This is a snippet of something from the Tanager universe. I have no idea when, or where it fits into the series, but here you go…
He paused on the threshold for an almost imperceptible moment, allowing the nearly invisible field to sweep him clean. That it also let him scan the comparatively dim interior was a bonus. Everyone did that little hitch as they came in, letting the door brush away whatever drifted in with them or on them – dust, insects, microbes – after a generation of the field tech it was second habit. No one even noticed it any longer, and many even did it passing through an ordinary doorway when they were not on station. He had found himself doing that as well, but the scan to see who and what was in a room? That was training and long habit cultivated assiduously over the years. It had served him well and even saved his life a time or two.
Not that he was expecting trouble here, in the Shadow of the Hanged Man. Despite the name, the pub was not known for public disturbances of the peace. He’d researched the proposed meeting place, of course, and knew all that was publicly available on the ‘net about it. It had some very nice beers on tap, and he was rather looking forward to trying one or two, if the meeting dragged on longer than the initial proposal had suggested it would.
There, in the back corner, past the bar with it’s gleaming brass-look rail, was a booth with a sole occupant. It wasn’t that he recognized his contact. It was simply that this was the only solo person in the room. The few others were clustered together and talking. This one person, like him, was heads-up and scanning the room.
Dilar met her eyes and nodded. She looked away, as though he’d drawn untoward attention in her direction by his subtle gesture. With an internal shrug, Dilar Restin headed for the bar. There were three men sitting with their backs to the door, paying more attention to the screen that one of them held than they were to their surroundings. Dilar dismissed them, and gestured to the barkeeper.
“I’ll have a pint of the stout.” He ordered when that worthy came over.
“Chocolate?” The man was bald as an egg, and holding a martini glass in one hand, polishing rag in another. Some things never went out of style.
“Sure.” Dilar hadn’t known that was an option, but it sounded unusual enough he’d give it a try. This wasn’t about the drink. If it was that bad, he’d just leave it when he walked out. But if she didn’t want to acknowledge him, maybe…
“Fancy meeting you here.”
“Now, that’s a voice I know.” Dilar turned away from the bar, keeping the doorway in his sight now. Where had she come from? He’d have sworn she hadn’t been there a moment ago. And Jade was not a face you could miss.
“What brings you to the Hanged Man?” She slid up onto a barstool and made a gesture to the barkeeper, who simply nodded in a sharp movement of understanding. She’d been here before, then, and not once or twice.
“You, I rather suspect.” He leaned back, elbows on the polished surface, and looked at her with a grin. “Why all the subterfuge, bosslady?”
The barkeep brought two glasses, and Jade picked both of them up. “Want you to meet someone, Dilar.”
He followed her, and his beer, in the direction of the back corner. The skittish woman was still sitting there, and as they came closer she looked back and forth between the two of them. Jade set the glasses down, and gestured for Dilar to take the inner position on the booth bench, across from the young woman.
“Maureen, this is Dilar Restin.” She made introductions as Dilar, who was grumbling internally at her, slid into the booth. “He’s currently unhappy I’m putting him in the corner, so don’t mind if he snaps. He doesn’t bite.”
“She says this.” He held out a hand, and after a startled glance from the redhead to Jade, she met it with a pale, cool, hand in a brief shake. “But she should really know better.”
“So you do bite?” For all her evident nerves, the voice was low and calm, and there was a quirk of a smile at the corner of her lips.
“Only when asked,” He smiled back at her. “So why was I summoned here? And why didn’t you tell me it was work, boss?” He turned to Jade as he asked the questions.
“It’s not work,” She answered, picking up her glass of pale beer. “And you can stop calling me boss any time now. I am not, nor have I ever been, your direct supervisor.”
“Whatever you say, my liege.” He executed a mock salute and looked back at Maureen, whose glass was empty and pushed toward the end of the table. “So this shindig is in your honor, then? Care to fill me in?”
“You weren’t kidding about the snapping.” Maureen addressed this to Jade. “Yes, I was the one who, er, set this up.”
“Worth it.” Dilar emerged from his draught with a slight mustache of creamy foam on his brown mustache. “T’is good beer.”
“In that case…” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you ever serious?”
“You asked me to come to the Shadow of the Hanged Man. I’m terrified. Go on.”
Jade snorted, and took a long drink herself. They both ignored her.
“I have need of a discreet courier, and you were recommended.” She looked at Jade. “Both of you were, actually.”
This made Dilar’s eyebrows lift a little. “Someone recommended Jade Star as a courier?”
“I am a little surprised myself,” Jade shrugged. “It is not something I take on, as a rule.”
“This is… I don’t know how much I can say here.” She looked around, and Dilar saw the nerves come back. She’d settled down while trading barbs with him. That was interesting.
“Say whatever you want.” He put something in the middle of the table. “Limited range cone of silence.”
Jade snorted again.
“I’m a fan of the classics. I’m hurt, hurt that you ridicule me for it!” He made a dramatic gesture, then looked at Maureen. “You, lovely lady, are far too young for that reference.”
“Might I not also be a fan of the classics?” She relaxed. “If I’m going to trust you in big things, I may as well trust your gadget to suppress conversation or distance recording.”
“In this, you can trust him.” Jade’s tone was dry.
“I need to transport Almeida stones.” She was blunt and to the point, dropping the playful manner. “I need to move them fast, and I need them to get where they are supposed to be as soon as humanly possible.”
Dilar thought she gave that second to last word a slight emphasis, and she had looked at Jade as she said it. He wondered how much this Maureen knew about the serene white-haired woman with the face of a teenager who was sitting next to him.
“And you can’t take them because…?” He asked. He was going to leave the idle speculation aside for the moment.
“I am being watched.” Her big blue eyes were steady on his.
“And you met us in public.”
“Privately.” She didn’t even flinch. “Public is… safer for me.”
“Ugh.” Dilar grunted and picked up his glass to buy himself a second to process that.
“I would like to know where the stones came from.” Jade was relaxed, leaning back, her head tilted to one side in mild inquiry. “As there is currently no known source of them.”
“They are… a family heirloom, shall we say.”
“If we were to transport them for you, and I presume from your inquiries for a courier we are not talking about many? where are we taking them?” Jade leaned forward and put her elbows on the table.
“What are the legal ramifications?” Dilar cut to the chase. “Family heirloom? Public is safer? Is this some kind of estate dispute and you want assets smuggled off station?”
“My word. You are blunt.” Maureen leaned forward. “To answer your questions: Yes, many. Which is why Jade was referred, as there is need of an utterly black ship.”
They all knew she didn’t mean color. She went on. “The destination is uncharted. You would be provided with a datagem bearing the coordinates. It is… a gray area. There is a family estate. The stones are not in probate, and there is no smuggling. Simply undue influence would be brought to bear were the movement of them known at this time.”
“We will do it.” Jade said firmly. “When do we go?”
Dilar turned to her, his jaw dropping. “Do I get a say?”
“No.” Jade didn’t look at him. She was locked in a stare at Maureen. “I have questions.”
“I may not be able to give you answers.” The younger woman – they were all younger than Jade – met her eyes steadily.
“I don’t mean now. I’ll need to know everything about the stones. Absolutely everything.”
Dilar picked up his glass and drained it. “If you two are going to run my life, would someone please buy me another beer?”
This week’s More Odds Than Ends prompt was the same for all of us that follow that weekly creativity challenge: “In the shadow of the hanged man was…”
I opted not to take it into obvious directions, but that was fun to write.