In our final character review of this summer, I get to talk to Zito, the fixer of just about anything, who I sort of modelled on Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. But then I used that in the Paradisio flash fiction that kicked this whole thing off. It’s about 1500 words.
Zito has booked a table for us at Hercules’, the poshest place in town. It’s quiet, has chandeliers and drapes, mirrors and mid-brown wood.
“But I wanted to see your place,” I protest.
“My place is a miners’ dive. Loud, squalid, all types of low-life, even a bit of crime and possibly shooting. Not a place for a lady.”
“I’m a writer. I need to absorb the local colour.”
“Well, maybe we’ll go back there for a nightcap. And to get extra security to walk you to your hotel.”
“I’m not staying at your place either?” I thought that was the plan.
“Well…” Zito is clearly exasperated with me.
Zito owns Zito’s Bar, which also has a gambling joint, hotel rooms and, okay, a brothel. He also has his fingers in many other enterprises in Walton City, the main city (the only city) on Pleasant Valley, that misnamed planet that is mostly dustball with a little desert for variation. The light is less green-tinted than it was on Sunset Strip, the leisure planet of the system, and I comment on it.
“It’s all the dust in the atmosphere. If Viridium was the same shade as Sol, it would be an intense glare here. As it is, it’s… bearable.”
It is. I brought sunglasses because I thought desert sun… you know. But I don’t really need them for the glare. It’s hot, though, and very dry.
The temperature inside most of the buildings is pleasant enough, especially those set into the rockface.
“So, tell my readers who you are and how you came to be the main man on Pleasant Valley,” I say, having eaten our starters, an ice-cold consommé, vegetable based. He pours some Cardassian champagne for me. “Is that smuggled?”
He laughs. He reminds me of those pictures of the Stringfellows guy (or the Playboy guy), morphed with Rod Stewart. I wonder if he’s a lecherous old goat, and consider asking him later.
“We’re a free system. Anything that comes in here may have been smuggled out of somewhere on its travels, but it’s legit here. Everything’s legit here except Imperium slavery and Federation force. Come to think of it, most people have been smuggled out in one way or another, escaped an old life to start another.”
“Yeah, things had got a little too hot on Gazenia Prime, I dropped in to see my friend Rick on Paradisio, he told me of this opportunity out here. I bought some girls off someone who had got in too deep and needed cash, and brought them out here with a bundle of real estate already reserved through my good friends at the Exchange. And the rest is history.”
“Where did you start from? Before Gazenia Prime?”
“No idea. So long ago I’ve forgotten.”
“Oh, come on, Zito. Everyone has a planet of birth. You can’t forget that.”
“I can. As you’ll find out here, most of us have changed our identities at least once. So not remembering your birth place is more convenient than getting the one you’re supposed to be registered to wrong.”
I see what he means. “So have most people here left families and so on behind, or are they just loners?”
He ponders the question, and pours more champagne. It slips down very easily. I’m sure Moet, Dom Perignon or Bollinger would be proud of it. “I don’t know. I suspect family types head for the Scania system rather than here. If you bring family here you need to be a real pioneering couple, or totally desperate.”
“Is there another kind of desperate?”
“Oh, I think so… the desperate type that chooses Scania over Viridian, for example. That’s pioneer and settlement within a nice, friendly community. Here it’s not exactly dog eat dog, but it’s pretty lawless. Don’t upset the commerce, that’s about it.”
“How about respect for others?”
He shrugs. “It helps, but it’s not a law. If you go round upsetting my friends I might have to sort you out, you know. So we rub along okay, mostly.”
I checked my notes on my tablet, which is recording just fine after Pete’s upgrade. “What training… oh, heck, how did you come to learn how to run all these things?”
“I picked it up as I went along. Always had an eye for an opportunity, you know, picking up stuff people didn’t want when I was a kid, selling it to people who did. That developed into always knowing who could get hold of things, and doing other people favours you could call in. Now I do that across a fairly empty sector of the galaxy, which is fun.”
