The hooded figure slid into the booth. Zed Bronco barely looked up from the goblet of Hongoolian mind-wipe he had been nursing all evening. Deep in the shadows of the cowl, red eyes glinted like embers. A gauntleted hand pushed a package across the table.
“It’s all there,” hissed a voice from somewhere within the robes.
“I’m sure it is.” Bronco left the package untouched. “What makes you think I want it?”
“You need it,” came the rejoinder. “You need this job.”
“Hell I do.” Bronco swigged the lees of his drink and got to his feet. The gauntlet seized him by the wrist.
In a nanosecond, all that remained of the hooded figure was the severed hand still gripping Bronco’s arm; the rest had been blasted to oblivion by Zed’s plasma-pistol, drawn before either of them had chance to see it.
I still got it, Bronco smirked to himself.
He peeled the dead fingers from his wrist and tossed the hand over his shoulder. Already, the bar was resuming its customary atmosphere, as though this little disruption had never happened. Almost as an afterthought, he picked up the package and slipped it into his pouch.
Folk of all shapes and sizes parted to let him reach the exit. He was sure every eye was on him, every murmur was about him.
Hey, isn’t that –
Didn’t he used to be –
“Zed Bronco!” A familiar voice brought him up sharp in the rain-and-neon-spattered alley. “Remember me?”
Zed sneered. There wasn’t enough mind-wipe in all the universes…
“I’ll take what you’re holding.” His former partner, Boruba Meinfarb stepped toward him, one hand out, the other clutching a disrupto-blaster that was trained on his heart. “And don’t even think about giving me the old innocent look. Hand it over.”
With a display of reluctant resignation, Zed unhooked the pouch from his shoulder. He tossed it to the puddled ground between them.
“Good boy,” Boruba stooped to retrieve it, keeping her eyes on him. She straightened, hitching the strap over her neck.
“The great Zed Bronco,” she shook her head. “Once the scourge of the Seven Sectors and now reduced to – what? – a drugs mule for organised crime.”
“Oh, no,” Zed smiled. “It ain’t drugs. What you got there is contraband of another kind. I suppose it don’t matter me telling you – you’re going to be dead in a few seconds from now.”
Boruba’s jaw dropped. Her hand trembled.
“You’re bluffing,” she accused, her voice shaking.
“We’ll see,” Zed smirked. “There’s a lucrative market for exotic and endangered species in these parts. What you have around your pretty neck is a fine specimen. You ever hear of the Hongoolian camo-snake? Can disguise itself as practically anything. Including travel pouches like that one.”
Boruba’s free hand clutched at the strap. Was it her imagination or was the thing already tightening around her throat?
“Bye now!” Zed strolled away, whistling merrily.
“Zed!” Boruba wailed after him, too afraid to move a muscle. “Zed Bronco! You come back here! Do you hear me?”
“Someone’s happy,” observed the cab driver as Zed dropped into his hoverpod.
“I am!” Zed grinned. “I think it’s high time I took up playing poker.”