting for the order to "Sic'im!"

Wice gestured meaningfully in their direction before continuing. "You got it. Crow? We can get done what needs getting done or it can get tough. What's it gonna be?"

I had been watching this whole deal from a distance, without feeling or rhythm. It was a long-hated feeling, like being a step behind. It blundered me ahead badly.

"I'll tell you, Wice," I began, all thumbs. "I don't much care. We can work if you want." I tapped an ash to the floor. "But we don't have to and I'm not sure I like the idea anyway." And then I stood up, abruptly, anger roaring through me from out of nowhere. I slammed the cigarette to the floor, scattering sparks. "I'm tired of dealing with scum like this, with cowards and deserters and bullies. Your threats don't mean anything to me. I can still go either way." I pointed a shaking finger. "I pounded you once. I can pound you again. And I can crater this bunch at the same time!" I wheeled toward them "Who wants to be first?"

Gettle answered in a low, sinister tone: "Maybe everyone."

"That's fine, too," I retorted, now shaking all over. Wice stared at me like I was crazy. Which, of course, I was. I don't know. That cloudy picture! Wice, Borglyn, me-we were all so bizarre!

Especially me.

Wice kept staring for several moments, then relaxed. He sighed, shook his head. Was that compassion I saw in his eyes? Or flat pity?

"Say the word," prompted Gettle, tensing.

"Shut up, Gettle!" barked Wice, suddenly angry again.

"Shut up and get the hell out. "

Gettle and company stared at him, unbelieving. But they left. Slowly for Gettle, hoping for a change of heart. It didn't happen. We were alone.

Wice nodded toward the closing door. "Him I oughta let you stomp again," he suggested, going back around to his desk.

"Didn't the first time," I offered, resuming my seat. "Some girl was doing that on my way in."

That froze him halfway into his chair. "What? Is she gone?"

I nodded. "We passed over his whimpers." "Why didn't you stop her?"

"What for?" I asked, lighting another cigarette. "Far as I know, that's her job around here-to teach your punks what tough is."

He mumbled something angrily at me under his breath and left. I sat and smoked and listened to him growling orders to his people in the hallway. He came back in after a full minute of that and resumed his seat. He looked disgusted.

"If you saw the blazer, you saw the fight. You knew we wanted her."

"That's true, Wice," I agreed.

His fat face got very red. Was that it? Was it my always just hating fat men?

"You rotten son of a bitch!" he growled, accusing.

"What the hell do your little local feuds have to do with me? I've got nothing to do with that!"

He blinked. His anger disappeared. He looked genuinely surprised. "You mean you really don't know?"

"Huh?" I blurted, as stupidly as I felt. "Know what?"

But he just shook his head again. "Never mind," he said. He sat forward in his chair and reached for a cigar. His voice was businesslike. "What about the Project's defense screens? Can you get to them?"

"I can do it. When do you need it?"

"Don't know yet," he said, lighting his cigar. "We may want to wait awhile."

"How long?"

"Don't know yet," he repeated, eyeing me. "Maybe as long as a standard month. Can you handle that? What's your setup over there with those people?"

"Just let me know."

Wice puffed a couple of irritated puffs. "All right. Crow. Go ahead and play independent. But you may need me later on."

"Not likely," I replied coldly.

"Okay, dammit!" he retorted, stung. "Just tell me this much-what do they know about me?"

"You?" I echoed, surprised. "Nothing."

"Well, then, what do you plan to tell'em when they find out you've been coming here? Or did you really think there were secrets in a place this small?"

I felt my cheeks heating up with embarrassment. I hadn't even considered the problem. Even worse, Wice could see that I hadn't.

But he let it slide.

"Tell'em we met on Illyre," he pushed on. "During your piracy trial."

I sat up. "What do you know about that?"

"I know about it. Saw most of it. Cost me a half term's worth of credits for court tickets." He smiled then. "But I was there at the end."

Now what the hell was this? Admiration? Damn the bastard! "Well sorry to disappoint you by getting off," I said sourly, which was damned idiotic for me to say. But why the hell not? I was being an idiot, wasn't I?

I stood up to leave before I got any worse. Between Wice's insulting me and admiring me and my own dazed, thumb- fingered lack of touch, I knew it couldn't get anything else but.

I stopped at the door and looked back. Wice was eyeing me without emotion through the cigar smoke. I had a sudden adolescent desire to shatter that.

"Tell me, Wice, how did yon and Borglyn get together? Is there a regular meeting place for deserters?"

Wice frowned. He looked disappointed, as if… I had let him down.

"We met on Banshee," he answered evenly. "A year ago."

"A year ago? Wice, you're full of bull! Banshee was destroyed two years ago!"

He stared. And then instead of looking insulted, he looked amused. A smile began to form at the corners of his mouth. "Destroyed? Is that what they're saying?" The smile became a chuckle and then a laugh. "Destroyed, eh?"

"Well, all the Ants, anyway," I added lamely.

That only made him laugh all the harder. A bitter, knowing laugh.