“The boys, Pete and Lars, reckon you can get hold of anything. One of my readers wants to know the strangest thing you’ve been asked to get for any of the miners.”
He sighs, and we pause as we are brought our main course. I have a fresh asparagus and some sort of bean mixture in a filo platter, with a green sauce which tastes wonderful, like mint but different. Zito has a rack of ribs of some sort of animal, barbecued, with pepper and another dipping sauce. He talks between ribs, which gives him a little time to ponder the question.
“I suppose the cow was an oddity. This guy wanted a cow he could keep on a farm and come back to look after and milk when he had downtime. In the end I found him one on Scania where the farmer was happy to do a part-ownership arrangement, and the miner got board and lodging when he was there. I think he has a remote feed to view it when he’s in space.” He munches some more, wiping his fingers fastidiously after using the finger bowl. “Along the same lines, this other guy wanted a goldfish in a bowl to keep in his spaceship. I talked to a few people about the logistics of that, I mean, a goldfish in water in freefall could be fatal for the goldfish. Pete suggested a completely enclosed plexglas globe with an oxygen tether, but eventually the guy settled for a vidscreen. Of course, probably the weirdest one was the boys asking for real books, but that turned out to be easy to solve. So, take your pick. How’s your meal?”
It is excellent. I’m not going to ask where they get fresh asparagus when they are lightyears from anywhere that might grow it.
“Scania,” he says.
“Scania. Where your asparagus comes in from. They can ship anywhere within a month’s travel. Ship whole rows of it growing in dirt trays, start cutting it as it comes into season, deliver it, cut for a few more weeks, then stop cutting and bring it home to grow normally for the rest of the year. Costs a fortune, of course.”
I look at my plate. “And your ribs?”
“Sunset Strip. They’ve got a lot of farming beyond the tourist areas. Like to keep it quiet. Mostly for their own plates, but some surplus comes to us.”
“What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve ever done?”
“Freed those girls. Laughing stock. To tell the truth,” he leans closer, “I’m glad. I don’t like having to treat the girls like slaves. It’s why I do them a freedom fund, make them feel they’re getting on in life, you know. Instead of just getting on. It wouldn’t do to make a habit of it, though, I mean, business is business, and my girls are always in demand.”
“Not very nice, though, is it?”
He shrugs. “It’s a tough universe. If you’re lucky enough to stay free, you need to be tough, or wealthy, or talented, or probably all three. If you’re human, that is. Odds are stacked against human women, big time. Strange really, but other races don’t have the urges that humans do, on the whole. Yeah, some are weird, and some get their kicks in other ways. But it’s humans who keep the sex-trade going.”
“Pavanians?” I ask, since they seem to be particularly nasty, and not quite human.
“Well, yeah, they learnt a thing or two from the humans they’ve been with and added their own shenanigans to the mix. But they don’t enslave their own women. It’s a meritocracy with them. Women are as ruthless as the men.” He grins at me. “Pudding?”
I cannot resist pudding. We have a selection from the dessert buffet that is brought to us, including fresh fruit tartlets, what looks extremely like creme brulee, and an ice dish that Zito calls a Viridiano. “Invented by this guy who had two thousand years of ice-cream making in his family, or so he said. He got a two kilo nugget of orichalcum out shortly after, and disappeared. Hope he’s still enjoying the proceeds.”
I taste the Viridiano. It’s sublime.
“It may be outback here,” Zito says, with a wink, “but it’s a good life if you can afford it.”
Judging from what I’ve seen of Pleasant Valley and Sunset Strip, he may be right. I could live on Sunset Strip. But I suspect I’m a Scania girl at heart. If I come back, Lars and Pete say they’ll take me to the hot springs under the Gustaffson hotel. I wonder if Zito would import hot springs if he could?
© J M Pett 2016
I hope you enjoyed this year’s interviews. If you want more, just ask – character name and a question for them, if you would!