It was a slow night. But lately, every night was a slow night. Cook ran the only bar around and even folks down to their last credits found room for a drink or two. But if no one was passing through town, credits ran low real quick.
Charlene had lived in Las Tumbas her whole life. It was a sad little outpost, clinging to the edge of the belt, not worth the title of town. No one came out here to the edge of civilization unless they had to. Monsters and Devils and humans just as bad were the only things further out. Not even the lifers like Charlie went past the belt.
Only the town drunk, Desmond, and some of the younger boys on rotation in the mines were in the bar. Desmond had come in yesterday, as far as Charlie could tell, and hadn’t moved. He was slumped down on his table, snoring quietly, but looked peaceful enough. She didn’t want to wake him up and send him out into the cold. The miners knew enough of the locals to leave him be; she didn’t need to keep much of an eye on them. They were all three drinks deep and happily gambling away what few credits they could spare.
Charlie had cleaned all the glasses, wiped down the bar and the bottles, and called Madame to “keep her girls at home for the night, since ain’t no one asking tonight anyway” when the door opened. It wasn’t dramatic. It wasn’t loud. The door opened, and in came four of the sketchest looking bandits this side of the sun.
Charlie looked to the table with the miners, thinking a show of muscle early might keep everyone civilized, but they were all quietly and studiously studying their cards. Desmond was no help, still passed out, and Cook was gone for the night. At least none of the girls were around. They could hold their own in a fight, but Madame would demand Charlie cover any nights off if they got injured at the bar.
“Hey there,” the front-man for the bandits sidled up to the bar. “We heard this was the best place in town to get a drink,” he looked around at the empty bar room.
“Yessir, you heard right. Cook’s is top shelf.” Charlie picked up a rag to polish the shiny bar top. She didn’t want to look intimidated or pull the gun out and start shit if all these men wanted was a drink. “Go on and grab yourselves a table, I’ll bring out a round of the best ‘shine you’ve ever had.”
The rest of the bandits were still standing in the doorway, though they looked almost bored. Well if they wanted to drink, she’d serve them, but they couldn’t just stand there.
“If you lot are looking for a place to stay, there’s a motel down the street. It’s a good place,” Charlie added when no one moved.
“Oh, don’t mind them,” the front-man chuckled. “We’ve just got back from the black, ain’t had a chance to use our manners in too long, eh, boys?”
She smiled stiffly. Something was off. Bandits often went out past the belt running from the empire’s pet coppers, but they didn’t so often come back.
“Don’t have much need for manners out here. Take a seat and order or go, I don’t mind which, but this ain’t a charity. You staying, you pay.”
The bandits all looked towards her, but Charlie’s hand was already gripping the shotgun.
“Stand down, boys. You’re making the lady nervous,” the bandit turned back to her. “Relax, Charlene. We don’t wanna cause you no trouble. We’re just here to talk. Heard the stories of a smuggler from Las Tumbas,” he glanced at the miners, all still staring holes through their cards, then continued so quietly she could barely hear him, “running her scores out past the belt, in the black.”
Charlie almost froze. She didn’t know who, and she didn’t know how, but someone had talked and said the wrong thing to the wrong person. No one in town would have talked to these lowlifes. She hadn’t been out on a job for months, so anything these guys knew was secondhand. It probably was good intel, but they had no way to confirm it, which meant they knew shit-all. Unless she screwed up.
Forcing her muscles to continue the casual sweep along the top of the bar, she looked the man right in his eyes. “Ain’t no one goes out there if they’re smart. You all maybe made it once, but I wouldn’t try again. Trust me - no one’s that lucky; the black always wins. Y’all should head off to the motel now.”
The man’s eyes crinkled in the corners and he studied her for a long moment.
“Alrighty, then. Let’s go boys,” he called to the rest of his crew, still standing in the doorway. But his eyes never left hers. “You hear of our lady smuggler, you let us know. We’ll be in town for a few.”
He reached into his coat and set a stack of credits on the bar. “Later, Charlene.”
The whole group turned and left through the door. The miners continued their game, quieter now, and Desmond snored away at his table, but Charlie was shaking. Someone had talked, and she needed to make sure they never could again.