The Office of Intergalactic Trade and Tariffs recommends a monthly dose of flashbacks, partially for plot convenient purposes, but also for their evil plan to tax schmucks who think it’s a neat idea to time travel and mess with past events. Nothing personal for those of you I busted while I worked for OITT. A job’s a job. For those of you who bribed me… Why are you bringing this up? We had an agreement, didn’t we?

***

Before heading to the Library of Artifacts, I made a stop at the Square Corner – certifiably the best place to get drunk while trading rumors. I mean that literally. The owner, Erik the Fuchsia, has a certificate on the wall from the Alcohol, Wine, and Spirits Bureau for Best Place to Exchange Information. Two reasons for that – one, Erik doesn’t need your money. What the heck would he do with it when he lives on the edge of the known universe? So he trades booze for rumors, lies, and scandals – and in turn gets a fair share of standard currency from people trying to debunk said rumors, et cetera. Two, Erik maintains a strict policy that includes no fighting, no cursing, and no cheating on games – all without the help of a bouncer. You can do that when you’re nine feet tall.

I took the teleporter from Winslow Station near the OITT’s headquarters in Iowa City, Earth. I sat on the bench in the Square’s foyer to clear my head. A man with greasy black hair under a fedora and a nasty scar running horizontal on his throat winked at me before heading into the bar. He seemed vaguely familiar. I shook my head, clearing the post-teleportation head-rush. Familiar faces sprout everywhere after the third or fourth career. I got up, staggered a few steps before finding my balance, and pushed open the cheesy laminated wood batwing doors to the near empty bar.

Never fails, every time I visit the Square my eyes follow the same trajectory – from the massive bulk of Erik behind the chrome bar, to the out of tune non-functioning antique upright piano, to the corner stage where a woman with dirty-blond braids sat on a stool and tuned a mandolin.

“Signe,” I approached her with open arms, “how’s my old flame?”

She tight-lipped smiled, blushing at the jest, and hopped off the stool. Leaving her instrument on stage, she nearly ran to me. Signe wrapped her arms around my waist and I patted her on the back of the head – she only came up to my sternum. After the too-short hug, I grabbed her shoulders and held her at arms length while she tugged at her turtleneck. I took that to mean her larynx implant was acting up again. Signe had a neat little gizmo in her throat that allowed her to sing in three-part harmony with herself and to mimic voices of both genders. Sometimes it needed a tune-up, which was oddly cheaper to fix than the piano.

“Why you looking at me like that?” I mirrored her, narrowing my eyes and looked at her askance.

Signe pointed at her left eye, a nervous grin escaping the corners of her cute mouth.

I touched her cheek. “Yeah, I know it’s been a long time. Promise, we’ll…”

She grabbed my wrist and shook her head. Swallowing, her near-smile disappeared as she pressed her finger into her eye and winked.

“I don’t understand.” Signe shook her fists at the ceiling and head-butted me in the chest. I hugged her again. “I’m here on business. Once I sort a few things out, we’ll talk. Okay?”

She tugged on my shirt while gurgling her throat. I let her go back to her mandolin, and I went to the bar.

This flashback continues in the next installment, titled “Charlatan”.

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