The Home Dining Experience

I done a new story!

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, university getting in the way and generally being annoying, but I’ve found the time to get one done at last.  As with a lot of the shorts I do, this one is concerned with developing a character in The Difficult Second Novel, so consider it a bit of backstory.

Not very long, and not very detailed, but I think it does what it needs to.  Hopefully I’ll get to do some proper stuff again soon though.

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Having been a courier for many years, Vernon Equinox knew the benefit of a nice sit down and something to eat. Today’s little break was to be held at a restaurant on the road between Paradigm City and Tole’s Palace, one of the more well travelled roads in the country and better dining as a result.

Vernon was ferrying a large amount of cash today, people preferring not to let the banks do it as their coaches were robbed suspiciously often. There were rumours that banks had begun robbing themselves as both a way of making some invisible profit and adding some spice to what was, by all accounts, a rather dull profession. Whether the rumours were true or not didn’t bother Equinox, he never used banks himself and all the suspicion brought some great business his way.

He slipped a hand into his pocket and fondled the collection of notes he had taken as “commission” from his package. There was an unwritten rule for couriers – technically it was written, but various addenda had labelled it obsolete – and it stated that, when transporting hard currency, it would be unacceptable to pilfer any for personal use. This was unless, of course, it was a lot of money, then no-one would really notice so it didn’t matter.

It had occurred to him at the start of his journey that the money could have been used to buy a cheap autocart from the merchants on Purity Row, or possibly rent a top of the line model if he so wished. It would have gotten the job done quicker, possibly even within two hours, but that didn’t really convince Vernon.

There was something about walking that relaxed him, he could zone out for prolonged periods and just soak up the beauty of nature without having to worry about things like pedestrians and other autocarts. When walking, your brain could take command for you and steer you out of the way of people and potholes and whatnot, you didn’t really need to be inside your head for most of it. For Vernon, a two hour drive would feel longer than a sixteen hour walk.

The restaurant waited at about the half-way mark, and it was as good a place as any to stop for a breather. There were other places, sure, but none quite as ostentatious and grand, and seeing as the client was paying, he could probably afford it.

Before long he crested another of the small hills in the road that ran its entire length, and he spied his destination. Tole’s Palace, the biggest building on the planet, sat in the distance like a giant grey brick, its features obscured as a result of pure distance. It filled most of the horizon, and it took Vernon a moment to see the restaurant, nuzzled in the eight mile shadow of the palace. He missed it every time, even knowing exactly where it was, and there was always the moment of fear that maybe, just maybe, he had imaged the place.

This time, it was real.

He strolled up to the door, straightened his clothes to look more presentable, and walked in. The place was full of people, as expected. Dozens of tables were scattered around the room, adorned with regal table cloths and silver cutlery, perhaps a flower if the waiters had felt so inclined. The room was painted in such a way as to add artificial space to the room, although that was entirely unnecessary, and supposed-crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling. It was so opulent that, even carrying a very large fortune on his back, made Vernon feel like scum. But he was young, and young people enjoy feeling like scum in fancy places, so he went in search of a seat.

It took four steps before his mind returned to his body, fresh and spry from its excursion during the walk. On the fifth step he noticed the situation.

From the vicinity of the doorway, the restaurant looked peaceful, but a few steps inside and Vernon could see that something wasn’t right. The tables were packed but no-one was eating, or talking, and they were barely moving. Everyone was staring in the same direction, jaws slack and forehead racked in what looked to be fear.

Tracking their gazes, Vernon spotted the cause: two men stood in a classic face-off, one holding a waitress by the throat and the other glaring from under his eyebrows.

The hostage-taker was tall and lean, and not in a good way. His skin looked too big for him, as if he had lost a lot of weight in a hurry, although his complexion suggested he might have done this through home surgery with a kitchen knife. He was cracked and blotchy, colourless, with milky white eyes and a brown tongue licking at his lips. It looked unnatural for someone who looked like that to be so close to the waitress, let alone touching her. Vernon expected her skin to smoke.

The milky white eyes shot in his direction. ‘Where d’you think you’re going?’

The man’s free hand whipped out of his greasy jeans, a rusted metal object grasped amongst the knobbly fingers. An old black powder weapon of some kind, and not one kept in particularly good nick. He brandished it at Vernon, and the young adult regressed back to a child. It was only natural, he told himself.

The man shook his weapon at Vernon, and his grip tightened on the waitress. She let out a choked yelp, but didn’t try to resist. Vernon wondered, briefly, if she were the sort of person used to being a damsel in distress. She was so good at it.

‘Thought you could sneak yourself in a little sidekick, did ya?’ the hostage-taker barked at the other man.

Vernon hadn’t really looked at the other man properly until that moment, his eyes having been drawn to the somewhat crazy and armed fellow choking the waitress. The other man was wearing leather, almost exclusively. It wasn’t the sort of leather you find on a man who wore it for fashion in the city, no sheen, but the dull brown of the self-tanned stuff. He put Vernon in mind of a cowboy, although the term seemed insufficient to describe him. If anything, this fellow was a cowman.

The Cowman slowly rubbed his palms together. ‘Hardly sneaky, is he?’

‘Kid’s a damn noisy little shit,’ the hostage-taker smirked. ‘Practically heard his boots on the road outside.’

