Custody on the West Bay Corral

Lula’s Full Moons 40 Saloon, nestled into the western-most corner Zeta-5’s Rest and Rehab Station, was half full of the usual hands, lounging in leathers and 10-gallon hats, or tipping back shots in titillating bustiers and full ruffled skirts. Or jeans and flip flops. Lula didn’t care, just so long as folks were respectful and they paid their bar bill.

The occasional tough customer, one looking to start a fight or abusing the boys and girls upstairs, was firmly encouraged into the West Cargo Bay, and if he or she didn’t settle down, ejected out the garbage hatch and into deep space. It was a time-old tradition that still worked its magic after so many millennia.

Mary floated through the saloon’s swinging doors, touching down from zero-grav onto Lula’s entry platform. She preferred tight blue jeans, Neptune’s Scales Skinnyarmour shirts, a buckskin fringed vest with deep pockets, and toe-nipping boots with enough heel to thrust her pelvis forward but not so much to throw off her balance. Lars, the droid piano player halted his soft lilt of “Clair de Lune”, cracked his robotic fingers and twisted his neck, and launched into a plinking version of “Along Comes Mary”. She laughed and blew him a kiss, and he resumed the dreamy Debussy he had been playing.

Mary shook back her chestnut locks and tipped her hat to Lula, who stood behind the bar thoughtfully rubbing a damp shot glass with a clean white rag. “Evening, Lula.”

“Evening, Mary. What can I get for you?”

“I’m looking for Jimmy,” Mary stepped up and leaned on the bar rail, nodding thanks as Lula filled the shot glass with whiskey. “We have a business deal to discuss.”

“I don’t want any of that business discussed in my saloon.” Lula poured a shot for herself. “The last time you two discussed business, you shot out my top row of vintage liquor and burned Lars’ piano bench.”

Lars once again halted “Claire de Lune” and tickled the ivories with a melancholy version of “Burning Down the House.” He gazed meaningfully over his shoulder at Mary.

“No funny business, I promise!” Mary dimpled and flashed her most winning smile at Lula. “Look Ma! No hands…and no guns, either!”

“I’m not your mother, dear,” sighed Lula. “’And I was most certainly not born yesterday.”

“So, where can I find him?”

“He’s bunking in the West Cargo Bay.” Lula tipped her head to a door just beyond the restrooms, marked WCB. “You know the way. Try not to make too much of a mess, Sweetie. The livestock housed there are hard enough to keep clean.”

“I promise,” Mary downed her shot and raised her wristband to send a payment.

Lula shook her head, smiled sweetly, and waved a hand as she resumed her conversation with the patrons at the bar, and pressed the code and entered her retinal scan to open the doors for Mary.

***

Mary stepped through the doors and into the cool, dark cargo bay.

“No wonder Jimmy likes to bunk here,” she thought, wrinkling her nose at the scent of honey, cheap whiskey, animal manure, and satiated sex. She gagged just a little and stepped deeper into the utilitarian cargo bay, noting ten by ten foot boxes marked “Endangered Species,” among the twenty by thirty foot high storage units that clearly held cattle, sheep, and domesticated emu. Clearly, because they stuck their heads and noses though the slatted windows squawking and mooing and bawling their greetings.

“Must be supper time,” she noted as she walked up to one of the smaller boxes. She wondered why there was no one around tending the animals, and then gasped as she looked into the nearest box. Inside, a fluffy layer of the legendary Wild Schmitties of Mars purred and rocked from side-to-side. Softball to bowling ball sized orbs of blue, red, and brown fluff, they giggled and cooed as they caught the refreshing scent of Mary’s sweet shampoo. They rolled around in their pen, faster and faster, bumping each other with muffled clacking sounds, and tiny squeals of “Whee!”

“Well I’ll be damned! I thought they’d all disappeared eons ago! Hey little guys!” she hooked her fingers into the chicken wire of the windows half-way up. “Hey, are you guys lonely? You hungry, too?”

“Mary!” a voice shouted from the top of the large storage unit nearest the cargo bay door. Mary wheeled around. “Haven’t I told you never to let your guard down in strange cargo bays?”

“Jimmy!” She drew herself upright, and shook her head ruefully as he slid from the top to the bottom of the unit, the arches of his work boots pressing against the edges of the thin steel ladder that ran down the side of the box. He landed with a heavy thump of manure-encrusted boots, and a wave of unwashed space wrangler.

“You came,” he drawled.

“You’re observant,” She replied.

“So,” he smiled and stroked the soul patch nestled under his lower lip. “What’ve you got for me?” he flashed a grin. The Verrillian gemstar glinted in his left top incisor as he strolled toward the Schmitty box.

She snorted. “What I’ve got, you can’t afford.”

“Then why are you here?”

“I just came from Louce-Toulouse City. I have a message for you.”

His grin faltered. “How’s he doing?”

“Oh, Brutus is fine, Jimmy,” she snapped. “Except that you broke his heart and then stole his dog.”

“Bowser loves me more, and Brutus could never give him what he needs! He’s happy here. He’s a herd hound.”

“That’s what you say. I’ve come to take Bowser home,” she paused. “I’ve got a peace offering, a kind of consolation trade.”

He eyed her warily. She withdrew a glittering black bag from her vest, and held it out in her hand. He reached for it, but she pulled it out of his reach. “I need to see Bowser, first.”

“What is it? Velenium? Garta’s gold? The egg of a frumious bandersnatch?”

“It’s something I picked up on Schrödinger’s planet…a replacement of sorts.”

“I gotta know what I’m agreeing to, here.”

“No risk, no glory, Jimmy-Boy. Bring me Bowser, and find out,” She winked.

Jimmy considered a moment. “What the hell.”

He whistled a two-tone tripalet, and a small hatch hissed open in the storage unit by the cargo bay door. A beagle with brown eyes drooping and ears dragging on the floor sniffed his way out the hatch and lifted his nose as he caught Mary’s sweet scent. He bayed once, then whimpered and froze as Jimmy whistled a single high note with a painful uptick at the end.

“Gimme the bag, Mary.”

She hid her smile as he snatched it from her outstretched hand. He tore at the drawstring and upended its contents into his broad palm. A glittering green spider rolled out, pulsating but otherwise inert.

“What is this?” snarled Jimmy. “Is it alive or is it not alive?”

“I think the question is ‘Are you alive, or are you not alive?’” her smile spread as the spider bit. Jimmy’s screams shriveled as his body collapsed, and the spider sucked in the remaining gristle of what had been a very nasty man. The spider turned a sunset orange and sang its sweet death song as it crawled back into the black bag. Behind Mary, the Wild Schmitties cheered and purred, giggling as they bounced off the sides of their box.

“I hate custody fights,” grumbled Mary as she knelt and gathered the bounding Bowser in her arms.

Gingerly, she picked up the bag.”We’ll just flush this out with the space trash, eh Bowz?”

***

“Are you sure you won’t stay for a meal and a drink?” Lula raised an eyebrow. “JoeJo’s been telling me it’s been a year of moons since you’ve been here for an entire night.”

Mary shook her head as she and Bowser trotted across the saloon toward the saloon’s zero-grav entry platform. “I need to get this puppy home. By the way, you’re going to need a new wrangler right away. The animals are hungry and have been a lot neglected.”

“Thanks. I’ll see to them right away,” she put down her bar rag. “Give my love to Brutus.”

The piano keys jangled–a Scott Joplin rag–and Mary stepped out of the saloon.

 

© Liz Husebye Hartmann (2018)

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