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The Bar on Straint Street
Vic Serotonin sat in a bar on Straint Street, just outside the aureole of the Saudade event, in conversation with a fat man from another planet who called himself Antoyne. They had been playing dice all night. It was just before dawn, and a brown light, polished but dim at the same time, crept out the street lamps to fill the place.
"I was never in there," the fat man admitted, meaning the event site, "but what I think—"
"If this is going to be bullshit, Antoyne," Serotonin advised him, "don't even start."
The fat man looked hurt.
"Have another drink," Vic said.
The bar was about halfway down Straint, a cluttered, narrowish street of two-storey buildings, along which two out of three had their windows boarded up. Like all the streets in that part of Saudade, Straint was full of cats, especially at dawn and dusk, when they went in and out of the event site. As if in acknowledgement, the bar was called Black Cat White Cat. It featured a zinc counter slightly too high for comfort. A row of bottles which contained liquids of unlikely colours. A few tables. The long window steamed up easily, no one but Antoyne cared. In the morning the bar smelled of last night's garlic. Some mornings it smelled of mould too, as if something had crept out of the event aureole in the dark and, after a few attempts to breathe the air in the bar, died underneath a corner table. Shadow operators hung high up in the join between the walls and the ceiling, like cobwebs. There wasn't much for them to do.
Vic—short for Vico, a name popular on Scienza Nuova where he was born—was in the bar most days. He ate there. He ran his business out of it. He used it as a mail drop, and as a place to check out his clients: but really it was what they called a jump-off joint, positioned well, not too far back from the event site, not so close as to suffer effects. Another advantage it had: Vic was on good terms with the owner, a woman called Liv Hula who never put in a manager but ran it herself day and night. People thought she was the barkeep, that suited her. She wasn't known to complain. She was one of those women who draw in on themselves after their fortieth year, short, thin, with brush-cut grey hair, a couple of smart tattoos on her muscular forearms, an expression as if she was always thinking of something else. She had music in the bar. Her taste ran to the outcaste beats and saltwater dub you heard a few years back. That aged her as far as Vic Serotonin was concerned.
"Hey," she told Vic now, "leave the fat man alone. Everyone's entitled to an opinion."
Serotonin stared at her. "I won't even answer that."
"Bad night, Vic?"
"You should know. You were there."
She poured him a shot of Black Heart rum, along with whatever the fat man was having. "I would say you were out there on your own, Vic," she said. "Much of the time." They both laughed. Then she looked over his shoulder at the open door of the bar and said:
"Maybe you got a customer here."
The woman who stood there was a little too tall to wear the high heels in fashion then. She had long thin hands, and that way of looking both anxious and tranquil a lot of those tourist women have. There was a tentativeness about her. She was elegant and awkward at the same time. If she knew how to wear clothes, perhaps that was a learned thing, or perhaps it was a talent she had never fully brought out in herself. You thought instantly she had lost her way. When she came into the bar that morning, she was wearing a black two-piece with a little fitted jacket and calf-length kick-pleat skirt, under a long, honey-coloured fur coat. She stood there uncertainly in the doorway, with the cold light from Straint Street behind her, and the unflattering light from the window falling across one side of her face, and the first words anyone heard her say were, "Excuse me, I—"
At the sound of her voice, the shadow operators unfolded themselves and streamed towards her from every corner of the room, to whirl about her head like ghosts, bats, scrap paper, smoke or old women clasping antique lockets of hair. They recognised privilege when they saw it.
"My dear," they whispered. "What beautiful hands."
"Is there anything we can do—"
"—Can we do anything, dear?"
"What lovely, lovely hands!"
Liv Hula looked amused. "They never talk like that for me," she admitted to the woman in the fur coat. Then she had a sudden vision of her own life as hard-won, dug out raw from nothing much even the few times it seemed to swoop or soar.
"You came for Vic, he's over there," she said.
She always pointed him out. After that she washed her hands of whatever happened. This time Vic was waiting. He was low on work, it was a slow year though you wouldn't guess that from the number of ships clustered in the tourist port. Vic accounted himself intelligent and determined; women, on the other hand, saw him as weak, conflicted and, reading this as a failed attempt to feminise himself, attractive. He had been caning it for weeks with Fat Antoyne and Liv Hula, but he still looked younger than his age. He stood there with his hands in his pockets, and the woman leaned towards him as if he was the only way she could get her bearings in the room. The closer she approached him the more uncertain she seemed. Like most of them, she wasn't sure how to broach things.
"I want you to take me in there," she said eventually.
Vic laid his finger on his lips. He could have wished for some statement less bald. "Not so loud," he suggested.
He shrugged and said, "No problem."
"We're all friends here," Liv Hula said.
Vic gave Liv a look, which he then turned into a smile.
The woman smiled too. "Into the event site," she said, as if there might be any doubt about it. Her face was smooth and tight across longings Vic didn't quite understand. She looked away from him as she spoke. He should have thought more about that. Instead, he ushered her to a table, where they talked for five minutes in low voices. Nothing was easier, he told her, than what she wanted.
Though the risk had to be understood, and you underrated at your peril the seriousness of things in there. He would be a fool not to make that clear. He would be irresponsible, he said. Money changed hands. After a time they got up and left the bar.
"Just another sucker on the teat," Liv Hula said, loud enough to pause him in the doorway.
Antoyne claimed to have flown navigator with Chinese Ed. He passed the days with his elbows on the bar staring out through the window at the contrails of descending K-ships in the sky above the houses on the other side of Straint Street. To most people it seemed unlikely he flew with anyone, but he could take a message and keep his mouth shut. The only other thing he ever said about himself was:
"No one gives shit about a fat man called Antoyne."