‘He’s not one of mine.’

The hostage-taker’s eyes flicked back towards Vernon. ‘Maybe I’ll drill him then. Stop him from running.’

‘Yeah, he’s going like a dervish now,’ a hunter’s grin flashed onto the Cowman’s face. ‘He’s scared stiff. You think a kid sees a hand cannon everyday? Leave him out of it.’

Vernon was confused. And scared. The Cowman was right, he’d never seen a black powder weapon before, not outside of a magazine at any rate, and it wasn’t nearly as pleasant as he had imagined. He’d seen them as amazing feats of engineering, a tool of the modern age, something to be revered. Never once had he looked at it for what it truly was, a weapon. Now he was staring down the barrel, all the the immortality of youth was draining away. There were things out there designed to kill, and all the youthful vigour in the world couldn’t stop that.

The hostage-taker frowned. ‘Maybe I will, if I get what I want. Maybe I’ll let them all go if I get it.’

The Cowman’s right eye twitched, and he ran a hand over his stubbly chin. He had the look of someone who was considering a request, yet wanted everyone to know that it was a pretence. He stretched slowly, and Vernon heard worn bones click in the Cowman’s back. It made the boy grimace.

‘I don’t think there’s enough money in this building to get you what you want,’ the Cowman said. ‘It may look posh and wealthy, but underneath the finery its just wood and iron and rust. Hell, even that waitress you’ve got by the throat turns tricks on weekends just to get enough cash to live off.’

‘I thought you looked familiar,’ the hostage-taker leered at the waitress and, just for a moment, dropped into a memory.

The Cowman took a step forward. ‘No. Attention on me. I’m the one you’re dealing with, not some second-rate hooker in a cheap uniform.’

The girl’s eyes narrowed. Vernon was surprised that the girl could find the time, while being held hostage by an armed madman, to get offended. Women confused him, always had, and even during one of the more terrifying experiences of his short life, that remained a constant. Her defiance ended, however, as the hand tensed around her throat.

The Cowman risked another step at the sound of the girl’s startled choking, but the hostage-taker’s weapon was trained on him like a flash, the movement so fast that it left a trail of rust flakes floating behind it.

‘Ah ah ah,’ he said. ‘I want my money, then you get the girl. Heh, that’s a saying she’s probably used to, eh?’

He hugged the girl tight to his chest, hand still tight at her throat. The Cowman was considerably closer now, possibly ten feet away from the girl in fact, but Vernon doubted he was quick enough to disarm the man from there. Everything he had read about black powder weapons had told him that, while cool, they were notoriously inaccurate, unless you paid a considerable premium for one of the new ones with rifling. That said, it would be pretty hard to miss at that distance.

‘This place doesn’t have any money. Not enough for you, anyway,’ the Cowman responded. If he was nervous, he wasn’t showing it. He was as calm as a graveyard, which seemed oddly fitting somehow.

The hostage-taker was getting angry. He pulled the weapon up and pointed it at the girl’s head.

What the Cowman did could be called a movement in the same way a supernova could be described as an explosion. Technically it was a movement, but it was stunning and swift and so ultimately precise that the word seemed imprecise. When he was finished, he had a weapon of his own pointed at the hostage-taker, who hadn’t even realised that the man before him had even moved.

Vernon’s distance had made it hard to get a proper look at the hostage-taker’s weapon, only being able to deduce that it was poorly maintained and definitely black powder based. This was not an issue for the Cowman’s weapon, the sheer size of it helping to undo this issue.

Six barrels, strapped together in a revolving motion, drew Vernon’s eye. It was fashioned from some sort of silvery metal that reflected light very well, perhaps chrome but he wasn’t too sure, and manage to project the same aura of deadliness as the hostage-taker’s weapon while also dampening it with something else that Vernon couldn’t place.

There was a click, and the barrels rotated. A small cone of fire leapt from the front of the gun, and the hostage-taker’s face dropped as the back of his head spread itself across the wall some fifteen feet behind him. He fell, and the girl pulled herself free.

She took a moment to catch her breath and stare wide-eyed at the now dead hostage-taker. Slowly she turned red and her fists clenched, then she span around and stormed up to the Cowman, barely an inch from his face.

‘Why the hell didn’t you do that sooner?’ she screamed at him.

He tucked his weapon back inside his jacket and cracked his knuckles. ‘You weren’t in danger before that moment.’

‘I wasn’t in danger? He was choking me!’

‘To hold you still, not to kill you. While his cannon was pointed my way, you were perfectly safe.’

Her fists unclenched a little, but her face remained locked in a hideous frown. The Cowman gave her time to respond, perhaps thirty seconds, and when she failed he nodded slightly and walked away.

He past Vernon on the way out, slapped him on the shoulder. ‘He couldn’t have hit you at that distance. Not with that thing.’ he muttered.

Then he was gone.

It took a few moments before it registered with the other patrons. Silence reigned until, all at once, the crowd shrieked and began to panic.

Vernon didn’t understand, although he was now finding himself a little more used to not understanding. These people had been there for the whole thing, yet only now it was over they were scared? It didn’t make sense.

Perhaps he could go one day without lunch, he told himself, and left them to their chaos.

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