Wednesday, November 9, 2011

High Country - Gubee: Griper's Clinch

by Walt Staples -

Delbert Meeks couldn’t see them, but he could feel the eyes. He knew they’d been watching since he’d landed the hopper. He surveyed the settlement, Griper’s Clinch—nothing extraordinary, just the usual High Country village one would expect to see up on one of Eclectia’s plateaus. The enforcer snugged his ash mask as he took inventory; a couple churches, three—maybe four—taverns, a Palmer Company trading post, and six houses—two prefabs and the rest “hobbit-holes.” He decided to set out for the trading post first, figuring that the Palmer employees, or at least the factor, probably wouldn’t be locals.

A small bell tinkled cheerily as he pushed open the inner door of the trading post’s ash porch. A fat, red faced, redheaded man bustled from a back room and called out heartily, “Yes, sir, and what can we do for—“ He stopped short as his eye fell on the star on the rawboned visitor’s chest. He swallowed and spoke the eternal enforcer greeting, “Is there anything wrong, Enforcer?”

Meeks unhooked his mask and regarded the man from a pair of cool, colorless eyes. “You the factor?” When the other nodded, he continued, “Meeks. I’m investigating Fitzroy’s death.”

The factor relaxed. “Help you any way I can, Enforcer. Valentine Choker.” He cocked his head. “Something to drink?”

“Do you have some coffee?”

Choker grinned ruefully as he shook his head. “Too rich for people’s blood around here. Got some tea made.”

“That’ll do, thank you.”

The factor ushered Meeks to a rough table and returned with a tea-cozy encased kettle and a pair of large cups emblazoned with the Palmer Company’s rampant stag beetle. After they raised their cups to each other, blew on the tea, and sipped, Meeks got down to business, “I figured I’d start with you since, by your accent, you’re not local.”

Choker smiled, “And being an outsider, I’m more likely not to have a cricket in the fight.” He chuckled. “Yeah, makes sense. I’m from Christchurch. Three more years and I get a bigger posting.”

“Pretty rough, huh?”

The factor took a sip and looked thoughtful. “Well, the people aren’t bad—in fact they’re a pretty nice lot, to tell the truth. I like them. No, more the loneliness and boredom. I see the same twenty-some people day in and day out. They’re good people, like I say, but I’ve nothing really in common with them.”

“How about Fitzroy?”

Choker shook his head with a smile that was more a grimace. “Brandon Dawkens Fitzroy was a real piece of work.”

“How so?”

“He had the ability to tick off every person he met, at least here. I suspect, after the doctor slapped him, his mother probably hauled off and swatted him just on general principles. One majorly dislike-able man, the Administrator.”

Meeks empted his cup and extended it for a refill. “What’d he do?”

Choker did the honors. “He was going to fix things. Make things work better. Even when the things weren’t broke. He was pestering everybody. Telling 60-year-old bugherds how to milk bugs, where to pasture them, what to do about Ladybirds. Wouldn’t have been so bad, but it was stuff they’d tried years ago and found didn’t work. Got so’s people quit going to church just to avoid him.”

“What do you mean?”

“Every Sunday, he’s up trying to tell Reverend Charles over at the Methodists the proper way to preach and pointing out mistakes with his theology.”

Meeks quirked one corner of his mouth in an almost smile. “He was Methodist, then?”

The fat man shook his head. “Not that I know. Wasn’t a Catholic either. Father Arnwulf shoved him out St. Boniface’s door; probably would have picked him and thrown him off the front porch if his Bible hadn’t grabbed him and held him.” He shrugged. “Near as I could tell, the Administrator wasn’t much of anything. At least he seemed to always have a sneer when such things came up in talk.”

“So, he made enemies,” Meeks observed idly.

Choker threw back his head and laughed. “That trail’s going nowhere, Enforcer. While Fitzroy was meeting his maker, Father Arnwulf was dying and his Bible, Ignatius Paul, was nursing him.”

“What’d he die of?”

The factor shrugged once more. “Ash Lung, like most. And before you ask, Reverend Charles and I were carrying supplies over to the rectory for them.”

Meeks cocked his head. “Rectory? I only saw the Administrator’s prefab and the one next to the—I guess—Methodist church?”

Choker took a last sip of his tea. “The Catholics use the nearest hobbit-hole to their church as a rectory.”

“Who lives in the others?”

“Other than Dad Gesler, nobody at the moment. They’re usually used during marketing and shipment by the buyers and the flight control crew. All the bugherds and their families generally stay at the taverns.” He shook the kettle and set it down.

Meeks set his half-filled cup on the table and slowly rotated it with the tips of his fingers. “So if the clergymen and you didn’t kill him, how did Fitzroy die?”

“Accident—like we reported.”

The enforcer leaned across the table. “What kind of accident?”

The factor sighed and spoke as one not expecting to be believed, “Fitzroy, in spite of warning from just about everyone he came in contact with, went down Wazzo’s Gulch and the Gubee got him.”

“The Gubee?” Meeks voice was flat. “What’s that?”

Choker looked down, then back up at him. “I don’t know. None of us do. People go down that collapsed lava tube and just die. In ones, twos—hell, the five Sullivan brothers and their uncle Mort went down and something killed the lot.”

“Why did Fitzroy go in there?”

The other shook his head. “No one knows.” He paused, then grinned sourly. “Or…will admit that they know.”

“Uh-huh.” Meeks looked the other in the eye. “So, how did you recover the body?”

The redhead returned the taller man’s look steadily. “We used the rescue drone. Nobody flesh and blood goes down in there anymore. At least, not anybody intelligent.”

Meeks changed the subject. “What’s Gesler like?”

The factor snorted. “Dad? Enforcer, if anyone around here will tell you the truth about anything, it going to be Dad. Man’s a buzz saw.”

“How so?”

The Palmer Company man grinned. “Couldn’t care less where the chips land.”

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