We walked through the door just before sunset to find the place already hopping. A lot of otter-folk hang out at Skippy's Chemo, probably because Fat Fred the bartender served the best pixie stix in town. I started for the bar and some questions when I collided with a brunette bundle of energy standing up from a table. I apologized for the bump.
"No worries, mate," she said, and I cocked my head looking at a familiar face. She smiled back. "Tassie's the name, but you got the formals this morning over at His Nibs digs." The light went on, it was Lord Phogg's maid.
"Miss Delahney. What are you doing here?"
"Here, mate, a lady's got to rage on somewhere. Even His Nibs gives the hired help time off. I'm here meeting' a friend from the Lucky Country." She pointed back at the table, and Popper waved his tail at us.
"Evenin', mates. Any news for a workin' otter?"
I grinned and shook my head. "That's what we're here for, Popper."
I pointed my chin toward the bar, tipped my hat to the lady. "Pardon
me, Miss Delahney." She smiled back at me.
"Oh, you can call me Tassie, mate." I smiled and nodded, and we stepped around her.
If Kawauso Ofuroyama is a giant among otters, Fat Fred is just big. It would be hard to tell which of the two weighed in more, but there'd be no doubt which one is which. Ask him some time how he got his name, and he'll say, "I'm faaaaaaat. What's hard about that?" We sat on stools at the bar and waited for the amiable waddle to get Fred to us.
"What's it this evening? We got pixie stix, da best in town, guaranteed to make cats vibrate," he said, taking off his sunglasses and polishing them with his bar-rag before putting them back on.
"The usual for me, Fred, and another for my friend here," I replied. Ofuroyama glanced at me, and Fat Fred pulled two highball glasses out from under the bar and filled them with club soda.
"Here's to ya, Chief Inspector, ya cheapskate." Fred and Ofuroyama wuffled noses in each other's directions. "Who's yer friend? He doesn't smell from around here."
"Kawauso Ofuroyama, honoured to meet your August self." Fred twitched his whiskers.
"Yer said a mouthful there. What brings ya here?"
I leaned froward. "Looking for some news, Fred, looking for some news. Most everyone new in town winds up here eventually. Who's new?" I pulled out my bill-clip to pay, and he waved his paw at me.
"Yer money's no good here, an' no it's not a bribe. You did some good turns for other otters." Ofuroyama nudged me lightly.
"See small otter other end of bar, Dutch-san? He is independent ship owner. May know something. You wait here while I ask him." I glanced at the otter he'd mentioned, a small one wearing a black tailcoat and a top hat, the fur on his head long and twisted though well groomed elsewhere. Independent ship owner, all right, I recognised Dredd Phredd easily enough. For the right price, he'd ship anything for you. For a bit more, the cops at either end wouldn't find it. I nodded to Ofuroyama.
"Back to my question, Fat Fred. Anyone new, and I don't mean just recently in town but we know them. I'm looking for new sailors in town."
"Couple of swabbies met some fellow in the back booth. Smelled a bit like catfish, but their coin is good. You want I should call the Station?"
"Don't know yet, Fred. If I tip my hat to you, yeah, give Weisman a call and tell him to get here." I nodded my thanks to him and turned to look towards the back. From this spot on the bar, I couldn't see into that booth. The gent's room was in the hall behind it, though, so I set out like I needed the facilities.
Two mugs and a seafoam martini glass sat empty and lonely on the booth table.
Ofuroyama and Dredd were still in conversation. I tipped my hat to Fred and stepped into the hall, heard a heavy door close. This hall led to more than the water closets; a back door opened onto an alleyway. I paused at the door, hand on the knob, and listened at the little window. No sound on the other side.
I opened it and stepped outside, into the dark. Three men stood in a triangle a dozen feet away, their lower legs in a small pool of gas lamp light. Two wore work boots and rough trousers. The third wore dark tweeds and his half-boots gleamed.
"The Boss isn't happy you two didn't show this morning. Ramaji wanted that second mech at the church," said Tweeds.
"You know what happened. If we'd been there that copper would just of blowed up our mech too," said Workboots One.
"It's not your mech, now, is it, Dimsdale? It's Mr. Redd's, and he wants his toy back."
"We gots it," said the other Workboots. "We gots it, so it's ours now. Besides, like Dimsale says, Mr. Redd's clank would be so much scrap metal now if we'd been there."
"You won't be needing it should you not return it. Think about the last person that you heard crossed Ramaji, now. How eager are you to be fish food?"
I stepped out from the wall. "Evening, gents. Just what's so enticing about this alleyway, now?"
Tweeds stepped back a half-pace, Dimsdale and Workboots turned towards me.
"Who wants to know?" asked Workboots.
"Chief Inspector Zoektochtmann." I took two more steps toward them, slipping my blackjack out of my duster pocket. "I think we four should take a walk over to the Watch Station now."
A slight movement in the dark and the gas lamp glinted off a knife blade above Workboots feet. I heard a hammer click as Tweeds took another half-pace further back into shadow.
"Not so sure we cares to go for a walk with you, now, Chief Inspector," said Dimsdale. "And bein's there's more of us than you, what's to make us?"
"You so sure I'm alone now?" I asked as Detective Weisman stepped quietly around the corner of the alley.
Workboots lunged. I sidestepped and swung the lead-weighted leather down on his wrist and the knife skittered across the flagstones. The blackjack caught Workboots on the back of his head on the return swing, and he dropped. Weisman was running towards us and I saw a gunmetal grey glint aiming at my head.
Lightning flash and thunderclap Boom! Boom! and Tweeds flew backwards to thump at Weisman's feet. Dimsdales feet disappeared briefly, then staggered back into the light, He sank to his knees, and fell face-first onto the flagstones of the alleyway.
"What the hell was that?" hollered Weisman. Ofuroyama stepped into the light, a sawed-off 12 gauge over-under in his paws. He thumbed the lock and broke it open, pulling two spent shotgun shells out the breach.
"Juni kakkouhou, Weisman-san. Most effective," he said, reloading the shotgun and closing it with a snap.
Weisman shook his head. "I'll say."
Ofuroyama turned to me. "Dutch-san, Dredd Phredd says two mechs were unloaded from Hotaru freighters several days ago. It is most definitely Ramaji. You must get to Our Lady of PSI to delay while I bring reinforcements." I nodded, turned to Weisman.
"Stay with the scene, then you get this one to the Station, Weisman, and it's your arrest," I said, pointing to Workboots. He nodded. We both turned to Ofuroyama.