By David Kuijt and Nestor Rodriguez

Louie's Bar & Grill looked like it always did. Rundown, tired, but still there.

Crusher entered the small bar. A couple of elderly men talking over their coffee looked up, then went back to their desultory conversation. The usual Saturday evening crowd at Louie's. Nobody came there for the atmosphere.

Crusher stepped over to the bar.

"Wudlidbe?" said the bartender.

"Louie around?"

The barkeep eyed Crusher warily. The street sam looked to be in a bad mood, and it looked as if he had been in a fight recently. There were fresh-looking bullet holes in his armorcloth duster, with wet stains that were probably blood. Some bad slashes on his arms were still oozing blood, too. But the wounds didn't seem to bother him.

"Um, yeah. Hold on."

The bartender left his post and returned quickly. "Usual place. Um, leave your heat."

Crusher frowned and looked around the bar before coughing up his usual heavy pistol and combat shotgun.

Crusher moved to the booth that Louie presided from, seeing the rumpled fixer marking items off on a battered palmtop. He wasted no time on pleasantries.

"Louie, I need some stuff fast. I want one 55-gallon drum of cheap ethanol; that or gasoline, I don't care which. And now." He pulled out a hefty pack of UNA currency. "Serious cash if you can get it in my hands in a half hour.

"I also want an air mask that can take high temperature; the front part of a security helmet, fireman's helmet, CBA helmet; something like that.

"Last thing. Information. What's up with the Yak?"

Unperturbed, Louie put down the palmtop and picked up a lit cigarette from the cheap ashtray next to him. He pondered the matter for a second.

"Well, I can get you about 25 gallons of ethanol pretty much right away. A full 50 gal ..." He shrugged. "I can get it for you, sure. Just not within a half-hour. It'd take that long just to get an order out to the nearest still."

Crusher frowned, then nodded. "OK. More important for it to be full than for it to be within a half-hour, I guess."

"As for a respirator, I'll check my sources. I'm sure I can get a line on something ... appropriate."

"The breathing apparatus is the thing; I don't need a full helmet."

"Understood. Now, let me start the ball rolling and we can discuss your last request while we wait for delivery."

Louie searched along the littered tabletop and picked up a cellphone. The cover snapped down with a clack to become the mouthpiece. He pressed a few buttons and spoke into it.

"Broon? Louie. Yah, I need a run. Nothing hink, just a quick pizza delivery. Get Tony, tell him I need him to pick up a full drum from Goober and bring it here. And have him stop by Heller to pick up a package. And, Broon? Tell him no stopping at Gloria's. I need the stuff stat. Fine."

After two more calls, Louie turned to Crusher. "While we wait, should I call a medic over to check you out? The call'l be free, but the doc will charge."

"Na. Just a couple of dozen minor flesh wounds. What's with the Yak?"

"Ah, yes. Well, I could ask you the same thing. Have you perhaps done something recently to upset their sensibilities?"

"Ha!" Crusher snorted. "We had a disagreement about how many of their bullets I should stop, but I don't think that was source of their peevishness." He looked at Louie for a moment, as if unsure how much to reveal. "Why do you say you could ask me the same thing, Louie? What have you heard?"

Louie held up a finger. "Remember, Crusher. In the Zone, talk ain't cheap. How much information are you willing to buy?"

Crusher snarled, then nodded reluctantly. "Okay, Louie. Trade, then. The Yak aren't just trying to shoot me for fun. You tell me what's happening with them; I tell you why I'm currently on their perforate list."

Louie shook his head apologetically. "That may not work. I have a strong feeling I already know your side of the story. However, how about this? I'll exchange info with you for a marker."

Crusher narrowed his eyes. "Marker?"

"Simply put, a favor. At some point in time, I may have need of a large, intimidating fellow such as you to perform a task. I would then be able to avail myself of your services as a belated payment. Is that acceptable to you?"

Crusher leaned back, causing the chair to creak alarmingly. He thought about it for a few moments, eyes still narrowed.

"I don't know the value of your info either, Louie. And some tasks might be worth more than the info is. How about this—a marker with a buyout. You set a price on your info; that's how much the marker is worth. If you ask me to do something I think is out of line, I can buy it out for that much."

Louie considered for a second, then nodded. "Agreed. You go first."

"Tetsutenshi hired me to hold a bag for her until Tuesday. A polite Yak asked me for the bag five minutes after Tetsutenshi left. When my shift finished he asked again, in an alley, with two dozen heavily-armed friends and lots of ammo. And this morning some scag named Payne wanted to beat me up for the bag, although he gave up on that idea."

Louie asked casually, "Have you looked in the bag?"

Crusher's eyes narrowed. "It's your turn to talk, Louie."

Louie sighed. "It might be useful for you to have a better idea what it is you're carrying. The word on the street is that it's the Yamazaki-Rengo who've taken an interest in your package.

"You may also be interested to know that their oyabun and two of his shatei, `younger brothers', have gone missing."

Louie paused, looking expectantly at Crusher.

Crusher grunted. "Anything more?"

Louie's face twisted in a slight grimace. "Only some free advice. You might want to get a better idea of what has our little Angel gotten you into. You may not consider the Yaks a serious threat, but they are a perseverant sort. That sort of long-term attention tends to be bad for business. No matter who you are."

Crusher shrugged, a gesture that could mean he didn't care, or perhaps that there wasn't anything he could do about it.

Crusher stood up. "That was a big buildup for crap information, Louie. Yours was no better than mine. The polite guy works for the Yamazaki-Rengo, and they've lost their boss. I probably could have got that from any wino."

The fixer shrugged in response as he tapped some ash off his cigarette. "So we both received a lot less than we expected. Such is life in the Zone. Perhaps our next transaction will be more profitable for us both.

"If you will, could you use the back door on your way out, please? I'd like to avoid hosting a meeting of minds between you and any enterprising Yak soldiers which may be lurking about."

Crusher nodded, picking up his weapons at the bar before leaving.

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