"What's so goddamned funny, Wice?" I demanded desperately.

He looked at me and stopped laughing. But the smile, now

bitter throughout, remained. "Never mind. Jack," he said in a patronizing tone. "You wouldn't understand."

I jerked the door open angrily, stopped, barked acidly back: "Or care."

He only nodded. "Or care," he agreed reasonably.

I went hurriedly out, slamming the door behind me. I made too much noise stomping away to be able to hear it if he was laughing behind me.

So bizarre…

X

Grumbling, I retraced my steps back through the maze. The lain was over for now. The last bit of sunlight slanted out over the western bluffs and sparkled, steaming, on the grimy rooftops. There were several people out, milling around and surveying storm damage. Some were already busy with repairs. Much of their work appeared to my untrained eye as little more than glueing seams back together. I saw no more dying old men, no more fierce children. I figured I still had a couple of hours before my dinnertime/showdown with Holly and Lya. I decided to get a drink.

The way back was harder. Clouds soon obscured the last of the sun making it even darker than before. Yellow pools of light spilled out at me from doorways and windows and hatches opened wide to combat the heavy humidity. I was left alternately blind and blinded.

I found the "square" with difficulty. It had become, with the rain, a broad reflecting pool. And without any lighting of its own, it was visible only by the gliding contrasts between long shadows cast, spreading and bobbing, across its surface by the ghostly forms tiptoeing around its outer perimeter. I stood at its edge for a few minutes, staring idly at the glimmering patterns on the water. I was hoping some general direction would emerge from the eerie traffic. But none did. People sloshed  in and out from all directions with no hint of common purpose. Heads down and peering determinedly before them into the gloom, they showed not the slightest interest in anything beyond their individual missions. There was no curiosity about me, no recognition with one another. No one spoke.

The only thing these people did together was huddle wall- to-wall. At least at night.

But surely they gathered to drink. Every settlement builds a saloon of sorts. Usually it's the first thing they build. I could have asked someone but I didn't want to question those shadows. And they didn't want me to, either.

Instead I picked a direction away from the pool and found it right away.

It was a long dull rectangular structure with a pair of cheap plastic facade windows hanging along one wall at a uniform slant from a single brad. The windows were significant in that they were the only attempt at decor that I could recall having seen in the city. Maybe because of that, or maybe because they were just so cheap, they made it worse instead of better. They had been designed to look like they belonged in any modern Terran city. But they didn't. They belonged here.

There was one good sign. A half dozen horses stood outside, "tethered" to a small boy sleeping on the stoop. If the local ranchers came here, it probably meant that this was the best place. Or maybe the only place, which was the same thing.

I stepped up out of the mud onto the stoop, which squeaked and shook with my weight just enough to rouse the boy from one dream to another without disturbing his tight, two-fisted grip on the reins. The door dragged open inwardly just as I reached for the catch and I had to step back into the mud to make way for a rancher who staggered out clutching a jug of syntho and giggling. He took a short sip from the jug. He took a deep breath and stretched, looking around. Then he hopped, flat-footed, into the mud, sprinkling a halo of flecks from each boot heel. This made him giggle harder.

He noticed me at last and nodded in my direction. He offered me a swig from the jug. His eyes were dancing as though I was in on the joke. It didn't matter that I wasn't. His bubbling giggle was plenty by itself, full of wicked mischief and infectious as hell. I was already grinning by the time I got the proffered jug to my lips, making for a sloppy swallow that increased his laughter all the more.

I had another drop and handed it back, grinning like a fool and thinking that this was exactly why I had come. The doorway filled suddenly with the other five horsemen who were laughing just as hard as the first, if not nearly so well. The first man could have been my age or half that or something in between. But the others were young men, younger even than Holly. And they treated the giggler as their leader, stamping loudly off of the stoop into the mud and arranging their young grins in a tight semicircle before him.

The middle kid started to speak but stuttered on his own laughter, causing a wave of conspiratorial guffaws from all present-including me. The kid tried again:

"Who is that guy?" he asked the leader, gesturing back over his shoulder toward the bar.

"No idea," replied the older man.

"What the hell did he want with you, anyway?" asked another of the five.

"He just wanted you to watch him propose?" asked another before there was a chance to answer.

"Looks like," suggested the leader with another swig.

"What for?" asked the first kid.

The leader smiled. "Dunno. Maybe he was just tired of getting turned down alone."

"Didn't look tired to me," offered still another kid. "Hell, he musta asked a dozen women in just the time we've been here."

"Must be in some hurry to get married," said the first one. "Did you see that last one? Ugh!"

"Serve him right if she'd said yes," said somebody. "Can you imagine being married to that?"

The older man smiled again and reached for the jug. "I dunno," he said, holding the jug to his lips, "let me try."

With that he took a long long swallow and then stood in a mock-parody of fierce concentration. His face relaxed suddenly.

He shook his head. "Nope. Can't imagine it."

The kids, and I laughed, a willing audience.

❮❯