"You got that right," Liv Hula often told him.
When Vic had gone, there was a silence in the bar. The shadow operators calmed down and packed themselves back into the ceiling corners so the corners looked familiar again. Antoyne stared at the table in front of him then across at Liv Hula. It seemed as if they'd speak about Vic or the woman but in the end neither of them could think of anything to say. The fat man was angry that Liv Hula had defended him to Vic Serotonin. He drove his chair back suddenly, it made a kind of complaining sound against the wooden floor. He got up and went over to the window, where he wiped the condensation off with the palm of his hand.
"Still dark," he said.
Liv Hula had to admit that was true.
"Hey," he said. "Here's Joe Leone."
Over the street from Black Cat White Cat it was the usual frontages, busted and askew, buildings which had lost confidence in their structural integrity and which now housed shoestring tailor operations specialising in cosmetics or one-shot cultivars. You couldn't call them "parlours." The work they did was too cheap for that. They got a trickle of stuff from the Uncle Zip and Nueva Cut franchises downtown; also they took work from the Shadow Boys, work like Joe Leone. Just now Joe was pulling himself down Straint using the fences and walls to hold himself up. His energy ebbed and flowed. He would fall down, wait for a minute, then struggle up again. It looked like hard work. You could see he was holding something in down there with one hand while he leaned on the fence with the other. The closer he got the more puzzled he looked.
Antoyne made a tube out of his two damp fists and said through it in the voice of a sports commentator at Radio Retro:
" . . . and will he make it this time?"
"Be sure to let us know when you join the human race, Antoyne," Liv Hula said. The fat man shrugged and turned away from the window. "It's no bet," he said in his normal voice. "He never failed yet."
Joe kept dragging himself down Straint. As he approached, you could see the tailors had done something to his face so it had a crude lion-like cast. It was white and sweated up, but it didn't move properly. They had given it a one-piece look as if it were sculpture, even the long hair swept back and out from his big forehead and cheekbones. Eventually he fell down outside one of the chopshops and stopped moving, and after a couple of minutes two men almost as big as him came out to drag him inside.
Joe started to fight when he was seven.
"Never strike out at the other, son," his father would explain in a patient way, "because the other is your self."
Joe Leone didn't follow that, even at seven years old which everyone agreed was his most intelligent time. He liked to fight. By twelve it was his trade, nothing more or less. He signed with the Shadow Boys. From that time on he lived in one-shot cultivars. He liked the tusks, the sentient tattoos and the side-lace trousers. Joe had no body of his own. It cost him so much to run those cultivars he would never save up enough to buy himself back. Every day he was in the ring, doing that same old thing. He was getting pretty well messed up. "I lost count the times I seen my own insides. Hey, what's that? Lose your insides ain't so hard. Losing a fight, that's hard." And he would laugh and buy you another drink.
Every day they dragged the fucked-up cultivar out the ring, and the next day Joe Leone had been to the tailor on Straint and come out fresh and new and ready to do it all again. It was a tiring life but it was the life he loved. Liv Hula never charged him for a drink. She had a soft spot for him, it was widely acknowledged.
"Those fights, they're cruel and stupid," she told the fat man now.
He was too smart to contradict that. After a moment, looking for something else to quarrel over, he said, "You ever do anything before you kept bar?"
She brought out a lifeless smile for him to consider.
"One or two things," she said.
"Then how come I never heard about them?"
"Got me there, Antoyne."
She waited for him to respond, but now something new on Straint had caught his attention. He wiped the window glass again. He pressed his face up against it. "Irene's a little late today," he said.
Liv Hula busied herself suddenly behind the bar.
"A minute or two," he said.
"What's a minute or two to Irene?"
The fights were a dumb career, that was Liv Hula's opinion. They were a dumb life. Joe Leone's whole ambition was as dumb as his self-presentation until he met Irene: then it got worse. Irene was a Mona who had a good track record working the noncorporate spaceport. She was what you call petite, five three in transparent urethane heels and full of appeal with her flossy blonde hair. Like all those Uncle Zip products she had something organic about her, something real. She watched Joe Leone at the fights and after she smelled his blood she couldn't leave him alone. Every morning when he came home to the tailor's, Irene was there too. Between them they summed up the sex industry and the fight industry. When Joe and Irene were together you couldn't be sure which industry was which. They were a new form of entertainment in themselves.
Irene commenced to hammer at the chopshop door.
"How long you think they'll let her shout before they open up?" Fat Antoyne asked. Liv Hula had found a map-shaped stain on the zinc bartop, which she stared at with interest.
"I don't know why you're asking me," she said.
"She's got feelings for him," said Antoyne, to press his advantage. "That's undeniable. No one questions that. Jesus," he added to himself, "look at those tits."
He tried to imagine Joe Leone, dead and liquefied while his bones and organs reassembled themselves and Irene gave him the Mona side of her mouth. The joke was, Irene's opinion was no different than Liv Hula's. Every morning she made them fetch her an old wooden chair and put it at the head of Joe's tank, with his faded publicity slogan on it, Hold the painkillers. There she sat, ignoring the pink flashing LEDs, which were for show anyway, while the tank proteome slushed around like warm spit, cascades of autocatalysis through a substrate of forty thousand molecular species, flushing every twenty minutes to take off what unwanted product the chemistry couldn't eliminate. She hated the sucking noises it made.
One day you won't get back, she would tell the Lion. One more fight and you're fucked with me. But Joe was an algorithm by now, somewhere off in operator space. He was choosing new tusks from the catalogue, he was getting tuning to his glycolytic systems. He couldn't hear a word.
Oh Joe, I really mean it, she'd say. One more fight.
From the Trade Paperback edition.